July 18, 2023

The Vocabulary of Disciple-making

Series: Discipleship

Having considered the vocation of every Christian to make disciples, we will now consider the vocabulary of disciple-making.

Our English words vocal, vocation and vocabulary have the same Latin root. The word in Latin is “vocare.” Every Christian is intended to see himself functioning in a vocation or calling (Ephesians 4:1, "...walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,"), with a clear biblical understanding of the vocabulary that they are to give vocal expression to.

Here's a basic principle of life in general and disciple-making in particular: If we misname it we will mismanage it. If we misname a disease, we will mistreat it. If we misname a tool, we will misuse it. Finding a person or things true identity is the key to fulfilling its (or their) destiny.

Someone well said, "He who defines wins." Cultures are subverted and transformed for better or for worse beginning with vocabulary. As Christians we should believe that Christ must be Lord of our language. For this reason we must strive to be clear and concise in the terminology that we embrace. Whoever defines terminology in debated issues can gain the attention and support of those ignorant of what the terms really mean and thus influence the outcome of things. We are seeing this manifested today in a redefining of moral terms like never in our history.

For example, in America before the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortions legal, the person in the mother’s womb was called an unborn child. the expectant woman was said to be "with child." In order to aid the legalization of abortion, there was a change in vocabulary and the expectant woman was carrying a “fetus,” or a "product of conception," or a "mass of tissue." Another example that illustrates the defining of a person or their identity by a change in vocabulary meaning is the LBGT movement. Today when the average person hears the word “gay,” they most likely think of homosexuals. When I was growing up “gay” was a term for being “happy” or “joyous.” It now is used to define a practice and lifestyle that scripture nowhere defines as joyful.

When it comes to the Master’s Mandate or Great Commission, we must be crystal clear on all the texts, terms, and teachings of Scripture in regards to turning men into disciples because if we misunderstand the definitions, we will mistake our job description and will make disciples inferior to Jesus' Standard.

When we hear Jesus' command to make disciples, what questions should we ask? Basically three:

(1) What is a disciple?

(2) What does it mean to make disciples?

(3) How do I do it?

 Failure to ask and seek Jesus’ meaning of what a “disciple” is and what it means to make disciples will result in the church continuing to ignorantly follow Satan’s substitute instead of obeying the Savior’s strategy.

In order to understand the concept fully, we need to explore a family of related words, some of which are actually used in the Bible, and some of which are “coined” from the Biblical words and their use.

Defining the Key Terms of Disciple-making

A. Disciple -- The Picture of the Person We are to Be and to Build

The meaning of the NT term disciple is quite diverse. It is used of those who obviously had never believed in Christ, of believers with limited commitment, and of believers with the fullest commitment.

The term, “disciple,” has been so misnamed and reduced in the typical church that it includes everything from just a convert,  to a socializing group of believers having a Bible study, or a service in the church called "Discipleship training," to a “deeply committed believer.”

I was in Malawi, South Africa a few years ago teaching disciple-making strategy to church leaders when I came across an article in World magazine entitled, “Words and Deeds”, by Van Kornegay. He quoted church leaders as saying that Africa's greatest need is discipleship. "The church has done a good job of evangelizing but a poor job of discipling. Christianity here is a mile wide and an inch deep." Most of the pastors throughout Africa have no formal Bible training and have no access to a library, and only a few books. Many do not even own a full Bible. Operation World reports that 100 million Christians in Africa do not even possess a copy of the Bible!

“Disciples are both the people who please the Lord and the people who will reach the world.  Therefore, a clear identification of a disciple is imperative.  Understanding what a disciple is and what a disciple does are top priorities for the church.  The irony of the church is that we throw the word “disciple” around freely, but too often with no definition.  Such a condition is like a shoe company trying to produce a product without specifications.  The product coming off the end of the assembly line would be interesting.” (Bill Hull; The Disciple Making Pastor, 54).

Without a clear picture of our objective we will spin our wheels, use up our time and energy, and still not make any disciples.

The word “disciple” in all its variations is used 269 times in the first five books of the New Testament.

Pastor Tony Evans states that, “The concept of discipleship is neither new nor exclusively Christian. Examples of disciples and disciplers are plentiful, both in modern and ancient societies.

To the Greeks, the process of discipleship afforded an effective way to pass on popular ideologies. The great philosopher, Aristotle, was a ''disciple'' of Plato. Simply put, Aristotle was Plato's apprentice. Through close association, Aristotle became steeped in Plato's thoughts, feelings, reactions and convictions. Aristotle went on to disseminate that body of information throughout the Greek world. The discipleship process continued.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can find a modern-day parallel of discipleship taking place on city street corners. You see, the local drug pusher is a discipler. He's looking for moldable young people whom he can train not only to become addicted, but to become his distributors, thus increasing his ''client base'' and his wealth. Tragically, this variation on the discipling process is extremely effective.

In the New Testament, the word is employed in several general ways, then in an increasingly narrow way. It is used, first, to describe:

 1. A Curious Lister -- Basically everyone who comes to Christ begins at this point as a curious or interested listener. All of those who came to hear Jesus at the beginning of His ministry are called “disciples.” A classic example of this is found in John 6:60, 66: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" 6:66 , “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”

The curious listener should move to the place where they become:

2. A Convinced Listener -- This type of disciple is the person who consents that what they are hearing is true, although it may not radically change their life or lifestyle. The twelve disciples of Jesus were at this level for most of the time Jesus was with them during His public ministry. Only after His ascension to Heaven and the sending back of the Holy Spirit did they move beyond this level.

Friends, the church of the NT as well as the church of today is full of people who meet these two descriptions -- curious listeners who have become convinced that Jesus was who He claimed to be and did what He said he came to do. We see these types of disciples in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and in Hebrews 5:11-12. Tragically, this comprises the vast majority of those who fill our churches Sunday after Sunday. In all fairness, they are not all together to blame for their unfruitful state because the "institutional church system" that is most typically in operation today is designed to produce just such types of disciples.

3. A Committed Lifelong, Lover, Listener, Learner and Follower -- This last use is the one Jesus intended in the Great Commission, and it constitutes our marching orders. We are to go everywhere and “turn men into committed, lifelong lovers, learners and followers of Jesus Christ.

This meaning is inherent in the word “disciple.” A "mathete" or disciple is an adherent (one who adheres or sticks, like adhesive tape, to another). A disciple is an apprentice, a person in training.

Tertullian, one of the leaders of the early church, called Christians “pupils in God’s school.” A disciple is first born, then built.  He is born by the Spirit of God with the right factory-installed equipment.  But, then he must be built, trained, taught, and led to a reproductive, multiplicative commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ.

The verb form of the Greek word translated "make disciples" in the Great Commission is the word "matheteusate." The noun "mathetes" or disciple, according to one famous Greek dictionary, "always implies the existence of a personal attachment which shapes the entire life of the one described." In other words, there is of necessity a personal, life-on-life relationship involved between the discipler and his disciples.

Thus discipleship is not simply a matter of how much you know and how well you can teach what you know. It is vitally concerned with how well you learn to obey what has been taught and modeled for you. And if the mechanism of discipleship does not move us from personal information to practical application, the process has failed.

Consider the medical surgeon. He spends years in school classroom learning about all the parts of the body and how they work. He learns what to cut, when to cut it, and how to put it back together after cutting it. But if a medical student proposes to perform surgery on you or a loved one, some further discussion is definitely in order. Regardless of his grades, he's not ready to be turned loose on live people who want to stay that way. He needs hands-on, supervised training from another who has successful demonstrated their ability to reproduce the process. That's the purpose for a lengthy internship. It's the seasoning that turns raw information into professional expertise.

Discipleship is a spiritual relationship and internship. Specifically defined, it is "the process of spiritual development which takes a non-disciple and brings them saving faith in Christ. Then within a personal environment of a loving relationship, with teaching, training and accountability, the disciple progressively moves from spiritual infancy to spiritual fatherhood, ultimately repeating the process with others, others, others, ideally to at least a fourth generation.”

A disciple is a person involved in the process where they are equipped to align themselves (passions, desires, behaviors, habits) with the redemptive mission of Jesus. They are to be built to understand that they are a missionary everywhere they are! They are to be taught to view every believer as having been called and sent by Jesus as Christian missionaries with the Good News of Salvation together in community with other believers to their specific geographic and cultural context.

This is the type of disciple Jesus wants each of us to be and to build!

Contrast our churches and their strategy today, in which the procedure is something like blowing up a mountain of granite and expecting to get a number of polished statues.  The late pastor and discipler-maker Sam Shoemaker said: “Our churches should be stripped down to miniature organization and thus afford pastors and laymen the opportunity to learn the great spiritual art of winning and training others. It seems an almost universal experience that unless one puts this kind of work first in his life, it will be crowded out entirely. Our minds, our emotions, the hours of our days, should be filled with a special group of individuals at all times - individuals we seek to win, individuals we seek to train in taking responsibility, individuals to whom we look ourselves for spiritual fellowship and help.” This lifestyle was, of course, originally modeled by Jesus, and it should be mastered by us, also.

B. Discipler -- The Person Who Makes Disciples

A discipler is merely a maturing disciple, for one surely cannot be a disciple of Jesus while ignoring the only marching orders Jesus gave to His church. In short, it would seem to be impossible to be a disciple without being a discipler. A discipler is a co-learner who recruits and leads others as they are learning together. The level of maturity needed to make disciples is only that of an half-step advantage. In other words, this process doesn't take years of maturing, studying, training, and acquiring theological degrees.

Here is a basic truth of disciple-making -- One must be a disciple in order to make disciples!

Jesus made disciples, so what does that mean? It means He was discipled! Who was His discipler? His Father in Heaven -- Isaiah 50:4, NASB, “The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples, That I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord GOD has opened My ear; And I was not disobedient, Nor did I turn back ."

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Father’s Prototype -- His Pattern Son. He is the representation of everything the Father intends for us to be. Father’s blueprint, as constructed in His Son, is simple -- He wants us to be Reproductions of His Son and then we will be Re-presenters of the Father who then Reproduce other spiritual sons. Jesus said in John 5:17, "But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I am working." John 5:19, "So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise."

Again in John 12:49, "For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.

Good equippers approach disciple-making like Jesus did. How did He do it: He recruited hundreds, developed seventy, choose twelve, graduated eleven and focused on three.

What does it mean to turn men into disciples?

It means seeing them come to new birth into Father’s family with the goal of being like His Pattern Son in both inner essence of character and outward expression of conduct. And the clearest indicator is to make disciples like Jesus did. The greatest thing Jesus ever did, apart from His work on the cross was to make disciples. (The proof -- note the same root word found in these two passages. John 17:4, "I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished (teleio?sas)) the work which You have given Me to do." What was this work? The Work of Reproduction. We read in John 19:30, " ... He said, "It is finished (tetelestai)!" And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit." What was this work? The Work of Redemption.

One is never more Christ-like than when they are making Jesus Standard disciples.

This involves seeing your disciple Entering into the new birth of spiritual Childhood as a Consumer; helping them by Growing into Sonship from a Consumer to a Producer,  and then helping them as they are Maturing into Fatherhood to become a Reproducer. A Jesus Standard discipler will become a generational, world-visionary, world-impacting, multiplying, Reproducer!

A disciple is identified by the imitation of the one who he followed. The problem is that our nation looks down on imitation, because it is a threat to independence. The reality, however, is that you cannot have discipleship without imitation. Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.”

C. Discipling -- The Process of Building Men into Disciples

Discipling is one born again person with God's own vision, imparting his whole life and learning to another person, by relationship, example, by leadership, and by teaching and training. This cannot be done in a classroom or in a church building in large numbers. It requires close-up, life-on-life, healthy relationships that model the message and methods and not just mouth them by teaching biblical facts.

Pastor Jeff Vanderstelt defines discipling as, "Leading people to increasingly commit all of life to the empowering presence of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This requires involvement and investment in life, in community, and on mission -- together."

Discipling is done by someone, not by something. It is done by persons, not by programs; by believers and not by books; by individuals, not by institutions; by Christians and not by churches or committees. Technically, discipling is one Christian person imparting his whole life and learning to another. It always involves life as well as learning transference.

There is a great deal of difference between preaching sermons, teaching bible studies and building disciples. Most church work, worship services, and educational and promotional efforts, results in the occasional reaching of pre-Christians and some spiritual growth of Christians, but very little discipling of believers by Jesus' Standard.

The current process employed by most of our churches gets the sinner saved and trains them to serve in the church, meaning within the four walls of a building where they support the "full-time ministers" who do the work of the ministry. Herb Hodges calls this "putting them in a spiritual safety deposit box from which they emerge as a tamed and decent human being." Discipling of saints, on the other hand, involves the qualitative construction of a saved individual so that individual will change the world by continuing the process.

The difference may be seen in this illustration that compares preaching, teaching and disciple-making. Suppose you have a person standing behind a line, holding a water hose in his hand. Twenty feet beyond the line, there are 100 small-mouth jars. The goal is to get as much water as possible in the jars.  Preaching is like turning on the water and spraying it from behind the line, hoping that some of the water enters the jars. However, the efficiency of such a technique is fairly predictable: not much water will get into the jars. Disciple-making, by comparison, is like taking the water hose to each jar and staying in close-up connection until the jar is full. There is little question where the greater efficiency lies.

So, we should use the preaching and teaching with larger audiences to filter and find potential disciples that we can invest in their life in an hands on, life-on-life way for multiplication of the process.

Without a constant standard of discipling-making, we dispense the truth in a mass way and count the people coming to a building, although we may be producing very few people who really count for the kingdom.  Discipling in a style like that of Jesus will correct that problem. When the disciples heard Jesus say that they were to “turn men into disciples,” they had to interpret that to mean that they were to make out of others what Jesus had made out of them. Discipling includes the entire disciple-making process, from conversion to trained disciple-maker. This is the very heart of what Christ expects of His church.

Personal, intimate, long-term association for the purpose of impartation of life as well as learning. Discipling is better caught than taught. What you’ve got is what they get. The principle of co-partnering relationships is an indispensable part in obeying the King’s Great Commission Mandate.

  1. The Training Strategy takes a Discipler who Instructs His Disciples“I will teach you the truth and the method”
  2. The Training Strategy takes a Discipler who Illustrates for His Disciples – “I will show you how to apply the truth and the method.”
  3. The Training Strategy takes a Discipler who Involves Himself with His Disciples“We will do it together”
  4. The Training Strategy takes a Discipler who Improves His Disciples – “I will coach, correct, and confirm you”
  5. The Training Strategy takes a Discipler who Inspires His Disciples“I will encourage you to greater fruitfulness”

Although disciple-making cannot be reduced to a formula that one can force others into to produce perfect disciples, yet there are several basic elements that define the process:

Relational Association (Love) + Life-impartation (Life) + Truth Deposition (Learning) = Character Transformation. Character Transformation + Jesus’ Clearly Defined Instructions = Discipleship Reproduction!

D. Discipline -- The Price that Must Be Paid to Be and Build Disciples

Disciplines are the areas of life that reveal the cost of discipleship.

What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word "discipline"? For me, "PAIN!"

Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Island Mission and one of the greatest visionary missionary-statesmen who has ever lived, wrote:  “A man may be consecrated, dedicated and devoted, but of little value if undisciplined.”

The term "discipline" comes from the Latin word "disciplinare," which means "to teach." Many people, however, myself included, associate the word with punishment, which falls short of the full meaning of the word. Discipline, properly practiced, uses a multifaceted approach, including models, rewards, and punishments that teach and reinforce desired behavior. Through discipline, children are able to learn self-control, self-direction, competence, and a sense of caring.

Disciplines are the enduring of short-term pain for long-term gain. As in life, so in discipleship training this axiom is true: NO PAIN, NO GAIN! Hebrews 12:11, "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it."

We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regrets!

Finish this familiar saying: Practice makes ________! Not true, Practice makes permanent! Proper practice makes perfect. But if you are doing something wrong, all the practice will not change the product. Insanity has been defined as "doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results."

Discipline involves consistent training that properly directs, loving corrects, carefully protects and fruitfully perfects the disciples!

Discipline brings order to disorder, depth to breadth, and fruit to growth.

How serious is Christ’s mandate? How extensive and serious is the Church’s failure to obey the one command of the Commission? Is there real evidence of such failure?  I believe the evidence is prevailing and pervasive.

The apparent goal of Jesus was to produce “disciples” who would become “disciplers,” engaged in a lifetime vocation of “discipling” others and practicing the daily “disciplines” which are necessary to fulfill that purpose.

E. Multiplication -- The Product of Building Disciples

The New Testament adds another crucial dimension to our vocation. We are to be engaged in discipleship THAT PRODUCES A MINISTRY OF MULTIPLICATION. It was clearly Christ’s intent that each disciple be engaged in a multiplying ministry. What is multiplication? Multiplication is when disciplers start producing other visionary, world-impacting disciplers. You see, God’s plan is to reach the world exactly the same way it was populated - by multiplication. In Genesis 9:1, God said, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”  Someone said this was the first order ever given to man, and the only one he has obeyed. Jesus’ evangelistic mandate is essentially the same as God’s biological mandate.

Why do men fail to multiply biologically?

(1) Isolation -- Some never marry, or there is no union of the sexes; and, thus, multiplication does not occur. The same deficiencies account for the Christian's failure to multiply spiritually. When there is no union between a Christian and our Lord Jesus on a consistent basis, there will be little or no spiritual multiplication.

(2) Iniquity -- Some suffer from disease or impairment to some vital reproductive part of the body.The presence of sin in a believer’s life will also impede the process of multiplication.

(3) Immaturity -- Some don’t multiply because of immaturity. You simply don’t know any three-year-old fathers! Why? All the reproductive organs are present. But they are not sufficiently developed to allow reproduction. Thank God, babies don’t reproduce. Likewise, the stalemating of a Christian in spiritual babyhood will prevent multiplication. Paul said, “I wrote unto you as unto babes in Christ.” And the baby Christians in Corinth missed the world-impacting standard of spiritual multiplication.

Spiritual multiplication is God’s planned vision for reaching our present world and all future generations through those we win and train now. The strategy of Jesus’ ministry was evident:  He looked at the masses through the man; then He built the man to impact the masses.  He ministered to everyone before Him - but He only recruited for His Kingdom’s sake.  How we have distorted these standards in building institutions instead of individuals.  Jesus loved each individual, to be sure, but He always looked beyond His disciples to the men they would reach and train (see John 17:20).

In Acts 2:41, 47 and Acts 5:14, the word “added” defines God’s mathematical strategy at the very beginning of church history.  However, in Acts 6:1, we read that “the number of the disciples was multiplied greatly,” and in Acts 6:7, “the number of the disciples was multiplied greatly so that a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."   Then, by Acts 9:31, we read that “the churches...were multiplied.”  Apparently, the church never returned to mere additions unless it went out on the frontier and had to begin all over again, and even then it quickly moved back to multiplication.

When older persons meet acquaintances they haven't seen in years, several key questions are usually asked: “Are you still married?” “How many children or grandchildren do you have?”

When we stand at the Judgment Seat of Christ, we may well hear these same questions: Do you have any children (and if not, why not)?  How many children?  Then the real test of our participation in Jesus’ Plan begins:  How many generations of spiritual children do you have? That is persons who are Christians because of the way you built your own spiritual children? It will not be satisfying to know that we ministered to vast numbers and a few became producers. It will only be satisfying if we have spent our lives seeking to make out of our disciples what Jesus made out of His.

It is never too late to begin doing what is right -- what we have been commanded to do.  If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will get more of the same. Anyone can “go back to Square One” and begin the multiplication process.  However, most of us would need to give ourselves immediately to a vocation of studying the life and ministry of Jesus, asking, “How did He do it with His men?” and studying also the great works on the disciple-making, multiplying process.

In closing, I quote my discipler Herb Hodges as he writes: "I can envision a growing army of world-visionary, world-impacting, reproducing multipliers whose entire history is a commitment to Jesus’ Commission to “turn men into disciples.” May God recruit and deploy that army before our very eyes."

other sermons in this series