What is discipleship? Let’s tackle the simplest concept first: Discipleship comes from the word disciple. And disciple comes from the Greek word mathetes, which means learner. It doesn’t get any more glamorous than that. “Discipleship” means the quality, condition, or state of learning.
When you handle electricity, you’re dealing with a mysterious, invisible reality. Properly handled, it can run a washing machine…or a neighborhood full of them. But the exposed little wire that looks so harmless might have that same invisible power coursing through it. Touch it the wrong way, and it could stop your heart. An electrician obviously needs careful discipleship.
The trades that call for a high learning curve have identified phases of expertise—apprentices, journeymen, and masters. You don’t start off knowing everything. In fact, the less open you are to outside help, the less successful you’re going to be in the long term. The tradesman who says, “I’ll just read some books” or “I’ll Google it,” or (worse), “I’ll just make it up as I go along,” is in for some unpleasant surprises. As an aspiring electrician you can certainly choose to go it alone and let electricity be your teacher. Then again, you may end up being “taught” to always have emergency medical numbers programmed into your cell phone.
What are Christian disciples supposed to learn? Jesus said “All that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). The most immediate context of that verse lies inside the pages of Matthew’s gospel. However, it’s safe to say He meant the rest of the New Testament too, wherever He spoke personally or through His apostles. As with electricity, once again we are dealing with an invisible reality. It can do more than run a blender. This power created the universe and accomplished redemption in Christ on the cross. Now God wants to regenerate, sanctify, and transform people. A fair amount of activity is going on all around us. The learning curve is high. You need discipleship, but in what way, specifically?
We can break discipleship down into four general bite-sized chunks—1. inward things 2. outward things 3. corporate things 4. missional things. We’ll address each in subsequent posts.
1. Inward things. Jesus warned the hollow religious pretenders of His day to “clean the inside of the cup” (Matt. 23:26). Alternately, He told the disciples to beware of play acting when it came time to pray and fast and give to the poor (Matt. 5-8). We’re not supposed to wear piety around for show. Jesus prescribed worship, relationship with God, and character formation as items hidden away from human observation. They were to abound under God’s constant gaze, though. He was deeply concerned about what goes on in the secret chambers of our heart. Jesus Himself had experienced being alone with the devil in the wilderness where there were no witnesses. He could easily have caved in to temptation since no one was looking. But His inner life proved unbreakable.
The category of discipleship related to inward things is an ongoing necessity. We must learn and practice the hidden, the private, and the secret. Skip this step and you’ll end up a candidate for failure on a grand scale. Granted, after managing to develop your Christian image for many years, you could achieve status as an “oak” in the eyes of the church. All the energy spent on external appearance will earn you the reputation of being externally sound. Yet, sheer neglect of interior reality will lead to a fundamentally soft, pulpy, rotten core. No one will know the difference until the first strong wind kicks up and you break in half.
Jesus charged us to cultivate a robust internal life. It’s slower, but far more successful in the long run.
It’s safer, too.