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We know what it means to imitate Christ in terms of moral virtues – who we are. But what does it mean to imitate him in how we do practical ministry?
The problem is that church leaders often focus more on leading ministry programs than on imitating Jesus’ example of discipling people. Jesus’ example of making disciples is worthy of our serious thought and imitation. Begin learning how.
The Apostle Paul teaches that the ultimate goal of discipleship is to be like Jesus Christ, “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29b).
So the central, driving motivation in all Paul’s ministry is to see this ultimate goal accomplished in the lives of everyone he serves. His life’s passion is to present everyone mature in Christ. Notice how many times Paul uses the word “everyone” when he writes:
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col 1:28-29)
The Imitation of Christ
So what does it mean to be like Jesus Christ?
Most people think that being like Jesus means imitating his moral virtues and behaviors. Paul calls followers of Jesus to be “imitators of God” (Eph 5:1). Paul also says “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
In the early 15th century, Thomas a Kempis wrote a classic Christian devotional book called, The Imitation of Christ. This book is perhaps the most widely read Christian devotional of all time. The focus of the book is on imitating the moral virtues of Jesus.
This focus is valuable and needed as long as it does not result in a legalistic focus on imitating Jesus that neglects our need for ongoing reliance on him in faith as our primary motivation and means for being like him.
There is also great value in imitating the behaviors of Jesus seen in how he made disciples.
The problem is that church leaders often focus more on leading ministry programs than on imitating Jesus’ example of discipling people. Again, Robert Coleman’s famous quote reminds us of the Master’s method that resulted in Christianity being the world’s largest religion:
When his [Jesus’] plan is reflected upon, the basic philosophy is so different from that of the modern church that its implications are nothing less than revolutionary. His concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men, who the multitudes would follow. Men were to be His method of winning the world to God.
Since the time of Jesus, people have been studying his ministry methods revealed in the New Testament. Although many studies of Jesus’ ministry methods misrepresent what he did, others are insightful and worthy of consideration. In his book, The Training of the Twelve, A. B. Bruce (1831-1899) provides a biblical, classic study of how Jesus discipled his disciples.
Larger to Smaller Groups
One example of a helpful insight may be drawn from how Jesus intentionally served different sizes of groups.
The largest group he taught consisted of thousands of people in his public ministry, including the feeding of the 5,000 (Matt 14:13-21). But his goal was clearly not to gain publicity. On more than one occasion, after performing miracles, he told the witnesses, “Tell no one what you have seen.” (Matt 8:4, 16:20, 17:9, 8:30, 9:9)
Also Jesus had a smaller group of people, “the seventy,” to whom he gave more focused, personal attention. In Luke 10 we read that he sent them out two-by-two, he told them to expect opposition, and promised them no earthly reward.
But Jesus chose to invest his life in an even smaller group, “the twelve.” The New Testament gives us a glimpse into why Jesus chose the twelve: “so they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” (Mark 3:14b). The twelve he sent out to preach were those with whom he shared his daily life.
Later the Apostle Paul follows this model of Jesus by pouring his life into a relatively small group of people. Paul writes to them:
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:8).
Jesus also had an inner circle of three people he especially focused on–Peter, John, and James. It was only to Peter, James, and John, that Jesus revealed his greatest glory on a mountain, his transfiguration, along with Moses and Elijah.(Lk 9:28-30)
Also Jesus only allowed these three to accompany him on special ministry outings, such as the healing of Jairus’ daughter. “And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child.” (Luke 8:51)
Jesus also allows only Peter, John, and James to be with him when he suffers his deepest temptations, sorrow, and fear in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his death.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane … And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt 26:36-38).
Why did Jesus have this special focus on Peter, John, and James? One reason is because he knew they would be the top leaders of the church after he left. In this role, they would be called on to follow him and make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their lives. Peter’s death by crucifixion was even foretold by Jesus (Jn 21:18-19). James martyrdom is recorded in Acts 12:1-2. And John was ready to “seal his testimony with blood” when he was persecuted by Rome and exiled on the Isle of Patmos. (Rev 1:9)
Lesser to Greater Commitments
As we observe the New Testament record of how Jesus made disciples, we find that he not only focuses on various sizes of groups, from larger to smaller, but over time he also seems to increase the commitments he requires of people, from lesser to greater.
In the early ministry of Jesus, Andrew and John, at the direction of John the Baptist, began following Jesus. Soon after, they asked Jesus, “[W]here are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see. So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day” (John 1:38-39).
In the early part of Jesus’ ministry the disciples made a preliminary, low level commitment to “come and see.”
But as the months and years passed, Jesus progressively showed his disciples who he is and that he came to die for them and be raised on the third day. (Matt 16:21) After that, Jesus told his disciples that the commitment to be one of his followers was now much greater.
Then Jesus told his disciples:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24-25)
Over time, Jesus’ call to his followers changed from “come and see” to “come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp, most likely had these words of Jesus in mind, when he wrote “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
Jesus’ example of making disciples is worthy of our imitation.
In our next and final session, we’ll focus on practical ways to design, develop, and execute an intentional discipleship plan that helps move people in various group sizes to progressively higher levels of commitment to Jesus.
Registration closes March 15