by Craig Etheredge
It was late in Jesus’ ministry. Already he had invested over three years of his life into a group of men who he believed would carry on the movement he had begun. The future looked promising. Just a few months earlier, Jesus told his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9.23). From that moment, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, committed to doing there what he had come to earth to do. And his men faithfully followed him. Soon they began to multiply. The twelve turned into seventy-two and they scattered throughout the villages and towns preaching the gospel and pointing people to Jesus (Luke 10.1). All the while, the pressure from the religious leaders increased exponentially. Clandestine plots to capture Jesus and insidious strategies to take his life were already underway. Jesus knew the time to embrace the cross was drawing closer. Every moment counted. No time could be wasted. What he did in these final days mattered. There was a sense of urgency, focus, and determination written on his face.
Around this time Jesus and his disciples approached a man born blind, sitting in the temple. An unnamed disciple posed Jesus the question, “Who sinned,” pointing to the man, “this man or his parents that he was born blind?” In other words, “What did he do wrong for God to allow this to come upon him?” Jesus stopped for a teaching moment and replied, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9.3). This tragedy was not a result of sin, and it wasn’t a punishment from God; rather, it was a platform God would use to exalt himself through this man’s life. Then Jesus added these words, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is still day, night is coming when no one can work” (John 9.4). Every time I read those words I can feel the sense of urgency in Jesus. I can see him lock eyes with his men, capturing their attention as if he was about to make a statement that he never wanted them to forget. “Men, never forget this. Just as God wants to use this man’s infirmity to bring glory to himself, in the same way, God wants to use you to bring him glory. That’s why we must give ourselves fully to this work he has given us to do because our time is short. What we are going to do, we must do now.” I believe that now, more than ever, Jesus is calling out leaders who will join him in this great work.
As I have reflected on this passage over the years, some things stand out that keeps me motivated and driven to make disciples for the rest of my life.
The work is disciple-making
Jesus put it plainly, “We must work the works of him who sent me” (John 9.4). The work Jesus was talking about was making disciples that would produce disciple-makers. This is the work he has left us to do. Flashback to the first year in Jesus’ ministry. He was standing alone by a well in Samaria. His disciples had just returned from the market to grab some lunch for Jesus. Little did they know that Jesus had just finished a powerful conversation with a woman at the well that would set in motion an entire community coming to know and to follow Christ. As they insisted that he eat, Jesus replied, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4.34). It was as if Jesus was saying to them, “Guys, there is nothing more satisfying and fulfilling than doing the work my Father has sent me here to do!” What was the work he was doing? It was drawing people to him and raising up disciples. Listen, there is nothing more satisfying in ministry than making disciples. Record attendances come and go. Large events come and go. Building projects and mission trips come and go. But the one thing that will satisfy you in ministry is pouring your life into a few people and watching them do the same thing. That never gets old. That is where the joy in ministry is found. Now, flash forward to the last night of Jesus. He is sitting with his disciples, sharing a Passover meal. His heart is full as he lifts his eyes toward heaven to pray. “I glorified you here on the earth having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17.4). Let me ask you a question. What was the “work” Jesus was referring to here? It certainly wasn’t the work of going to the cross. That had not happened yet. Jesus said that he had accomplished this work. The word “accomplished” is the same root word that Jesus spoke on the cross when he said “It is finished” (John 19.30). What work had Jesus finished that glorified the Father? What work had the Father given him to do? It was the work of making disciples who would reproduce. Pastor, this is the same work Jesus has placed in your hands and in mine. Jesus never put in our hands the work of building a large church or preaching great sermons. He put in our hands the work of making disciples who would carry the gospel and multiply.
The partnership is with Jesus
I find a great deal of comfort in Jesus’ words here. “We must work the works of him who sent me.” The “we” jumps off the page at me. It is an amazing thing to think that as you are making disciples, you are actually in partnership with Jesus. There is no time that you are walking more closely in Jesus’ steps than when you are following his example by investing your life in others. There is never a time when you are more reflecting the heart and passion of Jesus than when you are pouring your life into another person. There is a supernatural fellowship with Jesus that you experience in the trenches of disciple-making that isn’t experienced anywhere else. I believe this is why Jesus gave that wonderful promise at the end of his disciple-making commission. He had just said, “Go make disciples of all nations,” then he adds, “and I will be with you.” I can tell you that when I meet with men early in the mornings and I pour my life into them, I feel the presence of Jesus in a powerful way. I feel his pleasure. I can sense him saying, “Craig, this is what it’s all about! Invest your life, just like I invested mine.”
There is a church southeast of Rome that sits along the ancient highway called the Appian Way. It has been a sacred place for centuries, however, the church was built in 1637. The church is called “Domine Quo Vadis,” which means “Lord, where are you going?” According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, a legend is told that Peter was in Rome during the outbreak of persecution against the Christians at the hand of Caesar Nero. Under the cover of night, Peter escaped Rome and was traveling down the Appian Way when he had a vision of Jesus walking toward him. Bewildered, Peter asked him, “Domine, quo vadis?”—“Lord where are you going?” To which Jesus replied, “Eo Romam iterum crucifigi.”—“I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Ashamed, Peter returned back to Rome, and there he was eventually captured and crucified upside down for his faith. This encounter is depicted in Annibale Carracci’s 1602 painting, “Peter’s Meeting with Christ.” If you were to ask Jesus today, “Lord, where are you going? Where are you leading? How do you want me to walk as you have walked?” I believe his answer would be clear. “Go make disciples of all nations.” The real question is, “Are you following?” Are you willing to give yourself to this great cause of disciple-making, or are you headed in a different direction? I’m so glad that I turned around and followed Jesus into this life of investing in others. I have been forever changed.
The urgency of the hour
Jesus’ words have an urgency about them. The New Living Translation picks up on it. “We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work” (John 9.4, NLT). We must quickly be about this business. Why? Because the night is coming, soon no man can work. I grew up in West Texas in a small community surrounded by farmland. I can still remember the farmers working until all hours of the night stripping the cotton and hauling massive white bundles to the local gin for processing. At times, stray fragments of cotton would cover the roads like mild winter snow. Before electricity, there was a real sense of urgency to get the crop in once it was ready to be harvested. Men would work long and hard in the fields, but they had to work quickly because the night was coming when all work had to stop. That is what Jesus had in mind here. We are laboring in the field—reaching people for Christ and walking with them to maturity. It takes work and sustained effort. It takes vision and determination. It takes the patience and endurance of a farmer. But there will come a time when we can no longer do it. Night is coming when all work will stop. That coming night may be the Lord’s return. When he comes, all the redemptive work of sharing the gospel and making disciples will be over. The harvest will be in. The coming night may be the end of your life. Your days are numbered. Your time is short. The days for you to invite people to know Jesus and invest in people to walk like Jesus are coming to a close. No matter which one Jesus had in mind, his call is urgent. We don’t have all the time in the world. If you are going to make disciples, now is the time to be busy. Now is the time to invest your life. Now is the time to lead as you have never led before because night is coming when your work will be done.
Jesus’ call is an urgent call to action. And action is needed because so much is a stake. Think about it. The church is at stake. How much longer do you really think the church will be able to sustain itself if disciple-making is ignored? Already we are seeing the signs of decline, but Jesus gave us the simple solution. Make disciples. When you look at history, revival, and spiritual awakenings have gone hand in hand with disciple-making—from the great awakenings of Europe to the Jesus movement in the 1970s. The church in America today desperately needs to turn back to making disciples. The lives of those far from God are at stake. How will this world be reached? How will the nations hear the gospel? They will hear it from men and women who are sold out to Jesus and know how to multiply their lives in others. They will hear from men and women who have decided to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. The hearts of the people in your church are at stake. Right now, there are people in your church who desperately need someone to show them how to walk with God. They need someone to come alongside them, show them how to walk with God, how to reach their world, and invest in a few. How will they grow if you do not show them? How will they mature if you do not provide someone to pour into their lives? The impact of your ministry is at stake. Robert Coleman, in his book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, makes a poignant statement. “One must decide where he wants his ministry to count—in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of his life in a few chosen ones who will carry on his work after he has gone? Really, it is a question of which generation we are living for.” Where do you want your life to count? Will your ministry be something that achieved a certain level of temporary success, only to be forgotten after you are gone? Will the sermons you preach and the buildings you build become objects of the past with little lasting value? Surely God wants your ministry to be more than that! If you invest your life in others and teach them to do the same, your ministry will always be reaching the next generation. Your ministry will always bear lasting fruit, fruit that remains until Jesus comes, and you will prove yourself to be a true disciple of Jesus (John 15.8). Don’t buy into the lure of temporary success. Invest your life for the long haul. Your life can be more than just managing a church…it can be about joining a movement that changes the world. Don’t settle for anything less.
When I think about these things, I picture myself throwing a rock into a pristine lake. The water is glass. There is a stillness in the air. I draw back and release the stone with all the force I can muster. I see it tumble in the air, drawing an arc in the sky until it plummets to the water’s surface. Splash! Immediately, the rock vanishes underneath. In many ways, your life is like that. You are a stone in flight, making a splash on this Earth. But no matter how big a splash you make, it is only for a moment, and then you will disappear from here. Soon the lake will return back as it was before. But if you give yourself to making disciples and you teach them to do the same, you can leave behind ripples of multiplication. Life on life, flowing from one to the other, until the movements reach the banks of the shore. Your one life can ignite a movement that continues until Jesus returns. So, let’s give ourselves to this call of Jesus. Let’s make the bold moves. Let’s throw our lives into making disciples like Jesus so that when he comes he will find that our lives were fruitful and that his glory was put on display!