John the Baptist had disciples who followed him. They lived with him. They watched him as he interacted with the crowds who came from Jerusalem to see if he might be Israel’s first prophet in four hundred years and maybe be the long promised Messiah who would deliver Israel. Wherever John the Baptist went, they followed him.
There is speculation that Jesus was one of John’s disciples before he began his public ministry. At least two of Jesus’s disciples, Andrew and John, were first disciples of John the Baptist. There were probably many more.
When Jesus began his public ministry, there were already disciples who were following him. The gospels record the call of seven of his disciples: Peter, Andrew, John, James, Phillip, Nathanel, and Matthew, but there were many more – whose names we do not know – Jesus called to follow him. For some time before Jesus chose his inner circle of twelve disciples, he went around with a larger group of those he had called to follow him. They were with him when he healed a leper. They were present when he healed the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof. They saw him heal a man’s shriveled hand when he was teaching on the Sabbath, which caused the Pharisees to oppose him. A significant amount of time passed and then one night Jesus went off to pray. (Luke 6:12–16)
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Out of all those who Jesus called to follow him, he chose twelve to be his inner circle of disciples. And then from among those twelve, he selected three – Peter, James, and John – to be his closest disciples. For three years he invested himself in teaching and demonstrating the Kingdom of God that had come. For three years he prepared them for the time that he would leave and put the responsibility for carrying on his ministry in their hands.
After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the disciples themselves attracted men and women who wanted to be their disciples. We know that Peter had a special relationship with Mark, who wrote the gospel. He most likely had other disciples. John was the last of the twelve disciples to die and he had disciples who followed him to Ephesus in his last years. Polycarp, the early Christian martyr, was a disciple of John. Because of Luke, who traveled with Paul, we know more about the ministry of Paul than any of the other early followers of Jesus. Paul, who was an apostle “untimely born” as Paul himself put it, had his disciples who worked with him as he spread the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. There are nineteen men and women listed who traveled with Paul from city to city and another sixteen who worked with him in these cities. These disciples passed on what they had been taught to their own disciples and so the gospel has come down through the centuries.
Who is it who discipled us? Who are we discipling?
In our Lenten series of sermons on major emphases of Jesus we have talked about how Jesus got away to pray on a regular basis and how we need to do the same. We talked about Jesus healing people and how we need to pray for healing ourselves. Last week Clement talked about our authority over demonic spirits. Jesus cast out demons and we need to learn how to discern the presence of demonic spirits and then have confidence that we can also do what Jesus did.
This week we are talking about how Jesus passed on to his disciples the truth he had learned. As Jesus grew from a young child to an adult man, he increasingly discovered who he was. At his baptism he heard the affirming words of his father, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” At the Mount of Transfiguration he understood that he would go to Jerusalem to die on the cross for all of mankind. Jesus knew he had a limited time on earth and he needed to prepare leaders who would carry on the work of the church he was beginning. For this reason he called disciples to follow him.
This is a huge topic but let me present a handful of comments, five, about discipling.
First, in order to disciple, you have to have been discipled. In order to teach, you have to have been taught. Who have been your teachers? Your disciplers?
When I first became a follower of Jesus, in my second year of university, Julian Teitel took me under his wing. Julian was a Messanic Jew, a Jew who became a follower of Jesus. Julian modeled himself after the Puritan Charles Spurgeon. He had a long, bushy beard and he sometimes wore a Puritan hat and coat. We would sit in his room in the afternoon and have a glass of sherry as we read the Bible together, sang hymns, and prayed. This was also in the Puritan tradition.
I am grateful to Julian because he set me off in the right direction. He encouraged me to go to Park Street Church in downtown Boston and this was the next step in my Christian life.
There was a large fellowship of students and young adults at Park Street Church, about 600 of us. We met at 9:14 on Sunday morning when one of the seminary students took us through a book of the Bible. Each week we studied a book of the Bible so over the course of two or three years we covered the entire Bible. We came back together again at 5:31 in the evening and shared together from a chapter of the Bible we had all studied during the week. We shared with each other in small groups the lessons we had learned from that chapter.
During the week I led a small group of men and we studied a different chapter of the Bible. We shared what we had learned, shared what was happening in our lives, and prayed for each other.
In addition I met with one or two other men during the week who were exploring Christian faith. So in a normal week, I was reading from five different chapters of the Bible. The lessons from one study connected with the lessons from another study in a rich web of truth and insight. I remember with fondness how rich that time was.
The consequence of this exposure to the Bible was that when I took my ordination exams to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, I did not study at all for the Bible content exam. I just walked in and took it and was surprised to discover that the others taking the exam had been studying all week for this exam. I took it for granted that a follower of Jesus would know what was in the Bible.
There were great preachers and teachers at Park Street Church and I am grateful to them for all they taught me. In addition to preachers and teachers in churches and at conferences I attended, through the years I have been taught by Phillip Yancey, Chuck Colson, Richard Lovelace, Ron Sider, Henri Nouwen, C. S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Ravi Zacharias, Frederick Buechner, Ken Bailey, and a host of others. Their books opened up God’s truths to me and helped me apply that truth to my life experiences.
One of the great benefits of working on my Doctor of Ministry was that I was exposed to another set of rich teachers. David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin, Miroslav Volf, Philip Jenkins, Ellis Potter and others who opened my mind to new understandings and new depths in my relationship with Jesus.
There are also musicians who have taught me through their music. Graham Kendrick, John Fischer, Rich Mullins, and Jason Gray, are among those who not only write great songs, but who communicate great truth through their music.
There will never come a time when we do not need to be taught. Until the day we die we need to remain open to learning new and deeper truth.
Who are the people who have discipled you, perhaps face-to-face, but also from a distance, from the pulpit, through a book or song? Take time this week to communicate with anyone you can to thank them for the way they helped you grow in your faith.
Second, we have the responsibility to pass on what we have learned.
What would have happened if the disciples in the early church had not shared with other people the good news of Jesus? Think about the people who have influenced you in your walk with Jesus. What would have happened if they had kept silent about what they learned about Jesus?
Do you remember what Jesus told the disciples just before he ascended into heaven? (Matthew 28:18–20)
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
We have been commanded by Jesus to carry on the work he was doing. We are responsible to make disciples. This is our task even if it is difficult to carry out.
I spoke at an interfaith conference in Rabat this past week. The US government has a program that places teenagers from Muslim countries in US homes for a year abroad. This conference was for alumni of the program and they came from many countries around the world. I was impressed with their enthusiasm and also not surprised that when they met in small groups to discuss what is inclusive and what is exclusive in religion, they put the Christian claim of salvation as something that is exclusionary. One of the men on the panel talked about missionaries coming to Muslim countries to spread their faith and said that was inappropriate and destabilizing.
This man was raised in an evangelical Christian family in eastern Canada. When he went to university he converted to Islam and now teaches here in Morocco. He did not claim that his conversion to Islam when he was a student in Canada was destablizing, but objected to Christians coming to countries such as Morocco to share their faith because that was destablizing in Morocco.
I responded that there are people who share their faith in inappropriate ways and that can be offensive. But, I said, we have the responsibility to share what we believe with others. The stakes are too high not to share what we believe. When we meet someone who wants to follow Jesus, we must be free to talk and share what we have learned about following Jesus.
I said that religion is meant to be a search for truth, not a competition for truth, and that in our search for truth we should be free to share with others who are also searching.
We are all pilgrims in this world, separated from God, and seeking how to draw near to God. We are not competing as earthly organizations to see which can be more powerful. We are seeking for what is true. And what we believe is that God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Religions in the world have systems that tell us how to work our way to God’s favor. What followers of Jesus understand is that no matter how hard we try, no matter how good we are, no matter what we say or do, we will fall short of the mark.
God saw us in our condition and had compassion for us. So God acted in history, becoming human, living among us to show us who he is, dying on the cross so he could carry the weight of our sin, and then bursting out of the grave in a complete defeat of the devil. Death is no longer to be feared. We have hope of life after death. This is such great news, how can we not share it? This is such great news, it would be cruel and unloving not to share it.
If what we believe is just one more religious truth among many religious truths, then of course it makes sense to keep it to ourselves and not to disturb anyone. But what if what we believe is God’s answer to the universal problem we face?
When the disciples of Jesus found what Jesus taught too difficult, (John 6:66–69)
many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
We believe, as did Peter, that Jesus has the words of eternal life and not to share them with others is like not telling people on a sinking ship where to find the lifeboat. We have to share with humility, as one beggar telling another beggar where to find food, but we must share.
Third, we have to be passionate about what we have learned.
Paul wrote in Colossians 1:28–29
[Jesus] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
What possessed Paul to be so passionate about preaching and teaching the good news of Jesus everywhere he went? What caused Paul to “strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me”? What kept Paul going after being beaten, whipped, stoned and left for dead?
When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he knew he was a dead man. Here he was, on his way to imprison more of the followers of Jesus, when he had this dramatic revelation in the noonday sun. (Acts 9:3–6)
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” That was Saul/Paul’s death sentence. The all-powerful Lord who was speaking to him was the one he was opposing. He was the enemy of the people who were following this all-powerful Lord. So when Saul heard, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do,” this was his reprieve. He had been spared and he would do what his Lord Jesus told him to do.
None of us have had such a dramatic call to Jesus, but we have all been called to follow Jesus. We may have left another faith. We may have left a secular, hedonistic life. We may have left an indifferent existence. We may have left a conventional religious life. But we all were rescued by Jesus, saved from eternal destruction. Do we understand what Jesus has done for us? Do we realize how desperate our condition is apart from what Jesus has done for us?
Paul strenuously contended with all the energy Christ so powerfully worked in him. What about us? Where is our energy directed?
If you are like me, you take your eyes off Jesus and put them on the earthly concerns of life. Do I have enough money to pay bills the next month? How can I get the money I need to buy this thing I want? What can I do to perform well in my work or studies? How can I improve my relationships with others? Who will be elected as leader of my country? What movie do I want to see next? What book do I want to read? Where do I want to go on vacation?
It is not that these questions are bad, but do we put as much energy into our relationship with Jesus?
How can we be passionate about our relationship with Jesus if we spend so little time with him? If we are going to pass on what we have learned, we need to be passionate about our life with Jesus.
Fourth, discipling is not simply sharing knowledge; it is sharing your life as well.
The disciples spent three years walking with Jesus. The watched him sleep. They watched him wake up in the morning. They watched him eat. They watched his interactions during the day. They watched how he handled crises. They watched how he handled difficult people. They watched him as he healed and cast out demons. Jesus shared his life with these disciples, not just what he knew.
It is interesting to read about Peter in the book of Acts. As we follow Peter we see him doing the same things Jesus did. We see Peter using similar words. It is clear that Peter did more than learn what Jesus taught, he observed and learned by what Jesus did as well.
In Acts 9:33–35 Peter
found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up.
Does this sound familiar? In Mark 2:10–12 four men lowered their friend who was paralyzed through the roof so Jesus could heal him. Jesus said to the man,
“I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Why did Peter tell Aeneas to roll up his mat? Because he had seen Jesus say the same thing.
In Acts 9:40–41 Peter came to a home where a good woman, a disciple, had died.
Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive.
Once again this takes us back to Jesus who raised a little girl from the dead. (Mark 5:41–42)
[Jesus] took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished.
Peter took her by the hand. He said to her, “Tabitha, get up,” just as he had seen Jesus say, “Talitha koum!”
Paul wrote to his disciple, Timothy: (2 Timothy 3:10–11)
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.
Paul shared with Timothy his teaching, his way of life, his purpose, his faith. Timothy shared experiences with Paul and saw his patience, love, endurance. He saw how Paul handled persecution and suffering.
In a discipling relationship, far more is taught than just words.
Fifth, there is a risk in discipling.
We become vulnerable with the people we disciple. We allow them to enter our life and see who we are, why we do what we do. We make mistakes and allow them to see how we handle our mistakes. We allow them to see our imperfections.
As we do this, we open ourselves to the possibility of being hurt by those we trusted with such precious insight.
Jesus spent three years with Judas. Judas was entrusted with the finances of the disciples. Judas was present at the miracles we read about in the gospels. Judas walked with Jesus. He laughed with Jesus. He was amazed, as were the other disciple amazed, when Jesus walked on water to them in a storm. But Judas had his own agenda and out of a confusion of motives, he took advantage of his close relationship with Jesus to betray him. Jesus endured the pain of seeing Judas betray him.
We face the same risk when we allow the people we disciple to see into our inner world. But this is a risk we have to take. If we are going to pass on to others what we have learned, we have to allow those we disciple to see who we are and why we do what we do.
Who are you discipling?
Parents, you are given responsibility by God to disciple your children.
When Moses passed on to Israel the law God had given, he said, (Deuteronomy 6:4–9)
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Sitting down once a week or even once a day and having a family devotion is not what is instructed. It may be part of what you do as a parent, but it should not be all that you do. When you sit at home, when you walk along the road or drive to school or to do errands. When you go on vacation, when you go shopping, when you work in the garden, when you clean the house, when you pay the bills, when you watch a movie together, when you read a book together. In all these things and more parents are charged with the responsibility of teaching, by words and deeds, what they have learned from others about how to life a life devoted to Jesus. As children age, parents need to be increasingly vulnerable so their children can learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Sunday School is a modern invention, only about 250 years old. For the first 1,750 years of the church there was no Sunday School. Sunday School is a good thing; I am not speaking against it. But it cannot be a substitute for parents teaching their children themselves. God charges parents with the responsibility to pass on to their children what they have learned. We do this imperfectly, but our imperfection does not give us an excuse for not discipling our children.
Every one of us has the responsibility to pass on to others what we have learned and what we are learning. It may be that you do this through a small group. It may be that you do this with just one other person. But the treasure you receive as you learn from pastors and teachers and small group leaders is not to be kept to yourself. It is to be shared.
You don’t have to be an expert to teach. A perfectly good response to a question is, “I don’t know,” or, “I’ve wondered about that myself.” This allows everyone in the group to do research and come back the next time with a better understanding.
In a small group you could take turns teaching from a book you’ve read. Each of you will share what you have learned with the rest in your group.
There are many ways to disciple. If you have talent as a writer, then you should think about writing a book, an essay, or a blog that can be shared with others. Even if just three people read what you write on a blog, there are three people who will be blessed by what you write. In God’s economy, that is a great use of your talent and energy.
If those who preceded us had not passed on what they learned, we would be the ones who would have suffered. If we fail to pass on to others what we have learned and what we are learning, others will suffer.
Pray and ask God to open your eyes to see who it is he wants you to share what you have learned with.
Keep on learning and growing in your faith. Take what you learn and pass it on to others. Make disciples.