The word "disciple" simply means one who listens to, learns and lives out the teachings of another. Jesus, in his lifetime, had many disciples, both male and female. They followed him around Palestine, listened to his teachings, watched his behaviour and tried to live out what they learnt.
The simplest description of a disciple is a follower. Jesus said, "follow me", i.e. do what I say and do what I do. A person who enters the Kingdom of God, finds that, as members, they have set before them a task-orientated programme. This programme is given for their own good. It serves to train them, to prepare them for their rule with Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven. The programme is set by Jesus, the King of the Kingdom. He himself has lived out the programme in his own life, and this serves as an example to his disciples. He has also revealed all the details of the programme, both in his own teachings and in the teachings of his apostles, and these are recorded in the New Testament.
Our question in this paper is - "What does Jesus want us to do?", i.e. what does discipleship entail?
Jesus' key message to mankind was "The Kingdom of God is at hand" - it is about to burst in upon us, so what are we going to do about it?
What is this Kingdom? Simply, it is a community:
Blessed with God's presence;
Ruled and directed by Him.
So Jesus was telling His contemporaries that God was drawing a people to Himself:
to experience an intimate relationship with him and other believers, and;
to be directed, ruled, guided and cared for by him.
It was Jesus' death and resurrection that made this all possible.
What response to this message did Jesus demand? In summary form Jesus' commands are as follows:
Enter in the Kingdom, i.e. Join this community. The great truth is that the entrance fee costs us nothing. Jesus has done everything for us. If we want to go in we simply let go and ask him, or as the Bible puts it, "repent".
Live in the Kingdom, i.e. become an active member of this community. The prime requirement is "faith". In fact, this is the one and only law in the Kingdom. Faith, trust, belief, reliance on Christ is the one and only requirement, the one and only demand that God makes of us, Rom.1:17. Yet along with this "law", those who live in the Kingdom are called on to accept, for their own sake, a series of expectations, responsibilities, which we should strive to shoulder. We might like to call them Christ's training programme for eternity. These responsibilities may be summarized as: love God and love neighbour. So although entry is free, membership costs us everything.
Therefore, Jesus calls on his disciples to share the responsibilities of membership in his Kingdom. Discipleship involves living as members of God's new community.
The following short Bible study will help us see what Jesus really expects from his disciples:
i] Mark 1:16-20. Leave all for Jesus. Drop what you're doing, team up with Jesus and do what he wants you to do.
ii] Mark 8:31-9:1. Here's what he demands, everything - a denial of self, even to the loss of physical existence. We have to be willing to get to and follow Jesus, i.e. do what he did. We have to be willing to accept consequences which may be pretty lousy, even deadly.
iii] Mark 9:30-37. Be a servant of all. We must now live for others not self. We have to stop being kings and be babies and do what our Dad wants us to do.
iv] Mark 9:43-50. Get rid of anything that stands in your way of being a faithful servant. (cf. Mark 10:28-30).
As members of the Kingdom we are to serve the King, live only for him; to follow our master and die to self, John 12:20-26.
Here we are faced with a massive problem. Our world is in darkness and rebellion against God and heading for destruction. God in his great mercy has burst into it and set up his Kingdom. So right now we can escape the world and the destruction it faces, and enter the Kingdom and bathe in its peace. Yet when we have escaped the world, we find we still have one foot in it. We have to remain to be perfected in holiness. So we must be "in the world, but not of the world" .... And that's the problem, it's easier said than done.
As disciples we understand that members of the Kingdom are to work for the king. That means we must strive to apply all our resources to the job he has given us. Our time, talent and tinkle must be optimized for the Kingdom. This then is the ideal and it can be summed up in Jesus' command to "love" - we are to strive in our devotion to God and to live for others rather than self, maximizing our resources to that end.
As members of God's beautiful world we are to rightly share in the bounty of His creation. He made it for our happiness, for our enjoyment. It is not evil to participate in God's beautiful world, to enjoy it to the full. There is of course danger now that God's good world is corrupted, Rom.12:2, 2 Tim.2:4, 1 John 2:15. Yet we are not called to deny the flesh as if our natural desires are evil in themselves.
Yet it's actually impossible to live out both perfectly - to live for others and to live for self. In the end, we can only aim at ideals, never do them. And in the end, that's all Jesus wants us to do. He wants us to do what we can. Because of the limitations of the present, we can't reach the ideals of the Kingdom. It is true also to say that the ideals of the Kingdom can't reach us. They just don't work here. Imagine trying to apply "give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." The principles of the Kingdom are restricted by the limitations of our age and so force compromise upon us. It is also true that the powers of darkness, of temptation and sin, limit the effectiveness of discipleship in that we fail to live in total purity. Compromise is often forced on us. As the apostle Paul put it, we are to serve Jesus "as free from worldly entanglements as possible." "I am not putting difficulties in your path, but setting before you an ideal." The rule of thumb is, "do what you can".
Biblical commands serve as a training programme to prepare disciples for their rule with Christ in eternity. Yet first, there are three things we need to say about the commands of Christ:
i] Although they don't quite work here, e.g. "love your enemies", they are not given to spoil our fun, but rather to promote joy. Doing them, or at least trying to do them, is best for us in the long run.
ii] We must be careful with ideals. They are not rules to be done. All we can do is aim at them.
iii] The doing of God's law does not gain or maintain our standing in the sight of God, gain his approval or advance us in our Christian life. God's grace sees to all that.
i] Spirituality. We are to strive to develop our personal relationship with Christ. This we do through Bible study, prayer and in the loving touch of the brotherhood.
ii] Sinlessness. We need to look to the grace of God to progress the work of sanctification in our lives through godly living. This we do by trusting Christ's work of renewal within and daily seeking to live out that renewal in a life which is honouring to him.
iii] Simplicity. Against the complexity of daily life we need to maximize our resources of time, talent and tinkle for the realisation of the Kingdom in our own life, that of our church and the broken world. Simplicity involves living for the day, rather than the future or the past - "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." It involves "doing few things but doing them well." It involves keeping the cream of our life for Jesus.
The command of Christ is that we "love one another", Jn.13:34. This love is primarily exercised within the Christian fellowship toward our brothers and sisters in the Lord, 1Pet.2:17. This love within the Christian fellowship serves as the sign of the dawning Kingdom to a dying world, Jn.13:35, 16:7-8, 17:20-23. Love is exercised within the Christian fellowship in two particular ways:
i] The business of caring for each other, 1Thes.4:1-12.
ii] The business of equipping each other for service through the exercise of spiritual gifts, Rom.12:1-8, Eph.4:1-16.
Disciples have been given the responsibility of gathering in the lost. Our task is to proclaim the good news of the gospel to the "perishing". Those who hear and believe are saved - they enter the Kingdom, Jn.3:16, 14:6. Believers are to equip each other with the pure gospel that each may give a defence of their faith when asked to do so, 1Pet.3:15. We are also to set apart and finance evangelists to work as specialists in evangelism, Eph.4:11.
There are two particular ways we facilitate evangelism:
i] By word. We get the gospel out through the mediums of communication available to us - the spoken word through to the electronic media.
ii] By sign. We show Christ to our broken world through his grace of love in our lives. "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples."
Think out how you could live simply for Jesus.