Theology Thursday: A Pauline Pattern for Discipleship

disciples of Christ receiving the Holy Spirit

In the final lines of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ’s disciples receive one of the most well-known mandates from the mouth of their Lord — “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen,” (Matthew 28:19-20, NKJV).

Luke, gesturing in similar fashion, records the risen Christ’s final words as, “‘But, you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me, in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,’” (Acts 1: 7-8). The former mandate focuses on the action of the discipler, which is — to live a life of going and making disciples through teaching others the things of Christ. The latter focuses on who the discipler is to be — a witness and living testimony to Christ. Christ calls the one who follows him to intentionally imitate him, and in imitating him, to form relationships that facilitate and provide what is needed for others to also be equipped as disciples of Christ.

Paul, in the first letter to the Thessalonians, describes this discipleship relationship using the analogy of family. Here, his focus is on the conduct and virtue of the one who is doing the discipling. Though Paul does mention the content taught to the disciple, his primary focus is the means through which it is taught. It is the way in which Paul relates to the Thessalonians — as mother and father —as living witness to Christ, that teaches the person of Christ to the Thessalonians in real time. And as Paul concludes, the aim of this sort of familial relation is that the words of the parent (discipler) are understood by the child (disciple) “not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively Works in you who believe.” — 1 Thessalonians 2:13

A Mother to All: Condescension and Affection

“But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” — 1 Thessalonians 2:8

Paul reminds the Thessalonians that, like a mother, he shared his whole life with them in gentleness, cherishing them with the full affection of Christ. The Greek word used here for gentleness is the opposite of the word for maturity. Paul explains that the act of condescension must occur when one enters a relationship with another who is yet a child. A good mother condescends to the level of her children just as Christ condescends to his good creation. A mother, knowing the immature state of the child, does not force the child to relate to her as an adult. Instead, she enters the ways of a child to facilitate the child’s growth. A good mother is aware of where her child is (mentally, emotionally, etc.) and engages that child, humbly, where the child is because the child is so dear. She bows down and looks into the eyes of the child in affection, placing her own longings aside, for the sake of properly relating to and instructing the child.

Further, the mother must share her whole life for the fullest form of relationship to develop, but it must be done with a proper understanding of what the child can and cannot understand. In the mother-child relationship, this is a given. What I mean is that the child cannot survive without the mother, but what Paul is referring to here is a bit more drastic. He is not talking about mere sustenance; he is talking about the sharing of one’s whole self — heart, mind and so on.

It is worth noting giving of one’s heart, mind, and soul to another is the most difficult actions in discipleship. One must willfully allow themselves to be known by another; one must reveal themselves as a fellow broken creature in need of grace, love, forgiveness, and strength from the Creator. If this revelation does not happen, the child (disciple) has no living witness to Christ’s condescension to — and work in — the life of another broken pilgrim. Thus, the discipler must meet the disciple wherever the disciple is on his or her journey, speak to the disciple in terms understandable by the disciple, and open up enough to be known as a fellow disciple working toward the same single goal of knowing Christ and manifesting him in life.

A Father to All: Instruction and Presence

“You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” — 1 Thessalonians 2:10-12

Paul discusses the support and guidance of the father; he exhorts, comforts, and charges (or calls) his child to maturity. Important here is that the first two verbs “exhort” and “comfort” begin with the Greek prefix para, which means in the presence of, alongside or beside. The idea is that the father does not stand face-to-face with the child, point the finger and merely instruct the child as to how the child should behave. Instead, the father enters the process of walking out the instruction that he communicates to the child in how he relates to him. Just as the Spirit of God never condemns or forsakes the children of God, so too the good father places his arm around the child and exhorts the child as he, by the grace of the Spirit, walks and experiences each step the child takes along with him.

As a babe in the faith, I was graced by a model discipler worth imitation. The Pauline example of a condescending mother and paracletic father can be seen via my personal testimony. First, this man taught me systematics and yet did so with the language of the Scriptures and not the wisdom of men. It was not until I took my first systematics classes that I realized what he had done; he met me where I was, aware of what I needed to begin following Christ.

Second, upon a return from seminary after my first Greek classes, my spiritual father met me and began to discuss his own current studies in the Scriptures. He invited me into his own journey, and this time he was asking me about Peter’s choice of words in the Greek (he was in 1 Peter). Prior to this moment, it had never dawned on me that he studied the Scriptures in Greek — he never mentioned it. For the first year that we studied the Scriptures together, his knowledge of Greek and systematics was not part of the conversation.

It may have increased my understanding, but it also could have two other effects: discouragement at my own lack of knowledge, and a misappropriation of him as the one with all the answers. His training was never to promote himself but always to exalt Christ and be merely a living witness to him — a fellow pilgrim scraping along the way with his sister with whom Christ had granted him the privilege of sharing the gospel. There were many times when he would leave my questions unanswered, trusting in the Spirit and not his own wisdom that I would seek those answers in the biblical text, and Christ, in his faithfulness, would be found.

Encouragement and Conclusion

It was necessary for Paul to share the entirety of his life with the Thessalonians to ensure that the Word of God was understood as the Word of God and not the word of men — in this instance, of Paul himself. Paul was to be a witness to the work of the one whom he too was a disciple. He must speak the Word of God, but he must also be a living witness to the God who speaks. Thus, he condescended to the Thessalonians, loved them affectionately, and shared the entirety of his person — in strength and in weakness as evidenced in the body of letters he wrote to the churches.

This analogy of family is modeled after his beloved Jesus “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). For our God condescends, places his reputation aside, and becomes like the ones he came to save for he loves us so dearly.

So, remember who he is, remember who you are in him, and remember the gift of the gospel he has entrusted to you. Christ has the power to make you so affectionate for the soul of another that you are willing to bend to them, meet them and walk beside them. Together, you will witness the beauty of the humble Christ in the lives of one another — discipler and disciple — having put aside the heights of knowledge for the pure milk of babes. The children of God are to be walking Ebenezers, witnesses to the power of Christ, and this cannot be done by mere words. For “the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory,” (Psalms 149:4). All you must do as a discipler is to be a living witness, evidencing the power of the Word of God as you sojourn.

Beloved, love them with the affection of your beloved Christ.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.