Text: Colossians 1:9-12, 21-23
Last week we talked about the importance of evangelism in the life of the church. Evangelism is where Christian ministry must start. For, as we heard from Romans 10, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” The first task in making disciples, as we were commanded by Jesus to do in some of his last words to the disciples before His ascension, the first task is to get sinners to repent, turn away from their sin, and commit to living a godly life. That is the task of evangelism. And without that work, there can be nothing else done. No worship. No teaching. No sending. No praying. For who would do these things to or for a God in whom they do not believe?
But evangelism must always and remain only the first work, not the only work. For too long our emphasis in American evangelicalism has been purely on evangelism to the utter neglect of most other functions and work of the church. And so, I understand my work as a minister and pastor to foster the church to the work first to evangelize the lost, but then, second, to disciple the evangelized.
It is relatively easy work to sway a person intellectually or emotionally into realizing that they are a sinner in need of grace, as the Gospel makes clear we all are. Of course, I emphasize the relative ease of that work – not that it will happen automatically or quickly. But the challenge for the minister and the church really comes in all of the work after that. For that sinner may recognize his or her failures in view of God, but the day-by-day and hour-by-hour challenge of actually living out a commitment to turn away from sin and living a pure, holy, and godly life can be and often is simply overwhelming, if not impossible. This is where the work of the church in discipling the evangelized comes in.
A disciple does three things which then accomplish a fourth. A disciple first of all listens. Then a disciple understands. Then a disciple obeys. When those three things are all accomplished, finally the disciple reflects. And all of these things are ongoing, like the work of living itself. Let me explain.
Look back with me if you will to the first chapter of Colossians, starting at verse 21.
And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, 22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – 23 if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.
I want to point particularly to verse 23, “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard.” “That you have heard.” At the beginning of discipleship is the act and art of listening, and this act and art never move out to another position. They continue in the forefront. Listening is an act. We have to choose to listen. Listening is not just passive hearing. Hearing is not so much a choice. We hear anything that happens to be within the range of our ears. But listening is a different animal. Listening is what happens when we focus our attention on someone or something. When we choose to listen to something, ordinarily all other sounds and noises fade into the background noise, so much white noise that our brain automagically filters out for us so that our brain can sort out the one thing that we have chosen is really important not just to hear, but to listen to. Listening is a choice that we must make.
Listening is also an art. It is a skill that must be developed, like an artist whose work improves over time as her mastery of the brush increases, so our ears must be trained to listen well. This is because we are first of all selfish creatures, interested in listening only insofar as it will help us promote ourselves or advance ourselves in some way. Listening involves creating space for someone else to take center stage. Listening involves not just hearing what we want to hear, but hearing all the things the other is saying. That’s a skill or an art that is rare to find in our day and age, at least.
Paul tells the Colossians that he hopes that they will continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, based on the hope of the gospel that they had heard. There are several things that we must listen to, and it first starts with God speaking to us the content of the Gospel. This is again evangelism, the first step. But the Gospel doesn’t stop being fruitful or effective after our initial encounter and acceptance. We should continually find the Gospel invigorating, inspiring, “new every morning” and a song worth singing for tens of ten thousands of years.
But for a disciple, listening extends beyond just the Gospel we hear when we first encounter Christ. We must also listen to His full Word – given to us in the Bible, preached from pulpits, expounded in song and verse. We must also listen to these avenues of God speaking to us not just the beginning of the Gospel, but the full revelation of Himself to us. God is a great and mighty God, awesome in power, and astounding in His magnificence. One song says that even if we focused on one aspect of God – just His love, and if the entire of the world’s oceans were turned into ink, and all of the heavens strung with parchment, we could drain the oceans dry and cover all of the parchment and still only be beginning to speak about the love of God. That doesn’t touch His holiness, justice, righteousness, purity, omnipotence, grace, sovereignty, and so on. To know God, as we disciples should yearn to know God, will take a lifetime and more of patient study that begins with being a good listener.
We listen to the Word, we listen to one another talk about how God has acted in our lives. We listen to God speak through His creation, which is continually crying out to us about who God is and describing Him to us. But the key is that we listen. We choose to listen, and we develop the art of listening. And we listen to God in particular.
But listening is not the end. It is only the beginning. Earlier in this chapter of the letter to the Colossians, in verse 9, Paul says, “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” The filling of knowledge comes as we listen to God through songs, hymns, and spiritual songs, through His word, through His creation, and through His people. It is through patient listening that we attain knowledge. We hear and we come to know through the hearing. The danger is that the hearing will lead nowhere. Jesus quoted Isaiah 6, where God told the prophet to proclaim to the people, “Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.” Our listening must move on to understanding so that we do not become those whom Isaiah and Christ condemned.
What does it mean to understand? When we understand something, we grasp it. We do not just marvel and wonder at it, trying to imagine how it works, seeking to make sense of it. Instead, we have a mental handle on how it works. With that intellectual knowledge, we can then make good use of whatever it is we understand. We can make connections and applications in ways that may not be straightforward to a casual observer. Understanding brings richness to the words or the numbers or the art or the story that we are seeking to understand. Our pursuit of the gospel as disciples is not just to hear the words of the Gospel, of the truth of God, but to actually comprehend and grasp it, to have it for ourselves.
When we have truly listened, then – and only then – can we move on to the knowledge and understanding that Paul desires for the Colossians. So we listen and from our listening we continue on to gain understanding of the truths of God. But these, too, are not the end of what it means to be a disciple. Discipleship is not just ear training or the development of mental acuity with the treasures of systematic theology.
In Colossians 1:10-12, Paul says, “10 so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.”
“So that.” Or, “because of.” “Because of” what? The reason that Paul prays for the Colossians to gain spiritual wisdom and understanding (which comes from good listening to the Gospel which he will later say they have heard) is “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” Good listening leads us to accurate understanding. Accurate understanding is not an end in itself, but the pathway to obedience. As disciples, we listen. We understand. We obey. Or, as Paul says, “we walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.”
Obedience is the constant struggle of discipleship and sanctification. It is obedience that is the hard road for us to follow as we seek to live out the Christian life. Obedience is what gets us to forsake father, mother, sister, and brother in favor of Christ. It is what leads us to abandon self-interest and take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is what gets our attention diverted from our IRAs and 401(k)s to mission projects like KIVA or Samaritan’s Purse or World Vision. Obedience causes us to use our vacation time for a project to help others instead of a trip to the beach, the mountains, or Disney World. Obedience is what causes us to get up early in the morning, like Jesus did, before the first light, in order to spend some quality time with God. Not just a token 5 minutes to say we did it, but real, concerted time intended to develop and prosper the relationship.
Obedience is hard work. It is costly. Obedience is what caused many of those who had been following Jesus to abandon him at the end of John 6. It demanded too much. Obedience is the constant choice to deny self and surrender to God’s will for our lives. And obedience only comes after we have first heard and then understood.
Paul reminds the Colossians and us that Jesus’ desire for us is to present us before God holy and blameless and beyond reproach.  And this is the ultimate end result of listening, understanding, and obeying – the ultimate end of discipleship. The goal of every disciple is to be like their teacher, master, or lord. Our goal as disciples of Christ is to be like Christ. So the result of discipleship should be good listeners who understand the truth and live it out in faithful obedience. If we are doing those things, then we will be reflecting Christ. We will be developing each day a closer resemblance to our creator, as we were intended for from the very beginning when God created man in His own image. Then we can be “little Christs.”
This is what I want to see us accomplishing here at Monte Vista Baptist Church. Last week I talked about how I wanted us to be a church known for evangelizing, and that remains, for that will always be our first work. But the work of evangelism cannot and should not be our only story. The work of being a disciple is as hard or harder than the work of first becoming a disciple. I want to make sure that we have adequate opportunities to listen to God. Sunday school, sermons, missions are all excellent starting points. But additional Bible study groups, reading, Scripture memory, conferences, and retreats are all ways that I want to see us expanding how and where we listen to God. I want to see that listening become understanding, so that we each and all grasp fully the height, length, breadth, and depth of God’s love for us. I want the understanding to deepen our obedience.
Most of all I want to see all of us growing in our discipleship so that we are more and more accurately reflecting Christ in our lives. When the community thinks of our church, I want them to know us as a church that is passionate about evangelism. And I also want them to know us as a church whose members are incredible Christ-like people who love one another and the community. People should be able to look at us and say, “That must be what Christ is like.” That’s what I want us to be doing as a church. Evangelizing the lost, then discipling the evangelized so that the new disciples become reflections of an accurate and compelling image of Christ to the world.
There are yet two more steps in this loop of what I want to see us doing as a church. Next week we will talk about equipping the discipled. But in the week ahead, I encourage you to think about how you are allowing Christ to work in you and shape you into a disciple who fully reflects Him. Are you fully relinquishing yourself so that Jesus can have His own way with you and your life?
 Romans 10:14
 Colossians 1:22