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The word “disciple” appears many times in the New Testament (although, interestingly, it is never used after the Acts of the Apostles). But it is not a distinctively Christian word. John the Baptist and the Pharisees, as well as many of the ancient philosophers, had disciples. In antiquity, and down to early modern times, being a disciple meant much more than being a pupil or student in the academic sense. It also involved close contact with the master, not only listening to his teaching but observing the implications of that teaching in his lifestyle, breathing in the atmosphere of his behavior patterns. The teacher was both master and model. It is said that in the seventeenth century, some “pupils” of the Puritan fellows of Oxford and Cambridge even slept at the foot of their tutor or master’s bed. Discipleship, in this sense, was truly a whole-of-life matter. In the case of the Christian, what makes his discipleship distinctive is on the one hand the greatness of our divine Master’s identity and on the other the intimacy of our relationship with Him—He makes us members of His family and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Matt. 12:49).

In the Gospels, the term “disciple” usually refers to the “twelve” (Matt. 10:1; 11:1)—the Apostles. But around them was a larger group of followers (John 6:66), sometimes a very large number (Luke 19:37), who heard His teaching and to varying degrees associated with Him. But it became clear even during our Lord’s ministry that not all “disciples” prove to be true disciples.

So what were—and still are—the hallmarks of genuine discipleship? Here are some of the ways that the Gospels identify them.

1. In true discipleship, Jesus’ call takes precedence over all voluntary enlisting in His school.

Typically in antiquity, an individual “signed up” with a teacher in one of the philosophical schools and paid a tuition fee. But entrance into the school of Christ requires an invitation. The Gospels record Jesus’ issuing His call, in various ways, to “follow Me.” But those who volunteered spontaneously, assuming discipleship well within their capability—the rich young ruler may have been among their number—discovered that while there was no tuition fee, enrolling in His school of discipleship would cost them everything (Luke 9:57–62; 18:18–23).

It would, however, be a serious mistake to think that only the strongest receive the invitation. In fact “not many . . . powerful” are called (1 Cor. 1:26). Wonderfully, Jesus extends His invitation to the weak and heavy laden and promises that all who come to Him will find that the yoke of discipleship fits “easy” on their shoulders (Matt. 11:28–30).

2. In true discipleship, Jesus’ teaching takes priority over all our own preconceptions.

That is the thrust of the Sermon on the Mount—remember the words that introduce it? “[Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matt. 5:1–2).

The goal of all other teachers is to direct their pupils to the way to, and the truth about, life. But Jesus himself is the way, the truth, and the life.

Three chapters of solid instruction and teaching follow, instruction that embraces the whole of life and calls for unreserved commitment to the countercultural lifestyle of the kingdom of God. Here the values of the present age are constantly challenged and disciples are promised blessings, experiences, and challenges that turn the expectations of the world on their head. In His school the meek learn that they will inherit the earth, the persecuted rejoice, the maligned turn the other cheek, and His disciples learn not to judge but also not to throw pearls to pigs.

Jesus sums this up in John 8:31: disciples abide in His Word—they absorb it, and they stick to it. His words are all the more significant because not so long before, many pretend disciples had turned back because they found His words “hard” (John 6:60, 66). Something deep within was amiss—for He had said that the true disciple finds His yoke “easy” and His burden “light.”

So what went wrong? The next principle will make it clear.

3. In true discipleship, Jesus Himself is everything.

The goal of all other teachers is to direct their pupils to the way to, and the truth about, life. But Jesus Himself is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). So the call to discipleship is at root a call to come to Him, to trust in Him, to embrace Him, and to yield to Him—in a word, to take Jesus Himself as Savior, Lord, Teacher, and Guide, with a full heart, without reserve, and with both hands. This carries two obvious implications.

First, we cannot hold Christ with both hands if we are also trying to hold on to something or someone else. Yes—praise God—there is a glorious paradox here. In our embrace of Christ we can embrace others (and other things) in His love. In Him all things are ours, and all His disciples belong to us too (1 Cor. 3:21–23). But we can embrace them only if we embrace them in Christ. He gave a stark reminder of this principle: whoever fails to “hate” father and mother, and yes, his own life too, cannot be His disciple (Luke 14:26). Outside of embracing them in Christ, we will forever lose them.

But then, second, we cannot embrace all of Christ if our hands are superglued with the love of “other things” (Mark 4:29). Jesus speaks about the way that the desire for “other things” will choke the good seed of the Word and that discipleship will fail. Why does He not specify what He means? One simple reason: “other things” means exactly that—any “other things” that we desire more than Christ Himself.

4. In true discipleship, the cross of Jesus becomes the template for our lives and the mold that reshapes us.

The way that the Master went is the pathway that the disciple must also walk. Yes, this is a commitment to self-denial (Luke 14:27). But the disciple also discovers that his Master’s sufferings become a pattern that he providentially experiences in miniature (Matt. 10:25).

Paul never uses the word “disciple.” But it is clear enough that he well understood its meaning, for he witnessed it in the martyrdom of Stephen. Does it perhaps seem strange that he never refers to him by name? Perhaps the memory was too painful, the personal debt too great, too sacred. But he saw in him the cross-shaped pattern of discipleship and expressed his own experience of the principle: “We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11). In this, Paul was a disciple like Stephen, and in this both were like Christ.

5. One further characteristic of true discipleship: at its heart is love.

Yes, love for the Lord Jesus. “Do you love me more than these?” was Jesus’ probing discipleship-restoring question to Peter. But in discipleship there is something deeper than our love for the Lord. It is the growing sense of His love for us. While only two New Testament writers speak in these terms, they are surely representative of us all. Paul says:

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. (Gal. 2:20)

Five times toward the end of his gospel, John describes himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20; see also 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7). I believe it is a mistake to read these words as the equivalent of “Jesus’ favorite disciple.” Would John have made that claim? No, he is saying something that is true of every disciple but yet may not be as fully realized by us as it was by John. All that Jesus Christ has done for us, and now does for us, is done because He loves us. That love is the explanation for His death for us. It is the reason that He calls us. It is the magnetic power that enables us to forsake everything to follow Him. And it is the reality that creates the new atmosphere and style of the disciple’s life. It is what motivated and motivates our Master. It is what motivates His disciples in their love for Him and in their loving relationships with one another. And it is what attracts others to become His disciples too. He Himself said: “Love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34–35). It is the ultimate hallmark of all those who have heard Him say “Follow Me” and have left all to follow Him.

Followers of Christ

Living Stones in the Temple of God

Keep Reading Called to Discipleship

From the July 2023 Issue
Jul 2023 Issue