Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Foundation for Discipleship

Much has been said about nominal Christianity. It appears to many of us that a good percentage of people who claim the name Christian are not truly following Jesus. This is evidenced in the fact that Christians in the United States live no differently than the rest of the culture. For all the effort we have put into trying to be “relevant” to the culture, it seems that we have not connected with people in the way it mattered most.

How do we move people from having a belief in Jesus to becoming disciples of Jesus? Remember that on the day of Pentecost 3,000 people believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, repented, and were baptized. This presents a huge task for the 120 or so disciples of Jesus, for they were now expected to help mature these new believers into disciples. What did they do? Acts 2:42 gives us the answer: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ESV).

In this one sentence Luke shows us the foundation of discipleship that the early church used. Their discipleship process was focused in four priorities. As we take a look at these four priorities I think we can get a picture of what we need to do in order to help people move from merely claiming to be Christians, to truly be disciples of Jesus.

I think the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that the early church was devoted or committed to these things. What I want to make sure that we all understand is that these priorities must be what we, who are following Jesus, are devoted to. As people observe our lives they will begin to understand that these things are important in our spiritual growth.

The first priority is that the early church was devoted to the apostles’ teachings. As we continue in Acts 2 we discover that these first Christians met daily in the Temple for prayer and teaching. They knew they need truth and application if they were going to live like Jesus in the world. This is the starting point of all discipleship, being humble enough to be a student of the Bible (the New Testament being a collection of the apostles’ teaching). We also have to remember that being a student is not enough, we also have to be doers. James tells us:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (James 1:22-25; ESV).

The true benefit of teaching isn’t the information that we receive, but the knowledge that we gain. True knowledge is seen in applying what we have learned. If we are not doers of God’s Word, then we haven’t been devoted to the apostles’ teachings, and we are not true disciples. Commitment requires both actions: hearing and doing.

The next priority is that of the fellowship. What this means is that they were committed to each other. This is plainly seen in Acts 2:43-47. They ate together, worshiped together, and generously helped each other. To be committed to the fellowship isn’t about attending events, but it is about doing life together. One of the place where we see this taught is in Hebrews 10:22-25:
...let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (ESV)

The key phrase in the passage is let us. To Christians who were struggling in the face of persecution and who were considering returning to Judaism the author of Hebrews encourages them to do life together. That is what true fellowship is all about. It is hard to come by in our culture, even in the Church, but it is so essential for our discipleship. We need people who will encourage us, who will come alongside of us, and who we can love and serve as well. Find Christian friends with whom you can do life together.

The third priority is that of the breaking of bread. Now there is some debate over what this means. My position is that this refers to communion. The reason I say that is because in the Greek it literally says; the breaking of the bread. While breaking of bread refers to the simple act of sharing meals, the extra “the” I think indicates something specific, and that would be the Lord’s Supper (which was observed during a common meal, so in a sense both meanings fit). The reason Communion is so vital to our discipleship is because it is our time to examine our hearts and our commitment to Jesus. Yes, it is a time for us to remember Jesus and His sacrifice, but that is not its only purpose. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 wrote:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (ESV)

One question that we have to consider when it comes to Communion is: “Do I want to be a part of God’s Kingdom?” The answer to that question will tell us a lot about the condition of our heart and what we truly want our lives to be about. When we take Communion we are reaffirming our desire to be part of God’s covenant people, and thus it provides us with a brand new start. That is why Communion is so vital to our lives as disciples.

The last priority we find mentioned in Acts 2:42 is that of the prayers. The early Christians were not only devoted to praying, but they were devoted to praying at certain times of the day. It is my belief that they continued the tradition of the Jews to pray at 9AM, Noon, and 3PM. One reason I think that is that in Acts 3:1 we read that Peter and John were going to the Temple at the time of prayer. To be devoted to prayer isn’t just about feeling comfortable about praying throughout the day, but have a set time each day when we do not let anything else interfere with our conversation with our Heavenly Father. A great example of this is found in the Old Testament. Daniel was a man of prayer, and because some people were jealous of his success they were able to trick the king into passing law that forbid praying. The penalty for praying was death. This is what Daniel 6:10 tells us: When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously (ESV).

Not only did Daniel pray in the face of death, but he also thanked God while in exile. Right there we find two excuse many of us would use for not praying. How can we pray when it would cost us our life? How can we thank God when our lives aren’t what we hoped they would be? Yet, Daniel was committed to praying three times a day. If we are going to following Jesus then we must see how vital it is to have this daily time of communication with our Heavenly Father. Prayer was an essential part of the life of Jesus, and if we are going to follow His example then it is going to have to be an essential part of our lives.

We have quickly walked through the four priorities the early church were committed to keeping. Much more could be said about each of these priorities, but hopefully you have begun to see how vital they are to the life of the Church. If we are going to have truly devoted followers of Christ, then we must insist that our church families make these four priorities the foundation of whatever discipleship program they implement. After all, if the early church found these four priorities to be essential to their growth, then it is a good bet they will be essential for our growth as well.

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