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What is a Disciple? – A Crucial Question for Today’s Church

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What is a disciple?

unitedfaithchurch-disciple-quoteMany people think that a disciple is simply one who believes in Jesus.

Some might even take it further to say a disciple is one who studies the word of God, one who is well versed in the discipline of being a Christian.

Still neither is a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus says if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples, therefore a true disciple is one who lives out the word of God (John 8:31).

A Transformation

A disciple is more than just a follower of Jesus, he is someone who has heard the word of God, placed his trust in Jesus, and decided to live his life striving to be like Jesus.  A disciple is transformed through the teaching, testing, rebuking and encouraging of the Holy Spirit through the word of God by a mentor or a teacher. This is the model used by Jesus with His disciples as they called him Rabbi, which is the word of respect Jews used to address their teachers (John 6:25 StudyLight, 2014).  The disciples also followed the instruction of their Teacher, as they went on to disciple so many and transform the world through their teachings. We see people every day being discipled in the world.  Professional sports players, politicians, Olympians, are all vigorously trained, instilled with fundamentals and the vision of their discipline. All sign up to be discipled with the shared goal of being transformed into that for which they are being trained.  The promised transformation is the reason they sign up, it’s their vision and the hope of reaching their goal is what they eat, sleep and breathe every day.  Not reaching that goal is not an option.

Only in the church today is it acceptable to declare you are a disciple of Jesus Christ with no genuine intention of being transformed or changed to be like Jesus. This is contrary to the word of God.  By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked (1 John 2:5b-6 NASB).

A Doer of the Word

C. H. Spurgeon writes that a man cannot be saved unless he has become a learner in the school of Christ, and a learner, too, in a practical sense, being willing to practice what he learns… Christ is to us our great Instructor, and we take the law from his lips. The believer’s position is that of a pupil, and the Lord Jesus is his teacher (Spurgeon, 1871).  A true disciple is one who applies what they learn.  Man can spend his entire life reading the word and learning about Jesus but unless he trusts in, is transformed by, and lives out the word, all of that knowledge is rendered useless and does not yield salvation.  When Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees in John 5:39-40, He said:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

To come to Jesus is to surrender your life to Him and to commit to follow Jesus all the days of your life, hearing and doing His word- this is a true disciple. A disciple loves the word of God and is always hungry for more of His word because it is life and the power to transform man into the righteousness of God.  He is a lover of instruction and wants to be in the truth at all times, because that is where Jesus is. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them (John 14:21).   True disciples look to God and trust in His word to guide and protect them. Those who trust in Jesus are His disciples and to them is the promise: Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 31:21).

Why is discipleship important in the walk of a believer?

For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end (Hebrews 3:14 NASB). Salvation and eternity with Christ is promised for those who remain in their faith, who hold fast until the end. Being discipled is critical in the walk of a believer, as it is what enables and equips the believer to endure through challenges, becoming firmly established in the word of God. God’s desire is for His disciples to endure to the end and receive what He promised, eternal life.

We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised (Hebrews 6:11-12).

Discipleship is needed to ensure a believer is kept on the path of righteousness so that he is enabled and empowered to endure to the end. Discipleship or the lack there of could be the determining factor in whether a new believer sinks or swims.

Success in Christ

In businesses all over the nation, mentorship programs are being implemented to:

  1. develop strong, effective employees who are groomed in the values and standards of the company and,
  2. invest in the employees so that having been mentored, they will remain with the company

Employees who are mentored know that they are valued and that their success is worth the investment of mentorship. Studies show that mentorship programs directly impacts an employee’s success as a leader (Vappie, 2009).  Similar to how mentorship helps drive the success of an employee in a company, discipleship helps drives the success of a believer in the Kingdom of God.  A new believer who is discipled is taught the word of God, instructed in God’s ways and laws, prepared for the walk of a Christian, and given the tools and help needed to endure and persevere.  This new disciple must be led through the process of instruction with the help of the Holy Spirit and a mature, Spirit-led mentor. On the other hand, one who is not discipled is left to fend for himself, not familiar with the ways of God in a world that is challenging and testing, making their chances as an enduring Christian very slim.

Discipled for eternal life

When someone becomes a new believer, he is in need of love, instruction, and discipline just like a new born baby is in need of the same in order to grow into a strong, healthy adult. Whether we realize it or not, we are all taught as we grow up through various avenues: parents, school, friends, TV, and mentors, but that doesn’t mean what we are taught is right or godly or will lead to eternal life.   Discipleship is the process of being taught the ways of God through the teaching of the word of God by one who has lived according to them.  It is learning what God loves and what He hates, being disciplined through the word, and applying the word of God to one’s life daily. Without discipleship, one cannot grow to know God.  Apart from God there is no life, for to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ is eternal life (John 17:3).

Discipled through Testing

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20a).

A believer is empowered to fulfill the Great Commission by following the example Jesus gave with His twelve disciples. Jesus, the greatest Teacher of all, modeled that a disciple is one who is taught, tested, and proven faithful through his endurance and persevering trust in God.

Follow Jesus’ example

Just as Jesus led his disciples for three years before they were ready to be empowered and become leaders, a disciple is not made overnight.  Some teach, contrary to the word of God, that a new believer can be touched by the Holy Spirit and instantly made ready to be a leader in the church.  This teaching falsely represents the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Only through enduring testing and trials, do believers become empowered by the Holy Spirit to be strong, effective leaders for the Kingdom of God.   Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:8-9). Jesus was baptized by the Holy Spirit, empowered, and then led into the desert to be tested.  If Jesus, being the Son of God, was tested and if He spent three years teaching and discipling the founding apostles of the church, then surely this model of discipleship was intended to be upheld, established, and replicated in His church.

Looking in the Mirror

Discipleship is taking the word of God and testing oneself against it.  Just as someone who examines himself in a mirror, a disciple must examine himself against the word to see how they measure up against the standard of Jesus.  The word of God separates that which is godly from that which is ungodly.  It is the standard that a disciple must measure himself against daily, because it never changes, it always upholds righteousness, teaching the disciple to be holy as God is holy. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of Godmay be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Building on the Rock

The Bible describes one who hears the word of God and does not apply it as a fool, likening him to a foolish man who built his house upon the sand.  When the storms came, his house could not stand.  Yet the wise man hears the word of God and does it, thus establishing his home on the rock so that when the inevitable storms of testing and trials come, he is able to withstand them (Matt 7:24-27).  One who hears and does the word of God is led every step of the way by God, thus making him strong and secure, knowing that God is able to uphold him in every circumstance.  Obeying the word of God also yields righteousness that enables man to be separate from the ways of the world.  What good is a foundation or a structure unless it is tested and proven strong?  Some of the most beautiful buildings ever built have fallen because their foundations were not sure. We know we could look at a condemned building that from the outside looks perfectly sound, yet through testing the foundation it was deemed unstable. God is not looking for people who look like disciples on the outside, knowing how to play the part and say the right thing, but never bearing the fruit of righteousness through living godly lives. Rather, He is looking for those who are willing to test their thoughts and motives against the word of God so that they can be refined, purified and transformed into the image of Christ.  This is true discipleship.  Timothy says, do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

Discipleship before Leadership

Walk before you run

Many today believe that the church is a free-for-all, where standards for leaders are minimal at best, and professing to be a Christian qualifies one to be a leader in the church.  As a result, often new Christians are made leaders without being proven, without enduring through trials, and without first bearing the fruit of a true disciple of Jesus Christ.  Attaining a position of leadership, without spiritual maturity is damaging to that individual and to the church. Just as a trainee for a company must undergo a job shadow period, or a craftsman work for a time as an apprentice, so must a new Christian be discipled before obtaining a leadership position. A company wouldn’t take an intern and make him CEO because he does not possess the skills and experience needed to lead the organization. A first grader wouldn’t be expected to be doing college-level work. Likewise, a new believer should not be put into a position of leadership without first being discipled and given the opportunity to learn and grow in Jesus Christ. A leader must be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, one who is disciplined, instructed, and measured by the word of God.  Such a disciple yields the fruit of endurance; he or she is confident in the power of God to move mightily in all circumstances and can be trusted to withstand all for the sake of Christ.

Lead by example

A godly leader must be able to move at the command of God, in the power of God to make disciples of all men. A leader cannot possibly hear God’s direction for His people and lead them in His ways if he has not heard and heeded to God’s instruction and commands for his own life.  God moves through those who have measured themselves against the word of God, and who have witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit to help them persevere in their own lives. Jesus did not send His own disciples into the world to spread the Gospel until they had received the power of the Holy Spirit, which they received after having spent three years under His discipleship (Acts 1-2).  Therefore, one cannot go and make disciples unless he has first been empowered through being discipled himself and has borne the fruit of being a disciple (1 Timothy 3). Under Jesus’ discipleship, the disciples learned how to live the word of God and the ways of God, having spent time with His Son, who was God made flesh.   God equipped the leaders in the church then through discipleship and continues to do the same in His church today.

For more information about discipleship please visit unitedfaithchurch.org in Barnegat, New Jersey

References:
Interlinear Study Bible, Rabbi, StudyLight.org. Web. 4 Jul. 2014 Spurgeon, C. H. “The One Thing Needful.” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. The Spurgeon Archive, 2001. Web. 7 Jul. 2014 Vappie, Kimberly. “The Business Case for Mentoring.” Menttium Corporation. 2009. Web. 7 Jul. 2014 http://www.usgs.gov/humancapital/ecd/mentoringreadinglist/TheBusinessCaseforMentoring.pdf