In those famous final words of Jesus in Matthew 28 he tells his followers to do some specific things.
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.” Matthew 28:18-20
So precisely because Jesus has all authority, he commands us to go and make these strange things known as disciples. What has been misunderstood by the modern church is that we are called to make disciples not just converts. Think about it. The word convert is very sterile. It is devoid of life and relationship. The word disciple oozes relationship and purpose. Yet, the idea of making disciples brings up a very basic question. What does it actually mean to be a disciple of Jesus? You see, we need to know what a disciple is if were going to make disciples. The problem is this - all of the ways that we disciple people might not actually be producing biblical disciples. Especially if we don't understand what a disciple is.
It is no scholarly task to look up the definition of a disciple. You will find words like follower or learner. But if you've been following Christ for any length of time you know the word 'disciple' has much more to it than a one-word definition.
We know that discipleship isn't an easy thing. Jesus was very clear about the cost of being a disciple. Discipleship requires a life that is given 100% over to Jesus. Sacrifice and embracing discomfort are required. These things are not options. Consider what Jesus said:
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24
So back to the question at hand. What is a disciple? Initially we equate discipleship with what a disciple does. I think that is partially correct. Yet, disciples are defined by more than what they do, they are defined by who they are. So here is my take on it. I know it is not perfect nor complete but I believe it hits on what the Lord may be looking for from someone who chooses to walk as he walked (1 John 2:6).
Building the Case
The first thing to understand is that disciples disciple. That is, they seek to bring others along in follow Jesus. The notion that Jesus just saved me to be with just me alone is far from a disciples mind (and not a biblical concept I might add. But I digress and will save that for another day). This, of course, is the point of the great commission - disciples make other disciples and pass on what they know to them. Paul put it this way:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 Timothy 2:2
So disciples disciple and what disciples pass on to other disciples in turn defines what a disciple is. The process looks like this:
Disciples who disciple are determined to pass on TRUTH. Truth is contained in the Scriptures. A disciple must be growing in ever increasing knowledge in what the Bible contains and teaches. This is how a disciple hears from God and understands what God's heart is like. Paul strove to impart truth. It was a driving factor in his method of discipleship but it also defined him. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom,so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuouslycontend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me. (Col 1:28-29). Paul's instruction to Timothy (one of his disciples) is the same. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth ( 2 Tim 2:15). The point is, a disciple can only grow as far as his knowledge takes him. The Scriptures train us in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16) so that we just don't know righteous things but become so. This brings us to the second step in the process.
Once a disciple understands some truth, he is called to EMBODY it. God's truth is designed to be lived out not stored in the brain. Disciples who are being discipled need to see the Scriptures lived out and modeled. this is what Jesus and Paul did. Paul alludes to this in 1 Thess 1:4-5:
For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you,because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.
This idea of embodying is throughout the New Testament. Consider these verses:
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 1 Cor 11:1
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. Phil 3:17
For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.
2 Thes 3:7-9
Similar to Embodying is APPLYING which is simply practicing the truth. Embodying flows from who you are. It is a result of God transforming us within. Application is a decision to practice what we know. It may not flow naturally from us but we understand that truth remaining in our brains must find its way out into life practices and attitudes. When we choose to apply the truth, God provides the power, which leads to transformation in our character. In essence, a disciple must be taught to do what was modeled.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. Phil 4:9
Biblical truth must be transformed into a practical application of that truth. This leads to increased obedience, character formation, and power in ministry. Application brings transformation especially in the area of who we are. So what exactly does a “disciple of Jesus” look like? Unfortunately a follower of Christ is often described by what they do rather than who they are. Following Jesus is more than doing religious things - it is allowing God to fundamentally transform us in every aspect of who we are and this comes through application.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). So being a follower of Jesus must have to do with loving God and others. However, this is a target. In order to be fully transformed in these areas takes a lifetime.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
We are to develop...
1. A lifestyle of worship (Rom 12:1-2, Psalm 95:6)
2. Personal purity and morality (1 John 3:3, 2 Tim 2:22, Mt 5:27-28, Phil 4:8 )
3. A deeper trust (faith) in God (risk-taking disciples) (Psalm 9:10, Prov 3:5-6, Josh 1:5-9, Mt 13:44-46, Heb 11:8-10)
4. Kingdom Priorities (Prov 30:8-9; Mt 6:10, 33, John 2:17; Phil 3:20, 4:11; 1 John 2:15-17)
Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We are to develop...
5. A servant’s heart (Matthew 20:27-28, 23:11; Mark 10:45; 2 Cor 4:5 Phil 1:4)
6. Humility (Rom 12, Phil 2:3-5; 1 Peter 5:5)
7. A capacity to give and receive Forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:35; Eph 4:32)
8. A love of Mercy (Micah 6:8; Matthew 5:7)
9. An attitude of Acceptance (1 Sam 16:7b; Rom 15:7; James 2:1-9)
10. A life of SacriLicial Generosity (2 Sam 24:24; Luke 14:33; 1 John 3:16-19; 1 Cor 4:2; 1 Timothy 6:6-7, 17-19; 2 Cor 8:7, 13-14, 9:10-11)
11. A heart for Justice = protecting the disenfranchised (Isa 58:6-10; Jms 1:27, Mt 25:31-46)
12. A lifestyle of Evangelism that balances gentleness and urgency (John 4:35; 2 Cor 6:2;
1 Peter 3:15; 2 Peter 3:9 Philemon 6; Heb 9:27)
13. Endurance Rom 5:3-4, 15:4; Gal 6:9; Heb 12:1-3; James 5:7-8
MISSION brings us full circle. Disciples are on mission to make other disciples. Disciples are discipling disciples so they can be equipped to make more disciples. Get it? Disciples are driven to reproduce others who will learn the truth, model the life of Christ, and apply the truth to their lives so that they can be like their savior.
The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
A disciple is one who has been transformed, is being transformed and desires to partner with God in the transformation of others. A disciple wants to be with and like Jesus and will give up all to achieve that goal.
The Most Important Thing
Having said all this, I've left one thing out.- the most important thing - the foundation. The white space that the chart above sits on. The white space makes everything else pop. In the same way, without this element disciples will have no real life, no connection with the living God. So here it is:
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13:15
Disciples LOVE. They love God. They love their brothers and sisters in Christ. They love the lost. They even love their enemies. Simply put a disciple is other-centered. If we don't get this down, then we lose all else.