The command to make disciples sounds simple, but it is our highest calling in Christ. It’s also one which demands our all, a Gethsemane commitment to revealing God’s love and purpose in others.
My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you, (Galatians 4:19)
Preaching the Gospel is one thing – and we’re commanded to do so. Making disciples, however, is another thing altogether, and it’s also something we’re told unequivocally that we must do. It’s a challenging commitment to every believer because it demands our all. Discipleship requires that we be personally invested in the spiritual growth of those we disciple. It’s not something we do by dispensing tracts or Bible study notes, or answering a few questions here or there. It demands the wholehearted immersion into the process – like Jesus did when He lived, talked, and walked with the twelve. This is the truth that Paul highlights so powerfully in today’s verse. Making disciples is an ‘in for the long haul’ commitment. It’s not something we can do in a week or possibly even in a year. Jesus took three years to raise up those first disciples into His likeness.
What is discipleship?
Our verse today provides a wonderfully simple but eloquent definition of discipleship. It is forming the nature and character of Christ in a new believer. On a practical level, we do this in many different ways. The first, obviously, is by example. We portray the nature and character of Christ so that our disciples have a living example to emulate. All children – and this includes spiritual children – learn by imitating their teachers or parents. It’s a fundamental principle of learning that is universal. The second is by reading, speaking, and explaining the Word. Everything a new believer needs is contained in the Word, which is the revelation of Christ who is the Living Word. Through Him, of course, the Father is also revealed. A disciple with no knowledge or understanding of the Word will never manifest the likeness of Christ. It is the Word that effects the changes.
Thirdly – and this is really critical – discipleship is ongoing. It’s not a one-off twelve-step programme but about long-term relationship. We need only look at ourselves and at how long it has taken Jesus to manifest Himself in us to realise that effective discipleship cannot take place within a limited or specified time period. Every person is different and each has different needs and expectations. Part of discipling others is removing wrong thinking or understanding before replacing it with what is right. There is no ‘recipe’ or standard formula. Finally, discipleship is something God does through us. We participate in the process and must be invested in the process, but we do not effect the transformation. We are a vessel through with the Holy Spirit works, and that requires surrender and obedience. It requires the same willingness and obedience that Jesus displayed on earth.
Why is discipleship necessary?
The change from the natural to the supernatural life is a radical one. It completely upends every understanding or expectation we have. All the things we took for granted before are now irrelevant. The kingdom of God seems to work in the exact opposite to what we know, understand, and are comfortable with. But there is also an enormous spiritual shift. Prior to salvation, the devil was quite happy, by and large, to allow us to simply chug along doing our own thing. He knew well enough that we were no threat to him and that he was in control. At salvation, however, we’re moved from his kingdom into God’s kingdom, and instantly upgraded to a soldier and therefore a threat to the kingdom of darkness. Most believers haven’t a clue of their changed status. Discipleship is God’s way of preparing us to enter the inevitable battle.
The other reason is that discipleship creates believers who will reflect Jesus and, in turn, go out and make disciples themselves. It is a necessary process in the growth of the kingdom of God. Effective believers living their kingdom purpose need a foundation in the Word of God and to learn to live in the supernatural reality that is now ours in Christ. Every believer needs to be filled with the Spirit and solidly grounded in the truth to enable themselves and others to avoid deception. We need to be taught what it is to worship in Spirit and Truth and how to live by kingdom principles. Finally, we must learn our real purpose in Christ, which is to live to bring glory to God. These are things God can and does teach us sovereignly through the work of His Spirit. But He has also chosen to work through us.
Effective discipleship principles.
Paul offers a wonderful explanation which captures the very essence of God’s ordained way of doing things. Jesus is our first example of what discipleship is and how it should be done. The fundamental premise behind this is of parent and child. Jesus displayed the truth that He had, through intimacy with and knowledge of God, been effectively disciple by His Father. The principle is that discipleship involves a parent-child type relationship. Effective discipleship is not so much an obligation as a calling. In other words, it demands the same commitment as parenthood. Through God, we ‘birth’ new believers into the likeness of Jesus. It is a total investment of who we are and what God has given us. Inconvenience, pressures, demands, and personal desires have no place. All that matters is birthing the baby that God has entrusted into our care and raising them up according to His purpose.
The motive of parenthood isn’t limited to today’s verse. Two obvious ‘mother hen’ metaphors exist. The first is the Spirit of God ‘brooding’ over the waters before creation like a hen over a nest. Another is the lament of Jesus over Jerusalem, whom He longed to gather in like a mother hen gathers in her chickens. What emerges is an intensely personal motif of intimacy – the same intimacy we have in our relationship with the Father through Christ. We reveal ‘Abba’ to others by being an abba to others. Part of the likeness of Christ is an intimate knowledge of the Father. If we desire to disciple others effectively, this core principle is the very foundation of any discipleship relationship.
Discipleship is seldom easy.
The analogy of birth is a sobering reminder that discipleship is an intense and demanding process. Anyone who has given birth can testify that it’s way up top on the pain scale. There’s nothing graceful or dignified about it either. It’s the place where everything else is swept aside and the only thing that matters is delivering that child. The pain can be all-encompassing. We can weep and travail in prayer and our hearts can break each time someone fails or struggles. We’re personally invested in their growth and spiritual well-being on a level that brings us close to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. His example is one we can scarcely think to emulate, yet it’s a powerful parallel. In discipling others, we will always come to a place of ‘thy will be done’ because, like Jesus, we are called to serve God’s purposes in the lives of others.
Yet, just as raising a child is the highest calling any parent will ever follow, discipleship is our highest calling in Christ. It is the call to serve, to lay down our lives for others, to invest our all into their spiritual birth and growth. We cannot expect to have the baby without going through the birth. There are no quick, easy ‘pre-packaging’ strategies to deliver mature Christians. Most of all, it’s in discipling others that we reveal the love of God to them on a real, practical, life-changing level. Raising disciples fulfils the two most important commandments – to love God to the extent that we are able to love others as Jesus did. It will cost us, but it will also be the most rewarding task we can ever undertake for and with God. Giving our all is the only way to fulfil this vital call on our lives.
God’s reward for discipleship.
While we don’t go into discipleship with a view to what we can get out of it, the truth is what we give will always come back to us, with multiplication. At the very least, when we undertake this alongside God, He draws us deeper into an intimate and dynamic relationship. When we seek God on behalf of others, we find Him for ourselves too. As we pray and intercede, He provides greater revelation of His Word and we will see His power released in and through us. We find ourselves growing dramatically as He works in us to prepare and equip us to fulfil His purpose. Above all, there is the unutterable joy of sharing in the birth of a new believer into the kingdom and family of God. There is nothing that the world has to offer that can even begin to measure up to these eternal treasures.
Lord, thank You for the opportunity and the calling to work alongside You in Your perfect purposes. Open our eyes and our hearts, and grant us the willingness to surrender all to the privilege of discipling others. Give us a heart for true discipleship, and teach us and guide us as we reach out to those You bring into our lives with rejoicing and wholehearted commitment.