While not an expert on all matters of discipleship, I have a passion and goal for people to grow in their faith and relationship with Christ. I believe that all followers of Christ need to be FAT (faithful, available, and teachable). If we are no longer learning, we fail to be a disciple. The vision of the discipleship ministry is to “move people toward higher levels of commitment to Christ and his church.”
We measure maturity a lot of different ways in our churches. Sometimes it’s measured by church attendance. Other times it’s measured by Bible knowledge. But the biblical evidence of maturity is fruit. (For a great study on what it means to bear fruit, check out the teaching of Bruce Wilkinson’s Secrets of the Vine).
In Matthew 7:17-20 Jesus says, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit, thus by their fruit you will recognize them.” Maturity is all about fruit.
How many times have you heard that “God doesn’t expect us to be successful, he expects us to be faithful”? I think that is only half true. The Bible makes it very clear that God expects far more than faithfulness. He also expects fruitfulness. What a great time to think about this and make needed changes, the Sunday before New Year’s Day.
Fruitfulness is taught all throughout the New Testament. Many people will be surprised when they get to heaven and God says, “You didn’t bear any fruit?” Remember, Jesus cursed the fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit (Mark 11:12-14)!
God expects fruitfulness in our lives, and he says it over and over and over again. But how do we help people bear spiritual fruit in their lives? How do we turn them into mature, mission-minded believers who minister to others? I’m not interested in the modern way, the postmodern way, the emergent way, the missional way, the seeker way, the charismatic way, or even the purpose-driven way. I’m interested in how Jesus helped people become fruitful.
In Jesus’ prayer in John 17:4 he says, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” He hasn’t gone to the cross yet, so what work has he completed? It’s the finished work of Christ that most churches never understand – making disciples.
MAKING DISCIPLES ACCORDING TO JOHN 17
How did he finish the task? His prayer in John 17 tells us.
1. He led them to salvation: Jesus prayed, “For you granted him authority over all men that he might give eternal life to all those you have given to him” (John 17:2). This should be obvious. Discipleship begins with evangelism. Of course, we want to disciple people who are already Christians. But remember, Jesus started with lost people. We’ve got to win people to Christ before we can train them to be disciples. The spiritual birth always precedes spiritual growth.
2. He taught them the Word: Jesus taught his disciples the Word of God. There is no spiritual growth that’s not based on God’s Holy Scripture. In John 17:8 Jesus prays, “For I gave them the words that you gave me, and they accepted them.” And in John 17:14 he says, “I have given them your word.” The Word of God is the foundation for all discipleship. Want people to grow spiritually and be fruitful? Get people into the Word every day. Just sitting in church and listening to sermons won’t help people be as fruitful as getting them into the Word for themselves.
3. He prayed for them: To see people grow spiritually, we need to pray for them. Jesus said, “I pray for them. I’m not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). We need to pray with them and pray for them. Paul followed this example of Christ as well. In fact, he starts almost every letter in the New Testament he wrote with a prayer for the church.
4. He checked up on them: Jesus says, “While I was with them…” (John 17:12). We can’t disciple somebody that we’re not with. We’ve got to be with people if you want them to grow spiritually. We’re not going to be able to personally check up and mentor everyone, but our church needs a system of coaching, mentoring, and discipling. We need small group leaders who will follow up with people. Jesus protected his disciples from false teaching and kept them from backsliding. He guarded them. At the end of his ministry on earth, he says “I haven’t lost a single one of them – except Judas to fulfill Scripture (John 17:12). If we want people to grow, we need some sort of accountability in our ministry.
5. He sent them on mission: Then Jesus says, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Who do we think are the most mature people at our church? Could it be the people who’ve gone overseas on mission? It changes people. When they come back, they’re not thinking about materialism or consumerism anymore. Once people have served around the world, it changes our value system. We care more about people overseas, and we care about people in your own community, too. These short-term missionaries have come back and loved the poor and get involved in the lives of others. Now that’s maturity.
The goal of discipleship in any church must be ministry and mission. Maturity is never an end in itself. In fact, you can’t be mature until you’re ministering and living on mission. Jesus said “I didn’t come to be served. I came to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The words give and serve define the Christian life. If we want people to be like Christ, teach them to give and to serve.
6. He expected reproduction: We know he expected reproduction because in John 17:20 he says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” He not only sent the disciples out into the world, but he implied that he’s expecting reproduction. Because they went out, there are nearly two billion people who claim the name of Christ around the world.
7. He focused on character, not just content: Jesus didn’t simply expand the knowledge, perspective, skills, or conviction of the disciples. He focused on their character. Spiritual maturity is about character and conduct, not just content and competence. We don’t want to just fill up people’s minds with facts and figures. Paul says, “I want to present every man perfect in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). If people we’re training aren’t more like Jesus after we’ve worked together, we’ve missed the point.
8. He loved them: Jesus said, “You sent me, and I have loved them as you have loved me” (John 17:23). This is so typical of Jesus. All that Jesus did for his disciples was in a spirit of love. We must love those we train. If we don’t love them, it doesn’t count. If we don’t have a sincere abiding love for the people in our church, then do you know what discipleship is? It’s manipulation. We’re just manipulating them toward a goal.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus is the best model we have when it comes to ministry. No one in the history of the world discipled people more effectively. Jesus was able to say at the end of his ministry that he had finished his work. I hope we can all say that as well.
Here is the video of this message at King’s Grant Baptist Church: