The men and women we help spiritually will inevitably learn standards for living through what they see in us.
Jesus saw to it that his disciples learned his way of living with God and man. He recognized that it was not enough just to get people into his spiritual communion. His disciples needed to know how his experience was to be maintained and shared if it was to be perpetuated in evangelism.
Of course, in a technical sense, life precedes action; but in a thoroughly practical point of view, we live by what we do. One must breathe, eat, exercise, and carry on work normally if he is to grow. Where these functions of the body are neglected, life will cease to be. That is why the effort of Jesus to get across to his followers the secrets of his spiritual influence needs to be considered as a deliberate course of his master strategy. He knew what was important.
The Practice of Prayer
Take, for example, his prayer life. Surely it was no accident that Jesus often let his disciples see him conversing with the Father. They could see the strength which it gave to his life, and though they could not understand fully what it was all about, they must have realized that this was part of his secret of life. Note that Jesus did not force the lesson upon them, but rather he just kept praying until at last the disciples got so hungry that they asked him to teach them what he was doing.
Seizing his opportunity when it did come, Jesus proceeded to give them a lesson which their hearts were prepared to receive. He explained to them some of the more basic principles of prayer, and then before he finished, he illustrated what he meant by repeating before them a model prayer (Luke 11:1–11; Matthew 6:9–13).
One might possibly think that such a practice was below the capabilities of these disciples—the idea of having to put words in their mouths to get them to pray—but Jesus would not take such an important matter as this for granted. Indeed, such elementary methods of teaching are often necessary to get people started in this discipline. But whatever it took, Jesus was determined to get this lesson across.
Thereafter he emphasized the life of prayer again and again when talking with his disciples, continually enlarging upon its meaning and application as they were able to comprehend deeper realities of his Spirit. It was an indispensable part of their training, which in turn they would have to transmit to others. One thing is certain. Unless they grasped the meaning of prayer, and learned how to practice it with consistency, not much would ever come from their lives.
Another aspect of Jesus’ life which was vividly portrayed to the disciples was the importance and use of the Holy Scriptures. This was evident both in maintaining his own personal devotion and in winning others to the Way. Often he would take special pains to impress upon his followers the meaning of some passage in the Bible, and he never ceased to use the Scriptures in his conversation with them. Altogether there are at least sixty-six references to the Old Testament in his dialogues with the disciples in the four Gospels, to say nothing of the more than ninety allusions to it in his speaking with others.
All this served to show the disciples how they too should know and use the Scriptures in their own life. The principles of Bible exhortation were practiced before them so repeatedly that they could not help but catch on to at least some of the rules for basic scriptural interpretation and application. Moreover, the ability of Jesus to recall so freely Old Testament passages must have impressed the disciples with the necessity of learning the Scriptures by heart, and letting them become the authority for their pronouncements.
In everything it was made abundantly clear that the word written in the Scriptures and the word spoken by Christ were not in contradiction, but rather complemented each other. That which Jesus believed was also to be cherished by his disciples. Hence, the Scriptures, coupled with his own utterance, became for them the objective basis of their faith in Christ. Furthermore, it was made clear to them that if they were to continue in his fellowship by the Spirit after he was gone from them in the flesh, they would have to abide in his word (John 15:7).
Through this manner of personal demonstration, every aspect of Jesus’ personal discipline of life was bequeathed to his disciples, but what perhaps was most important in view of his ultimate purpose was that all the while he was teaching them how to win souls.
Practically everything Jesus said and did had some relevance to their work of evangelism, either by explaining a spiritual truth or revealing to them how they should deal with men. He did not have to work up teaching situations, but merely took advantage of those about him, and thus his teaching seemed perfectly realistic. In fact, for the most part, the disciples were absorbing it without even knowing that they were being trained to win people under like conditions for God.
This point, already alluded to several times, cannot be emphasized too much. Jesus was so much the Master in his teaching that he did not let his method obscure his lesson. He let his truth call attention to itself, and not the presentation. His method in this respect was to conceal the fact that he even had a method. He was his method.
This may be hard to imagine in this day of professional techniques and sure-fire gimmicks. In some quarters, it would almost appear we would be unable to proceed without a well-illustrated handbook or multi-colored chart showing us what to do. The least we might expect is a class in soul-winning. Yet, strange as it may seem, the disciples never had any of these things now considered so essential for the work.
All the disciples had to teach them was a Teacher who practiced with them what he expected them to learn. Evangelism was lived before them in spirit and in technique. Watching him they learned what it was all about. He led them to recognize the need inherent in all classes of people, and the best methods of approaching them.
They observed how he drew people to himself; how he won their confidence and inspired their faith; how he opened to them the way of salvation and called them to a decision. In all types of situations and among all kinds of people, rich and poor, healthy and sick, friend and foe alike, the disciples watched the Master Soul-winner at work. It wasn’t outlined on the blackboard of a stuffy classroom nor written up in a “Do It Yourself” manual. His method was so real and practical that it just came naturally.
Classes Always in Session
This was as true in his approach to the masses as in his way of dealing with individuals. The disciples were always there to observe his word and deed. If the particular approach was not clear, all they had to do was to ask the Master to explain it to them.
For example, after Jesus told the story of the sower to “a very great multitude” (Mark 4:1–9; Matthew 13:1–9; Luke 8:4–8), his disciples “asked him what this parable might be” (Luke 8:9; Mark 4:10; Matthew 13:10). Whereupon Jesus proceeded to explain to them in detail the meaning of the analogies used in the illustration. In fact, judging from the printed text, he spent three times the amount of time explaining this story to the disciples than he did in giving the initial lesson to the crowd (Matthew 13:10–23; Mark 4:10–25; Luke 8:9–18).
When the disciples seemed reluctant to confess their bewilderment, then Jesus often would have to take the initiative in clearing up the problem. The story of the rich young ruler is a typical incident. After Jesus dealt with him rather sternly, and the young ruler went away sorrowful because he loved his riches more than the kingdom of God, Jesus turned to his disciples and said: “It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23; Mark 10:23; Luke 18:24). “The disciples were amazed at his words” (Mark 10:24). This led to an extended conversation in which Jesus explained the reason for his approach to this good moral man, while also using the opportunity to apply the principle to their own profession of faith (Mark 10:24–31; Matthew 19:24— Matthew 20:16; Luke 18:25–30).
The Principle in Focus
The method of Jesus here was more than a continuous sermon; it was an object lesson as well. This was the secret of his influence in teaching. He did not ask anyone to do or be anything which first he had not demonstrated in his own life, thereby not only proving its workability, but also its relevance to his mission in life. And this he was able to do because he was constantly with his disciples. His training classes were never dismissed. Everything he said and did was a personal lesson in reality, and since the disciples were there to notice it, they were learning practically every moment of their waking day.
How else will his way ever be learned? It is well enough to tell people what we mean, but it is infinitely better to show them how to do it. People are looking for a demonstration, not an explanation.
The Principle Applied Today
When it is all boiled down, those of us who are seeking to train men must be prepared to have them follow us, even as we follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). We are the exhibit (Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:7–8; 2 Timothy 1:13). They will do those things which they hear and see in us (Philippians 4:9). Given time, it is possible through this kind of leadership to impart our way of living to those who are constantly with us.
We must take this truth to our lives. There can be no shirking or evading of our personal responsibility to show the way to those we are training, and this revelation must include the practical outworking in life of the deeper realities of the Spirit. This is the Master’s method, and nothing else will ever suffice to train others to do his work.
This article was originally published in Issue 2 of Discipleship Journal.
Robert E. Coleman was the McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary, the president of Christian Outreach, and the past president of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education. His many books on discipleship and Bible study are being read around the world in fifty languages.