Redeeming Obedience

Leading groups of people through a discovery process can be very rewarding. Recently I was part of a four-man team that introduced 55 people to the Disciple Making Movements strategy that has been employed in sub-Saharan Africa. They heard stories of the remarkable fruit God has been producing since 2006. Then we had them use the 8-Questions as a guide for exploring Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Matthew 28:16-20 (combine these with Luke 10 and you have the three most significant texts for the paradigm shifts needed to experience rapid multiplication).

At first sight, some people wonder why anyone would couple Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 28. These two texts actually both appear in the first gospel. They are commonly called the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6 when he is asked “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” (vs. 36).

On the second day we debriefed the previous day by having the groups discuss what they found most valuable or encouraging out of the previous day’s study. When the seven groups were asked to compile a list of the top three, the collectively shared the following list:

  • Encouraged by simplicity.
  • Focus on the Word and obedience
  • Discovery Bible Study provides a simple and practical model.
  • The 8 questions provide a great template.
  • Redeeming of the word obedience.
  • Prayer is needed and focused on as one of the basics.
  • Story telling model – the stories of God at work come alive.
  • God is moving through people and prayer.
  • Whole groups are coming to Jesus.
  • B’s testimony – an answer to prayer.
  • Make disciples not converts.  Disciple to salvation.
  • The power of writing out the scripture.
  • People of peace are everywhere
  • Lay people are doing the work.
  • Growing sense of disillusionment among Muslims.
  • Don’t be afraid of small beginnings.
  • Sheiks and other Muslim leaders coming to the Lord.

“Redeeming the word obedience” is the one that really jumped out to me that day. What a beautiful way to express what many of us have been experiencing over the last six years. Few insights have brought more push back, though, in Western settings. Since many hear this discussion in the context of legalism they need to experience this redemption.

I urge you to spend some time noticing the role of obedience in discipleship. Yes, we are saved by grace. No, we are not teaching that we start by grace giving us a clean slate from our past sins and then we are expected to obey our way to heaven. Obedience is empowered by grace. To obey Jesus is to exhibit evidence that his grace reaches me. Read through John chapters 14 and 15 noting every time the words “obey” and “obedience” appear. Note the verse number and then note what promises are attached to obedience. Grace is God’s love language to us. Obedience is our love language to him!

Called to Die! (part 3 of 3)

Only Matthew contains the command to “make disciples of all nations.” If we are to accomplish this directive, we will need to learn what it entails in Matthew. (I am not implying that the same concept is not contained in the other Gospels or Paul’s writing, but that our first place for grasping what is meant by the phrase is to explore the context where it is used.)

How does Jesus make disciples in Matthew? He calls groups and individuals to follow him. He involves them in two parts of his three-fold ministry. He disciples them to the point of making the good confession. Jesus creates a setting where they discover his true identity. While the people believe he is John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or another of the prophets who has re-appeared, Peter knows better. Simon “Rocky” Johnson has grasped the heavenly revelation of Jesus’ identity! He declares that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah, he is the “Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

But this recognition of Jesus’ identity and participation in his ministry of preaching and healing is not enough. At this exact moment Matthew tells us Jesus makes a second major transition:

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Peter pulls him aside and rebukes Jesus.

Did you get that? Immediately after confessing him, Peter rejects what Jesus says must happen.

I believe that disciples are people who know Jesus’ identity—they get the divine revelation. But we have always struggled with the implications of his mission. Many of us plunge into aspects of his ministry (preaching, teaching and healing). But will we take up our cross and follow him to death? In the first Gospel disciples are not ready to teach until they grasp his mission. You will not “teach them to obey everything” Jesus has commanded until you accept the world-shaking implications of his death.

I am not talking about being able to give a description of “substitutionary atonement.” Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). Being a disciple entails self-denial. Here is the greatest challenge.

All the way to Jerusalem the twelve are going to bicker and quarrel over who is the greatest. It seriously looks like they will all fail their final exam. In actuality, they do. Peter denies he knows Jesus. They all scatter. We know what Judas does.

But Jesus’ resurrection is God’s answer to our failures. Matthew tells of only two of his post-resurrection appearances (Matthew 28). He sends the women from the tomb to remind his “brothers” to go to Galilee “to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go” (Matthew 28:16). By obeying Jesus they reveal they are finally ready to be sent out as teachers. But note with me once again, their teaching is narrowly defined—“teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

I believe we damage ourselves with a Harmony of the Gospels approach, because we miss the unique depths of each of the Gospels. I am convinced Matthew’s five great teaching sections grapple with core issues of discipleship:

  • chapters 5-7 the teaching on the mount in Galilee
  • chapter 10 the sending of the twelve
  • chapter 13 the parables on the Kingdom
  • chapter 18 the teaching on greatness in the Kingdom
  • chapters 24-25 the teaching on the mount of Olives.

Each section ends with the same phrase: “And when Jesus finished these sayings…” (Matthew 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). These large blocks of material should be prominent in our discovery studies on the nature of discipleship. But we also must give careful attention to how Jesus made disciples—his actions—as well as what he taught. Making disciples calls us to follow Jesus!

Who Is a Disciple? (part 2 of 3)

Now that you have spent time investigating the appearance/disappearance of the term “disciple,” let’s move on to consider one of the New Testament books where the word does appear. I will confine myself to Matthew’s Gospel.

When different people use the same term, they often have nuanced connotations. This is why graduate theses and dissertations require their authors to define terms as they are using them. While the old adage, “Words don’t mean things, people do!” overstates the matter, there is a kernel of truth embedded into this memorable exaggeration.

“Disciple” appears 81 times in Matthew. Seventy-seven uses refer to people who have been called into a transformational learning relationship with Jesus. The four exceptions (Matthew 9:14; 11:2; 11:7; 14:12) heighten this point because there the followers of John the Baptizer are being differentiated from Jesus’ disciples.

Matthew sub-divides his presentation of Jesus’ story into three sections by two uses of the phrase “from that time on Jesus began to” (Matthew 4:17; 16:21). The first section reveals the hidden identity of this man, Jesus. Yes, he is the son of David and the son of Abraham (1:1), but he is also the beloved Son of God (3:17) who brings much pleasure to his Father! His genealogy and birth narrative place him squarely within Israel’s salvation history and reveal that Israel’s amazing God has even been known to work through women who were the objects of others whispers!

Until the narrative moves from the man to his ministry, there is no mention of disciples. The second major section opens with the notice that “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 4:17). His ministry was done “throughout Galilee” and consisted of “teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good new of the kingdom of heaven and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

The first mention of “disciples” is found in Matthew 5:1 when they are differentiated from the crowds. Jesus began to teach the disciples and the crowds overhear this introduction to discipleship. The first gospel does not call chapters 5-7 a sermon. No, Jesus teaches on the mountainside. This is not a call to repentance. This is teaching par-excellence!

To this point we have only been introduced to four by name. Peter, Andrew, James and John have left their boats, nets and Zebedee (father of the later two) to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:18-22). In following Jesus they witness his teaching, preaching and healing ministry. But they also find themselves being called to a radical, life-changing application of Jesus’ amazing, authoritative teaching (Matthew 7:24-29).

Please note, “disciple” has only been used once (Matthew 5:1). A disciple of Jesus must do more than hear his three-chapter teaching! (The crowds hear it and are even amazed at his authority.) Jesus closes by revealing that his hearers will either be wise or foolish (Matthew 7:24-27). They will either build on rock or sand. What is the actual point of delineation? Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).

Matthew’s first and last texts using this word stress the importance of practicing Jesus’ teaching. His final directives are spoken to the “the eleven disciples” who put into practice his call to meet him on this mountain where he had earlier told them to go. Now he will involve them in the teaching component of that three-fold ministry.

Yes, he had earlier “called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness…preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 10:1, 7). But only Jesus teaches in Matthew—until the final scene.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18b-20) Jesus declares.

The only teaching disciples get to do in the first Gospel is to teach the disciples they make to obey all of Jesus’ commands. Disciple-making entails going, baptizing those being discipled and teaching them to obey everything the one with all authority has commanded.

Who is a disciple?

Everyone who hears Jesus’ teaching and obeys it.

Sitting and Watching is not Biblical (part 1 of 3)

Last year a friend who is a missionary in Tanzania asked me to write a series of articles on discipleship to post on his blog. He was going to be traveling and wanted to continue to engage his readers. Since I am traveling this week (I covet your prayers) I have decided to share those articles with you this week.

Have you noticed how many people start driving the same make and model of vehicle as you, right after you purchase that “new-to-you” auto? Few just bought theirs. What has changed is your awareness. After I was asked to write about discipleship I noticed many people doing likewise. Consider the following quote I saw in the Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Mission Frontiers

“Sitting in a pew watching the paid staff put on a Sunday show is all too often the American view of discipleship; this view is not biblical, and it is killing the Church.”

Likely I would have missed that statement if I had not agreed to write this series. We see and/or hear what we want (to a large extent).

Brett asked me to write a 3-part series on discipleship:

  1. Introduction to—and/or importance of discipleship.
  2. What does it mean to be a disciple? And/or how do I become a disciple?
  3. What does it mean to make a disciple? And/or how do I make disciples?

But how do I introduce this topic? How do I convince you of its importance if you think what the quote said? Since Brett has already told you I am part of the pastoral team of his sending church, then you expect me to be angling to get people to Stones River. Or maybe you think I want more to buy-in to our programs. Or maybe we want your money.

Preparing to write this series I stumbled onto something that puzzles me. I even wrote my deepest theologian friend asking for any insights he could share (of course he will probably get back to me after I hit “Send” on this series). The word “disciple” appears hundreds of times in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. But it never appears in the rest of the New Testament. Zip, zilch, nit, notta!

How does that happen? How does such an important word disappear?

I do not know! Not even my wildest ideas help.

Nothing Grows in the Desert Except…

Wow! It has been five years since I first went to the Rutherford County Jail! My regular visits there will stop at the end of April. It is hard to comprehend what God has done through those regular stops.

My first visit was late in 2005. Jonathon had been meeting Jeremy regularly and came to me to say that he was asking Bible questions that were too deep. He said I needed to schedule a visit. I had no idea what was about to happen.

The jail became my learning lab. It became the place where abstractions I was learning from seminars had to roll up their sleeves and put on work gloves. Theories were transformed into realities—hard realities. God blessed me by first calling me to this ministry through a true learner (teachers have to motivate students, but their challenge with learners is staying ahead of them).

David Watson (the brother who has discipled me for years) always stressed that discovery-based discipleship is messy. I got a rude introduction to that reality before my first visit to the jail. While waiting in the lobby to go up to see Jeremy I was shocked by the large list of rules for the family members who were arriving. Some made perfect sense like, “No weapons or drugs allowed.” Others were surprising like, “You must wear underwear.” I have seen why each of these rules had to be spelled out.

This jail is a hard place. No TV or internet. A small radio might play for a couple of hours a day with the news. There is no exercise yard outside and no weights inside. On good days a garage-type door is raised and lets the sun and fresh air into the thirty-foot cube called the ODR. Here the guys walk in circles around the perimeter or play volleyball or hackey-sack with a balled up sock for an hour. Others might sit in a corner to do a discovery Bible study. This facility has often reminded me of a Kevin Youngblood quote from a class on Jeremiah, “Nothing grows in the desert—except faith!” This jail is a desert.

Jeremy, Chris, Michael, Aaron and at least fifteen more became discovery Bible study facilitators during those years. Most of them were in the “hardest” of the sixteen pods. Here many guys passed their days playing cards–gambling for soap, shampoo and other items inmates can buy from the commissary with money their loved ones put on their account. The sharks loved displaying their winnings as though they were gold medals. But a small group of men prized themselves in hearing from God and finding ways to obey what they heard.

The toughest times were learning that a loved one had died and not being able to go to the funeral. Missing your oldest son’s graduation. Hearing the judge’s ruling denying your motion for early release, or being told you could reapply for parole next year. The guys grew to realize others were watching at such moments wondering whether a Bible would be slammed in the trash can and God’s name blasphemed for not answering prayers.

Several of these men grew by leaps and bounds. Their growing faith often amazed me. But none of them were blessed more than I was. God gave me this place to walk out one of the oddest of the CPM Counter-Intuitives—“Expect the hardest places to yield the greatest results.” Guys in this jail took the truths I was sharing to heart because they discovered them for themselves and they were certainly in a hard place. Little did I know that their story would inspire others in Europe and Africa to begin making disciples in jails and prisons. God’s ways are not our ways.

It was bitter-sweet to notify the current chaplain that my regular Bible studies at the jail will end on April 22. I will never drive by 940 New Salem Highway without thinking about how much my faith grew there. God is good. He often takes us on the strangest paths to get us where he wants us to go!

Hearing and Obeying Jesus

A follow-up question was written that asks me to share what effects the implications of what I have written will have on a different passage written to a different context by a different author. While the question is certainly legitimate, and has the potential to prompt a second-level investigation, it also risks derailing the call. Here is the next question:

John, would you say that the Ephesians 4 pastor-teacher still only teaches others to obey Jesus teachings, or is it more?

Because of my understanding of Matthew I am convicted that I am not obeying Jesus’ final command (in the first gospel) unless I am discipling disciple makers. Teaching to obey all of Jesus’ commands includes his last command which is to make disciples.

Jesus is incredibly intentional and thorough in his teaching in Matthew. There are those five blocks of oral teaching that are recorded in the first gospel (a little similar material appears in Luke in the sermon on the plain) giving this gospel some of its uniqueness. I am convinced Matthew’s five great teaching sections grapple with core issues of discipleship:
• chapters 5-7 the teaching on the mount in Galilee
• chapter 10 the sending of the twelve
• chapter 13 the parables on the Kingdom
• chapter 18 the teaching on greatness in the Kingdom
• chapters 24-25 the teaching on the mount of Olives

Strangely enough, the word “disciple(s)” never appears after Acts. The concept is certainly in the epistles and Revelation, but the word is absent. “Disciple(s)” seems to serve a special function in the narrative sections, while the meaning attached to it is communicated in other ways as communities or individuals of believers are addressed in the letters.

I believe it is far more fruitful to involve people in a process of discovering Jesus’ teaching than in trying to teach it ourselves. Much of our so-called disciple making (here in North America) is teacher centered more than Jesus centered—in my opinion. Jesus has done a wonderful job of discipling those who will open themselves to hearing him and then obeying. At the close of the Matthew 7 he says those who hear his words will fall into the categories of “wise” or “foolish.” What determines this for each of us is whether or not we obey. Do we practice what Jesus teaches? here is the real test of a disciple.

If you want to make disciples, be sure to teach them to obey Jesus’ teaching—all of it. Never underestimate the value of modeling obedience as you teach them to obey.

Hearing Jesus

Interesting things happen when you confine your study of “teaching” (διδάσκω) to Matthew. Jesus has a three-fold ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. He involves the 12 in preaching and healing in Matthew 10, when he sends them out two by two. But only Jesus teaches in the first gospel. Matthew 28:20 is the first time (in the first gospel) where the disciples are included in teaching. Even then what they teach is restricted to teach the disciples they make to obey all of Jesus’ commands.

My study of Matthew leads me to the conviction that Jesus is the only teacher for disciples. As sent out disciple makers we are to point others to Jesus. What we teach them is to obey Jesus’ teaching. It is Jesus who defines what disciple making looks like by the way he makes disciples. His disciples are contrasted with those of John the Baptist and the disciples of the religious leaders. The disciples at the heart of the first gospel are people who have responded to Jesus’ call to follow. It is at its basic core a submissive relationship with the Son of God. Jesus provides the content for all his disciples.

You don’t get this nuanced perspective from the other biblical authors, but only Matthew uses that phrase “make disciples.” We need to be sure we use that phrase in ways consistent with what he reveals about what that entails. Don’t begin by going to Luke-Acts, Mark or John.

I originally posted most of the preceding comments in a discussion area considering the question, “How are we to define the word ‘teaching’ in the Great Commission?” The query sparked much dialogue. My desire was to answer the question by looking to the context where the word “teach” appears. The immediate context of the last four verses is significant, but it is inadequate to know how the term is used by the first evangelist. You only get that from what Jesus has already said and revealed through his actions about the nature of disciple making

Hearing Jesus

One of the first classes I took in Bible College was “The Life of Christ.” While we were told that our text would be Luke, we actually were required to purchase The Fourfold Gospel: A Harmony of the Four Gospels. Every word of the first four books of the New Testament were chopped up and arranged chronologically to tell the story of Jesus.

Maybe every believer needs a chronological overview of Jesus’ life, but I suspect there are significant unintended consequences that arise from such an approach (e.g., venting the smoke, from the cooking fire, out of the grass hut in Africa allows mites to invade):

  • Knowing about Jesus replaces hearing Jesus.
  • We fail to understand and appreciate the nuanced gospeling that the Spirit gives us through the early church.
  • We perpetuate the “string-of-pearls” hermeneutic which is modeled for us.
  • We fail to perceive the power of contextualization.

Before you take a section from one gospel (or any New Testament author) and join it with one from another, you should make sure you understand what the first author means. Context deals with more than the paragraph or chapter.

Let me illustrate my point by raising two issues. The word “disciple(s)” is very significant in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. It never appears in the rest of the New Testament. You must grapple with the function of the word “disciple(s)” in the narrative sections. While the epistles and Revelation deal with the concept of discipleship, they never use the word.

Only Matthew contains Jesus mandate to “Go, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” What does “make disciples” mean here? You have to understand the model of disciple making that Jesus has used with these men. You cannot just drop into the first gospel at this point and know. You will import a connotation from somewhere else if you are not careful. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to share from my study of hearing Jesus and being obedient.

What’s Up With That?

As most of you know, I have not posted to my blog in the last couple of weeks. I entered the New Year with the anticipation of doing more consistent writing. It appears that resolution has been dashed with many others. But wait, I have been writing during those two weeks—just not for my blog.

A friend asked me to be a guest author on his blog. I shared with him that I realize I need a goal and a deadline. He was offering me the goal (write three blog articles on discipleship) and set my due date as January 25. I sent him the three articles on the 22nd, so he has time to prepare those to be automatically posted, even though he will be traveling during February.

Why would I write for someone else, rather than myself? To help him out. To see if my posts might draw some readers to my blog. To see what kind of reaction his followers have to my articles (he has attracted people who comment frequently). One of the things I am pondering is whether my style and/or subject matter may limit dialogue. Or, have I just not pushed the right buttons yet.

But another piece of this is I am experimenting. Many of the blogs I have read suggest that helping others is a great way to grow your own audience. We will see.

Now I plan to write some articles that I will publish here that work off the guest posts on his blog. That way if some of his readers hop over they will find some connections. The other thing it pushes me to do is plan ahead more.

Most of my posts build off of other conversations or experiences. Often I take a section of an email conversation and expand it. Or maybe I drill deeper into an issue that arises from a dialogue with a friend. Someone asks a mission-related question and that prompts me to fashion a response. Those are usually pretty easy to write, but they are reactive, more than proactive. I want to become more proactive in my writing. I will continue to respond to things that come up in the flow of life, but I also need to write regularly and consistently to build my discipline.

Thanks for checking in to my site. Any comments are appreciated. Questions are certainly welcome. If there are topics that come to your mind as you read any of these posts, please respond in a comment.

Those three posts will be on Brett Harrison’s site, Aliens and Strangers, ( during the month of February. Brett does a good job of writing interesting and thought-provoking articles. He also has about four different types of posts that he mixes up well to attract and engage a diverse readership.

Is it possible I will gain more from giving those articles to Brett than if I had just posted them here? Join me as I test the promise of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Hearing Jesus

Do you remember the VBS song? The words are, “The wise man built his house upon the rock…”

Before you read any further, please answer a question. What is Jesus talking about when he made the comparison that this song memorializes? What is he saying to the people who have just heard the “Sermon on the Mount”?

Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Our wisdom or folly hinges on whether or not we put Jesus’ teachings into practice in our daily lives. What kind of things has Jesus just been teaching?

A survey of chapter 5 in Matthew reveals the following teachings:

Rejoice when people persecute you (5:11-12). Do good deeds openly so people will praise God (5:13-16). Quickly seek reconciliation with any brother you harm (5:23-25). Guard against looking lustfully (5:27-30). Honor your marriage vows (5:31-32).  Keep your promises (5:33-37). Refuse retaliation (5:38-42). Love your enemies (5:44).

Add to that brief list the teachings of chapters 6 and 7. Now honestly answer the question, “Am I practicing Jesus’ teachings? Am I a wise man, or a fool? Am I building on a solid foundation or sand?”

“Do I obey Jesus?” is the heart of discipleship. Will I listen to him and put what he tells me to do into practice?

Accepting him as Savior is one thing. Obeying him as Lord is another.

This morning I met with seven guys in the local jail. We did a Discovery Bible Study of John 15:1-17. Here Jesus teaches his disciples that our heavenly Father works for us to be abundantly fruitful. God is the gardener. He is willing to do whatever it takes to bear much fruit in our lives. Here we also see Jesus is the vine–we must abide/remain in him.

Then Jesus transitions from the word picture of the vineyard to say that if we love him we will obey him. Disobedience demonstrates a lack of love. His perfect love for the Father was revealed through his perfect obedience. Part of Jesus’ obedience was to reveal the Father to us. Watching Jesus through the gospels shows us God’s heart.

Growing in love with Jesus causes us to abide. Abiding prompts us to build wisely. Our obedience forms a solid foundation. The structure of our lives is secure on this foundation. Are you wise? If so, God will bless you with abundant fruitfulness.