Authored by Soo-Inn Tan
A Starting Point
Daniel had three friends: Hanan’yah, Azar’yah and Misha’el—or, as some might remember better: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego:
“Among these, from the people of Y’hudah, were Dani’el, Hanan’yah, Azar’yah and Misha’el. The chief officer gave them other names—to Dani’el he gave the name Belt’zhatzar; to Hanan’yah, Shadrakh; to Misha’el, Meishakh; and to Azar’yah, ‘Aved-N’go.” (Daniel 1:6–7, CJB)
It was with these three friends that Daniel refused to bow before the sound of the music of king Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and also with them that he was thrown, bound, into the furnace of the king made seven times hotter than usual.
The book of Daniel may not have said anything explicitly about these four young Hebrew men spending time encouraging each other, sharing their struggles and concerns, or having fellowship over vegetables and water, but they were four steadfast friends nevertheless—friends who were exiled, taken from their people, thrust into a foreign, unfamiliar land and forced to adopt their culture. But they worshipped the same God we worship, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and on that common ground the LORD’s favour was upon them as they continually underwent the process of being set apart for His purposes and, as they showed the Babylonians time and time again, the glory and majesty of the Living God.
Jesus, whom we all call ourselves followers of, was hated by the people he preached to. Yet it was upon him that the LORD’s favour rested too, and him who followed the will of the Father to the point of death—the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world.
In 3-2-1: Following Jesus in Threes, Dr Tan Soo-Inn lays down a tremendously concise and deceptively simple model upon which the concept of discipleship can be built. He first starts with the example that Jesus sets for us: choosing not only 12 disciples out of all those that followed him day and night, but drawing near to him three (Peter, James and John) from this number with whom he could share his innermost struggles, lessons, worries and concerns. With these 12 men Jesus spent most of his time during his ministry on earth. It is on this central example, set by Jesus, that Dr Tan builds his thesis and lays the foundation for the need for “three friends meeting two hours one time a month over a meal” (‘Introduction’).
I say “deceptively simple” because it doesn’t get simpler than this—any two-year old can tell you how to count backwards from three. And apart from that, two hours a month with three close friends doesn’t sound hard, it sounds like a treat. Yet the meat, the pith of the matter always lies deeper; it’s not just about meeting, not just about eating and talking. These three numbers by themselves hold greater significance, especially when seen in the light of the Great Commission, and the gravity of what we must do when we call ourselves “followers of Christ”.
A Common Purpose
It is easy to fallow in a world that speaks—screams—the need to express one’s individuality unrestrainedly, and to not hinder those who do. More and more, each new generation finds a certain something and proceeds to call it a manifestation of their common identity, pressing into that to fill the hole that exists in all of us. It seems the byword that floats past everyone’s lips in these times is the need to establish, verbalise, condense, distil for oneself a tangible, concrete identity—one that we now know can only be found through the love of Jesus, grasping his sacrifice, and the joy that following him brings.
This is why “spiritual friendship”, as Dr Tan terms it (and which he immediately starts with in his Introduction), is so crucial. When there is a group of like-minded people who share the same convictions about the Love of their lives, it becomes a way in which mutual encouragement occurs. This is how the linearity, the logic of the structure of 3-2-1 comes into play: everyone needs to eat, so eat. When eating, speak, and share. When sharing, share of both how the Lord has been teaching and walking alongside you, and of how you struggle when you fall to the temptations of the flesh. Love, support and encourage each other, as explored in “Chapter 4: The Practice of Spiritual Friendship”, and, finally, from there learn how one’s identity is made certain and complete in the person and deity of Jesus Christ.
These are but broad strokes, the large boulders one can see from the riverbank while deciding how to cross to the other side. What about the other factors? The heat of the sun, the swiftness of the current, the slipperiness of each rock, and the load on your back? What are the details, and how do I enact this process?
Dr Tan lays out the next steps in the same spirit of conciseness and clarity. In Chapter 4, the “practice of spiritual friendship” comprises three main components: loving, supporting and challenging. This forms the main backbone of the “triad”. Next comes the practical aspects: listening, sharing stories and discerning. These three items would set the tone for the interaction between each person. Then come the basic components: eating, talking and praying. And this, this is where following Jesus becomes more tangible.
I was reminded of the Lord’s Supper, where wine was drunk and bread broken; the wedding at Cana; the feeding of the multitude; the woman at the well… and so much more. Our Lord ate, and spoke, and prayed all throughout his time on this earth. Most of it, of course, was done with his closest twelve, but with the sick, the broken and the lost, Jesus did exactly the same. Our meeting, eating and praying is but a reflection of this example.
I found myself moved when the book reminded me of these stories we know so well, but whose significance we so often breeze past.
I then found myself asking, “Why?” What is the reason for someone wanting to pick up this book, finish reading it, and do what the book tells him/her to do?
“After all I am a Christian, and I already have a relationship with Jesus; I’m content with meeting my fellow brothers and sisters once or twice a week, say hi, and pray for them, then leave. Sometimes we even have lunch together!”
Intentional discipleship is tedious, draining and time-consuming. It’s difficult especially between older ones and younger ones, and all the more so for those who desire to mentor and guide, but have no structures or training in place (in church or otherwise) to do so. It was not long ago that I felt the LORD place a similar burden on my heart to be to those who are younger than me what those who were older than me were: an example who followed Jesus as I followed them. The fact that the world was changing so quickly and in such devious, seductive ways scared me, especially for those who are still in the sheltered early years of their lives.
Yet we know that God speaks in many ways, and convictions cannot be easily (if at all) shrugged off. So if you find yourself in a similar position, or realise that you’ve actually thought about the importance of making disciples, then this book is for you. Read it, see what this model propounds, and pray for names of those our God wants you to walk with.
You can view a sample of 3-2-1: Following Jesus in Threes here.
This review is written by Benjamin Lee, who enjoys quiet, sunlit afternoons with those who are important to him. He is a publisher by day, and by night dives into the myriad worlds stacked on his desk.