Passing the Mantle

September 8, 2009

This summer I was privileged to teach the Sunday morning Bible class at Faith Bible Church in Panora, Iowa. I taught on the Gospel of John.

As I considered John’s gospel, there is both amazement and envy in reading the words of a man whom Jesus chose to be one of His 12 disciples, and even one of His inner three. It is amazing to consider what it would be like for a 1st Century fisherman to be summoned by the Messiah. However, I am envious that John was able to sit at Jesus’ feet for some three years, hearing things we will never know this side of eternity. (John admits that Jesus said and did many things that he did not write down in his gospel, because there was not room for recording everything–see John 20:30, 21: 25; plus, the purpose of John writing was so the reader would believe in Jesus–see John 20:31.)

John was in a unique position, being present with Jesus. He wrote his gospel so that we might read for ourselves about the words and deeds of Jesus. But John did not merely write his gospel account in isolation. Many of John’s activities are recorded in the book of Acts, where he is seen evangelizing his fellow-countrymen. He is recognized by St. Paul as one of the pillars of the early church. See Galatians 2:9. Beyond what is recorded in Scripture, we know from early church history that John himself discipled certain men, among whom were Polycarp and Papius.

Polycarp, born around A.D. 69, became a bishop in Smyrna, which is modern Izmir, Turkey. One of his pupils was Irenaeus, who reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus, including the Apostle John. Polycarp is among the earliest believers whose writings have survived (he wrote an Epistle to the Philippians).

Irenaeus, writing toward the middle of the 2nd Century (about A.D. 150) names Papius as a “hearer of John” and a “companion of Polycarp.” Presuming that this “John” is John the Evangelist, the disciple who wrote the 4th Gospel, then Papius also was discipled by a direct disciple of Jesus. Papius wrote a five-volume work on “Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord.” These volumes are lost, and are only known through fragments cited by later writers.

Jesus passed the mantle on to His disciples, mentoring and teaching them in order to prepare them for their commission (Matthew 28:19, “disciple all nations”). His disciples, like John, discipled the next generation of Christian leaders, including Polycarp and Papius. Polycarp, in turn, mentored Irenaeus, and so on down the line.

We, today, are called upon not only to believe, but also to serve. Part of that service is mentoring others, especially the next generation of Christian leaders. There is a wealth of precedent, based on the command of Jesus (Matthew 28:19), that our primary purpose on earth is to teach (“disciple”) people from every nation, passing to the next generation the mantle of leadership. John, Polycarp, Irenaeus, all the way to us, today. Someone (perhaps many) discipled you, and continue to disciple you. We thank God for those who have influenced our faith. Are there believers who thank God because we discipled them? There is a question that helps us soberly pause to consider whether we are, indeed, fulfilling our calling and purpose on this earth. Now is the time to consider if there is someone, or perhaps many, whom we are called to mentor and disciple. We are the ones not only entrusted with leadership, but also entrusted with finding faithful believers who need to be groomed as tomorrow’s leaders.

Are you working on passing the mantle?