The Importance and Power of Setting an Example in Discipleship

Chris King

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When I began working in construction, my boss neither offered a book to read, nor gave me a lecture about framing a wall. I was assigned to work with an experienced man. By working alongside him, I learned how to drive a nail and frame a wall. Throughout history people have served as apprentices to others, working in their shadow to learn their craft. People watch examples on YouTube to learn to how do a myriad of tasks—from plumbing to working on a car.

We see the power of example in the way many people pray in church. How do most Christians learn to pray? Most learn by listening to the prayers of others. For this reason, we hear commonly repeated phrases in prayer like, “lead, guide, and direct,” or “we lift up . . .” In the church in which I grew up, one faithful saint always ended his prayer by saying, “and let my daily walk be a testimony to others.” I noticed members in the church began using this same phrase in their prayers.

This post is part four of a practical series on making disciples. The task of discipleship requires and emphasizes faithful teaching (Matt 28:20). Biblical discipleship also recognizes the importance and power of setting an example for those we teach. 

The Apostles Appeal to the Example of Jesus

The Apostles point to the example of Jesus as they teach others to live a faithful Christian life. Peter’s first letter emphasizes the theme of suffering as we follow Christ. He points to the example of Jesus for us to emulate as we face suffering. He writes, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:21–23).

Philippians 2:1–5 addresses relationships in the church. Paul calls the Philippians to follow the example of Christ’s humility. He presents the glorious theology of Christ “taking on the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7) as a powerful warrant for Christians to be humble toward one another. He points other Christians to the power and importance of Jesus’s example.

The Importance of Example in Paul’s Discipleship of Timothy 

Throughout 1 and 2 Timothy, Paul emphasizes the importance of teaching sound doctrine in the church (1 Tim 1:3; 4:6, 13, 16; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13–14; 2:15; 3:12–4:5). Timothy was to use healthy doctrine to counter poisonous teachings infecting the church (2 Tim 2:17). The Apostle also highlights the necessity of Timothy setting a Godly example for Christians. He writes, “Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:11-12).

Let’s consider the five areas Paul specifies for Timothy’s example in the church:

  1. Set the Believers an Example in Speech: We use speech as a primary way to communicate and interact with others. Paul consistently addresses problems with the speech/words of the false teachers (1 Tim 4:7; 6:4, 20). “In speech” translates the Greek phrase “ἐν λόγῳ” (logos). This example likely refers to what we say to others—the content of our speech. In our conversations with other Christians, or those we are discipling—what are we saying? Do we merely talk about sports, weather, and secular issues? We should set an example of conversing about biblical truth, God’s Word, and how to be more faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ. In discipleship, intentionally turn conversations to sound doctrine and faithful living.
  2. Set the Believers an Example in Conduct: This refers to the course of our life—how we live day-by-day. Healthy doctrine leads to faithful living. We don’t intend doctrine to only be learned and known, but to be lived out. Paul places a heavy emphasis on conduct in many of his letters. After explaining the benefits of being “in Christ” in Ephesians 1–3, he issues commands for how Christians should live (chapters 4–6). We should show those we disciple how to obey and follow Jesus in our conduct. 
  3. Set the Believers an Example in Love: Love is not merely a concept, idea, or confession; we live it out in the church. Love takes action—it demonstrates itself through sacrifice (Rom 5:8). Many refer to 1 Corinthians 13 as, “The love chapter.” It’s written to a church rife with division. Loving one another counters and foils division in the church. This chapter contains 15 verbs that describe how to live out love in the church (1 Cor 13:4–8). This is a great verse to read every Sunday morning before attending church. As we disciple people, we should strive to live out this kind of love in the church. Set the people you disciple an example of love not being rude or insisting on its own way.
  4. Set the Believers an Example in Faith: We express our faith as Christians by continually trusting Jesus and having confidence in him to fulfill his promises. Like love, faith is not merely a concept we affirm or a verbal formula. Rather, “we walk by faith” (2 Cor 5:7). We live out dependence on Jesus every day, understanding apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Paul expresses what this example looks like in Galatians 2:20 by saying, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
  5. Set the Believers an Example in Purity: In the context of 1 Timothy, this likely refers to being sexually pure in dealing with members of the opposite sex. Timothy would have regular interaction with women in the church—they must be treated with purity (1 Tim 5:2). The false teachers Timothy faced were characterized by sexual immorality (2 Tim 3:6). We set this example in discipleship by the boundaries we establish and practice to keep ourselves pure. We must be mindful of how we treat and what we say to members of the opposite sex. This could also apply more broadly to how we live out holiness in the Christian life.

In exhorting Timothy to persevere in the faith, Paul points to the importance of his example. He writes, “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—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me” (2 Tim 3:10–11). Here again we see Paul highlighting the importance and power of example in his relationship to Timothy. A faithful example is crucial for discipleship. Like Paul, we should strive to set other Christians an example in our conduct, aim in life, faith, patience, love, steadfastness, and sufferings.

Find Faithful Examples in Church History

We witness the importance and power of example in the lives of faithful Christians who lived before us. We can consider the practice of their faith to inspire and help us to follow Jesus and make other disciples. Knowing the outcome of their way of life, we can imitate their faith (Heb 13:7).

For preaching and teaching (and training others to do it), consider how Steven Lawson describes John Calvin’s example of expository preaching:

Launching the Sermon: 

Direct Beginning
Extemporaneous Delivery
Scriptural Context
Stated Theme 

Expounding the Text:

Specific Text
Exegetical Precision
Persuasive Reasoning
Reasonable Deductions

Crafting the Delivery: 

Familiar Words
Vivid Expressions
Provocative Questions
Simple Restatements
Limited Quotations
Unspoken Outline
Seamless Transitions
Focused Intensity

Applying the Truth: 

Pastoral Exhortation
Personal Examination
Loving Rebuke
Polemic Confrontation

Concluding the Exposition: 

Succinct Summation
Pressing Appeal
Climactic Prayer1This is an outline of some of the chapters found in: Lawson, Steven J. The Expository Genius of John Calvin. Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007, ix-x.

This looks like a really good pattern to follow for expository preaching! Consider Charles Spurgeon for an example of evangelistic zeal and courage to stand for the truth. John Owen provides a wonderful model of theological depth and precision. For encouragement to persevere, study the ministry of Charles Simeon. Matthew Henry provides numerous examples of how to pray in his A Method for Prayer. Church history provides a rich selection of examples to follow and models to employ in faithful discipleship.

Whose example are you following? Is their example leading you to or away from our Lord Jesus Christ? Is their example sanctifying you? What kind of example are you setting for your family and for those you are discipling? Your example matters in making disciples.

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1 This is an outline of some of the chapters found in: Lawson, Steven J. The Expository Genius of John Calvin. Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007, ix-x.
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Chris King

Senior Pastor Bayou View Baptist Church

Chris King serves as the Senior Pastor of Bayou View Baptist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. He taught preaching for Boyce College Online from 2013-2020. Dr. King is a graduate of West Virginia University and earned his Ph. D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.