Discipling and Learning
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
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 observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I ran across this thought this week on making disciples (in The Vine Project). They said, ‘There’s lots of talk of disciples in the gospels, but we don’t see the word disciple later on in the rest of the New Testament.’ They mentioned that to be a disciple is to be a learner. The word disciple in Greek is related to the verb to be a student (I don’t remember them mentioning the Latin, but discipulus is the noun from the verb ‘to learn.’) In other words, the connotations we have for ‘disciple’ are potentially off if we don’t include the fact that being a disciple is being a learner.
What do we normally think it means to be a disciple, to make disciples? Perhaps at it’s most crass meaning, we boil it down to a person making a decision. They prayed the prayer. And for others, it means long relationships of life-on-life, doing stuff together. And still for others, to make disciples might be a thing we don’t really think about much because we would feel guilty if we did. I would suggest instead that making disciples is making known Christ to others, making them learners too. And we see this in the Great Commission. We are to make disciples and baptize them and teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded us. It’s that last bit there: teach them to observe. This is a tradition: we are handing down Jesus’ commands to those who are learners.
We could go on through the rest of the New Testament to see some of this. As a pastor, 1 Timothy 4:12, 16 is often in my mind: ‘Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ Timothy, who was the lead pastor in Ephesus, is being instructed by Paul to teach the church. How? Through God’s word and through how he lives. Timothy might have been paid for his labor, and so you can imagine him considering his responsibilities: make sure the bible is read aloud: check, set an example in my conduct: check. The basic thing that happens at church is that learners (disciples) are taught and learn from the example of the elder (young Timothy).
But wait just a second, there is more to say about this. I wonder if the conduct side of things is not just a, ‘here’s how you live sort of thing,’ but also it reveals the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. His conduct displays the fruits of the Spirit. So as much as we might be a learner, this doesn’t mean anything apart from our Triune God’s work in that person’s life. Ami and I have been listening to this podcast about Mars Hill Church and one of the things that strikes me is the penchant their pastor had for disseminating information. He was a learner. It reminds me of my seminary president. They are the only two people who I have heard it said that they read a book a day. But there is a big difference. I think that my seminary president has the conduct that backs the learning (as far as I know). There is a correlation, an integrity between his learning and his conduct. This Mars Hill pastor did not have that. God’s work must come first, or there are disastrous consequences, leading ultimately to destruction. This is why baptism is essential and central to making disciples. This sign proclaims the death of a man and the new life in Christ. It preaches that our triune God has made a woman new. It displays publicly that the Spirit has begun a good work that he will bring it to completion. Is the baptism inerrant? Not particularly, but the work of God can’t be stopped. We can only observe the effects. And sometimes we are deceived because we misconstrue talent or learning or slick words or emotion as the work of God.
Making disciples is the work of the church, what God has commanded us. And as the leaders set the example, the congregation turns and does likewise, making disciples through the word of God as they bear the fruits of the Spirit. There has been a cascading effect of this discipleship since Christ uttered those words. A book I enjoyed called it, ‘The Patient Ferment of the Early Church.’ One quibble I have with that author is that he (like many before him) suggested that the great commission had been fulfilled. The great commission has not been fulfilled yet.
As we reflect on this, we should critique ourselves. Why haven’t we bee disciple-makers? I think this is probably always a pertinent question. In the 1700’s, funny enough, the Particular Baptists didn’t exactly want to preach to unbelievers, and felt that God would save the heathens across the ocean in his own providential time. Can we call that a glaring blindness? I’d suggest we too have glaring blindnesses nowadays, some of which we sort of see, and some of which even wise pastors are blind to. But I do think that it is still worthwhile to consider our failures. For one, some churches have abandoned the centrality of instructing others in God’s word. So many sermons today are sparse on revealing God’s word simply. Instead, they are displays of one man’s genius, creativity, and oratory. How can there be a pattern of instructing others in God’s word if it isn’t there at our main gathering? And then how often do we take it home, and make disciples likewise of our neighbors as the Lord is at work in them? Has the gospel been fermenting in our lives and relationships? Are we even willing to ask our neighbor we’ve known for years to read scripture together with us to be a learner of Christ? Maybe they know your conduct, but do they know the God who has made himself known to us? Maybe we feel so busy that we don’t have time to make disciples, but do you not see the fields ripe for harvest in your going to and from places? Or perhaps have you allowed your busyness to cause you to neglect both being a disciple yourself (neglecting the regular gathering) but also making disciples of others? Each of us has to consider ourself. And then, we must take one step closer to faithfulness. First pray, confessing your lack, remembering too your great provision of God himself. Second, pray. Pray for eyes to see. Third, act. Just do something. Talk to the homeless man next to your work. Invite your neighbor to read something in the Bible. Pray with those who are suffering or rejoicing. And as we sow the seed of the word, look to God for the growth in yourselves and in others.