First Things First

May 14, 2023

Lead Pastor Dr. Timothy Melton

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There is a race called the Ironman Triathlon.

Some of you may be familiar with it. It is an unbelievable race where several thousand people race against one another as they swim 2.4-miles, ride a bike for 112-miles, and then finish with a run of 26.2-miles, which happens to be the length of a full marathon. 

Most of us would ask how could, or even why would a person do this to themselves. But thousands of people compete in different Triathlons around the world each year.

I would like to briefly share a story that took place at the 1997 Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. One of the favored racers was a 24 year-old man from Australia named Christ Legh. As he remembers back to what happened that day he tells how after the swim he was 6 minutes behind the leaders. He was having a hard time keeping down liquids but he continued on. During the bicycle ride he caught up to the leaders. He then began the marathon run believing that he could win the whole race.

As he continued to run, to save time he decided to pass up the aid stations where the runners get water or other necessary liquids. He neglected fluids hoping that would save just enough time for him to finish ahead of the other runners. 

His strategy appeared to be working. He could see the finish line, and then it happened. 

He began to falter and collapsed 50 yards before the finish line. Imagine that. He had swum 2.4 miles, biked for 112 miles, ran 26.2 miles and he collapsed 50 yards before the finished line. In his own words, “I thought if I just shut my eyes and made it to the end, I’d be all right.”

And that was not even the worst of it. Chris Legh was near death when he collapsed. Medical experts say that Chris Legh’s large intestine had become “necrotic” which means part of his large intestine had died because of dehydration. That likely was caused by the body no longer being able to deliver sufficient blood to organs and muscles.

Chris Legh had put his desperate desire to win before his safety and he suffered the consequences. You could say he failed to put “First Things First.”[1]

As Jesus spent His final days with His disciples before His ascension, He sought to help them keep the “First Things First.” Like the runner in the story, it would have been so easy for them to get distracted or get priorities out of order and Jesus wanted to keep them from that. Some of them might have claimed that healing the sick was the First Thing. Another might have said teaching the Word of God was the First Thing. Another might have said helping the poor was the First Thing. All of those were good and necessary, but what was the First Thing for Jesus as He carried out His ministry? What was the First Thing that would ensure that the Kingdom of God would advance until Jesus’ return? 

Before we answer this question we first must note that Jesus wrote no books. He started no seminaries or churches. He did not open hospitals or orphanages. He was not a politician, a president or a prime minister. He was a simple teacher, from the small town of Nazareth. He was the son of a carpenter, with no formal theological training that we know of, but yet He has impacted more people and changed more lives than any other person in the history of the world. So, what was Jesus’  “First Thing”? He made disciples. That is the focus of today’s scripture.

In Matthew 28 we find some of Jesus’ final words to His eleven disciples.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Here Jesus starts out by giving them the authority to carry out the First Thing. It would be similar to a herald of a king or an ambassador. Neither has authority on their own, but when speaking for the king they carry in their message the authority of the King. 

In Philippians 2:5-11 we read about the source of Jesus’ authority. 

5 "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 

Because of Jesus’ willingness to humble Himself by taking the form of a servant and being obedient to the point of death on a cross, God the Father has given Jesus all authority over all in heaven and on earth and under the earth. That is the authority which the disciples would carry with them as they went out in Jesus’ name to make disciples of all nations. The name of Jesus would also be their inspiration and power to transform lives.

Jesus then continued, 

“19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In Jesus’ day a disciple was a student of a religious teacher or rabbi. They walked together and shared life together. They were not only to learn from the teacher, they were to become like him in word, thought and deed. This was the assignment that Jesus was giving His followers. He could have said, “Make converts” meaning help people become new Christians, but that would have likely resulted in the apostles leading people to faith in Jesus and then leaving them to go find others who needed Jesus. That would not be bad, but it would not be complete. The new believers would have been left to fend for themselves like an infant left to fend for themselves. That would be unthinkable.

Salvation is not the end goal. Salvation is only the first step. The end goal is that we will glorify God by becoming like Jesus, and then lead others to do the same. This is a life-long process. A disciple is not just someone who learns more about Christ. It is someone who is becoming more like Him. 

From one perspective God is our ultimate Discipler. As we read in Philippians 2:13, He works in us to will and to act according to His purposes.” “He also works all things for our good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. . . to be conformed into the image of His Son” (Romans 8:28-29).

In the midst of God’s working and what He is doing in our lives we are also called to usher others into greater Christ-likeness. 

Making Disciples is what Jesus did. He prayerfully selected 12 men and He invested His life in them for three years. That is what Jesus focused on during His short three-year ministry and we are part of the legacy that still continues today. It has been passed down through the generations starting all the way back to these earliest of disciples. We see Paul and Barnabas repeat this same plan. 

One might ask, “Why would Jesus spend the majority of His time with 12 men instead of making His First Thing, speaking to the crowds”? Wouldn’t speaking to the big crowds be faster? At first glance making disciples seems slow. but watch what thorough discipleship does?

Let’s compare numbers. Imagine Jesus chose to focus on the crowds and preached to 1,000 people every day during His three years of ministry. That would be 365,000 people x 3 years of ministry. Jesus would have preached to 1,095,000 people. While that is quite a large number, some would have believed and some would have not. Also, none of them would have been led to maturity that would have made them like Christ and enabled them to reproduce. Once Jesus returned to heaven the ministry would have come to an end because it all would have depended on Jesus.

Let’s now compare this to focusing on 12 disciples for three years.

Let’s imagine that Jesus’ disciples followed His three-year strategy and discipled 3 people for 3 years. Only three, not 12. Their number would grow from 12 to 48. If all of those disciples made disciples, in three years their numbers would go from 48 to 192. As they made disciples, in three years the number would grow to 768. And the pattern would continue. In three years, 3,072. In three years, 12.288. In three years, 49,152. In three years 196,608. Then 786,432. In 30 years there would be 3,145,728 disciples, becoming like Jesus and prepared to multiply. The difference is addition compared to multiplication. 

Jesus commanded them to not just make disciples, but to make disciples of all nations. This must have been a shocking statement to his Jewish disciples. Now salvation was to go world-wide. That would have been a totally foreign idea to most of them, but did it not agree with what God had told Abraham? Through Israel “all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

This word for “nations” is not so much speaking of geopolitical designations such as country borders. It is talking about ethne or people groups; not just countries but specific ethnic groups. Examples of people groups would be the Catalan and Basques of Spain, or the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.  

Jesus was not merely saying “go tell everyone” He was also telling us to finish the task of reaching every people group. Matthew 24:14 says this, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

There are around 17,400 people groups in the world today. Estimates suggest that approximately 7,400 people groups are still considered unreached. [2]Christ will return once the gospel has been proclaimed to every group. With that in mind He calls us to make disciples of all nations. 

Jesus then described making disciples. 

“19 . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Baptism is immersion in water that symbolizes the dying of the old sinful self and the raising of new life in Christ. It is a outward expression of an inward commitment to follow Jesus Christ. It is different than the baptism of the Gentiles who wanted to be Jews. It is different than the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist had offered. It is a baptism done in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It was to clearly be a display one’s new life in Jesus Christ. 

Baptism does not bring salvation. Salvation comes when one puts their faith in Jesus Christ. Baptism is declaring to a watching world that one has already put their faith in Jesus Christ. To best understand its importance it is helpful to compare it to a wedding ring. The wedding ring is a public symbol to the world that a person has made a lifelong commitment to their spouse. It is a symbol of allegiance and belonging. If one loses his or her ring it does not undo the marriage, for it is merely a symbol, but at the same time it is an important symbol that one would usually replace as soon as possible. 

The new disciples were to declare their faith publicly through baptism. They were also to be taught to observe all that Jesus had commanded. This does not mean that they had to know all of Jesus’ commands, because in the early days of their faith that would be unlikely. The goal was that they would be discipled to the point that they were pre-committed to obedience. That they would be ushered to a level of spiritual maturity where when they learned more commandments of Christ as they grew in their faith they would be prepared to obey them. The goal was lordship. The Apostles were to make disciples who would declare their faith publicly through baptism and then obey Jesus as they followed Him as Lord of their lives. 

As the Apostles made disciples of all nations they would have the authority of Christ and the assurance of His presence wherever God would lead them. As Jesus promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

Jesus came to glorify the Father, to usher in the Kingdom of God, to fulfill the law, to seek and to save the lost, but the strategy behind it all for passing it on to all generations and all nations, was that of making disciples. It all depended on the first 12 disciples and how they would disciple others, to disciples others. That was the First Thing. Regardless of what would be done by the church in the centuries to come they had to be a people of faith who stayed true to making disciples. 

One could read these verses and suppose that this command to make disciples was only for the 12 Apostles, but when we look at the full counsel of scripture we see that it is a command for us all. We see Aquila and Priscilla make disciples. We see Barnabas disciple John Mark. We see the Apostle Paul write to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” He was to make disciples who would make disciples. 

That is still the First Thing that has been passed down to us even today. It is good to have different ministries and different projects but it all must feed in to the process of making disciples who know Jesus and are becoming more like Him.

That is why we do evangelism. That is why we have Sunday School. That is why we have Children’s and Youth ministry. That is why we support missionaries. That is why we worship through music and hear sermons. That is why we care for each other and move people towards community. All of that is part of making disciples. 

As a church with so many languages and cultures it gives us even more potential for making disciples in various nations. We know people and churches from various countries. This opens the way for international partnerships and cultural sensitivities that many churches do not have access to. At the same time we must realize these opportunities are responsibilities. As scripture states, “to whom much is given, much is required.” What will we do to make disciples in the days ahead?

One of the first ways that we are called to make disciples is through the parent / child relationship. We saw that displayed today during the Baby Dedication emphasis. We have been tasked with discipling our children and raising them in the ways of God. It is to be a way of life for those who are parents.

It is interesting to note that the words discipline and disciple have the same root. It reminds us that even when we need to discipline our children it is not to be a punishment out of anger, but a discipline out of love, seeking to steer them towards a greater faith in Jesus. 

God has given us tools of discipleship, such as prayer, Bible study and worship. We also see the list of “one anothers” throughout scripture. Many times we learn more about the characteristics of God as we experience them from one another. Whether it be generosity, or forgiveness, encouragement or love. At other times God uses life experiences to grow us in our faith. 

One option of becoming a better disciple of Jesus Christ might be to start attending a Sunday School class the hour before the worship service or attending the Wednesday morning or Wednesday evening Bible studies. This allows you to grow in your knowledge of the Bible while also getting to know more people from the church. 

It may be that God is wanting you to be more intentional about making disciples. Making disciples is not merely the church’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of individual Christians as well. Please pray that God would bring a person or persons with whom you could begin to share life. It could be as simple as agreeing to read portions of scripture and meeting regularly to talk about what you read and what God is teaching you in the midst of your present life situations and then praying together. 

For others it could be that you gather together in a group of 3-4 people and begin to disciple each other as you grow together in your faith. 

Others of you may need to start at the beginning. It could be that you have never become a follower of Jesus Christ and need to put your faith in Him today. 

It could be you are a follower of Christ but have never been baptized. If you are interested you can sign up for more information at the welcome desk in the foyer after today’s service. 

Regardless of where you find yourself today may we take Christ’s words seriously and consider joining with all of those who have made disciples throughout the centuries since Jesus first spoke these words. May we receive the baton which has been passed on to us and prepare ourselves to pass it on to the next generation of believers.

As we think back to today’s opening story. May we not falter in finishing the race by failing to keep First Things First. May we be found faithful as we strive to make disciples of all nations until Jesus returns. May we finish well.