It is one of the most commonly used terms in the church and yet it may very well be one of the least understood concepts in all of Christianity. It is often viewed as some kind of standardized method, much like an assembly line, that is intended to keep churning out a standardized product. But ironically, it seems that no two people can agree on exactly what that method should be. But the one thing that everyone can seem to agree on is that the church isn’t doing it particularly effectively.
I’m speaking this morning of discipleship - a term that is embodied in our church’s mission statement:
“Developing mature disciples who
follow, serve and proclaim Jesus as Messiah”
That mission statement is based on what we commonly refer to as Jesus’ Great Commission:
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.”
(Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)
In that passage Jesus defines discipleship for us. It is the process of developing disciples. But in order to understand what that means, we obviously need to define what it means to be a disciple.
• Let’s begin with a dictionary definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a disciple as:
1: one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another: as
a: one of the twelve in the inner circle of Christ's followers according to the Gospel accounts
b: a convinced adherent of a school or individual
• We can get even more “Biblical” in our understanding by looking at the underlying Greek word that is translated “disciple” in the New Testament. The simple definition of that word that you’ll find in most Greek lexicons is something like “learner”, “pupil”, or “apprentice”. But the word has a much deeper meaning. A “disciple” is also someone who has adopted the lifestyle of his or teacher as Jesus confirmed:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,
(John 8:31 ESV)
While that academic exercise – especially understanding the meaning of the term used in the Bible – is somewhat helpful, I don’t know about you, but it still doesn’t give me a really good picture in my mind of what discipleship is supposed to look like. So I’d like to suggest another definition of discipleship that I think takes this out of merely the academic realm and paints a picture of discipleship that actually helps me envision what it might look like in my life:
Discipleship is the process of becoming
who Jesus would be if he were I
Since I really love this definition, I’d love to take credit for creating it on my own, but it is actually a paraphrase of one of the things that a Christian philosopher, Dallas Willard, wrote about discipleship in his book “The Divine Conspiracy”. Here is how he described this process further:
As a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God… I am learning from Jesus to live my life as He would live my life if He were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything He did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that He did all that He did.
What I really like about this approach is that it recognizes that all of us are unique individuals who face greatly different circumstances in our lives. So discipleship is learning to apply the life principles that Jesus lived out on a daily basis in His life in a way that is in harmony with who God made each of us to be and which is appropriate for the unique circumstances in which we live. And that is not going to look exactly the same for any two of us.
But while the process and the end product of disciple ship may look a bit different for each of us, the one thing that we all share in common is that if I really love my church, I am going to demonstrate that love by actively participating in the discipleship of my church, the same way that I love the church by participating in the worship of my church and protecting the fellowship of my church.
Obviously the process of discipleship is so broad that we can’t possibly begin to give it all the attention it deserves in just one message. But I think we can cover enough to help us all leave here with a deeper understanding of what it takes to develop our ability to live like Jesus would if He were I and to help others to do that as well.
So go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Ephesians chapter 4 and follow along as I read beginning in verse 11:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
(Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV)
Paul paints a vivid picture of two contrasting types of disciples. On one hand are the immature disciples who he calls children. These baby Christians are easily influenced by the world around them. Since they haven’t yet developed a solid anchor they tend to be easily deceived and are often caught up in the latest religious fads.
But the goal of discipleship is to take all those spiritual babies and help them grow into the disciples that become who Jesus would be if He were they. And when that occurs, it will be evident because those mature disciples will all be doing the work of ministry. We’ll come back to this passage and focus on that idea in more detail next week. But this week, we want to focus on the discipleship process that equips them to do that.
While this passage certainly can’t reveal everything that needs to occur for that to happen, there is certainly enough here to get us all on the right track to becoming who Jesus would be if he were we.
How to better become who Jesus would be if He were I
1. Purpose to really know Jesus
You’ll notice that Jesus is the focus of our discipleship. The church is His body, of which He is the head. And, as we see particularly in verse 13, the foundational goal of discipleship is to know Jesus and experience His fullness. But the kind of knowledge that Paul is writing about here is not just knowing a bunch of information or facts about Jesus. The word translated “knowledge” there in verse 13 is a compound Greek noun here that describes detailed, intimate knowledge that is gained through experience. .
I’m pretty sure that intellectually most of us know the best way to develop that kind of knowledge of Jesus is to spend time with Him in His Word. So I’m not going to try and guilt into reading your Bible more since I think we all know we need to do that. But what I do hope I can do is to maybe help you see a particular aspect of that practice that is often overlooked, but which is absolutely essential if we are going to grow into the people Jesus wants us to be.
Far too often we view discipleship as an individual exercise in which we attempt to develop our own personal spiritual maturity through individual Bible reading and study and prayer. Now certainly those things are crucial for our spiritual development, but I would suggest to you that the Bible consistently teaches that kind of individual focus, by itself, will only take us so far.
If you read this paragraph carefully, you’ll notice that Paul is not addressing individuals here, but instead is addressing the church in Ephesus as a body. Notice how many times he uses the plural pronoun “we”, and how he writes about “the whole body” and “every joint” and “each part”. The implication here is that the kind of discipleship and spiritual development he is writing about here requires the participation and interaction of the entire body.
Let’s look at another familiar passage that confirms this idea:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
(Colossians 3:16-17 ESV)
The first thing we see here, as we would expect, is that knowing Jesus comes through letting His Word dwell richly in our lives. The word “dwell” there describes taking up permanent residence, not just making a visit, so obviously that means that we’re consistently taking God’s Word into our lives, not just getting a taste once a week on Sunday mornings.
But beyond that we see once again that this is a process that is not just intended to be done individually. The pronouns “you” and “your” in these verses are all plural. Even the verbs in these two verses are all plural. So for all you rednecks here today, let me translate these verses for you:
Y’all let the word of Christ dwell in y’all richly, y’all teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, y’all singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in y’all’s hearts to God. And whatever y’all do, in word or deed, y’all do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, y’all giving thanks to God the Father through him.
I think you get the idea. But not only are all the verbs and pronouns here plural, notice the phrase “one another” in verse 16. We are to teach and admonish each other. That means we have to engage the rest of the body in this process. And how are we to do that? By singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. As we pointed out a couple of weeks ago, corporate worship is to be primarily focused on God as we draw near to Him. But there is also a sense that when we sing together in corporate worship we are actually also singing to each other in a way that results in us teaching and admonishing each other and that leads to all of us achieving a level of maturity we could never attain on our own.
But those times of mutually getting to know Jesus more intimately are certainly not limited to Sunday mornings. Those of you who join our men’s Bible study on Monday mornings or participate in one of our other Bible studies throughout the week or who are active in Bible Study Fellowship know firsthand the value of reading and studying God’s Word with others. That’s why we constantly urge everyone here to be involved in studying the Bible with others on a consistent basis.
2. Pursue both truth and love
Paul mentions love twice in this passage. The first time is in verse 15 when he writes about “speaking the truth in love”. In that verse, Paul actually takes a noun – truth – and turns it into a verb – “truthing”. So literally that phrase should be translated “truthing in love”. The idea here is that effective discipleship has to be rooted in truth that is not just spoken, but lived out in every area of our lives.
Paul mentions love again end of verse 16 when he writes that body is to build itself up in love.
When we consider those phrases in the context of this passage, the meaning is pretty clear:
There is no genuine love without truth and no genuine truth without love.
The clear implication for us is that there must always be a proper balance of truth and love in the discipleship process. Unfortunately most of us have probably had experiences within the church where that balance wasn’t maintained. In fact, in our culture we can actually find entire groups who claim to be churches that follow Jesus, but who fail to maintain that balance.
At one extreme, you have groups like the Westboro Baptist Church who claim to hold to the truth, but they do that in a way that is completely unloving. And I can pretty much guarantee you that there is no discipleship going on in that church in which people are becoming more like who Jesus would be if He were they.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have a church right here in Tucson, not too far from here, whose motto is “Love. Period”. Although on their website they claim that they “seek to live as Jesus lived”, further investigation reveals that for them the Bible is just one of many sources they consider to be truth. So basically they have to ignore what Jesus said when He claimed to be “the truth.” And again, I find it hard to believe that in that atmosphere that the kind of discipleship Paul is describing here in Ephesians 4 can possibly be taking place there either.
It can’t be “Love. Period” Any more than it can be “Truth. Period”. Effective discipleship requires that we pursue both at the same time.
3. Practice humility
Although Paul doesn’t specifically mention humility in this passage, the kind of discipleship he is describing here can’t possibly occur unless the church consists of people with genuinely humble hearts.
Hopefully this week you had a chance to read chapter 3 of “I Am a Church Member.” If not, I hope you’ll take some time to read it this week. The title of that chapter – “I Will Not Let My Church Be about My Preferences and Desires” – reflects the kind of humility that is required if our discipleship is to be effective in helping us to become who Jesus would be if He were we.
There are several prideful attitudes that can just kill effective discipleship in the church:
• “I don’t need the church. I can mature on my own.” This prideful attitude that basically says, “I’m so mature that none of you have anything to offer me” flies in the face of what we talked about a few minutes ago when we saw the contributions of the entire body to our spiritual development.
• “I don’t have anything to offer.” At first glance, that seems like a really humble thing to say. But actually it is really prideful. While we normally think of pride as feeling that we’re superior to others, at its core, pride occurs any time there is an excessive focus on self. This attitude focuses solely on my own spiritual maturity and ignores what I might have to offer to the spiritual development of the body as a whole. All of us have something to offer to the discipleship of our church.
As mature as he was, Paul certainly realized that he needed others to continue to grow. Here is what he wrote to the churches in Rome:
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.
(Romans 1:11-12 ESV)
Obviously Paul was far more mature than anyone in the Roman churches, but he was humble enough to understand that his interaction with the other believers there would help him grow spiritually at the same time that he helped them to mature.
• “I’m not growing.” This is probably the most common excuse people give when they leave a local church. This attitude is a problem for a couple reasons.
First of all, one mark of maturity is taking responsibility for our own spiritual growth. I know that at first that sounds like a contradiction to much of what I’ve said this morning and the emphasis on the importance of the entire body in my spiritual growth. But let me illustrate why it is not.
In order to help me develop physically I belong to a gym. And that gym is essential to my workouts. They have equipment that I don’t have. And perhaps even more importantly, there are other people there with whom I can work out. Not only do those people often add to my knowledge of effective workouts, but they also encourage me by working out with me. But ultimately who is responsible for whether I develop physically? I am. So while I may rely on the gym that doesn’t relieve my own personal responsibility. The church functions in much the same way in my spiritual development, but ultimately, if I’m not growing, that’s my responsibility.
The second reason this attitude is a problem is because it once again puts all the focus on me and what’s in it for me and ignores how God wants me to contribute to the development of the entire body.
4. Promote unity, not uniformity
This brings us back to our definition of discipleship that we began with earlier:
Discipleship is the process of becoming
who Jesus would be if he were I
As I mentioned earlier, we have a tendency here in this culture to view discipleship a lot like an assembly line that is designed to turn out identical products.
But maybe a better approach would be to look at it more like the way an artist produces a painting. While that artist might use a similar process and techniques and even the same materials every time he or she paints, each work of art, while it will certainly have some similarities to others, is unique.
Jesus works a lot like that in the process of discipleship. Because every one of us has been called to follow Him, the more and the longer we do that the more we will begin to resemble Him. So there will be some things about us that will look much the same. But at the same time, each one of us is a unique work of art. So because we are masterpieces, and not machines, we won’t all look the same. We won’t all develop spiritual maturity in the same way or at the same rate.
Our discipleship is not intended to produce uniformity, but it is designed to promote unity. What that means is that while we’re interdependent on each other as we grow spiritually, I can’t expect that the same things that work for me are necessarily going to work for you and vice versa. I think one of the reasons we never find some particular discipleship method or program in the Bible is that we’re all unique individuals who respond differently to different kinds of teaching and training.
5. Prosper in doing and not just knowing
We’re going to come back and focus on this principle in much detail next week. But for now I just want you to notice the purpose of discipleship. It is that each and every member in the body would be equipped to do the work of ministry.
It’s important to understand what we believe, but knowledge in and of itself is not the mark of spiritual maturity. The goal is not just to know, but to do something with what we know. Some of the most Biblically literate people in Jesus’ day never became His disciples because they weren’t willing to live in a manner that was consistent with what they knew.
The Apostle Paul reminds us of the danger of accumulating knowledge without making application:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.
(1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV)
There is nothing wrong with knowledge. In fact, it’s essential. But knowledge without application merely puffs up. If we really love others, we will apply that knowledge by using it to build others up.
When Pam and Derek decided to teach our grandchildren to swim, they didn’t send them to a classroom where they read books about swimming for weeks and weeks. They sent them to an instructor who got in the water with them and taught them how to actually swim. At first, that was uncomfortable for the kids, and probably for the instructor, too and there were some tears and some apprehension. But the result is that now those kids can swim all over the pool non-stop.
When our kids were ready to learn to drive, we didn’t just have them read books and videos about how to drive a car. Mary and I had to actually get in a car with them and let them get behind the wheel. And for those of you who have done that as parents, you know how scary that it. But that was the only way they would eventually learn to drive.
That’s the way discipleship ought to work in the church. Sometimes we have to be willing to jump in the water with some other believers and let them help us get some on-the-job training as we minister to others even when we don’t feel like we have all the knowledge required to do that. And other times, those of us who are already engaged in ministry need to let some other people take the wheel for a while so that they have the opportunity to grow.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve been in some churches that offered “Discipleship classes”. Although we haven’t necessarily called them that, we’ve had some classes of that type here at TFC. To me one of the drawbacks of that approach is that it communicates to people that once they have completed those classes, the process of discipleship is over for them – kind of like when we graduate from high school or college and feel like our formal schooling is complete.
But discipleship is a lifelong process for all of us. None of us will ever “arrive” or be completely mature here on earth. Even the Apostle Paul, probably the most mature disciple in church history, wrote these words from a jail cell near the end of his life here on earth:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
(Philippians 3:12 ESV)
I can assure you that if Paul was still persevering in the process of discipleship at that point in his life, all of us certainly need to do that, too. And we need each other to encourage to persevere to the very end.
Discipleship is the process of becoming
who Jesus would be if he were I
Perhaps some of you saw this picture that was posted on Instagram and Facebook recently, which makes it fair game for a sermon illustration even though it is probably going to cause me much grief later. This is a picture of my daughter, Pam, and my granddaughter, Haley, at approximately the same age. Would you agree that there is certainly a family resemblance there? And I can assure you that the similarities go well beyond just physical appearances. In many ways, Haley is “mini-Pam”.
But while there is a family resemblance, Haley is not Pam. She is her own person with her own unique DNA who will grow up in circumstances that will be quite different from those that Pam experienced. So, it would be fair to say that in a physical sense, Haley is in the process of becoming who Pam would be if she were she. She won’t be the same person Pam is, but there certainly will be a great deal of resemblance.
If I really love the church like Jesus loves the church, then I will actively participate in the process of discipleship that occurs right here at TFC so that I can do that spiritually and become who Jesus would be if He were I.