THE MEANING OF DISCIPLESHIP –
“I AM GOD’S
REPRESENTATIVE TO THE WORLD”
B. Representatives of Christ
A Moment in the Life of a Disciple
Imagine you are living in first
century Palestine and you have made a decision to be a follower of
Jesus. No big deal. In your culture, many other teachers have
followers. Day after day you travel around with Him. It’s all
very interesting. Jesus has a fresh way of doing things. You have
seen miracles beyond your wildest dreams. There is a nascent sense
that this man is more than a messenger from God. As “out of
the box” as it sounds there is a growing belief that He may be
God in human flesh. The Greeks say this happens, but only in
mythology. You’ve heard demons calling Him the Son of God, but
it doesn’t make sense in terms of what you have been taught
about the Oneness of Jehovah. Other religions are polytheistic. The
Greeks make fun of their gods and set them against one another; the
super-heroes are cleverer than many of the deities. The Romans
worship a panoply of gods. So do most other cultures. Moses said,
“The Lord your God is One”. Where does this place you?
You are identified as one of Jesus’ followers and people come
to you for advice when they can’t get through the crowds to
talk to Him. But there is only one Jesus. There are scores of
villages that need Him. He can’t be everywhere at once.
Opposition to His style is growing in some quarters. What if He is
silenced? Who will do His work then? Will it last? One day Jesus
assembles the group and informs you that you are about to graduate as
His representatives. You will be given special powers, including the
ability to heal sick people. After your discipleship training
(preparation never seems long enough), seventy will be sent out, to
every village, every hamlet, throughout Israel, to preach Jesus’
message in anticipation of his arrival. The notion of discipleship
is about to reach new heights. You feel inadequate. No matter how
long you have spent with Jesus, you don’t have all the answers.
You haven’t been educated as a priest, you are not a
theologian. What you have had is time with Jesus and your life has
been changed. That much is certain. Discipleship is not about
living in seclusion with the Master learning trade secrets; it is
also about being “in His place” in your world. According
to Jesus, there is a “harvest” of people waiting to
experience God for the first time; it is your privilege to be part of
that harvest. As you go, there is one caveat: don’t look for
status; some people hate Jesus; you can expect similar treatment.
Disciples as representatives of
One of the goals (or outcomes) of
discipleship is to be God’s representatives in the community.
Discipleship is a conscious decision that affects every part of our
lives and all our relationships (as well as our capacity to effect
change) if we embark on that route. The disciples’ mission is
to be God’s people in the world.
This is not something we take lightly.
Nor is it merely rhetorical, like “working to eliminate hunger
in every nation” or “achieving world peace” (I am
reminded of a egregiously sumptuous Banquet Against Hunger that was
held in New York when I worked in that city on one occasion).
Discipleship is a lifestyle choice.
What is a “representative”?
In the world of business or officialdom, “delegates” act
according to prescribed legal powers and within defined
responsibilities on behalf of others. The positions they take on
issues that matter, the words they say, the decisions they are make
are taken in the place of those who send them; they are accountable
for their actions.
Likewise, God’s people are only
doing their “job” if those who study them (rest assured,
the community studies and evaluates people who claim to be
Christians) see that their lifestyles, attitudes, words and values
are truly those of their Boss. If people know we are Christians and
we “stuff it up”, we do so in God’s name. If we do
well, He receives honour from those who might not otherwise offer it
(not yet anyway).
Your marketplace can be an office, a
laboratory, hotel, class room, surgery, stage, PC screen, factory,
social group, club or living room, wherever you interact with people,
literally or virtually. You may be called to function as a disciple
of Jesus in education, commerce, industry, music, media, literature,
communications, visual arts, public administration, medicine, mental
health, high finance, defence, hospitality, international relations
or with people in your domestic neighbourhood. You may be His only
representative in your workplace.
Relationship, faithfulness and
obedience to God and His word are cornerstones of discipleship. This
Jesus, in the marketplace (especially outside the sanctuary)
will, discernment to apply it and power to live it
Word (John 8:31)
more highly than anyone and anything else (Jesus said that, without
Him, we can do nothing, see John 15:5)
Him – once we were nothing; now we are His people (1 Peter
2:10). What a transformation!
Throughout church history there have
been innumerable times when discipleship has been misunderstood and
people believed the most effective way to draw close to Jesus and
follow Him was withdrawal. Monastic orders sprang up all over the
“Christian” world. Holiness was measured by seclusion
and obedience to “orders” approved by Superiors. I have
seen caves in the Middle East and Greek Orthodox monasteries in
Cyprus (“women and dogs prohibited”) where
well-intentioned people believe only physical separation from the
world enables Christian believers to maintain their faith and
relationship with God.
Church members in the West withdraw in
other ways (citing 2 Corinthians 16:7 inter alia, but
misunderstanding its application), cutting themselves off from social
intercourse with the world (even neighbours) wearing special outfits,
using distinctive language and cultural mores behind the closed doors
of church buildings (only at certain times of the week, mind you).
Jesus’ preferred brand of discipleship was always public. “Let
your light shine before men” (Matthew 5:16).
does a representative of Christ look like? How does he or she act?
It goes without saying that a mark of discipleship is that we will be
growing spiritually. But that does that mean? It sounds so
subjective. We should be:
to the Lordship of Jesus (John 13:13) – this is a vital first
and responding to Jesus’ call and direction – John 10:27
every opportunity to be with Jesus – John 12:26 (discipleship
is a relationship, not a formula)
the words of Jesus into practice
fruit – John
15:8 – in our character, what we are like under pressure, what
actions result from our choices and values, what endures.
After three years of ministry and what
appeared to be mixed results Jesus placed the future of His work in
the hands of a small group of virtually unproven disciples. That
wasn’t to say He abrogated responsibility. But one Jesus,
restricted to one place, was always going to result in a localized
Christology. His message to the church was, “The Holy Spirit
will come, He will be with you and in you, giving you divine power to
be my representatives” (Acts 1:8). Paul says we are
“Ambassadors” for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
Ambassadors for Christ
What does that mean? Ambassadors are
the highest ranking diplomatic officials, “sent” (the
word “apostle” has the same sense) by Governments to
countries or international organizations (such as the United
Nations). No Ambassador chooses his or her terms. Their opinions or
agenda are not part of the job.
Ambassadors have quirks, limitations
and personal views, but nothing in their lifestyle or language is
allowed to derogate from the power they represent. The functions,
responsibilities and privileges of diplomats are prescribed by an
international treaty called the Vienna
Convention on Diplomatic Relations,
to which most countries in the world are signatories. When an
Ambassador (or some other diplomat) speaks, they do so as
representatives. That’s why they have to be careful what they
say and do in public.
In times of war, Ambassadors deal with
opposing sides. A strong nation may send an Ambassador to negotiate
with (or dictate terms to) a weak one, offering terms of
reconciliation. Paul says that as Christians we offer God’s
reconciliation to a world at war with Him. In times of conflict,
Ambassadors are sometimes mistreated by enemy forces. In Paul’s
letter to the church at Ephesus he declared that he was Christ’s
Ambassador “in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). The purpose of
discipleship is to change, equip and release us, so that we become
Jesus’ ambassadors and speak on His behalf; only then are we
effective representatives of the Kingdom of God in our marketplaces.
I once met a man who told me he was
God. He wasn’t inebriated. He looked “normal”, as
far as I could see. He wasn’t on a soap box declaiming. Nor
was he a New Ager of the Shirley MacLaine genre who believed he was
part of a celestial think tank or godhood. As Brian recounted what
it was like to exist when there was no universe until he decided to
make one, and what he went through during creation, it occurred to me
that he actually believed he was
The ultimate representation of God on
earth is Jesus. If you want to know what God is like, look at Him.
Then study His people. After all, we are God’s Family.
Non-believers often hold us accountable to higher standards for this
In Roman Catholic tradition, the Pope
is considered to be Christ’s personal representative on earth.
The Vatican officially teaches that: “The Roman Pontiff, by
reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire
Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church,
a power which he can always exercise.” This is an unfortunate
turn of phrase, given that the intent of the Bible is that all of
God’s people be Jesus’ personal representatives.
The moment you identify as a Christian
you become His representative. Outsiders judge Jesus by His
followers. You may have to cope with people who’s observations
of Christian modelling are poor, but you can be different.
We have all heard the term “ugly
American”. It comes from a misunderstood title of a book
written by book
by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick in 1958. Substitute
any nationality. If you travel you will come across “ugly”
representatives of other countries. As soon as you give someone a
passport they become their nation’s ambassadors. They can do
the job well; or they can be loud, pretentious, demanding and
ostentatious. Students studying abroad carry their countries’
reputations, as do football “hooligans” (the UK
Government banned known hooligans from travelling to World Cup
matches in Berlin in 2006), demonstrators, even tourists on buses or
trains. The opinions of people in the street as to the country they
represent rise or fall with their actions and attitudes.
It is the same in the Christian life.
In the marketplace I have witnessed men and women whose lifestyles
have drawn hardened cynics to the feet of Jesus; and others who have
caused people to oppose the church and all it stands for (Lebanon:
“Christian militia guilty of bombing Druze village”.
Muslim friends in the Middle East told me many stories at both ends
of the spectrum.)
We do not represent ourselves
I was working at my desk when the file
landed in front of me. It had gone from one Section to another and
become a bit of a “hot potato”. No one wanted to touch
the case; then unknown hands ferried it to my in-tray. It concerned
a man who lived in the far north of Queensland, who had laid claim to
a national park and surrounding towns, “in the name of Christ,
to establish the Kingdom of God”. His arguments were full of
verses from the Bible, invariably taken out of context and
conveniently appropriated to mandate his cause, to substantiate the
“revelation” he claimed to have received. In the end
consideration and resolution of the claims came down to the
constitutionality of his arguments. I sent the lot to the Cabinet
Minister with my recommendation. When it came back (refused, as
anticipated), the Minister had scrawled impatiently across the front
of the papers, “This is the third person, claiming to represent
God, whom it has been my misfortune to come across this week”.
Discipleship gets bad press when “fruitcakes” draw
attention to their personal crusades by acting in God’s name.
The true disciple does not represent
himself or his denomination. When all the world can see are our
culture, ethnicity, occupation, social standing, fashion, foibles,
marital status or lifestyle preferences, it is possible we are
standing in the middle of the road and obscuring their vision of
Jesus. Independent observers ought to be able to look past our
personalities, biases, feelings, thoughts, perspectives and opinions
(which change over time) and see “something different”.
When Peter and John were arrested in Jerusalem and dragged before the
Jewish leaders, accused of stirring up the community with their
preaching; it was obvious they were “unschooled and ordinary
men”. After further enquiry it was discovered they had been
with Jesus. He made the difference (Acts 4:13).
It is a human trait to pursue self
interest (Philippians 2:21), but the Bible states that God will not
share his honour with anyone (Isaiah 42:8). Discipleship is about
dying to self and taking on the persona of Jesus. Only when we think
beyond self can we use our position to address injustice and live His
In the Place of Jesus
Jesus was not speaking rhetorically
when he told those who wanted to follow Him that they might as well
pick up a cross and nails at that point and be prepared to die on it.
Crucifixion was the most common form of execution in His day and
victims were assured of slow, painful deaths. Following Christ today
can lead to loss of work, forfeiture of family, estrangement, prison
and even death.
For millions of Christians,
discipleship involves a fine line between life and extinction (or
loss of possessions, status and freedom). Believers in Pakistan,
Northern Nigeria, India, Central Asia, the Middle East, China, parts
of Indonesia, north Africa, Indochina, Burma and a score of other
countries live as Christ's representatives in hostile environments
dominated by Hindu nationalism, Muslim extremism, civil wars,
ultra-orthodox Jewish radicalism, anti-Western terrorism and
Maoist-Leninist insurgencies. They often pay heavy prices for doing
I once preached in a shop in the heart
of Sydney’s gay district, where my listeners represented a wide
cross section of people. The chapel had been set up by a hairdresser
who had decided to celebrate his own encounter with Jesus Christ by
opening his boutique for Christian meetings every Friday night. I
shared lessons from story of Zacchaeus, a little man in the Bible who
met Christ as he sat in a tree; Jesus passed by, looked up and saw
him, called him down and his life was changed (Luke 19:1-9). At the
end of the meeting a young man came to me in tears. He wanted to
give his life to Christ. After we prayed together I asked him why he
was upset. He told me, “My family is Jewish. Every Sabbath we
go to the synagogue. When my parents find out I have decided to
follow Jesus as the Messiah they will cast me out of the house, my
father will disinherit me, my family will hold a funeral service in
my name and I will be forever cut off”. Jesus said, “Take
up your cross and follow me”.
Jesus people- radical
Only “older citizens”
remember the “Jesus people”. It is worth recounting the
story of the Jesus people as a case study, because it still shows how
discipleship that is relevant can touch a generation. Not because we
look back wistfully to some “Golden Age”, but because
there are ways and means the Holy Spirit uses Christians in every
generation to celebrate the reality of Jesus and the power He gives
us to represent the God-man Saviour we worship.
Here’s some background. By the
late-1960s/early 1970s in the USA, the youth counter-culture (the
so-called “hippie movement”) reached its peak. The Cold
War was raging. The post World War II American Dream was being
weighed in the balances and found wanting. The country was divided
over race and economic issues. Young people were sick of the
conflict in Vietnam, but rejected Communism. They were disillusioned
with Government and what they believed to be the hypocrisy of their
parents perpetuating social injustice for the sake of political
power, or doing nothing to alleviate the ills of the world while they
were economically well off. Millions of young people sought an
alternative. They burst onto the streets of urban America demanding
change. We had hippies, yippies beatniks, “flower people”,
Woodstock Festival (1960) and calls to “Make love, not war”.
The problem was, they did not have the finance or power to change
the world, so they gave up and turned inwards, looking for answers in
alternative religions, “free love” and communal living.
Drug abuse became a major problem. The world’s media picked up
what was occurring and identified similar movements in other
countries, including Canada, Australia and the UK. Within a decade
it was all over. Sociologists believe the counter-culture was one of
the shortest-lived spontaneous popular movements in history.
In the midst of this, significant
numbers of young people became Christians. They didn’t look
like old-style church goers. They had a language of their own. They
wore outlandish clothes. Their Bibles were covered with colourful
slogans. They opened up “coffee shops” where they could
“rap” with non-Christians and win them to Christ. In no
time, they were assigned labels, such as "Jesus Freaks,"
(initially a pejorative term) and "Jesus People".
Many Jesus People sought to get back
to the simplicity of the early church. They had public baptisms on
the main beaches of California and in the swimming pools of newly
converted Christian movie stars. They spoke about a "Jesus
Revolution". Most discovered and stuck to Biblical basics.
They demanded social justice and tended to live on the edge of the
Christian community. They were radical, they were different, but
what they had worked. They were often excoriated by mainstream
churches that did not have serious agendas of their own to reach the
world for Christ. They emphasized salvation through personal faith
in Jesus Christ. Large numbers of them experienced the Baptism in
the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they went overboard, but at heart they
were serious about aligning their lives with Jesus Christ.
Why talk about a movement that reached
its height thirty years ago. Most of those who participated are
middle aged or beyond. I have included the account for two reasons.
The first is that I was on the fringes
of the Jesus Revolution in my own country. I was a teenage Christian
and I saw the revolutionary power of Christian young people “turned
on to Jesus”, making discipleship the most important thing in
their lives. The cite just one story, I still have vivid memories of
marching with several thousand Christian young people through the
streets of Munich after the slaughter of eleven Israeli athletes, and
the deaths of five Black September terrorists and a German policeman
that upset the so-called “Olympic Games of Peace”. The
Mayor of Munich asked churches and Christian youth organizations to
reach out to the Games, and gave permission for a rally to be held in
the centre of the city. The streets were blocked. Many thousands of
Germans and tourists lined the side of the road and watched
Christians marching by, singing of their love for Jesus, and
promising the power of God to transform their lives. As a result,
hearts that had been hard were softened. Christian coffee shops
overflowed with people enquiring about Christianity. Hundreds of
people made first-time decisions to become Christians. The buzz word
was “discipleship”. Young people with long hair and
crazy clothes carried massive Bibles and Gospel tracts and sat in
parks, railway stations and cafes discussing the Bible.
The second reason is that the notion
of a Jesus Revolution keeps occurring, in America and in Europe.
Christian youth groups call themselves “Jesus Revolutionaries”,
“Jesus Revolution Army” and similar titles. They do not
appear as “outlandish” as their predecessors, but they
are just as serious about discipleship and witnessing to
non-Christians concerning the love of God. Jesus Christ still
Representing God in the
We are called to represent Jesus
Christ in the marketplace. We don’t have to follow precedent,
but we do have to know how to function as His envoys. God help us to
do so in a way that will draw others to Him in a rapidly changing
culture. The Holy Spirit is ready to lead us through the process.