Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rethinking Discipleship, Part 6: Acceptance

Eh? What's that you say? Jesus died for my shins? But my shins feel fine! (Picture source:
For twelve verses, Paul had been writing to the Thessalonians about what he did and accomplished among them. Here, starting in verse 13, he changes focus and tells the Thessalonian Christians what he remembers about them. Accordingly, as we have been talking about how to be effective disciple makers, we will now turn our attention to the expectations for ourselves as disciples. 

Discipleship, is, after all, a lifelong process. So, when you encounter anyone who claims to have finished being discipled, check his pulse. He is claiming to be dead (or I guess it could just be that he  does not understand how discipleship works). 

Four stages of being discipled

In the next four verses, Paul highlights four stages of discipleship. (It would be too simplistic to call these "steps.") These are: 

(1) Acceptance of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
(2) Imitation of the saints (1 Thess. 2:14a)
(3) Perseverance through trials (2:14b-16a)
(4) Justification from God (2:16b)

Today, we will look at the first and most fundamental stage: 

Acceptance of the gospel

"And so we too constantly thank God that when you received God's message that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human message, but as it truly is, God's message, which is at work among you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2: 13).

Paul and his fellow evangelists, apologists and disciple makers have been laboring among the  the believers at Thessaloniki--literally, Paul was bi-vocational and ran a small business while doing his ministry work--in order to deliver to the Thessalonians the message of God's forgiveness and grace through his son Jesus Christ, and now he commends them because of the way they responded to that message. Paul is pleased with how they accepted it, and from what he says we can learn three things about the gospel itself:

(1) God uses people to deliver his message. 

The Thessalonians accepted the Good News as soon as they received it. How did they receive it? Paul and company delivered it to them. As we have seen, Paul was intentional and purposeful in the way he comported himself with the Thessalonians, aiming to minimize distractions and maximize the impact of God's gospel. 

(2) It is a divine message, not a human one.

The story of Jesus Christ--God the Son--incarnating as a human being, living a flawless life, and taking humanity's punishment on a rugged, wooden cross is something only God could come up with. Yet God has seen fit to utilize the same humans whose sin put Jesus on the cross to deliver that message. 

The responsibility of believers to share the gospel is so important that Paul elsewhere implies that, sans believers going and sharing their hope, people without that hope will never have a chance to hear about it (Romans 10:14). God could certainly beam the gospel directly into people's minds (and sometimes he does this), but he has seen fit to endow us with the awesome privilege of being his mouthpieces in the world. 

To summarize: the gospel is God's word, and he uses Christians to get the word out.  The first stage of discipleship, then, is to hear and accept the gospel delivered by God's agents: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). 

(3) It is an effective message.

Paul says that it is God's word which is working within the believers. This is so important, especially in the immediate context from which Paul is writing. Paul and his cohort have been indefatigably pouring into the Thessalonian church in order to get them to follow Christ. Yet despite all the work Paul has put into accomplishing this, he takes no credit for the result. In the end, it is not Paul's love or exhortation which is effecting the Thessalonians' sanctification; it is God's word. 

God's word is effective and powerful. It does not go out without carrying out the purpose God intends for it (Isaiah 55:11). Whatever effort Paul put into discipling the church at Thessaloniki, he did so fully cognizant that it is God's word alone that changes lives (cf. Psalm 127:1). 

Whose disciples?

As disciples, then, this means our allegiance is never to our favorite teacher (were we baptized into the name of John Piper or Jesus?). It is Christ Jesus who saves sinners like us, and our status as disciples starts and ends with this powerful truth.

Everyone wanting to become (and continue) as a disciple of Jesus must get in on the ground floor. We start by believing the gospel which is delivered by believers, transcends human expectations, and powerfully works within us. 

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