The word “discipleship” never occurs in the Bible. Consequently, when discussing discipleship, it is important to realize that the concepts are principles. “Discipleship” is a derivative of the biblical word “disciple” or “follower” (mathetes). In the first century, a disciple was a student who followed and learned from a rabbi, a teacher of the Jewish law. For example, Gamaliel was a famous rabbi who trained the apostle Paul in Judaism. Though He was not trained in the rabbinical schools, Jesus was a rabbi. He taught those who followed Him about God and the law (Matthew 28:20).
A Christian disciple is someone who follows Jesus Christ. For anyone, this is the highest and most noble pursuit in life. It is a commitment to forego whatever blessings this life affords in order to gain the blessings of the next life. A disciple is a simply a follower of Jesus. A good definition of a discipleship is a disciple who demonstrates that he follows Jesus as he “identifies himself with Christ in all things, conforms his behavior and attitudes to reflect Christ for the purpose of living out His commission.” The key concepts are (1) identity, (2) conformity, and (3) activity. These are progressive to the extent that as someone identifies with Jesus, the more he will conform his behavior to reflect this connection. Further, the greater extent someone conforms his behavior with Jesus, the more he will actively do the will of God. This lesson is an overview of the whole concept of Christian discipleship.
The first step in the Christian life is authentic identification with Jesus. It’s basically saying: “I’m with Him.” In fact, a new Christian literally takes on the name of Jesus Christ. “Christian” means “little Christ.” There is also a kind of false identification. If someone professes to be a Christian, but is unwilling to follow Jesus, then he is not a real Christian. He may claim to have “prayed a prayer” to accept Jesus as “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus indicates that many will say to Him in the day of judgment “Lord, Lord, have we not cast out demons in your name and done many wonderful works?” Then Jesus will make a public pronouncement: “I never knew you.” Then these will be cast into Hell. The prayer of salvation takes its meaning from a decision to become a follower of Jesus—to authentically identify with Him.1 Jesus explained the disciple relationship this way: “If any would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24). This statement begins with the conditional “if” meaning that discipleship requires a personal choice to follow Jesus. Of course, we know that there is a lot of spiritual activity going on behind the scene when someone chooses to follow Jesus. Jesus stated that no man comes to Him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). We also know the that work of the Holy Spirit is to convict men of sin and judgment (John 16:8). Nobody chooses to follow after Jesus all on his own. God is the one who brings a person into a discipleship relationship with Jesus. At the same time, we also know that a Christian is someone who has made the personal decision to follow Jesus.
This decision has two basic parts. The first part is the choice to deny self. This denial means that you must determine that you have no real connection with your own ambitions or goals. It is to forego any selfish motive or pursuit, to lose interest in preserving or promoting oneself. This is particularly difficult because we are hard-wired to be selfish. When Paul wrote that men should love their wives as much as they love their own bodies, he was admitting that self-love is the normal human state. To be a disciple of Jesus, we have to set aside this selfish approach to life.
The second part of the decision to follow Jesus is the choice to “take up your cross.” Think about what Jesus was commanding these people to do. In the ancient world, the cross was an emblem of a shameful death. It was the worst form of capital punishment. The victim being crucified had his clothes stripped away. He was then further degraded by the use of torture such as severe flogging. Then the victim was fastened to the cross with ropes and nails. The end result was prolonged suffering followed by death either by exposure or suffocation. Any who lingered longer than the Romans wanted (if they were in a hurry for the crucifixion to end or if they felt particular pity for the victim) would have his legs broken.
Both self-denial and cross-bearing together form the basis of Christian discipleship. This is how you identify with Jesus. Jesus, even though He is equal with God the Father, did not consider this equality something to hold onto, but made Himself to be of no reputation, took upon Himself the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of man. Further, Jesus humbled Himself to the point of crucifixion (Philippians 2:5-8). To be a disciple of Jesus, you have to admit: “I am with Him.”2
After salvation, the first step of discipleship is usually baptism. See Appendix 1 for more information about the biblical rite of baptism. If you have never been baptized, or if your baptism was not biblical, your pastor will gladly help you publically identify with Jesus in baptism.
Identification with Jesus is very important, but it does not immediately confer upon the new believer “maturity status.” Every new believer starts off the Christian life in spiritual immaturity. A new Christian is just beginning a longer journey where he will learn more about Jesus, feel stinging rebuke over his sin, make difficult choices to change, and then learn to live out that change on a day-by-day basis. Following Jesus centers around five personal commitments. These are:
- New life in the Spirit: this is learning to live daily in the power of the Holy Spirit. The biblical phrase is to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). This means that this life in Jesus can only be lived successfully as it is ordered through the instrumentality of the Spirit. Some new Christians, because of their zeal and love for the Lord, believe that adopting new “Christian” rules of living is the way of discipleship. Jesus never presents discipleship that way. Discipleship is not a return to Old Testament law-keeping. It is an adoption of a new way of living by ordering one’s life entirely through the power and control of the Holy Spirit.
- Private worship: this is learning to worship God daily through personal Bible reading and prayer; through giving to His church; and by adoring Him as we meditate upon Him. Discipleship is not showy (Matthew 6:1). It is predominantly private as we learn to come to God individually. It is a work of the heart as we commune with God.
- Public Worship: this is the result of our private worship. It is learning to sing songs of praise to the Lord and make melody in our hearts to Him. It also involves listening to God’s Word through preaching (Ephesians 5:19).
- Wisdom in tests: this is learning to seek His guidance when facing personal difficulty, either from a trial or temptation (James 1:5). Most new believers do not know how to weather the storm of trials and temptations. They even sometimes question the circumstances God leads them through.
- Christian Service: this is learning that every part of life is about serving God. Like an offering laid upon the altar to be burned up before God in worship, so Christians are to give their bodies to be “living sacrifices.” Instead of living like our culture, we are to live a transformed life by the mind being renewed in Christ and thereby accomplish God’s perfect will for us (Romans 12:1-2). This is called “yielding” ourselves to God.
These five commitments are difficult. The Christian life is not easy. Jesus compared it to walking on a rough and difficult road (Matthew 7:14). Many Christians stumble and fall as they attempt to develop these commitments. The key is to get back up when you fall down! There are many who have been saved for many years who have not progressed spiritually to the point where they know how to apply God’s wisdom to their trials or have the ability to call others to follow after them.
In His foresight and grace, God has given us three “friends” to help us make the journey successfully. Our first friend is the Holy Spirit. He is God dwelling in us. He comes alongside us to give the encouragement we need exactly when we need it. The indwelling Holy Spirit illumines God’s Word (1 Corinthians 2:9), teaches us (John 14:26, 16:13), seals us to salvation (Ephesians 1:13-15) and gives us assurance of salvation (Romans 8:17-23), empowers us to do Christian service (Acts 1:8), enables us to live a godly life (Romans 8:4, Galatians 5:16), guides us (Romans 8:14), and changes our character (Galatians 5:22). Our second friend is the local church. It is imperative that Christians take part in the life of a local church (Hebrews 10:24-25). God did not intend for Christians to live alone in isolation. It is a strange phenomenon that many professing Christians live in some sort of connection with unbelievers but in isolation from fellow Christians (Ephesians 5:11). We all need the benefit of other Christians speaking God’s truth into our ears. We need the mutual encouragement we have through the ministry of other disciples of Jesus (James 5:13-16). Our fellow church members pray for us; preach to us; encourage us to live a godly life through their example; admonish us when we are wrong; give comfort to us when we are hurting; rejoice with us when God gives us victory over sin (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Furthermore, these are all things we do for them. Our third friend is the Word of God. The Bible reveals God to us (2 Timothy 3:16). We learn from the Scriptures what creation and and our conscience both tell us—that God exists (Romans 1:17-20). The Bible is also our source of ultimate truth. While it is true that “all truth is God’s truth,” the Bible is considered special revelation because it reveals God to us in a special way. Further, the Bible provides for us a way to view life. This is what we call “worldview.” We look at life through the “eyes” of God when we see it from the Bible’s perspective. It gives us instruction as to how to live. Our culture (culture means “how people live”) has its own instructions for life. These are often in conflict with God’s instructions. Christians must know that the Bible is the final authority. The Bible also gives us hope. Through the testimonies of other God-followers, we gain encouragement in their successes and failures. The Bible reveals the men and women trusting God when their situation seems humanly impossible. Finally, the Bible also gives us warning against sin. It teaches us God’s absolute moral standard. It helps us progress from spiritual immaturity to wisdom.
Identity and conformity is naturally followed by activity. Specifically, the Bible clarifies that this activity is one where the disciple assumes the role of disciple-maker.3 This is accomplished through two distinct activities— by evangelism and by example. Jesus said to His disciples: “follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19). Jesus is promising that if they would follow Him, they would be personally transformed. The three years they spent with Jesus in His earthly ministry were years of their learning to both identify with Him and conform their attitudes and behavior to His will. After Jesus died, was buried, rose again, and ascended into heaven, the disciples unleashed on the world their faith in Him. This is the final aspect of discipleship is activity. This transformation from “fishermen” to “fishers of men” began producing results. Even the Pharisees noted that “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Their years of following Jesus allowed them to call other disciples to follow after them. They became disciple-makers. They spiritually “fished” for men. Acts 2 presents a powerful story about Peter preaching at Pentecost and thousands of people accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. This is an example of being a fisher of men in a congregational setting. In Acts 3 there is a story about “fishing for men” that is more personal. A lame man asks Peter and John for some money. Instead of money, they gave to him a greater blessing. Peter said: “in the name of Jesus, rise and walk.’ This more personal example of “fishing for men” led to thousands more being saved. The book of Acts is full of activity of those who followed after Jesus. The activity of a disciple is to call others to salvation in Christ.
The second activity is being a disciple-maker by example. The Apostle Paul called out: “follow me, as I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1, Philippians 3:17, 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This call requires some measure of spiritual maturity. The disciple-maker calls others to discipleship through his personal example that he is himself a follower of Jesus. He sets this example by his own godly testimony among the other disciples in his local church. His call for others to follow his example means that he sets a godly example. This is true in his behavior. A disciple-maker lives a moral, God-fearing lifestyle. He approaches the things of life asking the important questions such as: will this activity please the Lord? Will this activity cause others to be offended and stumble? Could this activity bring others to salvation in Christ? Is it possible that others will question my own spiritual walk with the Lord because of this activity? Will this harm my testimony? The disciple-maker is calling people to imitate him. He is faithful in his commitments to the Lord. This faithfulness is evident because of the fruits of the Spirit which demonstrate that he is controlled by the Spirit.
- Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? Explain your answer. What indicators are there in your life that lead you to your conclusion?
- Have you followed or do you actively follow another believer in discipleship? Describe that relationship.
- Have you ever led someone or are you actively leading someone in discipleship? Describe that relationship.
- Read 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10.
- What are the three things that Paul said they remembered in prayer for the Thessalonians? (v. 3)
- What was their “work of faith?” (v. 9)
- What was their “patience of hope?” (v. 10)
- Their “labor of love” is mentioned in chapter 4. Can you find the verse? What do you think their “labor of love” referred to specifically? (Hint: there might be two answers found in chapter 4)
- How might we become more active in discipleship?
1 While discipleship is not salvation (it is the next natural step in the life of new believer), they are so closely linked together that without any discipleship, it is unlikely that the one who professes salvation in Jesus is actually saved (or, if a person is truly converted, he will want to follow Jesus).
2 Once again, it is impossible to think of a situation where a person would say “I’m with Jesus” but not actually ever be with Jesus. Peter denied being with Jesus (even though he was). In this case, the individual would claim to be with Jesus but not actually be with Him. This is not logically consistent.
3 It is possible that a new believer can evangelize others. In fact, this is an activity that he should do. Thus, these stages do not necessarily involve a “time-gap.” However, Christian maturity comes from time with God, His Word, and other believers. There is no shortcut to maturity. Thus, disciple-makers are generally people who have been saved for some time and have matured in their faith in Christ.