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by Jacob Ninan
1. Who is a disciple?
When they hear the word ‘disciple’ many Christians think about the twelve disciples of Jesus. They were the original disciples of Jesus. But just like God selected the nation of Israel to be a model nation for the rest of the world, Jesus picked these twelve to show the rest of us what it means to be His disciples. He wanted these disciples to go and make disciples from every nation (Matt.28:19,20), showing us that these twelve were not to be an exclusive group.
Jesus was not the first one to have disciples. John the Baptist had disciples (Matt.9:14). Elijah and Elisha had disciples who were being trained to become prophets like them (e.g., 2Kg.2:3). The Pharisees also had their disciples (Matt.22:15,16). The concept of disciples was known even in the Old Testament times (Isa.8:16;50:4). In the Indian ancient culture, the practice of shishyas (disciples) learning under a guru (master) was well known. In simple terms, a disciple is someone who has chosen to get trained under a master. Jesus said that the goal of a disciple was to ultimately become like the master (Matt.10:25).
2. After the twelve
As we saw, Jesus was looking for disciples beyond the twelve. After He had been raised from the dead, taken up to heaven and the eleven disciples began to preach, more ‘disciples’ began to be added to the number (Acts.6:1,2,7). In other words, the commission given by Jesus was to make disciples, and those who were being added to the church were called disciples. They were referred to as ‘believers’ too (e.g., Acts.5:14;10:45), but the intention of adding new people to the church was to establish them as disciples.
3. Believers and disciples
The Bible does not make a distinction between believers and disciples, and possibly the understanding is that all are to be disciples. But in the present situation in the churches it looks as if not all believers are also disciples. Many ‘believers’ do not seem to qualify for the title of disciples as described in the Bible. This is the reason why it is now important to describe in detail what it means to be a disciple of Jesus so that everyone who believes in Jesus can also become disciples.
4. Defining disciples
The simple meaning of ‘disciple’ is a ‘learner’. He is being trained under a master to learn some skills. As a disciple of Jesus, our goal is to finally become like Him in His character and life (Matt.10:25). God’s goal for us is to give us His nature (Rom.8:29;2Pet.1:4), and it is as disciples of Jesus that we participate in this work. If we believe in Jesus in the right way, it would include becoming disciples, but unfortunately many these days seem to ‘believe’ without becoming disciples. That means that they believe many (right) things about Jesus, but it does not seem to have resulted in changing their lives to become more like Jesus. But the good news is that we can become more and more transformed into His likeness as we learn from Jesus as His disciples (Matt.11:28-30).
It is important to remember that as disciples we are learners. We will always be learners here on earth, and we will never come to a place where we have become perfect or learnt it all (Php.3:12-14). Someone has said that the moment we stop learning we might as well die! When we look around at other disciples we will find that we are all at different stages of our learning process, and we can learn from those who are ahead of us and help those who are yet to learn what we have learnt. This willingness to always learn more is most important for a disciple because without it we are no longer disciples!
5. Becoming disciples
Entry into the discipleship school of Jesus is through being born again. As we know, this is what God does in us as an act of grace (unmerited favour from God) when we go to Him repenting of our sins and trusting in His love and mercy for forgiveness because Jesus has already taken the punishment for our sins. If this step is deep and genuine from our side, there will be a resulting love and gratitude to God that will cause us to fall before Him in adoration and to give ourselves over to Him as living sacrifices to do His will (Rom.12:1;2Cor.5:14,15).
If our salvation experience is not as deep as described above what we need to do is to think deeply about what Jesus had to go through in order to give us our salvation, and then love and gratitude towards Him will fill our hearts. This step is something we cannot bypass if we want to be true disciples of Jesus.
6. The nature of discipleship
If we join an earthly institution for training, it is common that we get an orientation programme to introduce us to the institution, the faculty and the procedures. Jesus has given us a similar introduction to His discipleship programme, and it will be important for us to understand His expectations from us and His guidelines for us if are to enjoy being His disciples and to succeed in His training programme.
Jesus has basically described for us the attitude of heart that we should maintain if are to succeed as His disciples. As His disciples we are preparing for life as citizens in His heavenly kingdom, and these expectations He has from us may initially appear to be harsh from an earthly point of view. But once we have a proper perspective of who He is, who we are, what He has done for us and what He wants to do for us, we will easily see that they are actually very reasonable. If we have any difficulty with any of these expectations, what we need to do is to revisit our concepts about Him. Then we will see that He is worth far above anything that we may value here on earth.
Jesus’ expectations from His disciples are given in Luke 14. Some people call them conditions of discipleship. Even though they may appear to be so from a cursory glance at them, let us not forget the fact that Jesus has accepted us into the school of discipleship through grace without any conditions as to who we are or where we come from. After having accepted us with an unconditional love, He is not going to reject us on any ground. On the other hand He is now telling us what it really means to be a disciple--one who has chosen to learn from Jesus.
7. Expectations from a disciple
a. “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk.14:26).
This involves the priority of our love and affection. If we say we want to learn from Jesus and become like Him, He must be the supreme priority in our life. This is not difficult, as we said earlier, once we see Him for who He really is, how He has loved us, what He has done for us, and what it means to us. Then it becomes a spontaneous act to love Him above everyone else and everything else, including our own life. Even though Jesus has used the word ‘hate’ here, we understand from parallel passages elsewhere (e.g., Matt.10:37) that what He wants us to understand is that if we love anything more than Him, we have not understood the basic position of a disciple. Certainly Jesus who tells us to love even our enemies is not asking us to ‘hate’ in the normal sense of the word.
When we enter into the school of discipleship this is a decision that we need to take. We will be tested on our commitment in various ways in the future, e.g., when we have to take a step in obedience to Jesus that one or more of our loved ones may object to. At such times it will be our commitment to Jesus that will help us to face and overcome their displeasure.
b. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Lk.14:27).
Many people misunderstand this verse to refer to special difficulties or difficult people in their lives as the crosses they have to carry. But Luke 9:23 makes it clear that the cross Jesus means is the one on which our own will gets crucified in order that we may do His will. Certainly we cannot be disciples of Jesus if we insist on doing our own will instead of obeying Him.
A common misunderstanding is that doing God’s will in our life will take away all the fun in life. That is a lie of the Devil, because Jesus has come to give us an abundant life (Jn.10:10). All God’s plans for us are for our welfare (Jer.29:11). Our plans may look attractive for the moment, but if they cross the will of God we can be sure that we will regret it at the end.
Jesus is not teaching us to cross out all our initiative or anything that gives us pleasure. The Bible tells us that God has provided us things in this world that we may enjoy them (1Tim.6:17). Of course the pleasures that we enjoy from God will always far outweigh anything that this world can offer (Ps.16:11;21:6). What Jesus says is that we need to always have in our heart and mind the thought, “Not my will, but Yours, O Lord”.
c. “None of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Lk.14:33).
If Jesus earlier prioritised our loyalties with respect to people and Himself, here He brings up our attachment to material things. For the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus, this became his undoing, when he was unwilling to part with his money (Matt.19:21,22). In other words he did not count Jesus worthy enough to choose above his wealth and belongings.
This was a special test given to this man because Jesus saw that his possessions were more important to him than God, and there is no other record of Jesus asking people to sell off all their possessions in order to follow Him. Many of the twelve disciples left whatever they were doing and joined Him in what would presently be considered as a ‘full time Christian work’. But there is no indication that they sold off everything they had. It would be also unrealistic and impractical if every of us sold off everything to follow Jesus. Then what does Jesus mean by this guideline?
It has to do with our heart attitude. When we come to Jesus as those redeemed from the kingdom of darkness we must also know that He has purchased us from the Devil’s hands paying a ransom which was His lifeblood (1Cor.6:19,20). We then belong to Him entirely, and then we will also consider all that we have also as belonging to Him. We are stewards on earth with the clear understanding that He is the owner. Then we do not use or spend material things or wealth as if they were our own, but according to His will. We recognise that God has the right to ask us to do whatever He wants. This is the attitude of a disciple.
8. Progress as a disciple
After choosing to be a disciple of Jesus and agreeing to conform to His expectations we go on to learn from Jesus and grow to become like Him. This growth is not automatic, once we have been born again. As with any disciple getting trained from a master, disciples of Jesus also have to learn certain things from Him and then practice them. If we do not take this process of learning and practising seriously we are not going to be able to make any progress.
(Some Christians have been told that anything to do with ‘doing’ is from the Law, and that when we are under grace God will just do everything for us. This is wrong. God forgives us our past sins, causes us to be born again, and gives us a new way of thinking, new values and new power to do what He wants to do. Then we have to learn from Him and do what He tells us to do, with the power that He gives us. That is how the process of transformation takes place in us. The Bible calls this the works that come out of faith, in contrast to the works many people try to do in order to be accepted by God.)
There are different activities that are involved in the process of maturing as a disciple.
a. Studying the Bible. The Bible is what God has given to us through which He reveals Himself to us the most. We study (not just read it casually or formally) it in order to understand what God is like, what He has done for us and even what He is going to do in the future. This is the food that we need for our spiritual growth (1Pet.2:2).
The 66 books of the Bible were written by over 40 different people over a period of more than 1500 years. But they were ‘inspired’ by God (2Tim.3:16,17) to be God’s word to us. The Bible contains historical records, instructions, letters, proverbs, poetry, prophecy, etc. For understanding the words of the Bible properly and to apply different ones to our practical life we must keep in mind the fact that there is a diversity of context within the Bible books and that there is a blending of God’s thoughts and human words in a way that is not easy to understand. We need to understand passages of Scripture in conjunction with all the other passages, and we must not attribute meanings to words that God never meant.
When we read God’s word as disciples (learners) our heart must be open to God to reveal Himself and His ways to us. The Holy Spirit who inspired the word is necessary also to reveal the truths to us. God speaks to us individually as we read the Bible, making passages relevant and meaningful to our personal lives. We see His expectations for our lives and we also see ourselves as we really are at that point, just as if we are looking at a spiritual mirror. God speaks to us to encourage, comfort, cheer, correct, rebuke, instruct and guide us according to our needs and the particular stage of our progress. Because of this we call the Bible as a Living Word.
b. Prayer. Prayer is what connects us with God in our daily life. A disciple must not think of prayer only as what is done formally on special occasions, but as a channel that is always open to Him. We can shed all formalities of special words, postures and places and talk to our Heavenly Father whenever we remember Him. We must not try to pretend before Him saying pious words because He knows us completely. But we can be frank with Him, and use our common expressions of daily life. God loves an honest person. While we realise that we are dealing with Almighty God who created heaven and earth and show Him real respect, at the same time we need to talk to Him as a child to his father.
We can make our requests known to Him (Php.4:6), share our worries, fears and anxieties with Him (Ps.55:22), give Him thanks for His love and mercy towards us and all His provisions (1Th.5:18), and ask Him for strength and guidance for our day to day affairs and also for the major decisions of life.
When we pray we indicate our humble dependence on God for all of our life and also our thankfulness for His provision and sustenance. If our prayer life is minimal, it shows us how little we know God and even ourselves in relation to Him.
God also speaks to us. Most often He speaks to us as we read His word, and also by reminding us of what we have read there. But He also speaks to us by giving us thoughts in our mind (which we may not immediately recognise as His voice). When we think God has said something to us in this way it is good for us to check it out with what God has already said in the Bible, because we know God will not contradict Himself. This is for our safety because Satan can also try to put ideas in our mind and make us think they were from God!
c. Worship. Worship is a time of adoration when we think of God and His ways and stand in great admiration and appreciation before Him. We can do this along with other Christians in church gatherings or small groups, and also all by ourselves when we are alone. This act of worship exalts God in our own eyes, fills us with gratitude and draws us nearer to Him. Everything else in life becomes meaningful when we recognise who God is and where we stand before Him.
Jesus tells us that the important thing is to worship God in spirit and truth (Jn.4:23). In other words worship has to come up from our heart and life. It must be real and not pretended. It is not a matter of songs or raising hands, but the genuineness of our worship must harmonise with what is deep within us. The verse quoted above says how the Father longs for people who worship Him like that.
d. Fellowship. We are in a school of discipleship along with other disciples. There are many things we need to learn from them, watching how they live, listening to them as they tell us what the Lord has taught them, getting comfort and encouragement and sometimes even correction from them, etc. And we too can help the others from our side. God has created us as social beings who cannot live all alone; we need others and they need us.
Much more than the ‘formal’ fellowship we may have in the church or small groups it is good for us to have others with whom we can have fellowship on a smaller but more personal manner. Being accountable to one another and being there for one another can be a great help in life.
e. Church. We know that in the Bible ‘church’ does not refer to a special building but a gathering of the people of God where they could build one another using the different spiritual gifts God has given them. The church where we should be must be one that honours and follows Jesus and encourages us to be His disciples. This is one of the gifts of grace God has given to us for our spiritual growth.
We know there is no church that is perfect. But there are ‘churches’ we should avoid, such as where false doctrines are being taught, sin is not addressed or dealt with, leaders exert unhealthy control, leaders are ‘worshipped’, or where there is an assumption of exclusivity (that they are only true church). On the other hand we should be looking for a church that exalts Jesus, is willing to learn, and gives us preaching and fellowship that build us up spiritually.
As disciples we are under training, and we should be looking out for training in every area of our lives. Since no local church is complete in itself in any way, we should not limit ourselves to only that church. We should make use of opportunities available through books, recordings and live programmes from other churches also to get ourselves a well-rounded training.
f. Serving. Jesus came to serve, and not to be served (Matt.20:28), and as His disciples one of our goals is to become able to serve the others in Jesus’ name. We must not imagine that service (ministry) is only for a selected few people such as pastors, evangelists, etc. All of us are to serve one another (Gal.5:13). People like apostles, pastors, teachers, evangelists and prophets have been given a special task to train us ordinary people to carry out the work of building the Body of Christ (Eph.4:11,12). In fact if any Christian does not have a desire to ‘serve’ the others in any way, there is something seriously wrong.
Our service or ministry may not be in one or another of those recognised ministries such as teaching, pastoring (shepherding), evangelising, etc. But let us serve one another with whatever gifts God has given us (Rom.12:6). No one can say he has no gift. The ‘burden’ we have in our heart concerning some ‘need’ we see around us may indicate the special gift God has given us. As disciples (trainees) as we exercise our gifts God gives us more grace and training so that we can do it better and better.
It is very important to remember that ministry is for blessing the others, and for the glory of God. It is not for making ourselves great or exploiting the others for our gain.
It is an amazing grace from God that He has given us the privilege of being disciples of Jesus. May we recognise this privilege, and do our best to bring honour and glory to the name of Jesus!
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