Overlooking the Obvious

The Great Commission

The heart of the “great commission” that our risen Lord Jesus gave His followers is found in one word – μαθητεύσατε. This is the main verb in the sentence. A careful consideration of this key action word of our Lord’s command is important. Thayer defines the word, “to make a disciple; to teach, instruct.” Specifically, it has to do with “increasing one’s knowledge.”

I have heard an uncounted number of devotions, messages, and teaching sessions in which the great commission was the subject. This is as it should be, because the commission conveys the heart of our Savior for lost mankind, and His “marching orders” for His own. It is all too easy, too common, however, to focus this teaching on far-away places. Yes, I have heard a number of reminders that “all nations” includes one’s own nation. That too is a necessary emphasis.
But how often have you heard that it includes one’s own family? As I write this, I look at pictures of my children and grandchildren under the glass top of my desk. Surely the Lord’s commission to me includes them, doesn’t it?

Family Discipleship

There are other clear and pointed biblical commands and instructions that reinforce the parental responsibility to disciple their families.

A consideration of the word disciple in the New Testament will reveal that, in its noun form, it refers to a taught or trained follower. There are many references to disciples in the gospels and book of Acts. The New Testament epistles indicate that the apostle Paul was a specialist in discipling others—like Timothy and Titus. Discipling is essential to New Testament church life and service. And we note that the word disciple is found in both masculine and feminine (Acts 9:36) forms.

Closely related to the concept of disciple or discipling is the command of Ephesians 6:4, “. . . you fathers . . . bring them [your children] up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” The word translated here training speaks of “education, training up, nurture of children, instruction, discipline.”

The second word of Paul’s command to fathers (admonition, NKJV) conveys “to put in mind; to admonish, warn.”3 This reminds us of Paul’s father-like ministry to the Thessalonians, “we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you” (I Thess. 2:11).

Biblical Discipline

One of the regrettable problems we have in our western world finds its foundation in the fact that “discipline” has come to be virtually synonymous with “punishment.” We would be more biblical if we recognize that discipline is a positive function. . . to discipline is to disciple. Biblically, discipline is a teaching-learning relationship in which one life intentionally influences another in a right and positive direction. Yes, this includes identifying and restraining wrong direction, but the heart of discipline is positive—the teaching, modeling, pressuring, loving influence of another life in the right direction. The Bible not only focuses this responsibility on fathers, but on mothers as well (Prov. 1:8; 6:20, 23).

Many other passages of Scripture deal with this vital subject of discipling or disciplining of your children. We will briefly note three of them. In I Kings 1:6 a statement is made about King David’s fatherly conduct. Unfortunately, it is negative, apparently giving an explanation for the self-seeking, willful behavior of his adult son, Adonijah. We are told that as a father, David had failed to “rebuke him at any time by saying, ‘why have you done so?’” The basic idea in this word is to “make narrow” and it is often translated “discipline.”

We know that, although David in his personal life had an intimate relationship with the LORD, and in his public life he “served his own generation by the will of God” (Acts. 13:36), in his family life we see a glaring and tragic failure. This included a lack of discipline—he was too indulgent and permissive . . . not involved enough in the training and influencing of the young lives in his family.

What It Means To Obey

A proper understanding of the often-quoted passage in Ephesians 6:1 reinforces the biblical urgency for parents to disciple their children. I quote from Ralph Earle:

"The Greek word for “obey” here is hypakovo. It is a compound of akovo, which means “hear, listen.” So it literally means “to listen.” Thayer defines it thus:

  1. properly: of one who on a knock at their door comes to listen who it is…Acts xii.13…
  2. To harken to a command, i.e. to obey, be obedient unto, submit to (so in Greek writers from Herodotus down) “…children are admonished by Paul to ‘listen to’ their parents, which means doing what they ask.”

Add to this the many references in the book of Proverbs commanding children to listen with obedience to their parents, such as, “hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother” (Prov. 1:8).

Our Heavenly Father's Discipline

We also need to note a central passage on parental discipling or discipline of children. In Hebrews 12:3–25 we find an extended discussion of our God as heavenly Father and His relationship with His children. The use of the Old Testament reference (v. 5, 6) tells us that this has been true of His relationship to His redeemed people all through history. The key word is one already considered in this study—child training or discipline.

Note what the passage teaches about the disciplines of our heavenly Father for His children:

  1. We are not to despise or minimize the importance of His discipline (v. 5).
  2. His disciplines are an expression of His love (v. 6).
  3. We are to endure His childtraining, which He faithfully brings to every child in His family (v. 7).
  4. If we can get by with “doing our own thing” in life heedless of His disciplines, we are not really in the family (v. 8).
  5. Ideally, human fathers pattern their child-training after that of the heavenly Father, and this results in their children respecting them (v. 9).
  6. Our heavenly Father has definite goals in view in His child-training:
    • that we might really live (v. 9).
    • that we might benefit by becoming more like Him in holiness (v. 10).
    • that we, if responsive to His disciplines, will produce fruit, the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” (v. 11).

Any true child of God ought to willingly and gratefully respond to the disciplines of our heavenly Father, understanding that His loving heart is determined to change us to make us more like our Lord Jesus.

A Child's Response

Our text continues the theme of the disciplines of the heavenly Father for His children by spelling out seven proper responses (v. 9, 11, 12– 4) and four wrong responses (v. 12–17, 25).

It is vital that we take a biblical perspective of discipline and discipling that is positive—i.e., a teaching/learning relationship in which one life intentionally influences another life in a right and positive direction. If we follow the western culture pattern of equating discipline with punishment, we will misunderstand Scripture and set the foundation of failure and neglect in our parental responsibilities.

Yes, there is a biblical doctrine of punishment. This is most precisely spelled out in the book of Proverbs. Given the fallen, adamic nature of mankind, when one violates set boundaries of child-training, punishment becomes necessary. I well remember the traumatic day when I, as a young father, realized that the greatest single detriment or problem my children had in life is the nature that I passed on to them! In other words, their main problem is that they are like me.

Therefore, it is my God-given parental responsibility to discipline them in the same way and with the same standards and goals as my heavenly Father disciplines me. It is also my God-given parental responsibility to disciple them by modeling Christ-likeness with the enablement of the Word of God and the indwelling Spirit of God.

Long Term Discipling

Discipling children for Christ is a vital ministry for more than parents. In our ministries to children we emphasize evangelism, and rejoice when a child “gets saved.” But it is all too characteristic of us that our rejoicing over their profession of salvation is followed by neglect, not biblical follow-up. Our children’s ministries are often terribly weak in follow-up. We need to learn a lesson from the apostle Paul. He was a specialist in follow-up by:

  • faithful and continued prayer
  • revisiting, making personal contact, and teaching
  • sending someone to disciple them if he was unable to go
  • writing to, teaching, and admonishing them

Timothy was profoundly influenced by a godly grandmother. If you ask my adult children to summarize the work of God in the formative years of their lives, their response would surely include grateful references to an aunt who, unmarried and childless, had a major and wonderfully positive impact on their lives for personal and spiritual growth and progress.

In His earthly life and ministry our Lord Jesus gave us the ultimate pattern and priority of discipling. The apostle Paul, in patterning his life after Jesus Christ, faithfully and extensively discipled others, teaching us that discipling is essential to the program of Christ in this age— building His Church. But let us not make our Lord’s great commission too narrow. Obviously, His command “make disciples” includes our parental and priestly ministries to our children. Will we obey?

Dan Smith

Dan Smith (1933-2020) served as president of Emmaus Bible College from 1976-2000 and then as Chancellor from 2000 until he went to be with his Savior.
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