“Therefore, I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—“ Romans 15:18
An interesting turn of phrase, “leading the Gentiles to obey God.” Previously Paul talked about his calling as a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles…so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (v. 16,17) The bottom-line reality about these phrases is the fact that all across the north-east quarter of the Roman empire the lives of Gentiles had been transformed as they determined to be followers of Jesus Christ and members of the household of God.
Here are some of the supporting statements from Paul’s letters
“But now in Jesus Christ, you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2)
“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. ……..You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore, we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead —Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1 Thessalonians 1)
The issue to note here is that the measure of Paul’s ministry in this instance is not how well he preached or whether he felt good about himself in doing so. The measure was that people’s lives had been changed by the power of God. Instead of imitating their neighbours and drooling after their new four-wheel-drive, they took their modelling from the way Paul and his companions lived their lives. Instead of forming a cosy little spiritual club they shared their story all over Macedonia and Achaea. The story they had to tell was of encountering God through the power of Word and Spirit causing them to turn from serving idols to serving God.
Any goal that would worthily carry ‘NoPlaceLeft’ potential will require a discipleship markedly different to what we commonly serve up under that title. And it starts with the person or persons who carry the message. Paul’s words from Romans 15 (quoted above) tell that story. There were two parts to the equation. The first was that Paul said and did things with the deliberate intention of making disciples. The second was the fact that people who heard what was said and saw what he did cashed in their former lifestyle in favour of trusting and obeying God. The change in people’s lives will expose the nature of what was said and done. If what we say and do doesn’t produce that kind of change in the disciples we are involved with, it is clear evidence that what we are saying and doing has been compromised.
It may sound a bit harsh in the ears of people who have been raised in a self-indulgent, convenience-motivated culture like ours. But it is probably the truth. In many cases we have lowered the price tag on discipleship in order to “sell the product.” What we have not said and not done will testify against us. We have a society saturated by independence, self-gratification and comfort. It shouts at us a hundred times a day. It is the wide road Jesus talked about that offers everything but produces nothing of value. The narrow gate and the more challenging way is easy to miss but it is the only discipleship path that leads to life – not just for us but for the people for whom we carry divine responsibility.
We only need to glance at the discipleship statements of Jesus to feel the difference in the culture and climate. The fact that a renowned New Testament scholar like F.F. Bruce would write a book with the title, “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” tells us that there is something wrong with the window we look through. He has a list of seventy in all. The “hard” in some cases means hard to understand, but mostly the sayings are hard because we have become soft and self-centred. Jesus ONLY spoke loving words. He only called people to embrace things that were good and worthwhile. So why would we think they are ‘hard?’ I think the reverse is the case. It is hard when we do something other than what Jesus has said. It is tragic when we compromise what Jesus said to make it fit our otherwise self-determined lifestyle limits. The apostle, John got it right when he said that the commands of Jesus were a delight, not a burden. A delight because of the opportunity to demonstrate love, freely given in the form of trust.
This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5)
When we treat the commands of Jesus as an obligation or reluctant duty we are betraying attitudes dangerously close to the oldest in the book, quoting the serpent’s words to Eve: “Has God said…… ?” (Genesis 3). The suggestion was that God had some less-than-worthy purpose in mind when he gave Adam and Eve an instruction about a certain tree when, in reality it was a loving and protective instruction seeking a loving and trusting response.
So we have not made discipleship about obeying what Jesus has said. We should have listened to the words of the Great Commission and we would have heard, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28). It really is about teaching obedience. Paul lived a life of literal obedience to the words of Jesus’ last command. Ironic indeed, that he was the only one NOT present but he HEARD what Jesus said more carefully than the eleven apostles who could read Jesus’ lips as he spoke. When we talk about obedience in relation to what Jesus intended we are not talking about a set of religious rituals. We are talking about an expression of faith in God that is designed to get us from no experience of God’s promise to the full experience. Obedience to Christ is a set of actions that demonstrate trust on the part of the disciple and look for transformation by the power of God. When someone offends me and I become hurt or angry, the command of Jesus is for me to forgive them. That may seem unfair at best or impossible at worst. I have two choices. I can do what I feel like doing and hang on to my resentment, even think of ways of getting even OR I can make a decision to forgive trusting that God will give me a new forgiving heart. When I have a forgiving heart I will forgive not because I am slavishly obeying a command, but because my heart has become like the heart of God.
And that’s exactly what was happening to the Gentiles and Jews who heard what Paul said and saw what he did. They heard God’s story in his preaching and teaching and saw his story in the what he did and the way he did it. Both were the work of the same Holy Spirit. As a result, the disciples found that the same Holy Spirit was available to them and their lives were changed. As we saw from the Thessalonians, and now the Romans. The measure of the ministry is told in the quality of the disciples it produces. I’ve heard quite a few Christian leaders complaining about the lack of commitment in their congregations, and I’ve contributed to it myself more than I like to admit. We need to be complaining to the person who looks back at us in the mirror. Then we need to go before God and ask why our message and lifestyle isn’t producing self-governing and passionately obedient disciples. I don’t think I will ever forget Paul Scanlan’s reference to the first three words used about the church in Acts 2 (Crossing Over) – “they devoted themselves…” That simple fact tells us that people were become disciples of Jesus, not members of a personality fan club.
Reproducing passionate commitment to Christ will only happen when three things line up: an open unashamed passion in the heart of the disciple-making person, a disciple who has knowingly and freely signed up for the obedience-to-Jesus package deal and then a step by step approach to hearing and obeying Jesus that is willing and accountable. I can think of so many people I have been involved with at the time who came to me because they were wanting a problem solved, wanted me to solve it for them and when the problem was solved they lost interest in seeking and following Jesus. We are not in this work to make the idea of following Jesus more comfortable, we are here to follow Jesus because that’s the most desirable option. This is discipleship.
Here is a simple challenge. The next time you are engaged with someone who purports to be a follower of Jesus and you have the opportunity of helping their discipleship, build that encounter around something Jesus has said to DO. Help them hear what Jesus said and then ask them to obey. If you are bold enough, get them to agree that at the start of your next meeting you will ask how the obedience is going and what has happened as a result. Don’t pull back from this issue until they have discovered the joy of faith-based obedience and before they have experienced a greater trust and love for Jesus in the process. The next challenge should be to get them to teach what they have learned with someone else. When you have enabled this two-generation process, it will be time to move on to obeying another thing that Jesus said. It is common for us to assume that because someone ‘knows’ what Jesus has commanded, that they have obeyed it. Wrong assumption. We have produced church congregations full of people who know all about things they have never done. They have the information about what Jesus said but not the experience of obeying and therefore being transformed.
The task of making disciples is getting people connected to Jesus, not dependent on us. Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ objective was not dependent on his constant presence. They couldn’t tweet him day and night. When he put his feet on the road out of town he knew and they knew they needed to have a connection with Jesus that was strong and accessible. We need to work hard to see the same thing happen even though we have tweets, SMS, emails and blog pages. The bottom line is the same in 2016 as it was in 0050. We need to have a personal connection with Jesus and to belong to a bunch of other people with the same connection. This discipleship is the primary reproductive agent. It has always been this way and will always be thus. Only when this discipleship becomes multi-stream and multi-generational, will we see movements that cannot be stopped.