As Christians we know we should all be enthusiastic about discipleship, but what are the theological reasons behind that desire? In this first part of Lesley Ramsay’s reflections on discipleship, she helps us to see some of the biblical realities that should shape our thinking and method of discipleship. In part 2, we’ll look at some of the practical implications for disciple-making.
How do you get someone to do something when they are afraid; they lack confidence and competence; they are uncomfortable; they have no experience; they have no vision or passion? This is the question that often plagues pastors and ministry leaders as they seek to empower people to serve. It is not enough just to tell someone that serving is what the Bible expects of them; we need to find a way of giving them a vision, a passion to pursue. We need to motivate them.
Nowhere do we see this more clearly than Jesus’ vision casting at the Great Commission in Matthew 28. As Jesus prepares to leave his friends after the cross and resurrection, he instructs them:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)
Jesus calls his disciples to be about the business of making disciples, of growing the church. But he also calls all of us—not just the eleven apostles on that mountainside, or the professionals in our churches. How do we know that?
There are a few things in this passage that imply discipleship is the responsibility of all Christians.
Firstly, if the eleven disciples were to make disciples and teach them to obey everything Jesus had taught them, then part of what the eleven were to teach the new disciples was this command—that is, to make disciples of all nations. So built into the very nature of making disciples is that disciples will make more disciples who will go on to make more disciples. This started with the eleven, and went on right down through the following 20 centuries—until someone preached the gospel to us, followed us up and nurtured us, and we became disciples. Now we must obey what Jesus said: “Make disciples!”
Have you ever seen those groups of people who get in a long line to carry out a task—like passing buckets, or sand bags, or rescuing someone from the surf? The same concept is on view here. It’s like there is a great line of disciples stretching across 2000 years from that hill outside Jerusalem in AD33 to your city in 2016.
Secondly, the task Jesus gave the eleven was much too colossal to have been given only to them. How could eleven people make disciples of all nations? Impossible! This command actually implies something bigger is going on, something worldwide and God-empowered. This is not just a command for the eleven.
Thirdly, the assurance found in verse 20, “I am with you always, to the end of the age”, implies that Jesus is initiating a new era, which will continue until the end of time. This is a strange command if it’s just for the eleven—they will only live for a maximum of another 50 or so years. But we know, post-Pentecost, that Jesus is present with his disciples through the Spirit. His promise is one that carries on until he returns, when all things will be wrapped up.
In this wonderful passage we see Jesus commissioning the eleven and every disciple after them to continue his work of making disciples. So it is our mission, our calling, our ministry; not just the work of the eleven, or of the first-century Christians, or of our paid ministers. No, Jesus catches us all up in this great work down the centuries. We are all to be committed to disciple making!
But back to the question of how we galvanise our people to pursue disciple-making with commitment and passion. I have become convinced that one of the things we must do is cast the vision of ‘gospel realities’ before them. Seeing how God really views his creation, and the plans and purposes he has for it, will motivate more truly than straight edict!
The realities that ought to shape us
1. God’s purposes for the world
God has been very gracious to us creatures. He has told us his plan and purpose for the world. We are not left to guess. It is not world peace, freedom from hunger, or eradication of poverty. According to Ephesians 1:9-10, Jesus is at the centre of God’s purpose. One day, every man, woman and child will know and have to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Since God has told us this is his purpose, it would be foolish of his people to have something different in mind. If we are to work in partnership with God to further his purposes, we will be calling on men and women to recognise that God exists and that Jesus is Lord—that is, we will be making disciples.
2. The certainty of heaven and hell
The existence of heaven and hell changes the whole of life! Our problem is that we are totally consumed by what we can see. But there is more to life than this world… and eternity is all about heaven and hell. Jesus clearly warned about this in his story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
There is a judgement coming and all men and women will appear before the man God has appointed as judge: Christ. 2 Thessalonians tells us he will come…
…inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thess 1:8-9)
They are confronting words, aren’t they? Many Christian teachers will tell you that God is too loving to allow anyone to face an eternity in hell, but they fail to take into account these verses in 1 Thessalonians. Everyone will face judgement as to whether they have obeyed the gospel of Jesus. And hell is the only option that faces our family, friends and neighbours unless they hear and obey the gospel and become disciples.
3. The compulsion of love
In 2 Corinthians 5:14, in the context of persuading people to trust Christ, Paul says that “Christ’s love compels us” (NIV). The word ‘compels’ that’s used in this version seems like a pretty neutral word. But it’s a very expressive word in the original Greek. It’s the word used when the gospel writers talk of people crowding Jesus. It means pressured; hemmed in with no room to move (like cattle or sheep going up a chase); under the mastery of; surrounded by; driven by; gripped!! Something has a hold of Paul’s heart.
This is what drives a thriving, healthy Christian. Paul is saying that his desire to make disciples grows out of being gripped by Christ’s love. He can do nothing else!
And he is only imitating his Lord:
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest”. (Matt 9:36-38)
4. The pre-eminence of the cross
When we look at the priorities of Jesus’ ministry we get a clear view of our fourth reality. In the Gospels we see plainly that Jesus could heal, so he could have emptied hospitals the world over. He could create food, so he could have eliminated world hunger. He could calm storms, so he could have eliminated natural disasters. But he chose to turn his back on those things, and instead he chose the cross. The cross matters more than any other good Jesus could have chosen. What the world needed then, and still needs more than anything else, is reconciliation—so God sent us a Saviour to die on the cross. The question needs to be asked: if God could have achieved his purposes for the world without the death of his Son, would he not have taken that path? The fact of the cross demonstrates the pre-eminence of rescue from judgement.
5. The urgency of life
The fifth reality that will shape us is the urgency of life. This life, lived in the created physical order, is a snap of the fingers when compared with the life to come:
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)
Our physical life is light, fleeting, wasting away, of small moment. Eternity is weighty, endures forever, glorious, of momentous significance! To desire to see as many as possible enter into a glorious eternity begins with knowing that this life is short and the task of proclamation is urgent.
As we articulate these gospel realities to each other, our hearts ought to swell and yearn for many to become disciples. Because God’s plan is to exalt Jesus as Lord, and because the cross reveals that rescue from the certainty of hell is peerless in importance, and because it is an urgent task driven by the way Christ loves us… then we will love to make disciples.
Isn’t that better than just telling each other we have to do it?
Next month, we will look at some practical repercussions for disciple-making.
Lesley Ramsay has been in local church ministry with her husband, Jim, for 45 years. Over the last 25 years she has worked as a Bible teacher and evangelist across Australia and overseas. She has written and edited several books and training packages that are sold and used internationally. She now works at Moore College in Sydney, in pastoral care to the students. To relax, she enjoys a good coffee and a good book and hanging out with her grandchildren.