Essay on raising disciples (2017)

Presented at 2017 CIS directors conference


P. Ron Ward (Chicago)

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (Mt 28:18-20)

            This is the final command of our Lord Jesus Christ, given after his resurrection from the dead and before his ascension into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. The risen, ascended Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth. He has authority over nature, authority to rule over all leaders of all nations, authority to forgive sins, authority to give eternal life, and authority to judge all people in regard to their eternal destiny. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. On the basis of Jesus’ authority, we are sent to make disciples of all nations. Jesus’ authority empowers us to be bold and courageous in raising disciples. At the same time, we must humbly rely on Jesus’ authority alone.

The main point of Jesus’ command is to make disciples of all nations. This is often referred to as the Great Commission. As the final command of our Lord Jesus, it is of utmost importance. Therefore, we need to pay special attention to this command. Many Bible-believing churches, including UBF, have this command in their mission statement. We cannot think of it as one of the things we do, but as the main thing we are called to do. If we do many things, but fail to make disciples of all nations, we miss the point. On the other hand, if we make disciples of all nations, we are doing what Jesus really wants us to do, even if we do not do many other things. So it is vital to understand and obey this command of our Lord Jesus Christ. We should evaluate our lives and ministry in relation to this command.

What then does it mean to make disciples? Based on Jesus’ words it means doing two things: baptizing people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught. This lecture will be framed on these two instructions of Jesus.

I.  Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

            First, Jesus tells us to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The subject of what it means to baptize them can be complicated. I would like to simply say that “baptism” refers to helping people identify as a child of God, the triune God of the Bible—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—by making a public acknowledgement. It symbolizes the unseen work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart. The disciple maker’s task is to make sure that baptism is done with integrity and reflects a genuine spiritual reality. What really counts is the work of the Holy Spirit. No human being controls the Holy Spirit. He is God. Only God, the Holy Spirit, can baptize people on the inside and give them new birth. Jesus does the most significant work, but he gives his servants the privilege of baptizing others with water. It is because Jesus wants to include us in his work.

As we know, before baptizing can take place, there must be preaching and a work of repentance. In telling us to baptize, Jesus assumes that the work of preaching the gospel has been done. If the gospel is not preached, people cannot hear it. If they cannot hear the gospel, they cannot repent and believe. If they do not repent and believe, they cannot be baptized. Before we can begin making disciples, we must have disciples under our care as a result of preaching the gospel. This is why Mark’s version of Jesus’ world mission command says, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mk 16:15). Mark assumes that making disciples will follow the preaching of the gospel, while Matthew assumes that preaching the gospel precedes making disciples.

            It sounds simple. We preach the gospel. People believe in Jesus and are baptized, and we are on the way to making disciples. This is the process. But this process flows out of the great love of Jesus. Jesus’ heart is broken for all the lost people of the world who are perishing in their sins. He wants to send his servants to bring salvation to lost people. This is Jesus’ burning heart’s desire. He really wants to entrust us with lost people and use us to disciple them. If we do not have disciples of Jesus under our care, it is not because Jesus is unwilling to give them, but because we are not ready to disciple them. When we are ready to care for lost people, Jesus sends them one after another. So, what makes us ready? In a word, it is being like Jesus. There are so many ways that we should be like Jesus in order to care for his disciples. I want to mention just three: in his compassionate heart for others, in seeing others with God’s hope, and in preaching the gospel faithfully.

First, Jesus’ compassionate heart. Jesus’ compassionate heart is well revealed in the gospels. Many different people with different problems came to Jesus. Jesus had compassion on them. Jesus accepted them, understood them, and cared for them with deep love. When we have Jesus’ compassion, people will come and seek Jesus’ help through us. Our UBF founder, Dr. Samuel Lee, had Jesus’ compassionate heart for suffering people. It was because he deeply knew Jesus’ compassion upon him. He learned the secret of putting himself in the place of others in regards to their sorrows and sufferings. He took other people’s pain and suffering as his own. This enabled him to understand and have compassion on others. So, people felt that they could trust him with their life problems. They would share their deep struggles with him. They felt that he would guide them as a loving shepherd. By Dr. Lee’s help I could begin to learn Jesus’ compassion. When I was a young intern, I tried hard to have many sheep. I went fishing and taught the Bible diligently and sacrificially. Many Bible students came. But they would leave after a short time. I did not know why and blamed them for being bad sheep. Then, one day, one of my sheep complained to Dr. Lee, saying that I did not understand him, but only burdened him by demanding him to do things. Dr. Lee prayerfully explained to me that I needed to have Jesus’ compassion for people. That touched my heart and my eyes began to open. I found my sin of selfish ambition, which made me more like a businessman than a shepherd. I repented and God changed my heart. I began to understand my sheep. He was suffering from a broken relationship, the heavy demand of graduate study, a language problem, and so on. I began to serve him in ways that were helpful to him. We became friends. He liked being around me. He also liked a cute, blonde-haired girl in my fellowship. One day he and she suddenly disappeared together. Later I found that they married. I felt betrayed. It was painful. Several years later, the Lord moved my heart through John’s gospel study to forgive him and love him genuinely. Later we reconciled. I am grateful for him. I always consider him my teacher in learning Jesus’ compassion. After that, I began to practice Jesus’ compassion from my heart, and many of God’s sheep began to hang around me for fellowship and Bible study. A disciple maker should learn Jesus’ compassionate heart for suffering souls.

Second, see people with God’s hope. Jesus called his disciples with the great hope that they would be fishers of men, that they would grow to be shepherds for lost souls like Jesus himself. Jesus did not see them as they were, but as they could be by his grace. For example, Matthew had been a tax collector. He was too selfish and proud to become a genuine shepherd of God’s people. But Jesus saw him with great hope and said, “Follow me.” No doubt, Matthew revealed his sickness of selfishness many times. But Jesus bore with him in great hope. Jesus was wounded to heal him. Jesus died for his sins. Finally, by the mighty work of the Holy Spirit Matthew was changed into a holy saint, who wrote and practiced the Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus had hope for Matthew, so he has hope for all whom he calls.

So we must learn to see people with God’s hope. I saw a good example of this though God’s servants, P. Abraham Kim and Dr. Samuel Lee. They saw me with hope and bore with me. When Jesus called me through their ministry, I was a student at Oregon State University majoring in business administration with a dream of being a CEO of a big company. I was also deeply involved with a non-Christian girl. On the surface, I was seeking money and women. But the deeper cry of my heart was for God’s holiness and God’s love. God’s servants did not see me as I was, but with the hope I would become a new creation and a great servant of God. Through Mark’s gospel study with God’s servants, I heard Jesus’ voice and began to follow him. It was a new beginning. But it was just a beginning. In the course of following Jesus, I revealed my pride, selfishness and base desires again and again. But God’s servants bore with me patiently as my soul was gradually healed. They could bear with me because they had God’s hope in their hearts. In truth, all people are sinners. Sin is ugly and painful to bear. When sin is exposed, it is easy to be disgusted and to give up on someone. But Jesus bears with sinners in a great hope. In the same way, he wants us to learn to bear with others in hope. One of the most important qualities of a disciple-maker is to have God’s hope. Many fail to raise disciples because they lose hope. Usually, this happens at the very moment when God’s sheep need a shepherd most. God’s sheep easily lose hope for themselves. But when their shepherd has unwavering hope, they can gradually learn to overcome the power of sin and be changed. A disciple maker should learn to see people with God’s hope.

Third, preach the gospel faithfully. If we have God’s heart of compassion and see people with hope, I believe many people will come for help. When we are ready, God sends his sheep. As they begin to come, what should we do? How should we help them? We should help them to believe the gospel. No matter what kind of problem they may have, and what kind of practical help we may give, the point should be to share the gospel with them. To share the gospel, we must know how to present the gospel clearly. One of the best ways is to share gospel key verses with people, taking time to explain the meaning of each verse and how it applies to us. There are also many kinds of helpful gospel presentations we can learn from, such as the Bridge diagram, the four spiritual laws, and the Big Picture. Creative people develop their own gospel presentations. We should be able to present the gospel clearly and meaningfully in a very short time, as opportunity arises. However, in the context of raising disciples, preaching the gospel is much more than sharing the message one time. It requires us to embrace a person with unconditional love and persist in sharing the gospel with them. This is what Jesus did. Jesus helped his disciples step by step, as Mark’s gospel shows. First, he called them simply to follow him and learn who he was. He did not ask them to do much but observe. At the proper moment, he helped them to confess that he was the Messiah. Then he began to teach them the way of self-denial, taking up the cross and following him.

In the same way, we need to spend enough time helping people to truly know Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Father and the Holy Spirit. They need to know his love and holiness; his grace and truth. And they need to commit their lives to him and follow him as their Lord and Savior. Helping people form a right relationship with God is the foundation of raising disciples of Christ. If we try to make disciples obey and serve before they know Christ, there is a danger that they can have a wrong concept of God. It can actually delay them in coming to know the one true God. So we should be willing to patiently help people accept the gospel and to personally know God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One young woman in the Chicago area grew up estranged from her biological father, who virtually abandoned her when she was born. She did not know her father’s love. So she was always crying for her father, yet there was no response. In deep desperation, she began to cry out to God. Then God sent her a loving and patient Bible teacher. As she studied the word of God, she could hear Jesus’ voice speaking to her. She was moved by the love of Jesus, who did not come to condemn but to save. She accepted Jesus as her Savior. Yet, whenever she heard the word “Father God,” feelings of abandonment and helplessness arose in her soul. She felt desperate and sorrowful. It was because she associated her Father God with her earthly father. So her Bible teacher prayerfully explained that her Father God is different. It took time for this teaching to sink in. But one day the light of the knowledge of God began to shine in her heart. She found that her Father God is absolutely faithful and trustworthy. She learned that her Father God is seeking her and wants a deep and eternal love relationship with her. She realized that her Father God will never leave her or forsake her and will heal all her wounds. Then she could accept her heavenly Father personally with many tears. She was baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Now she is ready for deeper discipleship.

Sometimes when we preach the gospel, it does not seem to connect properly to people. This is a mysterious matter. But it may be that we need to understand their spiritual need more fully. Each person has a problem that only Jesus can resolve. Some call this a “life problem.” Knowing this life problem enables us to preach the gospel more effectively, and also to disciple them more wisely. In order to understand this problem well, it is very helpful to ask people to write life testimonies. In the 1990’s, Dr. Samuel Lee brought many young Korean missionaries to Chicago. As soon as they arrived he listened to their life testimonies. Sometimes he listened more than once. And he prayed until he could grasp what their real problem was. Then he began to help them with the word of God and spiritual disciplines. Sometimes he gave them new names, such as “Work Hard” or “Tiger” to guide their new lives as young missionaries. Understanding a person’s life problem is fundamental. In addition, we may need to learn how to communicate with them in a way that goes from heart to heart. There may be cultural or generational barriers that we need to overcome, or personality differences. As those who are engaged in ministry to students, it is helpful to us to recognize the specific agonies common to students. In the United States, we need to learn and relearn the culture of students at least every three years. In understanding disciples under our care, we should do our best. Yet, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who opens people’s hearts to help them understand and accept the gospel. An example is Lydia. As Paul was preaching the gospel in Philippi, “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Ac 16:14b). There were many human barriers between them: gender barrier, cultural barrier, social barrier, religious barrier. But the gospel cut through all barriers and enabled them to communicate from heart to heart. Lydia believed and became an immediate coworker with Paul.

As we come to understand the spiritual need of people and share the gospel with them, some accept Christ as Savior and Lord and are baptized. This is their entry into the church as members of the body of Christ. It is a public declaration that they are ready to be discipled in the church community. Everything up to that point is usually referred to as evangelism. From that point, discipleship begins. I want to share just one more example of how a person was evangelized and prepared to be a disciple. He is a very smart and handsome young man in the Chicago area. But he suffered from slavery to lustful desires. He could not look at pretty women without having impure thoughts about them. He acted on his lustful desires and hurt some young women deeply. Then he fell into condemnation. Guilt and shame overwhelmed him. In his misery, he cried out to God for mercy. The Lord heard his cry and sent him a Bible teacher. His Bible teacher rebuked his sin of lustful desires repeatedly. Though he made excuses and justified himself, his Bible teacher always pointed out his sin of living by his lustful desires. Finally, he admitted his sin and despaired of himself. Then God gave him grace to believe in Jesus. But he struggled with doubt and the temptation to return to his sinful life. Through the study of Galatians he learned the salvation that comes only by faith in what Christ has done for us. He could trust Christ alone for his salvation and count himself dead to sin and alive with Christ. He learned the secret of dying with Christ and rising with Christ. He learned to live by the Holy Spirit. He became a new man who has a burning love for Jesus in his heart and is ready to do anything for the glory of God. Recently, he was baptized and is eager to be discipled and to grow as a spiritual leader.

II.  Teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded

Up to this point, I have mainly shared how we can help people accept the gospel and follow Jesus as his disciples. I have distinguished between baptizing and the next step, which is teaching. The line between these two is not always so clear. In some ways, Jesus demands obedience before people believe the gospel. For example, Jesus said, “Follow me,” and the disciples left everything and followed him. Again, Jesus sent his disciples out for evangelistic fieldwork training before they confessed him as Christ. There are times we need to challenge people with the truth before they have a real personal relationship with Jesus. In sharing God’s truth with people, we need to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But we should strive hard to plant the gospel deeply in a person’s heart, and welcome them into our Christian community, before engaging in rigorous discipleship.

With that in mind, the main work of making disciples is “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” In this teaching to obey, there are several things we should consider: teaching a right attitude toward the word of Jesus, teaching by example, and the contents of the teaching.

First, teach a right attitude toward the word of Jesus. When Jesus taught his words, he intended his disciples to put them into practice. For this, having a right attitude toward Jesus’ word is essential. In the parable of the sower, Jesus emphasized that there are several attitudes toward his word, represented by a path, rocky soil, thorny soil, and good soil. Only the heart which is like good soil hears the word and puts it into practice, and only this heart produces the fruit of the word. This is what it means to have a right attitude toward Jesus’ word. In raising disciples, teaching this attitude is as important as the contents of Jesus’ teachings. Dr. Samuel Lee emphasized the importance of having a right attitude toward Jesus’ word. He often told the story of Doug Cozart, a disciple maker with the Navigators. Brother Cozart was in the Navy. He was an enlisted man, not an officer. As he preached the gospel, a high level commanding officer began to believe. Brother Cozart helped him to memorize Bible verses. Sometimes the commander was lazy, and failed to memorize his assigned verses. Then Brother Cozart rebuked him sharply, without any regard for his rank. It was because Brother Cozart believed the word of God was life itself. He believed the absolute authority of God’s word. This impressed Dr. Lee. Dr. Lee helped people in the same way. I know this from my personal experience with him. In the beginning of my internship under him, Dr. Lee once gave me the privilege of delivering a Sunday message which he had written. Although I spoke in clear English, I was lacking deep reverence for Jesus’ words. Afterward, Dr. Lee told a young missionary to take me to the Skokie Police station, which was about six miles from the center and drop me off. My training was to walk back. On the way I thought about what I had done wrong. Then the Holy Spirit helped me realize that I had a casual attitude toward the word of God. I felt very sorry. I made a decision to never again deliver the word of God casually. It became a very important moment in my life as a messenger of God’s word. Several years later, I was helping a younger shepherd prepare a conference message. He revealed his casual attitude toward God’s word. I stopped the message rehearsal and asked him to go outside and run around the block five times without stopping and then to come back. He did so. After that his attitude toward the word of God changed. Then God richly blessed his life. He married a beautiful and godly woman and grew as a respected messenger of God’s words. He has become a source of blessing to many people. Learning a right attitude toward God’s word is foundational in growing as Jesus’ disciple.

Second, teach by example. In teaching people to obey the word of Jesus, another most important element is setting an example. Teaching that comes from one’s head and mouth can be informational. But teaching that also comes from one’s heart and life has power to transform. Of course, God’s word has its own power. Whenever it is proclaimed, it works. God is not bound by the limits of our own obedience. Nevertheless, one who teaches by example will be consistently more effective than one whose example is weak. St. Paul was one of the most effective Bible teachers. He could say to disciples under his care, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1Co 11:1). In his writing to Timothy, he said, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1Ti 4:12). Again, Paul wrote to Titus, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness…” (Tit 2:7). One young messenger is an excellent speaker and he knows the Bible well. People like to hear his message. But when they see his lifestyle, they lose respect for him. It is mainly because he is undisciplined in some important ways. He wondered why people did not follow him. So I told him, “When your example matches your words, people will follow.” He took it to heart and has been making spiritual progress. As a result, his influence is growing. Young preachers and teachers can be effective when they set a good example through their personal obedience to the word of God.

Third, teach everything Jesus commanded. The subject matter to be taught is what Jesus spoke. Every word of Jesus is important. The Holy Spirit uses the words of Jesus to speak to people personally and directly. The word of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit can change people and help them grow as Jesus’ disciples. What words of Jesus should we teach? All of them. In the context of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins with the Sermon on the Mount. This teaches us the character of Jesus himself: Jesus’ humility, love, holiness, courage, faith, and so on. Learning of Jesus himself and becoming like him is the primary goal of discipleship. God’s purpose in saving us is to conform us to the image of Christ (Ro 8:28-30). God is always working for this purpose. So in helping disciples grow, we should be aware of how God is working in them to form the character of Christ. The proud should become humble; the selfish should become sacrificial; the rebellious should become obedient. In addition to learning Jesus’ character, we also need to learn his lifestyle and ministry, his wisdom as a teacher, his hardworking spirit, his life of prayer, how he healed the sick, and everything that Jesus did. Not only do we need to learn, but we need to teach this to Jesus’ disciples. Paul boldly told the Philippians, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” in humbleness, obedience and servantship. It can be painfully difficult to practice and teach all that Jesus said. It requires us to step out in faith and take risks; it will bring misunderstanding and agonies of soul; it involves sleepless nights in prayer. However, it is the most valuable and important work that a person can do. The fruit it produces are transformed people who can be a blessing in this world and inherit the kingdom to come. When our Lord Jesus comes again, those who have faithfully engaged in raising disciples will receive a crown of glory that never fades away (1 Pe 5:4).

Epilogue: We make disciples of all nations in obedience to Jesus’ command. By doing so we follow Jesus in his death and resurrection. Though Jesus did many things on earth, he invested most of his time and energy in raising his disciples. After serving them sacrificially for over three years he went to the cross and died for them. At that moment, the disciples all abandoned him. Jesus died alone. It seemed that his disciple raising ministry failed. But death was not the end. God raised Jesus from the dead. The Risen Christ visited and restored his disciples. He poured out the Holy Spirit upon them. Then they went out and preached the gospel to all nations and made disciples. As we follow Jesus in making disciples, we too experience times when it seems that our ministry has failed and there will be no fruit. We are tempted to despair and give up. But in that moment we must look up to God, trust the power of the Risen Christ, and persevere. God’s victory is coming.

In 1987 a young man began one-to-one Bible study in the Chicago center. He is intelligent, gifted in music and speech, and has a good sense of humor. He could have become a very successful person. But he did not work hard. He did not study well. He spent his time watching sports and talking about useless things. He ate too much chocolate and drank too many soda pops. His stomach stuck out and he had no hope of marriage. Dr. Samuel Lee saw him with compassion and hope and prayed earnestly for him. Dr. Lee taught the Bible diligently and helped him in many practical ways. The young man shaped up and looked handsome and sang well. Then he was tempted by a girl and disappeared. Later he joined a group of people who strongly criticized UBF. We did not see him again for a long time. Dr. Lee went to be with the Lord in 2002, and I succeeded his ministry as the senior pastor of Chicago UBF.

In 2010, I received a phone call from the man. It was 15 years since the last time I had seen him. He expected me to be angry with him. But I told him, “I already forgave you a long time ago.” Then he shared with me how miserable his life had been. In the midst of his suffering, he remembered the words of God he had learned from Dr. Lee, especially in 1 Samuel, Genesis and John’s gospel. He knew he had to come back to UBF and restore his spiritual life. Through three years of deep Bible study and through the prayers of many people, his soul was restored and he renewed his calling to live as a shepherd. He began to feed many sheep. Then God opened the way for him to marry a beautiful woman.

His story is not usual. But it shows that God never gives up on people. The labor of making disciples is not in vain. At the proper time we will reap a harvest if we persevere and do not give up. May our Lord Jesus help us engage in the mission of making disciples of all nations with faith and hope and the love of our Father God. Amen.

Instructions following lecture:

1.  Personally reflect on this lecture and answer three questions:

1) Who am I discipling now?
2) What is one thing I can do to improve as a disciple maker?
3) What prayer topic can I find in regards to making disciples?

2.  Break into small groups of six each and share our answers together.

3.  Pray two by two according to our prayer topics and for the raising of Jesus’ disciples throughout the world.