A Simplified Plan for Essential Discipleship
What is discipleship?
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God. — Philippians 1:3–6, 9–11
Paul prays, with confidence, that his disciples will get better at love. How do they get better at love? Through being able to make wiser decisions. What difference does making better decisions make? Getting wiser at love, through Christ, means a life with fewer negatives and more positives in a way that glorifies God.
Discipleship to Christ is learning how to love. When Jesus was challenged by religious leaders to rank God’s commandments he did not hesitate. God says two main things: Love God with all of your being and love other people with full empathy. He says these are not only the two most important commands, he says that these love commands are the whole point. Everything else that was written was based on these. Life, according to Christ, is all about love.
Christian discipleship is all about love. The fruit of righteousness, through Christ to the glory of God, is the final result. But what are the steps that lead up to that result? Where does one begin? The fruit of righteousness comes from being like the person described in Psalm 1.
Psalm 1 Tree
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither —
whatever they do prospers.
The fruit grows on the branches. The branches extend from the trunk which stands firm because of the roots. The roots drink up the life giving water from the stream.
Stream to roots to branches to fruit is the essential path. What do each of these mean? The stream of water is God’s revelation. The roots are a person who relies on God’s revelation personally. The branches are how that person extends what they take in through their life. The fruit is what results. Because the stream carries the message of love, the person who takes that in and then extends it, will in due season produce an impact of love that glorifies God.
Stream = God’s message of love
Roots = Personally taking in God’s love
Branches = Personally extending God’s love
Fruit = God’s love produced through our lives for God’s glory
Discipleship is apprenticing. Someone who intentionally lives this cycle of stream to fruit helps someone else to learn to live this cycle as well. Our goal will be to explain the cycle so that we can live it, but also so that we can apprentice other people to live it and apprentice others. That is what Jesus told his apprentices to do.
The Great Commission
“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.” — Mt. 28:18–20
I’m the ultimate authority.
So make apprentices of everyone,
immersing them in the Triune,
teaching them how to do what I said (love God & others)
confident that I’m with you all the way.
Disciples are people who are immersed in the reality of God who are learning to live and love like Christ taught with his help.
Discipleship is the process of apprenticing someone to be immersed in God and learning to love through Christ.
This discipleship process will include understanding the stream, roots, branches, and fruit as individual components and as a connected cycle. God’s revelation, plus our personal connection to God, plus our personal expression of God’s ways; result in God’s fruit of righteousness being produced in and through us by Christ. This glorifies God.
The Stream of God’s Revelation
Jesus is What God has to Say
God’s revelation to humanity is described in Psalm 1 as a stream that gives life. There are many things one could say about God’s revelation, but ultimately we end up at Jesus.
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in Son… — Hebrews 1:1,2
Jesus declares himself to be the point of life and the way to connect to the transcendent.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” — John 14:6,7
After Jesus’ resurrection he had to remind his disciples of these points. Even people who are committed to Jesus get lost in all of the complexities. The way to overcome this is to learn how to understand God’s story.
“O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. — Luke 24:25–27
The Story Reveals Jesus as Life
How can we learn a story that is as huge as the Bible? We want to learn the details, but we do not want to lose sight of the big picture. What we need is a way to simplify things without minimizing the importance of complex things.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” — Einstein
I visited my father in England a couple of decades ago. He told me that some things about being an American in the UK were difficult, but one thing he really enjoyed was the theatre. I asked him for an example and he mentioned Les Miserables. I asked him to give me a summary of the story and expected a long explanation. But what I got was an excellent example of Einstein’s wisdom:
“Les Miserables is about two men. One man who is so obsessed with justice that he becomes unjust. And another man, who though unjust, finds mercy and becomes just.” W. Ted Minick, 1998
His short summary grabbed my attention. I wanted to see the play. When I finally did I saw that his summary was excellent. It helped me to enjoy the details of the story and to relate those details to the point of the play. That experience encouraged me with work I was already doing to be able to tell the biblical story concisely but accurately.
The Overall Story in Five Parts
1. God is the source of life and goodness.
2. Separation from God includes separation from life and goodness.
3. God seeks to reconnect us with life and goodness through Christ.
4. Connecting with Christ is possible now.
5. The final results of connecting with Christ will be everlasting life and goodness.
Each of these five parts of the overall story contains massive amounts of details worth expanding. The point of simplifying the story to just five points is not to minimize the details. The simplifying helps to keep the significance of the details more properly balanced in relationship to the other parts of the overall story.
What we find is that the story also connects with our life experiences. We all experience good and bad in life, and to varying degrees, we all wonder why this is. The Christian answer relates back to the first two parts of the story. Good is a gift from God for everyone, and bad is a consequence for everyone due to humanity separating from God. That is our most simplistic reduction.
The message of God is that he has sought to repair the separation with humanity. The story of Abraham to Israel to Jesus is very rich and complex. The simplified point is that Jesus is God’s ultimate means of reconnecting. It is important to realize that reconnecting with God through Jesus makes a positive difference now, but that it does not remove the struggle of experiencing good and bad in life. The promise in God’s story is that history will be brought to a conclusion that will be comprehensive good over bad, life over death. The details, again, are complicated, but the point is clear enough when we step back and see the overview.
The good that went bad is resolved through Jesus who then invites us into his life and work that will be completely fulfilled in the future. The takeaway is that we should connect to Jesus, with realistic expectations, and rely on him for living life wisely. A way to help focus on this story at a glance, but with adequate detail, is to use symbols.
By using three main symbols, a crown for God, a heart for humanity, and a circle for the rest of creation, the overall story can be shown at a glance. The five parts of the story are the good of creation, the bad of separation, the reconciliation through Christ, our reconnection now, his completion over all in the end.
The first part of the story has God, humanity, and the world (all of creation) arranged in a column to show their proper order.
Crown — God is ultimate.
Heart — Humanity is made in God’s image (God is love, and we are to love).
World — Creation is to be developed by humanity under God’s authority.
The second part of the story shows how things are now out of order and adversely affected.
Cloud — God is no longer visible to us.
Broken World — Creation now competes against humanity.
Upside-down Heart — Humanity is disoriented and struggling.
Here is how the problem of “the good gone bad” looks:
The creation story in the Bible is often dragged into debates that cause us to miss the essential point. The story of creation is about God’s ideal order. Humanity is meant to be connected with God in such a way that we rule wisely over nature. This is good for all involved. Good for the creation, for humanity, and for the glory of God.
Even now we all experience echoes of this story when we find our place in life aligned properly. When we are at peace with the goodness of life and have a sense of gratitude for its source, the Christian explanation points back to God’s original goodness. But we also experience the lack of this orderly goodness. That is the second column of symbols in our five-part story.
The heart from the first part has now turned upside down and fallen under the creation. Imagine capsizing in water. One moment you are floating cheerfully, the next you cannot see or breath and you panic. We fear drowning because we can’t get enough air. What our picture points to is a panic in life because we can’t get enough love.
Remember, God is love and we are created in his image. The two greatest commands are to love God and to love others. Life is all about love. But even if we had great parents we all know what it is like to have disconnects, to not experience love as fully and appropriately as we should, even from early in life. We also know what it is like to fail to love others as fully and appropriately as we should. This is what the bible means when it says we have all fallen short of the glory of God. The bull’s-eye is love, but we often miss the mark.
Part of the problem that comes from this disorder is a struggle to overcome the world. The more we grapple the more the world eclipses our view of God. As Pink Floyd sang: “Everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.”
The problem is life to death.
Drawing these two columns can help us see the basic problem in life. We mainly experience this through various struggles and anxieties. The life that we sense ought to be, as represented in the first part, is not the life we experience, as represented in the second part.
The more dramatic issue is that God does not simply control life, as if it were a resource, God is life. To be separated from God is to be separated from life. The anxieties of sensing that life is somehow out of order also point to the vulnerability of life ending. This fear enslaves us.
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. — Hebrews 2:14,15
What does God do about the problem of Life to Death?
The third part of the story is how God seeks to rescue humanity. It begins with a promise to Abraham, that he would be blessed to be a blessing to all nations. His offspring become Israel, who collectively make a covenant to become a kingdom of priests (connectors) between God and humanity. Israel keeps straying from their calling, but ultimately produce Jesus. He fulfills Israel’s role. He lives life the way it is meant to live and then willingly receives the death that humanity fears. This part of the story tells us that Christ’s good is greater than our bad, in life and in death. God shows us this through the resurrection.
Jesus calls his disciples to trust him enough to invite all others to join them in trusting him. Disciples who make disciples, trusting in the Triune God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, are to learn to live the way Jesus taught. That brings us to the fourth part of our story.
The Promise is Death to Life
Jesus says to take up your cross and follow him. This is a picture of death to life. If you try to save your own life, like in part 2 of our story where we struggle, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for Christ’s sake, you will actually find it. What does all of this mean?
Lifeguards are warned about the danger of helping a drowning person. In their struggling the one drowning can inadvertently pull the rescuer down with tragic results. The best thing for the one being rescued is to stop fighting for their life. In the moment of trust the rescuer can then take hold of them. It is counter intuitive, the opposite of what seems natural. Likewise, Christ rescues us when we surrender to trust him to take hold of us. There is much more that could be said about this, but the imagery is enough for now.
When we do trust him, who he is and what he has done, we give him our lives. The best way to think of this is the idea of allegiance. He is the King whom we trust in the moment of surrender, but also in an active trust of following his ways. Whatever we were trusting in to cope with life is exchanged for this new relationship. The relationship has a beginning, a time of intentional commitment of trusting allegiance. The implications of that covenant change our identity and purposes for life.
Part 4 of our story is the same order as part 2, but the orientation of the symbols is different. Now we see the heart has been turned upside-right and marked with the sign of the cross, of death to life. The world is still in a threatening position, but we now have a way to look backward, by faith, to see God’s reassuring presence through an imperfect mirror. What we see is that God in Christ is trustworthy. There is much we still do not know, but we do know that we can trust him, and that is enough.
Likewise we look forward to a future hope where the order of God, humanity, and the world will be set to rights. That is where we see heaven and earth fully reconciled in new creation and all of the ultimate promises. But we are still in Part 4. By looking back in faith, and forward in hope, we have confidence and motivation to engage the world with the way of the cross, sacrificial love that rescues.
Rooted Connection to God’s Revelation
The stream is the story of God’s revelation. God’s ultimate revelation is in the person of Christ, who overcame death and empowers life that is loving. Allegiance to Christ is the point of the story of God’s redemptive work. But how do we actually act on that?
The message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Romans 10:8–13 is an example of the message of the apostles. It involves really believing the story, including the resurrection of Jesus, but then voicing a response.The response is invoking the title of Lord. That is what saves us from our flailing struggle to receive his rescue, restoration, and redeployment of our lives. We acknowledge that only the giver of life can ultimately fulfill our lives. We declare that we trust and rely on him.
Simple to Deep
The simple confession is that the resurrected Jesus is Lord of all, including me. I explain my identity as a Christian by saying that I believe “Jesus is right”. I can expand on that at length but it gets my point across. I trust Jesus and will stick with him. What this also does is free me up from trying to clarify where I stand in regard to various Christian groups, individuals, and historical actions. My faith is simple enough to be stated as personal allegiance to Jesus and all that is his.
The uncluttered position is much like the trunk of a tree. Trees are different from bushes largely due to the clarity of their trunks, but also because of their strength and height. Those factors are due to the depth of the roots, which allow the branches to reach high and wide.
A very manageable way to exercise this idea is to pray what Jesus taught his disciples.
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9–13)
Our Father, in the heavens, who you are means everything to us. The way we trust you rule things in the realms we do not fully see is what we invite you to do in our realm here on earth. Specifically, we need help with our physical, relational, and spiritual needs.
Daily bread is physical sustenance. We take the simple idea of trusting you as Lord and try to rely on you as we deal with physical cravings. Jesus was tempted to get what his body wanted without reference to the Father. But Jesus rejected the tempter and trained himself to only pursue desires in accordance with God’s will. That is a deep challenge that flows from our simple statements of allegiance.
Forgiveness, received and given, is the essence of our relational life. Accommodating the imperfections of others is love in action. We need God’s help to go beyond saying we agree Jesus is right about love. We actually need help loving, especially when we are hurt or defensive toward others.
Deliver us from temptation is comprehensive. We struggle to be faithful with the world (our physical needs), and with humanity (our relational needs), because we stray from trusting God with our spiritual needs. What is a spiritual need?
The word spirit has various aspects to it. We think of how one’s spirit is invisible, but so are a variety things, including gases, concepts, etc. What is essential to an invisible thing being a spirit? The answer is volition; the ability to actively choose. Spirituality is about managing choices.
Remember: I pray that your love will abound in wisdom so you make good choices and produce fruit through Christ to the glory of God. Our simple confession is that we trust in Jesus. We then seek to apply that simple trust to the very depths of our being as we pray for God’s help in living out our confession that Jesus is Lord.
This concept of simple allegiance with deep implications is crucial to personal well-being. We want to keep growing in our convictions. The longer we follow Christ the more our understanding will change. What is important is that our allegiance stands tall and consistent, even as our complexity extends deep and wide as we connect to the stream of his story.
I’ve been a Christian for thirty years now. Some of the ideas I first had about the story revealed in scripture have changed as I’ve learned. God grace has also shown me that my earlier understandings were going in the wrong direction but still helped me to hold up my profession of faith. That has not changed. My loyalty to Christ is strengthened when the roots of my convictions keep going deeper and wider as I learn how to better tap into God’s life giving truth.
Branching Out God’s Revelation
As we believe the story of Christ as the key to life and love, and we root ourselves in an identity of trust that is both simple and deep, we also branch out in word and deed. The tree of Psalm 1 has leaves that are fresh. What does that mean?
For the leaves on a tree to be fresh the water is getting from the stream, through the roots all the way. The goal of the Christian life is to have the stream of revealed truth form our base identity and feed how we branch out so that we can produce the fruit of love. The truth of the stream is that love is what matters. When we believe that we should live that; but how?
Now to Next
The New Testament is clear about God mercifully accepting imperfect people as they are. What is sometimes overlooked is that mercy also empowers the imperfect to mature. The Greek word telos, in various forms, conveys this idea of maturing. In many English translations it is rendered perfect. That freaks us out. We aren’t supposed to be perfect, are we?
Be ye perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect. — Jesus (Matthew 5:48)
By paying attention to the original language, and the overall context, what appears shockingly impossible is actually very hopeful. To be telos is to fulfill one’s identity. A puppy teloses into a dog. An apple seed teloses into an apple tree. A person who trusts in Christ and his way teloses into a person who lives Christ’s way through Christ’s power.
Paul says that all of his energy goes toward helping his disciples telos their identity in Christ.
It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
(Colossians 1:28, 29).
He knows that they understand the story and that they are rooted in Christ. His focus in now to help them branch out in word and deed. He warns them in chapter 2 about ways that religion etc. can distract his disciples from growing up. In Chapter 3 he tells them how to grow up.
1. Treasure Christ as your life. He is your telos. That means you stay loyal and you actually follow his example and teachings personally.
2. Get rid of old ways of coping with life. The ways of power and trickery that we naturally develop have to be actively pruned out of our lives.
3. Add new ways of living life that are consistent with Christ’s ways. Do this in community with other Christians by studying and praying and singing about virtues of humility, compassion, and other aspects of sacrificial love.
4. Live out these new ways in your relationships. Parents, spouse, work… make sure that you are actually loving appropriately, as defined by Christ. This is the fruit that is formed as the truth is brought from the roots to the branches; wise love that is righteous, through Christ, to the glory of God.
Celebrating the Fruit of God Produces in and through Us
I thank my God every time I remember you. in all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:6,9–11
Discipling is about God’s love maturing, telosing, in and through a person such that their life is productive and glorifies God. There is more than that to discipling, but not less. The book of 1 John traces this out with the purpose of challenging and reassuring people who confess their faith in Christ to grow up in love.
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. 1 John 2:3–6
The commands of Jesus are extensions of the great commandments Jesus emphasized in Matthew 22, to love God & others thoroughly. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ most extensive teaching on what that looks like. Just like Psalm 1, the word blessed is prominent. Who are blessed?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3–10)
Matthew 5 then describes what a maturing person looks like. They may be persecuted due to their commitment to Christ’s way of righteousness, but theirs is the Kingdom of God. They grow as peacekeepers, neither condemning nor avoiding others. They grow purer in heart, not seeing their rationalizations but seeing God’s character as what matters. They grow in mercy, not just protecting themselves from enemies, but actively pursuing others in spite of real risks. They are growing up to be more and more like their father.
Matthew 6 works backward through the process describing spiritual disciplines instead of religious posturing. The blessed who are growing up in God give because they care about what is right. They pray because they meekly recognize they need God. They fast because they mourn when things aren’t they way the should be. They recognize that there is more of value in God’s Kingdom than they have fully accessed.
Jesus’ conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount reassures his listeners that his is serious and understands their practical concerns. What about financial challenges in pursuing physical needs? Seek first the Kingdom and you will be in the best position for going after everything else. What about everyone else? Don’t try to fix everyone else, as if they were projects, treat them like persons. Ask. Seek. Knock. Well what about the spiritual path, how do we navigate that? Watch out for posers who imitate the outside appearances right but lack the character or the appropriate fruit. Integrity is foundational in your faith. Build on a genuine trust in Christ and his teachings and your life will withstand the tests of time.
Reproduction: Seeds to Trees
Lastly, what we receive we give. Mercy, love, teaching, discipleship… pass it on. Every gospel ends with exhortations to proclaim who Christ is and the life he invites people to join. The kingdom of God grows through the people of God inviting others and helping those who respond to belong and also become inviters.
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful people who will be able to teach others also. 2 Tim 2:2
Disciples who make disciples multiply the good that they have learned. This is good for humanity and glorifies God. The story begins with God blessing a couple in a garden. The story ends with a multitude of people, from every variety of language and ethnicity imaginable, gathered together in a garden city. Discipleship is about apprenticing individuals in living the love of Christ personally, but it is also how societies, and ultimately the whole world, will experience the love of God in Christ Jesus.
That is our overview of discipleship as apprenticeship to love presented as an ecosystem.