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The word ‘disciples’ seemed originally to apply only to the twelve He had chosen to be with Him and to learn from Him. These were also later called ‘apostles’ (sent out ones) when He sent them out to preach the Gospel, heal the sick and cast out demons. But Jesus had other disciples apart from the twelve from among whom He chose the twelve (Lk.6:13). What Jesus wanted was that those who believed and followed Him should become His disciples. When He asked the apostles to go out into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature (Mk.16:15), His intention was that those believed and chose to follow Him should be made disciples by teaching them to obey all that He had taught them (Matt.28:19,20). But as it stands today, believers, followers and disciples loosely describe three different groups of people!
The word ‘believers’ initially used to refer to those who believed in Jesus as their Saviour and were born again. In that sense the word ‘believe’ meant ‘adhere to, trust in, and rely on’ Jesus Christ (Amplified Bible). But as time went on, many people started claiming they ‘believed’ meaning only that they accepted the facts about Jesus in their mind, without having a commitment in their heart to obey what He said. This resulted in ‘faith without works’ that the apostle James warned about. Even though they claimed they were believers, their lives did not show any change that should have taken place if they had a genuine faith. So it was a deception for them to consider themselves as believers – who were accepted as children of God – even though actually they were not properly converted. One reason for this could be a modified gospel that is preached by many that tells listeners to merely believe in Jesus as their Saviour or accept Him as Saviour without having seen themselves as sinners facing the judgment of God and repenting. So, having obeyed this instruction they now consider themselves as being right with God.
Another group of people have been ‘following’ Jesus hoping to experience some miracles from His hands and to find some resolution for their problems. In the days when Jesus was on earth, this was the reason why multitudes followed Him and Jesus was well aware of that (Jn.6:26,27). Jesus was moved with compassion when He saw people suffering, and He healed their sicknesses, raised them from the dead and cast out demons from them. But that did not mean that their sins were forgiven and they were now children of God! For that to happen, first they needed to repent from their sins and put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour. Nowadays many preach and tell people to come to Jesus and to get all their problems resolved. Multitudes come even now for the same reason as in the days of Jesus, and many of them experience miracles in their lives. Then many of these people decide to ‘follow’ Jesus, leaving their religion and ‘becoming Christians’ without, however, having experienced real conversions. Many others who used to be nominal Christians become more serious with their religion, becoming more active in attending church, studying the Bible, paying their ‘tithes’ etc. But these too have not experienced true conversion. So, when someone now says he is a ‘follower of Jesus’ it is not clear where he stands.
Jesus Himself asked people to ‘follow Him’. But what He meant was to follow Him so that they could learn from Him and live as He lived. That would be the same as becoming a disciple! But that is not what many seem to understand who say they are His followers.
It seems to be safer to use the word ‘disciple’ to convey what Jesus expects from us than any other word. Even though there have been some excesses in the so-called discipling movement in terms of undue control of disciples by ‘disciplers’, the word ‘disciple’ is better described in the four gospel books than any other similar words.
First of all, Jesus is very clear that for a disciple of His, He would be more important than everyone and everything else, including himself. He said that anyone who loved father, mother, son or daughter, husband or wife, or himself or herself more, would not be worthy of Him (Matt.10:37;Lk.14:26). He taught in a parable that one who was in the kingdom of God would be like a merchant of pearls who found a pearl of greatest value and sold off all the other pearls he had in order to buy that one (Matt.13:45,46). This is a clear picture of how a man who comes to Jesus will start counting everything else he used to value in his life before as worthless now in comparison to Jesus.
Listen to the apostle Paul’s testimony, “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php.3:4–8).
The relationship between a disciple and Jesus is that of a student/learner and the Master or Lord. The goal of the disciple is to follow the Master, learn from Him and finally to become like Him (Matt.11:28-30;10:25). The disciple who has seen the sinfulness of his old nature wants to be free from sin and to become like the Master, partaking of His nature. Therefore he gives up his own life to gain the Master’s life (Jn.12:25). He follows the Master, denying himself, putting his fleshly desires to death and obeying His Master (Lk.9:23;Matt.10:38). Contrary to what Satan tells us, denying ourselves does not make our life morose and take away all the fun in life. We deny ourselves only when what we desire is contrary to the will of God, and that is going to save us from a lot of misery! On the other hand, when we do the will of God, that will fill our life with joy and satisfaction which people of the world seek but never receive. What we sow we will reap (Gal.6:7,8), and what we gain by denying ourselves is to avoid ‘reaping corruption’, and by following Jesus, eternal life.
A clear example of how we ought to relate to God is seen in the way Abraham was willing sacrifice the son of promise because God asked him to. Then God acknowledged that this made it clear to Him how much Abraham valued God (Gen.22:12). That is the mark of a disciple.
It is a sad thing that many Christians do not see things this way. Many imagine that discipleship merely involves attending church, Bible studies and prayer meetings. Apart from that they live the usual life of seeking their own and pleasing themselves. And then they wonder why they are still not being transformed into the likeness of Christ.
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