Jesus made it abundantly clear that love was the one and only principle on which His kingdom was founded.
The word disciple occurs some 269 times in the New Testament, mostly in the Gospels and Acts. To be a disciple of Jesus is the most life-fulfilling experience one can have. It energizes the spirit, challenges the mind, and demands our utmost in our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. It is important, therefore, to explore what makes a disciple and what are the marks of discipleship. At least four marks must be emphasized of true Christian discipleship. These are marks that make it plain whether it is real or imitation.
First, the priority of Jesus. The New Testament uses a variety of names for Jesus. He is called “the Son of God” but also “the Son of Man” or “the Messiah.” Hundreds of times Jesus is referred to as “the Lord.” The word “Lord,” which initially was quite general in its application, became a highly significant term for the early Christians. The Roman emperor claimed divinity and wanted to be addressed as “the Lord.” To confess that Christ—rather than the Roman Caesar—was their ultimate Lord was not just expressing an opinion. Those who lived in the Roman realm should have only one lord, and to apply this title to any person other than the emperor could well end in torture and death. Thus, it required faith and dedicated discipleship to call Jesus “Lord.”
But today it also is no small thing to call Jesus our Lord and truly to mean it. If He is our Lord, He is the Sovereign over our whole life, over all that we say and do. “ ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me’ ” (Luke 9:23).1All relationships, activities, hopes, and dreams must come under the lordship of Christ—daily and perpetually. Nothing can come between the disciple and the Master (Matt. 10:37-39). A disciple’s ever-binding motto will be, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Second, abiding in Jesus. “ ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed’ ” (John 8:31). Christian discipleship is a call to continuously live in Jesus and to let His Word be the constant guide to faith and conduct. Doctrinal faithfulness, lifelong obedience, and fearless witness to the Master will set a disciple apart from others.
When many Jesus disciples turned away, as recorded in John 6:66, Peter spoke for the disciples and declared their allegiance. “ ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ ” (vv. 68, 69). With the exception of Judas, they eventually did prove to be faithful followers, and they became leaders in the early church, even though they had moments of grave doubt and disillusionment when their Master was taken prisoner and crucified. Their experience gives us great comfort. Many of us have had moments when our resolve to be disciples was at low tide, but as in the case of the apostles, this does not mean that we cannot overcome our temporary lapse.
Third, loving one another. “ ‘A new commandment I give to you. . . . By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’ ” (John 13:34, 35). In Jesus’ new commandment, the newness does not refer to love but to the object of love. We do love, but we love the lovable, our own.
But Jesus expects His disciples to love as He did, to love sacrificially, love at all costs, love without barriers, love inclusively, love to build the community, love to enlarge God’s kingdom, and love to make disciples. As “new” as this may have sounded to the eleven remaining disciples, it was in fact the one command the entire Bible is based upon. The most common thing for which the people of Israel were rebuked time and again by prophet after prophet was unloving actions. Oppressing the poor, unjust treatment of workers, uncaring attitudes toward widows and orphans, even harsh treatment of the stranger or foreigner were the cause of much of the trouble Israel faced in her history.
The one thing Jesus had set His entire life to demonstrating, the one thing He said was
the greatest commandment after loving God, was loving each other. It was even the thing He demonstrated in the very last hours of His life—from speaking words of encouragement to the weeping women on the Via Dolorosa to asking forgiveness for His tormenters, from giving John and His mother to each other’s care to promising salvation to the repentant thief without so much as one question. Jesus made it abundantly clear that love was the one and only principle on which His kingdom was founded. “This,” He said, “is how they’ll know for sure; you’ll love!” Do we? Is that what Christianity is most known for? If not, it isn’t Christianity. Period.
Fourth, bearing fruit. “ ‘By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples’ ” (John 15:8). Far from being a theoretical construct, discipleship is a practical witness to what Christ has done for a sinner. He has forgiven, redeemed, and empowered so that the once feeble and guilt-ridden are freed from condemnation to live lives of obedience and ones that are fruit-bearing. Disciples are overcomers and reflectors of Christ’s righteousness.
There are two basic kinds of “fruit” of the Christian life, and they come in a definite order. First is the fruit of the Spirit, defined (not necessarily exhaustively) in Galatians 5:22-25. Lives in constant connection with Jesus through His indwelling Spirit will be lives like His. They will be loving, joyful, peaceful, and all the rest. It’s a growing thing, of course. It never stops, and you’re never “there.” But you’ll recognize His presence. Second, this fruitful, loving life leads to a greater attraction for those others whom you long to draw into discipleship.
Preachers sometimes say, “An apple tree’s job is not to make apples. It’s to make more
apple trees.” In fact, the apple tree’s only “job” is to stand in the sun, drink in the rain,
draw up all the nourishment of the earth, and be what it was created to be. The apples
will come. And from them will come new apple trees. But none of that is in the control of the tree. Love, however, draws. And Jesus, when He is lifted up (as He always is, where there is love) draws all.2