This weekend I’m having my Greek students read my study of the discourse structure of Philippians. Philippians is not a very difficult letter to understand, either in Greek or in English. At the same time it’s one of the most significant writings in the entire Pauline corpus when it comes to the importance of missions and evangelism. This theme is touched upon even in the first 11 verses of the letter (the so-called “letter opening” and “body opening”). Especially obvious is the note of servanthood: Paul and Timothy are bondservants of Jesus Christ, owing Him absolute allegiance.
Which brings me to my latest definition of “disciple.” I once preferred the expression “trainee,” which indeed captures nicely the nuance of the Greek term mathetes. But what is the goal of our training? Is it not to be used in the service of Christ? Does it not mean that we are willing to be sent anywhere and always willing to go? Does it not mean to stand in the firing-line, recklessly risking our lives for the sake of the Gospel? The church needs trainees, but trainees for fulltime servanthood. Hence my latest definition of mathetes: “servant-in-training.” I think it well describes the constant duty of a Christian. This loyal service, this selfless risk-taking, is the necessary prelude to the glory of heaven.
And who makes servants-in-training? Ultimately it is the Lord Jesus Himself who makes them. If you have ever served the Lord selflessly, the full and final credit must go to the Great Servant (Phil. 2:7). Christianity is ultimately a doing religion. We give up our “rights” and, by laboring for the Gospel, we model what we teach. As Roland Allen said (The Case for Voluntary Clergy, p. 128), “The most powerful of all teaching is not direct verbal statement, but habitual attitude and action which takes the truth of the idea upon which it is based for granted.”
Forty-nine years into my Christian walk, I’m still learning what it means to be a servant-in-training. As I struggle with my own limitations, it is necessary to keep my long-range objective before me: to become more and more like Jesus, who attracted men and women to Himself not by force but by showing them a love, a self-renunciation, a self-sacrifice that cannot but move the heart.
January 29, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.