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The Armor of God (VIII): The Sword of the Spirit

This is the eighth and final part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

. . . and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:17)

I mentioned at the beginning of this series that the entire panoply is defensive, with the sole exception of “the sword of the Spirit.” Now we arrive at a discussion of the meaning of this weapon.

The sword is a metaphor throughout Scripture for the Word of God, and not just in Ephesians or Hebrews. There are three elements that the word of God is compared to (whether in simile or metaphor):

  1. Light
    lamp [Ps. 119:105]
    fire [Jer. 23:29, technically a simile]
    mirror [James 1:23, simile]
  2. Food
    milk [1 Pet. 2:2, Heb. 5:12, 1 Cor. 3:2]
    meat [Heb. 5:12, 1 Cor. 3:2]
  3. Weapon
    sword [Eph. 6:17, Heb. 4:12-13, Rev. 1:16; see also Isa. 49:2, Hos. 6:5, Rev. 2:12, 19:15, 19:21]
    hammer [Jer. 23:29, simile]
    fire [Jer. 5:14, see also Jer. 20:9, 23:29]

There may be a few similes not mentioned here. For instance, the Word is like a seed that brings life (1 Pet. 1:23), and the Word is like water that cleanses (Eph. 5:26-27).

Overall, though, the most common metaphor used of God’s Word is a weapon. And out of the weapon metaphors, a sword appears to be the most repeated throughout both Testaments.

The Word Reveals, Nourishes, and Hurts

These metaphors that are repeated throughout Scripture enable us to see the Word as accomplishing at least three functions in our lives: It reveals, it nourishes, and it hurts. Needless to say, the third of these is the most surprising, especially since it is the most repeated!

The Word reveals. As a lamp, the Word reveals the way to live; as a fire, the Word brings safety at night, but in that passage in Jeremiah, it is also, yet again, a weapon. And as a mirror, the Word reveals to us ourselves.

The Word also nourishes. Both Peter and Paul compare God’s Word to “spiritual milk” that brings us to maturity. There is also a word from God that is like “meat”—it strengthens us and energizes us. The Word also takes time to digest! We need to take it pieces, not all at once, lest we miss the maturity that comes with each morsel of revelation.

The Word hurts. Take a look at Jeremiah’s word:

12 They have lied about the Lord,
And said, “It is not He.
Neither will evil come upon us,
Nor shall we see sword or famine. . . .”

14 Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts:

“Because you speak this word,
Behold, I will make My words in your mouth fire,
And this people wood,
And it shall devour them.”

(Jer. 5:12, 14, NKJV)

God’s Word is amazingly powerful. The same Word that said in the beginning, “let there be light”—and there was light—still has power to build and destroy, to create and to undo. In a sense, some Creation processes have freedom to run “in the background” with or without divine maintenance—although truly “in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:17) But when he wants to tear down entire nations, he does it, not with lightning and thunder, with his arm and his power, but with his word.

Out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. (Rev. 19:15, NKJV)

The same sword that, in the end, defeats Satan’s armies, is the sword that we as believers wield against him. His Word is that powerful. Amazingly, this “sword” is the only weapon mentioned.

Finally, the Word hurts to heal. When the author of Hebrews calls the Word “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit” (4:12 NKJV), we should take notice that he’s talking about believers. The author of Hebrews speaks of warning believers, to “be diligent to enter that rest” (4:11):

Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. (4:1 NKJV)

The sword of the Spirit may pierce us now as a way of helping us to know if our efforts are from the soul or from the spirit. As we close our discussion of God’s suit of armor, let us make every effort to find ourselves among those that are pierced here and now by the Word of God—for everyone who is not pierced by it now, will assuredly be pierced by it hereafter.

The Armor of God (VII): The Helmet of Salvation

This is the seventh part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:17)

Like the “breastplate of righteousness,” the “helmet of salvation” is first mentioned by Isaiah:

For He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
And a helmet of salvation on His head;
He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing,
And was clad with zeal as a cloak.
(Isa. 59:17)

Some have said that connecting “salvation” to our “heads” implies that salvation is related to our theology or thought processes about God. That is true, in a sense. It is not our right ways of thinking that bring us salvation; it is our salvation that directs our thoughts to God. When we repent and turn to him, he enables us to become his children (John 1:1-14), and this amounts to a total reorientation of our life.

I am not sure whether a reader in Paul’s day or Isaiah’s day would have readily connected their “brain” or “head” with their thoughts. Regardless, I think it’s nearer to the heart of the metaphor to seek to understand the Jewish concept of salvation, and to see it as something that protects the most important part of us.

It is a very American problem to be preoccupied with “where someone is spending eternity” to the exclusion of the consideration of righteousness or even life. An interesting corrective to this has been noticed by better Bible scholars than myself:

  • He “saved” us in Titus 3:5;
  • We are “being saved” in 1 Corinthians 1:18, Acts 2:47, and elsewhere; and,
  • We “will be saved” in Mark 16:16 and Acts 16:31.

“Salvation” as used in the Bible definitely includes a future state; but it also involves a state of wholeness on earth and in this present life. We should think of salvation as God’s protecting influence that begins with forgiveness and culminates in eternal communion.

The Armor of God (VI): Fiery Darts

This is the sixth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

Stand therefore . . . above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. (Eph. 6:14, 16)

There are two offensive weapons mentioned in Ephesians 6, and the difference between them should be striking: The enemy shoots darts or arrows at us, while our only weapon is a sword. One is for long-distance combat; the other is for close combat.

The traditional phrase, “fiery darts,” has also been translated “flaming arrows”; historians record that arrows were dipped in oil, lit on fire, and used in battle as much as 2700 years ago (and referenced in Psalm 7:13, which may be even older). But they were probably not very common, or effective. The technology was greatly improved by the Byzantines, who invented a form of napalm in the seventh century after Christ. Before that time, a “flaming arrow” would be a frightening spectacle, but not always super-effective.

The metaphor tells us something about the devil’s strategy. He lobs his weapons at us from a great distance, hoping that the damage will spread. The Scriptures describes “the tongue” as a spreading fire: it “setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” (James 3:6)

One of the greatest ways that we can cancel the lies of the enemies is by controlling the words that come out of our mouths. Our mouths are not magic, but our words do carry “the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21), and we can damage our own faith by not keeping a tight grip on our words.

The Armor of God (V): The Shield of Faith

This is the fifth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

Stand therefore . . . above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. (Eph. 6:14, 16)

Warren Wiersbe has a fantastic book entitled The Strategy of Satan in which he goes through the key Scriptures related to spiritual warfare and temptation. Starting with with Adam and Eve, he goes through many of the same themes that I discussed in my series on Jesus in the desert. His impactful book keeps faith front and center during the discussion of spiritual warfare—if we want to live in victory, we need faith. So what is it, and how do we get there?

Faith, Wiersbe says, is the key to the entire conflict. But this statement can be misleading if we misunderstand what faith is. One of the ways we misunderstand faith is by thinking of it as mere confidence, like throwing yourself off a bridge into a dark cavern, hoping that the landing will be soft. We pray for someone to receive healing or for the mortally ill to turn a corner, and invariably someone will muddy the waters of a fast-growing faith by using the words, “we didn’t have enough faith.” Young minds hear these words and, comparing them to a few Scriptures, they imagine that they didn’t huff and puff and “faith themselves up” enough. If those were the conditions and operations of faith, then not only would faith be a fool’s hope, but God would be a silent tyrant. God forbid!

Biblical faith is not as mysterious as that. A. W. Tozer addressed this “leap of faith” problem in many of his short articles, but the most memorable is his chapter “The Gaze of the Soul” in the book The Pursuit of God. Tozer wrote there that “faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” He brings faith firmly back into the realm of possibility—faith involves confidence in what we already know about God. We cannot know everything about any given topic; but, given that we know Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, we are willing to risk everything we don’t know on the God that we do know.

Getting back to Wiersbe’s book—he points out that Adam and Eve’s failure against the serpent turned on their knowledge of God. Eve had already walked with God. She had already talked with God and heard from God, and she failed in that knowledge first. Then, she failed in conflict with her enemy.

There are a lot of strange ideas out there about spiritual warfare. Many world religions use ritualistic chanting or cleansing to drive away evil spirits, and some Christians think that quoting Scripture in a certain way can do the same thing. Some modern worship songs apply an almost magical power to the name of Jesus, which, while it has some founding in Scripture, is not something that should be worn like a charm when it is not married to a living faith in a present God.

We have all had moments when we simply felt attacked, as even atheists can attest. We locked the door but troubles came swarming through our window. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” We all know those “flaming arrows” of the enemy. And we all have thoughts about who to turn to—a person we can trust, a drink or drug to drown our sorrow, or anything to distract us from the state of our soul. Or we think that extra Scripture reading or church attendance will somehow protect us. None of these things mark a true newborn faith of the child of God. The only response from the child of God is to look heavenward for help with the gaze of a born-again faith and offer the sacrifice of praise, knowing that all who even desire to live godly will suffer persecution in Christ Jesus.

The Armor of God (IV): Feet Shod with Preparation

This is the fourth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

Stand therefore . . . and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace . . .
(Eph. 6:14-15)

“Having your feet shod” is closely connected to the metaphor of “the belt of truth,” and the two should be taken together, although they are not mentioned together. Both are with the purpose of running (1 Kings 18:46, 2 Kings 4:29)

Then the hand of the LORD came upon Elijah; and he girded up his loins and ran ahead . (1 Kings 18:46; cf. 2 Kings 4:29, etc.)

If having the correct shoes has any Old Testament analogue, it would be in the shoes worn at the Passover supper.

And thus you shall eat it [i.e. the Passover meal]: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. (Ex. 12:11)

The Passover meal is rich in picturesque imagery; although the Exodus is a work of God, the children of Israel were required to eat the Passover supper in readiness, prepared to flee the land of Egypt. It speaks, like the belt, of readiness and eternity-consciousness.

The work of the gospel is also the work of God, but that does not excuse laziness or foolhardiness as we prepare for the work. We should do everything we can to be ready for gospel work.

When it comes to gospel work overseas, there are a variety of ways that we can prepare. There is language study; physical training; cultural study; and, if that weren’t difficult enough, the arduous task of applying the message to hardened hearts will keep us busy for a lifetime. But making disciples is the best preparation. If we have not made disciples at home, we will have triple the difficulty making them abroad. If you want to be prepared to spread the gospel, don’t just buy a plane ticket—make disciples.

The Armor of God (III): The Breastplate of Righteousness

This is the third part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness . . . (Eph. 6:14)

The “breastplate” is the first piece of defensive armor that Paul names. This one and the “helmet of salvation” were both mentioned by Isaiah in a Messianic prophecy:

He saw that there was no man,
And wondered that there was no intercessor;
Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him;
And His own righteousness, it sustained Him.
For He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
And a helmet of salvation on His head;
He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing,
And was clad with zeal as a cloak.
(Isa. 59:16-17)

Paul also has a similar “breastplate” metaphor in one of his other letters:

But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Th. 5:8)

Paul is not afraid to come up with his own metaphors (like “the belt of truth”), but he also couches everything in the wisdom of tradition. When he puts together metaphors, they tend to be metaphors that were already used in Scripture.

The Breastplate of Judgment?

The connection between “righteousness” and the “breastplate” is no mistake. Although the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge doesn’t mention the cross-reference, both Isaiah and Paul would have been well aware of the high priest’s “breastplate of judgment,” first introduced as such in Exodus 28:15. The word “breastplate” is only used in two contexts in the Bible: the priest’s breastplate of judgment, and the metaphorical breastplate of righteousness (or, in 1 Thessalonians, “faith and love”). Although there are different shades of meaning, the two terms (“judgment” and “righteousness”) are too close in meaning to think that either Paul or Isaiah had anything else in mind.

With that in mind, I believe that the breastplate of righteousness refers to righteous decision-making. The meaning of “judgment” in Exodus 28 is not divine punishment; it means something more like “discernment” or “what is right.”

The Urim and Thummim

The priest’s breastplate is a rather mysterious symbol if we take it as connected to divine judgment, in the sense of punishment and reward. But it becomes much clearer when we take judgment to mean “decision-making,” in connection with the Urim and Thummim. These were actually consulted in the Old Testament very seldom: Saul consulted them at least twice while making war against the Philistines (1 Sam. 14:41 & 28:6),  and Ezra desired to consult them on return from exile, but they had apparently been permanently lost (Ezra 2:63, Neh. 7:65).

The Urim and Thummim are rather mysterious in the Old Testament, but we do know that:

  • They were a decision-making tool used by the high priest, likely quite similar to flipping a coin.
  • Their name is Hebrew for “lights and perfections,” which seems to point to wise decision-making, but doesn’t say anything about their actual use.
  • They are not frequently mentioned, and in fact word from a prophet and even dreams are much more frequent in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Sam. 28:6).
  • It also appears they fell out of use after David’s time, and were lost by the time of Ezra.
  • They are not mentioned in the New Testament.

The Urim and Thummim in the breastplate symbolize for us the simple fact of consulting God when making decisions. But one danger is, this can be over-emphasized, to the point that we paralyze young believers until they have some spiritual experience, proving God approves of their next decision.

Guarding Your Heart

The basic function of a breastplate is to protect the vital organs such as the heart. For that reason, it is common to link the “breastplate of righteousness” in Ephesians to Proverbs 4:23:

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.

As I have written elsewhere, the “heart” in Scripture represents thoughts and intentions, not just emotions. This makes sense when we reflect that the priest’s breastplate held the Urim and Thummim, the two stones that the priest used to make decisions:

And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD. So Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually. (Ex. 28:30)

When the proverb tells us “guard your heart,” I believe it’s talking about protecting your thought-life and your decisions. I have seen people who were walking with God fall into strange cult-like behavior, and I believe one of the main drivers was their desire for spiritual help in decision-making—when we become lost on this point, some will begin to consult forbidden means like fortune-tellers, astrology, or seances. These lead them into spiritual entanglement and doctrinal confusion, and they end up forgetting the righteousness that is found in Christ.

When we believe that righteousness is found in Christ, it enables us to make decisions with confidence, knowing that he is with us and for us, and that he is empowering us and giving us wisdom through his Word and Spirit. The Bible also gives us a firm footing, so that we don’t always have to wait for a special word—we have the Word. There are times when the Holy Spirit will prompt us to wait until it is the right moment or until we understand a situation better before making a decision; in other times, having consulted the firm foundation of God’s Word, walking in the wisdom of Christian history, and staying in close contact with trustworthy Christian brothers and sisters, we can take bold steps, especially when God’s honor is at stake.

The Armor of God (II): The Belt of Truth

This is the second part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth . . . (Eph. 6:14)

“Girding your waist,” or putting on “the belt of truth” in most translations, does not refer to cinching up your pants, but a loose full-body garment we would know as a robe or a long tunic. They are usually of one piece, with openings only for the head and arms. It is misleading, in looking at Paul’s meaning, to think of a toga; a “tunic” that is longer than your waist and requires a belt is the best way to think of the intended figure. This was the basic everyday wear of men and women in the Roman Empire two millennia ago, and is still widespread in the Middle East today. English-speakers in the Middle East call them by their local Arabic names (thawb, dishdasha, or jellabiya), because they are difficult to describe in English.

In the Persian Gulf where I live, people walk notoriously slow, partially because of the limitations of the outfit; belts are also never worn with them, and sandals are also the norm for men; many Arab women wear ankle-length cloaks with high heels. Needless to say, running in most contexts is considered very improper. The point of Paul’s metaphor, “the belt of truth,” is that it allows us to run.

Elijah and John’s Claim to Fame

In both the Old and New Testaments, we have reason to believe that a belt is a distinctive piece of clothing. In 2 Kings 1, King Ahaziah could identify Elijah by description with only two items: hairy plus belt.

And he said unto them, “What manner of man was he which came up to meet you, and told you these words?”
And they answered him, “He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins.”
And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

Given that this belt was the single conclusive item in Elijah’s wardrobe, it’s notable that his New Testament antitype, John the Baptist, wore one as well (Matt. 3:4). The belt was evidently not in vogue or everyday use in Elijah’s day, or John the Baptist’s day, or today in most of the Middle East.

The Belt Means Eternity-Consciousness

When I see someone late for an appointment here, they may run if they are dressed in Western clothes; but you cannot really run in a long tunic and sandals! The garment restricts your knees, like a dress. The best you can do is a shuffle, if you hold on to the lower part of your tunic. For this reason, both Paul and Peter talk about being “girded”:

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:13)

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, . . . (Eph. 6:14)

The key practical element of the belt is that it allows you to run. Strictly speaking, it’s not a piece of “armor.” It doesn’t directly involve defense or attack. It does allow you to be more agile. Paul describes this characteristics as derived from “truth.” In many places, it can mean “reality.”

Understanding reality keeps us from wasting our time. The “truth” prepares us by making us see that we all have an appointment with eternity and with a judgement day. This consciousness was the most notable thing about Elijah and John the Baptist and the belt that they wore symbolized this vigor and diligence.

Lord, make us eternity-conscious so that we can run with vigor the race set before us.

The Armor of God (I): Introduction

Today we are starting an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. After the introduction (v. 10-13), we will be looking at the seven metaphors used by Paul: the belt of truth (v. 14), the breastplate of righteousness (v. 14), feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace (v. 15), the shield of faith (v. 16), the enemy’s fiery darts (v. 16), the helmet of salvation (v. 17), and the sword of the Spirit (v. 17).

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (v. 10-13)

Cosmic Battle

The letter to the Ephesians is written in the frame of a cosmic battle. In the context of this epic battle, God knew that he was going to make a people for his name “before the foundation of the world” (1:4); God’s power towards us is the same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him “far above principality and power and might and dominion” (1:21); through our testimony, God is revealing his “manifold wisdom” to the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (3:10); and Paul concludes the letter with a sweeping reminder of how to prepare for this battle.

Spiritual warfare is a Christian distinctive. Muslims believe in a personal devil, but their only recourse in trouble is to amulets, charms, folk remedies, and Quranic chanting. The spiritualists and polytheists of the world live in constant fear of demons, and the modern era has seen whole nations of Africa, South America and Asia choose the gospel over a life of fear. Other religions have no concept of invoking help from a personal God who is daily empowering us to win.

God’s Suit of Armor

The phrase “whole armor,” used twice in this passage, is a single word in the original, which we have in English as panoply, which means a splendid display, since we think of suits of armor as historical artifacts used for decoration. For Paul’s readers, they probably would have thought of a suit of armor stored in readiness, waiting to be “taken up” (v. 13).

Of the six pieces of armor he describes, two are for preparation (the belt and shoes), one is for attack (the sword of the Spirit), and three are for defense (breastplate, shield and helmet). So he’s mainly talking here not from a position of expanding or winning new territory; he’s talking about how we defend what’s already won.

This defensive stance is also expressed in his use of the verb “stand” (v. 11, 13). In his book, Sit, Walk, Stand, Watchman Nee sees the Christian life expressed in three verbs used in Ephesians: 1. We sit with Christ in the heavenly places (2:6); 2. We walk with Christ on earth (4:1); and 3. We stand against the devil’s tricks (6:11).

Principalities and Powers

In several places, Paul lists types of cosmic powers, which are somewhat prone to over-interpretation. In Middle Eastern cultures, one of the ways of emphasizing a point is to list synonyms or near synonyms: principalities, powers, rulers, and hosts. In 1:21 and 6:12, as well as Colossians 1:16, these lists are not meant to be a guide to the academic study of angels; rather, they should be taken in concord.

Be Empowered in the Lord

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.[1] Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

The first three verbs that he uses sound very similar in Greek: “Be strong” (ἐνδυναμοῦσθε) . . . “Put on” (ἐνδύσασθε) [the armor] . . . [that you may] “be able” (δύνασθαι). Paul uses complex structures and careful word choice in his Greek epistles, and it’s possible that this alliteration was meant to add beauty to his letter or make the words more memorable, in the same way we would use alliteration in a sermon.

The opening verb “be strong” (ἐνδυναμόω) is also used by Paul in a number of other letters. It is the same verb for “strengthens” in the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Acts 9:22 says the Paul “increased in strength.”

Paul also uses this verb to describe the Lord’s faithfulness at the end of his life:

Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me. (2 Tim. 4:17)

It is clear from Hebrews that this word has a supernatural sense, because of the way it is listed with other miracles:

Time would fail me to tell of [the faithful who . . .]  quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. (Heb. 11:32-34)

Being “strong in the Lord,” then, as Paul commands, is a supernatural receiving of power through God’s grace, which is why all of the elements of God’s armor described here are paired with spiritual characteristics: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.

[1] “Power of his might” sounds awkward in English, but the figure probably means “his mighty power.” This is a pretty common construction in the epistles, whereby a noun is used like an adjective. It’s especially common with the word “glory”; Colossians 1:11 says, literally, “the power of his glory,” but the traditional rendering is “his glorious power.”


Imitation Is Not Discipleship

The Master Plan of Evangelism

[This introductory section is for those not familiar with the book, and may not be a necessary refresher for some of my readers.]

Robert E. Coleman’s book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, was first released more than 50 years ago, in 1964. This book has caused a revolution of sorts, not so much in Western local churches, but more so in parachurch ministries like campus ministries and missions organizations. Coleman boldly sets forth that Jesus’ plan was never that a select few Christians—those gifted in evangelism or missions work—would preach the gospel to all nations; rather, Jesus’ master plan has always been a church that multiplies through personal discipleship.

The key text where we see this most clearly is 2 Timothy 2:2:

And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

As Coleman unpacks in his book, in the context of a single verse, Paul is referring to four different layers or “generations” of disciples:

  1. Paul (“me”)
  2. Timothy (“you” and the “many witnesses”)
  3. Timothy’s disciples (“faithful men”)
  4. Timothy’s disciples’ disciples (“others”)

Coleman also examines Jesus’ choice of the twelve apostles (à la A. B. Bruce). These twelve were not chosen at random. In fact, Jesus prayed all night before choosing them (Luke 6:11-12). Coleman contends that Jesus’ plan all along was that through daily, continued contact and teaching of these twelve disciples, they would incarnate and proliferate his gospel message through those that they would come in contact with. This is a needed corrective to impersonal mass evangelism efforts, and Billy Graham even agreed that this was a needed corrective to his own ministry.

A number of terms have been used both inside and outside Coleman’s book to describe this sort of chain reaction, such as multiplication, faithful (i.e. steadfast) discipleship and multi-generational discipleship. Francis Chan, an able teacher, adopted Multiply as the title of his book on discipleship. And while I understand that the overall teaching is powerful and effective, there are some destructive and confusing mistakes that I see creeping into the body of Christ through hierarchical organizations of discipleship.

The main danger I see here is that multi-generational discipleship can so easily mix spiritual and non-spiritual motives in an intensely communal context. (I’ve dealt with some of these problems in my review of Gene Edwards’ book Letters to a Devastated Christian, but in this article I am looking closely at specific biblical language.) Jewish rabbis and Sunni imams make detailed decisions about the lifestyles of those under their authority, often down to how to trim their beards and wear their clothes. But Christian discipleship has always been a distinctly spiritual activity.

With this in mind, I wanted to delve into some of the biblical terms related to this multi-generational discipleship model, with the hope that they help us to better orient our spiritual discipleship:

  1. “Multiplication”
  2. “Imitation”
  3. “Regeneration”

Conversion Is Not Multiplication

There is a major problem with the term “multiplication” as applied to discipleship: believers are never multiplied in the New Testament. Here are some of the things that are multiplied (πληθύνω) in the New Testament:

  • The Israelites (Acts 7:17, Heb. 6:14)
  • Grace and peace (1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:2, Jude 1:2)
  • Churches (Acts 9:31)
  • The word of God (Acts 12:24)

In Acts 6, Luke tells us twice that the number of the disciples was multiplied (v. 1 and 7), but he never says that “believers” or “disciples” multiplied. It is a contradiction in terms.

Multiplication implies that what is produced is a copy of what came before. But in the gospel, every new believer is an addition. Every time Christ is born in a human soul, we behold an act utterly unique to human history; the stamp of Christ on that soul has never happened before and will never be repeated in this cosmos. Conversion is an epitome of the creative miracle of God; and evangelical biography is always the exposition of a miracle. Chesterton expresses this unforgettably in Orthodoxy:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The word multiplication is used to describe the growth of the Israelites because they grew through natural reproduction (i.e. the copying of DNA). This kind of parental/ancestral language is never used for Christian discipleship. In two passages, Paul uses parenthood as a metaphor for his fatherly and affectionate relationship to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:15) and the Galatians (4:19-20), but he does not adopt it as a primary term for his relationship to whole groups of people. (More on this below.) There may be spiritual children, in a sense; spiritual grandchildren, never. This is the meaning of John’s explanation of regeneration at the outset of his gospel (1:12-13):

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood [i.e. not through a human mother], nor of the will of the flesh [i.e. not through sexual intercourse], nor of the will of man [i.e. not through a husband (Gk. ἀνδρὸς)], but of God.

Attempts to trace a “spiritual lineage” in hierarchical discipleship-based ministries bolster the egos of those involved, but they don’t honor the miracle of Christ in the soul. Discipleship is neither multiplication nor replication; it is two spiritual siblings working out the miracle of Christ in the soul together. They may be unequal in knowledge or experience but the clearest way to express their spiritual relationship is still that of “brother” or “sister,” not “father” or “mother.”

Imitation Is Not Discipleship

Among ministries that take Coleman’s model, it can also be common to quote scriptures on imitation. There are many New Testament scriptures where Paul enjoins his readers either to imitate their teachers, or their teachers’ faith, or something they have seen or heard from Paul himself. Here are the key examples:

Remember your leaders . . . Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb. 13:7, ESV)

The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do . . . (Phil. 4:9, cf. 3:17)

Therefore I urge you, imitate me. (1 Cor. 4:16)

Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1)

Does Paul Call Churches to Imitate Him?

It sounds like Paul is asking for a blank check here. I would contend, though, that Paul never teaches unqualified imitation. The kind of imitation that some leaders expect of their disciples is carnal, not spiritual. In the epistles in which Paul calls for imitation, he is not talking about his diet, his music, his car, his hair, or even his talk style. He is talking about teaching, doctrine, and spiritual life. In what follows, I show why I believe that “follow” is probably the better translation for the group of New Testament Greek words that have been translated “imitate.”

This is one point where the King James Version is more careful in rendering the Greek than the modern versions.  Here are some scriptures for comparison:

1 Corinthians 4:17
New King James Version
Therefore I urge you, imitate me.

King James Bible
Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.

1 Corinthians 11:1
New King James Version
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.

King James Bible
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

When translating Greek into English, it is difficult to resist the pull of related words or cognates; the phrase for “be ye followers of me” uses the word μιμηταί, “followers,” which is etymologically related to “mimic” and “mime”. The idea that this word must mean “imitators” because it is etymologically related is bad exegesis and is known as “the etymological fallacy.” In a nutshell, it is not true for the same reason that butterflies aren’t flies made of butter—word origin does not equal word meaning. In this case, it seems that the modern versions are translating over-literally. This is fascinating because the usual complaint is that the King James Version is too literal! Using “imitate” to translate this verb is puzzling in 1 Peter 3:13, for example, because the verb is used with a non-human object—how does one “imitate good”?

Another verse uses this verb in a way that does not work with English “imitate”:

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word . . . (1 Th. 1:6, ESV)

How could they imitate the Lord by receiving his Word, when the Lord cannot receive his own Word? It seems like overall, the King James Version’s choice of “followers” may cover the word’s usage better. In fact, the KJV translators translated the verb as “follow” and the noun as “follower” every time they showed up.

Another interesting point on the second verse involves the conjunction “just as” (καθὼς). It may not mean that the Corinthians were to imitate Paul in the same way that Paul imitated Christ; it may also mean that they were to imitate Paul inasmuch as Paul imitated Christ. It is the same conjunction used here:

He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. (Mark 4:33)

With this in mind, a possible translation of 1 Corinthians 11:1 would be “follow me inasmuch as I also follow Christ.” I cannot say certainly that this is the correct translation, but I know that taking these verses in a very literal way has led to many abuses of discipleship. I remember seeing a famous worship leader post a picture of a student who had copied her exotic hair style. It should be emphatically stated: copycatting your pastor in every area of life has nothing to do with spiritual growth. Your pastor’s job is to help you succeed spiritually, not to be your all-around life coach.

Imitation of a teacher in every area of life is something you see only in cults. In his book on unhealthy movements, Letters to a Devastated Christian, Gene Edwards writes that alarm bells should be ringing when we see pastors and leaders trying to make personal decisions for their disciples, like who to date or not to date. This is tricky, though—clearly, every believer should submit to sound wisdom and advice from their believing elders; but believing elders can never force sound wisdom and advice on those they work with. That is not discipleship.

In a nutshell, here is my informed opinion on spiritual authority and on men and women in leadership summed up in two sentences: everyone submits. No one lords it over others. (See Eph. 5:21, Matt. 20:25, 1 Peter 5:3, and cross-references.)

Regeneration Is Not Reproduction

Another common term used for growing movements is multi-generational discipleship. This is used to refer to one leader that disciples another group, some of whom will become leaders and disciple new groups. But, like “multiplication”, this term also desperately needs some qualification. It must be stated that “generation” is being used in a secondary sense, “a group of individuals contemporaneously sharing a status”, and not its first sense, “a body of living beings constituting a single step in the line of descent from an ancestor.” We are not regenerated through any human relationship, and being a part of a hierarchical structure doesn’t legitimize our conversion.

In many Asian societies (at least, in the Middle East and South Asia), you can speak with accuracy of someone being “born Muslim” or “born Christian.” Social norms more or less preclude the possibility of choosing a different religion from that of your parents and ancestors. Any choice to the contrary (in whatever direction) is a confrontational statement that has the power to change the whole of that person’s life and relation to their community.

It can get even more confusing: I have met Filipinos who told me they were “born again” because, literally, that is the brand of Christianity they were born into. What an ironic misuse of biblical terms!

When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, Nicodemus took it so literally, that he thought he needed to return to his mother’s womb and come out again! It is amazing that the term has become for many a term frozen in meaning, descriptive only of a certain set of beliefs or dogmas. When Jesus first said it, it was meant to describe a radical spiritual re-ordering such that you become a new person.

Being “born again” should be something that does not depend on any human relationship, whether you’re thinking of your parents, pastor, or discipler. I have seen believers lose their faith because the person who led them to Christ lost their faith. I have also seen believers divorce their wives because the person who led them to Christ divorced his wife. Referring to “children in the faith” is something that should never be done flippantly.

Does Paul Refer to His Disciples as “His Children”?

Paul did refer to a few people as his children, but it was unusual. His usual way of addressing the churches was “brothers.” He uses this word in its vocative form (i.e. as a personal address) 68 times in his epistles; it is used in other epistles 20 other times.[2] In contrast, the word “children” is used as a personal address 11 times in all the New Testament epistles, all of them in the diminutive form (τεκνίον) as a mark of affection.[3] Ten of these are in 1 John—and John calls himself “the elder.” In these cases, it was probably a culturally appropriate way of addressing those younger than you, not necessarily carrying at-issue meaning.

This should interest us because the relation between Father and son (or parent and child) is the single most common metaphor in the New Testament for the way we relate to God. Childhood, or sonship, is Grand Central Station for New Testament concepts.[4] George MacDonald—who probably has the best preaching on this topic—justly said in one of his sermons:

The relation of the Father and the Son contains the idea of the universe.

But the relationship of discipleship is only compared to this central metaphor in very limited ways. As I mentioned earlier, Paul refers to himself as “fathering”  the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 4:14-17; but in Galatians 4:19, he “labors in birth” for the Galatians! Overall, Paul describes himself in relation to his churches as father, mother, servant, sower, steward, apostle, but, most often, brother.

Does Paul Call Certain People “Son”?

Paul does call Timothy his son to the churches, but, as far as I can tell, only when he’s sending him to them and needs to commend him in the highest way possible. He does this only twice, in 1 Corinthians 4:17, and by simile in Philippians 2:22. When he calls Timothy his son, he is not referring flippantly to the fact that he led him to Christ or discipled him.[5] Clearly, Paul had a intimate mentoring relationship with Timothy that did not extend to everyone that he taught (see Acts 16:3!).

In personal letters to Timothy, Paul calls him his son more often, but mainly in salutations (1 Tim. 1:2, 1:18, 2 Tim. 1:2), and he does the same with Titus (1:4). Interestingly, in all three of these salutations, Paul uses terms of affection. This hints to the idea that “son” here has expressive meaning but not denotative meaning.

In summary, calling someone your “spiritual son” or “spiritual daughter” is a biblical and powerful way of commending a believer whom you have personally mentored. It is not a natural, normal or normative way of referring to your disciples or group members as a whole.

Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (Matt. 23:9)

Conclusion: Discipleship is Spiritual Work

There is a certain stage in life when young believers are more prone to imitation. We are  prone to confound the spiritual and the earthly. But Christ never calls us to imitate other believers. All of life is spiritual; but you have to admit that certain decisions have no bearing on your sanctification. No one has a right to a “blank check” in terms of your schedule or personal decisions. If you have been taught that it’s part of your job as a Christian to copy your pastor’s behavior, join their workout plan, follow their diet, imitate their beard, copy their shoes, listen to their music, or gesture like them when you teach—you need to realize, none of these make you closer to Christ.

[1] In verses where Paul uses the related verb μιμέομαι, he is usually talking about imitating specific attitudes and behaviors:

  • The Thessalonian church imitated Paul and the Lord by receiving the Word (1 Th. 1:6)
  • The Thessalonians imitated the Judeans in persecution (1 Th. 2:14)
  • The Hebrews should imitate those who through endurance inherit promises, that is, by doing the smae (Heb. 6:12)
  • The Ephesians should imitate God in forgiving (Eph. 4:32-5:1)

[2] Rom. 1:13, 7:1, 7:4, 8:12, 10:1, 11:25, 15:14, 15:15, 15:30, 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:11, 1:26, 2:1, 3:1, 4:6, 7:24, 7:29, 10:1, 11:2, 11:33, 12:1, 14:6, 14:20, 14:26, 14:39, 15:1, 15:50, 15:58, 16:15; 2 Cor. 1:8, 8:1, 13:11; Gal. 1:11, 3:15, 4:12, 4:31, 5:11, 5:13, 6:1, 6:18; Eph. 6:10; Phil. 3:1, 3:13, 3:17, 4:1, 4:8; 1 Th. 1:4, 2:1, 2:9, 2:14, 2:17, 3:7, 4:1, 4:10, 4:13, 5:1, 5:4, 5:12, 5:14, 5:25; 2 Th. 1:3, 2:1, 2:13, 2:15, 3:1, 3:6, 3:13; Heb. 3:1, 3:12, 10:19, 13:22; James 1:2, 1:16, 1:19, 2:1, 2:5, 2:14, 3:1, 3:10, 4:11, 5:7, 5:9, 5:10, 5:12, 5:19; 2 Peter 1:10; 1 John 2:7, 3:13.

[3] Gal. 4:19, 1 John 2:1, 2:12, 2:13, 2:18, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, 5:21. Cf. also the figures of speech in 1 Cor. 4:14, 2 Cor. 6:13, 12:14, 3 John 1:4.

[4] Wycliffe translated the Greek word υἱοθεσία as “adoption” (Rom. 8:15, 23, Eph. 1:5) and virtually all English translations have followed suit. Luther, however, translated the same word as “Kindschaft” (“childship”) and I have not found any German translation that did not use some variation of this. Tyndale hit somewhat close to the mark when he translated Ephesians 1:5 as “heirs,” but for some reason he did not translate the word this way in the other two verses, where he used “adoption.”

[5] Here are the ways that Paul refers to Timothy in the third person in his epistles:

  • Our brother (2 Cor. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Th. 3:2, Heb. 13:23, Phm. 1:1)
  • A servant of Jesus (Phil. 1:1, 1 Th. 3:2)
  • My son (1 Cor. 4:17, 1 Tim. 1:18, cf. Phil. 2:22; also as an address in 1 Tim. 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:2)
  • My workfellow (Rom. 16:21, 1 Th. 3:2)

The Danger of an Exalted Mission

An exalted mission is an ever-present tonic to the Christian. The mission will brook no lazy or chicken-hearted missionary. He stands up straight and checks his pulse at the tug of the apostolic chain. She who once neglected her body will now bring it under submission, for she is not shadow-boxing.

The mission demands much; it demands God. It puts us in immediate need of the Holy Spirit. The seven sons of Sceva find themselves out of their depth; hearsay has no power over the usurping devils in the human heart. We must have personal knowledge of him we preach.

The mission demands much—sometimes too much. It must not demand all. Then it becomes like a proud mustard tree, inviting foul birds to infest its branches. Mission may outstrip calling. Mission may outfly faith. Then we find ourselves, like Sceva’s sons, unable to provide the very power that our mission demands.

The apostolic missionary must take care that mission always submits to calling. Calling encompasses all of Christian life; mission, only a part. Calling is an expression of our relation to our Creator; mission is how we join him in rectifying a broken Creation. Mission is work; calling is not primarily work. We are called to:

  • The fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9)
  • Peace (1 Cor. 7:15)
  • The grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6)
  • Freedom (Gal. 5:13)
  • His kingdom and glory (1 Th. 2:12)
  • Holiness (1 Th. 4:7)
  • Marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9)
  • Suffering (1 Pet. 2:21)
  • Blessing (1 Pet. 3:9)
  • Glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3)

Never let the mission become more important than your calling. Don’t let being a hero become more important than being a Christian. Answer your Creator’s call with your waking breath, and let the mission be your response to that infant helplessness of prayer.