Purpose, Identity, and Why We Don’t Start with the Great Commission

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Matthew 4:18-22 tells the story of the day Jesus called his first disciples:

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

It’s clear from the other gospels, especially John, that there was more to the story than this. This wasn’t a first introduction: Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, these young men had already seen Jesus work miracles, and they all lived in Capernaum, where Jesus now lived as well. Jesus took some time to establish his trustworthiness and character with these men before he called them. He spent some time building relationship and getting to know them.

But finally, the day came when it wasn’t enough for them just to hang around the edges. Jesus had brought the kingdom of God near, and it was time to start establishing that kingdom on earth in the hearts of other people. Disciples. People who would follow him, learn from him, and spread his teachings and his work.


When we talk about discipleship, we have a tendency to jump right to the end. Jesus declared he would make these fishermen fishers OF men, so we immediately recall his last words to them before he ascended to heaven and think of their “discipleship” as a matter of fulfilling those words:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)

In my experience, the responsibility given in this verse is something evangelicals are pretty clear on: we are supposed to make disciples. I mean, we are evangelicals. This is what we do!

We grasp this fast and easy because it’s a task. We can all do tasks. You tell me wash the dishes, I can wash the dishes. But if you tell me “be a doctor,” that’s a whole different deal. That’s eight years of school and knowledge and skills I can’t even begin to conceive of. That’s a whole life’s work.

The reality is, although I fully support spreading the gospel, we are often guilty of putting the cart before the horse. Because the call of Jesus isn’t just to make disciples; it’s to BE one first.


The Great Commission is not the first thing Jesus said to his disciples. He did not start by giving them a job. He started by calling them into an encounter and relationship with himself.

John 1:37-43 tells us more of the story. The first thing Jesus said to Peter was, “What are you looking for?” He followed that up with an invitation to know him: “Come and see.” He always called people to follow him, to come WITH him. To Matthew, seated at his table tax collecting, Jesus said, “Get up and come with me.”

Second, Jesus cast a vision for them. He told these men what he saw in them, what he would make them. He gave Simon a new name: “You are the rock.” He promised Nathanael that he would see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

He didn’t tell Andrew, Peter, James, and John, “I will make you catch people.” He said, “I will make you fishers of men.”

It’s an important distinction. Jesus didn’t give them a task first. He gave them an identity.

For us, too, discipleship begins here: with an invitation to follow Jesus, to encounter him, to get to know him, to be with him in daily life. In the process of being with Jesus, we learn who WE are and what his vision for us is. We learn that he created us and called us for a purpose, and he shapes us in line with that purpose.


After inviting the disciples into relationship with him and then casting a vision for who they would become, Jesus spent three years teaching them. He was their rabbi, an itinerant teacher.

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Photo by DavidSpinks

Rabbi and disciple were not foreign roles in their culture any more than professor and student are today, but it was a far more holistic relationship: a disciple didn’t just show up for class three times a week, he ate, drank, slept, and breathed the rabbi’s teachings and the rabbi’s way of life. He followed him everywhere and learned not just what he SAID but what he DID and how he did it. He was an apprentice of the highest order.

This is often our missing piece in church life. You have to be a disciple of Jesus before you can make one.

The disciples were apprentices of Jesus, which means that they were apprentice rabbis. They intended from the start to learn to do what he did. But they were far more than that, because Jesus was not just a rabbi: he was a king and he was the Son of God.

When they wanted to learn to pray, Jesus taught his disciples to begin, “Our Father, who is in heaven.”

They were not just teachers in training. They were apprentice children of God.

(They were also apprentice kings, but more about that in a later post.)

Jesus taught his disciples how to live as God’s children. He taught them how to think, how to trust, how to act in alignment with God’s will and word. He taught them about the Father’s heart for them. He taught them about faith, love, and goodness. He taught them to live fully surrendered to the Father and in a relationship of mutual joy and pleasure with him.


From the start, Jesus made it clear to his disciples that he was giving them a purpose and an identity, and that they would find both in relationship with him. Their job wasn’t to make themselves, but to trust in his making of them. All of their work would flow out of that, just as all Jesus’s work flowed out of his ongoing, daily walk with the Father.

For us, the same promise applies. Jesus, our rabbi, the one who disciples us, has a vision for who we are meant to be and a plan to shape us for that vision. His primary purpose in our lives is to teach us how to live like children of God:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right [power or authority] to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13, ESV)

We have been given the task of discipling the world, and within that task we have each been given smaller tasks–raising our children, doing our jobs, writing our words, scrubbing our toilets, so that everything in life is brought into joyful alignment with the Spirit of God. But our tasks are couched in our identities, in God’s love and vision for us, in our new life as children of God.

Yes, we must disciple the world. But first we must be disciples. We must spread the message. But first we must embrace it–and find, within it, our identity, our purpose, and our relationship with our Father.

(This is Part 17 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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