That Long Obedience

“There’s little glory in making disciples.”

Bill Knott

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20).

One author has wryly noted that these words of Jesus’ Great Commission are “the best known and least obeyed imperatives in the entire New Testament.” He isn’t referring to the “going” of Christian mission, for there’s a rich history of missionaries, martyrs, and everyday saints stretching from the first missions of Peter and Paul to the latest student missionary leaving for Palau. Christians generally, and Adventists specifically, have been remarkably good at going. Lest you doubt the devotion of early Adventists to global mission, read David Trim’s sobering volume A Living Sacrifice (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2019). These are heart-rending stories of commitment and loss, tragedy and persistence.

Our struggles to obey aren’t centered primarily in a refusal to “go,” but rather in an underdeveloped understanding of what Jesus means when He urges us to “make disciples.” His words imply—require—a durative process, perhaps as long as the three years it took the Master to make just 12 of them. And in the most undiscussed phrase of the Great Commission, Jesus offers us a clear definition of what He means when He urges us to “make disciples”: “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”

We assume, wrongly, that this task belongs to someone else—to some mythical person in the congregation, perhaps the pastor or an elder, who will do the hard and patient work of helping new believers learn Christ (Eph. 4:20). Some imagine that the congregation in the aggregate is responsible for making disciples. Perhaps the round of weekly Sabbath School and several years of worship services will teach new Adventists to become poor in spirit; compassionate with those who grieve; meek; hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; and peacemakers.

This is wishful thinking, fanciful thinking, and ultimately an expression of our disobedience.

Let’s be clear: there is some glory to be found in “going,” in crossing the Pacific Ocean or Pacific Avenue to carry the gospel to those who don’t know it. There’s greater glory in filling stadiums with thousands of cheering Adventists who celebrate the growth of God’s kingdom in their region. And when 2,000 candidates line up to be buried in baptism, cameras and reporters are poised to “tell the world” what we have accomplished.

But there’s little glory in making disciples, in the slow and painful teaching of the thinking and the doing of the gospel. It requires an unusual and often uncomfortable personal vulnerability to allow a new disciple to witness how you are learning to live the gospel—praying from an open heart instead of a recited incantation; practicing reconciliation in the face of deep hostility; seeking the humility that teaches naturally proud persons to “regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3, NRSV).2

We don’t hand out trophies or give promotions to those who make disciples: their ministry can’t be understood in days or weeks, but only in months and years. We have no metrics for measuring the vital task they perform. But without them, this church will never find the power of Pentecost, nor a passion for mission, nor, finally, a victory celebration with the Lamb.

Here, right here, among those who make disciples, is the true “patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).

  1. The phrase comes from Eugene Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  2. Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Bill Knott