“Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As we are looking at terms which are descriptive of the Christian life, we come to one that may be difficult to understand in a different way from that of a slave as we looked at yesterday. Some may even question whether it is a metaphor. Without a doubt, it is the most common word applied to people who identify with Jesus. The word “disciple” may or may not be a metaphor for those who call themselves Christians today. One thing is certain, there is no one today who has or who can follow Jesus in the sense in which his early disciples did, simply because he is not here with us in the way he was with the first century disciples.

The literal meaning of “disciple” is a follower or learner of a rabbi or teacher. But those terms do not nearly describe what a disciple was. One must understand the way in which a disciple followed or learned from the rabbi in order to understand the meaning of discipleship. The disciple literally followed his rabbi, going about from place to place with him. He listened to what the rabbi taught and then watched how the rabbi applied the things he taught to his own life. He lived with the rabbi, imitating his life, his attitudes, his mannerisms and memorizing what he taught. He tried to be exactly like the rabbi in every aspect of his life. After a length of time with a rabbi, the disciple was considered worthy to teach and to have disciples follow him. This is exactly what the disciples were instructed to do in what we call the “great commission.”

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 28:18-20).

I do not mean to suggest that we as Jesus’ followers today make people our disciples. Our business as his disciples is to bring others to him so that they might be his disciples. It is important that we get this straight. Some have failed to make that distinction (i.e., the discipling movement) and have erred from the faith, thinking that we make people disciples of ourselves by having them become what we are. Even Paul did not do that. He only asked that people “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Many rabbis had disciples. Paul, before his conversion, was a disciple of a noted rabbi. He said that he was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” (Acts 22:3). After the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Saul, (as he was then called), changed rabbis and became a disciple of Jesus. He became a learner and follower of Jesus.

Jesus called people to become his disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). His inner circle of followers would later become the apostles, sent by him to make disciples of others. They chose to follow him by heeding his calling. They went with him as he taught on mountainsides, beside the sea, in boats, in synagogues, in the temple and in homes. They watched his reactions to the needs of people by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, casting out demons and comforting the bereaved. They listened to him as he taught the multitudes. They witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection. By this they qualified themselves to tell others the story of Jesus and his love, calling others to follow him as well.

Those who came to believe in Jesus through the teaching of the apostles – including Christians today – cannot be disciples like those who walked the Galilean hills with him and who personally heard him teach and saw him perform his miracles. When the term disciple is applied to us today, it can only be done metaphorically. That does not mean that we cannot be disciples – just that we are disciples in a different way. Just as other metaphors lend some understanding to some aspect of our lives as Christians, so the word disciple gives us a deeper understanding of what it means to live our lives in relationship with our Lord. We are runners in a race, soldiers on the battlefront, slaves in the Master’s service and disciples – followers of the Rabbi.

Just as the early disciples lived with Jesus, so must we. Although he is not on earth, we must spend time with him in order to learn from him. We do this, not just by reading his teachings, but by learning all we can about the person, Jesus, and how his teachings flowed out of his life. For this purpose, we must not just read the accounts of his life, but become so familiar with him that we come to know how he thought and how he would react in every situation of life. To the early disciples, being a Christian was to be like Jesus in every aspect of their being. To be a disciple was to be totally saturated in the life, example and teaching of a rabbi. For followers of Jesus today it means a total saturation in his life, his example, his teaching.

This understanding of discipleship is a far cry from the usual concept of the Christian life today. For many, the Christian life is all about “membership” in the church. One “gets saved” and “joins the church” and is thenceforth in good standing with the Lord. He is “faithful to the church” – if he attends every service and supports its work. To others, the epitome of the Christian life is to be doctrinally correct. To others it simply is a matter of being “nice” or “good,” treating other people respectfully and being morally upright.

There is nothing essentially wrong with any of the above – as far as they go. But none of them, in and of themselves, nor all of them combined make one a disciple of Jesus. To be a disciple demands that one know him above all other things. Discipleship is about knowing Jesus. Paul’s prayer was …

“… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (Philippians 3:10).

This is the ultimate goal of the Christian – to become so filled and so conformed to Jesus that whether in life or in death Christ might be what we experience and what people see in us. To become a disciple is, for this reason, a costly venture. Jesus told people …

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. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27).

He did not soft-sell discipleship. He didn’t try to deceive anyone into thinking that following him would be a walk in the park. He didn’t lure people with fun and games and promises of a rosy life of ease. He had no glib sales pitch to lure them into anything. He was totally up-front with people. The life he offered would be – no, it IS – a hard life of separation of families, self-denial and dying. It is the life he chose for himself when he came from heaven in our behalf. This is the life he offers us.

But compared to the alternative, his life is one of promise – promise of a quality of life that man was always intended to live – a life of fellowship with God both here and in eternity – this rigorous life is far more than worth whatever it costs us in the present. As Solomon said, “…the way of transgressors is hard.” (Proverbs 13:15). That is especially true when you realize that the transgressors have no hope of life beyond this present one.

Is discipleship worth it? Oh, yes! It is worth whatever it costs to be identified with the Lord now and to be with him eternally. But if anyone offers you a “Christianity” without discipleship, know that such a one is a false teacher. If anyone tells you that you wouldn’t have change much to be a Christian, know that he is a deceiver. Being a disciple will cost you everything you have and require a total change of life to conform to the life of Jesus. Remember, a “Christianity” that costs you nothing is worthless!

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