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Discipleship: Relational Connections

By Matt Chesnes

The “Great Omission” is the label Dallas Willard placed on the church’s neglect to make disciples. The church he suggests has omitted, passively or actively, the core objective of its mission. It is a strange practice when Christian churches invest time and energy in developing a relevant mission statement for their ministry when the mission has already been clearly articulated by the One who purchased it with his own blood. He imparted the mission to the disciples in two simple words, “make disciples”. All mission statements connected to the local church must render disciple making as the central focus.

In order for disciple making to be accomplished, there must first be a definition or description of what a disciple is. It is impossible to successfully make something that is undefined. Then, a practical plan of how to make disciples must be established. This article assumes that the reader has a working definition of a disciple; its purpose is to assist the reader in developing a practical disciple making plan, one that is founded upon relationship connections. This will be accomplished by exploring how the Apostle Peter developed into a mature disciple. It is clear that relationship connections, which were established by Jesus, played a significant role in the shaping of this vibrant disciple. Through these personal connections Peter gained a vision of what his life could be in Jesus. Here are a few highlights of Peter’s life-shaping interaction with Jesus.

First, Peter was relationally connected with Jesus. Peter’s discipleship adventure began when he responded to the invitation from Jesus to follow him (Matthew 4:18-20). From that point forward Peter was always “with Jesus”. In this one-on-one connection, Peter learned valuable discipleship lessons. For instance, Peter learned the significance of forgiving others. He wanted to know how many times he should forgive a person who sinned against him. Peter suggested seven times. Jesus taught Peter not to set limits on forgiveness and that true forgiveness flows from the heart (Matthew 18:21-35).

Another lesson Peter learned was how to pray. Although he learned this while with the 12, Peter developed a deep personal prayer life. After the ascension of Jesus, Peter continued to have one-on-one time with Jesus. During a time of prayer Peter fell into a trance. In the midst of this prayer, God granted a visual and verbal revelation to Peter. The central point was that God includes the Gentiles in the plan of salvation. Through this prayer Peter received the next steps of ministry, which included crossing a major cultural boundary in order to preach in a Gentile’s house (Acts 10:9-23). The preeminent relationship in disciple making is with Jesus. The disciple is always to be “with Jesus”. Second, Peter’s relationship with the 12 was vital in his formation as a follower of Jesus. As a reminder, Peter was “with Jesus” while with the 12. This small group was led by Jesus. The impact of this small group was substantial in the maturation of Peter as a disciple. This small group witnessed together the ministry of Jesus and discovered the greatness of Jesus. One day when they were on a boat in rough waters, their Leader commanded the wind and waves to calm down.

It was a bit strange for a person to speak to specific parts of creation and was probably even stranger when the creation responded to His command. It raised the fears and curiosity of the 12 at which they began to discuss the question, “What kind of man is this (Matthew 8:23-27)?” Through experiences like this, the 12 were developing a Christology. They struggled together to learn who Jesus was.

The 12 grew together. Together they argued about who among themselves was the greatest and who would have the seats of power next to Jesus (Matthew 20:20-28). Together they sat at the feet of Jesus to hear Him expound upon parables that were hard to understand. Together they sat around a table where Jesus told them that the bread was His body and the wine was his blood. They did not understand the meaning of what he did at that time, but together they later understood. After supper, Peter was confused when the Lord took a towel and basin so that he could wash their feet (John 13:1-17). Together they experienced all the fears and loss when their leader was arrested, tried and then killed. Eventually, they experienced the joy of resurrection.

Three particular apostles formed a subset of the 12: Peter, James and John. This group was with Jesus at the raising of Jairus’ little girl from the dead (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43) and on the Mount of Transfiguration when the appearance of Jesus changed radically (Matthew 17:1-13). The three were invited deeper in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow (Matthew 26:36-38). Perhaps the three were invited into these extraordinary events because they were to become influential leaders in the early church. (It is a curious thing that there is no mention the other nine disciples.)

Third, Peter was “with Jesus” while among the crowds, some of which numbered in the thousands. The large groups heard Jesus preach, saw Him heal, raise the dead, rebuke the religious leaders, cast out demons and show compassion to sinners. They were amazed by what they saw and heard. All of these experiences influenced the type of man Peter became. It is also recorded that Peter went to the temple to pray. He participated in the feasts at the temple, such as Passover. These large group settings were dynamic components in the faith development of Peter. Similarly, large group gatherings of disciples to hear the preaching and worship is a healthy portion for the development of disciples today.

Fourth, Peter was “with Jesus” while serving others. When Jesus showed compassion to a large hungry crowd by feeding them, Peter was on the food distribution team. Prior to distributing the food, he thought the crowds should be sent away. In his mind, the 12 could not supply all the food that was necessary to feed thousands. Yet, Jesus made it happen (Matthew 14:13-21). Peter learned that Jesus has the resources to meet the needs of masses. His resources go beyond the abilities and resources of his disciples. Another serving episode happened while he and John were on their way to the temple to pray. They encountered a crippled man, Peter, by the power of Jesus working through him, participated in the healing of this man (Acts 3:1-10). Serving others is another essential practice for a growing disciple.

Since relationships played a significant role in the formation of Peter as a disciple of Jesus, the local church that is determined to fulfill the command of Jesus to make disciples must seriously consider how to provide ways to cultivate meaningful relationships. Individual followers of Jesus need to know how to connect with Jesus in prayer and through the word. Furthermore, it is essential that they regularly interact with a small group to grow together through experiencing God together and in theological discussions. In addition, it is of great value to participate in a large gathering to hear the proclamation of the Gospel and to actively worship the living God. Finally, a growing disciple must engage in serving others. These relational connections were critical in the transformation of Peter from a fisherman to a strong man of God, from a fearful man who denied he knew Jesus, to a man who rejoiced because he was persecuted for preaching Jesus.

Jesus made disciples by engaging in various types of relationships. This was part of his intentional plan for making disciples. The method he implemented ought to shape the methods of his church today.

On a personal note, relational connections were extremely important in my early years as a follower of Jesus. At the age of seventeen I finally heard the Gospel of Jesus. Prior to this time I was not attending a church. I was actively involved with the drug and alcohol culture, so living a Christian life was foreign to me. A few Christian young men took me under their wings. They invited me to a Bible study. We connected at worship services. They included me in their week-end activities. Although we did not always talk about spiritual topics, their friendships helped to support my new life.

Matt Chesnes is married to Janice, and they are the parents of three high school children. They also live with a dog, fish and a bird. As a hobby, Matt teaches at Barclay College. He has been a Friends pastor for 25 years.