Over ten thousand, seven hundred words and I am only scratching the surface. I am writing this short introduction to let you know that this is not a short essay! I am also writing this introduction to ask you to take the time to read this entire essay and consider (or maybe reconsider) what you think you know about discipleship. I am not pretending that I have all, many, or any answers on the subject of discipleship. As a matter of fact, I may have raised more questions, and that may be a good thing. What I hope to do through this essay is to share how God has been challenging me to rethink how I have understood and undertaken discipleship in my own life. As a pastor, I feel the weight of this constantly. But, more importantly, as a disciple of Christ, this has become a passion that I cannot dismiss as someone else’s responsibility. Jesus has called me and you to make disciples. I hope this essay will help you understand some of the “what” and even more of the “why” of discipleship.
This essay will be significantly longer than many of my other posts on the site. It will take the form of a white paper on the subject of Discipleship. Part of the reason for this extended presentation is that the subject matter is of particular import to me and I hope will be to you, the reader. Over the years I have been challenged to answer this question: What does the word discipleship mean?
I primary reason for writing is that there will be two groups of people who will discover this article. The first will be those who claim to be disciples of Christ and who are interested in deepening their understanding of the topic. The second, those who do not identify with the cause of Christ. If we claim to be a follower of Christ then the subject of Discipleship should compel us to take a significant amount of time to study, understand, and most importantly, practice it in our lives. If you are reading this and are not a follower of Christ, my hope is that by reading this you might gain a clearer understanding of the ideal that every Christian should strive for. I will not be arguing that any one of us can perfectly live out these ideas. My hope is only to point to what those of us who claim to be disciples of Christ ought to be doing, even though we falter along the way and in the attempt.
A secondary reason for writing in this extended form is that I believe the church needs to (re)discover what Jesus taught and ultimately exemplified in the forming of that first generation of disciples. If we do not commit to seeking Jesus’ way of making disciples we will travel down many paths that, while providing short-term success, will leave many people with long-term deficits in their understanding of faith and vocation. Therefore, let’s turn our attention to the purpose of this article.
The Beginning and a Little History
When trying to find a place to enter into a topic, I remember the words that Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, told Dorothy when she asked how to get to The Emerald City. Glinda said, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” Therefore, allow me to share with you the genesis of the thoughts and ideas that I will be elaborating upon below.
My journey into the world of being a disciple who makes disciples of Jesus really began just over six years ago (2010). Even though I was raised in the church and am the son of a pastor, I did not have any formal understanding of discipleship. In the course of these six years, I have been influenced and impacted by several relationships that were born out of a simple invitation. The purpose of the invitation was to intentionally journey with another believer in a deliberate discipleship relationship.
If you have been in or around the church for any length of time you know, or at least have heard, that the last command of Jesus, before his ascension back to Heaven, was for his disciples to go into the whole world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). For well over 2,000 years, the church has made this her aim. Or at least the church has been trying to do this. I am not trying to disparage or criticize when I say “trying.” What I am meaning is that the struggle and effort to comply with this command has proved challenging for a variety of reasons throughout the history of the church. The level of success in accomplishing the goal of discipleship–namely, the producing of mature, healthy disciples who reproduce the same results in others–has varied in a wide spectrum of degrees of success. And yet, the miracle that we see is that the Church continues to survive and expand. I am really just pointing to what I have noticed as I have studied the subject of discipleship in the last decade or so of my life. What I have found is that the definition of discipleship is as disparate as there are definers. This, in the end, may be a major contributing factor in the problem of knowing what discipleship is and is supposed to produce.
My goal here is not to add to the already given definitions, but rather to ask a different question altogether. I do not want to know what discipleship is, so much as what is the foundational purpose of discipleship? In other words, what was it that Jesus hoped would happen after disciples were made, formed, equipped, and finally mobilized? What was that “end product” that Jesus had envisioned? And, more to the point, did Jesus accomplish this objective? The reason I want to look at this alternate question is simply this, the results of any discipleship process that does not produce what Jesus said should be produced will help us to evaluate and correct any methods that are not forming people into disciples who fulfill the purpose Jesus says we should see at the end of the line. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to help shape an evaluative matrix that allows us to assess if what we are doing is in line with Jesus’ stated goal.
Over the centuries, there have been various methods, approaches, definitions, and systems created to make disciples in the church. Just as varied have been the reasons and purposes given for what should be the definitive product of those discipleship processes. I am not going to rehash all of that here. There are many good books that you can find to understand the historical development of discipleship from a methodological point of view. What I want to focus our attention on is a couple of statements that Jesus said about those twelve men who were his first disciples. The reason I want to pivot to these statements is because they are evaluatively significant. These statements are provocative, at least to me, because I rarely see them addressed within the context of discipleship at all. And yet, they address and point to some of the qualities and expectations that Jesus appears to prioritize when assessing the development of his disciples. The silence in the literature is remarkable and I believe has contributed to the reason, I believe, that the church’s understanding of discipleship has remained deficient and largely unchanged.
If we are going to make disciples of the world, it would be a good idea, I imagine, to take our cues from Jesus, first and foremost. I don’t think anyone who is serious about making disciples would argue with or against this point. And, my point is not to condescend. It is just to highlight that all who engage in the search for the way that Jesus made disciples is fighting the uphill challenge of determining what Jesus actually did. This should not be minimized, but it must also not be devalued in importance. I am not claiming any special revelation on the matter. What I do want to do is point to something that has been gnawing at me for a long time.
What I have found, as I have discussed the subject with people through the various churches I have served and interacted with, is that our engagement with Jesus’ words on discipleship and his example, as it is contained in the Scriptures, tends to focus exclusively on the issue of “method.” What is worse, there does not appear to be any significant thought given to the evaluation of what these methods actually produce. We may pay lip service to the product, but we do not really see past our programs to what happens one, five, or even ten years down the road because we have replaced one program for another.
Whether we like it or not, Jesus did not teach the disciples a method. He did not offer them a menu of options. Jesus trained those initial disciples in such a way that they would be able to reproduce what they themselves had received. The Church has to get off the train of newer and better methods and programs. Whatever it was that Jesus gave to the disciples had to have been good enough to sustain and build the church until his return. If it was not, then we have a far more serious problem on our hands. But, that is a tangent for another time.
In simple terms, we should ask ourselves if the methods we have available to us in the Church produce present-day disciples who are similar in conviction and example as the disciples we find in Scripture? If not, then we have to call into question, or at the very least challenge, the methods and philosophies that undergird those methods. And, we have to take a serious look at the systems we are putting in place and begin to very quickly make changes. However, those changes have to be grounded in the narrative we see in the Scriptures, the principles of God’s Word, and Christ’s example for disciple-making. Otherwise, we will find ourselves going in circles and not making any headway.
Jesus’ Astonishing Claim about his disciples in John 15
To this end, I want to point to some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples. In John 15 we find Jesus’ speaking to his disciples about what he desires for them and what is yet to come. It is one of the few places where we have Jesus speaking in an extended and uninterrupted way. Because of this extended exposition, it can be easy to overlook some details because they are overshadowed by more “catchy” ideas. However, here in the first few verse of chapter 15, tucked inside of these final admonitions, we find a remarkable claim. One that should, in my opinion, have a greater impact in how we conceive of and evaluate our disciple-making process.
Let’s read what Jesus said and then we will identify the claim and unpack some of its implications. We will be looking at four specific implications in particular that we can draw from Jesus’ claim.
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:1-17)
If you are not sure what the claim I’m referring to is, you can see it in verse 15.
15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
I will be dealing with the implications of this idea throughout the rest of this essay, but I want to offer a preliminary thought here. How seriously do we even take this claim to be, that we are Jesus’ friends and that he told us everything he had to tell us? The degree to which we accept and internalize this claim will greatly determine how we see and live out Jesus’ final command to make disciples. And, more to our purpose here, this claim will force us to reevaluate what we are doing as we try and make disciples ourselves. But, we will look at that more in depth below.
It is safe to say that this passage of scripture is loaded with so much to consider it would take a very long time to unpack what it all means. So, I will not be trying to do that. My goal is to paint in broad and clear strokes what, I believe, we, as the Body of Christ, have not understood about discipleship, based explicitly on Jesus’ example and instruction in this passage.
I know that is a tall order, however, I believe that, as a whole, we as the church have become too clever by half as it relates to this most important task of making disciples. One of the greatest obstacles to forming lasting disciples is that the more complicated the process, the higher the risk of the process not taking root in the heart and mind of a potential disciple. Every discipleship book I have read clearly argues and demands that in order for a discipleship process to succeed it must reproducible. And, in order to be accepted by the widest range of people, it must be simple enough for anyone to do it. If it is not, then that method of making disciples will fail. Maybe not right away, but eventually it will fail.
I cannot overstate the fact that making disciples is THE task that Jesus left for us to fulfill as his physical representatives here on the earth. That alone should motivate each believer to take seriously the call to make disciples. The greater our conviction that discipleship is a critical issue for us individually and for the life of the Church corporately, the greater our desire to obey Christ’s command to make disciples. Also, it behooves us to make sure we know what we are doing. We do not want to cause anyone we disciple to stumble because of ignorance that could have been remedied through diligence. (Again, I am not intending to cast a disparaging thought or accusation toward those who do not see discipleship as I do. One of my aims is to call more Christians to personalize this call to be a disciple-maker and not to just let the “professional Christians” do it. If I am able to cause you to think differently about discipleship I will consider the effort of writing this essay a success.)
With the above convictions in mind, I want to draw a line in the proverbial sand here. If we, as the church, are not making disciples, then we cannot properly claim to be a part of the Church that Jesus said he was going to build. There are some minimums that must be reached and maintained in order for a gathering of people to be rightly classified as a church. First, The church exists to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ which naturally and necessarily leads to taking those new converts into its ranks and, second, making those new believers into disciple-making disciples. This is something that cannot be passed onto the leadership of the church as though they are the only ones responsible. Each and every person who claims the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross must make it their business to make disciples. Will some people be better at it than others? Yes. That, however, is not sufficient reason to not do our very best to learn and go and make disciples ourselves.
I will grant that what complicates the situation is that we do not all have a shared definition of what a disciple is. When we use the same word but are talking about different things or have slightly nuanced understandings, it can be difficult to have a conversation that makes any sense. So, in the next section, I will do my best to provide what I mean when I use the word “disciple.”
How do we identify a disciple?
Now, I will readily admit that this may not be a concern in some quarters of the church. However, if we are going to take Jesus’ words seriously in Matthew 28 and here in John 15, we have to ask ourselves one simple question: How do we identify a disciple? Said another way, we may want to ask about the attributes and character qualities of those who after having gone through a discipleship process now most closely resemble the disciples that Jesus made.
We could get into all kinds of academic arguments here, trying to define it functionally, practically, structurally, etc. But, for our purposes here, we will limit out analysis to looking at the testimony of the Gospels and the New Testament. The primary reason I will apply this constraint is because I think the Scriptures contain some clarifying information that is too often overlooked or even dismissed and I believe it is pertinent to our discussion of discipleship.
As I read the Scriptures, I am left with the unmistakable sense that a disciple was someone who followed a teacher because they (the disciple) believed that the teacher had something to offer them personally. You can find many excellent explanations of the whole process of selecting disciples in the first century doing a google search, but in the end, what we are talking about are some people who did not know something who wanted to get connected to someone who apparently did.
When we define who is a disciple with too much technical jargon we move away from what we find in the Bible. Therefore, by defining discipleship relationally we are keeping the definition simple enough to understand by a large spectrum of people. We should not forget that the original disciples were common men (and women). They were just people who heard about this teacher who was “teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29). And, not only was he teaching in a way not common to that class of individuals, he was teaching anyone who would listen!
One of my favorite examples of Jesus’ selection process is found in John 6. It may seem unusual at first, but it illustrates how Jesus was looking for something in particular in his followers and not everyone was ready or willing to commit to it. Jesus is teaching about what we now call Communion or the Last Supper. In this section of scripture, we find Jesus saying some things that really did not sit well with his audience (John 6:51-60). They thought Jesus was talking about literally eating his body and drinking his blood. And, because this sounded so much like cannibalism, most of those listening could not get over the imagery that Jesus was using. It went against their cultural and religious sensibilities. In the end, a large group of those in attendance decided to leave (John 6:66).
Jesus then turns to his own disciples and asks them rather pointedly: “So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?'” (John 6:67). That had to have been a shocking and challenging question. But, Peter’s response is an amazing testimony of what they were willing to risk, even in the light of these “hard saying[s]” (v. 60). I have always been inspired by this response:
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
“To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Emphasis added.) I don’t know about you, but I do not always respond like this to the hard sayings I find the Bible calling me to practice and perform. I keep wanting for those parts of the Bible to just fall out so I don’t have to worry about them. Or, worse yet, I just ignore them because I’m working on something else at the moment and, maybe, “I’ll get to it later.” This attitude has become one of the most typical demonstrations of our “obedience” to God.
This passage has deeply convicted me over the last few years. While it may not be true as a general reality, my feeling is that this running from Jesus’ hard sayings has become the defining characteristic of many who claim to be disciples of Jesus. Running away when Jesus says something we do not like is not one of the definitive characteristics of a disciple. As a matter of fact, it is proof that we have not committed ourselves to following Jesus wherever he leads. Disciples of Jesus stick around, doing what Jesus has called them to do, particularly when those calls to obedience are difficult and uncomfortable.
I would challenge you as you read what follows below to consider your own response to Jesus’ commandments. Our tendencies when challenged to obey will reveal a great deal more than we may realize. I have heard it said that it is easy to obey until you are called upon to do something you don’t want to do. It is at that moment that our obedience will truly be tested. Therefore, when we encounter calls to make hard choices it is vital that we not ignore our visceral reactions to the requests made of us by Jesus in the Scriptures. We are fooling ourselves if we believe it is possible to have a deep and lasting discipleship without this commitment to stay and endure. The unyielding truth is that we will not arrive at Jesus’ purpose for our discipleship when we cut and run at the first sign of difficulty.
A Shocking Realization about Discipleship
What I have discovered (rediscovered?) is an unexpected purpose for discipleship. A purpose that serves as the binding agent for the entire process. And, it is not what I imagined it to be. As I have reflected on the discipleship relationships I have had that impacted me, there was a common thread that ran through them all. As I investigated further what the Bible has to say on the subject I realized that this purpose was very present throughout the story of the Gospels and beyond.
This realization has truly been shocking. For the rest of this article we will be outlining the four implications I find most striking in Jesus’ words here in John 15. If and when we can make sense of these ideas, we will find that our conviction about discipleship and our motivation for discipleship will develop as we grow to greater heights and depths of maturity.
Let’s turn now to what we can learn from Jesus’ words to his original disciples, and to us, in John 15.
1. Our ability to accomplish the disciple-making mission requires that we stay connected to Jesus, and him only. (vv. 3-5)
The first implication I would like to draw from Jesus’ words here in John 15 is that if we are not ravenously connected to Jesus we will not accomplish the disciple-making mission he gave to us. I would like to think that this is self-evident. However, even in our day, the church continues to struggle to put forth a clear and coherent explanation of the sufficiency of Jesus. The prevalence of works-based theological systems and false gospels is evidence for this lack of trust in Christ alone.
Stated another way, there are still so many people in the world who do not believe or fully understand that faith in Jesus’ completed work of redemption is enough for salvation. There is nothing that needs to be added to his sacrificial work of salvation. There are still too many people who, when they think about the redemption that Jesus purchased with his blood on the cross, feel as if there is still some outstanding requirement that must be met, by them, in order to be and feel saved.
The number of people who are robbed of the joy and peace that comes from salvation is an indictment on the church’s diluted preaching of the Gospel. When Paul wrote in Romans that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation he was speaking to something that we do not see often enough in our churches. The faithful preaching of the Gospel has been replaced by speaking to the felt-needs of those who attend. Churches have become more self-help seminars than substantive theological seminaries.
Salvation is the byproduct of God’s power being manifested in the soul of a sinner. A sinner that is dead in their trespasses and sins. A sinner that can do nothing to earn or merit God’s grace. This power is the catalyst and source of eternal life. And this comes when the Gospel is simply and directly and passionately proclaimed to the unbeliever.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)
Fundamentally, what this means is that if there are not salvations (and by salvation I mean both the moment of redemption and the ongoing process of sanctification, which I believe Paul had in view here) then the power of God has not been manifested. If this power has not been felt it follows that the Gospel has not been proclaimed as it should be. As I look at Paul’s phrasing and logic I am convicted of this. The salvation of a lost soul depends on God to act in power and that only comes when the Gospel is preached, because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). Therefore, when I say that the church, whether intentionally or not, has preached a diluted Gospel, I say that because the result that I should see, i.e., the regular and clearly evident salvation of sinners, is not taking place. I just do not see the result that Paul says should be seen. And the substance that brings about that change, which is made visible through faithfully preaching the Gospel, does not seem to be producing the result we should expect. So, either the Gospel is not being preached as it should be or God is not as powerful as he claims.
The first is a better option than the second. Because if the second is the real problem, every preacher should find something else to do with their time. And,if the problem is the first, then a return to the faithful preaching of the Gospel will make the power of God visible in our churches and in the world.
Now, Paul’s insights on the preaching of the Gospel are a necessary tangent here. If we are going to understand why Jesus’ redemptive work is sufficient we have to see the link between the work and the message that communicates it. If we, as believers in the Gospel, do not see a compelling reason to stay connected to Jesus we simply will not have the confidence to stay faithful in difficult times. The nature and sufficiency of our salvation is a significant component of the varied ways God uses to draw us and keep us close to Jesus. In other words, if when I “believe” in Jesus I am not convinced of my own transformation from sinner to a child of God, then I will not have a strong enough motivation to turn to Jesus when the winds of life begin to blow hard against me.
John records for us Jesus’ powerful words. Jesus was abundantly clear that we need to stay connected to him if we are going to be able to sustain our faith and life.
3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (vv. 3-5)
We cannot bear any fruit if we are not connected to the vine. Jesus is the “true vine” (v. 1). Therefore, we have to recognize that our ability to be disciples who make disciples is tied to how well and how close we are to Jesus. We can’t go jumping from vine to vine hoping to connect to the right vine. Jesus is the true vine. He is the only true vine. There are no other vines that can provide or sustain life. What this means is that to connect ourselves to anything else is to connect ourselves to death. If life is found in our connection to the true vine, can this mean anything else?
If we are going to accomplish our disciple-making mission we have to stay connected to Jesus, and him only. There can be no alternatives to this. Because the moment we entertain such thoughts and ideas the faster we begin to shrivel away and die.
2. Our Fruitfulness is the Critical Evidence that We are Disciples of Jesus (v. 8)
The second implication that we can glean from this passage in John 15 is that Jesus draws a direct connection between our relationship with him and our fruitfulness.
8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
While not the most provocative idea in the passage, and not the primary focus of our discussion, it is worth mentioning that our fruitfulness is one of the primary ways that God receives glory. Why? Because Jesus said it was! When was the last time you heard a sermon point to this? Why are we so afraid to make this reality plain to see? Why don’t more preachers call believers to become more fruitful? Could it be that we do not want to fail in being fruitful, so we don’t even try? What we do not understand is that when we are not fruitful, whether on purpose or not, we are guilty of robbing God of the glory that is rightfully due to him. It would take me too far afield to deal with this now, but it is important that we see that there is a great deal at stake when we do not have a true and unflinching commitment to Jesus.
Here in verse 8, Jesus states it as simply as possible that our fruit both in spiritual areas of life, but more specifically to our subject, in disciple-making is the evidence that we are his disciples.
I am about to hurt somebody’s feeling right here. Not because I want to, but because I have felt the pain of what I am about to say in my own life. It may be more accurate to say I’ve already mourned this in my own life (and continue to do so!). What Jesus says in verse 8, if I understand it correctly, seems to mean that if I, as a person who claims to be a disciple of Jesus, am not making disciples I am a liar. I cannot and, more painfully, I should not claim to be a disciple of Jesus if I am not intentionally making disciples.
It doesn’t really matter how your try to slice it, you end up with the same problem. Jesus calls all his followers to be disciples. And a disciple is someone who makes disciples. I don’t know what we should call people who do not make disciples, but it probably should not be disciples.
What evidence can we point to in our lives that PROVES that we are Christ’s disciples? That is what we need to ask ourselves. We cannot let ourselves off the hook here. If we are not making disciples, then why not? What have we failed to do to prepare ourselves to make disciples? Making disciples is the responsibility and call of every person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.
If I had known that my fruit (the disciples I make) was one of the ways that God received glory and that it was also a way that I proved I was a disciple of Jesus, I would have started a long time ago to learn and do what I was supposed to be doing. We need to stop talking about how hard it is to make disciples. How hard it is to get people to commit to spiritual matters. How hard it is to get out there and ask people into a discipleship relationship. These excuses do no absolve us from the responsibility we have to go and make disciples.
A Question that Changed My Focus
A couple of years ago, I asked my father a question while we sat talking at a one-year old’s birthday party. If it took Jesus three years to make disciples who then took the world by storm, why do we still have people in our churches, who have been sitting there for 10, 20, 30 years and haven’t learned a thing, except how to sit there?
You see, some try to argue for our failure by asserting the unbelievably ludicrous assertion that we are not Jesus. I honestly do not know anyone who would argue that we are ever going to be! So, yes, that is correct. We are not Jesus. We have never been and we never will be. What this line of argumentation does is deflect responsibility. However, I can understand why people have made this comparison because we have been told that we are supposed to be like Jesus. Here is the problem. That may not be what discipleship was supposed to be. What if the goal of discipleship was to make us like the one who discipled us, with the hope being if we do it right we can trace our spiritual heritage back to Jesus? This may help to explain Paul’s own example when he told his readers to imitate Him, as he did Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). This is either the most arrogant statement in the Bible, or the most humble. Paul was discipled by Jesus and looked like Jesus. Timothy was discipled by Paul and looked like Paul and Jesus. And on and on it goes in an unbroken chain of disciples and disciple-makers.
So, arguing that we are not Jesus misses the point entirely. The issue is not whether or not we can replicate Jesus. The question is can we learn what Jesus did with the disciples we are working with. Because the stark reality of the challenge of making disciples is that the original disciples were just like us. Hardheaded, stubborn, faithless, and arrogant. And yet, Jesus managed to get over 120 people ready to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. And, for many of them, to give their very lives and die in the effort. So, the problem is not that we are not like Jesus. The problem is that we have not learned what Jesus did to get people who were very much like us to go and make disciples.
This, in the end, is the real problem that the Church has to overcome. Until we stop making excuses for our failure to make disciples, we will never see a church triumphing against the forces of darkness in the world. I will admit that the deck is stacked against us in the world. We are told over and over again throughout the Scriptures that the tendency of the human heart is bent toward evil, sin, and darkness. That reality, however, is no excuse for an anemic and cowardly Church.
Jesus said that we have the weapons necessary to engage the enemies of God on the battlefields where we will confront them. Jesus encouraged us to not fear, to stay true to the mission because we would not be left alone, to continue to seek after righteousness. These and so many more promises have been made to us and for us, to now be found cowering inside the four walls of our church buildings waiting for Jesus to come back. Yes, we should have an eschatological longing for the return of Jesus, but we should do that outside the walls, engaging the lies of the world with the truth. Taking the light of God’s word into the darkness that is attempting to completely overshadow this fallen world.
At least in America, every denomination has been seeing greater numbers of people leaving the church. And honestly, I am not surprised. The church, and by this I mean those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, have done very little to prove that we are disciples. If we are going to glorify God and see God’s power at work, we have to believe, truly believe–believe as if our lives depended on it–that without Jesus we are nothing. And that without Jesus we have nothing.
3. Our obedience to Jesus’ words, and by extension the whole of God’s Word, signals our commitment to abiding in Jesus’ love. (vv. 9-10)
The third implication of Jesus’ words in John 15 is that abiding in Jesus’ love is most clearly seen in our obeying the commands of God’s word.
9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
There are three ideas here that I would like to unpack. First, when we abide in Jesus’ love for us we experience God’s love because God the Father is showing his love to the Son. Second, Jesus identifies our “keeping” of Jesus’ commandments as the means for guaranteeing that we will remain or abide in Jesus’ love for us. Third, Jesus’ relationship with the Father is an analogy for how we are supposed to interact with Jesus.
I want to address these in reverse order because that is the logical way of understanding the relationship between these three ideas.
A. Jesus’ Relationship with the Father helps us understand our Relationship with Jesus. (v. 9)
If we are going to understand the nature of the relationship Jesus desires to have with us, we have to study Jesus’ relationship with God the Father. I honestly do not know how to say it any other way. Let me try anyway. The kind of relationship Jesus has with God the Father, Jesus offers to have with you and me!
When Jesus speaks of the Father, the images are punctuated with words like love, sacrifice, humility, care, tenderness, and compassion. These are the images that are littered all over the pages of the New Testament. Jesus does not paint a picture that is harsh or dark. The Heavenly Father that Jesus points us to is one who is simply too good to be true. And yet, this is the one Jesus says sent him, loved him, and guided him. And, it is to this God that we are called to worship and submit our lives.
What’s more, whether we like it our not, we cannot relate directly to God the way Jesus did. If we did we would not survive the experience. Our sin is an insurmountable problem to our having a relationship with God. This is why we need the propitiating sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Without Jesus standing between us and God, we cannot experience the love of God.
Jesus directly underscores in these two verses that we relate to God through him. Without Jesus, there are no means available to us for interacting or relating to God. However, if that causes you some distress, there is no need to fear. We must never lose sight of the fact that Jesus said that he and the Father are one. In practical terms, that means that there is no qualitative or quantitative difference in the love that we experience from Jesus and the love that God has given to Jesus himself. To have one is to have them both! Therefore, when we experience the love of Jesus, we are in every way describable experiencing the very love of God as well.
B. Our Obedience in Keeping Jesus’ Commandments Provides Assurance that We are in Relationship with Jesus.
The second idea we find in verses 9 and 10 is that our obedience to Jesus’ commandments is what grounds our confidence and assurance that we are, in fact, in a relationship with Jesus. Allow me to share several key passages that highlight this connection between our love for Jesus and our faithfulness in obeying God’s or Jesus’ commandments. There are a few, but I find these to be the clearest examples of this reality.
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:15-24 ESV, emphasis added)
This exchange between Jesus and the disciples is remarkable. Jesus clearly and definitively states that there is a direct and verifiable link between our obedience to his word and our love for him. The greater our obedience the great our love. The lesser our obedience the harder it is to substantiate our love for Jesus.
If I take these words seriously, I am left with few places to run for cover. I cannot claim to love God and be disobedient in what the word of God commands me to do. I must strive to do every single thing that we find in Bible. It simply does not matter if we like it or not. It is irrelevant to the conversation if I find it uncomfortable, difficult, or inconvenient. In the same way that I cannot claim to love God, whom I have not seen, and hate my brother, who I have seen (1 John 4:20); I cannot claim to love Jesus and be disobedient to the directives that are clearly and plainly spelled out in the Scripture for me to do.
In John 8, Jesus makes the connection even more striking when he says that continuing in his word identifies us as his disciples. Let’s look at that now.
31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed. (John 8:31 KJV, emphasis added)
There does not be appear to be any confusion in Jesus’ argument. He wants to leave an unmistakable impression on his listeners. And that impression appears to be that our identity with Jesus and our commitment to Jesus is demonstrated by a faithful, consistent, and continuing obedience to what Jesus commanded for us to do. Anything less leaves a doubt, not in our minds, but in the mind of those who are witnesses to our lives of our alleged faith in and love of Jesus. Our obedience is evidence to the unbeliever of what we claim. Our obedience is not for our sakes, but for the sake of those souls who have not yet believed!
If these two references were the only ones we had, that would be an incredible mountain for evidence. However, in John’s first epistle we find two equally weighty augmentations to this idea. The first is found the second chapter of 1 John, and the second reference is from chapter five.
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:3-6 ESV, emphasis added)
3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3 ESV, emphasis added)
In these final two references, there are two realities that stand out. First, our knowledge of who Jesus is as a person is linked to our keeping of Jesus’ commandments. We can only say that we know him (i.e., Jesus), if we keep his commandments. If we do not keep his commandments, then we ought to not say that we know Jesus. This appears to be the implication. Second, our love of God is most clearly demonstrated when we keep his word or commandments. The love of God is “perfected” in our keeping God’s word and our love is defined (“this is the love of God”) when we keep those very same commandments.1
Our obedience is the ground of our assurance. Not because our obedience sustains our redemption. Rather, our changed desires to live our lives in accord with Christ’s commands proves to us that we have been changed. We can lie about our motives for a little while. But, we will grow weary of living that lie. This is why John says in 1 John 4:3, that Jesus’ commands are not burdensome. They do not feel like weights because the burden of actually having to live up to the standard of the law has been met by Jesus. Our task now, on this side of Jesus’ redemptive work, is to obey what God’s word demands, without the worry of punishment for failing to stay one hundred percent true to every aspect of the law. We strive to be obedient even though we will fail because Jesus has already succeeded in fulfilling the requirements of the law.
C. We Experience God’s love when we Experience Jesus’ Love for us.
The third idea that we find in verse 9 and 10 is that when we talk about Jesus’ love we are talking about God’s love. And, when we are talking about God’s love we are talking about Jesus’ love. There is no difference between them. To talk about one in any way is to reference the other.
The love that we receive from Jesus is the love that the Father has given to him. Jesus loves us and he demonstrated that love by dying on the cross. But, it is also true that Jesus’ love is the physical manifestation of the love that God has for us. In other words, when we talk about God’s love we have to see it in and through the actions and words of Jesus. God is spirit. That means that the only way for us to experience God’s love was for God to enter into the world and take the form of those who were to be the recipients of his affections. This is exactly what we see in the incarnation of Jesus.
Jesus, who is God, became like us so that we might come to know the love that Jesus had enjoyed for eternity. The joy of this love is what the Gospel proclaims. We have been brought near by the sacrifice of Jesus. We can try and make sense of it, but in the end, we will not be able to. It is not something we can wrap our minds around. It is not something that we can comprehend. It is something we have to experience.
4. The Foundational Purpose of Discipleship is Godly Friendship (vv. 12-17, esp. v. 15)
The fourth and final implication that we will draw from this passage is that the purpose of discipleship is to establish the spiritual and emotional bonds of the community of faith that is called the Church. Bonds that will support and sustain that community in spite of the challenges they will invariably face. These bonds of love and community will be necessary as the Church strives to remain faithful to the call of obedience to the Gospel mission.
The Church is God’s Plan “A”
Jesus clearly stated that one of his primary goals was to build his church (Matthew 18:18). This objective was going to be accomplished by fostering, nurturing, and molding the individuals who would form the backbone of the first Christian community. Those first disciples were not merely learning how to be fishers of men, no, they were learning how to love one another and live in community together. They were learning what community was going to be after Jesus’ work was finished and he was gone.
The bonds of fellowship that were formed during those three years together served as the stabilizing reality for the Christian church from the outset. We have to synthesize two realities that are on display in the Scriptural record in order to make this connection more plain. The first reality is Jesus’ own words here in John 15. To call and consider these disciples as friends was an act that elevated them to a new status and privilege in their relationship with Jesus. We must not reduce Jesus’ word to hyperbole. Jesus was making a sincere declaration of how he felt about these men. They had become partakers in his mission. Which is exactly what Jesus wanted.
The second reality is the way that the early church interacted with each other as it is described in the book of Acts. Their gathering together every day, breaking bread, and sharing in the Apostle’s teaching (Acts 2:46). The excitement of the new life these disciples had been birthed into needed an incubator, and that function was fulfilled by the Church. Without this relational environment, many of those new Christians would not have had the support they needed to stay encouraged as they embraced their new identity.
It would be a mistake to think that this new community was a necessity due to being ostracized by the larger Jewish community. The isolation and persecution was something that came later. So, it was not the initial motivation for gathering. The reality is that many converts to “The Way” (Acts 22:4) wanted to spend time with each other because there was a seriousness and sincerity in being a follower of Jesus. Their acceptance of Jesus as Messiah had a profound impact on the way these first believers understood themselves. They wanted to learn more about this amazing message they had believed.
It is quite remarkable that in our modern context and from our contemporary vantage point we miss an undeniable component of the Christian faith, namely, that we are a community. We are not merely adherents to a set of laws or axioms. We are not merely servants to a philosophy or code of conduct. When an individual is born again they are leaving one community and entering into another. While others religions form communities as a means of religious compliance to the tenets of the faith, Christianity forms a community as the intended end. Whether we understand it in this sense or not, the Christian community is governed by the law of grace and love rather than a sense of obligation to a code. The body of Christ is vital and distinct from all others precisely because it is about the people who have seen the truth of the Gospel and responded in faith, and not merely because of some fear of retribution by an angered God.
While it may go without saying, it is still worth repeating here, the church is not a building. The church, in its purest and simplest expression, is the gathered people who associate with one another. This group has gathered with the stated purpose of taking the Gospel to all the world by making disciples of the nations. If a group of people claims to be a church and they are not working toward this end, they may not, by definition, fit the biblical requirements of a church. The Church is God’s Plan “A”. There is no other plan to accomplish the will of God on the earth.
While this may all sound very forensic and uncomplicated, it really is not. I am not so naive to think that the “Church,” the embodiment of Christ on the earth can be so easily characterized. What I am hoping to establish is that the church is the instrument that God has chosen to fulfill His purposes on the earth. There is nothing else that God is going to use.
Jesus died for the church. Jesus trained and mobilized the first disciples to take the Gospel into all the world. Jesus commissioned those primary twelve and empowered the initial one hundred and twenty followers to boldly declare and incarnate the community Jesus died to redeem. God had made up his mind about the Church in eternity past when the Triune Godhead determined to redeem sinners. Therefore, to imagine that any other organization or institution will suit the will of God is foolish.
The Friendship of Jesus is the basis of Christian Community
In verses 12 through 17, what we are reading is the basis for the early Church’s cohesion. It seems irrelevant at first glance. However, the implication of Jesus’ words in verse 15 must be given their proper weight. Let’s look at those words in their context.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:12-17 ESV)
What makes these words so astonishing is two-fold. First, we learn that after three years Jesus said that he saw the disciples in a different light. They were no longer servants or students. A shift had taken place. Whether they recognized it within themselves was irrelevant, those disciples had developed into a strong and close-knit community. They were not perfect, but they were bound together by their shared experiences.
The second reason these words stand out is Jesus says that “all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Now, I have a hard time believing this statement. And the reason I struggle with it is not because I think it is a stretch of the truth. I have a hard time believing it because I think it is true!
Whatever it was that Jesus came to do to prepare the disciples for the work that would come after his ascension, Jesus said he had finished that work. The work of the cross was something that Jesus would do alone. But, the work of preparing the disciples to take the Gospel to the ends of the world had been completed. And how does Jesus signal to the disciples that this work has been done? He does it by announcing to them that his desire was not just to make disciples. His goal from the beginning was to make friends. To model and exhibit the kind of community that would sustain them after Jesus had gone.
Godly friendships are what make the Church strong and they are what will make it last. Jesus knew this because before his incarnation he existed in perfect community. The Church must once again capture the vision Jesus had for his body. We are more than individuals who are bumping into each other every-so-often at weekend worship services. We are the body of Christ. Paul reminded the Ephesians that they were to “[speak] the truth in love, [and] grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV, emphasis added).
It is in the community of the saints that the glory of God’s love and his Son are most evidently made know. This community, the one we call the Church, is the place where we learn to love and care for each other. Without this community, we cannot and we will not endure. Jesus understood this. Therefore, the binding ingredient to this discipleship process was the development of godly, gospel-saturated friendships.
Conclusion: A Personal Reflection
Discipleship is a word that encapsulates the reality into which everyone who believes the Gospel must enter. We are no longer our own. We have been purchased with the precious blood of Jesus. He stepped out of heaven, into this world stained by the sin of a fallen humanity and did the impossible. He taught a rag-tag group of misfits how to love each other. But, more than that, they learned how to teach others to do the same.
If we are going to be the Church that accentuates what make Jesus different from all the options available, we will have to do what Jesus said would prove who he is. We are to love one another as he has loved us. I want to offer one clarifying word here. The love that I have for a fellow believer is distinct from the love I share with a neighbor or a stranger. It is not the same. Some have tried to make it so, but it cannot be. When we give to a stranger what rightly belongs to the family, we have given something that has been divorced from any context that would show its beauty. Jesus said as much when he said that world [those who are not of the body] will know that you [those who are of the body] are my disciples when you love one another (John 13:35).
This does not mean that we don’t love people, or that we do not show compassion to those in need. What this does mean is that we should not blur a line that Jesus seemingly highlighted. The love of the members of the body for other members of the body is different and unashamedly so. Our shared faith allows us a freedom of expression that simply cannot exist with someone who does participate in the joy and grace we have in Christ. As sons and daughters of God, we ought to desire for all to experience the divine mystery of God’s grace. However, not all will. We cannot force it upon them and we cannot pretend that they understand what we mean by our love for one another. Any idea detached from its proper context always loses its meaning. We should not make the same mistake with the Church and the love we share with one another as members of it.
A Disciple and a Disciple-Maker
In closing, I want to offer a personal reflection on what I have shared here. Three of my closest friends in the last six years have been men with whom I have journeyed in an intentional discipleship relationship. The first was the man who discipled me. There other two are men I discipled. All three of these men have changed me for the better. They have sharpened me in ways I did not know were possible. I have grown closer to God and deeper in love with Jesus because of their love, example, and willingness to journey together.
These relationships were not complicated. They began with a simple invitation: “Have you ever been discipled?”
We all answered that question by choosing to trust those who invited us. We experienced something that we did not anticipate, and that was a deepening conviction that God’s word is enough; God’s Son is the redeemer; the Gospel conveys the only way to reconciliation with God; and that the Church will triumph in the end because Jesus has already won!
I don’t know where you are today in your understanding of discipleship. I pray that this essay will have challenged and convicted you to consider more deeply this important topic. But, I also hope that you would ask God to send someone who will disciple you.
Today when I extend an invitation to journey in discipleship with someone I tell every disciple two things. First, I tell them that my goal is to help them love Jesus so much that they will want to tell others about him as well in a discipleship relationship. I want to be a disciple who makes disciples.
Second, I tell my disciples that if we are not better friends after journeying together, I will have failed them. At the end of it all, I am not trying to score points with anyone. I am just trying to get as many of my friends to heaven as I can.
- And just for clarity’s sake, I am taking the clauses “his words” and “his commandments” to be synonymous. ↩