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First Quarter 2014 (January–March)
COMMENTARY ON DISCIPLESHIP
Week 9: February 22–28
COMMENTARY ON DISCIPLING THE POWERFUL
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons.
This week’s lesson addressing “discipling the powerful”, an interesting distinction the author attempts to make from last week’s lesson, “discipling the rich and famous”.
It is worth noting that this lesson does not address “discipling”, nor have the last several. Instead, it addresses how to gain the attention and interest of the powerful, or whatever category of people the week is discussing. Discipling, however, is the process of teaching and nurturing new believers, not the process of evangelism and inviting people to church. Discipling means teaching someone to “follow after”—it does not mean indoctrination. Discipling is something that happens after a person believes and is born of the Spirit, and it teaches people to follow after Jesus, as eternally alive members of His body who are learning from Him how to live in submission to His word and His will, surrendering their desires and dreams to Him and embracing His promises and His presence no matter what happens.
This lesson talks about how to approach the powerful and introduce them to “the truth”—which the lessons understands to be Adventism. Adventism, however, is not “the truth”.
The lesson deals, on day 2, with respecting authority. Governments and rulers are established by God and are to be respected. The lesson rightly states that Jesus never “advocated any kind of rebellion” against the government. Romans 13:17 states that God sets up rulers and authorities for our good, and 1 Timothy 2:1-4 commands us to pray for “all men, for kings and all who are in authority” because God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
While the lesson establishes this respect for authority as a backdrop to the argument that readers are to approach and evangelize the powerful, this is a misuse of the God-ordained dictate that we are to pray for our rulers. The commands to pray for our leaders and for the rulers is not an argument for “discipling”, or more accurately, personally evangelizing them. Rather, it is an argument for praying for God to work on their hearts and to give them His wisdom.
No one can come to God unless the Father draws him (Jn. 6:44), and praying for our leaders is not a tool for figuring out how to talk to them. It is God’s command that we pray, not to “release” His power or to give Him permission to work on them (this belief is a form of Word/Faith practice), but because respect for them and prayer for God’s intervention is not only for their salvation but also “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:2).
In Day 3’s lesson, the author says that Jesus used the Scripture and sacred history to appeal to them. It further says He “quoted the Bible when He talked about the importance of mercy over ritual,” and that this method was intended to teach them “a deeper meaning of the law that they claimed to cherish and uphold.”
In fact, Jesus used Scripture to point out to the Jews two things: who He was, and their own depravity. The law was never intended to be seen as a document with “deeper meaning” that they should obey. It was always intended to be a standard of righteousness which they could NOT achieve. It was always intended to reveal their sin (Rom. 3:20; 7:8, 11) and to lead them to God’s promises. It was always intended to cause them to turn to the LORD in repentance and for mercy, believing His promises to be faithful and to save them in spite of their sin. It was always intended to be a mirror to show them how sinful they were and to fall on their God, as Abraham did, with faith that was accounted to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:2-5).
Jesus did not especially curry the attention of the powerful in order to get them to believe. Rather, He preached the same message of repentance and the kingdom of heaven to everyone. To the Jewish leaders, however, He was more pointed and forceful, specifically revealing Himself as the fulfillment of prophecy and confronting their hard hearts and idolatry of power and money. They were teaching the people and leading them astray; Jesus confronted them because they were misrepresenting Scripture to the people, and He was jealous for His Father’s glory and for the honor of His word.
Tuesday’s lesson presents the centurion who believed Jesus could heal his son as a lesson that people with fewer spiritual advantages may have deep faith that could put to shame those of us who are spiritually advantaged. The author states that the centurion “admired Jewish worship and Jesus’ spirituality.” This statement completely misses the point. There were many gentiles who were “God-fearers” and who worshiped regularly at the temple (in the court of the gentiles) without converting to Judaism. These were people who responded to the general revelation of God which He has imprinted in everything that has been made (Romans 1:1-20) and believed that the Jewish Scriptures and worship were the way to worship the true God. The centurion was, apparently, such a man.
Moreover, to say that he admired “Jesus’ spirituality” is a diminishment of Jesus’ holiness and identity. Today the word “spirituality” can apply to anyone with an interest in “the spiritual”, and it is used more often among those who seek special power or revelation, including those involved in new age practices, mysticism, and even pagan pursuits such as Buddhism. Born-again Christians rarely refer to their trust in the Lord Jesus as their “spirituality”.
Jesus didn’t have “spirituality”. Jesus IS GOD, and He was God on earth. He created the spiritual powers and the human spirit. He didn’t have “spirituality”. He IS Spirit, because “God Is Spirit” (Jn. 4:25). He was fully man, but He was also fully God without any diminishment of God’s attributes (Col. 1:19; 2:9). Jesus did not possess spirituality that we are to emulate. He is our Savior, our focus of worship. He wasn’t a “spiritual man” in the sense the lesson portrays Him.
The lesson states that “there is a power to a selflessness and self-abnegating ministry that can touch anyone of any rank or class.” It asks which of these traits the readers manifest.
Again, this assertion completely misses the point. One doesn’t learn to minister in a selfless or self-abnegating way. Rather, the Holy Spirit indwelling all true believers guides us to speak and respond in a way that will be for the glory of God and the good of one another. There’s no conscious method of delivery that we must manufacture to convince people to believe. Such attempts to be selfless are actually marketing strategies, not living faith in a risen Christ and an eternally living God. Jesus didn’t gauge His conversation to make Himself more winsome and appealing. He simply spoke truth. Many hated Him for it; those who were already responding to the Spirit of God as the Father drew them to Himself received His message with joy.
Once again, Wednesday’s lesson misses the point. Using the scenes of Jesus’ last trials and appearances before both Jewish and gentile rulers as He moved toward the cross, the lesson makes the point that Jesus was studying each person and witnessing to them, but with disappointing results. Nevertheless, He didn’t stop as the cross loomed closer. In fact, those last scenes of Jesus’ life were not examples of Jesus’ “witnessing” or “evangelizing” or “discipling”. They showed His commitment to truth at the expense—which He knew in advance—of those men becoming engraved and putting Him to death. Jesus wasn’t “standing firm” before those priests and gentile rulers in order to witness to them, although His presence among them WAS a witness to them. He wasn’t there for the sake of their recognizing the truth at last; He was there to fulfill Scripture and to become sin for us, the spotless Lamb of God who took all the sin of the world into Himself and became our Sacrifice and Substitute. He wasn’t being condemned because He stood for something they hated (as Adventists believe they will be brought before rulers who hate them for their loyalty to the Sabbath). On the contrary, Jesus was being condemned because He claimed to be God—and because those Jews KNEW He was speaking the truth and was fulfilling Scripture.
They saw His miracles and deeds; they heard His teaching, they knew His life fulfilled the shadows of the law and the promises of prophecy. They knew—they looked right at Him—and refused to believe. They refused to humble their hearts and trust Him.
Jesus was not there giving everyone an example to follow when they strongly believe something. Rather, He was there revealing for all time to everyone that He Is God the Son, and He became the acceptable sacrifice for all our sin.
Importantly, Jesus is showing us Himself, not methods. The lesson presupposes that Adventism IS truth and that the readers will be given “heavenly credit”, if you will, for loyalty to Adventist beliefs and practices. This assumption is simply not the case. God will not give people who believe false gospels “credit” for sincerity. There is one requirement for salvation, and it is not “sincereity”; it is belief—not intellectual belief but utter trust in—the Lord Jesus and His sacrifice. This belief coincides with being born again, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that being born again is the only way one can enter the kingdom of heaven (Jn. 3:3-6).
Standing firm and witnessing to unbelievers under duress does not result in salvation. It may result in praise from Adventism, but persecution and trouble are the normal experience of Jesus’ followers who are alive in Him (Jn. 12:24-26). These things are consequences of trusting Jesus. They are not behaviors that God will credit to our account as righteousness.
Thursday’s lesson points out that the early church exploded as the apostles spread into the world. It states that while the biblical accounts in Acts make it sound as if “people were instantly converted out of nowhere, that’s not what happened.” The author makes the point that a lot of groundwork had been laid by Christ, missionaries, and no doubt by early converts.
Such a conclusion, however, that people were NOT “converted out nowhere”, is contrary to the biblical record and is an assumption based on Adventism’s experience. Many people WERE brought to belief when they first heard the gospel. Unlike Adventist evangelism which requires carefully constructed explanations and incremental revelations of its true doctrines, the gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful intrinsically. People are not brought to faith by intellectual persuasion. They are convicted by God and drawn by the Father. Only the Holy Spirit can open the ears and eyes of a spiritually dead person (which every one of us is until we hear the gospel of our salvation and believe).
1 Peter 1:22-25 says,
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you (1 Peter 1:22-25).
We are brought to spiritual life by the power of the imperishable, living, abiding word of God. It is the WORD of God, the WORD of the gospel, that delivers truth and life to us as the Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds to it.
The lesson talks about persistent witnessing, building belief over time as the “witness” struggles to make his message clear. The lesson even asks how “disciple-makers working among worldly and religious authorities avoid the discouragement of frequent rejection.”
This question assumes the readers are Adventists who are interested in proclaiming Adventism winsomely to powerful unbelievers. This foundational assumption, however, makes all the words and conclusions wrong.
Adventism is not the Truth. It does not teach the simple gospel that Jesus died according to Scripture, was buried, and was raised on the third day according to Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Adventism loves to gain the conversions and patronage of rich and powerful people. Such new members are great for their public relations as well as for their coffers.
Unless a person knows Jesus and believes the gospel, however, staking his life and reputation on the finished work of the Lord Jesus and believing only Scripture to be the unerring revelation of God, they cannot “make disciples” for Jesus. Adventism is not the gospel. In fact, Adventists need to pay attention to Jesus’ words as He spoke to the powerful men of Judah:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (Matthew 23:13-15).
There is no need to focus on either witnessing nor on evangelizing the power-brokers of the world unless one is born again and alive in Christ. Then, God brings about the contacts He desires. We don’t have to focus on the powerful, nor do we “need” them more than any other human being. God knows how to bring His people into contact with those He desires to save at the exactly the times He knows are right.
I urge you to ask God to open up His Word to you. Ask Him to help you read it without any pre-established understandings or interpretations, but to read it exactly for what it says as He intended for it to be understood. Ask Him to open your heart to the reality of what Jesus has done and of who He is, not to what Adventism has taught you. Ask Him to show you what is real and true and to anchor your deeply in His word.
He is faithful.