The word disciple, or some variation, appears 266 times in the New Testament, with the vast majority of those occurrences recorded in the Gospels. In those contexts, being a disciple generally means abandoning the things of the world and following Jesus. In addition, to be a disciple requires that a person be disciplined in spiritual habits and purpose (see section 2). The epistles emphasize a relational community where disciples are developed in the context of a body of believers. They discover and use their spiritual gifts to love and serve each other and nonbelievers. Disciples obey the Great Commandment (Matt 22:37), the New Commandment (John 13:34), and the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) and, in so doing, become the hands, feet, and voice for Jesus in their world. The disciples are developed as the body grows in maturity and as each part does its work (Eph 4:16).
This clear call of Jesus to come and follow Him in the Gospels cannot be ignored. Jesus clearly identifies the marks of a disciple in the Gospels, and we need to start there. Here are the main passages related to being a disciple as set forth by Jesus Himself. A disciple is someone:
- Who seriously considers the cost before following Christ. Luke 14:28 states, “For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?” This verse makes it clear that before a person decides to follow Jesus, he or she must first sit down and calculate the cost of following Christ. For the true disciple, it will only cost you your life, your body, your possessions, and your future. In short, it will cost you everything. God’s plan and God’s will cost Jesus His life; it cannot cost His followers anything less.
- Who is totally committed to Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer states, “Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed.”2 Jesus is first! He is the first priority. Consider the following verse from Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be My disciple.” Hatred here is a comparative term. Our love for Christ is so great, so consuming that, in comparison, it feels like hatred (disdain) for others. Jesus said it this way in Matt 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” The priority of Jesus in one’s life is evidenced by a willingness to go anywhere and do anything He asks. Have you come to the place where your first and foremost desire is to follow Him whatever the cost?
- Who is willing to carry his or her individual burden to sacrifice for Christ and His cause. Luke 14:27 states, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Much has been written and discussed about what it means to “carry your cross.” In a nutshell it simply means that the disciple of Jesus will be called upon to lay down his life (his desire for self-direction and determination) and to surrender his will to the will of the Master. The kingdom of God is not advanced on a 9-to-5 schedule. You cannot serve someone without eventually surrendering your will to the person you serve. Consider Luke 17:10: “In the same way, when you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, ‘We are good-for-nothing slaves; we’ve only done our duty.’” Obedience to the point of sacrifice, if called upon, is part of being a disciple of Jesus.
- Who is willing to give up all earthly possessions. Luke 14:33 maintains, “In the same way, therefore, every one of you who does not say good-bye to all his possessions cannot be My disciple.” Again, we see the call to abandon totally any and all ownership to possessions. Jesus put it this way in Matt 6:24: “No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money.” Earlier in the same passage Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). This does not mean that to be a disciple a person must take a vow of poverty, but the disciple must be “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) and be willing to surrender all possessions if the Master asks.
- Who continues in God’s Word and experiences freedom in Christ. John 8:31–32 states, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” The Word of God is “living and active.” It has the ability to “transform our minds” and our lives if we will read it, study it, memorize it, and meditate on it consistently. The Word can set us free from the lies of the enemy and empower us to overcome the fiery darts of our adversary. If we do not continue in the Word, then we are wide open to deception, discouragement, and defeat. You cannot be a disciple without an aggressive commitment to consume and obey the Scriptures. As we drink in the Word of God, it has the power to transform our minds, and when our minds are transformed, then we can experience the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God (Rom 12:2).
- Who genuinely loves other believers. John 13:35 maintains, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” If you do not love other believers, then you do not know the God of love. Years ago Burt Bacharach penned the lyrics: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. No not just for some but for everyone.”3 These lyrics capture the call and the challenge of Jesus in the upper room discourse when He called His disciples together and told them to “love one another” (John 15:17). Francis Schaeffer observed that our love for one another should be so strong that it would unite believers in such a way that the world “would believe” that Jesus was sent by God.4 The modern-day disciple must be committed to love: loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we love like this, there is no argument that can stand against this force. What is your love level like right now?
- Who abides in Christ, prays, bears fruit, and glorifies God. John 15:5, 7–8 states, “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. . . . If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be My disciples.” When we abide in Christ, we will ask for His will and know His will, and it will be done for the disciple. As a result, fruit will be produced and God will be glorified. John 15 is the clearest explanation of life as a follower of Christ. This passage should be the normative experience for the disciple. Pay attention to it. Study it. Obey it.
- Who is full of the Holy Spirit. Acts 13:52 states, “And the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” Part of the fruit of abiding in Christ is the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23). The other part of fruitfulness is fruit that comes from serving and using your spiritual gift(s). John 15 says that a disciple should bear much fruit—fruit in your character and fruit in your actions. Being should always lead to doing. The Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus to be with us and to guide us in all things. In order to follow Christ fully, we need to be full of the Holy Spirit. He will guide us into the path of obedience and fruitfulness, and that will ultimately lead to joy. We will address this in depth in the next chapter.
- Who obediently follows the desires of the Master. Matthew 26:19 says, “So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.” Immediate and complete obedience is a hallmark of a disciple. It is impossible ever to say, “No, Lord!” because the moment you say “no,” He is no longer your “Lord.” The Gospels portray following God as being a member in His kingdom. As loyal subjects in His kingdom, our job is to follow the King and go wherever and do whatever He says. Jim Putnam reiterates this point when he says, “To be disciples, we too must recognize and accept who Jesus is, and we must place ourselves under His authority.”5 Many times we approach the kingdom of heaven too casually. The Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14–30) and the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11–27) make it clear that one day the Master will return and call His servants into account. In order to hear from Him, “Well done good and faithful slave,” we must understand and assume the role of a servant. You cannot be rewarded by the Master if you have not obeyed the wishes of the Master.
- Who is intimately involved in the mission of Jesus to make disciples. Matthew 28:16, 18–20 states, “The eleven disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. . . . Then Jesus came near and said to them, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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 everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” These were some of the last words spoken by Jesus to His disciples before He ascended back into heaven. They must be carefully studied and diligently observed. A careful study of the sentence structure yields: one command, three participles, and one promise. The command verb (in the imperative) is “make disciples.” Whatever else we are involved in as followers of Christ, we must be involved in His mission. The disciple cannot respond to the person of Christ without responding to the mission of Christ. We must be going and, as we are going, we must be in the business of developing followers of Christ. In addition, we are to baptize them and teach them to obey all the commands and teachings of Jesus. As we are going and making disciples, Jesus has promised to be with us. I often ask students: “How many of you want Jesus to be with you?” Usually everyone in the room raises their hand. “Well, if you want Jesus to be with you, then you must be in the business of making disciples. If you are obeying Him, He has promised to be with you!”
Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Disciple Making Is . . .: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence (Nashville: B&H, 2013).