Why We Fail At Discipleship

My wife and I really love pizza. There was a period of her pregnancy during which her doctor told her that she shouldn’t eat heavy meals, bread, or much sugar. I was going to attempt this diet with her. The problem? We really love pizza! One day, the craving was so bad that we found ourselves looking up how to make pizza that she could eat. We found out that we could replace pizza dough by processing cauliflower and rolling it out. So, we did that, made our pizza, and placed it in the oven. It tasted okay, but it wasn’t the pizza we love so much. It was missing a fundamental ingredient: the dough (my wife said, “The carbs!”).

Discipleship is so fundamental in the Christian faith. Yet we miss it. Most people who refer to themselves as Christians just don’t know very much about what Christ commanded, yet that is the substance of Christ’s great commission in Matthew 28; that we would make disciples of all people, teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded. Where have we gone wrong? Can we keep ourselves from becoming enemies of discipleship?

Acts 5:42-6:7 HCSB

Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

Importance of the word

In verse seven, we read that preaching about God flourished and that the number of disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly. This is what discipleship is at its finest. The word of God is exposed to the people in the community. We notice, here, that it was reaching outside the walls of the church. People were not only coming to Christ but also becoming disciples who were in the church at Jerusalem. People were making disciples who were making disciples and the work of God was flourishing through this local church. My question: why do we not witness this kind of progress in many local churches today? If this is what happens when God is working through a local church, why do so many churches miss out?

I want to consider the narrative here in Acts 6. First, we set the scene by reading chapter 5, verse 42: “Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they (the apostles) continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”

The apostles taught the things of God by expositing the Scriptures daily. These apostles were people who walked with and learned from Jesus. Peter would later indicate that those who are elders (also pastors, bishops, and overseers), are to be shepherds to God’s people just as the apostles were (1 Peter 5:1-5). So, we receive that a major part of discipleship is that the elders of a local church are expositing the Scriptures daily in public arenas. The apostles were not in the place that the local church met. They were in the temple complex and moving from house to house. They were teaching people about Christ even though they did not currently attend church meetings. This is probably why it is a good idea for us to pay our elders or pastors a decent wage. Without another job, they can fulfill this biblical role and still make a living in our context. The church will only flourish as a result, getting to see the work that God is doing through her ministries. This is, then, also a character trait we ought to look for in our elders. In chapter 4, verse 20, Peter stated that they were unable to stop speaking about what they had seen and heard. In chapter 4, verse 28, Peter stated that God is doing whatever His hand and His will had predestined to take place. In chapter 5, verse 29, Peter and the other apostles declared that they must serve God rather than people. If God has brought a person into His kingdom and has chosen to give Him the role of an elder or pastor, God will produce in his heart a need to daily exposit, or expose, God’s word for public consumption (both mass settings, like the temple complex, and intimate settings, like going from house to house). We want people for this position who cannot be silent concerning the things of God and who will take God’s word to the public by a means that will be understood by the public.

I have seen too many churches who expect their pastors to be so inwardly focussed on the church that it becomes impossible for him to live in the community and meet those in the public where they are. The pastors are stifled and the church’s ministry smothered from the start. There are many pastors who are also unwilling to do the labor of exposition. Instead, they preach cliche or feel-good messages that, rather than exposing the text daily, water it down once-a-week. No wonder it seems like most local churches are drowning. Every genuine pastor is an evangelist who daily exposits, or exposes, the Scriptures. With this context being set, we can move into chapter six.

When we get into chapter six, there is a complaint that arises because some people are being neglected in the daily distribution (described in Acts 2:45). In Acts 6:2, the apostles called the whole community together and said that it would not be right for them to stop preaching in order to handle financial matters. They proposed that men of good reputation be selected to serve in this respect so that they could devote themselves to preaching (daily expositing of God’s word) and to prayer. The seven men who were chosen were chosen to διακονιεν, or to deacon (serve). So, the office of the deacon was introduced so that the apostles (comparable to the role of elders or pastors today, 1 Peter 5:1-5) could serve by preaching the word daily. God was doing all of this so that His word might be exposed to the whole world and that people would be added to His kingdom.

In discipleship, we want God’s word to be exposed, or understood because it is too important to not be understood. We want to speak plainly and powerfully. We want to explain well, staying away from overly-spiritual cliches that don’t help anyone. We want to always be preaching a fresh message because as soon as we merely recycle something previously prepared, we prove not to be growing in our own faith. We must study the word of God! When we teach, we want to use translations that are accurate and understandable. Even Jesus preached from the Septuagint instead of the original Hebrew 90% of the time as quoted by Matthew. We can know this by reading through Matthew’s Gospel and comparing quotations to the Septuagint and to the Hebrew, and they reflect more precisely the words of the Septuagint. Paul also used the Septuagint as his primary Bible. They still considered the translation of the original Hebrew to be just as God-inspired so long as it was an accurate translation. To this I say, “If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!” I just want to be absolutely sure that the translation I am using is an accurate one and that it is understandable- for the importance of discipleship is to bring greater understanding, not confusion or the inaccuracies of a bad translation. So, I must do my research regarding new translations to be sure that they are accurate before using them. It is one of the great struggles for every teacher or preacher.

My objective when it comes to genuine discipleship, then, is basically to get out of the way and deliver God’s word as it was given. God’s word is the content and it is more important than anything that I could possibly produce.

In discipleship, we expose God’s word, not ours.

Administrative difficulties

With growth, there are always more things vying for our attention. In our sinful nature, it is tempting for us to focus on things that may be good, but distract us from God’s specific role in our lives. There are many pastors who try to do too much because they think too highly of themselves. Similarly, there are many church bodies who are all too happy to place all of the responsibilities of the church on their pastors or elders or deacons. When we do this, we end up creating a stressful environment where genuine growth is impossible. Discipleship means that each person pulls his or her weight according to God’s word so that God’s word flourishes through the local church and the number of disciples in that church multiply greatly.

This is why we are always training people and giving them opportunities to serve according to their calling! That is precisely what we see in this text. Let us consider the process. One group in the church was neglected in the daily distribution. Instead of taking the responsibility upon themselves to meet every need, the apostles proposed that servants be chosen from among the congregation. The congregation elected seven deacons who served the people so that no one was neglected.

God’s methodology is so simple. When there is a need, He calls His people to fill that need. This means that there is a place of service for everyone in the church. If we desire God’s word to be rightly and powerfully revealed through our own local church and if we want to be instrumental in God’s building of His kingdom, then we will plug into an area of service. If w see a need, we have a responsibility to make that need known and then to serve and meet that need. God’s administration really is very simple even where there are complex systems;  His burden on each one is light, and His yoke is easy (Matthew 11:30).

God calls us all to service so His word might flourish.

Acts 6:8-15 HCSB

Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some from what is called the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.

Then they persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God!” They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, dragged him off, and took him to the Sanhedrin. They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. For we heard him say that Jesus, this Nazarene, will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

The danger of established religion

Stephen would later preach, expositing the Hebrew Scriptures, to show how they supported his claims and proving that the accusations brought against him were a lie. The people accused him of blasphemy against Moses and God, but he only preached what Moses preached and what God revealed in His word. This opposition came rashly and without understanding. There is also a part of the story where the distinguished members of the Sanhedrin cover their ears, elevate their voices, and run toward Stephen before stoning him (Acts 7:57). Not coincidently, this sort of opposition also came from the established religious community. This community had created many unnecessary rules, as have many established religious communities today. I have a feeling that if we compare many of the rules that we have developed to the text of Scripture, we would find that justification for those rules is desperately lacking. For the established religious community of Stephen’s day, the faith was no longer fresh. It was cold, stringent, and grace had been forgotten. Instead of embracing what God was doing, they tried to hold on to what they had done or built, but it would not last, God is making all things new! God wants to make each person new! God wants to give life to those who believe in Jesus. We want Him to do that!

The answer to our question is simple. We fail in discipleship when we make much of ourselves and little of God. When there is opposition, particularly from the established religions of our day, we are too quick to surrender or be silent. Even when he was rashly brought before the Jewish court, Stephen resolved to exposit God’s word. Let us do the same, for God’s word truly is more important than any monologue that we could deliver or advice that we could give. Let us honor God by resolving to have His word flourish through our local churches and see God build His kingdom through us by His own hand.

I must decrease, Christ must increase.


In discipleship, we expose God’s word, not ours.

God calls us all to service so His word might flourish.

I must decrease, Christ must increase.


Lord, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

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