Becoming a Useful Vessel – Part 4

In the first post on becoming a useful vessel, I identified six things we need (minimum) to be a useful vessel for the Master. In the last post, I address the point that we must be obedient to Christ. In today’s post, I will expand on the third of those: We must be discipled.

As I said in part one, a disciple is one who is a follower or student of another – being trained and taught in their doctrines and principles and then being an advocate for that person and those things to the world around them. That’s why Jesus said, “…teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:20). We aren’t saved to keep doing what we were already doing, we were born again for a new purpose! Finding, understanding, and exercising that purpose requires training. Not like the training you might do for a marathon or a triathlon. This training is for a much longer race than that. This training is for a race that lasts the rest of your earthly life.

 Discipleship is like how we train for physical races in this way: as long as we plan on racing, we keep training. A runner doesn’t stop training until they leave the sport. As a disciple of Christ, there is no “leaving the sport” or “retiring”. So, discipleship is a continuous effort throughout our lives after being born again. Some would argue that Jesus only discipled his 12 disciples for 3 years and then He left them because His work was finished. While I would certainly agree that the work Christ came to do bodily was finished, the spiritual work was just beginning. Consider the last thing Matthew records in his gospel that Jesus says:

                “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Also consider these words Jesus spoke:

                “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever.” (John 14:16)

            “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” (John 14:26)

Did Jesus just stop discipling the 12 after 3 years because they had suddenly reached a point that they no longer needed discipled? Absolutely not!! He sent the Counselor to continue the work of teaching them all things and to remind them of all the things they had been told. If 3 years of Jesus discipling those men wasn’t enough for them to be ready to go all on their own with no need of further discipleship, I can guarantee you there isn’t a man in this world that could do enough in his entire lifetime to have you “fully discipled” and in need of no more training. Discipleship is a lifetime commitment.

While discipleship is a continuing process in the life of believers, it doesn’t stay the same our whole life. It changes as we mature in Christ. There are at least three different stages of discipleship in our lives as believers. I don’t like to think of them as stages per se though. They are more fluid, and we can be in more than one stage at a time as we grow.  Just like children don’t suddenly become adults at a specific age. The law may view them that way, but we know maturity and age are not the same thing. That all said, I still think it is healthy to look at the relationship between Timothy and Paul and see the stages of discipleship as their relationship changes with Timothy’s maturity.

Infant/Toddler Stage

The first stage we see is the infant/toddler stage for Timothy accompanied by the fatherhood of Paul. We get introduced to Timothy in Acts 16 where we find out he is already a disciple who the brothers and sisters spoke highly of (Acts 16:1-2). Obviously, new converts start out as infants – as Timothy did too, but he had been taught the Scriptures from a young age by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5;3:14-15). So, Timothy was no longer an infant when Paul begins to disciple him, yet Timothy still had a long way to go. So, for Timothy, he got a new teacher after his infant stage of discipleship was finished and he was started into his toddler years if you will.

Timothy became Paul’s “true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2) and his assistant of sorts on Paul’s second missionary journey with Silas. We don’t get all the details, but we can assume that Timothy spent a lot of time watching and listening to Paul.  Timothy was assisting as he was learning to walk as Paul walked and talk as Paul talked. As Timothy watched – and likely assisted – he became witness to what ministry and walking as a Christian looked like. Paul said this of how things happened:

                “But you have followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, and endurance, along with the persecutions and sufferings that came to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra.” (2 Timothy 3:10)

Paul was showing Timothy what it looked like to follow Christ in the real world. They weren’t hanging out in a seminary classroom or kicking their feet up having a cup of coffee. Timothy was getting front row seats to real world ministry. Paul was preparing Timothy to be tested for ministry of his own.

Testing Stage

Along the way in Paul’s ministry, Timothy was watching and likely taking on parts in the ministry as an assistant. We see there are times when they separate and rejoin such as when Timothy stayed in Berea with Silas and then joined Paul again in Athens. (Acts 17:14-16). For the most part though, Timothy completes the second missionary journey with Paul other than temporary missions which Paul sends him on such as sending Timothy back to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5).  This is the training time after the toddler stage where Paul is testing Timothy through giving him tasks in the ministry to complete. Paul is getting Timothy ready to lead in ministry.

Leadership/Co-worker Stage

Timothy enters his stage of leading in ministry when Paul leaves him at Ephesus to lead the church there during Paul’s third journey. Timothy made it through the testing stage of ministry as he successfully followed in Paul’s steps – not only watching but doing. Timothy was now prepared to lead in ministry. Paul leaves Timothy to continue the ministry in Ephesus without him (1 Timothy 1:3). Even in leadership, Timothy continues to take instruction from Paul as we see in the two letters he receives from his father in the faith. Yet Timothy has made the move from being a child to being a leader and a co-worker with Paul (Romans 16:21).

You see, Timothy didn’t graduate to a point he no longer needed direction and instruction any more than the disciples of Jesus during his earthly ministry. He grew; he matured; but he never arrived at the point in his life where he didn’t still need discipleship relationships.  We are no different today (other than we are probably much slower at maturing. Thank the Lord we tend to live longer now. Some of us gain several years before we start maturing. Of course, I attribute that more to lack of discipleship than the culture or time we live in.

Discipleship is Directional

One additional point I think is important to notice as well about the discipleship process is that discipleship is directional. What I mean by that is that there are different directions in which discipleship relationships are needed for our growth. When we are infants/toddlers, all our discipleship relationships are upward or horizontal (at least they should be). What I mean by that is that we have mature brothers or sisters discipling down to us and we have other infants/toddlers in our circle that are being discipled as well. We aren’t really training them or them training us, but we can encourage one another and spur each other on to good works as we grow together. So, you have those upward relationships training you and those horizontal relationships encouraging you during those early growth years as a new Christian.

Then, during our testing stage, we should begin to have those downward relationships beginning to form under the direction of those above us in the Lord. As we are put in situations to test us for ministry, our mentors should be encouraging us to mentor those who are now in the infant/toddler stages and putting us in situations where we can begin assisting in instructing and training baby Christians.

As we move into the leadership/co-worker stage of discipleship, we begin training and mentoring others who, in turn will be mentoring others as well. All the while, we have vertical and horizontal discipleship relationships in our life. We need those in our lives who serve as counselors and mentors to us at every stage of life. We need those horizontal relationships around us who are sources of encouragement and support. We need those who we are pouring into through mentorship, teaching, and instruction so that we can help them grow. 

Through these relationships, the body is grown and connected through Christ’s work in individual and corporate ministry. Without this process, Christians are not grown and matured through Christ’s intended manner for His Bride. The results on one hand are confused and destructive leaders in local bodies who never received true discipleship, but just one day arrived on the scene as a leader. The results on another hand are immature Christians making a mockery of the faith because they claim Christ but have never been encouraged to follow him.  Either way, lack of discipleship results in dishonor to God by those who claim to be His. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way:

“Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We never reach the stage of being useful to the Master without discipleship because we have never been trained and fitted to the ministry of the Kingdom. That’s not to say that God can’t choose to use us in situations in spite of our immaturity – He does it all the time. He also used a donkey to speak to Balaam…just think about that for a minute.

So, are you involved in discipleship in your life? Are you being mentored and trained for service to Christ? Are you being tested and prepared? Are you training and teaching others as they grow in Christ? If not or if all this seems like a foreign idea to you, let me encourage you today to contact me so I can help you connect with a mentor and a body of believers who you can be discipled by and begin to grow in the Lord to become useful in His service. That leads us right to our fifth part of this series which I will write about next: We must be members of a body. I hope you will come back to read it. Until then, I’ll be praying for each of you and hope you are diligently seeking discipleship relationships in your life.

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