Jesus doesn’t want believers? What? Yes, he does. Doesn’t he?
Yes, he does. He even said “Believe in me.” Read the Gospel of John and you’ll hear Jesus say that many times.
So a couple of years ago the leader of my denomination, Bishop Bruce Hill, made the statement in the title of this post. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded so wrong. A Bishop is supposed to uphold truth! How could he say that??? See if it sounds wrong to you too: Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples.
Is our Bishop wrong?
Nope, not at all. Here’s why.
Belief is important. Jesus did want people to believe in him. Jesus wanted them to learn some things. There is content to the message of the Good News. It is a story that has specific details.
What did he want people to believe? One of Jesus’ first followers, Paul, summarized the content of the Good News in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
Believing the details of that story is important. But here is why Bishop Hill is absolutely correct when he said, “Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples”: believing is not the end product.
Remember what James the brother of Jesus said in his letter? In James 2:19 he wrote, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that.” Clearly, believing is not enough, if demons do it. There has to be something else that separates the demons from those who are true followers of Jesus. James goes on to tell us exactly what that something else is when he says, “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” It is not enough to just believe.
Remember the people in Matthew 7:21-23 who thought they were absolutely going to get into the Kingdom of Heaven? They were believers. Jesus shocks them when he says, “Away from me, I never knew you.”
There is something more than believing! We have do something, James said, to move from believing into truly being known by Jesus. This is what our Bishop is getting at when he says “Jesus doesn’t want believers, he wants disciples.”
Jesus himself taught us how to be assured that we would not hear those awful words, “Away from me, I never knew you.” He says later in Matthew that we can know that we are his disciples if we deny ourselves, carry our cross and follow him. That is clearly moving beyond belief. Belief is not enough. We must believe and become his disciple. Our lives must show by how we live that we not only believe, but we also are living out that belief.
In my sermons, and in thus in this blog, I talk quite a lot about being disciples. A very important way that Jesus wants us to live out our belief in him is not only to be his disciples, but also to make more disciples.
In what were some of his last words, found in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus told that his disciples priority #1 for them, their mission, was to make more disciples.
We need to ask, therefore, what is a disciple? If this is our mission from our Lord, we should know what a disciple is and how to help others become disciples who can make more disciples. A disciple is a believer who practices spiritual disciplines and lives out the life of Christ, a huge component of which is to make more disciples.
Paul would refer to this when he said to his disciple Timothy, “Teach men who can teach others.” He said that in 2 Timothy 2:2. Disciples of Jesus will make more disciples. That is our mission.
It was revolutionary to me when I first heard that disciples should make more disciples. We are not to make believers. I always thought we Christians were supposed to get people to believe in Jesus, to pray a prayer of belief, and then hope they would follow through and become disciples of Jesus. But, really, that disciple part was a bonus, it wasn’t really important. Jesus, however, didn’t teach us that, and he himself actually made disciples. Take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 28:19-20. Jesus envisioned a progression, a multiplication, that would continue. His disciples would make more disciples who can make more disciples…a cycle that is never-ending.
That cycle has been at work for 2000 years! Read the book of Acts, and you see how those original 12 disciples made more disciples who made more disciples, and the work of making disciples for Jesus spread beyond Jerusalem to the Middle East and Europe and Africa and Asia and the Americas…and here we are.
A lady from Faith Church, Alice, told the story about a group at a different church that she went to when she was a young mom. The group had an older lady of whom Alice said, “I wanted to be like her”. That’s the heart of a disciple. Saying “I want to be like them.” Paul once said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Discipleship is a cycle that continues from person to person. Now years later there are people in Faith Church who are saying “I want to be like Alice Royer”!
This is how Jesus made his disciples. But don’t just take my word for it. Get out your Bible or open it on an app, or online. Would you take a few moments and walk through the book of Matthew with me, looking for descriptions of how Jesus made disciples?
Let’s start at Mt. 4:19-22 where Jesus first meets a couple of the guys who would become his disciples. This is where it all starts. He looks at them and says, “Follow me,” and Matthew tells us, “at once they left.” It’s kind of shocking that people would just up and leave their jobs to follow a preacher who is walking around town. But scholars tell us that those guys who followed Jesus started out as Cultural Disciples. It was common practice in their society for people to leave all and follow a teacher. This was step one of the process that Jesus used to make disciples. He invited them to follow him.
Jump ahead to Mt. 8:18-22 and notice the progression to verse 23. Jesus is expanding on what following him actually means. There is a cost to it. And what happens? Jesus’ disciples physically got into a boat with him, still following him.
Also in Mt. 9:9 through 19, another man joins Jesus’ crew of disciples. Matthew! The guy writing the story. He was a tax collector, considered a sinner. The religious elite look at Jesus having dinner with Matthew and ask Jesus’ other disciples, “Why is Jesus eating with a sinner?” Jesus heard it, responding, making it very clear that his mission included even those who were normally considered outcasts. That is instructive for us. Jesus wants all people to be his disciples.
Jump down to Matthew 9:19, and what do we see is happening in this group of disciples? Jesus gets up to respond to a situation, and his disciples get up too. They are following him.
After Step 1, the invitation, we come to Step 2 of discipleship. Thus far they have been answering the call to follow him. Basically, they just accepted the invitation to follow him, and they watched him. Now it goes a bit further.
Disciples are also learners. Step 2 is that they sat under Jesus’ teaching. This has already started in Matthew chapters 5-7, where Jesus gives a lengthy teaching called The Sermon on the Mount. At the beginning of that sermon, in verses 5:1-2, we see that his disciples are there, probably in the front row.
Jump ahead to where we left off in Matthew, and we come to chapter 10. What do we see? A lot of red words, if your Bible prints the words of Jesus in red. Look at 10:1-5. Jesus gives them authority, Matthew names the 12 disciples, and then we read in verse 5 that Jesus instructed them. Earlier in chapters 5-7 he was teaching them in the midst of a large crowd. Now in chapter 10 he is focused solely on his disciples. No one else is present.
Next turn to Mt. 12:46-13:10 and we see more teaching by Jesus. Continue on to 13:36 and the rest of the chapter 13, and what do we see? More focused teaching for his disciples. Jesus is investing personally in these guys.
That is the second step: focused, individual investment, teaching where they learn his ways. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He moves onto a third step, Shared Experiences – They saw his example.
This was already starting a bit back in Mt. 8:23-27 when he calmed the storm and in Mt. 9:35-38 when they watched him in ministry, doing miracles, teaching and interacting with people. Here at the end of chapter nine, though, he implants an idea in their head. See it there in verse 38? “Ask the Lord to send out more workers.” Jesus is laying a foundation for these guys. Basically, “you have seen my example, ask God to raise up more people to do what I am doing.” Who might Jesus have in mind to be the answer to this prayer?
Jesus after investing time and teaching into these guys, after showing them an example of what life in the Kingdom is all about, he moves to Step 4 when he gives them the opportunity to be his co-laborers.
Remember that prayer at the end of chapter 9, “pray that God will send laborers?” Look what happens in chapter 10. He gave them power and authority, and he sends them out! Jesus gives them the tools to serve, and then gives them the opportunity to serve. A mission trip. They are now the answer to that prayer, as they go on the mission trip. In the process they are learning to make more disciples.
We have to jump out of Matthew’s account to broaden the story a bit. In Luke 10 there is a further example of this, a second mission trip. The first mission trip was just for the 12 disciples. This second mission trip is for 72, Luke tells us. Jesus is getting more people involved.
And look what happens in Luke 10:17. They had an awesome trip! In verse 21, Jesus is ecstatic! These men who have been following him for months are becoming disciples who can make more disciples.
These men have gone through a progression of following him, watching him, and then moving on to learning from him, having shared experiences with him, and now they are actually doing what he did. Where there used to be one guy doing the work of the ministry, there are now 72! This is a picture of discipleship.
You know what is amazing to consider at this point? These guys were disciples, but they were not fully convinced believers! Think about it. After all this that we have seen about how Jesus shaped these men into his disciples, what happened when Jesus was arrested in the Garden? One of those men completely betrayed Jesus, leading the soldiers to arrest him. All the rest of the men ran away, and the one who made the biggest claims about being Jesus’ best follower, Peter, denied him three times. The next day as he hung on the cross, just one of the 12 disciples, John, came by to see him. Two women were there, one of which was his mom, Mary.
Would you call those disciples believers? They are not a pretty picture of believers. Instead they look a lot more like betrayers, deniers, and cowards.
Except for one important detail. Jesus had deeply invested in these men. They might not have been committed believers, but he had formed them as disciples. And those three years of following him, learning from him, having shared experiences with him, and finally of doing what he did, those three years were not wasted.
Because when he rises from the dead, and when he reveals himself to them, the belief finally catches up with their discipleship.
Now we can return to Mt. 28:19-20. The disciples who are now believers have a whole new view of what it means to follow Jesus. They have a new mission, to make more disciples. They can go back through the past three years and review how Jesus made them into disciples, and they can use the same method to make more disciples.
So can we.
For so many years, many Christians have been taught a two-stage view of helping people follow Christ: First we share the content, getting people to believe in God. Second, we reach out to them and help them to be his disciples.
But many people are looking at that two-part method and thinking that it might not be appropriate. Review all we studied in Matthew already in this post: what did Jesus do? Did he make his disciples pray a prayer first? No. He just said “Follow me”. He didn’t try to get the disciples to believe anything. He didn’t make them sign off that they believed certain things about them. He just said “follow me”. Three years later, and much investment later, they still had questions about who he was. But as we have seen, their belief caught up with their discipleship.
And now what about us? How do we make disciples? Disciples do what their discipler does.
So don’t require people to believe first. Lead them into doing something, living the lifestyle of Jesus. The belief will catch up! No doubt, some people will believe first and then learn to be disciples. There is no one right method. But if we have any amount of respect for Jesus and how he made disciples, we would do well to follow his example.
What, then, do we actually have people do? How do we lead them into the lifestyle of Jesus? What are elements of the lifestyle of Christ that we can invite people to participate in? Some sort of serving? We have to spend time with them. How am I to disciple people if I never spend time with them? We need to open up space in our lives to them.
I also urge you to disciple your family first. You parents and grandparents, make it your passion to disciple your kids. Use that four stage process that Jesus used.
Then disciple others. Maybe someone in your church. Maybe a neighbor. Maybe a coworker.
Then do what Jesus did. Live as a disciple. Teach others what you were taught. Practice the spiritual disciplines, teach others to do the same.
Obviously, we can’t disciple people precisely like Jesus did. He was an itinerant preacher. His job was to walk around Israel and preach and do miracles. And people followed him.
We don’t have a life like that. Jesus did not intend that we would become itinerant preachers who walk around our towns and cities with 12 people following us. We have families, houses, jobs, bills. As did the people in the very first churches which we read about in the book of Acts. Read the book of Acts and what we find is that we can make disciples in any setting.
Also, remember that you are not alone as you make disciples.
Let’s talk about that guy Peter, the disciple who denied that he even know Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, Luke 22:31, we read that earlier in that evening before Jesus was arrested, he said to Peter, “Satan has asked to sift you disciples as wheat, but I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith will not fail. When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
If I’m Peter I’m thinking “Jesus, I love you, but you say some really strange stuff sometimes.” Peter wasn’t thinking anything at all about his faith failing. He thought he was strong. But I suspect these words stuck with Peter, based on what we read later. Peter would go on to deny Jesus, and yet his faith didn’t fail. By denying Jesus he messed up terribly, and he knew it. After the rooster crowed just as Jesus said it would after Peter denied him, Peter went away weeping bitter tears. It seemed like an abject failure of Jesus’ discipleship of Peter. Peter was Jesus’ top guy. Jesus spent loads of time with Peter. He even once told Peter that he was the rock on whom he was going to build his church. And what happened? When it really counted, when Jesus needed his followers most, Peter said he didn’t know Jesus at all. But there is a loophole.
Remember what Jesus said to Peter? “I have prayed for you, that your faith will not fail.” What I want to focus on is the prayer part. Jesus prayed for his disciples, and in particular Peter. He knew they were about to go through an incredibly difficult time. He knew they would run away from him, and Peter would deny him. But he had prayed for them.
Jesus knew that he wasn’t alone in the disciple-making process. He prayed to God on behalf of his disciples. So should we. You are not alone as you seek to make disciples of your kids, when you pray for them.
You are not alone as you seek to make disciples of your friends, as you pray for them.
Yes, there is much to do with a disciple, much to teach them, but you are not alone when you pray for them.
So who can you disciple? Who can you invite to follow you?
And who can you ask to disciple you?
Discipleship really is about training others and being trained yourself. I love the imagery of training because if you’ve ever had a trainer, whether at the gym, or at work, you can picture it. They are showing you how to do something new. You might not believe in them or in yourself. But you start practicing. They step by step guide you into a new life. And the belief catches up.
Who is training you? Who are you training?