Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Thinking about Discipleship

“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, baptising 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).

The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, for pupil or learner. It corresponds with the Greek mathetes, from manthano – to learn. The corresponding Hebrew term, limmud, is somewhat rare in the OT, but common in the rabbinical writings. That said, the practice of discipleship is to be found throughout the Old Testament. In the Greek world, philosophers were likewise surrounded by their pupils. A disciple is thus in the most fundamental sense the pupil of a teacher. And since pupils often adopted the distinctive teaching of their masters, the word also came to signify adherence to a particular outlook in religion or philosophy.

The believers were first called Christians in Antioch, and were known as the Way in Ephesus. But the term disciple remained the most common term for them throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts. So saying reveals that Jesus both broadened and deepened the meaning of the word. He broadened its meaning by gathering around Himself concentric circles of disciples. The first circle comprised a tiny, intimate inner core. The largest a perimeter embracing thousands and reaching into nations. But all were His disciples. He also deepened its meaning. he extended a call to His disciples to deep personal allegiance and exclusive loyalty. This willingness to put Him above and before all else went well beyond the norm. For many, heeding His call has literally required the abandonment of home and family and business ties, and even meant relinquishing all possessions.

Conventional thought

With Jesus creating the initial impetus, the church has discipled people ever since. It has done so within three frameworks.

Firstly, and in the broadest sense, the local church is a discipling environment in and of itself. By definition, the church is a community submitted to God, His Word, and to one another. Vulnerability, malleability and accountability are inherent to the equation. This way of life is described in a rather fascinating way by doctor Luke in the book of Acts. In documenting the exponential increase in the number of believers, he reveals a culture of discipleship by describing it as the word having increased (Acts 4:31, 6:2, 6:7, 8:4, 8:14, 11:1, 12:24, 13:48-49, 19:10, 19:20). This warrants discussion later on.

Secondly, the church embodies choreographed order, exquisitely crafted by the Lord. The same thing is observable within the Trinity. Collaboration between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is carefully appointed. Nothing is at all haphazard. The same carefully appointed order permeates family and state also, when we allow it. This is so because Creator God is the founder of these institutions. What He creates is always consistent with His own nature. So it is that diverse gifts and callings collaborate seamlessly in their respective roles. Embedded within this dynamic flow of authority and responsibility is an element of discipleship. Teaching and training can occur along any appropriate interface. We all play a part, and build one another up in love.

And finally, the church disciples with in relationships especially constituted for this purpose. Jesus and the Twelve are the obvious role model. Barnabas and Paul are also an excellent example, as are Paul and Timothy. It’s this type of arrangement that most likely springs to mind at the mention of discipleship. The Scriptures reinforce the validity of the practise by encouraging imitation. First of Christ, but also imitation of the life of faith of the mature in Christ. Paul champions this thinking when instructing Timothy: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:1–2). Paul was raising a disciplers, who would in turn raise up other disciplers, and so forth. His aim was to establish a self-perpetuating cycle. Discipleship should multiply mature equippers ad infinitum.

Essential qualifiers

Our synopsis is thus far both satisfactory and Biblical, yet incomplete.

The inseparable relationship between authority and discipleship must be underscored. Whenever the Lord delegates responsibility, He also delegates the concomitant authority. Yet, in the final analysis, all authority remains with Jesus. All authority has been given to Him. He was Himself emphatic about this. For that reason discipleship can never be regarded as an exercise in authority. It is, and always will be, a function of servanthood. It undergirds. Church history records authority’s many abuses, and more than a few were in the name of discipleship. That fact alone adorns the subject in red flags.

The essential qualifier is that authority and submission always rests on the foundation of mutual submission. We submit one to another out of reverence for Christ. This is the great equaliser. Detach the flow of authority and submission from this essential foundation, and abuse must ensue. Leadership and governance devolves into a lording over. It is only because husband and wife are mutually submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ that the wife can safely submit to her husband’s headship in the marriage. The same applies, leader to follower to leader, in the context of church and state.

A further essential is emphasis on the “Go” of the Gospel. All discipleship must ultimately be about establishing the nations in Christ, and under His government. Thankfully this cry continues to ring out from pulpits across the globe. All nations need discipleship. And it is the will of God that we disciple them. He has given all of us the job. This “Go” is important for two reasons. Firstly, it ensures that we disciple away from ourselves and towards mission. And secondly, only the multiplication afforded by a “Go” paradigm will get the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But don’t miss the revelatory gem in the offing. Discipleship must establish the nations in Christ before establishing them under His government. People are to be immersed into Christ before they are taught to obey anything. Read it carefully. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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.” Many sermons could and should be preached at this juncture. Jesus was instilling in His apostolic band a theology that embraced the Trinity. The Eleven to whom the words were spoken were all Israelites. They had always been taught that the Lord their God was One (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29, et al). But possibly even more important than that, He was emphasising the fact that all Christianity is identity-driven. Disciples “be” before they “do”. All training must therefore be on the foundation of grace through faith, for all authentic Christian behaviour stems from newness in Christ.

These observations impose significant caveats on our earlier observations. The machinery of discipleship is one thing; life and effectiveness in the process another. In practise, the leader of a congregation might well be the leader of the leadership team, a husband and father, and the convener of several discipleship forums. In an authoritarian culture, this would make him a very powerful individual indeed. He could exercise enormous control through simple approval or disapproval. Unless of course he is first submitted. To his fellow leaders, to his wife, to the congregation, and even to his kids as age-appropriate. And unless he is discipling away from himself, relinquishing power and authority wherever possible.

Biblical curriculae

As the Gospel first spread, doctor Luke documented it as the word increasing. This was more than a mere turn of phrase. It points to an important component of discipleship’s gambit of essentials. Discipleship requires curriculum. Any training exercise requires suitable training material. So, the word increased. Good. But what word was it?

We know that the Luke could not possibly have been referring to the written Word as we know it today. The New Testament had not yet been written. It could also not possibly have referred to the words of Moses. The Old Covenant had been set aside, replaced by a new and better covenant, founded on new and better promises.

Jesus’ words shed light – “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. And while He taught many things, do the scholastic legwork and you’ll discover that He only issued two commands: Believe, and love. Love as you have been loved, that is. Which takes us right back to the Gospel!

Paul’s curriculum statement echoes the words of Jesus. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men”. Paul’s discipleship curriculum was what he taught wherever he went. His “whole counsel of God” in Ephesus was his “knowing nothing amongst you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified” in Corinth, was his “word of Christ” through which faith comes about which he wrote to the church in Rome.

The word in question is the Gospel, of course. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. Discipleship is nothing other than the application of the perfect, finished work of Christ, and this to every area of life. A narrow curriculum, but one which impacts on everything else. It does so without condemnation. There is no guilt and manipulation; no stick and carrot. It leaves responsibility with the individual in unmitigated ways. But it offers love, acceptance, and the gift of righteousness in equally unmitigated ways.

A rather useful bottom line is simply this: When discipleship is undertaken off an unsuitable foundation, it centres around accountability. Behaviour is policed, and the exercise devolves into people pleasing. But when discipleship is appropriately embarked on, in the Gospel, everything revolves around encouragement. The perfect work of Jesus is what is kept central. This allows limitless opportunity for failure, and equally limitless opportunity for restoration. Love abounds and life flows. Even discipleship, in the final analysis, is all about Jesus.

Disciples of whom?

One final matter, and an important one at that. Christians are disciples, but disciples of whom?

In the broadest sense, all believers are disciples of Jesus. The Scriptures are unequivocal on this matter. Peter tells us that He left us an example to follow. John insists that, “Whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked” (I John 2:6). Differentiating, as some do, between believers (the saved) and disciples (the obedient saved), is judgmentalism. It introduces unhelpful class distinctions in the church. Far better to insist that every believer is in fact a disciple. That makes obedience the natural and anticipated outflow of faith.

Yet caution is necessary. Implying that discipleship is the conforming of believers to Christ is problematic. We carry such varied paradigms on the matter. White people tend to have a white Jesus, and black people a black Jesus. Reducing the Christian life to imitating “our” Jesus is thus folly. The outcome must be a form of legalism of our own crafting.

The Bible also encourages us to imitate the way of life of those beyond us in maturity in the Lord. We gladly do so. We learn from them, imitating their faith and faithfulness. But without becoming imitations of them. One of religion’s more abhorrent characteristics is that those trapped by it reproduce themselves. This is certainly not the discipler’s brief. Every believer is already a clone of Jesus. Born again of the Spirit, every believer has a new nature which is His identical twin. Discipleship should never work towards conformity. It works towards nurturing the new life already granted, in fullness and freedom.

Fortunately Jesus made matters plain, and emphatically so. Believers are His disciples in the broad sense, but followers of the Holy Spirit in the specifics. He is the Helper within, our teacher and guide. He is the One who will never leave us. He will lead us into all truth, making the things of Jesus and the Father known to us. It is He we are following, moment by moment, day by day. He is our teacher. As Jesus said to His own on the night of His betrayal, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12–15).

Which is why Paul could state so unequivocally, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

It is true that disciples are made, not born. But they are made by the One of whom they are born. Discipleship is by grace, through faith, and always, always, in the power of the Spirit.

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The Gospel transforms

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16–17).

Quoted above is the paragraph that Paul used to set up his theological magnum opus (we call it Romans). Its final phrase launched the Reformation in the heart of Martin Luther, and makes the heart of every Gospel-believer sing. Amidst its awesome virtues nestles this great insight – we can no more change ourselves than save ourselves. Fortunately, the righteousness of God is by faith from beginning to end, which declares a Gospel as able to change us as to save us. The same dynamics of grace and faith that save are those that transform.

Before pursuing our opening line of thought, three matters are best borne in mind regarding Christians and their behaviour. Firstly, Christians are not under Law, but they are also not lawless. Under grace, they belong to Christ, and are under His governance. As such, our actions should rather obviously bear appropriate witness to our faith. None of us can represent Christ perfectly, but licentious or lawless living is simply not concomitant with those who are His.

Secondly, although Christians have a new nature and are indwelt by the Spirit, personal transformation towards godliness is not automatic. If that were so, then the New Testament would carry no instruction on behaviour appropriate to the faith, and no discipleship would be necessary in the church. While new nature and indwelling Spirit inevitably work towards Christlikeness, the flesh (the remnant of our in-Adam-ness) leans towards sin. Christians are left with choices to make and allegiances to decide, and should be encouraged and instructed in order to facilitate their choosing wisely.

Thirdly, the most common error regarding behaviour and personal change is for believers to come to the conclusion that it is all up to them. The Galatian churches had fallen into this by-our-own-efforts trap. Having started in the Spirit, they were continuing in the flesh. This migration from grace to law has remained a perennial problem amongst believers throughout church history, and is strongly in evidence in the twenty-first century church also. Programmes proliferate, be it in the name of vision, growth or change. Meanwhile, the saints become busier and busier, and more and more tired. This continues despite the fact that the whole treadmill of self-effort is doomed to fail. Yet many believers blindly forge on, trying harder and doing more, until they grind to a disillusioned, burnt out halt. The lesson in it all: we cannot change ourselves, and we cannot change others.

It’s the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. This salvation, Biblically speaking, is a broad, all-encompassing notion. It certainly includes salvation from sin, but also includes healing, deliverance and provision. It is even used in reference to resurrection on occasion. In other words, any kind of saving we could ever possibly need is part and parcel of our salvation, including the wherewithal to save us from ourselves. In it is all of the grace we could possibly need for personal transformation. There is grace to forgive the unforgivable, love the unlovable, and endure the unendurable. In the Gospel is the answer to every dilemma, strength for every weakness, wisdom for every occasion, and freedom from all bondage. The Gospel is the power of God for freedom and fullness in Christ. Period!

All God’s promises are “yes” in Christ Jesus (in Christ we qualify), and it is through these that we receive that which God has provided for us through the cross. As the Gospel produces faith in us, so that faith unlocks the deluge of God’s goodness, already stored up and just waiting for us to receive. As we believe, in rushes the Lord, Word and Spirit, to do in us and for us, just as He said He would. Here’s the key! The Gospel is not only the news of salvation, but by the Holy Spirit’s power, it is the power of God that works that salvation in us. The news believed is its benefits received. This is how God has decreed it to be; the Spirit and Word are inextricably linked. Creation demonstrated this magnificently – God (Father) willed, and the Spirit wrought as the Word (Jesus) spoke the world into being. In the same way, the Spirit and the Gospel are inextricably linked. It was the Spirit who revealed Christ to us when we first heard the Good News. It was the Spirit who immersed us in Christ when we believed, and who made us alive in Him. Everything else that the Gospel does is accomplished in this same way. It is all by the Spirit. Christians are therefore by definition spiritual people – of the Spirit, indwelt by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit and led by the Spirit.

Word and Spirit working in tandem transform us from glory to glory. Finding this counterintuitive, our greatest temptation remains reverting to our own efforts, earnestly seeking the Spirit’s enabling on those. Obedience to the Scriptures, Christlikeness in all things, and a lifestyle marked by the disciplines of the faith – these are virtuous notions all – but pursuing them carries the danger of attempting to transform ourselves. The dynamic is entirely different when we put our focus on the perfect, finished work of Christ, and unleash its power to work within us. From His work within emerge obedience, Christlikeness, and disciplined living. These things might sound similar, but they could not be more different.

Repentance is how the Bible describes our aligning of our thoughts with the Gospel. A lifestyle of so doing equates to the renewal of the mind. As we repent (change our minds) and align our thinking (belief-systems) with the Gospel, the Gospel effects transformation from within. The obedience of faith is a fruit of the Gospel, and not its precursor, or its requirement. Scripture consistently distinguishes between our own efforts and Christ’s work. Salvation is by the latter; self-righteousness, disillusionment and bondage by the former. These are lessons well relearned in our day, for too many church activities are focused on what we should do, and too few celebrate what Christ has done. If we gave the focus to celebrating Him, so much more would be accomplished, for it is His working we need, and not our own. There are no limitations in the equation from God’s side. The restrictions are with us. We are finite, temporal creatures, independent of will, and of limited capacity. Imagine for a moment a vast ocean and a tiny bucket. Toss the bucket into the ocean and it is instantly surrounded and filled. That’s us and God. We are in Him and He in us. And our hope is in the ocean, not in the bucket.

It is this that the Scriptures seek to convey through what have become somewhat clichéd phrases. “Fix your eyes on Jesus.” “Put Jesus first.” “Seek first the kingdom.” “Fix your eyes on things above.” We’re people of the Spirit, so let’s live by the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, sing in the Spirit, pray in the Spirit, keep in step with the Spirit, and live one-with-another in the unity of the Spirit. This is the way of salvation; the way of righteousness that is by faith from beginning to end.

This is one of a series of posts adapted from the e-book “Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever!” by Gavin Cox. Go to the first post in the series by clicking here.

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Rodriguez

rodriguezThe sultry PE evening turned turgid with sounds rich, mellow and pleasing. The middle-aged crowd stood and swayed appreciatively as the legendary Rodriguez rolled through his playlist. I puzzled over the urge to grow my hair again as I soaked up the atmosphere. None of us cared that the star was past his prime. Those of his caliber have nothing left to prove, and the obvious challenge of his deteriorating eyesight only increased our respect for the beloved septuagenarian.

The unexpected delight of the evening, though, (and there was much to delight in), was the man’s one-liners. Randomly tossed to the audience with casual aplomb, I found myself eagerly snatching them from the festive atmosphere with unexpected glee.

“Long live Nelson Mandela”, he said, reminding us of what a wonderful nation this could be, and of the attitudes it will take to make us that. “It’s descriptive, not prescriptive”, he said of Sugarman, a song extolling the virtues of recreational narcotic use. “Don’t do drugs”, he added. “Don’t start”. Sage advice from one likely more knowledgeable than most of us. And towards the end of the evening, “thank you for giving me a life”, in gratitude for South Africa’s role in turning talent to stardom; obscurity to adulation. The way in which it was said left us in no doubt that Rodriguez is grateful. Humility is an attractive virtue, we learned.

12662725_10153960076916757_6119109403535790055_nBut the uncontested pearl of the evening, in this blogger’s book anyway, was when Rodriguez preached the Gospel, even though it’s possible that he did so inadvertently. “I know it’s the drinks”, he said, “but I love you too”. We might never know the specifics on this, but it is the Gospel nevertheless. Allow me to illustrate it this way: When a fellow Christian tells me that he or she loves me because Jesus says they must, it assures me of two things. a) They are under law, and b) They don’t love me at all. But fortunately there are other brothers and sisters who really do love me. They a) Never have to persuade me that they do, and b) It’s not because they are under orders, but because of what God has done in their hearts. They’re not trying to love me; they do love me. Big difference! This is why the Scriptures encourage us to be filled with the Spirit as a superior alternative to being drunk with wine; the result is authentic Jesus. Yep, Rodriguez said it well – it’s because of the drinks that we love each other!

 

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