And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also – 2 Timothy 2:2
Half a lifetime ago, while still in my teens, a teaching opportunity for my parents resulted in our move from a busy metropolis to the frigid, nickel-mining capital of Canada. In spite of my spiritual apathy in those days, my parents looked up the local assembly, and, upon our first visit there, were particularly impressed with the Sunday school class for high school students.
The class had three leaders covering the topic of New Testament church principles: a man in his twenties, a middle-aged man, and a man in his seventies.
This absence of a generation gap was especially appealing to my parents and was a major deciding factor in my parents’ decision to enter into fellowship with this assembly, which placed a premium on the biblical principle which I would come to know as “discipleship.”
This set the stage for the Lord’s direction in my life, as I have the privilege of committing what I learned from the men of my youth to some of the youth of today.
On the job training
Paul’s charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2 reveals the timeless New Testament succession plan. Timothy was no stranger to the effect of discipleship, having been personally trained by Paul.
Years earlier, during Paul’s second missionary journey, he encountered the young recruit who “was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2). It’s worth noting that Timothy’s reputation preceded him. Evidently, this was enough for Paul to recruit him to help him with no small task: pioneer Europe with the gospel.
Young people desiring to enter into the Lord’s service, make special note of this. Once saved, the only two qualities you really need in order to be discipled are to be teachable and to be available. If you possess neither quality, do not expect to be included in such vital ministry.
Paul, out of a job
Before long, the apprenticeship of Timothy resulted in Paul essentially working himself out of a job. Notice the replacement of the phrase “Paul and Silas” by “Silas and Timothy” by the time Paul departed from Berea in Acts 17:14.
To say that Paul and his associates were on the move would be an understatement. This was no less than rigorous, on the job training! Nevertheless, what is clear is that Paul worked with Timothy, and Timothy quickly became a contributor to the work of the Lord.
Notice how Paul never tried to turn Timothy into another Paul. Instead, he recognized the unique gift that the Lord had given Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). Likewise, all who are in a mentoring position need to take heed that they recognize disciples as the Lord’s legacy, not their own.
“Go, therefore and make…deputies of all nations”?
Some of us may have experienced a degree of success working for organizations.
Corporate models depend on qualified deputies and lieutenants to carry out tasks on behalf of the executive, be it a CEO or president.
Such hierarchical structure provides for the needs of the executive to be met. With few exceptions, executives don’t necessarily require the same qualifications as their subordinates.
If this model has been so successful in the world, why not apply it to discipleship? The answer is that it is impossible for mankind to organize something spiritually organic like the church (cf. 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:20-21).
Although the biblical model for success is decidedly different than the world’s, that’s not to say that the church is without order. We are to recognize authority and leadership in the church (1 Thess. 5:12). Having said that, assembly elders would be wise to refuse any substitute for biblical discipleship, however effective it may seem in the corporate world.
Sadly, some assemblies have demonstrated all too clearly that discarding the New Testament succession plan results in alienating an entire generation (intentionally or not).
I’m grateful for the early interaction I had with biblical elders. One elder baptized me, while another discipled me in the Word. I was driven to my first men’s conference by one of my elders. In our first year alone, each of the four elders set their dinner tables for my family at least once, several did this repeatedly.
Years later, I lived in the home of my elder and his young family for an entire summer. They exemplified hospitality before I ever discovered its relevance in Scripture. One retired elder agreed to host a weekly, lunch hour Bible study at my school and did so for several years.
When distressing circumstances invaded my life during those high school years, that elder’s counsel was the only audience I sought. These elders could just as well have delegated these tasks to others in the assembly, but they took it upon themselves to equip me and many others.
Only after they personally demonstrated discipleship did they refer me to helpful books on the topic. Incidentally, that same assembly lacked anything desirable to the flesh. Show me an assembly practicing discipleship and I’ll show you a strong assembly.
Discipleship is not without setbacks and disappointment. In Acts 8, we read of a pioneer evangelist named Philip. Most remember Philip as the baptizer of the Ethiopian eunuch, but we must remember that he was also the baptizer of a former sorcerer named Simon.
In the case of Simon, “he continued with Philip” (v. 13) until his profession was proven false (vv. 19-24). In the case of the Ethiopian, his profession of faith was genuine, yet Philip was taken away before he could disciple him (v. 39).
The different results from Philip’s ministry are a reminder that the Holy Spirit does not work in accordance with our personal agenda. Rather, we are to continue in accordance with His.
Relying on the Spirit
Had we been in Philip’s shoes in Samaria, we might have felt cynical or depressed about the prospect of continuing in God’s work after seeing a professing believer exposed by his own personal desire. Doubtless many workers in the gospel since Philip have had their own “Samaritan experience.”
Additionally, how anticlimactic it must have seemed to Philip when he was removed by the Spirit before having a chance to disciple the Ethiopian. Have you ever begun a promising interaction with a new believer, only to be separated by an abrupt move or departure?
We may have to defer to another brother or sister in the Lord better equipped to disciple a certain convert. Remember, we don’t have the luxury of discipling only those we want to!
The Great Commissioner
On a final note, the New Testament Commissioner never required His disciples to do anything that He hadn’t first done Himself! The expression, “those who can’t do, teach” does not apply to the Lord Jesus.
Luke summarizes the Lord’s ministry as “all that Jesus began both to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The Lord would not depart this scene before His disciples were equipped, thereby commissioning them to disciple others (Mt. 28:19-20).
Since then, this pattern was continued by the apostles and continues to this day. That’s not to say that His influence is discontinued upon separation. The Lord still teaches us through His written Word.
The Lord’s ministry cost Him His life. Has it cost you yours? “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up His cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save His life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt. 16:24-25).
Editorial note. This article was first posted in Uplook Magazine in July/August 2012. It is re-posted with permission from the author.