Disciples Making Disciples (Matthew 28:16-20)

make disciples 01

For the last six months I’ve been talking a lot about discipleship. We have followed the journey of Jesus’ disciples as he called them to follow him, as he taught and equipped them, and as he led them to the cross and empty grave to witness his grace and life-giving love. Now, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the disciples’ journey culminates with what is often known as Jesus’ Great Commission.

It’s important to realise that the emphasis in Jesus’ words is not on ‘Go’ as a lot of translations suggest. Instead, the main point of Jesus’ instruction is for his disciples to make disciples. He assumes that they will be ‘going’ as a natural part of their lives. Wherever they might be going, Jesus wants them to make disciples. He then explains that the two main elements in making disciples is by receiving people into Christian community through baptism, and then teaching them ‘to obey all the commands’ he has given us (v20).

We are generally pretty good at the baptising part of the Great Commission. However, I get a little uneasy whenever we use this text in our baptism order because I wonder how well we really do in teaching others to obey Jesus’ commands, especially when Jesus’ commands look like this:

  • Repent & turn to God (Matthew 4:17)
  • Love your enemies (5:44)
  • Don’t worry … seek the Kingdom of God above all else (6:25-34)
  • Come to me … & I will give you rest (11:28-30)
  • Turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me (16:24-27)
  • Love God with all your heart, soul & mind … love your neighbour (22:37-40)

How well do these teachings of Jesus reflect your experience of Christian community? Are we living according to Jesus’ teachings? Are we equipping each other to teach others to live in the same way?

Jesus doesn’t give us a set of rules to live by. Instead, he is leading us in a new way of living that leads to life to the full (John 10:10). This is the narrow gate and the difficult road that he describes in Matthew 7:14. It is the solid rock he talks about in Matthew 7:24-27 on which we can build our lives so that, when the storms come, we can remain secure and upright instead of our lives crashing down around us. Learning to live in the way of Jesus is about learning ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG) that give us rest and flow into the lives of others through us.

What might our congregation be like if we took Jesus’ instruction to make disciples seriously? What might it look like if all we did was focus on learning to live the way of Jesus teaches? What might it be like if everything we did was focused on learning to live the way Jesus teaches and to help others live in the same way? This is what lies at the heart of our conversation about becoming a Simple Church. This is the challenge I would like to continue to keep in front of us as we plan for the future God has for us. If the one instruction Jesus gave to his disciples before he left them in Matthew’s gospel, if the one thing he wants us to do, is to make disciples who live in the way Jesus teaches, how do that faithfully?

There are a number of short video clips on YouTube which explain what discipleship can look like in a congregation like ours. You can look at one of them by following this link.

There is a lot more to talk about as we think about how we faithfully follow Jesus’ instructions to disciple others in the way Jesus teaches. For now, it’s worth asking the question: are we willing to live in the way Jesus teaches as his disciples, even if it means giving up some of the ways we think about church? How can we help others learn ‘the unforced rhythm of grace’ so together we can find faith, hope and love as Jesus’ disciples?

The conversation will continue…

More to think about:

  • There’s a lot of talk about discipleship in the church at the moment. If someone who wasn’t a Christian asked you what it means to be a follower of Jesus, how would you explain it to them (in 25 words or less)?
  • When you have heard the Great Commission in the past, have you focused on the ‘go’ or the ‘make disciples’ part? How might focusing on the ‘making disciples’ rather than the ‘go’ change the way you apply Jesus’ instruction in your life?
  • How is the way you have understood Jesus’ teaching similar or different to the 6 examples I included above? What might your life be like if you lived in the way these 6 examples teach us?
  • Discuss why living Jesus’ way is important, especially when you read Matthew 7:13-14 and 24-27? What is Jesus’ promise to us when we live in the way he teaches?
  • How well have you been taught to live in the way Jesus’ teaches? How can we do a better job at helping you to live in the way Jesus’ teaches? How can we help you disciple others to live in the way of Jesus?

Son of David (Matthew 21:1-11)

palm Sunday 07

Over the season of Lent, people from our congregation have been reading through the gospel of Matthew and listening to what Jesus teaches us about discipleship. From the very beginning of book, we saw that Matthew points us to Jesus as King David’s descendant who was promised in the Old Testament to reign over God’s people and establish his eternal kingdom.

This theme began in chapter one when Matthew used Jesus’ family history to show Jesus’ connection with David and the royal house of Judah. When we come to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in today’s reading, then, we see the crowds welcome Jesus in the hopeful expectation that he really is the king they have been waiting for, and that he will establish the kingdom of God on earth.

As we have read through Matthew’s gospel, I’ve been thinking about how the two themes of discipleship and the kingdom of God fit together. It seems to me that…

Discipleship is … living with Jesus as our king.

We can often think of kings as being tyrants who are removed from the everyday life of their subjects and who only use their power for their own self-interest. Especially in Australia, we tend to have a strongly anti-authoritarian views of those in positions of power, and so we can be suspicious and cynical of anyone who claims to be a king.

Jesus is a totally different kind of king. It is important to hear the crowds in Jerusalem welcome Jesus as the descendant of David, who was to rule in the same way that David ruled. When we read the stories of David’s reign in 2 Samuel, we see a king who made mistakes and who didn’t always use his power wisely. However, David was thought of as being the greatest king of Israel because he was a king who looked after God’s people like a shepherd looks after the sheep entrusted to him.

This is the kind of king Jesus is. He uses his authority and power for the benefit of those in his care, not for his own personal gain. Like a shepherd, he provides for his people, protects his people from harm and danger, leads his people to green pastures and good waters, and takes care of them in all their needs. When we read through the great shepherd psalm composed by David, Psalm 23, we have a great picture of what our shepherd-king does for us as he provides us with everything we need for this life and the next.

That was why the crowds in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus with the cry ‘Hosanna!’ (v9) which literally means ‘Save us!’ They were hoping that the shepherd-king would save them from their enemies and bring in a new era of peace for God’s people. As a people who were occupied by a foreign and often brutal empire, they looked to Jesus as the promised deliverer who would free them from their oppression.

This is what our shepherd-king does for us. Jesus brings us saving help, not just for the life to come, but also in all the circumstances of life in this world. Matthew points to Jesus as the king who is with us in every situation of life (see Matthew 1:23 & 28:20b) to give us the help we need. We can find freedom from fear, guilt, shame and worry through faith in Jesus the shepherd-king who has all authority in heaven and earth (28:18) and who uses his authority to forgive, heal, make clean and bless. All the way through the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is bringing life to people as their shepherd—king as he gives his saving help to everyone who needs it.

To live as Jesus’ disciple and a member of his kingdom is to look to him and trust in him as the one who brings God’s saving help to us, whatever we might need. We can be critical of the people of Jerusalem who were welcoming Jesus as their king on that first Palm Sunday, but who then called out for his crucifixion only five days later. We are not that different if we turn up to worship, or even in our own private worship, sing Jesus’ praises as our king, but then fail to look to him as the source of our saving help in other aspects of our lives. It is too easy for us to look to ourselves, other people or other places for the help we need instead of to Jesus. To live with Jesus as our king is to live each moment of each day, looking to him, our shepherd-king, as he brings us saving help in all the circumstances of life.

As we journey through Holy Week towards the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, we witness what our shepherd-king was willing and able to do for us to provide us with the freedom and saving help that we need. Jesus isn’t a king who sits on a throne in a castle and sends others to fight his battles for him. Jesus is a king who enters into our battles, who embraces our suffering, to take on the enemies we face that would rob us of the life God wants to give us, and who triumphs over them on the cross and in the empty tomb. As we celebrate the events of Easter, we see what our shepherd-king did for us in defeating sin, death and the devil’s power, and the victory he gives to us as his disciples and citizens of his kingdom.

With Jesus as our king, his victory is ours, every day of our lives.

More to think about:

  • What comes to your mind when you think about a ‘king’? Do you usually think of kings in positive or negative ways?
  • When the crowds in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday welcomed Jesus as their king, what do you think they were hoping for?
  • Why do you think public opinion towards Jesus changed so dramatically between this event on Sunday and his crucifixion on Friday? What changed their minds?
  • What do you think of the image of Jesus as a shepherd-king who has saving help for us in all the circumstances of our lives? In what areas of life do you need help right now? How might Jesus be able to help you as your shepherd-king?
  • If you were to live everyday with Jesus as your king, would it make a difference? In what ways? or Why not?

Discipleship is Believing (John 11:1-45)

Lazarus open tomb

I wonder what Jesus’ disciples were thinking as they stood with him outside Lazarus’s tomb and heard him call the dead man to come out.

As they followed Jesus through John’s gospel, his disciples had seen him do some amazing things. He had turned water into wine (2:1-12), heal the son of a government official (4:43-54) and a man who could not walk (5:1-15), feed 5,000 men plus women and children (6:1-13), walk on water (6:16-21), and give sight to a man who had been born blind (9:1-41). However, raising a man who had been dead for at least four days was different. In the moments that followed Jesus calling Lazarus out of his tomb, I wonder if they believed he could do it, or if some of them were thinking that this time Jesus had gone too far.

One theme that runs through this story, and in fact the whole gospel of John, is believing in Jesus (see 20:30,31). Early in the story, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t there, for now you will really believe’ (v15 NLT). It sounds pretty harsh that a person had to die so that Jesus’ disciples could believe in him, but it also tells us something about the nature of Jesus’ work. He wasn’t just a great moral teacher. Jesus is in the business of raising dead people to new life.

We can Jesus’ words in the same way Martha understood them. When Jesus was talking to her about resurrection, she replied, ‘he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day’ (v24 NLT). However, Jesus seemed to have something else in mind when he answered her,

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.
Do you believe this, Martha?’ (vv25,26 NLT)

The Apostle Paul saw resurrection as more than what would happen at the end of time when Jesus will return. Paul understood resurrection as something real for believers in Jesus now. In Ephesians 2:5 he writes, ‘even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead’ (NLT). Paul shifts our focus from the disciples outside of Lazarus’ tomb to the dead man inside the tomb and points to his story becoming our story through faith in Jesus. Again, in Colossians 3:1, Paul writes,
‘Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand’ (NLT).

Paul is saying that, like Lazarus, we have been raised with Christ who calls us out of our tombs to live a new life as his disciples by believing in him.

We can understand this spiritually, in terms of sin and redemption, but this also makes an impact on how we live our lives here and now. When Lazarus lay in his tomb, he was alone, in the dark, and tied up in his grave-clothes. In one way or another, at different times in our lives I think we can probably identify with Lazarus. We may have known loneliness and isolation from others. Maybe we have felt like we have been trapped in the dark, with no light to shine on us or guide our way. It is possible that we have been tied up or bound in our lives by fear, guilt, shame, addiction, or something else that has robbed us of the life that Jesus came to give us (see John 10:10).

The good news of this story for us is that when we identify with Lazarus, Jesus calls us to come out of our tombs and into the light of new life with him. Believing isn’t just standing outside the tomb and trusting that Jesus can do what he says. Believing is hearing Jesus calling us our from our tombs, from our loneliness and isolation, our darkness, and the things that tie us up and bind us. Jesus calls us into a new relationship with our heavenly Father and into the community of believers who become our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus calls us into the light of his love and grace, given to us in his death and resurrection for us. Jesus calls us into the freedom that comes through faith in his forgiveness, acceptance, approval and peace. Jesus’ answer to Martha, and Paul’s emphasis that we have already been raised to new life, point us to the reality that the resurrection has already begun in Jesus, and we are a part of it by believing in Jesus.

All this helps us see that, even before we do anything as Jesus’ followers,

Discipleship is … believing that Jesus calls us into a new life with him.

As we stand with Jesus’ disciples in the time between hearing Jesus words to come out of the tomb and the final resurrection of the dead at the end of time, I wonder what we will think. Will we assume that Jesus has gone too far this time, and that he can’t really do what he says? Or will we hear him calling us out of our isolation into community, out of our darkness into the light of his love and grace, and out of what binds into his freedom? And in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, will be believe and follow him into the new life he has for us?

More to think about:

  • What would you have been thinking if you were standing with Jesus’ disciples hearing him call Lazarus to come out of his tomb? Would you be expecting Lazarus to come out? Explain why.
  • Do you think of resurrection as something that will only happen at the end of time when Jesus returns, or as something we participate in now? How do you understand Paul’s words about having been raised with Christ from Colossians 3:1?
  • In what ways might you be able to identify with Lazarus’ experience of loneliness/isolation, or darkness, or being tied up/bound?
  • In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9) the voice from heaven said to listen to Jesus (v5). What do you think of the idea that when Jesus told Lazarus to come out of his tomb, he also calls us out of our isolation, darkness and bonds to a new life in him?
  • By believing that Jesus calls you into a new life as his follower, how might your life be different?

Born Again (John 3:1-17)

Holy Spirit Dove 02 cropped

A couple of weeks ago I saw a movie called Fury about an American tank crew towards the end of the Second World War. At the start of the movie, one of their crew members had been killed and he was replaced by a recruit called Norman who was trained to be a clerk typist. As he was being introduced to the rest of the tank crew, one member, nicknamed ‘Bible’, asked him if he was born again. Norman looked a bit puzzled before answering that he grew up a Roman Catholic. So ‘Bible’ asked him again if he was born again.

It got me thinking – if someone asked me if I was ‘born again’, what would I say? If someone asked you if you were ‘born again’, what would you say?

The reason I ask is because the term ‘born again’ can be understood in a few different ways. For some, being ‘born again’ means having a particular conversion experience, displaying certain gifts of the Holy Spirit, or belonging to a specific branch of the Christian family. However, when we hear Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in this reading from John’s gospel, it sounds like his understanding of being ‘born again’ is broader than how we might understand it.

When each of our three children were born, it really hit me that life is a gift. None of us chose to be born, or worked for it, or made a commitment to be born. We talk about ‘giving birth’ because life is a gift that was given to us when we were born. In the same way, Jesus is saying here that the new life we have as God’s children is given to us by our heavenly Father. It comes from him as he begins a new relationship with us as his children.

This new birth is given to us through water and the Spirit of God (v5). We understand Jesus’ reference to water and the Spirit as pointing to baptism. This is where we believe God gives new life to us. We don’t make a distinction between water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit, but believe that in the gift of baptism, we are ‘born again’ as God’s children through water used with God’s Spirit in his word. That is why, in Galatians 3:26,27 Paul writes,

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (NLT)

Paul identifies here that in baptism we are made children of God and are ‘clothed’ in Christ’s righteousness and goodness. As baptised people, we have been born into a new relationship with our heavenly Father, given new identities as his people, and given a new life to live as God’s children.

Another thing that really struck me as I held each of our three children just after they were born was that they have a whole life to grow into. Birth is the start of something new, a journey that will take a lifetime and, by the grace of God, will continue after they leave this world and go on to the next. The new life we have as God’s ‘born again’ children is the same. Baptism is not just about a once-off event. Baptism is the start of something new that we grow into every day of our lives.

There are a lot of different ideas about what this life looks like, and what it means to live by the Spirit of God. Paul again gives us a good idea of what living by God’s Spirit looks like when he writes this in Galatians 5:22-25:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. (NLT)

According to Paul, then, to live according to the Spirit of God as people who have been born again by water the Spirit, is to be growing in and displaying the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. It means producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our lives and in our relationships with each other. To live the new lives God has given us as his born again children is to be growing in these qualities every day, moment by moment.

This is the journey of disciples of Jesus who have been given this new life through water and God’s Spirit. As we continue to explore Discipleship, then, we can be thinking that

Discipleship is …
… following Jesus into the new life God gives us as his born-again children by the power of the Holy Spirit.

By following Jesus, we can learn how to live as God’s children who live by the Spirit and bring God’s goodness into the world.

If we think about being ‘born again’ as people who are given a new life to live as children of God, then being ‘born again’ is much broader than how some Christians understand it. Being ‘born again’ is about our identity as God’s children and growing into his gift of new life to us through Jesus by the power of his Spirit. The life of a disciple, then, begins at our baptism where this new life is given, as Matthew says (28:19), and is a lifelong journey of growing into the life the Spirit gives us.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If someone asked you if you are ‘born again’ how would you answer that person?
  • What would your answer say about how you understand what it means to be ‘born again’?
  • List a few words that describe the life of Jesus. If we think of birth as the start of a new life, what does it mean to you that his life is now your life? (see Galatians 2:20)
  • When we look at Jesus, we get a picture of what it means to live as God’s child. How might keeping your eyes on Jesus and following him help you grow into the new life God has given you as his born-again child?
  • If you had the chance to start your life over, what would you do differently? As a born-again child of God we are able to start every day fresh. How will you live your life differently today?

Duel (Matthew 4:1-11)

I am intrigued by the way people represent the temptation of Jesus in art and movies. Many times, the devil is portrayed as the embodiment of evil, with cloven hoofs, horns, tail and wings. At other times, however, I have seen the devil represented as a well-dressed, respectable-looking person, just like we might see around us every day. Sometimes, the tempter looks obvious, but at other times he seems to be a long way from what we think of evil.

We all face temptation in our lives. Sometimes, like the representations of the devil with hoofs, horns and a tail, those temptations are obvious. At other times, like the well-dressed, respectable-looking devil, those temptations are much subtler. Like the temptations Jesus faced, they can be to put our appetites and desires before trusting in God to provide. They can be the desire for something spectacular so we can know for sure that God is real, instead of trusting in his word of promise. We might be tempted to take the easy road to power, control and glory instead of the way of humility, sacrifice and suffering through service and self-giving love. The temptations we face might look different, but they have one thing in common – to give up trusting God and take control for ourselves.

One way we can understand the stories of Jesus’ temptations is to learn from him how to battle temptation in our own lives. As we watch the duel between the devil and the Son of God, one thing is clear – the use of God’s word. Last week, as we celebrated the transfiguration of Jesus, we heard the voice of God tell us as Jesus’ disciples to listen to him. Here, in Jesus’ temptation, we see the importance of God’s word in our lives. The only way to resist temptation is by being anchored in God’s word. Each time the devil tempts Jesus, he responds with a word from Scripture which brought God’s truth into the situation. In the same way, when we are anchored in God’s word and living in the promises it gives us, God’s word will also give us what we need to resist temptation and live in the peace God gives to us.

Even when the devil tries to misuse God’s word in the second temptation, Jesus corrects what the devil says by relying on what God has said in Scripture. This is important for us: not everyone who uses God’s word uses it to bring us into a closer relationship with God. God’s word can be used to lure us away from the truth. That is why, as we talked about last week, it is important that we learn the art of listening rightly to God’s word together so we can find the truth and grace of Jesus in it.

It is important that we don’t just read the stories of Jesus’ duel with the devil as an example to follow, but also as the gift he gives us. As people who are one with Jesus through faith in him, we need to read this story as a duel he fights for us and a victory he gives to us. If we were to try to resist the devil on our own, we will fail. That is largely what these temptations are about – relying on ourselves rather than God. Faith in God as the story of Jesus’ temptation presents it is about trusting that Jesus has already duelled with the devil and won! Because of his identity as God’s Son and his perfect trust in God’s word, Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves and resists the devil and his temptations. Jesus gives his victory to us as a gift through faith by the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus’ victory over the devil is now your victory, so when temptation comes, we are already declared to be righteous and victorious over those temptations.

This means that God’s grace in temptation is much greater than simply thinking that we will be forgiven if, or when, we fail. God’s grace to us, what he does for us which we can’t do for ourselves, is Jesus’ victory over the devil’ temptations. When temptations come, then, instead of thinking that we have to try hard to resist temptation, we can be anchored in God’s word and live in Jesus’ victory. We can tell the devil he has no power over us, and find what we need in our relationship with Jesus. When we find our identity in Jesus as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he pleased (Matt 3:17), the verse which comes directly before the temptation of Jesus, then we stand with Jesus in his victory. When we are sure of God’s unconditional love and acceptance in Jesus, and when the Spirit of God fills us with the assurance of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we can resist temptation and live faithfully in the live Christ gives us.

What that means for us as followers of Jesus, then, can be thought of as:

Discipleship is …
… resisting temptation by being anchored in God’s word and our identity as his children.

I know from my own journey as a follower of Jesus how difficult it is to struggle with temptation. Sometimes, temptations can be very subtle. Other times, they can be obviously against what God wants, but still look appealing or attractive. And then there are the times when the temptations we face look like they are the best option, and maybe even what we think God wants. It can get complicated, and working out what God wants for us can be hard. That is why we need to not just read this story as an example of how to resist temptation. We need to find God’s grace in this story: in Jesus, God was doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves by defeating the devil and his temptations. This victory is now yours as God gives you Jesus’ victory through the Holy Spirit’s power.

The next time you are tempted, the devil has already lost. The victory over temptation is already yours in Jesus.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If you were making a movie about Jesus’ temptation how would you portray the devil – as someone who was obviously evil, or something more subtle?
  • What is a temptation you have faced in the past or might be facing at the present time? How did you deal with that temptation? Were you able to overcome it or did you give in to it?
  • What do you think Jesus meant when he said that people can’t live on bread alone (v4)? How can being anchored in God’s word help you when you are tempted?
  • We can understand grace as not just being forgiven when we give in to temptation, but God giving us Christ’s victory over temptation through his Spirit even before we are tempted. How might Jesus’ victory over the devil help you when you are tempted?
  • How can finding a strong sense of your identity in Jesus help you when the devil tries to tempt you away from trusting in God?

Listening (Matthew 17:1-9)

transfiguration-01

But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said,
“This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.”
(v5 NLT)

When I was a child we used to play a game called ‘Simon Says’. To play the game, one person, who played the role of ‘Simon’, would call out instructions beginning with ‘Simon says’ and everyone else would need to do what ‘Simon’ told them to do. Occasionally, the caller would give an instruction without saying ‘Simon says’ and if a participant did the action, that person was out of the game.

I know that there are dangers with using a game like ‘Simon Says’ as an illustration of being followers of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just give us instructions in life, and then exclude us if we get it wrong. My reason for using Simon Says as an example of being Jesus’ disciple is that it highlights the importance of listening to the person who is leading us.

When Jesus led Peter, James and John up the mountain to witness his transfiguration, God’s voice identified Jesus as his Son whom he loved and with whom he was pleased (v5 NIV). We have already heard these words in Matthew’s gospel at Jesus’ baptism. However, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that the voice from heaven added the words, ‘Listen to him.’ The Transfiguration of Jesus gives us insight into one of the most important aspects of being a disciple of Jesus – listening to him.

Listening to Jesus is essential if we are to listen to him. How can we follow someone if we are not listening to where that person is leading us? In the example of the game of Simon Says, how can we follow what the leader’s instructions if we are not paying attention to that person is saying? If we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we need to be listening to his voice so we can follow him and learn from him.

While there are some different ideas about how to hear God’s voice, in the end we hear the voice of Jesus most clearly when we listen to what he has said to us in Scripture. The Bible is the most reliable source of Jesus’ teachings that we have. As Hebrews 1:1,2a says,
Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.

These words point to Jesus being the living Word of God, as John does at the start of his gospel, and the voice of God in the world. If we are going to follow Jesus, we need to be listening to him, and the clearest place we find what Jesus says is in the words of the Bible.
However, it is easy to misunderstand what another person is saying to us, as most of us would probably know. The same happens with listening to Jesus in the Bible. That is why the Bible itself teaches us how to listen for Jesus’ voice. For example, John 1:17 says, ‘the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (NIV). John is telling us that if we are to hear Jesus’ voice, we need to be listening not only for what he is telling us to do, but for what Jesus has done, is doing and will do for us. If he is just telling us what to do, his teachings are law, and that was Moses’ job. However, John tells us that Jesus came to bring us grace and truth. The art of listening to Jesus’ voice, then is to listen to his words for the truth of his grace. In other words, listening to Jesus as his disciples means learning to listen for what he wants to do for us.

When we do that, we can hear Jesus say words such as:

‘The Kingdom of Heaven is near.’ (Matthew 4:17)
‘You will be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matt 5:48)
‘Take heart … your sins are forgiven.’ (Matt 9:2)
‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (Matt 9:13)
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matt 11:28)
‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20b)

Jesus’ disciples knew that he has ‘the words that give eternal life’ (John 6:68) and so they listened to him as they followed him and learned from him. As Jesus’ disciples we also need to listen to him so we can follow him and grow in the life he gives us as we learn from him. So today, I’m thinking that,

Discipleship is… listening to Jesus and learning to live in his way.

To help us learn the art of listening to Jesus, during the season of Lent I would like to challenge us all to read through the gospel of Matthew, one chapter a day. As we do, I am offering this booklet (exploring-discipleship-in-matthew) with some guiding questions to help us hear what Jesus teaches us about being his disciples. This booklet can be used by individuals or small groups, and will be the basis of our congregation’s Lent devotions as we journey towards Easter.

Like playing a game of Simon Says, we need to be listening to Jesus if we are going to live as his disciples. Unlike a game of Simon Says, however, Jesus doesn’t just give us instructions or tell us what to do. Through the Spirit of the Living God, Jesus’ words breathe grace and truth into our lives. Through them he gives us a new life to live as his disciples, and the grace of God to be his salt and light in the world.

Are you listening to Jesus?

More to think about:

  • Do you think it is important for Jesus’ followers to listen to him? Why?
  • How often do you read your Bible?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to read your Bible? Explain why.
  • Would it be easier for you to read your Bible on your own or with others? Can you explain why?
  • How might it help you read your Bible if you thought of it as an important way for Jesus to speak life-giving grace and truth to you? How can we help you to learn the art of hearing God’s grace in the words of the Bible?

God’s Perfect Life (Matthew 5:38-48)

In order to understand what Jesus is saying to us in these last verses of chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, I want to first ask a question:

Who is your enemy?

We could theorize and theologize about this text for hours, but we only start to enter into the radical nature of what Jesus is teaching us as his disciples when we hear them in the context of a concrete situation. For example, we can think of an ‘enemy’ as someone who has wronged us in some way, or annoys us, or makes life hard for us, or who is just hard to live with. An ‘enemy’ can be anyone who we feel has done wrong to you or with whom we are in conflict.

Now, read passage again with that person in mind…

Can you do what Jesus teaches? Can you treat that person better than they have treated you, which is one way to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 38 to 42? Jesus is telling us to literally go the extra mile for that person, even if that person is hostile, critical or unkind towards us. Can you love that person with the kind of love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, being patient, kind, not being rude or proud, not demanding your own way, keeping no record of wrongs, and so on? Are you able to pray for God to do good in that person’s life, even though that person may have wronged you?

When we contemplate Jesus’ teaching with our ‘enemies’ in mind, we come face to face with the reality of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.

What is important, however, is not just what we do, but our reason for treating people better than they treat us. Jesus says that when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we are ‘acting as true children’ of our Father in heaven (v45). As an illustration of the love and grace our heavenly Father shows to all people, Jesus points us to the sun and rain. We all need sunlight and rain to live. We might complain about them sometimes, but God provides each for us to exist and grow on this earth. Jesus is saying that God is indiscriminate with his gift of sunshine and rain. He doesn’t send more rain to good people or withhold it from bad. He doesn’t give extra sunny days to people in one place because they are better than those living in another. Instead, Jesus teaches, our heavenly Father knows what we all need and blesses us with both sunny and rainy days, not because of our behaviours, but because of his love for us. This is God’s grace to all people – that he lovingly provides us with what we need, whether we acknowledge him or not, whether we believe in him or not, whether we are good or evil in our thoughts, words or deeds.

And he asks us to do the same. Jesus concludes by saying that we ‘are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (v48). I find a lot of people like to justify the wrongs they may have done by confessing that they are not perfect. From one point of view, there is truth in that statement, and Jesus’ command that we need to be perfect can sound like an unachievable goal. And if there’s no hope in being perfect, why should we even try?

But there is another way to understand what Jesus is saying here which goes beyond setting us an unachievable goal. When Jesus says, ‘You will be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ we can also hear these words as a promise!

As we heard a couple of weeks ago, when we are made one with Jesus through faith, God gives us the righteousness of Jesus as a gift. As we live in Jesus and he lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives all he has and all he is to us as his brothers and sisters. That means he also gives us his perfection. As the forgiven children of God, he makes us perfect in his eyes through the work of the Holy Spirit. To live as a disciple of Jesus, then, means to grow in our identity as God’s perfect people by growing in the perfection we have been given.

We need to understand, though, that the perfection Jesus talks about is not keeping rules or getting a prefect moral score. Instead, as we hear Jesus’ words in this passage, he defines perfection as showing grace to people as we turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to anyone who asks, love our enemies and pray for those who treat us badly. As we grow in our faith in God’s perfect grace towards us, to be a disciple of Jesus means to also be growing in our displays of indiscriminate grace to the people around us, no matter how they treat us or whether we think they deserve it or not.

So, based in these words of Jesus, I am thinking that…

Discipleship is…
… growing in God’s perfect grace to us and indiscriminately sharing his grace with others.

Living in this way isn’t easy, especially when we are being treated badly by another person. Jesus knew how hard it was – it cost him is life. That is why we need to be continually wrestling with what it means to love our enemies, and how to love them with the love of Christ. That is why discipleship is something we grow in for our whole lives and we need to be doing together.

So who is your ‘enemy’? Who is someone with whom you might be in conflict or treats you badly? In the perfect grace God gives to you through Jesus, how will you love that person this week?

More to think about:

  • What do you like about Jesus’ teachings in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount? What do you find most challenging about it?
  • When someone wrongs you, what is your natural reaction – to treat them in a similar way to how they have treated you? Or to treat them better than you think they deserve?
  • When we do wrong by God how does he treat us – in the way we deserve? Or, for the sake of Jesus, better than we deserve?
  • Do you tend to hear v48 as a command or a promise? How might today/this week look different if you could cling to the promise God is making through it that God is perfecting you through the Holy Spirit’s work?
  • How can you display God’s perfect grace to a person who might not be treating you well or with whom you are in conflict this week?