To make disciples we must be disciples. Others learn by imitating Christ in us, so we must take care that we reflect only Him through relationship with Him.
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
At first glance, this seems to contradict everything we’re taught about surrender and obedience and self diminishing so Jesus can increase. That’s because it’s kind of tacked on at the beginning of a chapter when it really fits with the previous chapter. Out of context, it’s simply an odd anomaly that we easily gloss over because it doesn’t really make much sense. In reality, though, it’s a critical verse when it comes to our responsibility to make disciples, just as Jesus did.
Paul reveals what it means to make disciples.
When taken in proper context, our verse is powerful. If we look back to the last few verses of chapter 10, we see a picture of what is involved when we make disciples. One verse in particular sums it up rather nicely. Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Throughout Paul’s teachings, we see this common thread. While he is recognised as a great evangelist he is also an apostle. His role includes starting churches and discipling believers and leaders alike. In all things, the drive behind his ministry is to reveal the truth of Jesus and to make disciples.
In everything, Paul sets out to make Christ visible and reachable. His teachings make it clear that he is Christ’s ‘ambassador’ only, just as Jesus was God’s ambassador. The relevance of today’s verse, therefore, is not that Paul is placing himself ‘on equal footing’ with Christ as some critics claim. Instead, what he puts across to us is a pivotal truth when it comes to our responsibility to make disciples. We are to live in such a way that when disciples see us, they see Jesus. That is the role Paul assumed always. He was, in everything, a mirror to Christ. In all things, he reflected only the cross.
Imitation is critical when we make disciples.
There is no disputing the fundamental human truth that we learn by imitation. Teachers, life coaches, and trainers are proof of this. Having someone to imitate can shorten the learning time dramatically. Like everything else in this world, learning by imitation has its roots in the Bible. This is how Elijah taught Elisha, for example. It’s also the critical truth that Paul shares in today’s verse. Disciples learn by imitating the one who teaches them, just as the twelve disciples learned from Jesus.
At the same time, though, there is nothing that can replace learning at the feet of Jesus Himself through the work of the indwelling Spirit. Paul’s words today do not imply this. No person, no matter how wise, humble, or knowledgeable, can ever replace the life-giving relationship we have with Christ. A mentor is simply a vessel used by God to speed up the learning process. They provide a visible ‘spiritual pattern’ believers can follow, but this must always manifest Christ. When we make disciples, we provide a reflection of Jesus others can imitate.
To make disciples requires relationship.
We can see this clearly through Paul’s writings. Though he travelled extensively, he never lost touch with the churches he helped found. His letters are evidence that he remained in contact and continued to provide the teaching and mentorship they needed. What this tells us is that to make disciples requires ongoing relationship. It implies long-term commitment rather than producing a ‘batch’ of disciples and moving on to the next. While Jesus may have ‘reached’ multitudes in His time on earth, He discipled only twelve who chose to remain with Him. Those twelve went on to make disciples of their own. That’s the spiritual principle of divine multiplication at work.
The issue of relationship is key to the command to make disciples. It requires commitment. The person being discipled must commit to learning process and the person doing the discipling must commit to the teaching process. For both parties, this is simply submission to Christ. But it also requires trust, which implies relationship because that’s how trust is built. Our model is the one Jesus used. He committed Himself to intimate time with His disciples, sharing the Word, expounding the Word, answering questions, and teaching them spiritual principles and authority. The relationship between Christ and His disciples is what enabled them to ‘go and make disciples.’ They were simply imitating what they saw and learned.
We make disciples by being disciples.
The key to our responsibility to make disciples lies in the truth that discipleship is an ongoing process. We never stop being a disciple. No Christian, however strong or wise or knowledgeable, will ever reach a point where they can stop learning at the feet of Christ. This is the crux of today’s verse. Paul reveals that He remains a disciple – an imitator – of Jesus. It’s significant that Christ’s command to ‘go and make disciples’ is open-ended. He doesn’t tell us to make believers, or make leaders, or make mature, independent Christians. He tells us to make disciples. Discipleship is a life-long commitment.
This is where the principle of imitation becomes so powerful. To make disciples can only be obeyed when we are disciples ourselves. When we are in submission to and learning from Christ, we reflect Christ. When others learn by imitating us, they are, in effect, imitating Christ. It’s a wonderful, practical, and powerful way to make disciples. Paul is simply saying: ‘Imitate me by being a disciple of Jesus, just as I am.’ It has nothing at all to do with his ‘importance’ in the relationship and everything to do with Christ in Him. We must keep in mind that the disciples were all taken to the cross and to life beyond it. They walked with Jesus to the cross and witnessed His resurrection. That is the path every disciple must follow. Self has no place when we make disciples.
God will make disciples through us.
Basically, this is the message behind Paul’s words. He could not make disciples and neither can you and I. We are all simply vessels, the visible reflection of Jesus in the world. But this raises a scary reality that we should all step back and take a long, hard look at. The question is: When ‘our’ disciples look at as, who do they see? New believers must learn by imitation. That’s an established fact. It’s also the reason why being a disciple ourselves is so very important. That verse from Chapter 10 is our ‘measure’ here – ‘do all to the glory of God.’
We’ve all seen how easily children learn bad habits or speech from parents or other role models. That’s because they trust implicitly. They do not even consider that what the role model may do or say may be wrong. New believers are ‘spiritual children’ and will automatically imitate those they trust. What this means is that, when we make disciples, we need to be sure that our speech and actions reflect Christ at all times. The understanding of a disciple is that we reflect ‘truth,’ i.e. the Word of God. It’s absolutely critical that we remain in submission. We cannot do the work and that must be a visible truth rather than an assumed humility. Only God can make disciples. If others see self, God is not in the work.
Relationship and our responsibility to make disciples.
It follows, then, that our most important responsibility if we obey the command to make disciples is to be one ourselves. God cannot be glorified if self is present, and He won’t use us unless we live in constant awareness of the cross. We may be able to create a semblance of discipleship, but in reality, we are simply teaching deception. That’s a frightening prospect. We cannot afford to take this lightly, because making disciples is an awesome responsibility. We will be accountable for what we teach. But if we remain a disciple, we remain in right relationship and intimacy – the kind where we learn from Jesus. If we live only for the glory of God and ruthlessly take self to the cross when we need to, we need not fear.
Those who love Him, reflect Him. When we reflect Jesus, He makes the disciples by reaching and teaching others through us.
Thank You, Lord, that we never have to stop being Your disciple. Help us to remain at Your feet and to learn from You daily. Draw us close in the perfect intimacy You offer. Teach us so that we may imitate You, and empower us to make disciples by being only a reflection of You so that we can do all to Your glory.