The Bible Provides Examples of Discipleship Relationships – Joe Debeljuh

(This blog is an excerpt from an MWBTS dissertation by Croatian missionary Josip Debeljuh)

I am a person who greatly benefited from being discipled by older, more mature men in faith. I owe a lot of gratitude to those men who gave their time so that I could grow in my faith and become a disciple-maker. As leaders, we need to be aware that every person desires to have a relationship with another person. Every person wants to be loved and accepted on some level (by God and others). One of the roles of a leader is to facilitate that every believer under his care is in some ways connected within a body of Christ, specifically to someone who will invest time in them (spiritually and otherwise). I desire to encourage each leader to realize their privilege to facilitate relational discipleships within their local community. What follows are two examples from Christ himself as well as Apostle Paul on discipleship relationships from the Bible.

Christ had seventy-two men (and more) who followed Him at some point. He sent out those seventy-two followers to do ministry (Lk 10). He hand picked twelve of those men to be His apostles (Lk 6:13). A. B. Bruce pointed out that “the twelve entered on the last and highest stage of discipleship when they were chosen by their Master from the mass of His followers, and formed into a select band, to be trained for the great work of the apostleship.”[1] Interestingly, Jesus chose men who were different from each other both in personality and in background. Some men who Jesus chose were business partners, some were friends with each other, and some were men who would be in conflict with each other in daily life. An example of men who would be in natural conflict with one another is Matthew, a tax collector, and Simon, a fisherman. Jesus had reasons for choosing each man—some may be to show believers how there is value in diversity, and how people can work together with their unique perspectives and abilities. Jesus’s grace, love, and acceptance are evident even in choosing these men.[2]

Christ equipped and commissioned His disciples with a specific responsibility—to preach the gospel (Mk 3:14) and to do ministry. Scripture illustrates (Mt 4:23-25, Lk 12; Lk 14:25) that Jesus often had a larger group of disciples, but it is clear that He invested more time and teaching during his last three years into these twelve men. Jesus “desired not only to have disciples, but to have about Him men whom He might train to make disciples of others.”[3] Jesus lived daily life with His disciples, eating together and doing ministry, and they lived by His example in the way He taught them (Lk 18:31; 22; 24). He showed them that they needed to serve others and not expect to be served (Jn 13:1-20), to give as they receive (Mt 10:8), and to love one another as He loved them (Jn 13:34-35).[4] Jesus taught His disciples how to pray (Lk 11:1-4; Mt 6:9-13) and related to them the necessity of prayer.[5] Jesus demonstrated to His disciples the importance of Scripture in His dialogues with them by referring to the Old Testament sixty-six times (in the Gospels). By His personal example, He showed the disciples that they needed to know and use the Scriptures in their lives.[6]

Jesus also had a few—Peter, James, and John—in whom He poured even more time (Mt 17: 1; 26: 37; Mk 5: 37; 14: 33).[7] These three disciples functioned as an inner circle that possibly mirrored the foundational leadership of the early church.[8] This close circle provided value and is an example from Christ on the importance of discipling individuals who can grow in Him and recognizing their roles in the kingdom of Christ.

The Lord, who made heaven and earth and the whole universe, shows that personal relationships are of great importance. Greg Ogden noted that “this required that his disciples have consistent, continuous exposure to his life, so he could speak to the real stuff of their lives in the context of honest and open interchange.”[9] Instead of investing in masses, Jesus chose a few and made sure “to leave behind . . . the transformed lives of ordinary men who would carry on his work after he returned to the Father.”[10] “The careful, painstaking education of the disciples” made sure that the Lord’s “influence on the world should be permanent.”[11]

The discipleship relationship between Paul and Timothy provides a good example and model for Christians to follow. Paul did not lead Timothy to Christ; Timothy was already a believer when they met during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 16:1-2).[12] Astonishingly, Paul took Timothy with him immediately after they met (Acts 16:3). The apostle Paul trusted the word of the brothers at Lystra and Iconium (Acts 16:2) about Timothy’s reputation and character. From that point on, Timothy was with Paul when he taught others the Word. Timothy was also able to see and learn from Paul in his daily dealings and interactions with others as they did ministry together (Acts 16:3-7; 18:5).

The relationship between Paul and Timothy proved to be so profound that Paul called Timothy “son” on several occasions (1 Tm 1:2, 18; 2 Tm 1:2, 2:1; 1 Cor 4:17). Paul calling Timothy “dear” or “beloved” is a sign of their close relationship and Paul’s approval and affirmation of Timothy. This type of language renders a relationship between a father and a son or a teacher and disciple.[13] Timothy was not only a disciple of Paul’s, but Paul also called Timothy his coworker (1 Thes 3:2). Paul recognized that as a mentor to Timothy, he had to both instruct and encourage Timothy. Paul displayed both love and concern for his disciple Timothy, regarding both his ministry and his personal well-being.[14] This provides a glimpse into a healthy discipleship relationship. A healthy discipleship relationship is mutually beneficial and it is God-centered. The older believer (Paul) teaches and instructs the younger believer (Timothy), and the older believer serves alongside his disciple. Paul and Timothy had different tasks from the Lord. “Paul’s foundational desire was to plant new churches where Christ was not named, as is evident in Rom 15:20-21.”[15] Timothy was an extension of Paul. William Mounce stated that Timothy

“was an itinerant apostolic ‘delegate’ (Jeremias, 1-2), doing what he had often done for Paul. He was sent into a difficult situation where true teaching and loyalty to Paul were needed.”[16] For a period, Timothy served as a leader at the church in Ephesus.[17] Paul continued to mentor Timothy through his letters (1 Tm 1:3; 1:18-20; 4:6–6:21, 2 Tm 1:13-14; 2:1-3; 14-16; 4:1-6).

In these two examples by Jesus and Paul, we were able to see that pastors should empower discipleship relationships within their local community. Both Christ and Apostle Paul were busy in their ministry, yet they made sure that they personally discipled men. Additionally, Christ (Mt 28:18-20) and Paul (2 Tm 2:1-2) commanded (not a suggestion) disciples to invest in others. They both expected men who were under their spiritual care to preach the gospel, make disciples and pass the gospel to multiple generations. Although there are different ways how this command can one apply, the most effective way (examples from Christ and Paul) is through personal and interactive discipleship relationships.

Josip “Joe” Debeljuh holds an MTh from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Joe will defend his DMin dissertation at MWBTS this Summer. Joe and his wife Kelly are missionaries to Croatia, sent out by The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, AL. Serving with Global Outreach since 2008 in Zagreb, Joe is fluent in Croatian, English and Spanish, and he can be found mentoring and discipling from pulpits, basketball courts (which was his collegiate sport) and neighborhoods with his many friends around the world. You can contact Josip directly at

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[1] A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve: or, Passages out of the Gospels Exhibiting the Twelve Disciples of Jesus under Discipline for the Apostleship, Kindle ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1871), 15.


[2] Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 167.


[3] Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 16.


[4] Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (n.p.: Digital Deen Publications, 2018), Kindle loc. 523.


[5] Ibid., 622.


[6] Ibid., 632.

[7] Mike Breen and Steve Cockram, Building a Discipling Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 81.

[8] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 699.

[9] Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2003), 67-68.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 16.


[12] William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 46 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), xlix.


[13] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 443.


[14] Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 245.


[15] Thomas P. Johnston, Evangelizology: A Biblical, Historical, Theological Study of Evangelizing, vol. 2 (Liberty, MO: Evangelism Unlimited, 2014), 1035.


[16] Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, lviii.


[17] I. Howard Marshall and Philip H. Towner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (New York: T&T Clark, 1999), 354.

© 2024 Dennis Allen | Morgan James Publishing

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