Local Church: Partners in Bringing Disciples to Maturity
Passage: Matthew 28:18–20, Ephesians 4:1–16
Sermon on Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:1-16 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: Disciples Making Disciples, Part 3 of 6
Delivered on June 28, 2015
This is now the third message in our series on disciples making disciples. The first week, we looked at the bigger picture of Christ’s kingdom and Christ’s compassionate mission to seek and save the lost. When Christ’s compassion then fills us, then we too are compelled to seek and save the lost. And so last week, we discussed evangelism, speaking the gospel of the kingdom, introducing people to Jesus, and persuading them to enter his kingdom through repentance and faith.
But I also mentioned last week that evangelism wasn’t all that making disciples is. Evangelism is necessary to making disciples (cf. Matt 24:14; Luke 24:47; Rom 1:16; 10:14-15). Evangelism is something all Christians participate in—our feet dance to the good news and our mouths proclaim the forgiveness of sins to others (Eph 6:17). But making disciples includes much more than initial evangelism.
Our Christian sub-culture has often reduced “making disciples” to evangelism and conversion. You hear “making disciples,” and your mind immediately races to getting decisions. But as we’ll see today, making disciples doesn’t stop with conversion; it actually begins with conversion.
Making disciples extends well beyond conversion, just as it did when Paul spent three years in Ephesus teaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 18:24-27), or when Epaphras refused to leave his disciples immature in the faith, but prayed for everyone to stand mature and fully assured of the will of God (Col 4:12). What might that look like in your own life, say, with your elders, with other sisters in the faith, with your wife, with your children, with each other? I hope to answer that question over the next couple of weeks, but start answering that question today by looking at the local church.
God hasn’t entrusted the Great Commission merely to individuals; he has entrusted the Great Commission to the local church. The local church is God’s plan to make disciples of all nations, because through the gifts and through the interrelations of the church’s members, God brings us to maturity (Eph 4:1-16). God makes you and me more and more like Jesus, not apart from one another but through one another.
The transformation envisioned in the Great Commission doesn’t happen with “lone-ranger” Christianity. Christ-likeness—which has at its very heart other-oriented love—can only come to maturity within the local church. I can say that, not only because Jesus envisions the local church in the Great Commission, but the other apostles talk about the local church in this way too. So here’s what I want to do. I want us to see first how Jesus envisions the local church within the Great Commission itself. Then I want us to see another snapshot of the church from Ephesians, showing you what happens when the local church makes disciples. And then I want to show you a few specific ways this plays out in various relationships within the local church.
The Great Commission Envisions the Local Church
But first things first, how do we know that Jesus envisions the local church in the Great Commission? Beginning in verse 18, he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Notice that making disciples doesn’t stop with conversion. Making disciples includes identifying people with Jesus and his church through baptism.
He says “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is the ordinance Jesus gave to the church to celebrate when sinners identify themselves publicly as Jesus-followers. Baptism is no mere ritual, but the visual expression that you’re now dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, Romans 6:1-4 teaches us. Baptism is our pledge to submit to Jesus’ lordship alone.
But baptism also identifies you with Christ’s church, his visible kingdom on earth. You have a visible ordinance for a visible kingdom. Baptism marks you off from the world along with the rest of the church. It says the domain of darkness is not where you belong anymore, but you belong to Messiah’s new community. So to be baptized—say, for example in Acts 2:41—was simultaneously to be added to the church. And then later, both Paul and Peter—as they write letters to local churches—they work from the assumption that the folks to whom they’re writing have all been baptized (e.g., Rom 6:1-4; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:11-12; 1 Pet 3:21). It’s a convenient teaching point, since nobody was in the church who hadn’t gone through it already.
So the fact that Jesus mentions baptism is one way we know he envisions the local church in the Great Commission. But even further, he commissions us to teach every convert his commandments; and not just teach, but hold each other accountable to observing those commandments. Jesus himself brings this into the picture with Matthew 18:15-20. Before he even gets to the Great Commission, Jesus has already said a few things about the church itself. He prepares his disciples to hear the Great Commission in light of what he’s already taught them about the church.
In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches his disciples how to practice discipline in a local church when unrepentance characterizes an erring church member (Matt 18:15-16). If a professing Christian is not following Jesus’ commands and refuses to repent again and again, the matter is to be taken before the church (Matt 18:17). The church is then to extend more love to this erring member by calling them to repentance. The church even has the authority under Christ to excommunicate the person if they refuse to submit to Jesus’ rule—“whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18). This was another way for Jesus to say, “I will demonstrate my heavenly authority on earth through visible, identifiable assemblies of people who submit to my rule and authority in all things—namely, the local church” (cf. Matt 16:18-19; 28:18; John 20:21-23).
Now hear the Great Commission of Jesus. Making disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to observe—both envision the establishment of visible assemblies of people who’ve been freed from the power of sin, who declare that freedom publicly through baptism, and who grow daily in their submission to Jesus’ rule while brothers and sisters are coming alongside to cheer them on and hold them accountable to Christ. Where do these things happen? They happen in and through the local church, the rest of the New Testament tells us.
Paul’s Snapshot of the Local Church Making Disciples
One great example, we can find in Ephesians 4. Paul gives us a snapshot of the local church making disciples. In fact, the snapshot Paul gives us in Ephesians 4 includes both baptism and teaching—as Jesus has spelled out here in Matthew 28. We’ll see that in a moment, but first let’s race through the first three chapters of Ephesians. Because, lest we forget, the church doesn’t spring out of nowhere. The church itself is built on the gospel. It’s the good news of Jesus that gives us new life and then compels us to bring that same message into the lives of others.
Right from the start, in Ephesians 1:4, the church is seen as a community God ordained from eternity past: “[God] chose us [in Christ] before the foundation of the world.” And not too many verses later––in verse 9––we see that God had a purpose he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time.
It was a plan that included looking with mercy upon a fallen and cursed world, and providing redemption for guilty sinners through the death of God’s only Son (1:7). This Son would come as a husband full of love for his adulterous bride (5:25-27); and he would win her for himself by washing her and forgiving all her trespasses by the blood he would spill in her place. It was also a cosmic plan that would include God’s power “uniting all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). Everything undone by the Fall would be made right through the work of one man, Jesus Christ, to whom God gives all authority and power and dominion (1:20-22).
It was also a plan that would include God’s special work in history with the nation of Israel, a plan that would even ‘roll out’ through his promises to Israel—only that once Christ bore the sins of the world, the floodgates of salvation would open to all nations. The Law of Moses would no longer stand as a barrier, alienating the Gentile peoples from the promises bound up with God’s covenants to Israel. Rather, God’s only Son would tear down the dividing wall of hostility through his death. Jesus abolished “the law of commandments...that he might create in himself one new [humanity] in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (2:14-16).
Now Jew and Gentile alike who believed in Jesus would obtain all God’s promises. Forever, these who were chosen before history and rescued through the death of Jesus in history would reflect the immeasurable riches of God’s mercy at the end of history (Eph 2:7). God did all this for “the praise of his glory [and his grace]” (1:6, 12, 14). He did it, 3:10 tells us, “so that through the church—get that now, through the church, through you and me—the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Then Paul enters chapter 4, saying, “Therefore [therefore, because of what Jesus has done], I…urge you [church] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” You cannot obey that commandment of Jesus without each other. He continues, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism [note that—this is Great Commission language coming out], one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Now, what about the teaching part? Verse 7:
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift…[Verse 11] And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints [there it is] 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 [there’s more teaching], 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.
That’s a beautiful snapshot of the church making disciples. We’ve got the church standing on the unshakable, rock-solid foundation of Jesus Christ and him crucified. These people share the same triune God, the same baptism, and they are teaching one another with one ultimate goal in mind—that they become more and more like Jesus. That teaching comes partly from the leaders of the church equipping, and partly from all the members speaking the truth to one another in love.
Brothers and sisters, we are partners in bringing each other to maturity in Christ. I need you to speak the truth to me in love, or I will not look like Jesus. You see, the goal of our meeting together and hanging out with each other isn’t just information-transfer on Sunday morning. It’s not just to put some more prayer requests on the list in Care Group. It’s not just to bond with each other for the sake of bonding. Are those things sweet? Absolutely! But the goal of our fellowship is that each of us might represent Jesus more faithfully on earth while he reigns in heaven.
Isn’t this what our world needs to see? Isn’t that what we need to see? We need to see Christ reigning from heaven, Christ’s victory over sin and death. Supreme Court decisions can’t change that reality. Christ is reigning and our lives together are designed to put his reign on display. Christ is the one we want people to know. He’s the one who is glorious. He’s the Son of Man reigning. We want our light to shine before men, so that folks see our good deeds and give glory to him (Matt 5:16). That happens when we partner to bring each other to maturity in Christ. Your partnership in disciple-making is no small thing! Give people a glimpse of the new creation as you learn to follow Jesus.
As I mentioned a while back, let’s not be surprised at the direction our culture is going. Jesus promised us it would get worse: “lawlessness will increase and the love of many will grow cold” (Matt 24:13). Peter also wrote to Christians in an immoral culture with slanderous opponents and corrupt government; and his exhortation was simple: “Keep loving one another earnestly…show hospitality without grumbling…keep your conduct among the gentiles honorable.” You may feel like your hands are tied by the Supreme Court, but don’t forget who your seated with in heaven. You can do something of great gospel-advancing significance right where you are. Our lives can make a huge impact by showing the world around us how a counter-cultural gospel builds a counter-cultural community living in an upside-down kingdom where the greatest become slaves of all.
Partnering in Making Disciples
When the church embraces her partnership in making disciples, we look more and more like Jesus and less and less like the sinful-culture around us. If this is so—if the local church is God’s plan for making disciples; if it’s true that the chief way of spiritual formation is through the church not apart from the church—what does it look like?
Well, let’s look now at a few specific ways this discipleship plays out in various relationships within the local church. This is where disciples making disciples becomes very tangible for us, because it takes some of the relationships you already have daily with each other, and sets them into the context of Jesus’ present reign and his charge to make disciples. So, let’s look at a few of these relationships the New Testament points out here and there.
And just as a heads up, my goal in these next few examples isn’t to spend much time on how to disciple within these relationships. That’s next week’s message on teaching. My goal is simply to point out some of the amazing opportunities we have right before us to partner in helping each other look more and more like Jesus.
Elders to the church
One of the major disciple-making-disciple relationships in the church is, of course, the relationship of the elders/pastors to the church. In Acts 14:21-23, Paul goes about from Antioch and Iconium and Lystra making disciples. And upon his return to each city, it says, he appointed elders for them in every church. Then later on—in places like Acts 20 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9—we learn that the elders carry a very significant role in teaching the church. Paul even gives the elders an example where his teaching took place not just publicly but even privately from house to house.
Elders nourish the congregation with the voice of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures (Eph 4:11-13). And so in many ways, elders are to be the exemplary disciple-makers, as they educate people in the Christian faith and pour themselves into the members and lead Christ’s sheep toward godliness (Matt 28:18-20). Exemplary disciple-makers—that’s been a very sobering matter of prayer for the elders.
The word of God has laid heavy on our hearts in the area of disciples making disciples, because it has forced us to ask the question, “Are we making disciples as your leaders?” Yes, we’re teaching the gospel. God forbid that we ever move away from that. But are we, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:8—are we sharing with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves?
You see, it’s tempting for me to think that if we just get things down on paper—if we articulate our vision well enough in word, if we shore up the Constitution and Bylaws according to Scripture, if we lay out the plan for Care Groups, and if we get all the mechanics of the Redeemer machine ironed out—then disciples will just automatically start popping out the other side. Each of the things I mentioned may still be a necessary element to our leadership, but far be it from us to think that making disciples is so mechanical and lose sight of the personal, patient instruction that we see exemplified in the Scriptures.
We want to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. I liked the way Ben put it for us at the start of this week: “May we be in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in Redeemer Church!”—Galatians 4:19.
Faithful men to faithful men
Another relationship that we find is faithful men discipling faithful men. 2 Timothy 2:2—this is Paul speaking to Timothy—“[Timothy], what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful [or reliable] men who will be able to teach others also.” Paul is passing on the gospel-baton; Timothy passes the gospel on to other faithful men; those faithful men pass the gospel on to others in the church.
As some authors have put it, “There’s a ‘given’ about the Christian faith; it is something inherited from the very beginning of God’s action for our salvation, and it is to be passed on as long as this world lasts” (Carson, et al., Introduction, 380). That’s a given—that it be passed along. In our own context, we have teachers appointed for discipleship hour, we have care group leaders, we have other men leading Bible studies and speaking—sometimes the older teaching the younger and the younger teaching the older. These brothers are not merely facilitators, they are training the saints. They’ve been entrusted with the gospel to then impart that same gospel to others.
Older women to younger women
Or, ladies, check out discipleship from Titus 2:3-5: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good [that’s the gospel], and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled."
Sisters, have you ever read that text in light of the Great Commission? Whether you’re here in Fort Worth or in Bangladesh, your labors are a huge part of accomplishing the Great Commission. Those sisters who’ve walked with Jesus are obligated to take the younger sisters under their wings and show them how the gospel of Christ applies to marriage and to eating and to purity and to work and to serving others in their complementary role alongside men.
Now, let’s also recognize that “older” may very well depend on the context in which the Lord has you. Rachel was part of church in College Station, and a large portion of that church was made up of college students. In that context, “older” was someone in their thirties. And sure enough there was one sister in her thirties, who embraced the calling of Titus 2 and poured herself into the younger sisters. She even had a regular class on biblical womanhood from year to year. To this day, Rachel and I give thanks for that sister so selflessly pouring into the younger girls—many of whom had just come to faith or who hadn’t had anybody give them a robust vision for biblical femininity, you know, strong, Christ-loving, God-centered, laugh-at-the-future kind of women.
Ladies, I’d challenge you to write down the name of one or two sisters in this church, begin praying for them, and then start meeting with them periodically—if you’re not already. Some of you are, and in several ways I feel like I’m playing catch up here with what the Spirit is already stirring among you. Open your life to each other. The house doesn’t have to be clean for coffee and Christ. Let them help clean up while you preach Christ to each other. Or, if you’re married, husbands you clean up so that she gets time with other sisters. Invite them into the rhythms of your day, and ask them questions about the Scriptures, their goals for life, needs for prayer. Read a solid Christian book together on these matters and discuss it.
What remarkable calling that you have! Older doesn’t mean you’re retired from the Great Commission; older just shapes your role in the Great Commission. Gray hair doesn’t mean you’re finished; gray hair means you’ve got a crown of glory and wisdom to share with your younger sisters.
Husbands to wives
The Bible also spells out discipleship in terms of a husband’s relationship to his wife. Ephesians 5:25-30, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Brothers, our marriages are designed to be a parable of Christ’s sacrificial love for his church. And part of our calling is to wash our wives with the word—not by identity, of course, but by analogy. Only Christ can truly wash with the word, but when we become one flesh as husband and wife, we become the means by which Christ does it. What is this word? Well, it’s the word of the gospel. With this word, Christ separates the church from the world; and then with this same word, he holds the church near to himself. It’s also the word that makes us holy, it transforms every aspect of our being into Christ’s own likeness. In every desire, word, thought, and deed, husbands have the unique charge of covering their wives with the gospel.
If you’ve been paying any attention to the news, this is a huge calling, brothers. And it’s a very sobering word from Jesus. Far be it from us to raise our fists at the Supreme Court while we leave our wives malnourished with the truth of God’s word. We have a glorious opportunity to put the beauty of Jesus’ love on display for the glory of God. And part of this calling is washing your wife with the word. Give a same-sex-“marriage”-affirming world a picture of Christ’s holy love for his bride through your marriage. This too is part of the Great Commission.
Parents to children
We also find parents relating to children in the way of making disciples. Ephesians 6:1-4, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
In other words, parents—and especially fathers—carry the responsibility of regularly imparting the truth to the children the Lord has given us. That happens through intentional times together in the word as a family—like regular family worship—and it happens through spontaneous opportunities the Lord grants us throughout the day. We might even take the example of Timothy’s mother, Eunice (2 Tim 1:5). She had a sincere faith and apparently raised Timothy in the Scriptures from childhood (2 Tim 3:15). Parenting is part of the Great Commission.
Now, it’s true that our homes won’t ever be a perfect picture. But they’re at least a small window into the rule of Christ being worked out in a family; a window into how the gospel of justification cultivates humility in a father, who isn’t afraid to ask his son’s forgiveness because he knows his standing in Christ is enough; a window into how the abiding joy of the Lord sustains a family through trial; a window into our identity not being tied to our children and their reputation but to Christ and Christ alone.
All to All
One last relationship is mentioned in the New Testament, and it’s the one that comes up more than any of the others: namely, the relationship of all to all. You see, it’s not so much that the other relationships I mentioned should be the only ones we engage in. And it’s also not so much that we should so compartmentalize these other relationships such that they never overlap or relate to the others. Rather, all these various relationships nourish a community where all disciple all.
Here’s a taste: Romans 15:14, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” Ephesians 4:15, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” This is everybody speaking the truth in love to each other. This is young speaking to old, old speaking to young, wealthy speaking to the poor, poor speaking to the wealthy, married speaking to the singles, singles speaking to the married, everybody speaking the truth to each other.
Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you [plural = church] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Hebrews 3:12, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
This is all discipling all. You and I have been joined together to disciple one another, while we’re preaching the gospel to the world. And I think what we’re beginning to see is that the Sunday morning sermon isn’t everything. A Sunday morning sermon may be helpful to the growth of the whole church, but it’s not sufficient to make disciples. If Sunday morning is the only time we’re in the word and hearing the word and speaking the word, then we need to check our first love. If we’re too busy to devote ourselves to one another in this way—and to everyone else the Lord may add to our number in this way—then we’re too busy to follow Jesus.
Two Final Encouragements
But, I know that’s not the case with most of you, Redeemer. Most of you want to follow Jesus. You want to pour into others and others to pour into you. So, let me leave you with a few encouragements as we close. First of all, remember that the risen Son of Man is with you till the end of the age. You may not even know where to begin discipling your wife, your kids—if you’re a sister, other women—each other. You see that it’s supposed to happen, but you’re scared, you’re overwhelmed, you need help. Before you exhaust yourself, remember that Christ never commissions his people without going with them. He promises to be with you in this. He will help you. Ask him to help you, and then simply be faithful with the relationships God has already given you.
Also remember that everything you need to disciple others is found in Christ, and Christ himself lives in you. Everything you need to disciple others, Jesus has it in himself. He is the supreme prophet, who speaks pointed truth and reveals God most clearly to us. He is the supreme priest. He carried our burdens and then stood in our place at the cross to take away our sins. He intercedes for us at God’s right hand according to the will of God. Jesus is also the supreme King. He protects his people and leads them into the peace of his kingdom.
If he is Prophet, Priest, and King, what do you think happens to his people when he lives inside them? They become prophets, priests, and kings. Moses once longed for that day when all the Lord’s people would be prophets, and Peter says that became so at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21). We speak God’s will to one another, because Christ by the Spirit lives in us and we have the written word. And then later on Peter doesn’t shy away from calling us a royal priesthood, and then John calls us, a kingdom of priests (1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:5-6). Christ enables us to bear each other’s burdens and intercede for one another. Christ enables us to lead each other away from Satan’s domain to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, to take up the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit while seated with Christ in the heavenly places.
This is who you are in Christ. Everything that we need for discipling each other is found in Jesus. And he lives inside of you. Trust him in this, and “may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb 13:20-21).