ACST 38: The Discipler

holy_spirit_closeup.jpeg Jesus told his disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”[1] On the one hand, he gave us an impossible task: keeping his commandments. It is harder to do that than to keep the Old Testament commandments, and no one was able to accomplish that task.

On the other hand, we have help that the Old Testament saints did not have. Jesus personally asked the Father to send someone to help us live the life Jesus commanded us to live, and that someone is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit continues the discipling work that Christ began. He was sent specifically from heaven to carry on Christ’s work. The best way to understand this aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to see how Jesus Christ discipled.

Empowerment

Jesus empowered his disciples to do what he called them to do. When he commissioned the twelve for itinerant ministry, he “called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”[2] He did not ask them to do what he had not demonstrated for them, and given them the means to do so. When he had trained and commissioned another group – the seventy – he likewise assured them that they had the power to do what he asked. He told them “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”[3] With the task came the empowerment.

Some teach that Jesus has somehow shortchanged us during this age. They seem to feel that now discipling can be carried out without supernatural power to heal and deliver from demonic bondage. There is no indication of such a paradigm shift in the New Testament. Just before ascending to heaven, Jesus told the believers present with him that “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was tied to two things: The physical absence of Jesus Christ in bodily form, and the need to disciple all nations before his return. Neither of these two factors have changed in the past two thousand years.

What is more, the Holy Spirit needed to come not just to regenerate sinners, but to do so with power. Jesus told the disciples that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The task of witnessing to Christ’s resurrection was never meant to be carried out without the Holy Spirit’s empowerment.

The Sanhedrin council asked Peter and John “By what power or by what name did you do this?” They were doing what Christ had commanded, and they were doing it in his name. They were doing it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke says that “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”[4]

Illumination

Jesus came to bring light to a dark place – to illuminate a people who were lost in darkness. Isaiah predicted that “there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”[5] He foretold that when the gospel of Christ was first preached, it would be in that dark and desolate place.

John commented that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[6] But neither did the darkness dispel entirely. Even though “the light has come into the world, (some) people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”[7] The rejoiced to see the light in Christ, but ultimately rejected that light because it exposed sin that they wanted to keep. Jesus said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[8] But he said that to the Pharisees, who refused to believe that he was who he said he was.

Illumination is like that. It is here for us to utilize if we dare do so. But it can also be lost. Who does not know a person who claimed to be a Christian, and lived like a Christian for a time, only to ultimately reject Christ and faith. This is a reality that everyone knows about. Paul talks about two people who “have made shipwreck of their faith.”[9] Perhaps they did so by rejecting the light that they had been shown. It is a dangerous thing to do so.

The Holy Spirit helps us keep the ship of our faith in safety. He serves as a lighthouse that helps us to stay on course with the life that we received when we came to Christ. In our lives, “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”[10] It is the Holy Spirit who helps us to distinguish between the world’s darkness and the truth-light of the gospel. He continues the discipling task of illumination that Jesus began in Galilee.

He also has a special ministry of illumination in respect to the message of the Bible. It is “only the illumination of the Holy Spirit, opening our heart to God’s word and God’s word to our hearts, (which) can bring understanding of, conviction about, and consent to, the things that God declares.”[11]

Paul taught about this ministry. He said that “…we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”[12] This implies that the Holy Spirit creates three separate abilities: 1) the ability to understand what is written in the Bible, 2) the ability to pass on that understanding through teaching, 3) the ability to understand and apply God’s truth through the medium of teachers.

Intercession

Jesus also spent a great deal of time praying for his disciples. He prayed before he chose them.[13] He prayed for their strength to endure temptation.[14] He also interceded for them in other ways. When they found themselves incapable of doing what they thought they should do, he stepped in and did it for them.

The Holy Spirit does that for believers as well. Paul taught that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”[15] This is much more than simply a ministry of praying for us. It is stepping in to the ring and taking on the ministry of prayer on our behalf when we are not up to the task.

One of the reasons this ministry is necessary is that believers do not always know how to pray, because we are not always privy to God’s plan. We do not always understand enough of the situation we are in to know what God is doing among us. We see only the struggle, not the intended victory. we see only the pain, not the glory that will come afterward. In such cases, we are liable to pray for the wrong things: immediate control of the situation, immediate release from the difficulties, etc. But God sees the whole picture. In such cases, the Holy Spirit’s ministry of intercession comes to the throne of God with a different agenda than the humans who are praying. His intercession is more likely to be for our strength to endure the battle and our ability to see beyond it. He prays not that we necessarily get what we are asking for, but that our faith can stay strong while we do not.

Sanctification

If it had not been for Jesus, the disciples would never have had the impact upon the world that they did. His presence changed them. His ministry impacted their lives, and made them different people. At its heart, this is what sanctification means. The holiness and separateness and uniqueness of Jesus Christ was visited upon the disciples, and turned them into saints. When he prayed for them, he said “for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”[16]

The Holy Spirit continues that ministry as well. Jesus described the believer as one through whom the Holy Spirit would flow like water flows through a river.[17] The presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers makes us different than what we would have been, and ensures the final outcome of our lives is God’s glory. He transforms our minds so that we know and seek what God wants.[18] He will ultimately transform our lives so that we look like Christ does.[19] That transformation may seem like a very slow process with many setbacks. It is. But the process itself is one of the ministries that the Holy Spirit does within us today.

Endowment

Jesus also gave special gifts to his disciples: supernatural abilities that went far beyond simply utilizing the talents that these disciples had originally. Part of their transformation was requiring more of them than they felt capable of giving. An example of this is the time when thousands had gathered for a dinner and a show.

The disciples came to Jesus with some practical advice and said “”This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.””[20] The natural course of events brought the disciples to a need that they were sure that they could not meet. They brought the problem to Jesus, and even suggested a solution. But Jesus saw this as an opportunity to reveal that within the disciples themselves was a supernatural solution to the problem.

The Charismata get bad press from some people today – even some Christians. This is partly because many who dare to believe in the spiritual gifts only know how to operate in them based on some bad, subjective examples. Such was the case in Paul’s day as well. The Corinthians — anxious to demonstrate God’s power at work in their lives – did a lot of things the Holy Spirit did not want to do, and blamed them on him. For example:

1. Someone were getting into illicit sexual partnerships, probably claiming that the Spirit led him into the relationships.[21]

2. Some believers were apparently jumping into marriage commitments, perhaps thinking that they were motivated by the Spirit.[22]

3. Some were passing judgment on other Christians, perhaps believing that they were exercising discernment. They were even becoming critical of Paul’s ministry.[23]

4. Some were comparing their gifts with those manifested by other Christians. Paul had to remind them that though the gifts should be pursued, it should always be in an atmosphere of love.[24]

5. Some were manifesting their gifts in public worship in a way that fostered confusion and competition. Paul encouraged them to be considerate of each other and tone the charismata down because such displays of disorder are not what the Holy Spirit is all about.[25]

The spiritual gifts are one way that the Holy Spirit works among believers to disciple believers. He is continuing the discipling ministry of Christ. One way to discern whether we are getting carried away in our use of spiritual gifts is to ask if what we are manifesting contributes to the discipling of ourselves or other believers. If we are manifesting speaking gifts, do those things we say lead to the edification of others? If we are manifesting serving gifts, do the things we do make the body of Christ stronger, more mature?

One particular example (from 1 Corinthians 14) should be highlighted. Believers in Corinth were coming together in public worship, and some of them were bringing messages in languages that they knew, but others did not. This was called speaking in tongues, because, just as today, the word tongue can mean language.[26] These believers were not rattling on with meaningless sounds. They understood what they were saying. They were using the public worship time to build up themselves, not to build up the church (4). They knew that they were giving thanks to God, but the others around them did not know what they were saying, so they could not join in the worship (16). To the others, it was just an indistinct sound (8) – just speaking into the air (9). So Paul’s advice was simple. If you are going to say something that others cannot understand, interpret it. If you can’t do that, keep your mouth shut!

A principle can be inferred from that example which applies to all instances of charismata. The gifts are not the goal of Christian ministry. They are a means to that goal. If the way that our gifts manifest themselves actually detracts from the ultimate goal of making disciples, something is wrong. There were eras and movements in history when believers so emphasized gifts and giftedness that these became the end in and of itself. Some denominations and groups today are so identified with those eras and movements that what people did then has become a standard for faithfulness to the Holy Spirit.

Paul taught the Corinthians that it is possible to be faithful to what God is doing within you without getting carried away and distracting from discipleship. He taught the Ephesians that the ministry gifts were …

“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 of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”[27]

The discipleship themes of edification, growth, maturity and unity are the ends to which the supernatural ministry gifts are to be manifested. We are to judge our effectiveness in manifesting gifts by how well we and those we minister to measure up to the fullness of Christ.

Spiritual growth and development like that is happening. It is happening among groups and denominations that call themselves “charismatic” and “Pentecostal” and among those who are not comfortable with those labels. The Holy Spirit is at work among believers who dare to let him do what he wants to do in their lives. He wants to transform us.[28] He wants us to dare to set tables for thousands. He still does miracles. If we dare to get involved in the things that he is concerned about, we may see him perform them more often.


[1] John 14:15-17.

[2] Luke 9:1-2.

[3] Luke 10:19.

[4] Acts 4:33.

[5] Isaiah 9:1-2.

[6] John 1:5.

[7] John 3:19.

[8] John 8:12.

[9] 1 Timothy 1:19.

[10] 1 John 2:8.

[11] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 83. {I inserted the relative pronoun which here, instead of who, not to deny the personality of the Spirit, but for the clause to agree with its referent – illumination}.

[12] 1 Corinthians 2:12-14 (see also 1 John 2:20,27).

[13] Luke 6:12-13.

[14] Luke 22:32.

[15] Romans 8:26-27.

[16] John 17:19.

[17] John 7:38-39.

[18] Romans 12:2.

[19] 2 Corinthians 3:18.

[20] Matthew 14:15-16.

[21] 1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 6:9, 16-20.

[22] 1 Corinthians 7. Paul’s advice was to avoid new commitments if at all possible. He wanted believers to submit to the lordship of Christ as they were when they were called to him.

[23] 1 Corinthians 8-11.

[24] 1 Corinthians 12-13.

[25] 1 Corinthians 14.

[26] What was going on in Corinth was not the same thing as the miracle of speaking in “other tongues” at Pentecost (Acts 2:4). One reason many misunderstand the gift is that they are trying to systematize the two incidents.

[27] Ephesians 4:12-16.

[28] Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18.

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