When you think of disciples what image comes to your mind? Naïve fishermen squabbling over which of them is the greatest? Spiritual experts who wrote the Bible in their spare time? Little felt figurines on a brightly colored Sunday school collage? Or maybe your own reflection in the mirror?
The matter of how we interpret the word “disciple” is very important because it is only by understanding what a disciple does that we are able to comprehend what we are being called to.
Discipleship is defined in the dictionary as “one who embraces and assists in spreading the teachings of another.” From this definition we understand that discipleship comprises two things: firstly embracing the process of learning, and then, secondly, imparting to others what we have learned.
This is a process that all of Christ’s followers are called to undertake. When we understand goodness of God’s kingdom, and how badly those around us need to be saved, our desire to become equipped to free those that are captive to the evil one grows. We start longing to operate in the power that we’ve been given.
The early church put a high premium on the first part of discipleship – learning. New believers would undergo three years of training. This was deemed a necessary investment to ensure that they were equipped to operate in the power that had been bestowed on them. This is why Paul told the believers in Rome “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
New believers were urged to transform their minds. This was thought to be an imperative factor in the sustainability of the church. Why was this? Well, when someone makes a decision to turn from sin and follow Jesus they don’t automatically start thinking differently. Their salvation is instant, but breaking free from sinful thought patterns and the bondage of past sins is a gradual process.
The early believers were very aware of this and they knew that their success in building a strong future for the church was largely dependent on the new believers adhering to a thorough process of renewal. So mature followers invested their time and energy into educating and mentoring new believers. And in turn the new believers submitted to this process, diligently applying themselves to the practice of renewing their minds and casting out old ways of thinking.
We should not take the importance of this process lightly. It is worth noting that even Jesus had to undergo discipleship in order to fulfill the call on his life. Luke 2:46 tells us of how when Jesus was a child he was found in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. He knew that learning about his identity was a priority. When asked by his natural parents why he was there he answered them “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Though Jesus never had to break out of the bondage of past sin he still put a high premium on discipleship for the purpose of understanding the power that had been given to him.
Through the gospels we see Jesus increasingly grow in his capacity to use his authority. At the start of his ministry he operated in relatively small miracles: transmuting water into wine, catching an improbably large number of fish, and casting out demons. In themselves these feats are impressive, but when we place them in the larger context of Jesus ministry they are clearly inferior to his later miracles. When we look at the span of Jesus ministry we can see a marked progression as he becomes increasingly confident in his authority.
With time Jesus progressed into medium level miracles such as curing individuals of serious illness. Following this he advanced into truly significant miracles: bringing people back from the dead, healing huge crowds, and feeding thousands of people through the multiplication of food. Then eventually he arrived at his highest level miracle: coming back to life after having been dead for three days.
As Jesus was fully human he had to go through the process of learning to operate in his power and authority, just as we do. Personally I find it quite encouraging to know that even the son of God had to go through a season of apprentiship. And I find it equally sobering to contemplate how if Jesus applied himself so studiously to learning about his heavenly father’s kingdom, how much more I should!
This leads us to the second part of discipleship – teaching. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky noted that one of the best ways to retain information is to teach it. In order to effectively explain a concept to someone you have to really ponder it, own it, and internalize it first. As such the secondary part of discipleship – teaching – not only benefits the pupil, but also the teacher.
This is a key reason that I’ve engaged in writing this blog. I know that through undertaking this role I am giving myself an opportunity to formulate my inner thoughts into coherent arguments, and as such I am allowing myself to further internalize what I believe. Such internalization is an important element of discipleship. It allows us to become more focused, more effective, more cogent, and more succinct. It allows us to become better teachers, and as such to become more effective for God’s kingdom. Internalization of kingdom principles also promotes the expansion of faith. It is a highly rewarding process.
But it is not an easy process. Discipleship is an undeniably time consuming endeavor. It often costs money, emotional energy, and physical energy. It frequently necessitates that we deny ourselves some of our hobbies, some of our sleep, and some of our social time. It invariably means disciplining ourselves into making plans, setting goals, and sticking to them. It definitely does not happen without great intentionality.
Sadly many of God’s children deem that the benefits of discipleship come at too high a price. Though they would never verbalize the thought it’s clearly apparent in the apportioning of their time and money.
Matthew 11:12 tells us that forceful men lay hold of the kingdom of heaven. Clearly there is no neutral position when it comes to discipleship. One is either forcefully progressing through intentional study and intentional mentoring, or one is stagnating, and as a result, quite possibly regressing.
So the question we all need to ask ourselves is: “Am I putting as high a premium on discipleship as Jesus modeled?” If the answer is no I exhort you to start engaging in the process.
There are many different ways to get involved in both aspects of discipleship. For learning you can use books, podcasts, web broadcast television shows, bible study groups, accountability groups, seminars, the local church, and personal mentors. And to develop your teaching skills you can start by mentoring people, writing blogs, writing books, broadcasting a podcast, setting up a YouTube channel, leading a bible study group, or taking on preaching engagements.
Modern day technology allows us access to such a wealth of quality teaching in such a wide range of mediums, and there are so many opportunities to self publish and broadcast, there is absolutely no valuable reason to not undertake the process of discipleship!
Essentially discipleship is an attitude of the heart that is bound up in the value you place on Jesus teachings. As Matthew 6:21 tells us “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
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