True discipleship involves a serious commitment to invest in others. It is an investment because it requires time and energy. It is a serious commitment because every person has limited time and energy. Therefore, discipleship requires an efficient methodology that will maximize one’s resources and ability to successfully train up others in the faith.
Jesus Christ was the greatest discipler to walk the earth. For the first time in history, the eternal Son of God experienced time and energy limitations due to the addition of a finite human nature to his infinite divine nature. Nevertheless, he was able to perfectly fulfill the will of the Father. During his three year ministry, his methodology for training the men that would become the foundation of the church can be boiled down to three categories: large group, small group, and individual discipleship.
Large Group Discipleship
Throughout his public ministry, the Lord Jesus spent a good portion of his time in large group settings (Matt 5-7; 14:13-21; Luke 5:1-3). The message of the kingdom pervaded his public ministry to the multitudes (Mark 1:14-15). He taught authoritatively in the synagogues and healed the sick (Matt 9:35). He ate with sinners and tax collectors in their houses (Matt 9:10-13), some of which resulted in salvation (Luke 19:1-10). His interaction with large groups moved him to compassion as he observed their spiritual poverty (Matt 9:35-36). In certain situations, Jesus taught in parables to reveal truth to some and to obscure truth from others (Matt 13:10-17). While large group discipleship has great benefits, Jesus understood that it was logistically impossible for him to invest equally in every disciple. Therefore, Christ also ministered in small group settings, knowing that a select few thoroughly-trained disciples would be better equipped to carry on the work of the ministry than a large volume of inexperienced disciples.
Small Group Discipleship
The majority of Christ’s time was devoted to training a select group of twelve men that he hand chose after much prayer (Luke 6:12-15; John 6:70). They consistently went with Christ wherever he went (Mark 11:11; Luke 8:1), and spent time learning from his personal example and practical instruction. He commissioned them for the work of the ministry (Matt 10-11:1). The Twelve had direct access to Christ (Luke 9:12) and Jesus would speak to them privately (John 6:67). Christ personally spoke to them of his upcoming crucifixion (Matt 20:17-19), shared the final Passover with them (Matt 26:20-29), and had them nearby before he was arrested (Matt 26:30). After receiving the power of the Holy Spirit, the Twelve Apostles were strengthened to apply what they had learned from Christ to lay the foundation of the Church (Eph 2:20) and make disciples of all nations (Acts 2).
Christ also had a small group ministry to a select few within the Twelve. Jesus chose Peter, James, and John to be present with him during some of the most crucial moments of his public ministry. These three witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17:1-13), were present at Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:37), were able to question him privately concerning the kingdom of God (Mark 13:3-4), and were chosen to keep watch with him in Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-38). These privileged few received critical discipleship that would be foundational to their future responsibility of making disciples and establishing the church in sound doctrine.
Perhaps most significant of all was the care that Jesus provided for individuals close to him. Peter is an excellent example of what one-on-one discipleship entails. Jesus rebuked and corrected Peter individually and corporately (Matt 16:22-23; Mark 8:32-33). Jesus commended Peter for being blessed by God for receiving divine revelation regarding his identity (Matt 16:16-17). After Peter failed, Jesus restored Peter and exhorted him to persevere in the work of the ministry (John 21:15-22). After receiving the promised Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, Peter was empowered to preach with boldness and fulfill the command of Christ that he was previously unable to obey in his own strength (Acts 2:14-40; 3:12-26). Jesus also engaged in individual discipleship with people outside of the twelve. Jesus spoke under the veil of night with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher of Israel who had misconceptions about the kingdom of heaven (John 3:1-10). In the next chapter, Jesus is seen ministering one-on-one with a Samaritan woman and told her the truth concerning his identity (John 4:7-26).
A final example of the Lord’s individual ministry to sinful men is seen in the apostle Paul. Despite being as one untimely born (1 Cor 15:8), the book of Acts recounts how Paul was selected by the Lord Jesus as a chosen instrument to proclaim the message of salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). During his ministry, Paul received divine revelation from the Lord for the purpose of building up the church (1 Cor 9:1; 11:23). The Lord Jesus faithfully led Paul through the various trials he encountered during his ministry (Acts 9:4-6; 18:9-11). In addition to all of the churches that Paul planted, the impact of the Lord’s discipleship is demonstrated in the thirteen epistles Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
When it comes to discipleship, God has not left us without instruction on how to raise up the next generation of believers. Therefore, a methodology of discipleship in the local church should seek to follow the example set by the Lord Jesus for training up men and women to be effective ministers of the New Covenant. In the next article in this series, we will examine how Paul’s commitment to imitate Christ shaped his methodology in making disciples of all nations so that we can follow in their footsteps (1 Cor 11:1).