Why are principles of discipleship necessary?
God graciously gifted us each with brains and He expects us to use them. One of the ways we can use this 3lb mass of gray matter is by finding principles to live by from His Word. God does not merely expect us to copy His actions, but to have His heart. He expects us to become like Him (Matthew 5:48). When we become like Him we have His heart and are living by the principles in His Word. The matter of discipleship requires the same type of thinking. Jesus came to earth in a particular time and culture. Because of this, He used methods (ways of doing things) of discipleship that were most effective for the culture and people of His time. It is essential for us to remember that methodology changes with culture and time, but principles remain the same.
For example, in Luke 9:23 Jesus asked those wanting to follow Him to take up their cross. In Jesus’ time this would have been understood in terms of punishment and death. Crucifixion, a form of capital punishment done by the Romans, was grisly and victims endured hours of painful suffering. We do not crucify or use this form of punishment in our world today. Telling potential believers today to take up their cross might confuse them if they do not know about crucifixion or Jesus’ death on the cross. Why? Because Jesus was using something relevant and real for the culture and people of His time. However, there is a principle here in Jesus’ call to discipleship that asks potential followers to be willing to die and/or be persecuted for following Him. This is what Jesus wants listeners and readers today to take from this passage. The principle is what Jesus wanted His listeners to hear with their hearts.
It is essential for us to remember methodology changes with culture and time, but principles remain the same.
The same applies to the early church of the New Testament. It was birthed into a particular time and culture. When the Spirit was poured out on God’s people during Pentecost in Jerusalem, it was in front of a Jewish audience. The first Church in Jerusalem was a Jewish church. The Christians were Jews and they used practices from Judaism (e.g., gathering in the synagogue, listening to the Torah, singing Psalms, daily prayer times, and Sabbath observance). The Jerusalem church’s methods in making disciples were effective for their time and culture. They did what worked best for Jewish believers. But, they had to adapt and change methodology as the Spirit moved into different cultures to reach different people (i.e., Gentiles).
The book of Acts gives us a chance to see how the early church kept principles for making disciples, but changed methodology. A prime example of this can be found in Acts 15:1-35. Gentiles believed in Jesus Christ and because they were not circumcised tension arose between their Jewish Christian brothers who were. Lucky for the Gentiles circumcision was viewed as a methodology and not a principle for being a disciple of Jesus. The church at Jerusalem collectively chose to not make circumcision a principle of discipleship. Instead, the Gentile believers were told to stay away from things sacrificed to idols, the blood of things strangled, and fornication (15:29). The principles enacted here are disassociation with idolatry and purity of heart.
Looking at the Bible as a whole reveals specific methods with principles behind them. A big example of this would be the methods God used to make the Hebrew people His disciples. Here are several of those methods from the Old Testament.
- Covenants – Divine promises requiring participation from God and humans.
- Divine deliverance – Rescuing the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery.
- The Law – The 10 Commandments and laws and regulations of Deuteronomy.
- The Temple – A place of worship mirroring the throne room of God.
The place where God dwelt.
- Sacrifices – Reminders of the seriousness of sin and atonement.
- Priests – Teachers of the law and precepts of God.
- Feasts & Festivals – Times of celebration remembering God and His work.
One can easily see that rituals (e.g., temple worship, sacrifices, and feasts) had a place in the lives of God’s people. The rituals were not meaningless and empty. They were used by God to teach principles to His people. Overall we see God used various means for making disciples in the Old Testament. There is no set pattern or one thing that discipled a person. God made disciples through community and various actions.
In The New Testament Jesus used various methods for making disciples. These methods of course come to us within Judaism (the religion Jesus was born into). Jesus did employ some new methods (in contrast to what was done in the Old Testament) for making disciples. However, it must be noted that the majority of Jesus’ methods were already in practice and common to rabbinic Judaism. As mentioned earlier, Jesus used something relevant and real for the culture and people of His time. Here are several of Jesus’ methods.
Methods Jesus used for making disciples
- Preaching repentance and the kingdom of God – Somewhat of a novel idea in that this caused people to perk up and listen.
- Teaching in parables – Believed to be a common practice by rabbis in Jesus’ day. Parables were used a couple times in the Old Testament. Jesus seems to be the master at using parables. Almost all of His teaching in the Gospels comes to us in parables.
- Teaching in the synagogue – During the Israelites captivity in Babylon the Hebrew people used synagogues as a place to gather for the teaching of God’s Word. Jesus used the synagogue for worship and teaching.
- Calling a small group of men to follow Him and appointing them as apostles/sent ones –Rabbis would have students follow them around, but Jesus is a little more aggressive in the fact that He sent out His disciples to do His work. Jesus shared a lot of His life with His small group.
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist to identify with sinners and confirm John’s identity. God gave the Israelites the Passover meal to commemorate their freedom from Egypt. Jesus used Passover to institute the new covenant of His broken body and shed blood.
If you dig through the culture, religion, customs, and traditions you see why Jesus’ methods were so effective in making disciples. The principles behind them are the key to their success. Throughout the Bible the principles for discipleship remain the same. This is why principles of discipleship are necessary. Methods come and go like Hollywood movie stars. Principles do not. The remaining research contains principles for making disciples from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). I do not claim this list as complete. I believe there are more principles to be discovered for making disciples in Scripture, but this is my starting point.