The Greek word for “disciple” means “learner.” But, what kind of learning is involved in being a disciple of Jesus? Is it the kind of learning whose focus is knowing about a subject (for example, math or world history) and ends up with a clear understanding of ideas (and maybe class notes and academic degrees)? Or is it the kind of learning whose focus is on knowing how to do something (for example, cooking, painting, throwing a baseball, etc.) and ends up with a set of skills? Or is it the kind of learning whose focus is on behaving in certain ways (for example, with patience, gratitude, perseverance, honesty, etc.) and ends up shaping how we live? Emphatically, YES! to all.
I think that the closest word that we have in English to what Jesus means when He tells us to “disciple all the nations” (Mt. 28:19) is “apprenticeship.” If I were to become an apprentice wood carver, I would expect to focus on understanding, skill and character (and the process, I believe, would equally apply to apprenticing as a painter, scientist, athlete, entrepreneur, or plumber).
Part of my apprenticeship, I believe, would include reading books and articles on subjects as varied as the nature/use of various kinds of wood, basic art and design principles, and how to market works to potential buyers. But, if 10 years into my apprenticeship all I had to show for it was two bookcases filled with books on carving, and published articles on carving theory, the apprenticeship would have been a failure.
Along with understanding, an effective apprenticeship must include the development of appropriate skills. At some point I would need to learn how to use various kinds of saws, carving tools, sanders, stains, and finishes; how to set up a wood shop; how to choose the right kind of wood; etc. These skills are acquired more readily through practice and coaching than through reading. Books can only take us so far. Apprenticeship requires relationship and action.
Finally, in the midst of my relationship with my teacher/trainer/coach/mentor/master, I would expect to learn many character lessons. How do I respond to failure when I mess up? Can I develop the patience it takes to do the painstaking details of a carving? Am I humble enough to receive both criticism and praise with equanimity? How do I handle the on-going need to clean up after myself?
So, if discipleship is apprenticeship, then into what are we apprenticing? The answer of Jesus’ apprentices would probably be “Christlikeness.” Here a few passages to ponder (bolded for emphasis):
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as his is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:3,4).
As followers of Jesus, then, we are apprentices into Christlikeness through expanding our understanding, developing our skills, and training our character. For more about this apprenticeship, come join in the Discipleship Symposium on August 26th (see the details inside this issue).
With you, seeking to be like the Master,
Bishop Jim Hobby