Parameters of Encouragement (4)
Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. 2 Corinthians 3.17, 18
A misguided notion exists in many churches today which is unspoken, but nonetheless real. It’s the idea that “discipleship” is a level of faith that’s not intended for all who believe in Jesus. We don’t teach this so much as suggest and tolerate it. When we offer “discipleship” classes as an option for church members, we implicitly communicate that such training is not for every believer. Accordingly, most people don’t sign up. They are content, for one reason or another, with being “Christians” and with not having to go on to become “disciples”.
Most believers appear to be of the opinion that “discipleship” is not something they need, or are ready for, or have the time or inclination to pursue. They believe in Jesus, have joined the church, and try to be faithful in attendance, giving, and perhaps some additional form of participation in the community of faith.
But “discipleship” sounds to many believers like preparation for the ministry, or for going out to the mission field, or at least, for some leadership role in the local church.
And of what do such “discipleship” courses typically consist? A section on spiritual growth – prayer, Bible reading and study, confession of sin, and so forth. Then perhaps a unit on sharing your faith – getting your testimony together, learning a Gospel presentation. And finally, some guidance in discipling others, anchored in 2 Timothy 2.2, and which frequently entails enlisting new people for the “discipleship” program.
All that is certainly valid and necessary. We should add much more to such a curriculum, of course, but as a foundation for discipleship, training organized around those foci is not a bad start.
But shouldn’t every believer be grounded in such disciplines? Aren’t we all called, as believers in and followers of Jesus Christ, to be disciples?
To the extent that we perpetuate this misguided understanding of discipleship, we are undermining the Lord’s work of building His Church and furthering His rule on earth as it is in heaven. We are inviting people who have been called to be disciples to tailor their practice of faith to their own interests, tastes, and convenience, rather than to the terms Jesus Himself outlined.
At the same time, we have made of “discipleship” a kind of elite corps of the duly-but-minimally-trained, whose primary attainment becomes making more “disciples” like themselves – recruiting more people into the program.
Fear of discipleship?
Christians are those who believe in Jesus for salvation. And every Christian is a disciple of Jesus Christ – a follower, learner, and servant of the King of kings and Lord of lords, Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might renew and restore us in every aspect and facet of our lives.
Yet we have become comfortable in our false notion of discipleship, and we are fearful of aspiring to anything more. Pastors are fearful of “pushing” people, lest they leave and go somewhere else. The people are fearful they may have to give up things they consider to be very important in order to move from being a Christian to being a disciple.
If we’re ever going to get on with the work of being and making disciples, we’ll need a fresh and continuous shot of Holy Spirit courage, empowering us to embrace a new understanding of discipleship and to submit to the ongoing process of growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Learning and putting on Jesus
Two ideas from the apostle Paul can help us in gaining a better understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 4.17-24 Paul addressed the saints and disciples at Ephesus about the need to continue growing in the Lord. He said that they were to “learn Jesus” as the defining mark of their commitment to Christ. They were not merely to believe in Jesus, nor simply to learn about Jesus. True disciples learn Jesus so thoroughly and continuously, that He overcomes everything in them that is reminiscent of their lives – believing dumb ideas, living distant from God, abiding in ignorance about spiritual matters, living like worldly people rather than saints, hardening their hearts toward others, and living unclean, greedy, self-serving lives. Jesus calls us to learn Him so that He can help us to unlearn all those ways that are contrary to our calling as His disciples.
In Romans 13.14 Paul describes this process of learning Jesus as “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as you get dressed every day, putting off your PJs and putting on the clothes the day requires, so each day we must put off anything that keeps us tied to the world of mere self, things, and folly, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ in heart, mind, conscience, words, and deeds.
This is what identifies us as disciples. And if we’re going to do this consistently and fruitfully, if we’re going to have the courage we need every day to deny and crucify our old sinful selves and increase in the likeness of Jesus, we’ll need to be encouraged by the words, examples, and help we receive from our fellow believers in the Lord.
And they will need to be encouraged in this by us.
The Encourager’s work
This is the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of every disciple of Jesus Christ. As Paul explained, the Spirit is working to transform us into the likeness of Jesus. He wants Christ to increase in us and our old self to decrease (Jn. 3.30). As we come to the Word of God day by day, looking for Jesus, waiting and meditating for the Spirit to show us the glory of God in the face of Jesus in that Word, the Spirit is at work within us, willing and doing according to God’s good pleasure (Phil. 2.13). God’s pleasure is that we should see Jesus in His Word. Seeing Jesus in every page and passage of Scripture brings us into the Presence of God and His glory. As we are exposed to the glory of God, we are changed – even if only ever so slightly – and begin to take on more of the character of Jesus. We start to think more clearly with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.16). We embrace the affections and desires of Jesus, as the Spirit teaches us (Ezek. 36.26, 27). Our conscience is firmed up in Jesus, so that pressing on in Him becomes the priority in everything we do (Phil. 3.12-14).
As this happens, we begin to envision words we can speak and things we can do to declare and show Jesus to the people around us. We’ll need the courage only God can give us thus to live as witnesses for Christ. And if we have friends who share our commitment to following Jesus, with whom we pray and are growing in the Lord, the Holy Spirit can use us to encourage one another for those next steps of faith that will find Jesus being formed more perfectly in us day by day.
Discipleship is an active, growing, learning, and ministering way of life. It is not an option. If you don’t want to be a disciple, ask yourself why. If you do, look to the Lord, and find a few friends who will join you in your commitment and will encourage you – and whom you can encourage – to press on toward Christ and to follow Him in every facet of your daily life.
1. Why is every believer a disciple of Jesus? What does this imply about our individual discipleship?
2. What does it mean to “learn Jesus”? To “put on” the Lord Jesus Christ”?
3. How should you expect the Holy Spirit to use you in encouraging your fellow disciples?
Next steps – Conversation: Talk with another Christian today about how you hope to grow in your calling as a disciple. Is your friend willing to join you as a prayer partner and mutual encourager?
Our new book What in Heaven Is Jesus Doing on Earth? can help you in setting your mind on Christ. Order your copy by clicking here.
Not sure about where God is calling you to learn and serve Jesus? Watch this brief video and download the accompanying worksheet to discover your own Personal Mission Field.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.