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In 1933 a man named Dawson Trotman founded a worldwide Christian organization called the Navigators. At the heart of Trotman and the ministry he founded was the discipleship of believers—grounding Christians in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, Bible study, and service. Navigators started when Trotman was asked to visit a sailor, Les Spencer, and share God’s Word with him. Soon Spencer was asking for another man to be taught by Trotman but Trotman challenged Spencer, “You teach him.” The discipleship ministry of the Navigators was birthed. The Navigators’ influence has since grown to worldwide proportions with about 4,600 staff representing 69 nationalities working in 103 countries.
What is discipleship and why is the church commanded to do it? What are some of the methods of discipleship that Jesus and Paul used? How can disciples grow in numbers? What are the marks of a mature disciple (i.e. what does a mature disciple look like)?
Definition of a Disciple and the Great Commission
What is a disciple? The basic meaning is that a disciple is a learner. A disciple of Jesus is one who learns and lives from the teachings of Jesus himself and those whom Jesus taught, the apostles. Another good definition from the Navigator is this: “A disciple continues in the Word, loves others, bears fruit, and puts Christ first.”
The primary command in the New Testament to make disciples comes from what is called the Great Commission. Matthew states, “Then Jesus came up and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt 28:18-20). In the original Greek language the phrase “make disciples” is the main verb which is the command, as opposed to “go.” Someone once said, “The main thing is to make the main the main thing.” Therefore, to make disciples is the main thing. All nations are to be disciples, and this implies you have to go to them (cf. Acts 1:8). The imperatival mood of the command to make disciples carries over to the word “go.” How does one make disciples? The text indicates that it is by baptizing and by teaching. The baptizing into the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit implies both evangelism and conversion. The teaching is a teaching with a view toward obedience of all that Jesus said. In summary then, making disciples includes both evangelism and instruction in the Christian faith. What has happened to the church’s obedience to the Great Commission? Sarcastically, due to failures of the church (myself included) it is sometimes referred to as the Great Omission. Billy Hanks Jr. and William Shell write, “Historically it is difficult to discover why the simple plan which worked so effectively in the early church ceased to be used in later generations . . . The challenge of the future is simply to apply the timeless divine strategy of the past. Nothing less than total victory should be expected in world evangelization and church growth.
Methods of Discipleship from Jesus and Paul
In examining proper methods of discipleship, it would seem wise to look at the discipleship methods that both Jesus and Paul used. The first thing that one could point to is that both Jesus and Paul selected a few good men for the purpose of training. In regard to Jesus, Coleman well states, “men were his method. Luke writes: “Now it was during this time that Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God. When morning came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles” (Luke 6:12-16). The fact that Jesus spent all night in prayer showed the importance of what he was doing in selecting the disciples. He only chose 12. Beyond that, he focused on three (Peter, James and John). The whole future of the church would rest in the faithfulness of God working though only a few men.
In regard to Paul, his discipleship method is seen in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And what you heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful people who will be competent to teach others as well (2 Tim 2:2). This verse describes the type of people who should be discipled, that is faithful people. Some have described them with the acronym FAT = faithful, available and teachable. There are some very prominent discipleship relationships in the Bible that illustrate its importance. Joshua had Moses; Elisha had Elijah; the Twelve had Jesus; Paul had Barnabus; and Timothy had Paul. Now the questions is, who do we have?
A second aspect of discipleship that is modeled in both Jesus and Paul is that they had a life to life association with their disciples. In regard to Jesus, Mark writes, “He appointed twelve (whom he named apostles), so that they would be with him” (Mark 3:14). The purpose of the selection of the twelve was so that they might be “with Him.” The disciples were with Jesus for over three years, observing, listening, and doing. Paul did the same with his disciples. A good example is when Paul picked up Timothy to go with Paul on his missionary journey. Acts records, “And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek,and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him” (Acts 16:1-3). In another place, Paul tells the Corinthian church, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Someone once remarked, “discipleship is more caught than taught.”
A third aspect of discipleship that Jesus and Paul modeled is that they were always trying to transfer the ministry so that others could do it. Jesus preached but he sent the disciples out to preach; Jesus healed but he sent the 12 out to heal (Matt 10). We should always be trying to work ourselves out of a job. In looking at Second Timothy 2:2 again, “And entrust what you heard me say in the presence of many others as witnesses to faithful people who will be competent to teach others as well” (2 Tim 2:2), one can see four generations of ministry to disciples: First Paul to Timothy, then Timothy to faithful people, then faithful people to “others”. This is the pattern that Paul was looking for. D. L. Moody once stated, “It is better to train ten people than to do the work of ten people. But it is harder.”
The Principle of Multiplication
Consider how small of the group of early disciples were with Jesus and the command to reach all the nations with the gospel. How could this possibly be expected and carried out. It took Jesus over three years to train only 12 people with millions of people in the world at that time. How could the whole world possibly be reached taking only a few at a time? Figuratively speaking, how can a very small mustard seed result in a very large tree as Jesus indicated how the kingdom of God would grow (Matt 13:31-32)? The answer to this dilemma can be found in the principle of multiplication. Let’s look at an illustration of the power of multiplication. What would you rather have someone do: 1) give you one million dollars every week for a year or 2) one penny for the first week then doubling it every week for a year (1 cent, two cents, 4 , 8 cents, etc)? At the end of the year option one would yield you 52 million dollars, which is a pretty nice sum, but option two would yield you over 40 trillion dollars. This is about 750,000 times more money. What would be better in the long run over 30 years 1) discipling 10 people a year or 2) one person every two years but that person in turn would be able to and actually disciple someone else? Option one would yield 300 disciples over a lifetime but option two would yield over 32,000 disciples, more than one hundred times the amount of option one. The point of the principle of multiplication is for one to take enough time to make reproducing disciples.
Seven Marks of a Disciple
Let’s look at the question of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What does a disciple of Jesus look like? What are the characteristics of a disciple? What are the marks of a disciple? If we do not know what we are shooting for, it will be hard to hit it. In Matthew 10 Jesus sends out the twelve disciples for their first attempt at ministry without Jesus. From this passage, at least seven characteristics or marks of a disciple can be seen.
Mark 1: The first mark is that a disciple must share the message of the kingdom/gospel with others. In Matthew 3 Jesus had preached a message of repentance because the kingdom of heaven was near. In Matthew 10 he asked his disciples to do the same where he states, “Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’” (Matt 10:6-7). The focus is getting the good news out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Sharing the good news focuses on the needs of others. Years ago, the Salvation Army was holding an international convention and their founder, General William Booth, could not attend because of physical weakness. He cabled his convention message to them. It was one word: “Others.” When we get our focus off of ourselves and put it on others, we are in the right mindset of a disciple
Mark 2: The second mark is that a disciple must learn to trust God for his or her needs and circumstances. As Jesus was sending his disciples out he told them, “Freely you received, freely give. Do not take gold, silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for the journey, or an extra tunic, or sandals or staff, for the worker deserves his provisions” (Matt 10:9-10). Jesus gave the disciples a hard task to accept. Even if they had some extra to take for their own needs, they were to trust God to supply for the work of the ministry. C.H. Spurgeon, sometimes referred to as the prince of preachers, once commented on the importance of trusting in God’s sovereignty. He stated, “There is no attribute more comforting to His children than that of God’s sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials, they believe that sovereignty has ordained their afflictions, that sovereignty overrules them, and that sovereignty will sanctify them all. There is nothing for which the children ought to more earnestly contend to than the doctrine of their Master over all creation—the Kingship of God over all the works of His own hands—the Throne of God and His right to sit upon that throne. . . for it is God upon the Throne whom we trust.”
Mark 3: The third mark is that a disciple must be prepared to be rejected. Jesus stated, “And you will be hated by everyone because of my name” (Matt 10:22). Sharing an invitation to believe the gospel or even just naming the name of Jesus may produce a hostile result. In other words, if the message of the gospel is rejected the messenger of the gospel may be rejected as well. The disciple must learn not to take personal offense at a rejection but rather see that is in fact God himself and his gospel message that is rejected.
Mark 4: The fourth mark is that a disciple must place Christ above family relationships if need be. Jesus told them, “Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise against parents and have them put to death. . . . Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:21, 34-37). Here Jesus points out that our commitment to him must exceed all, even that of our family. Christians who have come out of Muslim or Hindu backgrounds are often painfully aware of this truth.
Mark 5: The fifth mark is that a disciple must fear God more than men. Jesus taught, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:28-31). But why not be afraid of people who might harm you? There are at least two reasons. First, God is the ultimate judge; he will judge everyone and everything; man’s judgment is temporal but God’s judgment is eternal. We have to stop and ask the question of what God thinks. Second, God cares for you. He sees; he knows and he cares and we are worth a lot to God. If even a bird falls and it’s in God’s plan, how much more must it be with us. People matter to God; we matter to God; I matter to God; you matter to God.
Mark 6: A sixth mark is that a disciple must lose his old life and find his new life in Jesus. He instructed the disciples, “And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it”
(Matt 10:38-39). To take up the cross is to take up an instrument of death. In other words, a disciple must be willing to die to the old life and live a new life that God has for him. Martin Luther once explained, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
Mark 7: Lastly, a seventh mark is that a disciple must look to the future reward reserved in heaven. The disciples were given this promise before going out with God’s message into difficult situation, “Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward”
(Matt 10:41-42). In essence God’s gives us the promise that being a disciple will be worth it in the end.
Final Thoughts on Discipleship
God’ plan is to reach the world with the gospel. He commanded the church to do this by making disciples. Men training men and women training women is his method. The encouragement of this lesson is to train reproducing disciples even though it takes longer and is harder. Martin Luther stated that our future life needs to affect the present. “If we consider the greatness and the glory of the life we shall have when we have risen from the dead, it would not be difficult at all for us to bear the concerns of this world. If I believe the Word, I shall on the Last Day, after the sentence has been pronounced, gladly have suffered ordinary temptations, insults, and imprisonment.” Finally, a word of exhortation from Dawson Trotman: “God works through men. I see nowhere in the Word where God picks an organization . . . . Do what others cannot and will not do.
- Who has benefited from a discipleship relationship and why?
- Is there anything that surprises you from the way that Jesus made disciples?
- How did Jesus handle situations where his disciples failed (e.g., Peter)? How should we?
- What responsibilities does the discipler have?
- What responsibilities does the disciplee have?
- Why is disciplemaking so difficult?
http://www.navigators.org/us/aboutus/history (Date accessed February 25, 2013). (Used by Permission).