Certainly Moses made sure that the Israelites understood the law of God, but he had more than that to pass on. Resting upon this national leader was a gift, an anointing from the Holy Spirit, and God wanted that anointing to rest on Moses’ successor. When Moses knew that Joshua would be the next leader of the nation, he laid hands on him, and Joshua was ‘filled with the spirit of wisdom’ (Deut. 34:9).
God wants to raise up leaders, but sadly, leaders are sometimes hard to find. The book of Judges records a dark period in Israel’s history. Leaders occasionally emerged, but none of them imparted anything of any real value to the next generation. Gideon came and went; so too did Samson. For a while the nation profited from their leadership, but then it fell away because no one was building on the foundation that the previous man had laid.
The final comment in the book is a sad reflection on the state of a directionless people: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judg. 21:25). When leaders simply dropped the baton and died, the nation lost its way again. All that these men had learned about God died with them. How many mighty men of God through the ages have taken most of their secrets with them to the grave instead of passing them on like valued family treasures?
As with Moses and Joshua, God chose Elijah’s successor, the man who would carry on his prophetic ministry, and Elijah spent maybe ten years with him. The next phase of God’s plan for the nation had to continue through a new servant, Elisha, and part of Elijah’s calling was to make him an excellent disciple.
Sometimes ‘discipleship’ has spelled trouble. If you mention it in some churches, you are likely to encounter a mass retreat; many cautionary stories have circulated concerning people whose lives have been ruined by so-called discipleship.
Through fear of excessive domination of people’s lives, many have steered clear of discipleship, but how can we back off from a subject that is so clearly Biblical? ‘Disciple’ is used over 250 times in the New Testament. On ten occasions John the Baptist’s disciples are mentioned, on four occasions Paul’s, while the rest are disciples of Jesus. The Twelve were not told, ‘Go and preach sermons and give out literature.’ They were commissioned to ‘go and make disciples’ (Matt. 28:19). Jesus didn’t want his followers merely to pass on information; he wanted them involved in the formation of lives. So Paul instructed Timothy, ‘The things you have heard me say … entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others’ (2 Tim. 2:2).
Discipleship has generated controversy in some circles due to fear of the abuse of authority, yet we dare not react, ‘Oh, discipleship is a dangerous subject. We’ll just give these new Christians a Bible to read, pray for them, and trust God to keep them straight.’ A new believer doesn’t want someone to give him a Bible and desert him because ‘discipleship is a risky business’. He desperately needs help, and we must obey the original instruction to make disciples. The command came from Jesus himself, so we have no choice.
The story of Elijah and Elisha gives us an excellent model of discipling.
Elijah never thought to himself, ‘I’ve had enough of being a prophet. It’s too exhausting. I’m going to find someone else to take over from me.’ Nor did Elisha charge up to Elijah and urge him, ‘Please let me be your disciple. Let me have the cloak. Please!’ No. The initiator was God, and He spoke first to Elijah.
God worked in the same way with Moses and Joshua. Moses did not choose Joshua, but neither did Joshua force himself on Moses. It began with God, who spoke first to Moses. Then Moses, in turn, spoke to Joshua.
Early on in his ministry, Jesus was pursued by the multitudes. Then, one evening he went out and prayed all night on a mountainside. ‘When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he designated apostles’ (Luke 6:13). It’s likely that there were many more than twelve people who wanted to be Jesus’ disciples, but he made his own selection.
Timothy did not approach Paul, saying, ‘Can I work alongside you, please?’ Rather, Paul took the initiative and taught Timothy to do the same (2 Tim. 2:1,2).
To be consistent with Scripture, you must not wait for would-be disciples to come to you with the request, ‘Please disciple me.’ Indeed, you are not obliged to respond to anyone who is seeking this sort of relationship. You can, of course, remain good friends and co-workers with them, but the Bible clearly shows a pattern we would do well to follow.
Proceeding with faith
If you respond to a request from anyone for discipleship training, you may not find faith that it’s going to work. You cannot say, ‘God started this,’ and therefore be assured of success. But when God indicates His choice, you can proceed with faith because you have responded to God’s initiative. Since the undertaking is rooted in God’s will, faith and expectation for the disciple’s development will naturally run high.
If you accept anyone who comes to you for discipleship training, you could find yourself at the mercy of other people’s expectations and demands and become vulnerable and accountable to them. Thus a relationship intended to be a joy and a privilege could in reality become an exhausting and burdensome round of activity not rooted in faith.
(To be continued)