What is Christian discipleship? By definition, a disciple is a follower, one who accepts and helps to spread the teaching of another. A Christian disciple is a person who accepts and helps to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament, the Greek term for “disciple” is mathetes, which means more than just “student” or “learner.” A disciple is a follower, someone who adheres completely to the teachings of another, making them his or her rule of life and conduct. The Pharisees prided themselves in being disciples of Moses (John 9:28). Jesus’ followers were called disciples. Their discipleship began with Jesus’ call and required them to exercise their will in response to Jesus (Matt. 9:9).
A true disciple is a believer in Christ who possesses new life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and shows total obedience to Jesus. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Christian discipleship, therefore, is the process by which followers of Jesus grow in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and are equipped by the Holy Spirit to overcome the pressures and trials of this life and become more like Christ in His love, vision, mission, and character. This process requires believers to respond to the Holy Spirit’s prompting to examine their thoughts, words, and actions and compare them with the Word of God.
The life of a true disciple of Jesus Christ centers on two important arenas: loving God and loving our neighbors. Let’s take a closer look at these areas.
When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, His response was: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment” (Matt. 22:37-38; see also Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28).
Discipleship is about loving God. It is more than an acknowledgement of God’s existence or a statement of belief regarding God; it is total devotion and head-over-heels-in-love-with adoration. It is the deep desire to know God, to be one with God, and to worship God.
There are many ways to develop our knowledge of and love for God: prayer, Bible study, worship, fasting, conversation with other Christians, etc. These things will strengthen our relationship with God and enable us to experience God’s presence in our lives.
LOVING OUR NEIGHBORS
After Jesus said we must love God with all we have, He immediately broadened the meaning of love by saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
Again and again, the Bible teaches us that loving God and loving our neighbors are two sides of the same coin. We cannot do one without the other. Read the following passages for a glimpse of how prevalent this understanding of Christian discipleship is:
- Matthew 5:43-48, 25:31-46
- Luke 10:25-37
- John 15:12-17
- Romans 12:9-18
- 1 Corinthians 13
- 1 John 4:19-21
From these passages and others, we can draw several conclusions about what it means to love our neighbors. First, loving our neighbors means responding to specific needs—hunger, illness, imprisonment, loneliness, and so forth. Love is more than a feeling; it is a behavior. It is practical and concrete.
Second, our neighbors include many people. Within the context of the Christian community, our neighbors are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Neighbors may also refer to the contemporary understanding of those who live near us. However, from a biblical perspective, neighbors often include people whom we might not normally consider: strangers, prisoners, people who mistreat us (our enemies), people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds, people from different religious traditions, and people who irritate us and push the boundaries of our patience.
Hence, loving our neighbors requires attention and sacrifice. We must pay attention to what is happening around us in order to see our neighbors and recognize their needs. We must also consider their needs to be as important as our own. Loving our neighbors is more than random acts of kindness. It takes time, energy, and commitment. It is a lifestyle carefully cultivated in response to God’s command.
Finally, these passages emphasize that loving our neighbors is mandatory, not optional. It is what Christians do and what Christians are. Our lives are a testimony to our love—our love for God and for our neighbors.
Christian discipleship is grounded in the love and grace of God, experienced through Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is our response to God’s love and grace.
S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of church growth and leadership at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.