16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in1 the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ~ Matthew 28:16-20
“How are we going to do discipleship?”
It’s a question that I think gets asked a lot by individuals and churches that truly desire to honor Jesus in all things. After all, when we look at the primary command that Jesus gave to us it is make disciples. Go and browse Amazon or Christian Books, or the local Mardel or Lifeway and you’ll find plenty of books dedicated to the concept of discipleship or studies for discipleship.
All of that has its place, but…
I think fundamentally when we ask the question of how to do discipleship or how to program discipleship, we are asking the wrong question. I think the proper question is: How are we going to live discipleship?
Disciple is a term used over and over in the Gospels and Acts to speak about Jesus’ followers. After his resurrection and before his ascension, Jesus gave the command to his disciples to go and make more disciples which involved teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded which includes making more disciples. When you get down to it, the purpose of the Christian life and the church is to make reproducing disciples. If we are truly followers of Jesus, no matter our age, background, job, education level, gifts, talents, location, and etc., we are to be disciples who are in the process of learning and growing as we aim to make other disciples who are in the process of learning and growing as they aim to make other disciples who are……
Discipleship is life.
Let’s look at this a little further. Take John 17, for instance where Jesus prays on behalf of his followers. In 17:1-5, Jesus first roots his prayer in the one thing that matters most: the glory of God through Jesus. Jesus begins his prayer for his disciples by focusing on how the Father is glorified through Jesus’ own sacrifice to save people by giving them eternal life. Right in the midst of all this talk about God’s glory, Jesus defines eternal life: “That they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). Therefore, you could say for us that knowing God through Jesus is about glorifying God through Jesus.
Glory has to do with fame and brightness. We glorify God when we make much of God in all that we do and say, thus being most satisfied in God (to borrow a bit from John Piper).
Knowing in this context, then, is more than possessing facts about God in the storehouse of our brains. It is not less than this, so let us not separate learning truths from relationship, but it is more than this. Such knowing implies the intimacy of a deep relationship, the very thing we find in the language of Scripture: individually, God is our Father and Jesus is our Brother with his Spirit dwelling within us; corporately, Jesus is the husband and the church is his bride.
Indeed, we see this as we keep reading. John 17:6: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.” Name here is about personality; to know the name of God is to know God. To belong to Jesus as his people is to know Jesus and to know the Father.
Then Jesus begins to pray more specifically for his followers, both those who followed him at that time and those who follow him in the present (17:20). The requests which Jesus makes define for us what a life of relationship with God looks like. There are three aspects: truth, community, and mission.
Of truth, Jesus says that it is about him, it is discovered through his word, it transforms us to be more like Jesus, it makes us different from the world, and it leads us into the fullness of joy (17:8-19). We come to the truth when we receive the words of Scripture, and these words (working in concert with the Spirit—John 14-16) bring transformation to our lives so that we will live the truth.
Of community, Jesus prays that we would be one as he and the Father are one (17:10-11, 20-26). This unity is a unity of heart, purpose, and fellowship among different persons. Such unity is found in a love for each other that magnifies to the world Jesus’ love for us (John 13). As we love each other and pursue together Jesus’ purpose, we will build community.
Of mission, Jesus asks that our unity would display the truth about him to the world and that we would set ourselves to go into the world as Jesus came into the world, even if the world hates us (17:14-21). Elsewhere the Bible tells us that Jesus came to seek and save what is lost. He came to heal brokenness and call sinners to himself (make disciples) as he proclaimed the glory of God, the greatness of the Kingdom, the grace of forgiveness, and the hope of new life. When we do these things in our homes, communities, and world, we will pursue mission.
Live truth, build community, and pursue mission—these things describe what it means to be in a relationship with God, to know him and therefore to be disciples of Jesus. Again, wherever we live, work, play, eat, or sleep we are to live these out as disciples of Jesus.
Discipleship is life.
How do we come to develop such a culture, if you would, in our lives and our churches? Some thoughts:
First, we must see discipleship as personal. Part of what I mean by personal is the relationship aspect as mentioned above—our religion is a relational one: love God with our whole being and love others as ourselves. This involves seeking the greatest good for others while developing the passion of emotions within this good-seeking. Love is commitment, love is action, and love is emotion all wrapped together; but even if the last of these waxes and wanes, the commitment and action should hold strong. Now, it might sound strange to say we are to seek God’s greatest good, for God’s greatest good is himself and his own glory; and that’s basically how we show our love to God: we live for his glory and to make his glory known.
Yet, personal has another dimension here. It is how it sounds, it is about us—you and me, individually. When we come face to face with Jesus through his gospel we have to make a decision: will I forsake myself to follow him or will I forsake him to follow myself? If we make the decision to follow, we must take responsibility for that life. In part, this is what John 15 is about. To have life, we must abide in Christ as a branch abides in the vine. If we do this, we will bear fruit (our character will change, we will manifest and grow in the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control). To do this we must abide in Jesus’ word as his word abides in us.
In other words, ultimately, we are responsible for our own devotion to Christ through the Bible, prayer, praise, etc. Certainly, there are community aspects to all of these, yet we are the ones who decide whether or not we will live abiding in Christ. But, keeping community in mind…
Second, we must see discipleship as corporate and communal. Take a look at Ephesians 5:18-21. Paul talks about what it means to live life by the Spirit, whom we have within us if we belong to Christ (1:13-14). The Spirit dwelling within us leads us to corporate praise (5:19). Paul tells us that we are to address one another in a variety of musical ways as we sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. When we read the parallel verse in Colossians 3:16, we see this is part of what it means to let the word of Christ dwell richly within us as we teach each other about God and life in Christ through our songs. That ultimately is the point of corporate praise: together we life up our voices to God as we teach and edify each other in the word.
This doesn’t exclude the necessity to teach the word and hear the word taught by ways other than music, rather it is part of the overall process. We grow together in the word of truth.
The Spirit dwelling within us also leads us to thankful prayer (5:20). There are times we need to go lock ourselves alone in our closets to pray (Matthew 6:6), and there are times where we need to gather with other believers and pray (Acts 2:42). Either way, our prayers are to manifest a heart of thanksgiving to the Father in the name of Jesus, always and for everything.
The Spirit dwelling within us leads us to serve one another (5:21). We are to submit to one another out of a reverence for Christ. Submission, as the word is often used, implies an inferior bowing to a superior; but that’s not how the Bible uses it for the Christian life. In John 13 and Philippians 2 we read about how Jesus humbled himself to serve his followers—the first in stripping off his clothes, donning a towel, and washing the filthy feet of his disciples; and the second in becoming a man, assuming our weaknesses, and giving his life on the cross. In both, King Jesus—the ultimate authority, chose to serve those who were vastly inferior to him. Also, in both cases the Bible says our servant-King left us examples to follow.
In Christian submission, we choose to serve others in order to build them up regardless of position, authority, intelligence, or any other such measure. Ultimately, the Spirit supplies us with various gifts for this very purpose of serving others to edify them in Christ (1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4:7-16).
Teaching each other in word and song, praying together, and serving each other: this is corporate discipleship.
Third, we must be intentional about discipleship. In part, this should be obvious by now. Discipleship being personal indicates intentionally on our part to truly follow Jesus. Discipleship being corporate indicates intentionally on the community to want to see each other grow in Christ. However, I want to further drive this point home. Consider Titus 2:1-8. The picture Paul paints for the church is this: leaders are to teach and apply sound doctrine, and this leads the older men to live godly lives as they model and invest such godliness into the lives of younger men, and the older women to do the same with the younger women.
This involves intentionality in three ways. First, church leaders are to be sound in the word as they live a life of good character (see Titus 1’s discussion on elders for more about this). Second, the leaders speak the word into and model it for the lives of others in the church. Third, the older generation in the church, as they live out the doctrines of Scripture, makes time to spend with the younger generation to share and to model godliness.
For that third part, let’s face it—it doesn’t happen naturally. We tend to gravitate towards people like us. At fellowship meals older people tend to sit with older people and younger with younger. In a lot of Sunday School classes, we find the division of people by age. Different church events tend to be divided into age or stage of life. To get a comingling of generations we have to be intentional.
I guess at this point you could throw in a fourth way: the younger generation being intentional about getting to know the older generation as well. Personally, I’ve found in a lot of cases they’re willing but they tend to be just as unsure about approaching older people as the older people are about approaching them. However, if someone is going to take the first steps, it should probably be those who are older reaching out to those who are younger, and thus modeling what that means.
It is also here in such intentionality that we see the place for one-on-one or one-with-a-few discipleship through the activities of mentoring.
Fourth, we must involve the family in discipleship. I won’t spend much time on this point, other than to say as I’ve written before: discipleship begins at home (Ephesians 6, Deuteronomy 6). Of course, a lot of people don’t experience what it means to grow up and live in a Christian household, which will make them more dependent on others in the church for models of following Jesus. However, parents who are a part of a church should seek to teach their children the word and model prayer, praise, service, and godly character.
Fifth, we must use discipleship to produce leaders. How do we identify church elders? They have a desire, they manifest godly character, and they are able to teach (1 Timothy 3:1-7). In other words, they are living as disciples and display the desire and traits necessary for leadership. How do we identify church deacons? They have godly character, a mature faith, and a track record of serving others (1 Timothy 3:8-13). In other words, they are living as disciples and displaying the traits, attitudes, and servant hearts necessary for such service.
Far too often we hire pastors we don’t know well (or really, at all), and we appoint men to be deacons almost as a rite of passage. The Bible indicates the real proof is in their commitment to a life of discipleship that the church has witnessed on a regular basis. We live discipleship and the leaders are the ones who rise up and excel in character, discipling, and serving.
Discipleship is life.
Books, programs, activities, etc. can be useful tools to help us learn the Bible better and challenge us to grow in various activities like prayer, service, and praise. However, let us not reduce discipleship to some program or activity. Let’s see it for what it is. If we are disciples of Jesus, then discipleship is life in Jesus.