Discipleship: What it Is and What is Is Not

We are living amid a great resurgence in discipleship. Just look at the historic usage of the words disciple, discipleship, and disicpling on the Google Book NGram Viewer and you’ll get the point. I’m no historian but this renaissance of discipleship may be a response to the evangelistic meetings of the early 1900’s. This doesn’t mean that people today are less concerned about evangelism, but it would show that the large-scale gatherings of the past are being replaced with small groups and one-on-one meetings.

Discipleship may just be the framework for how this generation will seek to bring about evangelistic revival. But what is discipleship?

Everyone is a Disciple

“To be human is to be a disciple. God didn’t present Adam and Eve with a choice between discipleship and independence, but between following him and following Satan. We are all disciples; the only question is, of whom?”

Mark Dever, Discipling, page 44.

Broadly speaking a disciple is a learner. Our culture, our church, our parents, and our friends are always discipling us. Behind all these influences though are two ultimate teachers. The Bible presents us with a dichotomy: Either you are a disciple of Jesus, or you are a disciple of the devil. There are children of God and children of the devil (1 John 3:7-10). Even children of God were previously children of the devil, fully deserving the wrath of God (Ephesians 2:1-3). Our culture, our parents, and our friends are always discipling us. Knowing this means that we must become aware of what voices we are listening to and that disciples will not be made by entering the default mode of life.

Why Make Disciples of Jesus?

This question may be obvious, but we need to answer it. First, we should make disciples because Jesus commanded it. If we love God, then we should incline our hearts towards his commands (Psalm 116:36). (Eric’s article on this, The Great Commandment and Great Commission, is liquid gold and you should read it.) One time in college, a friend asked me, “How do you spell love?” Two answers ring out in my brain. The first comes from Winnie the Pooh, who, when asked the same question by Piglet, said, “You don’t spell it, you feel it.” Our love for God must be from the heart. The second answer is that you spell love “O-B-E-Y.” To love God is to obey him (1 John 5:2). As we love God with all that we are (Matthew 22:37), it will take the form of obedience to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).

Second, we should make disciples because Jesus changes individual lives through it. To encourage his young protégé Paul reminded Timothy of how the faith of his believing mother and grandmother (Eunice and Lois) now resided in him. Timothy was forever changed by the individual efforts of his family to teach him about Jesus. And it doesn’t stop there. Jesus doesn’t just change individual lives through discipleship, he wants to change the world through discipleship. In Jesus’s high priestly prayer, he asks his Father that all believers would be one in fellowship with each other, with the Father, and with the Son, so that the world would believe (John 17:2-21).

Finally, you should seek to make disciples because Jesus wants to change your life through it. One of the greatest disciple-makers was Paul. Imagine if Paul were alive today. If he were to show up tomorrow at your church, your pastor would likely ask him to teach. If I had a chance to get coffee with him, I would ask him if I could record every word that he said with my Voice Memos app. Yet, despite being a spiritual giant, Paul says to those in the Roman church that he longs to see them so that he would receive spiritual encouragement from them (Romans 1:11-12)! If Paul knew his faith could be grown by those he was discipling, then we should know that God wants to use other believers in our lives to grow and encourage our own faith.

Follow, Change, Commit

What qualifies as a disciple of Jesus? Were Jesus’s disciples saved first and then become his disciples or did they first become his disciples and later come to a saving knowledge of Christ?

While no non-Christian can be a fully committed disciple of Jesus for the long haul it would make sense that a non-Christian can, in some limited sense, can be discipled by other Christians. It wasn’t until the Twelve disciples had been following Jesus for some time that Peter becomes the first to call Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 16:16-17). Keeping that in mind, let’s look at how Matthew describes Jesus’s calling of his first disciples:

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Matthew 4:19-22

The first quality of a disciple of Jesus is that they follow Jesus. This seems obvious, but it is very helpful to understand. If a non-Christian wants to be a disciple of Jesus, then they must learn about Jesus in the ways Jesus has prescribed. To try to learn from Jesus in any other way is disingenuous. Anyone wanting to learn about Jesus must do so with Christians who love each other (1 John 4:12, John 13:35), by reading his Word (John 17:8, 14, 17), and with an attitude to apply what they learn (John 7:17).

The second quality of a disciple is that they are continually changed by Jesus. Jesus promised to make them into “fishers of men,” something they could connect to their vocation. Becoming a good fisherman takes a considerable amount of learning and changing daily rhythms in order to succeed. Similarly, in the Christian life, we will need to be always learning and growing but we don’t do this by ourselves. Jesus promised to be the one to change his first disciples and he extends a similar offer to you and me.

The last quality of a disciple is commitment. Whatever Simon and Andrew knew about Jesus informed their decision to leave their father’s fishing business. This wasn’t the first interaction they had with Jesus (John 1:35-42), and Jesus would have been no stranger to them since they lived in the same region. They knew enough about his character to know they could fully trust Jesus with their futures.

What Discipleship is Not

Discipleship is not a side hustle. Jesus makes it clear that those who are in it for themselves don’t really care about people and will scatter when danger comes. Jesus said that the “hired hand” will leave the sheep and run away when a wolf comes. In contrast, the good shepherd (Jesus) lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11-13). Discipleship means we are all in with those we are discipling.

Discipleship is not codependency. The guru mentality destroys real discipleship. If we need to be discipling or discipled by someone to feel as though our lives are valuable and meaningful, we have turned discipleship into idolatry. Fellowship is awesome, and I love the fact that I can glean wisdom from others, but we are each accountable to God individually for our own decisions.

Discipleship is not for short-term gains. For example, there are immediate benefits to starting an exercise routine: you feel better and get stronger. But if you want to significantly reduce the chances of a heart attack later in life, you need to exercise consistently. In terms of discipleship, we can be tempted to overvalue multiplication and undervalue maturity. God’s plan is that every Christian would grow into full maturity and accomplish the good works that he gives to us as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). We need to stick with people for the long haul and seek long-term growth.

What Do Disciples Need?

Parenting is the biblical analogy for discipleship. Paul calls the Galatians his “dear children” and describes himself as being like a pregnant mother in labor as he writes his letter (Galatians 4:19-20). With the Thessalonians he describes himself as like a “nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7) and “like a father with his children (1 Thessalonians 2:11). When writing to Philemon, Paul describes himself as the father of Onesimus because Onesimus came to know Christ through Paul (Philemon 1:9-10). Paul also describes himself as the father of the Corinthian church because Paul brought the gospel to them (1 Corinthians 4:14-17). Paul’s use of paternal language with regard to his disciples highlights that parenting is analogous to discipleship. If that is so, then we should consider how children are to be raised to find out the basic principles of making disciples.

The classic parenting passage is Deuteronomy 6:4-9. If we walk through this passage we see children, and therefore disciples, need:

  1. An example (Deuteronomy 6:4-6)
  2. A teacher (Deuteronomy 6:7)
  3. A relationship (Deuteronomy 6:7-9)

To effectively disciple others we need to be an example, teach the Word of God, and engage in organic and intentional relationships with others. To go through each element would take a whole ‘nother article. Maybe there will be another article. Stay tuned…

Discipleship For Today

Someone out there, I don’t know who, once said, “Jesus loved everyone. Feed 5,000. Trained 70. Disicpled 12. Mentored 3.” Jesus employed both large-scale and small-scale methods in his ministry but it was through his disciples that Jesus turned the world upside down and we hope and pray he does the same through faithful disciples today. Will you follow him?

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