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Atlanta, 6 January 2016

At last, winter! After an unseasonable Christmas week (25 C, 77 F) -- okay for southern hemisphere cities like São Paulo, Capetown, and Sydney, but not for Atlanta -- the mercury is finally below freezing, even if just barely. The chill makes it easier to concentrate on important things.

With this in mind, today we begin a three-part study of discipleship. Hope you find this mini-series helpful.
Discipleship, part 1
Here's the plan. Today we'll begin the series with definition. What does the Bible say about discipleship, and what light does the Greek shed on the topic? Next week you'll find a streamlined Discipleship study you can do with your friends. It's compact, easy to use, and a cinch to remember. The final installment, the shortest of the three, will feature a special word for female disciples.

What is a disciple? What did Jesus mean in Matthew 28:19 -- Do you have to be a disciple before you become a Christian? If a disciple is a Christian, how can you become a Christian before you're a Christian? This can get confusing.

Yes it can, especially when words are used in different ways. For example, in the Bible, Israel is the covenant name of Jacob. Israel is also the commonwealth of God's people in the Old Testament. Israel frequently refers to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, or Ephraim, who were led into idolatry under Jeroboam. Further, in the books of Chronicles, the term sometimes refers to true Israel -- the Southern Kingdom of Judah (not Northern "Israel"). So it's not enough just to ask "what does this word mean?". The real question is, "How is this word being used?"

So it is with "disciple." As we discuss discipleship, it's important to check that we are referring to the same thing. The Greek term is the common word for student, or pupil -- nothing religious or even necessarily Christian here. The word emphasizes the learning process more than the commitment required, though both ideas are present. As with "Israel," the context gives us the cues we need to rightly interpret the word.

The process of learning precedes baptism. Since a humble disposition, with a willingness to learn, is required of all who would know God, discipleship comes before salvation. And the process continues; a Christian continues to learn -- as a disciple. That's why the words can be used interchangeably. In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus tells the apostles to go into all the world: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you..." NASB

Teaching before baptism (Eph 4:20) initiates the discipling process, and teaching afterwards sustains it (Eph 4:11). Strictly speaking, the Greek isn't "baptize disciples," since the object of the verb is nations. We are to disciple, baptize, and teach the nations (the Gentiles, from the apostles' perspective). Of course only those members of the nations willing to be disciples may be baptized, since faith and repentance precede immersion (Acts 2:38).

There is even one N.T. passage that speaks of disciples as something we are becoming, John 15:8: "My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit, and become my disciples." For clarity, most translations render "become" as "prove yourself to be," because "become" confuses us (even though it's correct). However we render it, John 15:8 speaks of the future: our ongoing Christian life. Three tenses are used (past, present, future) because the process begins in the past, continues in the present, and will not be complete until the future.

Thus, from the perspective of conversion, four things may be affirmed -- all equally true:

1. We become disciples before we're baptized. We have already begun to learn, even if most of our learning and changing lies in the future. "Disciple" in this sense describes one's attitude, not his or her salvation status.
2. We become disciples at the moment we're baptized. All true Christians are disciples. Although "disciple" is a word used for Christians only in the book of Acts, it is still a good descriptor of what following Christ is all about.
3. We live as disciples after we're baptized. We made a promise to be Jesus' students forever. Here the word describes a lifestyle.
4. As we grow in the faith, we become disciples (more and more). We haven't arrived, and this side of eternity never will. In the fourth case, "disciple" is our goal: to be a teachable Christian resembling Christ more and more every year.

This may sound strange, but there are many parallels in Christian experience. For example, the pattern is repeated in the biblical language of redemption. We were brought into the kingdom (Col 1:13). We are receiving the kingdom (Heb 12:28). And we will enter the kingdom (2 Tim 4:18). Past, present, and future! Theologians call this the "already, but not yet." What a great God we serve! He takes us right where we are to bring to fruition his purposes for our lives. Discipleship is the vibrant Christian life, rewarding and abundant (John 10:10). It is a life of motion, direction, and growth. It is living out the baptismal confession, "Jesus is Lord."

For further study:
  • Is "disciple" the proper name for a true Christian? Click here.
  • If we're mentoring someone, is that person my disciple? Click here.
  • For dozens of articles on discipleship, click here.
  • To better understand the concept of "Already, but not yet," click here.
Thanks for all the positive feedback about the new discipline series from Proverbs. It's not too late to join. If your new year has begun without the discipline you'd hoped for, click DISCIPLINE

Note: Sorry about intermittent website access last week. There was a massive cyberattack against Atlanta, with out-of-control web traffic that rendered 1000s of website inaccessible for a couple of days. Thanks for your patience.

Your brother,
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