What does it mean to be a disciple? This is a question I’ve been asking in recent months, not only to myself, but likewise to others. In my opinion the application of discipleship has become so neglected within the Church these days that this has in turn created an inaccurate and dangerous definition of the word itself. When we look to describe a word such as disciple, it’s easy enough to turn to a dictionary where we’ll find words like: follower, believer, supporter, or student, which is in line with the Greek meaning of the word mathetes meaning learner. But in any Biblical application, we cannot look merely to external sources, we must look internally to God’s Word to find out what being a disciple means in context with Jesus Christ.
Through asking the above question, I’ve come to the conclusion that many people today believe that being a disciple of Christ is a different or higher ranking within the body of Christ. In fact, it appears as though many of those who claim Jesus Christ as Savior are “mere Christians” while there are others who strive after Jesus with their whole hearts, maybe denying themselves the pleasures of the world, becoming a pastor, theologian, or missionary. The latter of which essentially devotes their life to Christ, while the remaining majority are content to give Jesus small slivers of their life as they see fit. So in essence, the majority seem to want just enough Jesus to get to heaven, not enough to suffer in anyway here on earth, not enough to turn their back on the world, and certainly not enough to be fully submitted and obedient to the Lord.
Our support text for the Biblical definition of disciple comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 9 where Jesus is speaking to a crowd as He states, “23…”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26 ESV In verse 23 Jesus is stating the requirements of discipleship and establishing who it applies to, namely “anyone” who follows Him. Dear friend it’s so critical to note this, Jesus doesn’t create a hierarchy of followers, there’s no advanced elite group, anyone that follows him and claims Him as their Savior must deny themselves and take up their cross daily. All believers are part of the body of Christ, while we may make-up different parts, i.e. some may act as the hands and serve and others act as the feet and spread the Gospel (Romans 10:15). Although we may each have different roles as allotted to us by Jesus, and there certainly may be different maturity level amongst believers, we are not in a hierarchal relationship with Christ. Even the Apostle Paul refers to himself as the chief of sinners (I Timothy 1:15) and states openly that it’s not as though he has obtained anything yet (Philippians 3:12). If anyone could brag about his status it was Paul, but he knew he had obtained nothing in and of himself and in reality he was no better than anyone else.
Jesus next addresses those who seek security, those who seek monetary or worldly desires, and those who are too proud lest they be embarrassed for claiming Christ. These groups are where the majority of people fall, yet none are disciples and none have the assurance of salvation as Jesus qualifies his argument with, “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
For our second proof text we will stay in Luke 9 where Jesus begins to describe what the costs of discipleship are, “57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And 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.” 59To another he said, “Follow me. “But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:57-62 ESV In the first verse of this passage we read of a man stating his allegiance to Christ, much like the majority that we identified in the opening. Jesus immediately reminds them that He has nothing, not even a place to sleep at night. Discipleship is not popular, not extravagant, and it certainly doesn’t produce wealth. To the next person Jesus says, “Follow me,” yet instead of coming with Him, this person makes an excuse that he needed to wait for his inheritance at the burial of his father. Again, the choice of the world is at odds with being a disciple. A third says he will follow, so willingly he commits, yet is unable to give himself fully because his priority is not Jesus first.
The third and final text that we’ll examine to find how Jesus defines a disciple comes from Luke chapter 14:
“25Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
Again He opens with a qualification, “anyone”, if anyone comes to Jesus and does not hate his family, he cannot be His disciple. The text here is not saying a literal hate, but instead if someone isn’t willing to choose Christ over choosing their family, then they are not worthy. A strong claim indeed and perhaps this is why Jesus states in Matthew 7:14 the, “gate is narrow…that leads to life.” Next He states you cannot be His disciple if you don’t bear your own cross. Meaning dying to self and living to Christ and the will of God.
Jesus concludes His discussion by using two parables to illustrate the cost of discipleship, the first of which He uses the analogy of a man building a tower, whose foundation is lain but the costs to complete have not been calculated and people begin to mock him because he could not finish. So too is the Christian life. Many start, many many, claim Jesus as their Savior, or they say they are going to heaven. But there are never signs of repentance, never evidence of a changed heart, no fruit, nothing but a broken down foundation from a once well intended plan of one that has not counted the cost of discipleship.
I’m reminded about the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:18-23), the seed was sown to all four, but the devil snatched it from the heart of the first, the second received it with great joy, yet it took no root, the third took root but got choked out, nothing more than a foundation, only the fourth seed took root and bore fruit. Three had what appeared to be faith, yet only one remained in the end. So too is a disciple of Christ. He counts the cost, builds upon the foundation with silver and gold, not straw and stubble, and he finishes the race complete in his faith to the day of salvation. Have you counted the cost and renounced everything else? Are you denying yourself in order to be a disciple of Christ’s? Or have you cheapened the grace that Jesus’ blood purchased by deceiving yourself into a second rate salvation and pretending the rest are the ones to whom discipleship belongs? In closing, I want to include a quote by John Stott, from his book Basic Christianity,
“The Christian landscape is strewn with the wreckage of derelict half-built towers. The ruins of those who began to build and were unable to finish. For thousands of people still ignore Christ’s warning and undertake to follow Him without first pausing to reflect on the cost of doing so. The result is the great scandal of Christendom today, so called nominal Christianity. In countries to which Christian civilization has spread, large numbers of people have covered themselves with a decent but thin veneer of Christianity. They have allowed themselves to become somewhat involved, enough to be respectable but not enough to be uncomfortable. Their religion is a great soft cushion. It protects them from the hard unpleasantness of life while changing its place and shape to suit their convenience. No wonder the cynics speak of hypocrites in the church and dismiss religion as escapism.”
Matthew 28:19-20 “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.”