Who are we in Christ? The answer to this question is key to self-understanding. As Christians, we have several distinctive aspects to our experience:
First, there was the odd way the disciples were chosen. Other teachers were chosen by their followers. They could choose to accept or turn away whoever came to them, but they didn’t generally go out seeking certain people to be their disciples. Jesus, on the other hand, spent time with those who naturally followed Him, took time to get to know them, then spent all night in prayer before choosing twelve.
And what a startling crew He picked! Jesus saw potential in these men that most of us would not have discerned, and certainly teachers like Plato or Hippocrates would not have chosen them. It is also remarkable that they were instantly willing to leave their daily business and follow this Carpenter from Nazareth. They apparently saw something extraordinary in this Man that even most of His own relatives had not yet
All disciples have as their goal to become like their masters or teachers. In Jesus’ case, His major mission, to die for all humanity, could not be imitated, duplicated, or learned. His disciples, in contrast, had the unique task given to them to make more disciples.
After Jesus called the Twelve, He also called the Seventy (Luke 10:1–20) and then, at the end of His earthly ministry, commanded His disciples to “ ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ ” (Matt. 28:19).1 Thus, again unlike earthly systems, this discipleship is not restrictive: it is governed by the same “whosoever” principle that operates in God’s plan of salvation (John 3:16). So a Christian disciple’s job is to encourage others to become disciples too.
Every other teacher could teach only while he lived, and then, after death, through whatever writings he might have left. Jesus, however, promised that even when He was no longer with them, He could still teach His followers new things. How could this be? Before His trial and death, Jesus had so much to tell His beloved disciples. This is just one of them: “ ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you’ ” (John 16:12-15).
This is one of the most important differences; our Teacher is still with us. We can’t see Him, feel Him, or hear Him, yet we can do all those things, in some unexplainable way. And we never graduate. Our job is to be a lifelong learner and to pass it on.
The most important difference, though, between what would have been seen as ordinary, garden-variety discipleship and the discipleship of Jesus is that the former was based on the content of a philosophy or teaching, whereas the latter is rooted in the accomplishment of Jesus. What Jesus achieved is redemption from sin through His death and resurrection. His disciples very soon made it abundantly clear that they were willing to lay everything, even their lives, on the line for this Master, and He wasn’t even here anymore! It was amazing to the ancient world, and when it’s real, it’s still amazing today.
Whoever heeds His call, experiences His forgiveness, and commits himself or herself to Christ’s service is His disciple. Christian discipleship is an operative link between the saved and the Savior. The former is to live, obey, relate, experience, and serve within the will of the latter. Thus, Paul could say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Christian discipleship rests not so much on Christ’s teachings as on what He did for the salvation of humanity. Jesus bids all His followers to identify themselves fully with Him and take up their cross and follow Him. Without walking in the footprints of Calvary, there is no Christian discipleship.
There’s one more difference, and it’s a tragic one. In any other teaching system, then or now, students could decide to leave. You can leave even such a great teacher as Gamaliel, Plato, or Einstein. You can drop out of college, change your job, decide you no longer want to take art lessons. This has always been true of Jesus, as well. He forces no one. It would be totally outside His nature to do so. But in this case, the consequences are greater. John 6:60-66 describes one major falling away of Jesus’ disciples. This was a watershed moment of His ministry. But it had far-reaching results. And it broke the Master’s heart.2