Discipleship: Its People and Process
I don’t know how many times I have heard a statement something to this effect: “If John were ever saved, just think how God could use him. Why with his enthusiasm, leadership ability, and bank account, there would be no stopping him.”
Such reasoning is far from the mentality of the New Testament. By these standards our Lord made a terrible mistake when he was approached by the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16ff; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30). You will remember that in order to become a follower of Jesus he would first have to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and then come after Jesus (Matthew 19:21). In our modern and enlightened times, we probably would have handled it much differently. The rich young ruler would have been put high on the list of ‘contacts’ to pursue as a member of the board of directors. Why, think of what God could do with his money and influence. And perhaps if he sat through the business meetings and had close association with Jesus, he might even get converted and committed.
But the very thing which in our minds would have commended him before our Lord, Jesus told him to get rid of. Here was a self-righteous man who felt he could ‘use his influence’ to get to heaven. Jesus loved this man, we are told (Mark 10:21), and invited him to become a disciple, but not because of his potential to contribute. Rather, he loved him as a person.
One of the most rewarding studies in the Word of God is an investigation of the kind of people God has chosen to be His followers. I believe we shall learn from a study of the disciples of our Lord that God does not choose men because of their potential, but because of their person. He chooses few who are prosperous and prestigious, but many who are in poverty and spiritual hunger. In short, I believe our study will indicate that God chooses people like you and me to do great things, and that it is by His power and His process that these things come to pass.
The Kind of People God Chose as Disciples
What kind of men did our Lord choose to commence the greatest endeavor of all time? They were to establish the church of Jesus Christ. They were to do so with no financial ‘clout,’ with no formal theological training, opposed by the combined forces of Satan, the Judaism of their day, the paganism of other religions, and (later) the power of Rome. Whatever kind of man God could use to overcome these difficulties is surely needed today as well.
As we consider the twelve disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, there are a number of characteristics that strike us.
(1) They were young men. By and large, it would seem that the greatest impact of our Lord was upon the younger generation. The terms (tekna, teknia or paidia), often used by our Lord in reference to His disciples, imply youthfulness. Our Lord Himself was in the prime of His youth. So the early church applied Psalm 110:3 to Jesus:210 “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth” (King James Version).211
In the original version of Isaac Watt’s great hymn,212 the youth of our Lord was emphasized: “When I survey the wondrous cross where the young Prince of Glory died.”
It is also noteworthy that when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians nearly a generation after the death of our Lord that he could say that of the 500 who saw our Lord raised from the grave, “the greater part remain unto this present” (1 Corinthians 15:6). If most of these witnesses were still alive, they surely were not old when they saw the resurrected Lord.
(2) They were from the middle class of their society. In our efforts to emphasize the humbleness of these men and their lack of position or formal training (cf. Acts 4:13), let us not suppose that they were the dregs of society. As a group, these men were relatively successful businessmen, who came from the middle class of their society. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were fishermen (Mark 1:16-20). Matthew was a government employee (Matthew 5:27). I probably should go on to say that these men were intelligent and capable, not blundering idiots.
(3) They were Galileans. With the possible exception of Judas,213 all of the disciples seem to be Galileans. The significance of this may be easily overlooked. To be a Jerusalem Jew was a matter of real status. To be a theologically trained Jerusalem Jew was like being a “Harvard man.” To be a Galilean was like coming from somewhere in the Ozarks, to be a real unsophisticated, uncultured “country bumpkin.”214
(4) They were a diverse group in personality and philosophy. Though all of the eleven had their status as native Galileans in common, they were a very diverse group. In personality, they ranged from the flamboyance of Peter to the hesitance of Thomas, from the political conservatism of Matthew (who was a government-employee and supporter) to the radicalism of Simon, the Zealot, a political revolutionary. Only the strength of their commitment to our Lord could have bound these dramatically diverse men together.
(5) They were men who had a heart which sought God. We do not know the backgrounds of all of the twelve disciples, but we do know that some were previously the followers of John the Baptist (John 1:35ff). These had come to the point of acknowledging the emptiness of contemporary Judaism and recognized the need for repentance and the coming Messiah. Nathaniel (John 1:45-51) was clearly described as a pious man, spiritually prepared for Messiah’s appearing.
(6) They were men without formal religious training. What most amazed the religious establishment was the fact that the apostles had such power and authority, and yet had never been formally trained in their schools of theology.
“Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John, and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were marveling, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Now there is no great virtue in having no formal training, nor is there a curse to a theological education. But being trained in the Rabbinical schools of theology would have been of very restricted value, since their whole system of interpretation was defective. Being trained in the Jewish rabbinical schools would be somewhat parallel to your going to the most liberal seminary in this country. There would be some value, but you would have to unlearn most of what you were taught. As theologically uneducated Galileans, the disciples were to a great extent undefiled by the religious pollutions of their time. Just as John the Baptist spent much of his life in the wilderness, so the disciples were from an area remote to the evils of Judaism, and as such more open to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Implications for Discipleship Today
We would have to conclude from what we have seen of the disciples that they would not have been tagged as ‘most likely to succeed’ by many in Christian circles today. Our Lord did not choose them because of what they could do for Him, so much as that He (due to their inabilities and limitations) could do great things through them.
There is a principle underlying the Lord’s choice of His disciples which is as applicable to us today as it was in New Testament times. Paul verbalized it in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:
“For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.”
We are not told here that God never chooses the wise, the noble, or the prosperous, but that He seldom does so. Why has God chosen to work through the weak and the foolish things? First, so that He receives all the glory whenever great things are accomplished. And, second, those who are weak must trust in God to work in them, and in spite of them. As Paul recorded elsewhere, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9b).
If we really believe this principle to be true, then we must recognize at least two specific applications. First of all, we must recognize that much of evangelicalism is flatly in error when they place the emphasis on reaching what they call ‘key people’ with the gospel so that by means of their prestige, influence, and money, the work of God can be furthered. God’s work is furthered in God’s way and through God’s resources.
Several times I have told the story of my uncle who tells of an interview between the owner of a gas station and a prospective employee. When asked for his qualifications, the young man quickly responded that he was a college graduate. “Well, my boy,” responded the owner, “I think that can be overcome.” It is my conviction that what many feel are assets to the cause of Christ are really liabilities. We make far too much of the superstars in Christian circles, and conduct ourselves in a way far from in keeping with the New Testament.
In my short lifetime, it has been interesting to observe how easily money comes in to support the ‘ministries’ of very popular or prestigious individuals while those who are not as spectacular learn to do without. It is because we all love to associate ourselves with a winner. Let me remind you, my Christian friend, that neither in days gone by, nor in the present, is our Lord Jesus considered a winner by the world’s standards. As I view the gift of giving, it is the ability to recognize real ministry and real needs in the plethora of solicitations in the name of Christian ministry.
But since neither you nor I are superstars anyway, there is a very personal application for us. We are the kind of people that God chooses through whom to do His work. Now isn’t that an amazing and wonderful truth? God has chosen to use men and women like you and me, insignificant and having little ‘clout’ in the world, to carry on the greatest cause in the world, the building up of His church. Martin Luther is reported to have said, “Let no man lose the faith that God willeth to do a great work through him.”215
Nothing is more exciting and motivating in my own Christian life than to realize that this is true.
The Process of Discipleship
Some biblical scholars have puzzled over the fact that the Gospels record several ‘calls’ of the twelve disciples. The skeptic is predictably quick to draw the conclusion that the Gospel accounts are in conflict with one another, thereby giving credence to his presupposition that the Bible is not the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
There is a much more plausible, biblical, and simple explanation; one that has too often been overlooked. Put in its simplest form, we must conclude that there was no one call to discipleship. Now it sounds very impressive when we read in the Gospels that Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they immediately left everything and followed Jesus. We almost get the impression that this was their first encounter with Jesus, and yet, they made a life-long commitment on the basis of His invitation.
But such does not appear to be the case when we look at the Gospels as a whole. Although the chronology of the life of Christ is subject to much discussion and debate, the following sequence of events seems to occur:
(1) Jesus was proclaimed as the Messiah by John the Baptist and several followed Him and spent the day with Him (John 1:35ff).
(2) Jesus, at some later time, invited these men (and others) to be His followers. They left their nets and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20). It is in no way evident to me that they left their jobs and spent all their time with Jesus at this time. They may have temporarily taken leave of their work to follow Jesus on a particular campaign.
(3) It was sometime later that Jesus appointed the twelve to be apostles, that is, to be commissioned to go out as His emissaries and preach the gospel and display His power (Matthew 10:lff; Mark 3:13ff; Luke 6:12ff). This assignment was limited, and their power apparently temporary.
(4) Not until after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit did the disciples rise to the task of establishing the church of Jesus Christ.
What we should learn from these various calls to follow Jesus in the Gospels is that there is no one decisive call to discipleship, but rather a life-long process with many decision points along the way.
G. Campbell Morgan has written a classic work entitled The Crises of the Christ. In this book, he deals with the critical, destiny-determining situations and decisions in the life of our Lord. What he has done with reference to our Lord’s life and ministry could likewise be done for His disciples. The initial call(s) to follow Jesus were an invitation to an intimate personal relationship. All the time they spent together was seasoned with practical and biblical instruction. As their relationship grew and their faith deepened, they left home and occupation to be with Him continually. When the masses left Jesus after the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:60ff), the disciples, also, were faced with a decision to stay with Him or leave. The more our Lord taught about His suffering and death (and theirs), the more the implications of discipleship came home to them.
And so we see an extended process of disciple-making in our Lord’s ministry to the twelve. It was not a one-time decision, but a sequence of decisions each based upon further realization of the implications of true discipleship.
New Testament Discipleship for Today
Discipleship, then, was not something instantaneously and casually presented, nor immediately and totally accepted by the twelve. Rather, it was a gradual process of revelation and response. Discipleship, like sanctification, is progressive, not instantaneous.
What does this truth imply for the Christian today, who truly desires to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Let me suggest several possibilities.
(1) Discipleship is a life-long process. In a day of instant mashed potatoes, instant coffee, and microwave ovens, most of us want to accelerate processes that take time to accomplish. God has no instant formulas for discipleship. God invites you to follow Him at whatever point in life you may be.
I must emphasize that there are no shortcuts at the outset. All enter into discipleship by personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior. Every disciple of our Lord must come to the point of recognizing that he or she has nothing to offer God. Rather, we are in rebellion against Him because of our sin. God has removed that barrier by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the penalty for our sin and to provide a righteousness which is acceptable to Him. Those who become His disciples stop trusting in themselves, in anything they can do for God, and trust only in what God has done through Jesus Christ.
Once saved, the disciple of our Lord need not re-experience his initial conversion, nor continually rededicate himself to our Lord. Instead of this, he or she should continue to grow in the knowledge of our Lord and as further revelation is grasped, their commitment should become fuller and deeper.
(2) There is a distinct sequence in discipleship. In the lives of the twelve, there was a clear sequence. The first phase of their discipleship centered on knowing Jesus Christ intimately. It was considerably later that Jesus sent them out to preach and heal. I fear that in too many churches we have equated discipleship with service. We immediately urge new Christians to begin to go to work for our Lord. It was a number of years until those who were physically present with our Lord were qualified to carry on His work. Paul spent years in preparation also (Galatians 1:15-18).
What I am suggesting is that those who are newly saved need to spend their initial efforts in getting to know their Lord in a much more intimate way. Once this is done (though it never is fully arrived at, cf. Philippians 3:10ff), the quality of our service will be vastly superior.
(3) Discipleship is a life-long process by which we become servants (and friends, John 15:14,15) of our Lord Jesus Christ. On one occasion, I was invited to preach at a church in the Northwest, and I (unwisely) chose to speak on a somewhat emotional and controversial issue. I tried to forewarn the pastor, and I shall never forget his response. He said, “Go right ahead, brother, you’re the Lord’s servant, not mine.”
I am not at all certain that most Christians really believe this. It seems that all too often we measure service to our Lord by service to us. “If you are really a disciple, then you will do thus and so …” That is not the way I understand the New Testament.
How graciously our Lord dealt with the failures and weaknesses and ineptitude of His disciples. How harsh and demanding we are. So often we establish a rigid program and imply that all who are truly committed will follow it (and us!).
The discipleship process of our Lord was personal and individualized. It took people at whatever level of commitment and maturity they were and encouraged them to press on. When they failed, our Lord stood by them, suggesting that even their failure would enhance their value as His disciple (cf. Luke 22:31-32).
There are some who teach the doctrine of so-called “Lordship Salvation” and by this they imply that the salvation is a final and once for all commitment to salvation by faith and service. I do not see this in the training of the twelve.
Are you a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ? Have you trusted in Him as your Savior? If you have, you have begun a life-long process. It is an exciting process by which you will grow in an intimate relationship with the Savior, and in time, you will be given work to do in His name.
Since much of the present discipleship emphasis falls upon human responsibility and commitment, let me conclude with a reminder that it is our Lord Who is in complete control, not only in the calling of disciples, but in the process of making them. Our Lord assured His disciples,
“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that Your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you” (John 15:16).
May God grant that you may wonder at the fact that God has chosen to reveal Himself to you and to use you in His service. May you find comfort that, while the requirements of discipleship are rigorous, the Savior is gentle and gracious, and the process, though life-long, is sure.
211 Although this verse is variously translated, it would seem to emphasize either the youth of our Lord (as the King James Version implies) or the youth of His disciples (which the NASV and the Berkeley Version suggest).
214 “A certain Galilean once went about enquiring, ‘Who has ‘amar’? ‘Foolish Galilean,’ they said to him, ‘do you mean an “ass” for riding, “wine” to drink, “wool” for clothing, or a “lamb” for killing?’” This Jewish joke, which pokes fun at the slovenly speech of Galilee with its indistinct vowels and dropped aitches, indicates the Jerusalem Jew’s attitude to his northern neighbours. Galilee had once been predominately Gentile territory, and even now its population was far from completely Jewish. Cut off from Judaea by the hostile territory of Scamaria, and under a different system of government, it tended to develop along its own independent lines of speech and character, and of religious tradition. Hence the great disdain in which a Judaean Jew held his Galilean brother.” Ibid., p. 30.