Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a recent conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version.
Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.
O Lord, this is not our kingdom or our accomplishment, but your great accomplishment through your creative, redemptive work. We come before your throne today to consider how to manifest our identity as disciples of the kingdom of heaven in these end times. Lord, we need the teaching and guidance of your Holy Spirit. May what we speak and hear be of one spirit, as we remember what Jesus Christ has already done and anticipate what he will do. We put our hope in the grace of our God in heaven, who will accomplish all his mighty work through his Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus Christ, who rules at the right hand of the Heavenly Father, we pray. Amen!
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Peace be with you! My heart is burdened to talk today about what discipleship should look like in the end times. We will reflect on the topic of discipleship from different perspectives, especially in light of Jesus’s ascension: to see how reality above (Jesus ruling at the right hand of the Father in heaven) impacts reality below.
In my office at home, I have a picture from Third Millennium Ministries. The picture depicts the pillars of heaven, clouds, and the invisible throne. This is prayer. Our offices should be prayer rooms. A pastor may work indoors, but he should have a heavenly perspective. Our eschatological perspective, timeline, and framework impacts everything we do in our daily lives. First, we will talk about the definition of disciple. Next, we will review the concept of the kingdom. Finally, we will look at eschatology.
The kingdom is tied together with the gospel. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated his kingdom. His ascension is the advance of his kingdom, and his return will completely transform the kingdoms of earth into the kingdom of Christ. However, quite a few people do not think the kingdom has anything to do with salvation. They think the kingdom is only relevant to pastors and missionaries.
Then there is the “eschatological” dimension. If we do not know what kind of age we are living in now, we are simply beating the air. This is a dynamic worldview that transforms our minds and behaviors by teaching us how to live in the world through the wisdom of God. I want to focus on the cross, and church discipleship within this eschatological kingdom context. Finally, we will find out what it means to carry our cross and follow Jesus from a kingdom perspective in light of the end times, and how to instill this into disciples.
What is a disciple of Jesus Christ? Some may say a disciple of Jesus Christ is a committed believer. Some say a disciple must be involved in ministry. In this case, becoming a disciple is something you do after believing. This would separate discipleship from conversion. But discipleship is not only for those who have converted, but also for those who are in the process of conversion. These responses emphasize different aspects of discipleship. In the Chinese church, we talk about “spiritual Christians” and “Christians of the flesh.” But the Bible does not say the flesh is a symbol of destruction. In reality, we are always in the midst of spiritual battle. The Lord’s Prayer says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When will we do things perfectly on earth as they are done in heaven? When we are made perfect – when Jesus returns. The process of discipleship can be long and extensive.
I want to share some theories about discipleship. A.B. Bruce represents the first theory. Having observed discipleship in the New Testament and how Jesus trained his twelve disciples, he concluded that discipleship is a long process. The disciples converted when they believed in and were called by Jesus; then they became disciples and were sent out by Jesus to do his work; finally, they became apostles in order to train others. Bruce believed disciples must go through these phases. This model of multiplication has impacted many forms of discipleship. The kingdom has already come, so how do we multiply ourselves? God created man in his image, and we are made in the likeness of God. This new creation of humanity through the Great Commission – spiritual birth – becomes a means of multiplication.
Dallas Willard approached discipleship from another angle. If discipleship is too focused on ministry, it can be defective. In his book The Great Omission, Willard tells us that the essence of spiritual maturity in the Great Commission is practicing piety. I call his method normal practical piety. The whole process is salvation, but salvation has different stages. The first stage of one’s personal salvation and union with Christ is baptism and belief in Christ. The second stage is spiritual discipline, as your attitude and mind are transformed daily. Finally, as you continually practice following Jesus, it eventually becomes second nature.
Our generation is familiar with the Biblical counselor Paul Tripp. His most influential teaching is about how people change. He talks about the work of the cross and how people change in a certain environment. He especially emphasizes three facts that are foundational to the gospel. The first is that we have been united with Jesus Christ. Tripp emphasizes justification, which means we have been crucified with Christ on the cross. Sin has lost its grip on us, and grace reigns. We are “in Christ.” We partake of Christ’s accomplishment. He was victorious, and we share in his victory. The second fact Tripp highlights is that Jesus is now living in us through the Holy Spirit, and we are being transformed. Through sanctification we are continually growing up and transforming into a new likeness, putting off the old self and putting on the new. Last, Tripp talks about how we should live each day within the paradigm of “already but not yet.” This is different from the first two facts; people today should remain in the death and life of Christ, so the life of Jesus may be manifest in our bodies. Through our death, new gratitude and obedience is born. Here, obedience is emphasized.
Michael Wilkins wrote a book on discipleship through the study of biblical theology, from the Old Testament to the New. He examines what it meant to be a disciple in the apostolic world, what it meant in the Bible, and what it means in the contemporary world. He synthesizes these many views, which is also a synthesis of this first part of my talk. Wilkins clarifies two concepts: one is the concept of a disciple, the other is that of discipleship. There are many meanings to the word disciple. Socrates and Confucius had disciples. But what does it mean to be disciples of Jesus? Generally speaking, disciples are devoted adherents of a great leader. This is how movements are formed.
A narrow definition of a disciple of Jesus is someone who has eternal life in Jesus. This person declares that Jesus is their Lord and Savior, and follows him without ever looking back. That’s why the word “disciple” carries with it a collective meaning. Within the church context, it is not one person following Jesus, but a whole group of people following him together. Wilkins says discipleship is a disciple’s continual process of growth. It entails one disciple training the next generation of disciples. If you were from the family that owns the Laoganma brand, why wouldn’t you go public with it? You want to pass the secret recipe down to the next generation! This is what it means for one disciple to train another. This model is different from what is used in the business world nowadays. It is about continually growing and training the next generation.
Discipleship means that, in this fallen world, we are united with Jesus to live out a true human life. Discipleship concerns restoring the image of God and becoming more and more like the second person of the Godhead in our appearance, behavior, and emotions. Jesus’s call to discipleship is radical and extreme. But at the same time, it is achievable, because he sent the Holy Spirit and created the church.
Does your church lack disciples? Most of us do not think our churches have enough leaders, so we must do discipleship. No one wants to be an elder or deacon, no one wants to do discipleship: so you start training disciples yourself. If you constantly do discipleship, it should be easy to find elders and deacons. You cannot overlook this.
What might it look like for you to “restore the image of God” in another person?