Discipleship ~ How to Make and Be a Disciple

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[A piece of the Word]

The term “discipleship” never really occurs in Scripture. It’s a relatively recent English word coined to capture the essence of Christ’s parting command to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). We use it to define a widely-affirmed yet otherwise largely undefined Christian concept—the process of how a disciple is made. However, it is also interesting to note that the term “disciple” is never used in the New Testament outside the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and the book of Acts (written by Luke). If there is a biblical doctrine of discipleship, it is mostly anecdotal and implicit.

The Greek terms for a disciple are used liberally in the Gospels and Acts—mathetes (n) means “a learner,” manthano (v) means “to learn,” and matheteuo (v) means “to make/be a learner”—but there is no corresponding Greek term that means “the process that causes one to become a learner.” But even more than that, the epistolary New Testament writers—Paul, Peter, John—never once use any of the “disciple” terms in their instructional epistles to churches and individuals. For whatever reason, they don’t talk about disciples and disciple making. In light of Christ’s Great Commission to “make disciples,” that seems like a curious omission. But there’s a good explanation.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi (or, teacher). Rabbis had disciples, and disciples had one purpose: “A pupil [disciple] is not above his teacher, but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Rabbis taught, and disciples followed and learned to become like their rabbi. It was a technical term during the time of Jesus’ ministry in Israel—John the Baptist had disciples, Pharisees had disciples, and so did many other now forgotten Jewish rabbis and prophets at that time. Those in Israel would’ve been very comfortable with talk of rabbis and disciples.

However, when Christianity broke out of Jewish culture, and Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews), the term “disciple” would no longer have the same currency in Asia Minor as it did in Israel, and in fact was subject to different associations in the Greek culture of Asia Minor (see Acts 11:26). So whether the words were intentionally or unintentionally avoided, the language of discipleship was not important to Paul, or Peter and John, as the church spread into the Gentile world on its way to Rome.

Or perhaps the concept was transformed with Paul’s new teachings—redefined by the reality of the new church of Jesus Christ, in which every follower of Jesus became a part of His “body” of which Jesus was the “head.” Jesus would still be physically present in the life of every new believer (or, disciple) in His body, the church. He would, in a sense, be incarnated in the gifted individuals who made up the church, unified as a body by the Holy Spirit. Paul described this reality in his letter to the Ephesians:

…but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. ~Ephesians 4:15-16

Paul also described this new relationship as being “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:2-14). As His disciples, we are no longer just with Christ (Luke 6:40), but we are in Him, and He is in us (John 15:4-6). Our identity is not just that of a Jewish rabbi’s disciple, but we are unified spiritually and ontologically with Jesus, the risen Savior. We are not just His disciples individually, but corporately—as His disciples we are spiritually joined and unified in His body by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The new reality revealed in Paul’s teachings is that it is only when we are fully integrated into the life of the church that we are known as His disciples, and that we are able to make disciples of Jesus its head. To be in Him is to be with Him. And according to Jesus, the world will know we are His disciples when they see our love for one another (John 13:35). That “one another” love can be associated with Jesus only if we are known by our association with His body, the church. To be “in Him” is to be part of the body of believers who also are “in Him.”

Jesus commanded His followers to “make disciples” by doing two things: (1) “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and (2) “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). A disciple is made by identification and instruction—we are identified with the community of Jesus’ followers through baptism (we are “in Him” together), and we are instructed in Christ’s teachings by other disciples (we live “with Him” together). In the Ephesians passage above, Paul teaches that identification and instruction “in Christ” happens only in the body of Christ, where every part of that body contributes not just to our individual maturity, but also to the maturity of the whole body. “We [the body] are to grow up in all aspects [likeness] into Him who is the head [of His body], even Christ.”

We are certainly exhorted in Scripture as individuals to become like Jesus, but that likeness finds its full meaning only when it is seen within the growth and maturation in love of the corporate body (see Ephesians 4:15-16). The body of Christ is how the world will see our Christlikeness. A single, separated individual cannot truly show what Christ is like. Only the body can do that. To be separated from the body of Christ is to be separated from Christ. “But we all … are being transformed into the same image [of Christ] from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The terminology about discipleship may have changed between the gospels and the epistles, but the goal remained the same—to “make disciples” of Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to “make disciples”? Before his conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul had been at one time a student of Gamaliel, one of Israel’s greatest rabbis. Paul understood what a disciple was, and what Jesus meant when He commanded us to “make disciples.” Paul doesn’t use discipleship terminology in any of his letters, but it should be no surprise that the concept and priority of making disciples through identification and instruction permeates his teaching, even if the specific “disciple” language is not there in his letters to the churches.

There are many other things to say about making disciples, but one thing doesn’t get said enough: A biblical disciple of Jesus will be part of a body of Christ, a local church. There simply is no New Testament example of a “disciple at large” who is not connected with a body of believers. An “independent disciple” is an oxymoron, or a contradiction. And before you can make disciples, you need to be a disciple yourself—you need to be part of a body of believers, using your gifts to build up the body of Christ so that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:35).

Putting the Pieces Together: When you hear the term “discipleship” what does it mean to you—a concept? a doctrine? a paradigm? a program? What do you think it means to be a disciple of Jesus today? How do you express your identity as a disciple of Jesus? Is it possible to be a disciple of Jesus apart from the body of Christ? If yes, would that disciple be able to be like Jesus (think about that for moment)? If no, how is your life as a disciple expressed in the body of Christ?

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

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Music anchors memories for me. While a few songs are forever tied to a specific event or place in my mind, I think almost every song that I’ve ever enjoyed is tied to a particular season or time in my life. They’re like the soundtrack of the mental movie of that part of my life. When I hear the song, I see that part of my story. I was flying home alone from Nashville, TN a couple of years ago. While standing in line at Starbucks before boarding, I heard Judy Collins singing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” like a distant voice from the end of a long tunnel of time (the speaker in the ceiling above me). In that moment, I was back in my freshman dorm room at UT Austin in the fall of 1969 listening to that album, pondering my first eighteen years of life and wondering what was ahead. And forty-two years later, waiting for coffee at an airport kiosk, I realized I was still pondering and wondering the same musical question.

I turned sixty-four last week. My final year before earning my “Senior citizen” merit badge. Of course, “When I’m Sixty-Four” was on a continuous loop in my brain. Is it coincidence that Paul McCartney’s song was released one year prior to Judy Collins’ folk-pop classic? Just as often as I heard myself singing the Beatles’ ditty, I would also wistfully sing to myself, Who knows where the time goes, who knows where the time goes? That song has stayed in my mind through the years, but somehow it seemed like it had come to full maturity for me now at sixty-four. It is, after all, a deeply spiritual question that the songwriter, Sandy Denny, expressed in her haunting melody. For me it is a musical anchor, but it has transcended times and seasons.

Moses sang a similar song. And it, too, is a kind of uber anchor. It is the lone song attributed to Israel’s patriarch in what has become known as the Bible’s “Psalter.” Psalm 90 leads off Book 4 (out of 5) of the section of the Hebrew Bible that contains the tehillim, or “Praises,” a Hebrew word that was translated into the Greek as psalmoi, which was later anglicized as “Psalms,” and which simply means “songs.” Moses’ song, which is expressed as a prayer to God on behalf of Israel, is written in the Hebraic literary form of poetic thought. He “sings” about the same kinds of “who knows where the time goes” issues every mortal person faces. If his song has a chorus, for me it is in verses 9-12 (italics added):

For all our days have declined in Your fury; we have finished our years like a sigh. As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger and Your fury, according to the fear that is due You? So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.

Most of what Moses says can be compressed into pithy soundbites we toss around today: Life is short, life is hard, then you die. Those reductionist truths haven’t changed in the 3,5oo years since Moses’ song was recorded in the Psalms, and never will. The time just goes, and it goes quickly. But Moses doesn’t leave it there. Verse 12 is his denoument: “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” For those who know God, that’s the logical conclusion and the answer to the question, “Who knows where the time goes?” God knows. He cares. And He wants to “teach us” where it goes.

It’s quite a different thing to say my days are numbered, than it is to say I should number my days. I didn’t know God yet as a college freshman, so I just passively accepted the fatalism inherent in Judy Collins’ unanswerable musical question. As a believer, though, and especially as one on the brink of graduating into Senior adulthood, Moses’ song is quite different. He moves me to actively take hold of the limited time I have on this earth, and to use it well to prepare myself to see God. His answer to Collins’ rhetorical question is obvious: the time goes to God. He is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, the creator of time. And what I do with my “seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years” of life here on earth will make a difference in my time with God in eternity. Somehow, I will take the wisdom I learn here and “present” it to God in eternity. Think about that for a moment! Rather than passively giving in to fatalism, I can actively pursue a life of faith that will impact my life in eternity. So that’s what I want to do “when I’m sixty-four.”

Who knows where the time goes? God does, but here’s the real kicker–so do I. I know I won’t live forever here, but I will live forever with God. If I know that’s true, sitting passively by while life passes by is just not an option. I want God to “teach” me how to keep on “numbering my days” so I will use them wisely so my heart is prepared for my time with Him. Overcoming fatalistic passivity is not easy, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever need to stop learning how to do that, but thank God I can also live by faith. And that’s where I want to know my time will go now that I’m sixty-four.

What about you? Do you know where the time goes? Are you passively passing your numbered days, or actively numbering your days by faith? What does God need to teach you about faith? The horizon of your life may seem far off for now, but the “time goes” by quickly. Don’t wait to start numbering your days to gain a heart of wisdom for God.