In the first two essays of this series we looked at five biblical models of discipleship: Zachariah, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself. And we deduced certain principles about Christian discipleship.
In this essay we will begin with the earliest disciples of Jesus. But we quickly will move to Jesus’ teaching on the subject.
JESUS’ EARLIEST DISCIPLES AS MODELS
In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus appears to call his earliest disciples from their jobs suddenly and precipitously (Mt. 4:18-22, par.). The way the Evangelists tell it, Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee; and he came across Peter, Andrew, and several others fishing, or working on their nets. And Jesus said to them, while they were working, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (v. 19, italics added). And they just dropped their nets and followed him.
But the Synoptics aren’t telling the whole story. All of these men, or at least most of them, had met Jesus earlier in Judea, before Jesus began his Galilean ministry. That story is told in the Gospel of John, 1:35-51.
In other words, before the call to discipleship reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, these disciples already had met Jesus in Judea. And after meeting him, they accompanied him to Cana in Galilee as chapter two of John tells us. There the disciples witnessed Jesus’ first messianic miracle, which was the changing of water to wine at a marriage feast. John calls it a “sign.” That’s in 2:1-11. And 2:11 says that the disciples, “believed in him.” Therefore the later call to discipleship in Galilee was not the “cold turkey” experience it appears to be in the Synoptics.
The process we see in John is familiar to most of us, certainly to me. I met Jesus before I truly believed in him and answered his call to discipleship. That is, I became a Christian as a child; but it was a childish commitment, which I did not live up to. But like those disciples of old, as an adult I saw a “sign” that led to my discipleship. But in my case the “sign,” which led to a mature faith, was not a physical miracle, like the turning of water to wine. My “miracle” was a personal, spiritual “miracle” of inner cleansing and change.
It happened on Sunday evening, September 29th, 1963 at the Colonial Heights Methodist Church in Kingsport, TN. That night, after the evening service, as the climax of a complex process that took place over a couple of years, I returned to the church under deep conviction. I found the pastor, who was still there, and under his guidance gave my life completely to God at the chancel rail. And in that moment the Lord worked a spiritual miracle in my life. I never have been the same since that day. Since then, like the disciples of old, I have wanted to be like Jesus. And I have been willing to follow Jesus anywhere and do anything he asks.
This is important. It cannot be said too often. Christian discipleship is not simply a matter of believing, or doing, the right things. True discipleship is a relationship with Jesus that gives one a willingness to leave everything, and follow Jesus, no matter what it costs, no matter where it leads.
JESUS AS TEACHER: EARLY JUDEAN MINISTRY
Now then, we are ready to take up Jesus’ teachings on discipleship. As we continue reading the early chapters of the Gospel of John, we begin to see what Jesus was teaching about discipleship during those early days of Judean ministry, when he first met Peter and the others. Of course he had much more to say later. But for now let’s look at John 3:1-21. Once again I suggest you look up the passage in your Bible. The passage contains the story of Jesus’ famous discussion with Nicodemus.
Jesus taught Nicodemus the most basic principle about discipleship in existence: “unless one is born anew [or again] he cannot see the kingdom of God” (verse 3). He continues in verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
This second birth, the birth of the Spirit, is the key to discipleship. Indeed one cannot be a real disciple of Jesus without it. To be a disciple of Jesus, one has to be in a real relationship with him. And one enters into such a relationship by repentance and faith. That is, when we believe with genuine repentance and faith that Jesus is the Son of God who came into the world to save us and give us eternal life, we are “born again” (verses 14-17). In theology this experience is called regeneration.
At the moment of regeneration, the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus, comes into our lives to dwell. And we enter into a personal relationship with him. That is a spiritual miracle. And it is absolutely necessary to be a true disciple of Jesus. The new birth marks the beginning of our spiritual journey with him. It makes discipleship possible. And it makes real prayer possible.
What I have just said needs fleshed out a bit in two ways. First, some students of the Word seem to teach that being “born again” is the end of the spiritual quest. But in truth, it is just the beginning. Genuine conversion is not merely a recorded transaction, a record in heaven that says we will go to heaven instead of hell. That happens! It is a wonderful truth, but it is only part of the reality.
When we are converted we not only are “born again” or regenerated. At the same moment our sins are forgiven. In theology that event is called justification. We now stand before God’s bar of divine justice, not as guilty sinners, but as forgiven sinners. Because our sins are forgiven and we are born again, we begin a love relationship with Jesus. This relationship, like all others, needs maintenance. Relationships are dynamic, not static. They grow deeper and stronger, or they grow more shallow and weak.
In theology the process of growing in the relationship with Christ, and becoming like him, is called sanctification. Let’s think of an illustration from our every-day realm. Imagine that a man and a woman marry. Then after the honeymoon, the husband tells his new wife that he is returning to his mother, and that she was to go back to her mother. What would happen to that marriage?
Yes, it would be doomed. They might be married. But there would be no way to develop a good marital relationship. Unless something changed, the marriage would fail. My wife, Tillie, and I have been married for more than 50 years. However, we did not begin our marriage under ideal conditions. I wouldn’t recommend the way we did it to anyone. She had just graduated from high school in Pennsylvania. I had graduated the year before and was in the military, scheduled to go overseas. We married just weeks before I shipped out. Thus we began our marriage with very little experience of one another and a 15-month separation. When I returned from overseas, the real beginning of our married life took place in faraway Texas, where I was stationed. We were just kids, and we hardly knew one another.
We made it, but only because we were too poor for Tillie to fly home. More than once she threatened to take her next allotment check, and go home. But when the allotment check came, the rent was due; and we couldn’t pay it without the money from her allotment. Tillie had too strong a sense of responsibility to leave the rent unpaid, so she would stay. And we managed to work out our relationship.
What I am trying to say is, it takes time and effort to build a relationship. And it is just as true in the spiritual realm as in the physical. So the new birth is the beginning of a spiritual relationship with the Lord Jesus that we call discipleship. And because it is a relationship, discipleship takes time and effort.
In addition, to be a disciple of Jesus is different from the classic idea of learning from a master in order to become a master. It was fairly common in ancient times for people to become a disciple of a particular teacher, because they wanted to become a teacher. But that is not part of being a disciple of Jesus. Rather following Jesus as a disciple is a relationship wherein one unconditionally sacrifices one’s whole life to him (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26f.) for the whole of one’s life (John 11:16).
That was the first matter I wanted to flesh out. The second is that prayer is the primary way we maintain and develop our relationship to Christ. There is no escaping it. Prayer, sometimes accompanied by fasting, is the major means by which we develop our relationship with the Lord. Therefore it is the primary means of pursuing discipleship. I will take up that subject in the next essay.