A number of years ago, I was reflecting on John 12:32. In it Jesus says, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself."
In the next verse John indicates that Jesus "was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die." But on that particular day, I wondered what those words would mean if Jesus intended us to see more than just the manner by which He would die.
Could He also have been speaking of His subsequent ascension to the Father? And furthermore, through His Great Commission given to His disciples just before the time of His ascension, could Jesus have been speaking about the way(s) He still can be "lifted up" today? Isn't Jesus to be “lifted up” and made highly visible every day through the lives of us, His followers, both individually and collectively?
As I was reflecting on this, the word “draw” stood out to me. I remembered how we used that word when I was a boy, growing up on a Nebraska farm without running water. We would go to the hand pump to “draw” water. We didn’t actually pull the water up from the well. We just worked the pump, which created a vacuum that allowed air pressure to force the water up through the pipe to the surface.
The same principle allows us to use a drinking straw with our favorite beverage. By sucking the air out of the straw, we create a vacuum which air pressure fills by pushing the beverage into the straw and up to our mouths.
As I pictured that in my mind, I saw a spiritual picture of what Jesus could be saying in this verse. I thought of the drinking straw as the disciplemaking process by which believers grow to spiritual maturity so that Jesus’ life is clearly seen through them. Jesus is saying that if we will lift Him up by growing believers to maturity (i.e., by making mature disciples), then as the Holy Spirit “draws” them out of the top end of the straw, it will create a vacuum that draws unbelievers (“all men”) into the bottom end of the straw and toward Him.
This picture fits with His declaration that He will build His Church and His command that we are to make disciples. Then I thought about how different this picture is from the one I have seen practiced in the Church throughout most of my life as a Christian. The model I have seen focuses on evangelism, trying to reach unbelievers and push them into the bottom end of the “straw.”
It seems we think that continually pushing more people into the bottom of the “straw” will eventually force other earlier converts to pop out the top end of the “straw.” But what actually happens is that the “straw” becomes plugged. Kind of like when I’m drinking a strawberry shake, my favorite, and a piece of strawberry gets sucked into the straw and plugs it. Nothing more can flow.
In almost the same way, unbelievers cease to enter the process of being born again and growing up to spiritual maturity. This happens because the way is blocked by all those stuck at the bottom of the “straw” -- people who are converted but living lives that do not look significantly different from the unbelievers.
These pictures give us another way of seeing how disciplemaking must be central to everything we do in our congregations. If we want a fountain flowing fully and freely -- if we want to draw unbelievers to Jesus -- then our priority focus and function must be intentional disciplemaking.