The following is an excerpt from my new book, "Joining Jesus - Show Me How: How to Discple Everyday Missionaries."
If we’re going to understand what discipling is according to Jesus, let’s start with gaining clarity on what the word discipling means.
Perhaps you are familiar with these words: Apprentice. Trainee. Intern. Padawan (for you Star Wars fans).
What do these words have in common? They are familiar nouns used to describe a person in the process of becoming skilled at something – like a profession, a craft or being a Jedi Knight, for example. They are also synonyms for a less familiar noun: disciple. A disciple is a person in the process of becoming skilled at something, too. And then there are these familiar words: Coaching. Training. Mentoring. Drilling. These are verbs we use to describe the actual process through which certain skills are developed. As in, “The employee receives coaching to develop her job skills.” These familiar verbs are synonyms for a less familiar verb: Discipling. Discipling is also a process through which certain skills are developed.
So when you hear the term disciple of Jesus, think apprentice, trainee, intern or Padawan of Jesus. Likewise, when you hear that Jesus is discipling us, think Jesus is coaching, training, drilling or mentoring us.
Now, the next question is, “To what end?” If a disciple is a person in the process of becoming skilled at something and discipling is the process through which the skills are developed, then what are the skills? And what are we to do with them? In other words, to what end are we being discipled? For that answer, we will first go to Jesus and watch how he disciples his followers in the gospels. After we have done that, we will start distilling what we have found into clear and simple summary statements.
Over the years, I have settled on the following summary: Discipling is Jesus’ process of showing the people of God how to participate in the mission of God as a daily lifestyle. Could it be that simple?
Well, let’s go find Jesus in Matthew 4 and find out. Matthew 4 is one of the places in the gospels where we see Jesus initiating his discipling process with people. He approaches two brothers and says in verse 19, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus is on a mission. He has been sent by his Father to redeem and restore all things. When Jesus says, “Come, follow me,” he is inviting the brothers into a training process so they (the people of God) will be able to participate in the mission of God as a daily lifestyle. This training process then continues to unfold throughout the rest of the Gospel narrative until Matthew 28 when Jesus commissions them to make even more disciples who will participate in the mission of God, too.
But it starts here in Matthew 4:19, where we quickly learn four things about Jesus’ discipling process:
1) Being a disciple of Jesus starts with Jesus.
Jesus initiates the discipling process and it is born from his grace. He comes to them. He chooses them and befriends them. He gives them a new identity and a new vocation. And then he begins to train them. “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
2) Discipling is a process of training that changes us for the good of others.
Jesus invites them to follow him in order to train them and change them. And this change is not primarily for the good of the disciples themselves. Jesus changes them for the good of others. When Jesus says, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” he is saying, “Come, follow me and I will change who you are and what you do for the good of others.”
The rest of the New Testament uses a variety of terms which are essentially synonymous with the personal change discipling causes: Discipling = training = growing = maturing = transforming = sanctifying = conforming = being “taught to obey everything I have commanded.” And all for the good of others.
3) The way Jesus disciples them is through joining him on his mission.
Joining the mission is both what Jesus trains them for and the way Jesus trains them. Being discipled isn’t something that precedes joining the mission. It is something that happens as a result of joining the mission.
4) Discipling the way Jesus does in the gospels results in disciples who make even more disciples.
Multiplication is built into Jesus’ discipling process from the beginning. In Matthew 4:19 when he invites the brothers to be discipled, he already knows his goal is Matthew 28:19-20 when he will commission them to make even more disciples. So from Matthew 4 to Matthew 28 Jesus is showing them how to participate in the mission of God as a daily lifestyle so that they can then show others how to do the same. The way Jesus disciples his followers results in disciples who make even more disciples – who will make even more disciples – who will make even more disciples – until the nations will be discipled to participate in the mission of God throughout the entire earth. (Pretty cool, huh?) In many nations this is already happening. If we clarify, simplify and imitate Jesus’ discipling process, we will see it, too.
Is that what you thought discipling was? This may not be the answer you thought you’d get, but it is the answer Jesus has been giving from the beginning.
What about catechesis and catechisms? What about all the nuances and details of pure doctrine? What about the next volume of theological textbooks we still need to tackle?
I hear you. But what about, “Come, follow me?”
When Jesus disciples someone in the gospels, he says, “Come, follow me.” When we disciple someone, we say, “Go to a class.” Hmm… Something is off. Is this one of the reasons we are not seeing the kind of results Jesus saw in the gospels? Is it because our understanding of discipling is not the same as Jesus’ understanding? “Come, follow me” is not the same as “Go to a class.”
Have we unintentionally begun substituting a system of scholarship for Jesus’ process of discipleship? Have we made knowing answers about Jesus more important than actually joining Jesus in the community? Have we made “being a disciple” only for the smart kids who can master theology? There is nothing wrong with being smart or mastering theology. The problem comes when we substitute mastering theology for actually joining Jesus on his redemptive mission as a daily lifestyle. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Being a great theologian can easily be mistaken for being a good Christian.”
Of course, studying the Word of God and discussing its theology was a key part of Jesus’ discipling process. Whether as a twelve year-old boy in the Temple or in Caesarea Philippi with his disciples, he encouraged theological discussion to be rich and deep and wide-ranging. But here’s the question: To what end would he have us study and discuss? So we can know more? Or so we can be more and do more with him in our communities that need it so badly?
If scholarship is the goal of discipleship, then we end up with scholars who make more scholars who know right answers. If joining Jesus is the goal of discipleship, then we end up with disciples who make more disciples who participate in the redemption and restoration of all things. Scholarship is fine. But redemption and restoration of all things is the goal.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus says, “Let me show you how to participate in my Father’s redemptive mission.” This may not be the answer we thought we’d get, but it is the answer Jesus has been giving from the beginning.
[More next week...]