“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20).
In this familiar passage we have Matthew’s account of the “great commission.” In it, Jesus commands His disciples to “Go…and make disciples...” How many times have we heard this passage quoted, but how many of us could give a reasonable description of a disciple?
Maybe it is because we don’t understand what a disciple is, or if we do have some idea, find it too difficult to really be one. Consequently we hear very little said about what it means to be a disciple. We hear people talk about someone becoming a Christian, but almost never hear it said that he or she has become a disciple of Jesus – even though, strictly speaking, being a Christian and being a disciple are equivalent terms. Or we heard it said that someone became a “member of the church.” Why is it that we hear so little of someone being a disciple?
“Disciple” is by far the most common term used to describe the followers of Jesus both before and after His crucifixion and resurrection. His inner circle during His ministry were referred to as disciples. Those who came to believe in Him through the preaching of the gospel were also known as disciples. In contrast, the name “Christian” is only found in three references in the New Testament. (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).
But what does it mean to be a disciple? By definition, a disciple aspires to be as much like his teacher (rabbi) as he can possibly be. He follows his master because he wants to learn to think, act and speak like him. Jesus’ disciples lived with him, ate with Him, walked with him, listened to everything He had to say and imitated him in everything He did. They tried their very best to be and do exactly what He did. That is what a disciple does. Here is what Jesus said about being a disciple…
“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. (Luke 6:40).
Could it be that we have settled for being “church members” instead of being disciples? Could it be that being a church member does not demand nearly as much as being a disciple? Too many people seem to have the idea that being a church member is like being a member of a civic club or social organization. They pay their dues, attend just enough meetings to keep their name on the active list and feel that they are acceptable before God – they have done their duty. Discipleship cannot be taken so casually.
Being a disciple often demands making hard choices and personal sacrifices. There was a time in Jesus’ ministry when people were eagerly seeking to follow Him, apparently without realizing the difficulties they would face and the hard choices they would have to make. He doesn’t “pull any punches” when it came to letting them know that being His disciple wouldn’t be easy.
“And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:19-22).
Jesus was not being cruel nor unreasonable in His demands upon these people. He was simply letting them know that if they chose to be His disciples they couldn’t allow anything to stand between them and their commitment to Him. He had to have their undivided loyalty if they were to truly be His disciples. That is what is required to be His disciple today – and that is why there are lots of church members but very few disciples. It is easy to be a church member but hard to be a disciple.
Being like Jesus is not something a few exceptional people can opt for on their own with everyone else allowed to coast along in a lesser role. It is what God expects of everyone who comes to believe in the Son of God.
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29).
The idea of being conformed to the image of the Son is something else that many people seem not to think much about. Yet, it is entirely synonymous with being a disciple of Jesus. It is what God intends for us. To be conformed to His image is simply to return to His original objective for us as He created us to be.
Here the idea of following or being a disciple of our “rabbi” applies. Remember that a disciple is constantly with his rabbi, learning not only lessons he teaches, but picking up even his mannerisms and speech patterns. Paul describes the kind of association we have with Jesus this way…
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18).
To behold the glory of the Lord we must spend time with Him. We must read about Him, observe his way of thinking, how He related to people, what He did and how He did it as well as listen to the lessons He taught. We must get to know Him as we would get to know a friend. And while we are coming to an intimate knowledge of His person and His character, we must allow ourselves to be affected by His influence – so much so that we become more and more like Him.
Being conformed to His image by being His disciple is God’s program for us. He doesn’t want us to just be a good church member and “be good” for as long as we live here in this life. Being conformed to the image of the Son is what He intends for us for eternity! We may have been like Adam, the man of dust, but then (after our resurrection) we will be like our Master, our Teacher, our Rabbi.
“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:49).