The Discipleship of the Early Church
Before Jesus left earth he left a set of instructions called the Great Commission. All men, women, and children who were old enough to understand were to be won to Christ and then discipled.
Peter’s primary disciple was John Mark, whom he called “my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). The description “my son” is the exact affectionate designation Paul gave to his primary disciple Timothy. This is the same Mark who wrote the second gospel in the New Testament. Peter had such an influence in Mark’s gospel that Justin Martyr, a half-century later, called the book the “Memoirs of Peter.”1
Many have debated who discipled Saul before he became the apostle Paul. Many believe that Barnabas had a profound impact on his life and even became a discipling influence. After Saul became a believer on the road to Damascus there was a lapse of time before he entered into his missionary ministry. There were a number of years between his conversion and Barnabas’ recruitment of him in Tarsus in order to bring him back to Antioch to assist him in the ministry (Acts 25–26). During this time Barnabas became Saul’s prime spiritual influence, Their relationship spurred Barnabas to vouch for Saul when the apostles were skeptical of his reliability and afraid of him (Acts 9:26–27). During their time ministering at the church in Antioch they were always referred to as Barnabas and Saul, indicating that the primary leader at that time was Barnabas. It wasn’t until they were well into the first missionary journey that it was no longer “Barnabas and Saul” but “Paul and Barnabas,” with Paul assuming the primary leadership position (Acts 13:42).
Paul was strategic as he practiced relational discipleship. Yes, he had a preaching ministry to the unsaved, but his discipleship was done primarily in small groups, via house churches and life-on-life discipleship.
Paul was very conscious of the need to develop leaders; therefore, since he spent much of his time traveling, he always took these growing disciples with him. For example, Paul had a close friendship with Priscilla and Aquila and lived with them for a time (Acts 18:2–3) and likely spent many hours in a discipleship relationship. Paul then took them with him to Ephesus, where they had great impact in the life of a misguided preacher and teacher, Apollos (Acts 18:19–26).
Paul also had a discipleship ministry with Titus and wrote an epistle to instruct him as he shepherded his church. Paul also had a ministry to Luke and Silas and took them with him as he traveled on ministry expeditions. But that wasn’t all. Paul referred to more than sixty people by name in his epistles. These were people he loved and appreciated. They were co-workers who Paul had impacted at various times during his discipleship ministry.
During Paul’s ministry to the cosmopolitan city of Ephesus, where he spent three years, he met a man by the name of Epaphras who became a faithful “minister” of Christ (Col. 1:7). After Epaphras was sufficiently prepared, he went to Colossae where he led many to Christ and established a new church in that city. In Colossians 1:6b–7, Paul further acknowledges Epaphras’ evangelistic activity as he addresses the Colossian church: “Since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf.” To further clarify the meaning of this verse, I would like to note that the word “learned” is translated from the Greek verb manthano, which means “to learn” or “to disciple.” And as Herb Hodges points out, the word “you” in the Greek is the plural form and can be translated “all of you,” suggesting that Epaphras led many of them to Christ and invested his time discipling them. Therefore, verse seven literally says “you were discipled by Epaphras.”2 Thus, Epaphras obeyed the Great Commission just as his discipler, Paul, had done.
Normally when we think of Paul we automatically link him with his primary disciple, Timothy (Phil. 2:19–24). This young man, who was initially discipled by his mother and grandmother, was further discipled and mentored by Paul. The way in which Paul instructs and speaks about Timothy reflects their close association. For example, Paul opens the book of Colossians with the sentence, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother” (Col. 1:1). This opening greeting mirrors five other letters in which Paul includes Timothy; in fact, in four of the books, Paul only mentions Timothy in his greetings. As part of the discipleship process Paul took Timothy on several missionary trips and wrote two epistles to him, giving him instruction as he pastored his church at Ephesus. It is believed that Paul’s ministry to Timothy lasted for at least twenty years.
It was Timothy whom Paul exhorted, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). In this verse Paul emphasizes multiplication as part of the discipleship process. It is true that Paul refers to “many witnesses,” and I will not dispute that part of the discipleship input came through the small-group Bible studies in which Timothy took part. But I would like to also consider several verses from 2 Timothy that shed light on the other methods Paul used in his discipleship ministry. The first verse is 2 Timothy 3:14 where Paul told Timothy, “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them.” The word “knowing” used here is a form of the Greek word oida, which means “know by seeing,” indicating that Timothy had received up-close and personal discipleship.
Second Timothy 1:13 constitutes the second instructive verse on Paul’s discipleship method. Here he instructs Timothy, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” Here I would like to focus on the phrase, “from me,” which in Greek is para, which also serves as the root for words such as “parallel” and “parable.” Para refers to something nearby, expressing a relationship of immediate vicinity or proximity. It literally means “by the side of” or “alongside.” Such Scripture allows us to conclude that the major part of Paul’s discipleship of Timothy did not take place essentially in a crowd, from a pulpit, or from a teacher’s podium. On the contrary, it took place “along the way” as Paul and Timothy lived and moved near each other, moving “side by side.”3
Along with Paul’s emphasis of an up-close and personal approach, which mirrors that of Christ, another important aspect of relational discipleship has to do with the disciple maker’s example. Three times Paul exhorted disciples to imitate the faith of their leaders (2 Thess. 3:9; 1 Tim. 4:12; Heb. 13:7). Identification and imitation only truly takes place in a discipleship relationship when a discipler imitates Christ in such a way worthy of the disciple’s imitation. Due to lacking an intimate enough setting, a small-group Bible study, for instance, makes having this kind of discipleship relationship very difficult.
Just as Jesus sent his disciples out on ministry assignments, Paul also sent Timothy on a number of assignments as his personal representative. In Acts 17:14–15 Paul left Timothy behind with the more seasoned leader, Silas, to finish the work he had started. Several other times Paul sent Timothy as his substitute, such as when he was in prison and sent Timothy to the Philippians (Phil. 2:19).
It seems clear to me that Paul did not disciple Timothy or his other protégés through his preaching ministry since this ministry was primarily, if not entirely, evangelistic. For sure, some of his discipleship came from his teaching ministry with small groups. Even the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:19) was apparently a discussion group held in a room he was able to reserve for teaching. Paul’s practice of discipleship, as was true of other first-century leaders, was based on a relational form of instruction—which is most effective with one or two disciples because it is here that encouragement, reproof, instruction, and accountability can best take place.
- Quoted in Hodges, Jesus the Greatest Disciple-Maker of Christian History, 7.
- Hodges, Fox Fever, 174–175.
- Hodges, Herb, The Bible and Disciple-Making, a paper (Germantown, TN: Spiritual Life Ministries), 2–3.
(This excerpt comes from chapter 3 of Changing the Landscape of Eternity