Our Heavenly Father is always at work. He has a plan. He is changing us into the image of His Son: Christians are children of God not only in name, but in the very nature of our souls. We have actually been born anew into God’s family. We can fellowship with Him. Our transformed selves will spend eternity in heaven.
- Romans 8:28-29: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (All scriptures from the the ESV. Bold emphases mine.)
As God transforms us, He is using us as witnesses to His Son and His walk with us. We live in the world, but we are on a heavenly journey. Therefore, everything is working together for good . . . for eternal glory.
But what if the world suddenly turns very nasty and everything we know as “normal” seems to be falling apart . . . as they are now? Here is what Paul says in the same chapter of Romans about such times:
- Romans 8:35-37: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Synonyms for “more than conquerors” are: “to utterly defeat”, “to dominate”. If nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, then nothing can touch God’s ongoing plan for us. If so, we can be more than conquerors, we can dominate our circumstances, even when we are being “being killed all the day long . . ..”
Tribulation? Distress? Nakedness? Danger? We do not like them, not even to think about them. But it is more biblical to believe that the world will become worse and not better (Mat 24:11-13; 2Tim 3:12-13). More hardships will come. But we are in God’s sovereign plan and all things are working together for eternal glory.
To be more than conquerors, to dominate our circumstances, is to believe that the work of God in His love for us is never hindered even in the midst of suffering and chaos. Everything is on schedule. No detail is amiss. He will continue His work in us and through us, and He will be with us until He takes us home. God will not change:
- Isaiah 43:1-3: But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
So let us not just brace ourselves for the moment, looking to God to weather this turbulence; hoping, privately, never out loud, that God will not take away the affluence, and comforts, and plenty of our “normal” lives — lives that we have been accustomed to, that we have taken for granted, and have considered to be our right.
Looking to God for peace and safety is not wrong, but let us not allow our anxieties to dominate. Let us look to God to be more than conquerors in Christ. Let us resolutely keep our eyes on Jesus even at this time: with His name, His Kingdom, and His will leading all our pursuits and prayers. Let us surrender even that residue of lingering love for this world.
Instead of seeking just to survive the hardships, let us seek to live fully for Him amidst the hardships . . . always confirming our calling, looking towards a rich entrance into heaven.
- 2 Peter 1:10-11: Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (Bold emphasis mine.)
Christians everywhere are viewing the present world situation as a wakeup call — and rightly so. But wakeup to what? What do we do after we have been roused? Here’s what we should be doing:
- 1Corinthians 16:13: Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.
To be “watchful” is to maintain wakeful attention, so as to see the truth about our world and our purpose in it. To “stand firm” is to persevere in the duties that our master has entrusted to us.
- 1 Corinthians 15:58: Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (Bold emphasis mine.)
If the tumult around us has awaken us to this world’s vanity, and sowed a new urgency in our hearts to follow and serve Christ, now is a good time to be “watchful”, to take stock with wide-awake eyes, to see if we are truly abounding in “the work of the Lord”.
“Christian work” is not always “the work of the Lord”, and the line between what is of the Lord and what is of the flesh is often unclear. Are we walking and working according to His will or have we slid back to serving self?
So wake up to what?
Our Lord has left us standing orders: are they still ruling our thoughts, and stirring our hearts? Standing orders do not change, and here are yours and mine:
- Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Bold emphases mine.)
Christ’s marching orders to His eleven, are also His standing orders for disciples of all time: it is the uncomplicated command to make disciples while being disciples. If rehashing the Great Commission seems trite and tired . . . consider this question:
Is the Great Commission still great for you and your church?
Humankind has only one fundamental problem and God has offered one solution. John 3:36 has these in a nutshell:
- John 3:36: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Here is the Gospel, the good news, from this verse :
● Humankind’s root problem is that we are under God’s wrath — separated from Him who is life, we are spiritually dead.
● We have two options: a) believe in the Son and receive eternal life, or b) disobey the Son and remain under wrath.
● The opposite of “believes in” is not unbelief, but “does not obey”, because to believe in Christ is to accept by faith His claims about Himself, and so to receive Him as Lord. To receive Christ as Saviour without receiving Him as Lord is nonsensical. You cannot receive the supreme Lord minus His lordship. The gift of lordship comes with the gift of life.
● “Eternal life” means more than everlasting existence. Those who are under God’s wrath, thus separated from Him, “shall not see life” — they cannot participate in the life given to believers. Thus the term “eternal life” stands for the kind of life found only in relationship with Christ. Paul calls this “truly life” (1Ti 6:19). The world cannot know true life.
● “. . . believes in the Son . . .” is all that is required to receive eternal life. This is also God’s only provision for deliverance from His wrath.
Endowed with eternal life, God wants to use us as witnesses to His Son Jesus Christ. We cannot witness to someone we do not know. God also wants to use us to help plant this life in others. We cannot plant a life we do not have. So our purpose on earth is to know Christ and to make Him known: to make disciples while being disciples. This is the Church’s one commission. This mission never changes, it will remain the same until Christ returns. This is a good time to examine if we are on track. For, in the words of C.S. Lewis:
. . . the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. (C. S. Lewis in Devotional Classics by R. J. Foster and J.B. Smith, eds. Publisher: Harper Collins, revised 2005. Pg 7.)
We return to the Great Commission at this time because if we can see why we call this commission “great” we will be lifted above our anxieties. We will be sure and secure on our heavenly journey on earth. This does not mean that sufferings will go away, or become any less painful, but it will bolster our strength and maintain our purpose. In Christ we can become overcomers not just survivors.
- John 16:33: I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
- 1 John 5:4-5: For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Is the Great Commission still great for you and your church? Consider with me . . .
Note the start and the end of the commission: Jesus begins with: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . ..”, and ends with: “. . . behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The Great Commission is handed to us in between a Great Claim and a Great Commitment!
The Great Claim is that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ. The Great Commitment is that He, the supreme Lord, will be with us.
Jesus Christ issued His Commission under His personal patronage, and undergirds it with His personal presence. The word “behold . . .” is a call to attention, it forbids us to receive these orders with less than total, undivided seriousness. The Lord of heaven and earth is with us as the Head of His Church, and thus the mission of His Church:
- Ephesians 1:22-23: And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Now, grasp this: We have not been left with a task, we have been called to serve in an ongoing one: that is, to participate in a mission headed by Jesus Christ, who is also the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, the Corner Stone, and the Chief Shepherd (Heb 12:2; Eph 2:20; 1Pet 5:4).
When our Lord laid down His Commission, He did not envisage a passive presence with His people but a fully active one. If this is so, then every aspect of the Church’s mission — that is every aspect of discipleship and disciple making — must be defined by Him. This mission started long before we got here, and it will continue after we are gone, until Christ returns. We are transient participators. Christ is always the Head.
I repeat my question: Is the Great Commission still great for you and your church?
It is biblical to believe that our world will get worse as the coming of our Lord draws near. A foremost need today is to carefully align our hearts and minds to Christ’s own definition of His mission on earth.
To put this in another way: We have not been called to found a mission, we have been called to be servants in some one else’s mission. Servants will not feel lost as long as they are in sight of their Master. But confusion, dismay, and division will creep in if they take their eyes off Him. The best way forward in the present turbulence may be to take a step back . . . back to the Lordship of Christ and to a fresh appreciation of His standing orders.
This does not mean that discipleship will then be easier — Christ has called us to die and suffer with Him — but it will mean that we will not lack for resources and direction and purpose and joy . . . and all the blessings of being under His lordship.
The rest of this paper will briefly review fundamentals of discipleship, under three headings: 1) Commandments, 2) Community, 3) Commission. These are central domains in the Christian life and much has been said about them. My purpose here is only to suggest and show how we might have imperceptibly strayed from them.
Before we continue, one point must be stressed: pausing to make sure that our discipleship and disciple making are biblical is not retreating from real-world problems. It is strengthening our foundation before we continue to build. It is inspecting our armour before we battle on. Building on anything other than God’s Word, or fighting with less than His full armour, is the first step to disaster.
- Matthew 7:26-27: And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
- Ephesians 6:10-11: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.
I. Commandments: Is the Bible the sole authority and resource for my faith and life?
Matthew 4:4 is a good verse to help us understand the rightful place of the Bible:
- Matthew 4:4: But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus had not eaten for 40 days, yet He gave clear priority to spending time with His Father over His need for food. Spiritual life must be sustained by spiritual food. Jesus was in the wilderness preparing for His ministry — no doubt spending time in prayer and meditating on Scriptures. He was feeding on His Father’s words. He refused to allow Satan, using pride and hunger, to disrupt Him.
Peter gives us the reason why the Word of God is so important:
- 1Peter 1:23 - 2:3:. . . since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you. 1 So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. 2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (Bold emphases mine.)
Life birthed by the eternal Word must be nurtured by this Word. Spiritual life cannot endure without spiritual food. Note well that Peter, above, was speaking to communities: believers were exhorted to grow together: they were to put away their old divisive selves and grow together by the milk of the Word. Learning from God’s truths and living by them was to be a shared, not individual, experience (more on this later).
Along the same vein, Wright explains what it means when we say that we live by the authority of Scriptures:
Living with ‘the authority of scriptures’, then, means living in the world of the story which it tells. It means soaking ourselves in it, as a community and as individuals. Indeed, it means that Christian leaders and teachers must themselves become part of the process, part of the way in which God is at work not only in the Bible-reading community but through that community in and for the wider world. That is the way to become sure-footed in our thinking about, and reactions to, any new proposals and more important still, to become confident in making new proposal ourselves . . .. It means being, as a community, so attentive not only to not just what our traditions say about the scriptures, but to scripture itself, that we are able, by means of it, to live by the life of heaven even while on earth. (From Tom Wright: Simply Christian. Publisher: SPCK, 2006. Pg 159.)
Does the above describe our relationship with the Bible? Below are examples of very common but incomplete, and therefore potentially harmful, ways of using the Bible. The Bible, the Word of God, is not meant to be used essentially as . . .
a) . . . a manual for guidance and therapy. Here the Bible becomes the “go to” reference at times when we need guidance, comfort, encouragement, exhortation and so on — a resource for advice on personal well being. It is also the “go-to” when we want to say or write something uplifting or consoling to a friend — a reference manual for well wishing.
b) . . . a rule book of dos and don’ts: lists of prohibitions or prescriptions to check that we stay on God’s good side.
c) . . . a text for Bible study. In my opinion, this is a dangerous way to use the Bible: it can deceive us into thinking that we are growing spiritually when about the only things that are being puffed up are our note books and our heads.
d) . . . a manual for the practice of the Christian religion: for pulpit preaching, ceremonial worship, special occasions such as funerals or baptisms or festivals. A manual for doing church but quite separated from the day-to-day lives of the congregation.
e) . . . a resource for proof-texts when we need to argue or prove a point.
It must be emphasised that none of the above usage is wrong per se, and we all have turned to the Bible for all of the above reasons. But such usage must not become the role of the Bible in our churches and personal lives. We must be very careful not to relegate the Bible to the role of a reference manual, when God intends for the Bible to be food for His people. To borrow Wright’s thought: Are we living the story told in the Bible — making all of Scriptures the narrative of our lives!? I believe this is the meaning of Matthew 4:4.
The Bible does come with copious instructions on how God’s Book should be used, these instructions are clear, uncomplicated, and easily understood. Here are just a sprinkling of the numerous passages: Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1, 19; Matt 17:5; John 15:1-11; Acts 3:22, 20:26-35; Col 3:14-17; 2Tim 4:1-4. These should be studied and followed, both individually and communally, so as to surrender ourselves once again to the full authority of our Bible.
Scriptures should never be just part of our lives, even if a major part: it must take over our hearts and minds . . . it must permeate our souls. This is a good time to seriously check whether this is so in your life and your church. I believe this was in Paul’s mind when He exhorts:
- Colossians 2:6: Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, . . .. One chapter later, in the same letter to the Colossians, he told them how this walk is sustained:
- Colossians 3:16-17: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
II. Community: Am I walking with Christ together with my local church?
If a hand or foot is uncoordinated with the rest of the body, we will conclude that there is a serious physiological problem. Yet this is how many Christians live: apart from the spiritual body to which they are joined. This is how Paul describes this spiritual problem:
- 1Corinthians 12:14-17: For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? (Bold emphasis mine.)
The Bible uses the body as imagery for the Church not just to encourage affinity among believers, but to describe an actual spiritual reality that begins at conversion: every one who believes in Christ is born into a body which comprises all believers, with Christ as the Head. Christians are commanded to live out this reality:
- 1Corinthians 12:13: For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body —Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
- Ephesians 4:15-16: Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
- Ephesians 4:25: Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Bold emphases mine.)
Another imagery that the Bible uses to depict the communal nature of our faith is “family”. This calling of the Church was anticipated by our Lord:
- Luke 8:19-21: Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21 But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Communal life spontaneously appeared after Peter preached his first Gospel message:
Acts 2:44-47: And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Bold emphases mine.)
Wright describes how “family” was expressed in the early church:
They call each other “brother” and “sister” and they really meant it. They lived and prayed and thought like that: children of the same Father, following the same older brother, sharing goods and resources where need arose. When they talked about “love”, that’s the main thing they meant: living as a single family, a mutually supporting community. The church must never forget that calling. (From Tom Wright: Simply Christian. Publisher: SPCK, 2006. Pg 172.)
Christians are not encouraged to be united; Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit. These are two entirely different visions with two different trajectories.
If Christians are encouraged to be united (the former), then all they can do is to do their best. But if Christians have already been united by the Holy Spirit (the latter) — that is, born anew into a spiritual body and bonded with all other believers in Christ — then they are called to claim their new nature: to know Christ in a way they had never known before, and thus to know life in a way they had never known before.
It is not uncommon to hear Christians lamenting the “impossible” standards the Bible sets for unity. Who can always look to the interest of others (Phi 2:4)!? Who can bear, and believe, and hope, and endure all things (1Cor 13:7)!? Who can love as Christ loves (John 13:34-35)!? Christ can. And sinners who have been forgiven, and redeemed, and have the Spirit of Christ in them can. This is how all believers must grow:
- Colossians 2:19: . . . holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Bold emphases mine.)
Christian brother and sisterhood is not a standard that we are called to attain, it is a spiritual reality, an actual state of heart and mind, a miracle, brought about by the Holy Spirit that only Christians have the resources and power to live out. The battle to claim our new selves won’t be easy. But the result is that we will be living a miracle from day one: when we give our lives to Jesus as the Christ, our Saviour, and our Lord. This miracle is called the Church.
Most New Testament epistles were addressed to communities. They are meant to be read communally and obeyed communally. Even those letters that were addressed to specific individuals are about life together. For example, Paul writes to Timothy:
- 1 Timothy 3:15: if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (Bold emphases mine.)
All of the above is not to downgrade the personal aspects of our faith. Christ knows each of us by name and following Him is a deeply personal walk that we must nurture one-on-one with Jesus. But we are also part of His Body. At conversion, every believer is born into a vertical relationship with God and a horizontal relationship with His people. The above discussion aims to bring back the horizontal component which has in various ways been undermined.
This is a very good time to ask whether we are doing Church as the Bible intends. The world seems to be disintegrating. Social upheavals are so severe, so extensive and so close to home, and chances of former, better days returning are so remote, that people are resigned to a “new normal”. Faith and hope are being tested. Facades are being torn down. Hard questions are being asked. On what do I put my faith now that my life and my family and our future are on the line?
Do we truly want to live as God’s people in the world? If so, we must come to Him as His Church. To take communal instructions and use them individually is to miss the rich blessings and power of those instructions. Spiritual growth will never be complete. If we are to be more than conquerors in Christ amidst gathering tribulations, we must take stock and make sure that we are faithful to His calling to be His Body. Our Lord has promised:
John 16:33: I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Bold emphasis mine.)
The Bible has abundantly rich and clear instructions on how to be God’s people in the world, how to “take heart” in Christ. Here are just a small sample of verses with annotations to show how God’s expressed will can be quietly and regularly disregarded:
- Acts 15:36, 41 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” . . . 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
- Titus 1:5: This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you . . ..
- Revelation 1:20 (ESV) 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Bold emphases mine.)
● The Bible does not view God’s people as a loose throng of individuals sharing the same faith, but as discrete localised assemblies identified as “churches”, each one under separate leadership. But for many sincere Christians, church membership is more or less optional, or church membership is a formal rather than a living commitment. Church participation for many means attending the Sunday service — often counted as a believer’s major responsibility. The more committed will include one or more church activities, like a prayer meeting or Bible study, or teach a Sunday school class, all these without living as a member of a family or body. What’s the difference: answering this question from the Bible will draw us towards God’s heart (study, for example, Romans 12:1-21; Colossians 3:1-17; Ephesians 4:1-32).
- Romans 12:3-5: For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
- 1Corinthians 5:4-6 (ESV) 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
- Ephesians 4:15-16 (ESV) 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Bold emphases mine.)
● A local church is not a place believers go to, or an organisation believers join, in order to participate in Christian activities, it is a gathering of God’s people committed to following Christ together in a locality. First-century local churches had no names, they were simply identified geographically. A local church is a grouping of God’s people seeking to live body life according to the Bible. So you do not go to, or join, a church, you are part of the universal Church, and you should live out this reality in your local church.
● On the above view, every member of a local church is vital and indispensable. Our local church needs each of us, and vice versa, to grow. This view of Scriptures is violated when a small group of professional “clergy”, often with a few members of the congregation, usually charismatically gifted, are delegated the work, responsibility, and accountability for the affairs and well being of a church.
III. Commission: Am I going about my standing orders?
In his letter to the Colossian church, Paul asked for prayer:
- Colossians 4:3-4: At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison — 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Bold emphases mine.)
Paul requested prayer for his work and not for himself. He asked God for opportunities to preach, and the ability to do it clearly. Note that he never asked for what to preach, because this had been given: he was to teach the word and declare the mystery of Christ. He had no message of his own, he was carrying out orders.
Such requests coming from an Apostle is not remarkable, until we know where Paul was writing from. He was in prison! He was in chains (see Col 4:18)! Knowing this, Paul’s request for prayer at once commands attention!
Where did Paul’s enduring, self-negating, faith come from? He was in prison because He taught the word and declared the mystery of Christ. Yet he was asking God for an open door . . . to do what? To teach the word and declare the mystery of Christ! He asked for prayer to continue doing exactly the work that put him in jail! He dominated his circumstance.
To serve in someone else’s mission is to follow instructions that have been laid down . . . through any and all circumstances. The nature of Paul’s work and the content of his proclamation never changed because they were not his, they were entrusted to him by our Lord.
Where did Paul get the power for such bold, resolute, clear-eyed commitment? The answer is to be found in the very same chapter, Colossians 4. The way Paul viewed himself and his coworkers demonstrates how he understood his calling and his task: he was a simple servant in God’s mission. Therein lies his power. He was faithful to his Mater’s bidding, therefore he was sure of his master’s promises. The following excerpts show how Paul worked:
4:9: . . . our faithful and beloved brother, . . ..
4:10: . . . my fellow prisoner . . ..
4:7: . . . beloved brother and faithful minister [servant] and fellow servant [slave] in the Lord.
4:11: . . . my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, . . ..
4:12: . . . one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, . . ..
4:17: . . . fulfil the ministry that you have received in the Lord.
In Paul’s view of the Church’s mission, all believers are fellow servants or slaves, every one is a beloved brother, every one a fellow worker (labourer) in God’s Kingdom.
In the original language, “fellow” simply means “together”, labouring shoulder-to-shoulder. There was no hierarchy. In terms of each person’s value in God’s work there was no essential difference between an Apostle and all the others. Each person’s work was authorised by Christ (4:17).
Among those whom Paul gratefully mentioned were messengers, encouragers, comforters, prayer supporters, teachers, evangelists, local church leaders. Each one was significant. Paul’s faith, his life and work, were based on such spiritual realities. When you know that you are faithful in Christ’s mission and not your own, you will have full confidence of His patronage and presence . . . even when you are in chains. You will be able to exult as Paul did:
- Romans 8:18: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
But just as it is possible to reduce God’s Book to a reference manual, and God’s Family or Body to institutional activities, it is possible to to pare down His mandate to less than what it should be. Below is the Great Commission followed by a sample of scriptures with annotations to show how the expressed will of God can be neglected when His people are busy about their own work instead of the work of the Lord.
- Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
- Colossians 1:28: Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
The Great Commission is pared down when it becomes mainly evangelism and not coupled to discipleship and disciple making — and evangelism itself is often reduced to standard pitches; sometimes in rousing, emotionally charged, rallies, designed less to help sinners understand God’s call to discipleship, than to elicit a quick response.
- 1 Corinthians 12:4-7: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
- 1Peter 4:10: As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace:
The Great Commission is pared down when it is shouldered by a small “professionally” trained class of believers, the clergy — while the vast majority, the laity, are more or less passive consumers of the religious products from the clergy
- Mark 8:34-35: And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.
- Romans 1:1-5: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, (Bold emphases mine.)
The Great Commission is pared down when a deep walk with Christ as Lord is seen as a state to attain after a person receives Christ as Saviour. Discipleship therefore becomes an option after conversion, albeit strongly encouraged. Paul’s gospel, however, aims to bring about the obedience of faith to Jesus Christ our Lord — the bifurcation of Christian conversion into salvation and lordship is detrimental.
We end with an assessment from Dallas Willard — even if you cannot agree with him at every point — take this as a caution from a godly teacher to do as God says:
A different model was instituted in the Great Commission Jesus left the church. The first goal he set forth for the early church was to be his all-encompassing power and authority to make disciples. . . . Having made disciples, these alone were to be baptised in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. With this twofold preparation they were to be taught to treasure and keep “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The Christian church of the first century resulted from following this plan for church growth — a result hard to improve upon.
But in the place of Christ’s plan, historical drift has substituted: “Make converts (to a particular faith and practice) and baptise them into church membership.” This causes two great omissions from the Great Commission to stand out. Most important we start by omitting the making of disciples or enrolling people as Christ’s students, when we should let all else wait for that. We also omit the step of taking our converts through training that will bring them ever increasingly to do what Jesus directed. (Dallas Willard in Devotional Classics by R. J. Foster and J. B. Smith, Eds. Publisher: Harper One of Harper Collins, Revised edition: 2005. Pg 14-15.)
Seto Wing Luk
2020 August 17
Note: All opinions expressed above are solely mine, and do not represent any other person or group.
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