Discipleship is about growing to maturity in Jesus. Many churches develop discipleship programmes to help members do this, usually with accountability groups and group Bible studies. While such programmes can be helpful, they are not necessary for discipleship to take place. If one has a group of close friends who are not afraid to be open with one another, that kind of discipleship happens very naturally.
What we need more than accountability groups for discipleship is intimacy with the Bible. When you start to dig into the Scriptures, you find there is plenty of incentive and encouragement to grow toward Christian maturity. Colossians is a great example of a book that gives exactly those things. In the rest of this article, we will dig into some of the material Paul gives us in that book that pertains directly to discipleship. Before going further, it might be helpful for you to read the book of Colossians and have it open when you return to this article.
The theme of Colossians
Before Jesus gave himself to save us, humanity was held captive. We were enslaved to certain powers in the world that people in ancient times called by many different names. These “gods” ran life. People thought they had to appease those powers, but even in the attempts to do so found that there was no escape from their jurisdiction. Then Jesus came. The Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree (Rom 11:17) that we now call the church, and we’ve been set free from the bondage of the powers we thought were in charge.
Paul tells us something pretty astounding about those powers in Colossians. Jesus is in charge of them! Chapter 1 verse 16 says, “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” That’s liberating! The powers that had us in their clutches can no longer claim jurisdiction over us. I belong to Jesus, and the powers serve Him. The rest of the book of Colossians is Paul showing us how the Christian lives a life of thanksgiving for that deliverance. Ultimately, discipleship is about giving thanks, and that is the major theme of Colossians.
Paul has great aims in Colossians. He states at the end of chapter one, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (verse 28). God has brought about the great exodus for you and has fashioned you into His disciple. Paul’s goal, however, isn’t just for you to not be a slave, but for you to be mature in Christ, and that means you have a good deal to learn to get to that goal. It is such a lofty goal none of us will ever fully arrive there in this life, but as Jesus’ disciples it is our duty to cultivate thanksgiving in our day-to-day activities as we move in that direction; always remembering that the battle has been won.
How do we do that? Colossians focuses on two parts to the answer to this question. The first part has to do with the powers (the very ones that used to enslave us) and how to live interacting with them without the fear that they might snatch us from Jesus’ hands. The second part has to do with suffering and self-denial. Following Jesus involves suffering because He suffered.
No fear of the powers
The identification of the powers Paul mentions in chapter 1 is a subject of some debate. Paul’s point about the powers, though, isn’t so much to identify them in all their detail as it is to show Jesus’ supremacy over them. For our purposes in discipleship, we will consider the powers as the unseen forces working in the world through pagan religion, astrology, or magic, etc. and even oppressive systems that tyrannise or enslave human beings.1
A great example of the powers is sex. Sex is an activity that can very easily enslave people, and many pagan religions have sexual rites as part of their system of religion. Nowadays, of course, most people do not see themselves as practising some religion through illicit sexual activity, but these very same people are nevertheless enslaved to it. There are attempts to reintroduce pagan religious overtones to various sexual acts (The DaVinci Code is an example), but by and large the thinking is that unrestrained sexual activity is (ironically) about freedom.
If sex is so dangerous, you might reason that no one should ever engage in it! If sex enslaves mankind, Jesus must not ever want anyone to have sex. Paul gets at this reasoning in an astounding way. All powers ... all of them ... were created by Jesus and serve His purposes. That means sex is (dare I say it?) good. Jesus has claimed sex as something that serves Him. That which held mankind captive has itself been taken into captivity (Psa. 68:18), and its right use is glorious. Christians should therefore not be afraid to enjoy sex in its proper context. This is what Paul is getting at in Colossians. Cultivate thanksgiving because you are not enslaved to these powers, but are free to interact with them to God’s glory as you are in Christ.
This, of course, doesn’t deny the fact of our tendency to sin. Christians can and do fall into sin when they interact with the various powers on the wrong terms. But we don’t despair. Paul tells us that “he has now reconciled (you) in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (1:22, see also 2:13-15). Even when we do fall and succumb to the powers, because of Jesus’ sacrifice they have no power over us to take us from Jesus. That is cause for rejoicing and more thanksgiving!
There is another amazing fact about Jesus’ supremacy over the powers that flows out of the gospel message. When Jesus atoned for our sin, He died. Death is one of the powers from which there is seemingly no escape. You might even say that death is the ultimate power that holds humanity captive. Even sex seems like a pretty insignificant power compared to it. Jesus’ supremacy over death is demonstrated in His resurrection. Those united to Jesus (the body to His head) will participate in that resurrection. As Colossians puts it in chapter 1 verse 18, “and he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” He’s the firstborn, and we follow.
Because Jesus has demonstrated His supremacy over all the powers in creation, the world is safe. The matter of the world and the “stuff” in creation is not evil. Paul makes this point at the end of chapter 2 (verses 20-23). Rules and regulations for interacting with the dangerous powers of the world might seem like the height of godliness, but according to Paul, this is pretty far from the truth. Now, keep in mind that Paul is not referring to sinful activity in this section, but rather to those things that can have an enslaving power over mankind. God has given us commandments, and there are activities that are off limits (see Exodus 20). If I lack self control when indulging in alcohol, however, it isn’t the alcohol that’s bad, it’s my heart (Mark 7:1-23).
As Jesus’ disciple, it is your duty to learn how to interact with the world. All of it belongs to Jesus, and so part of your growth into maturity is to grow in wisdom of the things of the world, including the powers that enslaved mankind before Jesus redeemed us from them. If you are giving thanks for everything, your growth cannot but take place. Jesus has won the battle. Praise God!
The road of suffering
In Colossians Paul breaks down what Jesus has done and calls us to exuberant thanksgiving for it all. It is fascinating to notice through the whole book that at the same time we are rejoicing there is as well somberness to the Christian life. Suffering and rejoicing run side by side. Paul says as much in the first chapter when he says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (verse 24, emphasis mine). While the heart of Christian discipleship is joyous thanksgiving, it involves also a good deal of suffering. Jesus suffered to the point of death on a cross to secure our salvation, Paul became a slave of Jesus and even “filled up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (1:24) for our benefit. It should be no wonder for us now that suffering is an integral part of the Christian life (2 Tim. 3:12). Suffering is part of God’s discipleship program for you. It takes many forms, and the end result is that you will be more like Jesus.
At the heart of suffering is the idea of self-denial. In our sinful state, self-denial is unnatural. Adam’s grasping at the fruit was a high act of rebellion and self-assertion. Since we are Adam’s children, then, our most obvious inclination is to assert ourselves, too. I’m more interested in what I want and need than in what anyone else might want or need. Paul’s example of suffering, however, is “for your sake” (verse 24), and the way he develops the suffering of Christians is to give us an eye for one another. Part of God’s discipleship program for you in suffering is to see to the needs of others.
The second two chapters of Colossians deal with interpersonal relationships, and Paul calls us to specific tasks in those relationships. Paul tells us,
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.Colossians 3:12-15
This is a tall order. It means your duty is to grow in denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus. Oh, and one other thing. Be thankful! It isn’t about you. It’s about others. Follow Jesus. Be thankful.
Discipleship is the need of every Christian. Get intimate with your Bible. Or as Paul says, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16). That is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (compare Col. 3:16 with Eph. 5:18-19). As you gain that intimacy, you’ll realise that life is something God wants you to explore and enjoy because the powers can no longer enslave you. The other thing that happens as you get intimate with your Bible is that you’ll realise you can’t be a mature Christian alone. You need others in order to serve them and suffer for them. That’s how to grow in maturity. That’s discipleship. Go and do it.