CHURCH & MINISTRY
Discipleship Looks Different for Everyone
By Denise Kohlmeyer
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"Hey, Sis. I have a question."
That is how most of my conversations have begun with my brother since his conversion over a year ago. At the age of 45, this younger sibling surrendered his life to the Lord after a horribly humiliating and humbling personal experience in 2015. Since then, he has called me long distance almost weekly, asking deep, soul-searching questions, questions I knew that only God could be impressing upon his hurting heart.
But somewhere within that year, our conversations morphed from gospel-oriented dialogue to Christ-centered discipleship. All over the phone, no less.
I have been amazed at how comfortable and uncomplicated these times of "telecommunication discipleship" have been with my brother, compared with my own experience 30 years ago when I was a baby believer myself, asking and seeking. My discipleship involved two years of weekly meetings with a pastor's wife and going through a structured study that touched on the fundamentals of the faith.
In retrospect, given my own experience, that of my brother's, and a careful study of the discipleship stories recorded in Scripture, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus wisely left the logistics of "making disciples...baptizing them...teaching them all that I have commanded you" (known as The Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20) open to interpretation and application. He did not put any parameters around its practical outworking, knowing that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for how, when, and where discipleship happens.
The word "discipleship" in Greek, mathetes, means "a learner, pupil." The root word, math-, means the "mental effort needed to think something through." Discipleship in the simplest of terms is really when a more mature believer comes alongside a newly born-again believer and teaches them how to follow Jesus Christ, helping them to "think through" His commands intelligently then apply them behaviorally.
The concept of Christian discipleship actually gets it genesis from first century Judaism. Orthodox Jewish parents would put their young sons under the authority and teaching of a Rabbi (rhabbi, "master, teacher"). For years, these pupils would intensely study the Torah and its practical (albeit burdensome) applications, all within a formal, structured setting. The hope was that someday these boys would grow up to become Rabbis themselves.
The Apostle Paul is a perfect example. He left Tarsus to study in Jerusalem under the renowned Rabbi of that day, Gamaliel. Paul proved to be an exceptionally astute pupil too, taking to heart the teachings and eventually becoming a "Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee" (Philippians 3:5).
Jesus employed this same Teacher-Pupil model as well when He gathered a group of 12 men who spent three years sitting under His divine tutelage, learning the ways, purposes and plans of God. They became Kingdom pupils, and were thus known as "Jesus' disciples."
While Paul's Rabbinic discipleship was formal and structured, the disciples' was completely casual in nature — literally — since Jesus often used nature as His classroom: sitting by the Sea of Galilee, walking through a grain field, perched on a mountainside, gathered in a garden, or reclining around a table.
While many believers support the idea of discipleship theologically, they have shied away from practicing it personally. Why? The reasons range widely, from feeling intimidated and overwhelmed by the thought of taking on such a sacred responsibility, to avoiding making a commitment due to time constraints.
From the following accounts, however, we wonderfully see that discipleship opportunities vary just as widely: from one-time, divinely-appointed encounters to longer-term sacrificial sojourns, and everything in between.
Believers can — and should — fulfill this directive, as God brings the appointments about.
Bold and Brief
If ever there was a fulfillment of the entire Great Commission (go, make disciples, baptize them, teach them) in one fell swoop, it is that of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.
While seated in a chariot, this high-ranking court official of the Ethiopian Queen Candace, was reading aloud from the book of Isaiah, having just left Jerusalem where he had celebrated the Passover. Prompted by an angel, Philip ran (literally) along the road to catch up with the chariot. How funny it must have seemed to the eunuch to suddenly look up and see this stranger running alongside his vehicle, then casually ask, "Do you understand what you are reading?" But, unfazed, the eunuch replies, "How can I unless someone guides me?" He then invites Philip into his conveyance, and a discipleship dialogue unfolds. Philip "opened his mouth, and beginning with the Scripture, he told him the good news about Jesus."
Part of Philip's teaching apparently included baptism. As they providentially happened upon some water along their journey, the eunuch requested to be baptized; and, without hesitation, Philip obliged him. The Lord then spirited Philip away, and the newly-converted eunuch proceeded on his way, "rejoicing."
From this one-of-a-kind account, we see that discipleship can be a brief but bold time of "guiding" a spiritually hungry — or hurting — heart to the One who saves and heals. Philip demonstrates that discipleship does not have to be complicated or overly-involved; and it also challenges us to be open and ready for God's impromptu discipleship directives and not waste any time when the opportunity presents itself to espouse and explain the glorious story of Jesus Christ.
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