By Victor Knowles
When I was a young boy growing up in the church, the word disciples sounded strange and foreign to me. What in the world was a disciple anyway? Eventually I learned that a disciple was a learner, a pupil; a person who followed someone’s teaching.
In the Bible, the words disciple and disciples are unique to the Gospels and Acts. You will not find the word in the rest of the New Testament. Disciple appears 29 times in the New International Version while the plural disciples is found some 267 times. The Pharisees claimed to be disciples of Moses (John 9:28, 29). John the Baptist had disciples (Matthew 9:14; 11:1-3). But the majority of passages in the New Testament that speak about disciples refer to Jesus and his followers.
Not for the Fainthearted
Jesus carefully selected 12 disciples and called them to follow him. He sent them out to preach about the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, and drive out demons (Matthew 10:1, 5-8), reminding them that a disciple (student) was not above his teacher (v. 24). He left no stone unturned when he told them about the high cost of being a disciple (Luke 14:25, 26). Discipleship is not for the fainthearted. “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (v. 27). Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The cross is laid on every Christian . . . When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” C. D. Alexander lamented, “Conversion without discipleship is openly implied in much of our evangelical teaching. It has become strangely possible to be Christ’s without taking up the cross.”
Jesus spent about three and a half years in the training of the Twelve. He carefully invested everything he had in the lives of those who would eventually be commissioned to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The apostle Paul, following the example of Jesus, traveled with about the same number of people and worked diligently with his companions whom he called “fellow workers,” “fellow laborers,” “fellow servants,” “fellow soldiers,” and “fellow prisoners.” God’s design for discipleship is for mature believers to pour their lives into the lives of new believers who will carry on the work once their teachers are gone from the scene.
There are three vital components in making disciples: sharing the Word of God, modeling the Christian life, and encouraging spiritual growth. Jesus and Paul demonstrated all three.
Jesus spent a great amount of time teaching his disciples. Much of his instruction was in private. “But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything” (Mark 4:34). He patiently took time to answer their questions and explain what he meant when they did not “get it” the first time through. Today we have excellent opportunities to disciple others in small group Bible studies or one-on-one encounters. How wonderful it is to see two people sitting in a restaurant with the Bible, the mentor sharing God’s eternal Word with someone who is eager to learn more of God’s will for his or her life.
Paul thanked God for the church in Colosse because they were becoming mature disciples in faith and love. He said, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf” (Colossians 1:6, 7, NIV, 1984).
The Colossians were learning much from Epapahras, a protégé of Paul. This is how discipleship works.
Modeling the Christian life is also a necessity. Dwight L. Moody said, “More depends on my walk than talk.” Paul told the Thessalonians, “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord . . . And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere (1 Thessalonians 1:5-8).
Mentors should be able to say with Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul could honestly say, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance” (2 Timothy 3:10). Young Timothy was told, “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Titus was instructed, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:7, 8). Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” A life that is not consistent with the lesson taught can undo everything. Dr. Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others—it is the only thing.” Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40, New King James Version).
Encouraging and helping others to grow spiritually is a huge part of making disciples. Paul spent a great deal of time praying for the spiritual progress of new Christians.
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9, 10, NIV, 1984).
Disciple making is a lifelong process of encouraging and helping others in their spiritual growth.
When the disciples approached Jesus and suggested that he send the multitude away to buy something to eat, Jesus responded, “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). This was high-end, on-the-job training. He took the five loaves and two fish, gave thanks, and then gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. Then, when everyone had eaten and was satisfied, the disciples gathered up 12 basketfuls of leftovers. This was a good learning session for the disciples, for Jesus had involved them in one of his greatest miracles, the feeding of the 5,000.
When Jesus walked on the water, Peter said, “Lord, if it’s you, . . . tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus replied, “Come” (14:28, 29). He wanted Peter to activate his faith. And to his credit, “Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus” (14:29). Another good learning experience, even though he failed. When we fail—and we will—we can learn what to do the next time we are called upon to follow Jesus as a disciple.
Discipleship and Discipline
In his book Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Kregel, 1998), James Montomery Boice suggests that there are five elements of discipleship: obedience, repentance, submission, commitment, and perseverance.
“To be a Christian is no light matter. It is a call to a transformed life and to perseverance through whatever troubles may arise. It may be the hardest thing anyone can do. Yet anyone can do it, with Christ supplying the necessary strength. In the end it is the only thing that really matters.”
David Watson said, “If we were willing to learn the meaning of real discipleship and actually to become disciples, the church in the West would be transformed and the resultant impact on society would be staggering.” There are undoubtedly more immature converts today than there are mature disciples. Discipleship means discipline. It is incumbent upon those who are full-grown Christians to fully commit themselves to make disciples, helping converts grow spiritually, reach maturity, bear fruit, and become disciples who will reproduce themselves. This is the biblical model.
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples“ (John 8:31).
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri. www.poeministries.org
Use the five elements of discipleship Boice discusses in Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Kregel Publications, 1998) to evaluate how you’re developing as a disciple. Remember this is about growing to be like Christ, not criticizing your human efforts. Be honest with yourself, but embrace an attitude of grace.
For each element, think of a recent example when you demonstrated it and a recent example when you did not. Consider which example feels more characteristic of your typical behavior.