“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49)
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10)
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:16-20 ESV)
Introductory Remarks on Discipleship
- I left theological lecturing some years ago under the clear conviction that an academic environment was not the best one for discipling people. (“disciple” in the Greek of New Testament times = learner, apprentice)
- This presented as an urgent matter at the time because the Church in Australia was experiencing a crisis in discipleship i.e. many Christians are living lives indistinguishable from unbelievers.
- This always occurs when we forget that the source and substance of discipleship must be totally dependent on the life and teachings of Jesus.
- If the meaning of being created human is to be in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28) and Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4), then the solution to the current discipleship crisis in the Church is to refocus on becoming like Jesus.
- This means that purpose discipleship is central to the entire message of the Bible about God’s plan for creation.
A Jesus – Centred Approach to Discipleship
- Since to be a “disciple of x” means to “learn from and become like x” then discipleship is “becoming like another person” (cf. “disciples of the Pharisees” Luke 5:33). Christian discipleship means “becoming like Jesus” e.g. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2)
- It is foundationally important to notice that Jesus himself lived this way. ““Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 cf. v.36; 10:37). Christ could confidently say, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9; cf. 15:24).
- In these terms, “discipleship” for Jesus meant being fully like his Father. (This is also the explanation of why the discipleship language which dominates the Gospels and Acts is replaced by the vocabulary of sonship in the letters of the New Testament. After Jesus’ return to heaven and the gift of the Spirit his followers entered into an internal relationship with God as Father through the indwelling Son that was previously not possible e.g. John 14:17; Rom 8:14-16 etc.)
- The relationship between the Son and the Father was also a growing process during his earthly life. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52); “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Heb 2:10; cf. 5:9; 7:28)
- The paradox of the growth, maturation and perfecting of the Son of God only makes sense when we take with full seriousness the humanity of Christ.
- As a true human being Jesus had to learn from his Father; “although he was a son he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8 cf. Matt 4:1; Heb 4:15)!
- Christian discipleship means growing to be like Jesus through sharing in the way that Jesus learnt to become like his Father. (As the Holy Spirit was at the centre of Jesus relationship with the Father he is also the one who shares Christ with us.)
- Into Discipleship is a journey into the image and likeness of God as revealed in the humanity of Christ.
The Central Error in Discipling
- The great mistake in discipleship is to disciple people to be like ourselves! Producing spiritual clones.
- The scriptures warn us against this terrible error “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4)
- Requiring others to spiritually submit to us rather than to Christ keeps the people of God in spiritual infancy (Cf. Eph 5:21). “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
- When Paul charges the Corinthian Christians with being “merely human” he is not belittling the image which God created, but highlighting that they are not living in a Christ-centred way (cf.1 Cor 1:12-13).
- The current crisis of discipleship is rooted in a human desire to follow someone other than Jesus, someone more to our liking and easier to conform to (2 Cor 11:20). This is nothing other than idolatry. We must be warned, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21 ESV)
- Having stated this, let me turn from warning to promise, Paul can boldly say to the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1 cf. Acts 9:23-25)
- As an “apostle of Christ” (1 Cor 1:1) Paul is not seeking to cultivate an environment of external similarity where others copy his devotional life, preaching style etc. A fuller examination of the context of Paul’s role as a leader makes this plain.
- “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” (1 Cor 4:15-17)
- This passage makes clear that Paul’s authority existed only “in Christ”; in his union or abiding in Jesus. For Paul to “imitate” Christ is a way of stating that he images Jesus outwardly through being transformed by the power of the indwelling Spirit of the Lord. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:17-18)
- As the Son eternally beheld the glory of the face of God his Father and returned to heaven into the divine presence for us (John 6:46; 17:5; Heb 9:24), so we now come to see the glory of God “in the face of Jesus Christ” and are growing to image him as he reflects God (2 Cor 4:6; 1 John 3:2). In this way we share the same eternal destiny as Jesus.
What Means Does God use to Disciple His People?
- The means by which God disciples us are generally listed as things like the Bible, prayer and fasting, Christian fellowship, worship, sacraments and so on. (Often these are called “the means of grace”.) Many discipleship courses are based on these topics.
- There is a tendency to make these practices ends in themselves rather than points of connection with Jesus e.g. people become full of “Bible knowledge” but do not grow in love for Christ. Programme centred Christianity can be appealing because it makes us feel like we are growing as Christians whereas we are only becoming masters of a religious life. Jesus sternest criticisms were of the Pharisees, who were great Bible readers, prayed much, tithed, and sent out missionaries; e.g. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)
- God does use the Bible, prayer and so on as channels of his grace to unite us more intensely with Jesus, but in a way that is deeply integrated into our ordinary lives.
- Effective discipling must assist Christians to discern what God is already doing in the existing circumstances of life (cf. John 5:19-20, 36). One of our later sessions will focus on an especially important aspect of the Lord’s ongoing work in our lives; discipline (Heb 12:5-11).
- Ultimately only the Lord himself can disciple us, this means that discipleship is direct and internal, by the Spirit, rather than indirect or external according to “the letter”, or what today would be termed “Christian principles” (2 Cor 3:3-6). To attempt to grow spiritually by following such principles is disastrous, because Jesus is not a principle but a living person!
- Jesus exhorted the crowds who followed him, “learn from me” (Matt 11:29). Paul teaches the Ephesians that they had “learned Christ! – assuming that you have heard him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus“, (Ephesians 4:20-21 cf. John 13:15; Phil 2:5; 1 Pet 2:21; 1 John 2:6).
- I have found one particularly important way of growing in this way involves “the testimony of Jesus”
The Testimony of Jesus: a personal statement
- As a young Christian I was very impacted by the teaching of an Australian Bible scholar, author, preacher and revivalist called Geoff Bingham (www.newcreation.org.au). He seemed to uniquely combine a tremendous grasp of scripture and theology with an intense passion for God. More than anything else he imparted to me an awareness that the ways of God are truly GREAT (1 Tim 3:16; Tit 2:13; Rev 11:17; 15:3).
- Bingham taught that all Christian life and ministry should reflect “the testimony of Jesus”. This emphasis became more important when I entered pastoral ministry and started to preach regularly. Such an insight intensified when I started to sense a prophetic call on my life beyond teaching and pastoral work.
- At the conclusion of one of his works he stated, “To bear testimony to Jesus means to have his testimony within us, and to have it as the primary consideration within our lives. The propagation of this is the very purpose of our lives.” This novel approach seemed to sum up the call of God on my life.
- Whilst the expression “the testimony of Jesus” only appears in the book of Revelation, e.g. “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (19:10 cf. 1:2, 9; 12:17), it is full of meaning. Whilst it could be translated as either “the testimony that Jesus gives” or “testifying to Jesus” and it is likely both are true priority needs to be given to the former statement.
- Jesus’ own testimony to God in the Gospels is foundational for discipleship as our testimony to Jesus. Christ was intensely conscious of the presence and activity of the Father in his life. “There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true.” (John 5:32); “I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” (John 8:18); “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:24); “Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37). Even after his ascension into heaven Jesus describes himself as “the faithful and true witness” (Rev 3:14 cf. 1:5).
- It is Jesus’ testimony through the Spirit that in turn leads the apostles to testify to Jesus according to the revelation that was given them. “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27 cf. John 19:35; 25:24; Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39- 42; 13:31; 22:14-16; 1 John 1:2; Rev 1:2).
- This is something in which all Christians share (2 Tim 1:8; 1 John 4:14- 15; Rev 1:2, 9; 2:13; 6:9; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4).
- As Jesus had the Father’s testimony in himself confirmed and expressed by his words and deeds, we have the testimony of Jesus in us through the Spirit; “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:14-17 ESV); “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.” (1 John 5:10)
- At the centre of vital testimony is the revelation of the mystery “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Our union with Christ is foundational to biblical discipleship and it is made real to us through the Spirit’s sharing “the testimony of Jesus”.
- It is only as we pay attention to the testimony of Jesus by his Word and Spirit in our hearts can we obey the Father and become true disciples in the likeness of Christ. This is a dynamic process that always takes place at the initiative of God.
- Part of my teaching over the coming weeks will involve sharing transforming experiences that have occurred at certain crucial junctures in my life. These are foundational to my perspective and teaching on discipleship. They will be part of what it means to share “the testimony of Jesus”