Jesus’ DiscipleshipAs I read through the gospels I see Jesus engaging people from all spheres of society with his life and message of the kingdom of God. From the religious elite, to the average peasant, to those considered outcasts such as tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus engaged and challenged them with the news of the kingdom. Wherever and whoever Jesus was engaging with there are signs of him calling people to become disciples. In some circumstances he challenged with the good news, in others he comforted with the good news, but he was always calling people to follow him.
If Jesus had a linear process that he used in developing disciples then he kept it to himself and the gospel writers didn’t try and tease it out. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t intentional about discipleship, he certainly was, I’m just not convinced that he had a clear process that he worked through with people to help them become disciples. As we observe Jesus it is apparent that he used different elements of the gospel with different people, depending on their situation. Some people’s circumstances called for incredible grace and mercy, others harsh words of judgement or challenge, Jesus met people at their point of need and engaged them with the gospel accordingly.
In surveying the gospels, particularly Luke, I found that Jesus uses several different means to develop disciples. He put forward hard challenges to encourage the recipient to step up to goals and ideals of the kingdom of God; he performed acts of power to display his authority and show signs of the coming kingdom of God; he spent his time teaching the vision and values of the kingdom of God; he lived a life modelling prayer and finally he empowered and gave tasks to those seeking to become disciples.
In an attempt to assess Jesus’ different methods of developing disciples I will explore each of these means listed above.
From the very beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:14-30) Jesus was levelling hard challenges at those who saw themselves as assured of salvation. Jesus challenged them by reinterpreting what they thought to be God’s will and opening their eyes to the new covenant. Jesus used this approach of hard challenges with the Pharisees as seen in Luke 7:36-50. Here Jesus is anointed by a woman deemed to be unclean by the Pharisees while he is sitting at their table. When the Pharisees challenged Jesus’ behaviour he responded with a parable and reinterpreted their view of forgiveness and cleanliness. He called them to the new way the kingdom of God is bringing in and they are left asking a key discipleship question, “Who is this that even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49).
Jesus challenges his own disciples many times, sometimes even harshly using rebuke such as when he says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Matthew 16:23). He challenged all the disciples in Luke 8:22-25 when he calmed the storm after being woken by the disciples who were fearing for their lives. Once he calmed the storm he said to them, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25) and once again a key discipleship question was asked, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” (Luke 8:25)
Jesus put hard challenges to those who aspired to become his disciples. In Luke 9:57-62 we see him call into question the commitment of a couple of people who were eager to follow him. When these people ask to be allowed to tie up loose ends before following Jesus his response is hard and to the point, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) It’s not clear what the response of these people was, but text gives the impression that at this time they could not bear the cost.
Jesus used this method of hard challenges with the rich as is seen in the story of the rich ruler. After a rich ruler claims to have kept all the commandments Jesus calls him to sell all his possessions, give them away to the poor and then follow him. The rich ruler left dismayed because there was no way he could bring himself to part with all his possessions and therefore he could not follow Jesus. Jesus then extended his challenge from this one individual to all rich people saying, “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)
There are more examples throughout the scriptures of Jesus using hard challenges to develop disciples, it is a radical approach as people either rise to the challenge or otherwise find themselves turning away. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t use this method of developing disciples anywhere near as often with the poor or outcast as he did with the rich and powerful.
Acts Of Power.
One of the methods Jesus used in his development of disciples was acts of power. Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, controlled the weather and performed other miraculous signs of his power and authority. His acts of power were signs of the coming kingdom of God and displayed his authority for those around him to observe.
There are many examples of Jesus performing acts of power among the crowds as he journeyed and taught. One such example is found in Luke 7:14-17 where Jesus raises the only child of a widow to life as he is being carried out of the town. The response of the people there was very significant, “God has come to help his people.” (Luke 7:16) Jesus act of power had drawn them towards a realisation that God had come to help them, that he did care about them, a key lesson on their journey of discipleship.
Jesus used acts of power to develop his disciples into better followers of him. In Luke 5:4-11 we see Jesus instruct these fishermen to lower their nets after they had been fishing all night. In obedience, a crucial element of discipleship, the fishermen lowered their nets and caught more fish than they could manage on their own. Simon Peter’s response to this was to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, to recognise his own sinfulness before him. Jesus then called them to follow and they left everything and followed him. Clearly this act of power developed the disciples trust and belief in Jesus, allowing them to make such a bold step as to leave everything and follow him.
Jesus also used acts of power to challenge the faith and discipleship of the Pharisees. In Luke 5:17-26, while he was teaching as the Pharisees and many others were there listening, Jesus healed a man and forgave his sins right in front of them. Jesus used this act of power to display his authority and teach the Pharisees about forgiveness, to challenge them to acknowledge his authority. Differing from many other passages, this text doesn’t show us a negative response from the Pharisees, it’s not clear if they joined with the others present in praising God, being filled with awe and saying, “We have seen remarkable things today.” (Luke 5:26)
Jesus also used acts of power to encourage those powerful in his society to become disciples. Not only did he display his authority for them to witness and wonder at, but he also used these situations to teach them about the values of the kingdom of God, particularly his concern for the poor and outcast. We see an excellent example of this in Luke 8:40-56 when Jesus is on his way to a synagogue leader’s house to heal his daughter and is stopped by a woman very outcast by the Jewish culture. Jesus values and takes time with this woman and the synagogue leader’s daughter dies. Jesus goes on to display his power over death and raise the synagogue leader’s daughter to life, but the lesson that those who are outcast are valuable to God was not lost. It was a significant counter cultural action that Jesus used to teach the values of the kingdom of God.
There are many other examples of Jesus using acts of power to develop disciples throughout the gospels. It is significant to note that again Jesus uses this method in different ways for different circumstances. He gives people access to the kingdom of God in the way they most need it, whether that is restoring the life of a widow’s only son because without him life would have become much harder for her or letting a rich man’s daughter die so that he learnt God’s heart for the outcast.
One of the key methods Jesus used to develop disciples was teaching. Jesus taught using sharp pithy sayings (Luke 5:31-32), he taught by reinterpreting the law as it was meant to be understood (Luke 6:1-9), he taught in parables (Luke 8:1-18), he taught massive crowds of people who would sit and listen (Luke 6:20-49), he taught in the synagogues (Luke 4:44) and he taught his closest followers privately (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus taught pretty much anywhere at anytime and his topics ranged broadly. He taught using means and content that people would understand and not just for the sake of teaching but to challenge and encourage people to greater levels of discipleship.
Throughout Jesus ministry he regularly withdrew to spend time with his Father in prayer. Even though his ministry was successful and very public he regularly withdrew from the crowds to pray (Luke 4:42, 5:16, 6:12). Although Jesus does not appear to use this intentionally as a method to develop disciples his modelling of prayer and solitude with God must have had a significant impact on those around him. Particularly on the night before he was crucified when he asked his disciples to pray and he withdrew and prayed in anguish (Luke 22:39-46). Their failure to follow his example and command at such a crucial time must have had a significant impact.
A key method in Jesus approach to developing disciples was empowering and giving them tasks, sending them out to “preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9:2). While Jesus disciples went with him and no doubt joined in his ministry at particular times there are two specific instances mentioned in Luke that are worth noting. When the twelve were sent out with authority and specific instructions and a chapter later in Luke when Jesus sends out the seventy-two (Luke 10:1-17). This method of empowerment is significant as it enabled Jesus’ followers to participate in his ministry and further explore what it meant to be a disciple. In their task they would have been tested and challenged, providing opportunities for them to make steps forward in their discipleship. Luke 10:17 says, “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” They had participated in the kingdom of God through the authority of Jesus and experience the power of God, a significant formative experience as a follower of Jesus.
I live, work, minister and play in a suburb of Melbourne called Preston. It’s a very diverse suburb with many religions, races, subcultures all mixed in together. It’s not a wealthy suburb, although there are more and more people with money buying older houses and doing them up to live in. There are significant issues in the areas of drug and alcohol abuse, housing, isolation and unemployment. People from our church live in this and the surrounding suburbs, we generally meet in Preston at my house. Our group is made up of mostly white middle class christians although as time goes on we are growing in diversity. Our missional focus is around the idea of creating safe spaces for people to come, away from their worry, their drug or alcohol addiction or their otherwise unhealthy living arrangements. We run a weekly community meal and are hoping to start a low cost housing arrangement with a focus on creating healthy transforming communities.
Under the headings below I will seek to address the question of how Jesus’ methods of discipleship might be integrated into my context.
Most of the members of my church have been Christians for a long time. Over the years it is easy to become complacent and apathetic or arrogant and self assured in the faith. Following Jesus’ method of hard challenges is a very useful method of developing disciples with people in this situation. A concern may be that this method is open to abuse. Obviously Jesus employing this method is different to a fallen human employing it. If I was to adopt Jesus approach of giving people hard challenges in the hope of helping them develop in their discipleship I would want to make sure the challenges I was putting before them were only from the gospel, not add ons or extras to what Jesus requires. Too often in the history of the church people have been excluded for not taking up a challenge that really had very little do with the gospel.
As I noted when commenting on Jesus employing this method, it appears to be something he mostly used with those who were powerful, wealthy and self-assured of their place in heaven. Although the call to follow Jesus is significant for everyone, Jesus seemed to approach those on the margins of society with more grace than challenge, I too would want to adopt this approach. People on the fringe are often cynical of the church and don’t understand that Jesus wants to meet them. Hard challenges to people who already outcast is not a method of developing disciples I think Jesus modelled.
Acts of Power.
This method used by Jesus to develop disciples is one I find hard to know how to integrate into our life today. By demonstrating his authority and power Jesus was making it clear who he was and what God’s intention for humanity was, Jesus acts were signs of the coming kingdom of God. While I certainly believe that God intervenes in sometimes miraculous and powerful ways today, I’m not sure of exactly how this is meant to be used for discipleship in my context. I guess if God granted me the gift of healing or miracles then I would be able to use them to point towards the coming kingdom and God’s power, encouraging those around me to greater discipleship. However I don’t seem to have these gifts, nor do any others in our church. Maybe we should be praying for them and if God grants them, to use them boldly, calling people to follow Christ because of his power and love for them.
This method has certainly been the dominant approach under Christendom and although we don’t want to react too far against it we are seeking to find a healthy balance. Instead of having one professional teacher our church tends to share the task around and use different group learning techniques. Specifically we have adapted Lectio Divina
for group use and find that it enables group members to teach one another regardless of their status or education. Teaching is still a significant method of disciple development for us, occurring every week in our worship gathering and through the regular reading of scripture.
We’ve just begun a missional discipleship Order called the Kaleo Order. This Order is designed to pick up some of Jesus method of modelling prayer as an approach to developing disciples. In the same way that Jesus withdrew to spend time with his Father as fuel for his ministry and mission, we are encouraging people to do the same. The Order uses a particular method of bible reading and prayer that we think is appropriate for our specific context. Members of the Order are also required to meet in small groups fortnightly to share what they’ve learnt and keep one another accountable to our spiritual disciplines. These groups allow members to learn from one another, to model to each other and encourage each other to greater levels of discipleship.
Empowerment is probably the easiest of Jesus’ methods of developing disciples to integrate into our context. As soon as people are a part of our community in any way we encourage them to participate in our missional activities. Of course those who are not Christians are not sharing the stories of Jesus with those we serve in our neighbourhood, but they are serving and loving those on the margins right along with us. They are participating in the kingdom of God and in doing so are drawn closer to Jesus and ultimately into discipleship. For those who already following Jesus they are empowered and encouraged to take bigger risks in mission, putting themselves in places where they must rely on God. This approach to developing disciples works very well in our context.
Jesus didn’t have a linear process of developing disciples, but he did have several methods that he used repeatedly throughout his ministry. He leveled hard challenges at people, performed acts of power displaying his authority and intention for humanity, he taught the values of the kingdom of God, modelled a prayerful relationship with God and empowered those who sought to follow him with kingdom tasks. In our context we can and do seek to integrate these different approaches to developing disciples, empowering people to live out and experience the kingdom of God seems to be the most appropriate and successful.