The whole concept of discipleship is not too popular today. The very word “disciple” smacks of discipline and most of us like to avoid that subject. However, in the Bible we meet many disciples and we hear much about discipleship. We read in Acts 6:7: “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.” In Acts 11:26, we read that “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Imagine that! What we call “Christianity” today was once called “discipleship.” Now that the word “Christian” has come to be an almost meaningless term, it seems that we may need to reverse what happened at Antioch. We Christians need to called disciples once more. Not only do we need to be called disciples but we need really to be disciples. Let us look at some hallmarks of disciples from the days of the Bible.
A DISCIPLE FOLLOWS
Jesus says, “anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:27). He also says, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” (Jn. 12:26).
We see similar principles of sacrifice and of wholehearted commitment to follow displayed throughout the Tanach (Old Testament). For instance, when the great prophet Elijah called Elisha to follow him, the latter was a successful farmer, plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. Immediately upon receiving his divine call, Elisha took his wooden farm implements, set them ablaze, and offered his yoke of oxen upon the fire to God (1 Ki. 19:21). That might be a biblical equivalent of “burning your bridges behind you.” He then said “goodbye” to his family and ran after the prophet Elijah. That is how one begins to be a disciple. He follows, and he does so immediately, without reservations or without lingering over this world’s things.
To follow God was the heart cry of the great men of the Bible. In Psalm 63:8 we hear the Psalmist say, “My soul follows close behind You” (NKJV). The disciples in the New Testament also followed hard. They immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. But how do we follow today? Do we go visit the Sea of Galilee and hope to find Jesus walking there as before and teaching his disciples? Hardly so. Today the business of discipleship has moved out of the realm of flesh and blood into the realm of the Spirit and of the Word (2 Cor. 5:16).
In order to be a disciple today we need to walk in the Spirit. Jesus spoke of this in John 16:13 when he promised: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” God is Spirit and he desires to walk with us and talk with us in the spiritual realm. To be a disciple we therefore must get into that realm and remain there (Gal. 5:16).
We need to get back to a strong emphasis on the Word of God and to the practice of obeying that Word. We also need to recover the biblical practice of meditation upon the Word (Psa. 1:2). When we meditate, we simply chew on the Word of God much like a cow chews its cud. By this process we are able to constantly turn over the things of God in our minds. God desires that we love his word, meditate upon it and apply it to our lives. He desires that we talk to him about it.
The Lord wants us to walk with him and he wants us to walk closely. He cannot share much with us if we are lagging behind a block or two. His disciples need to be close enough so that the Lord can even whisper in their ears and share intimately with them.
John was perhaps the closest of all the disciples to his Master. Remember, he was the one leaning on Jesus’ breast. He seems to have heard things that the others did not hear. He heard more about the coming of the Holy Spirit than the others did. He also heard more about the new birth. He knew Jesus as the Word, as the Good Shepherd, as the Living Water, as the True Vine, and as the Bread of Life. The point is that when we follow closely enough, God can teach us, and this brings us to the next point.
A DISCIPLE LEARNS
The word “disciple” in the original language means “learner.” There is much to learn. In fact, we must learn a whole new way of life from that which we been previously taught. Jesus remarked about many of the people of his day saying, “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Mark 7:7). We must ask ourselves a hard and honest question: Are we doing that?
When we follow the Lord and are alone with him, he will reveal to us his way. He will expound all things to us in private just like he did to his disciples of old (Mk. 4:34). He will share the secret things and the deep things with us. It will make a tremendous difference in our lives. The prophet speaks of this when he says, “All your sons will be taught by the LORD, and great will be your children’s peace” (Isa. 54:13). The scripture says that the Comforter, or the Holy Spirit within us, will teach us all things (Jn. 14:26), and that we will actually have no need that any man teach us (1 Jn. 2:26-27). Does this mean that we can spurn all teaching? If we do this we have not yet learned anything as
In Psalm 25:4 we hear David cry, “Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths.” This cry of David is one of the greatest verses in the Bible and it surely expresses a deep desire for discipleship. When we can cry out for God as David did then we will see God’s ways and be shown his paths.
We should not expect the discipleship class to be the largest one around. On the contrary, it will probably be the smallest one (Matt. 7:14). The truth is that the walk of discipleship is a rather lonely walk. When we determine to follow God at all costs and to submit ourselves to his way and his teaching, it may separate us from others who are not interested in such a walk. Perhaps their primary allegiance is only to traditions, doctrines, or men. Such an allegiance ultimately causes divisions, while the life of true discipleship has the end
result of unity.
In time the disciple will realize that there are others who are following in the path (Jn. 20:21-22). As they follow the same source; as they are all drawn closer and closer together; they will come at last into perfect fellowship (1 Jn. 1:7). Here we need a word of caution. The true disciples must take great care not to feel proud or to deliberately separate themselves from others whom they may think are less zealous than themselves. In James 3:17, we are told: “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” The true disciple will not forsake others in his noble quest for God. He will include them as did Andrew and Philip (Jn. 1:41, 45). He will be very careful to try and include his own wife and family members. Remember, some of the early disciples also took their wives with them in their traveling ministry.
The one who follows the Lord and learns of him will soon begin to possess a freedom that others will not enjoy. Jesus said that they will know the truth and that the truth will set them free (Jn. 8:31-32). But another word of caution is needed here. The disciple should never use his new-found freedom as a cloak to disguise any form of evil on his part
(1 Pet. 2:16).
A DISCIPLE BEARS FRUIT
As the disciple follows and learns of his Master; as he lays down his life to follow him; he then begins to bear fruit. Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (Jn. 12:24). The disciple dies to himself, to his own way, and to his own ideas. Simultaneously he comes alive to God and to his ways and thoughts. This is the hard part. Many of us would like to have fruitful lives, but few of us want to die in order to attain this.
In Psalm 1, we are told that the man who delights in God’s Word and who meditates in it day and night will become like a tree planted by rivers of water. He will bring forth his fruit in its season. After all, the fruit is the final and conclusive proof of the nature of the tree. As is also the case with our own children, the fruit is the evidence of a relationship.
What kind of fruit will a disciple bear? One thing that we should not overlook is that a disciple should bring forth other disciples (Matt. 28:19). He should not forget to teach them what he himself has been taught. This problem of teaching others all that we have been taught seems to be one of the serious failures of disciple-making in our day. There is another problem in making disciples. They must be made to Jesus and not to ourselves. We should view this as John the Baptist did: “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn. 3:30).
A true disciple will also bring forth the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:22, we have a list of some of this fruit. The list begins with love, because it is far more important than all the others. Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). Then there are other beautiful things like joy, peace, patience, gentleness, which are all by-products of following closely after the Lord. This spiritual fruit is necessary not only for the disciple, but also for all those around him, since spiritual fruit sustains spiritual life just as natural fruit sustains natural life.
God desires that our lives look like beautiful fruit trees, sparkling with nice luscious apples, or peaches, or even golden oranges. There are some fruits not as appealing as others, but very necessary. There is the fruit of the olive which has to go through a refining or crushing process in order to be edible or to produce its precious oil. After all this is done, the olive is able to bring forth light for a dark world. The olive is the fruit of the anointing and it makes our faces shine (Psa. 104:15). A disciple should surely produce this
There is undoubtedly a lot more we need to know about discipleship. Most of us long to be like Peter, John, or Paul. They had some things which we do not possess. They had authority, knowledge of God, and spiritual power. They had a vibrant relationship with God. Where did they get these things? They simply followed. There is no other way to obtain all the blessings and graces that God has in store for us.
– Jim Gerrish
This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem (original publication date, 1992).
Artwork: Credit Wikimedia Commons, Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (1495-1498)