How can I disciple people far away?

Last updated on January 17, 2020

How can I disciple people far away?

Has God has given you the responsibility to care for younger Christians who live far away from you? If so, you can learn lots from Paul and the Philippians! Paul was there when the Philippians first became Christians (Acts 16:11-34), but was soon forced to leave these young disciples behind (Acts 16:35-40). From the letter he wrote to them, how did Paul encourage his own long-distance disciples to “stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27), living wholeheartedly for Christ “not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence” (2:12)?

Deep love and commitment

As soon as the Philippians opened the letter, they would have felt Paul’s deep love and commitment to them glowing through. The opening paragraphs especially are bursting with warm themes of “joy“, “partnership” and thankfulness that “all of you share in God’s grace with me“. Maybe we sometimes need to learn to be less reserved, and more expressive of our affections for those who look up to us as spiritual mentors? Like Paul, let’s take joy, not only in God’s work in our own lives, but also in every new baby-step of faith that our “disciples” take with Him!

Pray regularly

This encouraging tone flows on into (or maybe out from!) Paul’s prayer for the Philippians (Philippians 1:9-11). Paul not only prayed regularly for his disciples, but also told them specifically what he was praying: not for his own benefit, to be thought especially holy; but for their benefit, to assure them that they, and their Christian progress, remained his true delight and passion. Like Paul, we too must pray for our “disciples” regularly, and let them know.

Mature Christian mindset

Paul’s prayer-partnership with the Philippians wasn’t only one-way. He continues chapter 1 by sharing personal hardships he is encountering for following Christ; again, not to put himself on a pedestal, but to encourage them that the Holy Spirit has indeed been strengthening him through every difficulty, in answer to their prayers (Philippians 1:19). What’s more, since the Philippians were themselves going through the same struggles that he was facing, Paul knew that they also needed to cultivate the same mature Christian mindset (Philippians 1:29-30). How better to develop this, than teaching by example?

Yet without denying his own significant, God-given role in their spiritual growth, Paul knew that whatever finally happened to him was secondary (Philippians 1:27); ultimately, the Philippians’ faith and faithfulness depended not upon Paul, but upon “God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purposes” (2:13). This humbling and liberating truth frees us from being possessive of “our disciples”, empowering us to point away from ourselves to other role models, as Paul did in chapter 2, commending also the examples of Timothy (2:19-24), Epaphroditus (2:25-29), and Jesus Christ Himself (2:5-11).

Being too proud

Epaphroditus’ story shows us that Paul was willing both to give (2:25) and to receive (2:30) practical support from the Philippians… again, not for his own personal gain, but because, in the long-run, Paul knew that letting the Philippians help him would work out for their benefit (Philippians 4:10-18). Similarly, we can remember how Jesus accepted help from others: His disciples brought Him food (John 4:31); wealthy women supported His ministry financially (Luke 8:3); and when the poor widow went to the temple treasury to give “all she had to live on“… Jesus let her (Luke 21:1-4). So, let’s not be too proud to let our “disciples” serve us, both through sharing prayer requests, and in other practical ways. True humility also receives.

Passionately defending

Philippians chapter 3 shows us the other side of the coin to Paul’s tender language in chapters 1 and 2, in his strong warnings against the false-teachers. Authentic Christian discipleship is never sentimental. Like Paul, we too must be ready to safeguard Christ’s sheep from the wolves (3:1). Failing to passionately defend them when they are in danger is a failure to disciple them in a Christ-honoring way; for it is a failure to love.

Apply the gospel to the heart

Finally, we should learn from Paul to go below the surface pastoral issues to apply the gospel to the heart. Notice how he structures 3:1-4:1. It begins and ends in the same way, focusing on the “fruit” Paul wants to see in their lives (standing firm and joyful). But “fruit” in the Christian life comes not by focusing on the “fruit” itself, but by watering the “root”. Moving deeper into the passage, verses 2-3 mirror verses 17-21, contrasting the Christian mindset with that of the false teachers; then, verses 4-6 mirror verses 12-16, contrasting the “old” Paul’s confidence in himself, with the “new” Paul’s confidence in Christ. But it is the center of the passage, verses 7-11, which reveals the power behind this change: the good news that through faith in Jesus Christ, we are counted righteous by God’s grace alone! Similarly, when we deal with our own disciples’ pastoral problems, we may be tempted to focus on the lack of “fruit”. However, we must always remember that Christian behavior pleasing to God comes only from a heart transformed by the gospel.

As Paul says elsewhere: “I commit you to God and the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Whether our “disciples” live near or far, the Biblical way to build them up is through gospel-shaped discipleship. This will always be costly. But today, with emails, smartphones and social media, it has never been easier.

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