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Jesus’ Teaching on Spiritual Formation

Dr Alex Tang

There have been many studies done on the andragogy of Jesus (Bruce 1988; Stein 1994; Zuck 1995; Horne and Gunn 1998). While these are excellent studies, they tend to document mainly what Jesus had done in teaching and leading the disciples. “The great objective of Jesus was to bring men to attain his own state of mind. This objective led him to become a teacher, and the difficulty of his task determined his methods, for example, training a few, being reticent, and healing men and women.” (Horne and Gunn 1998, 19).

Most of these studies focus on Jesus dealing with the twelve disciples as individuals rather than as a community. The eleven apostles-disciples and other disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested and crucified. Yet these disciples, when they were given the Great Commission by the resurrected Jesus were able to go into the world to start communities of faith. These studies done on the training of the twelve were viewed through the modern worldview. It was pre-modern at Jesus’ times. Will it be possible to look through postmodern worldview and suggest that Jesus’ training of the twelve were not done individually but as a community? Will it be possible that Jesus’ objective was to create a learning community or organisation for his twelve disciples and others so that they as a community undergo the process of corporate spiritual formation? This is also more in keeping with the Middle Eastern culture they live in where the community was more important than individuals.

In his definition of a learning organisation, Senge writes, “Learning in an organisation means the continual testing of experience, and the transformation of experience into knowledge, accessible to the whole organisation and relevant to its core purpose” (Senge, Cambron-McCabe et al. 2000). Senge’s concept of a learning organisation[1] goes deeper than the traditional schooling model pedagogy. It involves transformational change or metanoia in the leaders and people of the community so that they can become who they are meant to be (Senge 1990, 13).

For such an organization to exist, Senge highlights five disciplines that the organization must master and continually practice: personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking (Senge 1990; Senge, Ross et al. 1994; Senge, Cambron-McCabe et al. 2000)

It is my contention that Jesus creates a learning organisation to spiritually form his disciples. As Jesus began his public ministry, he first called together the twelve apostles as the core of his learning community. This gradually expanded to the seventy two and eventually numbered about 120 at the time of his death and resurrection. The disciples of Jesus can be considered a learning community because they fulfil its criteria. They are continuously learning, developing new skills and have their perceptions continuously challenged, have a safe environment to make mistakes and have purpose (which was gradually revealed to them). They are also practicing the five learning disciplines of systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision and team learning. The leader of this community was Jesus of Nazareth.


First, the development of personal mastery in the disciples. Personal mastery goes beyond learning new skills or new disciplines. It is internalising what we have learnt so that we ourselves are transformed by what we have learned. Senge describes personal mastery as “the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of development patience, and of seeing reality objectively” (Senge 1990, 7) Jesus guided his learning community towards personal mastery in helping them to make informed choices: who does God want them to be? Some examples of personal mastery teachings are

  1. Teaching how to pray (Lord’s Prayer)

Jesus knows that all this learning disciplines will be meaningless if there is no spiritual vitality. Spiritual vitality is the relationship between a disciple and God. In Matthews 5-7, Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount which is basically the desired outcome of spiritual formation of his disciples. In the middle of his sermon, he taught them about prayer (Matt.6:5-14). Here is an example of teaching towards personal mastery: correct and relevant information in the correct context. Next, the disciples are required to practice it.

  1. Ministry Tools and Skills

Luke 9:1-6 and Luke 10:1-24 recorded the sending out of the twelve disciples and the seventy two disciples to preach the nearness of the Kingdom of God respectively. After being with Jesus and seeing him perform miracles, the disciples were sent out without Jesus and given the power to heal and drive out demons. They were successful in all they did and were rejoicing when they reported to Jesus. Jesus rejoiced with them (Matt.10:21-22) but took this opportunity during the debriefing to impart an important lesson (Matt.10:6): reminding that being in the Kingdom is more important than performing miracles. This is a good example of personal mastery of ministry tools and skills- do it but do not to get so carried away that they forget what the basis of their ministry is.

  1. Modelling

Jesus models self mastery. He walks the talk and talks the walk. His life is an object lesson to his disciples. The disciples learn by watching and living with Jesus for 3 years. They watched Jesus as he prayed; getting up early in the morning and moving to a secluded area to pray, praying before major decisions and acknowledging his dependence on God. They watched and learnt about his compassion for the poor, the helpless and for Jerusalem (Lk.13:34, 35). They watch as Jesus performs miracles, take no personal credit but glorifying God for them instead.

  1. Building Creative Tensions

Jesus also teaches his disciples by building creative tensions so that they can learn. Creative tensions occur when there is a gap between our vision and our reality (Senge, 1990, 150-155). One example of a situation in which Jesus taught by creative tension is in the feeding of the five thousands as recorded in Mark 5:32-44. The disciples and the crowd were in a remote place and needed to find enough food to feed five thousand persons. The vision was to feed the people. The reality was that they were in a remote place and it would cost too much to buy food even if it were available. The disciples were emotionally challenged. The only solution was to act in obedience to Jesus’ instructions and start distributing the five loaves of bread and two fish, no matter how ineffective it seem. The disciples were surprised when the loaves and the fish miraculously multiplied. The lesson given was in obedience.

  1. Self Understanding

One of the desired outcomes of self mastery is a better understanding of ourselves. Peter illustrated this when he claimed that he will never deny Jesus (Matthew 26:31-35). Peter’s vision is that he will be loyal to Jesus. The reality is that his courage did not match his words. The emotional tensions arose when Peter denied Jesus thrice. In this lesson, Peter learnt more about himself. John recorded the moving conclusion to this lesson when Jesus forgave Peter (Jn 21:15-19).


Second, the changing of the disciples’ mental models. Mental models are the filters through which we look at reality. All of us have mental models which are filled with imperfect assumptions. By his teachings, modelling and prayers, Jesus was changing the mental models of his disciples, transforming a group of bigoted, egoistic peasants to a world changing group of evangelists.

  1. Teaching by Parables

One of the most effective ways of communication is by story telling. Story has a way of slipping past our mental models or assumptions and getting us to be open to new ideas. Jesus taught by parables. When he was teaching about the kingdom of heaven, he told the parable of the weeds (Matt.13:24-30, 36-43); the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast (Matt.13:31-34); the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl (Matt.13:44-45) and the parable of the net (Matt.13:47-51). Jesus will tell the parables and when his disciples were fully immersed or puzzled by the stories, he would then explain to them what the meaning of lesson was. One of the most powerful parable Jesus told while teaching about God’s love is the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The parable cut through the mental models of the listeners about the limits of forgiveness of a Middle Eastern father who went against all his cultural conditioning to welcome back his wayward son.

  1. Nicodemus

Nicodemus, a Pharisee came to quietly learn from Jesus about the kingdom of God. To break through his mental model, Jesus suggested that Nicodemus can only be saved if he were to be born again. Nicodemus was stuck because his mental model did not allow him to see another alternative to be saved other than to be physically born again. Jesus explained that one can be born again by water and Spirit thus breaking through his mental model and giving him new insight (Jn 3:1-9).

  1. The Samaritan Woman at the Well

The mental model of the Samaritan women was firm on that Jews were the enemy, they (the Samaritans) have the true worship, and water was only for drinking. It took Jesus some time to open her eyes and removed some of her assumptions. Jesus began at where she was and slowly to peel away the layers of false assumptions she had. The encounter was the first occasion where Jesus revealed that he is the Messiah (Jn 4:9-26).

  1. Sabbath

The mental model for Sabbath was a day for religious observance and rituals. Hence there must be strict observances of all rules and rituals and no work were to be done. Jesus’ disciples were in a grain field and they were hungry. So they began to pluck the grain to eat. This would not have been an issue except that it was a Sabbath and plucking grain was work. This event was brought out as an accusations but Jesus changed it into a lesson about Sabbath, man and the dangers of legalism. (Matt.12:13).

  1. A Crucified Messiah

One of the strongest mental model that the disciples had was that the coming Messiah will overthrow the Roman empire and make Israel, the number one world power. So it was very hard for them to accept when Jesus explained that the Messiah will go to Jerusalem, be betrayed, condemned to death by crucifixion so that he will rise from the dead three days later (Mk.10:32-34). A Messiah that did not come in front of an angelic army but was nailed to die on the cross like a common criminal demand a drastic change in their mental models.

Jesus realises the importance of mental models in a learning community. It is interesting that he has used mainly parables to teach his numerous lessons.


Third, building a shared vision with the disciples. Senge observed, “When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar “vision statement”) people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to” (1990, 9). When the disciples first came together, they did so because of the charismatic leadership of Jesus. Slowly, as we read the gospel accounts, this motley group of individuals from various backgrounds and agendas began to see and shared the vision that Jesus has for this learning community- to be his church. The followings are some of the ways in which Jesus helped them to develop a shared vision.

  1. ‘Fishers of Men’

Matthew recorded that Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew and later other fishermen, James and John. This act of Jesus is an intentional act and not a random selection of people. There is also a purpose in forming this team. In terms that Peter can understand, Jesus gave a rough idea on why this team is being formed- they are to be ‘fishers of man’ (Luke 5:1-11).  This was to be the seed of the shared vision of the team.

  1. Peter the Rock

As more information become available to the team by telling, selling, testing, consulting and co-creating, a shared vision a gradually arose. In Matt.16:18, 19, Jesus playing on the Greek word petrus and petra was guiding Peter to understand his role in the building of the Church. This event happened after Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ (Matt.16:13-20). This meant that Peter had overcome the obstacles of his mental model to see Jesus as the Christ. Gradually, Peter and the other disciples began to perceive that Jesus was not just another ordinary human being but was long awaited Christ on a mission to save Israel. The disciples were called to help him fulfil this mission. It took some time before the disciples began to buy into and gradually shared the vision. That was a slow process.

  1. The Great Witness Program

It was only after his death and resurrection that his plan became obvious. The disciples were to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1: 7-8). By then, the disciples were not surprised. They have been out on mission trips before (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-24). The shared vision of the church they are forming was a missionary church.

  1. The Great Commission

The clearest mission statement of the new church was given by Jesus. ‘Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."’ (Matt.28:18-20) This is the mission statement for the soon to be born church and the shared vision of the disciples.


Fourth, the disciples were taught team learning. Jesus trained his disciples to function as a team. Each member was regarded as valuable and had much to contribute. To Senge, “the discipline of team learning starts with “dialogue”, the capacity of the team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine “thinking together”…also involves learning how to recognize the pattern of interaction in team that undermine learning…if recognised and surfaced creatively, they can actually accelerate learning” (1990, 10). As we shall see, Jesus enhanced team learning in his disciples by dialogue, modelling and training exercises with debriefings.

  1. Itinerary Ministry

Jesus’ ministry was an itinerary ministry. He travelled with his disciples and spent time teaching them and others. In his teachings and sermons to the people, debating with the Pharisees and Scribes, healing miracles and personal conversations, Jesus would be helping the team to learn. The team members will be learning from each others as they walked the long hard roads around Capernaum and the cities around the Sea of Galilee.

  1. Jesus Teaching by Dialogue

Jesus taught the people mainly by telling parables.  Jesus taught the disciples by explanation of the parables and by dialogue. One example in which Jesus enhanced team learning by dialogue was recorded in Matt. 16:13-20. By asking a series of questions, listening to their answers, gauging their levels of understanding, Jesus led the team to discover that he is the Christ.

  1. Training Exercises and Debriefing

As mentioned, the sending out of the twelve and the seventy two disciples on short term mission trips (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-24) where they are placed in situations where they can either be accepted or rejected were excellent learning situations. The way Jesus debriefed them after the missions were also important to their team learning.

  1. Shared Experiences

Common shared experiences are important in team learning. The time when they think their boat was sinking and Jesus saved them by stilling the storm or the time they saw Jesus walking on water and they thought that he was a ghost or the time when they fed five thousands people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish are all experiences that enhanced their team learning.


Finally, the disciples developed systems thinking. Senge highlights that in any human organisation or community, learning can only take place if the interrelatedness of everything is recognised. It is seeing the trees, the forest and the ecological system as one. Hence, systems thinking incorporate all the other learning disciplines of personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team building. Senge wrote that “systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively” (1990, 7). It was clear from a study of the gospels that Jesus was already using systems thinking when he was forming his learning community.

  1. Jesus’ First Sermon

Jesus’ first recorded sermon was a very short one (Lk.4:16-22). In reading Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus is proclaiming his life purpose and vision. He realised his existence and ministry is connected not only to the past and the present but also to the future. This is closed-loop thinking in the sense that Jesus is aware of the closed-loop of sin and that only he can break out of that loop.

  1. “Who Do You Think I Am?”

When the time is correct, Jesus revealed to his disciples that he is the Christ (Matt.16:13-20). The Christ has an important place in Jewish theology in that he is a deliverer of his people. He is also a saviour and this links back to the happenings in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve sinned against God. By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve has corrupted God’s creation which he said was good. God is connected to everything. Teilhard de Chardin in his book, The Divine Milieu, wrote about our submersion in God who is everywhere and in his other work; tell of a Cosmic Christ (Chardin 1960). This awareness of Jesus can be likened to dynamic, system-as-cause and operational thinking.

  1. The Greatest Commandment

The greatest commandment is a distillation of the Ten Commandments (Matt.22:34-37).  It calls us to love God. It also calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Here is the interconnectiveness of relationships. There are two triangles of relationships. The first is the triangle of relationship of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The second is the triangle of relationships of the Holy Trinity, ourselves and our neighbours. This will be “forest thinking” in systems thinking.

  1. Servant Leadership

Jesus was training leaders, but a special type of leaders- servant leaders. He demonstrated how a servant leader acts by personally washing the feet of his disciples (Jn 13:3). He taught them that servant leaders are humble (Lk.14:17-14), willing to serve (Mk.10:41-45) and work in a team (Mk.6:7-13). In the systemic structure that is the world, he saw the need of servant leaders to lead learning faith communities. The church is the solution for spreading of the gospel and bringing people into the Kingdom of God. His role was to offer himself as a living sacrifice to atone for all our sins.

  1. Countercultural Kingdom (Matt.18:1-9)

The church is to be countercultural in its lifestyle. It should not worship money but God and God alone. This is the systemic structure that Jesus and the church are trying to set up. The systemic structure that is the foundation of the world today is a flawed structure, corrupted by the original sin. Hence all patterns and events are flawed. The systems archetype that may be applicable to the church is “limits to growth”. The history of the Christian church is characterised by periods of rapid growth, stabilisation and then a decline until a revival occurs and goes into another cycle. These revivals are works of men and women who have a desire to bring people back to the true worship of God and with the help of the learning disciplines and the Holy Spirit helped brought about periods of rapid growth. The limiting condition to further growth appeared when the church life became a ritual rather than worship and leadership are in the hands of men and women who are resistors and those who desire power and wealth rather than God.

Steve Kang writes, “In a learning community, we come to know ourselves as we are known by God. True learning is a holistic process of formation and transformation, occurring best in and through a safe and hospitable learning community in which members yearn for God’s kingdom to be realized in their lives as well as the world.” (2004, 166).

This is an attempt to look at Jesus’ andragogy of his disciples as a learning community. The proof that he has succeeded is in the presence of the church in the world today.


[1] Kerka summarises the characteristics of a learning organisation as:


•               They provide continuous learning opportunities.

•               They use learning to reach their goals.

•               They link individual performance with organizational performance.

•               They foster inquiry and dialogue, making it safe for people to share openly and take risks.

•               They embrace creative tension as a source of energy and renewal.

               They are continuously aware of and interact with their environment. Kerka, S. (1995). "The Learning Organization: Myth or Reality?"   Retrieved 2006/02/25, from  I shall be using the words, learning organisation and learning community interchangeably.     



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|posted 18 February 2007|

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