Discipleship – Then and Now

(I'm sure I posted this earlier, but it disappeared. Here it is again. I originally wrote this for fadingman.dtjsoft.com.)

Introduction

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples 1 of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

– Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)

When I read these verses, I picture someone who has just been given long-awaited rulership over a kingdom. Now, as king, he gives his first command to his subjects – a command that he has been aching to give for a long time, and with relief and joy, he finally gets to speak it!

The great commission is unique. Jesus does not merely want to rule a domain, He desires to affect how His subjects live and think. Yes, there are human rulers who have attempted to control the lives of their people to the tiniest detail (and never to their good). But Jesus is different. He's a King who wants people to obey Him willingly for their own benefit. And not just obey, but to follow His example, for He first lived the life He desires for us.

In the years prior to His great commission, Jesus taught about the love of His Father and how man should love God in return. He spoke of the way we are, versus how God intends we should be. He spoke of many more things relating to the way we should walk with God and our fellow man.

After His death and resurrection, He commanded His disciples to make disciples of people from all nations. All that Jesus taught them was to be passed on to those who would believe in Him. This would be accomplished by first baptizing them (symbolizing the beginning of this new life), and then teaching them to hold fast to everything they themselves were taught and commanded of Jesus.

Beginning in Acts 2 we see Jesus' commission put into action:

Those then who had accepted his word were baptised; … And they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers…

– Acts 2:41-42 (ESV)

And so the Church has been discipling believers for almost 2000 years, but times have changed. We don't necessarily make disciples the same way Jesus and the early church did. Some differences are cultural, but others are more significant. Some of the changes are for the better, and others are for the worse.

I've noticed quite a lot of these differences and I want to share what I've found. Perhaps we can put what we've learned to some practical use in our walk with Jesus and our discipling of others. Even if you don't agree with everything I've found, hopefully this will motivate you to study and make some comparisons yourself.

Teaching Setting

When you look at how disciples were trained in the New Testament versus how they are trained today, you'll see we've come a long way. There's an abundance of Christian educational opportunities available to us, at least for those of us blessed to live in countries where we can worship freely.

Depending on your denomination, you can choose from (take a deep breath) Sunday School, classes for teenagers, young adults, older adults, married couples, and new believers, catechism classes, beginner and advanced discipleship classes, Bible studies, Vacation Bible School, Christian camps, retreats and conferences, seminaries, correspondence courses, and more!

If you go to any of these classes, you probably take it for granted they are more or less formally organized. Teaching happens in a controlled environment (usually a church building) at fixed times on certain days of the week. There are lesson plans that allow us to know what we're going to teach or learn, in some cases a year ahead of time. These things are not bad – some organization is good, but there seems to be something missing when we compare today's programs with the New Testament model.

While many or most of today's programs are good, the early disciples had none of them, and yet they flourished. Many times Jesus taught informally in public settings. Not only did Jesus teach in the temple and synagogues (Matthew 4:23, 13:54, 26:55, John 8:2), He also taught in homes (Luke 10:38-39), on an open mountain side (Matthew 5:1), from a boat at a lake (Matthew 13:2), while walking on the road (Luke 24:13-28), and at a common meal (John 13-14). Many of His parables were illustrated with things that were physically visible to those He was teaching (such as when He spoke of the faith that was able to move “this” mountain in Matthew 17:20).

But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

– Luke 23:5 (ESV)

Jesus' teaching environment was definitely not “controlled” by our definition of the word. Jesus remained very accessible: He was constantly interrupted by people coming to be healed (Matthew 12:9-13), have demons cast out (Mark 1:23-27), or to discredit Him (John 8:3). Today we would be shocked if someone interrupted the pastor's sermon, but not Jesus. To Him people's needs were more important, more than seeing “The Ministry” succeed. (We tend to forget that ministry is about serving people, not the other way around.) And Jesus used those very interruptions as the basis of His teachings. They weren't edited out of the gospel accounts as detracting from His teachings, but were retained as necessary for our edification.

The result was that much of what Jesus taught was relevant to what the people were going through or experiencing at that moment (Luke 13:1-5). The line between discipling and ministry (service) was fuzzy. Jesus' methodology was discipleship in the “real” world. I don't see that happening very much today. Discipleship, for the most part, seems to happen behind the doors of the church.

So, should we move formal learning off the church campus and into the wilderness (or at least the city park)? No, that is not what I'm advocating. We shouldn't throw out formal learning environments, but we must remember that discipleship is done primarily out in the nitty and gritty of public life, throughout the week. We're fooling ourselves if we think it can be accomplished in a purely classroom environment.

We need to live for Jesus out in the world – be salt and light to those around us. We need to be living for Jesus both before and as we talk about Him. People aren't going to listen to hypocrites. There needs to be times of informal yet focused discussion with those around us about the things of Christ, whereever and whenever the opportunity arises. This shouldn't be forced. Just look at how Jesus naturally directed conversations towards the spiritual and Himself, as He did with the woman at the well (John 4).

But among believers we need to spend time discussing practical issues of following Jesus, not just theological issues: I'm having difficulty controlling my temper – what should I do? How do I die to self when I'm continually bombarded with lustful thought? How can I encourage my spouse/friend/coworker toward a deeper walk with Jesus? etc. etc.

Discipleship is about believers daily building each other up in Christ, encouraging each other, warning each other, praying for each other, showing love to each other, and humbly serving each other during the week, not just on Sundays and Wednesdays. Discipleship is about our following and becoming like Christ.

The Call

The church today calls people. We call the lost to be saved from hell by trusting in Jesus. We then call those saved to spend time in Bible study and prayer. We call them to live morally upright lives as Jesus taught, and to become active participants in the church. Yet, even if we do all the things we are called to do, we may still be poor followers of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said “Follow Me.” We typically understand this as “Go in this direction,” but that is not what He meant. To follow Jesus requires my active attention towards Him. I must be aware of His presence, and listen for His voice calling me personally. And I must obey Him when He speaks to me. Discipleship is about a living relationship with Jesus Christ and walking in His Spirit, not just about obeying a set of ancient rules.

The call of discipleship in the New Testament is different than what most of us encounter today. During His three and one half years of public ministry, Jesus called people in two different ways.

The first way was to the multitude. Jesus called everyone to repentance from sin (Matthew 4:17, 11:20, Luke 5:32) and faith in Himself for salvation from sin (not just from sin's consequences). He also called people to a life of faith and active obedience to Himself. This was not just a call to a way of life, but a call for people to actively follow Him.

But unlike Jesus' calls to repent, His calls for people to believe in Him were passive. He issued no commands, and used no high-pressure tactics or tear-filled pleas to the crowd. Instead of urging the crowd to trust in Him, He merely stated the facts:

“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever…”

– John 4:14 (ESV)

“…whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

– John 5:24 (ESV)

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

– John 11:25 (ESV)

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

– John 14:6 (ESV)

Simple statements. You can respond to Jesus or ignore Him if you desire. Yes, there are consequences to ignoring Him, but He is not going to force you to believe.

This passiveness was also true of Jesus' call to the multitude for disciples. Jesus did not command the crowd as a whole to follow Him, but merely said “If anyone would come after me…” (Matthew 16:24-25, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). Again, anyone could choose to follow Jesus if they wished.

However, Jesus made clear to His would-be followers the conditions required for true discipleship: “…let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” For those who would follow, Jesus made no promises of blessings in this life. Instead, He attracted followers with a cross, an instrument of torture. Some of those who volunteered to follow He discouraged (Matthew 8:19-20, Luke 9:57-58). You don't see that very much today in our call for people to follow the Lord. We'll do whatever we can to encourage people to follow Jesus, and downplay or hide the cost.

The second way Jesus called people was a personal one-on-one call to individuals. Unlike His calls to the crowd, these were commands – active calls to follow:

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

– John 1:43 (ESV)

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, … And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” … And going on from there he saw two other brothers, … and he called them.

– Matthew 4:18-22 (ESV)

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” …

– Matthew 9:9 (ESV)

All of Jesus' closest followers were people He chose personally (John 15:16). He did not ask or encourage them to follow. He commanded and they obeyed. They were the ones who stuck to Him when others fell away (John 6:66-71), and they were the ones He actively kept (John 17:12). But like the first group, Jesus did not attract His disciples with promises of blessings. If anything, He spoke of the work He had for them to do (Matthew 4:19, Luke 9:59-60). He spoke of blessings only later.

Today, we tend to attract people to follow Jesus with promises of blessings (i.e. “life will be more rewarding if you do what Jesus says”). However discipleship is not about our benefit here on earth but about cost. If anything, following Jesus will lead to greater difficulties, pain, sorrow, and even persecution (Matthew 10:34-39, John 15:20). Discipleship is about the abandoning of self-interest and becoming like Christ in His death (Romans 6:3,5, 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:31, 2 Corinthians 4:10, Philippians 3:10). It is about giving up your all to build up the kingdom of God and seek only His glory.

What do you think would happen if we attracted people to follow Jesus with a cross, and made no mention of blessings? …or are we too afraid to try?

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Methodology

I mentioned earlier that there are some positive differences in discipleship over the last couple thousand years. I tend to be a skeptic, and if I heard someone else say that, I'd probably doubt him. But I believe it's true, although with perhaps some reservations.

The biggest advantage that we have over most New Testament disciples is the ability to personally study the Bible.

For the most part, the early disciples did not have their own copies of the scriptures, and what they did have was not the complete collection like we have today. Most early believers went to the synagogue to hear Old Testament scriptures read, or they had access to someone else's scripture portions. When the early church started, none of the New Testament books were written, but they did have access to witnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus. Most importantly, they had the Holy Spirit.

Today we are greatly blessed! Those of us in the free world can buy a copy of the scriptures in our native language to read and study for ourselves. Many of us have more than one copy in various translations. We also have access to tools such as concordances and lexicons that help us get at the meaning of the original languages. No longer do we have to rely on second-hand knowledge of what the Bible says …although sadly many still do.

Plus we still have the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and ears to understand what we read. Yes, we are greatly blessed!

And if that were not enough, we also have plenty of other forms of instruction: Christian books, radio, television programs, and websites. The internet gives us access to live and recorded sermons, as well as Christian writings going back to the early church fathers. Assuming you have the ability to discern truth from error, these are great resources to have and you should take advantage of them. But there is a potential drawback.

Discipleship is not about learning doctrine, but putting doctrine into practice in a relational way. Because each of us has the ability to learn on his own, all these tools make it too easy to become an independent learner.

A disciple needs to be under accountability to other disciples. It's like mentoring, with mutual accountability, fellowship, and encouragement. This is something that neither a solo or formal learning environment supplies.

Jesus' teaching methodology was relational, not intellectual. The relationship with His disciples was not just a formal student-teacher one. The Twelve spent a lot of time out and about with their Master. Jesus was extremely open and personal with them. He hid nothing from them. They saw Him get angry and they saw Him cry. They were a small, close-knit, intimate community.

Jesus led His disciples by example. He lived what He taught, not just acting it out for their benefit but living it for real. The disciples saw how to live from Jesus' example. They saw the results and the consequences of such a life (“If they persecuted me, they'll persecute you” – John 15:20). Jesus spoke openly of hardships as the norm on earth, and benefits as primarily a future heavenly reward (Matthew 5:3-12).

The Apostles continued this method of making disciples in the early church:

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

– Philippians 3:17 (ESV)

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

– Philippians 4:9 (ESV)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

– 1 Corinthians 11:1 (ESV)

So I exhort the elders among you, … not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

– 1 Peter 5:1-3 (ESV)

This should be a significant characteristic of our discipling others also. We need to disciple personally. We need to spend time with each other, be open, transparent, bold and fearless in our following Jesus.

I'll admit… this isn't me. But it needs to be.

Content – Heart vs. Head

I've talked about the teaching setting, the call, and the methodologies of discipleship. But the most important characteristic is the content of what is taught and practiced. There are two themes running through all of what Jesus taught: the fallen nature of the heart of man, and the essentialness and preeminence of Himself. Let's look at the first of these themes.

We Christians tend to focus more on head-knowledge and externals. Good doctrine and actions are essential. But Jesus did not teach dry-facts about God or outward observance of the Law 2. His wasn't a catechismal method of teaching them the right answers to theological questions. (His disciples probably already had good doctrinal training through their synagogues anyway.) Instead He taught heart issues. He spoke about the way man's heart is versus how it's supposed to be. And this wasn't in abstract concepts, but with intensely practical implications:

  • To be unjustly angry at your brother is the same as murder (Matthew 5:21-22).
  • To lust after a woman is the same as committing the act (Matthew 5:27-28).
  • We are to love our enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:43-44).
  • We must become humble as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3-4).

These teachings, and many more, focus on who we are on the inside. It is not enough to appear good and righteous outwardly (as Jesus often spoke out against hypocrisy – Matthew 23:27). We must be truly good and righteous on the inside. This was the problem with the Pharisees and Jesus' disciples, and it's our problem also. It's my problem.

We may have doctrine down pat, but it's depressing how often we fail in the areas that Jesus homed in on. We seize every opportunity to make ourselves look good. We won't associate with the social outcasts. We proudly tear down those who hold minor theological differences, and angrily speak out against those in authority over us 3. And we forget we're supposed to love all – even our enemies.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught the humility, submission, obedience and faith that comes of agape love. He didn't just use words. He lived it in relation to His heavenly Father, and expressed it in His relationships towards those around Him, so that His disciples could see how it worked out in real life.

  • He brought salvation to a sinful tax-collector, saying “the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Luke 19:1-10).
  • He crossed a storm-tossed sea just to save a demon-possessed man, and then crossed back over (Matthew 8:23-9:1).
  • Jesus did not return evil for evil but forgave those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34).

The Son of God modeled love for us, and thereby simultaneously taught God's love for man.

When Jesus spoke more directly of the Father's love, it was not just facts, but heart… passion. For example, Luke 15's parables are about the Father's loss and then joy when He found what was lost. Jesus spoke of the Father in such a way that we might feel for His loss.

We cannot love people in this way. We have a heart condition that won't be cured merely by acting the right way. Trying to get the outside actions right without an inward change is futile – it won't last.

“So every good tree produces good fruits, but the worthless tree produces bad fruits. A good tree cannot produce bad fruits, nor a worthless tree produce good fruits.”

– Matthew 7:17-18 (JND)

But if the heart is changed, the outward actions will follow.

That's a matter for the second theme.

Content – The Essential Christ

By far, the most unique and controversial aspect of Jesus' teachings is what He said about Himself.

The rabbis of Jesus' day taught the Law and their commentaries of the Law. They didn't blatantly call themselves authorities, but would defer to great teachers of the past. Jesus, on the other hand, did not teach second-hand doctrine. It was not “Rabbi So-and-so said…” but “I say to you”.

After the Sermon on the Mount, the people were astonished, because He taught them with authority (Matthew 7:28 -29). But as amazed as the crowds were, what Jesus said about Himself was even more shocking.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.”

The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. …

– John 10:27-31 (ESV)

Whenever people wanted to stone Jesus, it was because He, a mere man as the Jews thought (John 10:33), claimed to be God.

Most other religions in the world focus on the teachings of their founders. For the sake of argument, Islam could be essentially the same if Allah supposedly revealed himself to someone other than Muhammad. If John Doe discovered the supposed path to enlightenment instead of Siddhartha Gautama, “Doe-ism” might be the same as Bhuddism.

But there could never be a substitute for Jesus Christ. Without Him, Christianity falls apart, because the focus is not just on what Jesus taught, but on the essentialness of Himself.

We Christians know this in terms of theology and salvation. Jesus made many statements about Himself that we use today in apologetic or evangelistic ways to get people to believe that Jesus is God. But we must remember He also made shocking, exclusive statements to us, His followers.

We cannot treat what Jesus said to us as mere doctrines. If we are to follow Him, we must let statements such as the following have their full, painfully piercing impacts on our hearts and minds:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

– John 15:5 (ESV)

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

– Luke 14:26 (ESV)

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

– Matthew 10:37-38 (ESV)

“And whoever of you desires to become first, he shall be slave of all. For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

– Mark 10:44-45 (Green)

To many times we treat Jesus as an example for us to follow: He laid down a set of principles that we're to follow. We spiritualize away the hard sayings, or we give lip service to them without living them out for real. I know, because I do it also. Despite all we say, this kind of following doesn't require a real living, personal, day-by-day dependent and submissive relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. It's all theory and no reality.

Much of our teaching today ignores the practicalities such a relationship. We teach Bible doctrine so we can grow familiar with its contents. We teach the difference between right and wrong. We teach how to apply biblical truths to our lives. We teach lifestyle, the outward actions of keeping oneself morally pure, helping the needy, becoming active members of the church, presenting the good news of Jesus Christ to the lost, etc. Good things all, but none of this seems to require a direct relationship with Jesus. Our practice can easily become Christianity without Christ.

Of course, we also teach things that are more discipleship-oriented such as prayer. But if we're not focused on following Jesus, these things can be practiced dryly, religiously, or even selfishly. (It's easy to treat Christianity as a form of self-improvement – with God's help, of course.)

New Testament discipleship is always centered on Jesus Christ: not just learning about Jesus or following His example, but following His leading. As mentioned earlier, Jesus did not say “Go in this direction”, He said “Follow me.” This requires an active, living relationship with Him, expectantly listening for His voice (John 10:27), talking to Him, and obeying Him.

Yes, we all have a heart condition that prevents us from living right. The solution is not to try live right but to abide in Jesus and walk in the Spirit as He did. Only Jesus can cure our heart condition.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

– John 15:4 (ESV)

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

– Galatians 5:16 (ESV)

Discipleship centers on Jesus. He is the beginning and the end, and everything in between. Let us fix our eyes on Him.

Notes:

  1. … not mere believers.
  2. Meaning Jesus did not teach basic stuff like “God is all-powerful” or “Stealing is a sin”, mainly because the people already knew this.
  3. Perhaps living in a country where one has the right to free speach can be a stumbling block for believers. We should use this right, but not abuse it. I don't think Jesus approves when we slander and belittle those of other viewpoints, whether it be political, social, economic, or whatever. …even if they are wrong.

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