This message is from the Desiring God 2015 Conference for Pastors, in partnership with Bethlehem College & Seminary. Eleven other sessions are also available.
I’m a college professor. More importantly, I’m the kind of college professor who loves to teach with a white board. I don’t fully understand why, but I find that I’m a far more effective teacher when I can draw on the board what is coming out of my mouth. Almost every class, I find myself drawing pathetic pictures, writing scribbled words, crafting ad hoc diagrams, and then connecting them with squiggly lines that look like they were drawn aboard a ship in the midst of a storm. I do that, and somehow, some way, by the grace of God, things become clearer for me and my students. Well, today, I find myself on a stage with no whiteboard. But I want to try and draw a handful of diagrams for you and then connect them together. Your imagination will have to provide the squiggly lines.
Now this message is about the delight of disciple-making, with a particular focus on your church and your family. I’m going to speak about three different clusters of issues. I’m going to first say something about discipleship, and what I think is included in it. I then want to say a few words from John 17 about the glory of God. I then want to say something about God’s self-revelation in creation, what often gets called “general revelation.” I then want to tie those three clusters together in such a way that you leave here with a deeper sense of who you are as a pastor and a family man, a wider sense of how God reveals himself in the world, a fuller sense of God’s glory and fullness, and a richer vision for the joy of discipleship.
Cluster 1: Discipleship
What do we mean by discipleship or disciple-making? We could talk about the aim or goal of discipleship. When we disciple others, the aim of our efforts is “love for God and for others that flows from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (2 Tim. 1:5). To say it another way, the aim of discipleship is maturity. “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Or we might talk about “being conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom. 8:29). But I want to focus here on how it actually happens. And I see two fundamental aspects to discipleship in the Bible.
First, discipleship involves instruction on the part of the teacher, and hearing and thinking on the part of the follower. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul speaks of generational discipleship: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Discipleship involves doctrinal content. In the letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul calls it the truth, the deposit, the teaching, and sound doctrine. It is the gospel that was entrusted to Paul, that he passed to Timothy, who gave it to faithful men, who then instructed others also, down to this very day. But it is not merely the gospel, but also all of the ethical teaching that flows from the gospel. In other words, the instruction involved in discipleship is not merely gospel content, but the exhortations, commands, warnings, and promises that flow from it. Therefore, discipleship will involve correction and rebuke and admonishment. So, for the teacher, discipleship involves instruction, and for the disciple, it involves hearing and thinking (2 Timothy 2:7).
Second, discipleship involves modeling on the part of the teacher, and seeing and practicing on the part of the disciple.
Philippians 4:9: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Notice that the Philippians are not merely supposed to practice what Paul taught them and told them; they are to do the things that they saw in him. In other words, they were called to imitate him. Later in 2 Timothy Paul says, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra” (3:10-11). So again, for the teacher, discipleship involves modeling, and for the disciple, it involves seeing and practicing. That’s Cluster number 1.
Cluster 2: Glory
For cluster number 2, we’re going to turn to what I think is the deepest (or highest) chapter in the Bible. Piper argues that Romans 8 is the greatest chapter in the Bible, and I’m not going to get in an argument with Piper. But the chapter that penetrates the deepest and rises the highest into the life of God is the High Priestly Prayer of John 17. Here we have the Eternal and Incarnate Son of God, praying to his Father on the night before the central event in all of history, talking about realities that existed before the foundation of the world and that are the very reason that he came to live, die, and rise again for our salvation. We’re on the eve of the cross, and the members of the Godhead are having a conversation about what it’s all about. It doesn’t get any deeper.
I won’t have time to unpack the whole chapter, so I just want to make five comments about “glory” in this chapter.
1) First, this passage is fundamentally about Trinitarian glory. “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (17:2). This passage is about the mutual glorification of the Father and the Son. The Son has glorified the Father by accomplishing the task he was assigned, and now he asks that the Father glorify him so that the Son can glorify the Father even more.
2) Glory is something that can be shared. “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (17:5). Trinitarian glory is shared glory. It’s eternally shared glory. Before the ages, the Father and Son shared glory with each other.
3) Glory is something that can be given. In 17:22, Jesus refers to “the glory that you have given to me.” In 17:24, he talks about “my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” So now we have an eternal glory, a shared glory, a given glory, all wrapped up with the infinite love of the Father for the Son.
4) This eternal, shared, given glory is shared and given to us. Or, to put it the other way around, you and I are invited into this glory. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.” (17:20-23).
5) This glory involves knowledge of the Father and Son, the joy of the Son, and the love of the Father for the Son.
“This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3).
“These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (17:13)
“I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me (that’s eternal life), and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O Righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you (that’s part of the glory we share, and that I’m giving to my people), and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (17:23-26)
So when God glorifies himself, he invites us to participate in his own trinitarian fullness, so that the fullness of God’s own knowledge, love, and joy comes to exist in us. This is a deeply Trinitarian and participatory understanding of glory. The glory of God—his eternal, mutual knowledge, love, and delight in himself—is given to us and shared with us. We become partakers of the divine nature, sharers in the triune fullness.
This is why the baptism of Jesus is such a beautiful window into the life of God. The heart of John 17 is captured in that glorious moment.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17-18)
Commenting on this passage, Doug Wilson notes that here we see Jesus fulfilling all righteousness in glad obedience to his Father. We see the Father’s felt presence, his expressed identification with his Son and his manifest love and delight in him. And we see the Holy Spirit, the visible expression of that love and delight, falling upon the Son as the Father speaks.
And I can’t pass this by without adding: because of the gospel, you too! If you’re in Christ, this scene is for you. These words of love and delight are for you. You are invited into this fellowship and life, because you are clothed with Christ, covered by his blood, standing in his grace, and therefore receiving the glad approval of a happy Father.
Cluster 3: General Revelation
We know that the Bible is God’s authoritative, inerrant self-revelation. It’s special revelation. And in the Bible, we are told that God reveals his glory in creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). And not just the heavens. Everything that God has made declares the glory of God. “His invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). Made things, created things, make invisible attributes perceivable. Created things make eternal things visible. That’s general revelation. C. S. Lewis once wrote that every pleasure has the capacity to be a tiny theophany, a revelation from God. Jonathan Edwards testified that he believed that the whole universe, heaven and earth, from top to bottom and front to back is filled with “images of divine things, as full as a language is of words.”
Now, here’s where we need to press on this. If created things make invisible attributes visible, and if you are a created thing, then you make invisible attributes visible. The world was made to reveal God; you’re part of the world. Therefore, you reveal God. You are general revelation. You are a word from God. A general-revelation kind of word, but a real and true word. God means something through you. You are communication from God about God, just like the heavens. Your conduct, your life is itself a kind of divine speech. It is revelation from God. And now I wonder if you can begin to connect the dots.
Discipleship involves instruction and modeling, speech and conduct. Glory is Trinitarian fullness, a swirling tornado of knowledge of God and love for God and joy in God. Because of the gospel, we are invited in. And, all of creation is revelation from God, including you and me.
The question that this confronts us with is this: what will we preach with our lives? Will our discipleship—will our instruction and modeling—echo the truth of the gospel, or will we preach something else? Because make no mistake; our lives will preach, and God will mean something through us. He’s going to mean more than we mean ourselves. His intentions will surpass our own limited ones. But it’s one thing to try to live the gospel before others and for God to do above and beyond what we can ask or imagine. It’s another thing for your life and conduct to tell one story and for God to mean something totally different than what you did. Like when Caiaphas meant to justify getting rid of Jesus, and John the apostle said, “he did not say this of his own accord” (John 11:51). God meant more in what Caiaphas said than Caiaphas did. Or when Joseph’s brothers meant evil against him, God meant more than what they meant, and the opposite of what they did (Gen. 50:20). God meant it for good, for the saving of his people during a famine.
So it matters very much that our intentions for our lives and God’s intentions through us as one aspect of general revelation are in sync. So let’s start to boil this down into really practical, concrete terms. Here’s my squiggly lines connecting these clusters of Discipleship as instruction and modeling, of Triune Glory and Gospel Invitation, and of you as General Revelation.
As a husband, and a father, and a friend, and a pastor, you—your life, your speech, your conduct—ought to be a display of triune glory and an invitation to triune glory. You ought to be a testimony to grace, and an invitation to grace. Your aim should be to be a walking, talking, living, breathing gospel proclamation.
Note on General and Special Revelation
When I say that you are an aspect of God’s general revelation in creation, and that therefore, in your actions, demeanor, attitude, and conduct, you ought to be proclaiming the gospel, I don’t mean that you, as general revelation, are sufficient to save people. In other words, your smile to your children, as a display of glory and an invitation to glory, in itself will not save your kids. Actual, verbal proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners is essential for salvation. What I’m saying is that God’s goal is that you, your life, your attitude, your conduct, your patterns of speech, would make the gospel more meaningful and comprehensible to others. That it would create categories in their hearts and minds that would light up when the grace of God lands in the verbal proclamation of the truth. This is the way that all general revelation works. It declares God’s glory, it reveals his beauty and attributes, it even, I think, gives us images and pictures of the gospel, but in itself it is not the means of regeneration and conversion. Only the verbally proclaimed gospel is.
Having seen ten frigid Minnesota winters, I know that Spring is coming. It’s around the corner. And I know that God is preaching a resurrection sermon with every trip around the sun. I see the sun die every single day, and come flying out of the grave every morning, triumphantly dancing across the sky like a groom on his wedding day. It’s general revelation that preaches to me because I know the preached gospel. That’s what your life ought to be.
I want my boys to read Matthew 3 about the delight of the Father in his beloved Son and say, “I’ve seen my dad look at me that way. I have categories for fatherly pleasure that echo this gospel of grace. I’ve basked in the blazing brilliance of fatherly delight, and if that fatherly joy is a faint echo of this eternal fatherly joy, then sign me up.” I want my wife to read Isaiah 62:5—As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall the Lord rejoice over you—and say, “He still looks at me that way.” I want there to be a relational weight to the gospel for those in my sphere of influence. And I want this personal, relational, experiential weight to stabilize them in trials and enable them to persevere in the faith. Listen to Paul as he encourages Timothy to endure in 2 Timothy 3:14: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and believed (there’s discipleship), knowing from whom you learned it.” “Remember me, Timothy. Remember your mother Eunice. Remember your grandmother Lois.” When my son Sam grows up and I’m gone, I hope that he has friends and mentors who spur him on in his faith by reminding him, “Remember from whom you learned the gospel. Remember your father. Remember your mother. Remember their love and care for you. Remember the laughter in their eyes and the delight in their faces for you. Remember their prayers and tears for you. Remember how they taught you the gospel. Remember the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” And I hope that I will be a father who is worthy of such words.
Application: Be the Smile of God
Which brings me to the home and to the church. My basic charge to you today, in light of these clusters of Discipleship and Glory and Gospel and General Revelation, is this: Be the smile of God to your family. Be the smile of God to your people.
The connection between the family and the church is one that Paul makes frequently in his letters. You can’t be an elder of the church of God if you can’t manage your own household well. Preaching and living the gospel before your family is one of the fundamental qualifications for your ministry. Or listen to 1 Thessalonians 2:9-12:
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. 2:9-12)
You hear it? We’re preaching the gospel to others, and we’re calling them into his kingdom, into his glory. And our conduct, our efforts, our labor, our exhortations and encouragements are like those of a father to his beloved children. So let me close with a few practical ways that I think this vision of disciple-making should play out. I’ll start with the principle applied to our children, and then extend it to the church. What does “Be the smile of God” look like on the ground?
And first, let me just say, that this realization — that as a creature, a made thing who was created to make the invisible attributes visible, to display the glory of God and invite others into it—this realization has had a profound impact on my own pursuit of holiness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been driving home from work in a fog of exhaustion, and what keeps me from coming in the house and burdening my family with my frustrated, spent, and heavy presence is the knowledge that as I walk in the door, I will either tell the truth about fatherly delight and husbandly joy, or I will lie. I find that grace floods me in that moment and I dance up the sidewalk and throw my sons in the air with a tickle fight and ask my wife how I can relieve her of burden.
1) Be thrilled about what they are thrilled about. Join them in their joy, however simple and child-like. Whether it’s drawing a stick figure or building a castle out of Legos, be lavish with your “Well-dones” and “Good jobs.” Find the good and the glory in everything they do. Remember that the main way children experience joy is through laughter and play. Fun is joy in kid form. There are more complex joys that come with increasing maturity (joy of sunsets, the joy of intellectual discovery, the joy of marital intimacy). But the only way that they will grow into them is if they are well-acquainted with the simple pleasures of play. So be a good missionary and contextualize. Translate joy into their language. This doesn’t mean that you should stay shallow or trivial. It does mean that family devotions ought to be marked by gladness and delight, by bright eyes, loud singing, and manifest affection. And if a tickle fight should happen to break out every now and then, count yourself blessed and see it as success.
So also in the church. Join your people in their joy. I was teaching The Brothers Karamazov recently and he has a chapter on Jesus’s first miracle at Cana of Galilee, where he turns water into wine at a wedding. Dostoevsky writes these words:
“Christ visited [men’s joy] when he worked his first miracle, he helped men’s joy…He who loves men, loves their joy…[He did not come down] just for his great and awful deed (the cross), but his heart was also open to the simple, artless merrymaking of some uncouth but guileless beings, who lovingly invited him to their poor marriage feast.”
If the eternal Son of God did not think it was beneath him to visit a peasant’s wedding and make it rock, then how much more should we as ministers not disdain the simple parties, the artless merrymaking of our people. Enter in to men’s joy and invite them further up and further in to the joy of the true Wedding Feast.
2) Recognize that an atmosphere of parental joy and delight is the only environment in which discipline is safe and good. Sin poisons the gladness of a godly home and breaks the fellowship of the family. Wise discipline quickly sets things right. Clear explanations, swift discipline, sincere repentance, and then restoration of the sweet gladness of fellowship.
Likewise, in the church. Church discipline ought to be a setting right of an interruption of a culture of life and gratitude and joy. And that culture ought to begin with you—the happy pastor. That’s the pitch of our churches, beginning with the pastors and elders. When sin interrupts the joy of our fellowship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we act to address it through exhortation and warning and discipline. But we are always workers for joy and from joy.
3) Make the most of temporary separations and reunions. Communicate your pleasure in them as you leave and your excitement when you return. Leave with laughter and come home happy. Let the exuberance in your voice and the warmth of your smile and the brightness of your eyes reveal to them the God who joyously sings over his people, the Father who runs to his son when he sees him on the horizon.
So also in the church. This is sometimes a challenge for me. But basic friendliness and eagerness to see people is one of the ways that we invite others into the life of Trinitarian joy and glory. For some of us, this doesn’t come naturally; we prefer books and pulpits to people and small talk. So we ought to grow in this area and cultivate a lively curiosity about our people.
4) Sing over your sacrifices. Don’t give grumpy.
Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. (2 Cor 12:14-15)
Parents should not be a burden to their children. They should not load them down with heavy weights. Put another way, we should not seek to take from them. We must not use them, or take what belongs to them for our own purposes. We don’t want what’s theirs; we want them. “My son, give me your heart” (Prov 23:26). They are not saving up for us. They are not storing up treasure to give to us, but we are storing up for them. Why? So that we can gladly spend and be spent for their souls. We slave and save and sacrifice, and we do so with laughter in our bones. Most gladly spend and be spent.
I’ll close with a final snapshot from my own life, from about three years ago. This is called Trinitarian Tickle-fights. I don’t have a church counterpart, because congregational tickle fights just sounds weird.
Trinitarian Tickle Fights
He’s a squirmy one, he is. If I don’t watch him, he’ll wriggle off the couch. But he doesn’t want to. He’s enjoying the tickle fight too much. I can’t blame him. Those giggles make this father’s heart want to leap out of my chest. I wonder how long this laugh will last.
Reflect on the tickle fight with me. See the layers of reality at work.
On the surface: an adult male and a one year-old of the species, smiles, laughter, darting fingers, kicking legs, squeals, deep breaths, rapid kisses on the neck, raspberries on the belly, and did I mention the laughter?
Beneath the surface: emotional bonding, fatherly affection, wide-eyed childhood delight. A contribution to the child’s sense of safety and security in the world. Perhaps he’ll be “well-adjusted” (or at least better adjusted). This will no doubt help him on his SAT’s.
Beneath and in and through it all, Trinitarian fullness is being extended. The Joy that made the mountains is concentrated in my home. Fatherly delight is at the heart of reality. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” It plays on a looping tape in the back of my mind. Thus sayeth the Lord to his Son. Thus sayeth the Lord to all of his sons that are in the Son.
This is the pitch of fatherhood. This is the melody line of motherhood. This ought to be the dominant note in the familial symphony. Delight, Pleasure, Joy. This tickle fight is high theology. This scene is a picture, a parable of a glory that existed before the world did. It’s a display and an invitation. Father and son are being beckoned into the divine life and joy.
Only I will remember it distinctly. The scene will pass through my son’s mind and out of his memory. And yet, in a sense, it’s the most spiritual thing I can do for him. My delight and pleasure in him can leave a mark on him that will outlive the sun.
“Father,” I pray, taking a breath in the war of laughter to go directly to God, “make it so.”
And so I say again to all of you, embrace the joy of your calling, the delight of disciple-making. Gladly spend and be spent for your people. Be the smile of God to your family.