Oriented Toward Others
Being a disciple of Jesus means orienting our lives toward others, just as Jesus did. It means laboring for the sake of others. This love for others is at the heart of discipling. We set our sights on serving others for Christ’s sake, just as Christ came into the world not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
The discipling life is an others-oriented life. It labors in the power of God to proclaim Christ and present others mature in Christ. That is the pattern we see in the Bible.
The Biblical Pattern
Before Christ is ever named in Scripture, God hardwires these lessons into creation itself through the family. Consider how God makes us parents. He embeds in our nature the desire to give huge amounts of loving attention to rearing one person, nurturing and leading him or her toward maturity.
Then, in ancient Israel, he uses the power of these parenting relationships to work like channels through which the water of his Word flows. So Moses gives the Ten Commandments. He tells the people to love God. And then he instructs the people of Israel, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6–7). Here God gives us a great object lesson in discipling another human being. Discipling involves transmitting the knowledge of God and his Word through every moment of life.
Discipling involves transmitting the knowledge of God and his Word through every moment of life.
Beyond the family itself, the Bible is full of discipling relationships where one person teaches another. Think of how Moses raised up Joshua to succeed him. As did Eli with Samuel. And Elijah with Elisha.
The most famous discipler of all, of course, is Jesus Christ. Christianity did not start with a mass-market product rollout. There was no 24/7 media coverage surrounding his travels. It began with a series of personal engagements among a small group of men over a three-year period.
Yes, crowds often came to Jesus, and word of his miracle sometimes spread like wildfire. But within those large crowds was a smaller group of disciples whom Jesus called to himself. He invested particularly in them. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:13–14).
These Twelve confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. They largely stayed with him. And he wanted them to “be with him.” (I love that phrase!) Within the Twelve, he especially poured into three: Peter, James, and John. But you might say, “That’s Jesus! Of course he does this. He’s God!”
All right then. Let’s consider the example of the apostle Paul. Acts 16 describes one of Paul’s missionary journeys. But the chapter begins by introducing us to a disciple named Timothy and then tells us, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him” (v. 3). Like Jesus and the disciples, Paul wanted Timothy to be with him, to travel with him, to join him in the work of the kingdom. It’s not difficult to surmise that Paul discipled Timothy like an Old Testament father would disciple his son— teaching God’s Word diligently when they walked by the way, when they lay down, when they rose.
Decades later, Paul would tell Timothy to do the same with others: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul’s discipling ambitions were multigenerational. He wanted spiritual great-grandchildren. Timothy (child) was to find faithful men (grandchildren) who would be able to teach others (great-grandchildren).
Toiling and Struggling
What would it mean to give yourself to this biblical pattern of investing in spiritual children? Colossians 1:28–29 provides a useful starting point. In them, Paul is writing to the church at Colossae, a city in what is today western Turkey. He reminds these Christians of what he has done for them: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28–29). Paul toils. Paul struggles. If we would do good for others, so must we.
Do you ever wonder how to exercise spiritual power? Maybe people will tell you, “Eat this.” “Say these words.” “Pray this prayer.” “Read this author.” “Have this experience.” “Go to this conference.” “Look inside yourself.” But no! Spiritual power is exercised in strenuous self-giving service for others. The word for struggling in Colossians 1:29 can also be translated as “agony.” Which is to say, agony rather than ecstasy is the way to spiritual power. Do you want to know the power of God and a faith that works? Then give yourself over to the struggle of working for the good of others, even as Christ himself worked and struggled for our good. True Christian faith is not lazy faith. It is faith that works, like Paul’s.
God's Powerful Work
But is Paul bragging by talking about his toil and struggle on their behalf? Not at all. Look at the last words in the passage: God was powerfully working within him. Whatever the Colossians had received from Paul, it wasn’t to Paul’s credit, it was to God’s.
If you or I hope to contribute any good to others, it will only happen as God’s Spirit works in us and through us. Knowing that God works in us counters pride. It reminds us that all that we have and are, all that we can do and achieve, comes from God. If you or I have observed any fruitfulness from our labors, there’s no reason for pride. God has worked. It was his power. All spiritual fruit redounds to his praise.
And knowing that God works counters fear. If we are certain of God’s good work in us, if we are committed to his goals, we can lay aside the fear that our work is futile or misdirected. We can lay aside the fear of losing health or wealth. Such things may go, but his work through us will last eternally.
Proclaim and Present
Notice the two words in these same verses that tell us what Paul means to do—proclaim and present: “Him we proclaim . . . that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” He proclaims so that he can present. Proclaim the Word of God now; present the saints mature in Christ when he comes later. These two words tell us how Paul toils and struggles (by proclaiming), as well as why he toils and struggles (so that he might present).
Paul also explains what’s involved in proclaiming: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” Paul’s proclaiming involves warning and teaching. He warns churches away from what’s worthless and damning and teaches them to be united in the riches and wisdom of the gospel. And he doesn’t just warn and teach all people abstractly. He warns everyone and teaches everyone—from person to person to person.
A few verses later Paul describes his desire for the Colossians to possess “the full riches of complete understanding” (2:2 NIV). Notice the piled-up goods: full riches of complete understanding! There are treasures of wisdom and knowledge to be found here! Part of maturity is knowing how to discern between right and wrong, true and false, precious and worthless. This is how Paul wants to present God’s people fully mature, fully grown.
The work of discipling occurs in the present, but it has its eyes set on the Last Day. It requires long-term thinking. It requires an investor’s mentality, knowing that the return is eternal. And the investment occurs through God’s Word. We must proclaim. God’s Word is the seed that ultimately bears fruit, even if we don’t see it in the short term.
Sow the Word now. Sow with your spouse and children. Sow with other members of the church. And trust that God’s Word does not return void. You will see the harvest later. Mature believers will be ready to receive Christ when he comes.
This article is adapted from Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus by Mark Dever.