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Following Christ’s Example: A Biblical View of Discipleship

If Jesus trained his disciples to reproduce his message and ministry of the kingdom, then we should expect that they, in turn, were to train the Church to do the same (I Cor. 11:1; Phil. 4:9; I Thes. 1:6; etc.). This must be the intention of Jesus’ commission to make disciples from all the nations “… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Mat. 28:20). To eliminate the Kingdom message and ministry from this agenda in favor of Christology or ethics is to cut out its heart. All must be held together to make any sense of the New Testament.

But did Jesus’ reproduction of his kingdom ministry in his apostles end with them? For MacArthur, the answer is “yes.” He writes, “ … no miracle ever occurred in the entire New Testament record except in the presence of an apostle or one directly commissioned by an apostle”49 His attempt to narrow the field of the miraculous fails, however, on the evidence of the seventy who were not apostles (Lk. 10:1) and the rest of the New Testament (see especially Gal. 3:5; cf. Acts 9:17-18; 22:13 [Ananias, a non-apostle, lays hands on Paul and heals him]; Rom. 12:6-8; I Cor. 12:1-11, 28-31; 14:1-31; I Thes. 1:5-6; 5:19-20; Heb. 6:2;50 Jas. 5:14-16; I Pet. 4:10-11). The Risen Lord continues to gift his Church with charismatic leaders: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers, in order to equip the saints, that is, the whole Church, for ministry (Eph. 4:7-12). This is no seasonal (dispensational) gifting, restricted to the Apostolic Age. Acts hints at this when it shows us that the next generation of leadership, men such as Stephen, Philip, Ananias, and Paul, continue to minister with signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit (see Acts 6:5, 8; 8:5-7; 9:17-18 (22:13); 13:8-12, etc.). And, as we have seen, this ministry continues in the life of their churches. How else can we account for the gifts and power running riot in Corinth which Paul corrects but does not quench?

Since the charismatic leaders, starting with the apostles, given by the earthly/risen Lord are also to be disciplers, they, in turn, will invest themselves in those who are raised up by the Spirit just as Jesus did in his incarnate ministry. From the whole cultural context of teaching and learning in antiquity, we can be sure that they will continue the chain of kingdom teaching and training into the next generation. Of necessity, this means that kingdom ministry will not end with the Apostolic Age, since, starting with the immediate followers of Jesus, each generation will pass on its ministry to the next.

This appears clearly in Paul. Trained as a Pharisee, he transmits the tradition of Jesus51 and lives out that tradition so that he can be an example to others as he ministers in power. He tells the Romans, “For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles in word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit” (Rom. 15:18-19). He also expects his converts to minister in the same way: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). To restrict this imitation to doctrine or ethics, is to do violence to the New Testament evidence and to miss the point of discipleship in the ancient world. As Paul manifested the ministry of Jesus, so he expects his Church to manifest that same ministry. He expects a continuing work of signs and wonders among, for example, the Galatians as he asks, rhetorically, “Does he then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5). Later, when he corrects abuses in Corinth, he never suggests that the powerful manifestations of the Spirit are not of God. The exalted Lord continues his ministry there not only through gifted leaders such as Paul but also through the whole Church which is his living body. W.D. Davies writes,

To use the famous Pauline metaphor … the Church is the Body of Christ, it is the extension of His Being: quite literally Christians are to form the eyes, the feet, the ears, the mind of Christ (the notions of corporate personality, derived from a Semitic background, which lie behind such a conception of an extension of the Being of Christ in His followers, are indispensable to the understanding of the New Testament doctrine of the Church. …) In other words, since the Church is the Body of Christ, it is called upon to perform His work: the Church is the continuation of the life of Jesus, the Messiah.”52

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2007

About the Author: Donald M. Williams, Ph.D. (Columbia University), M.Div. (Princeton Seminary), retired in 2002 from the pastorate of Coast Vineyard in La Jolla, California that he planted in 1988. Previous pastoral experience included serving as College Pastor at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for ten years and Mt. Soledad Presbyterian Church in La Jolla, CA. He has held teaching posts at Claremont MacKenna College and at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of thirteen books, including 12 Steps with Jesus (Regal/Chosen, 2004), Start Here: Kingdom Essentials for Christians (Regal/Chosen, 2006), and The Communicator's Commentary for Psalms 1-72 (Word, 1986) and Psalms 73-150 (Word, 1989).

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