What are the defining marks of a disciple?

discipleship

Recently, I was asked this question by a friend, “What are the defining marks of a disciple of Jesus?” That’s a really good question. How would you answer that question?

At its core, the word disciple means follower or more specifically a follower who is a learner. A disciple learns and never stops learning the ways of his teacher or master. He learns by watching, listening, and mimicking his master.

The New Testament is chalked full of examples of men and women who who were called disciples of Jesus. The examples include people who followed Jesus both before and after they committed to follow Him completely (Jn.6:66; Acts 11:24). That’s interesting.

When it comes to being a disciple of Jesus, it is probably important to understand what Jesus expects of a disciple. John, a close disciple of Jesus, records a message given by Jesus that clearly outlines defining marks of a disciple,

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12–14)

In Jesus’ own words, we have three defining marks of a disciple of Jesus:

1) A disciple loves like Jesus.

Notice, a disciple is not marked by his knowledge of Jesus (which is important) nor the good things he does for Jesus (which is also important). A disciple is moved to act upon what He knows about God. As Jesus says, “you love one another as I have loved you.” (cf. John 13:35, 15:9, 12, 17). This is not an option, it is an order. A disciple is primarily and distinctively marked by the love he shows another.

You can manufacture this kind of love for a moment, but Jesus demonstrated it throughout His entire life. Jesus had an amazing capacity to love people. He loved the unlovely and His enemy. A disciple loves God and others, like Jesus, by learning from Jesus Himself.

2) A disciple is willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of Jesus.

The words that came out of Jesus’ mouth next are words I am sure you agree are true, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Yes! To that I heartily say, “Jesus, you’re right on! The highest level of love is a willingness to give your life for someone you really care about.” However, Jesus is not just sharing a truism. His intention is that you would connect this truth to the way you love Him (Eph.5:1-2).

Jesus had no shortage of followers. He wasn’t interested in crowds of followers, He was focused on the core of the follower. Some followed just to catch His next miracle, others followed to hear His earth shaking stories and sermons, while others followed for reasons both good and bad. Not everyone that followed Jesus loved Him, some hated His guts.

Jesus had a radical way of separating true followers from bandwagoners. Frequently He had crowd reduction sermons and say things like,

  • “Sell everything that you have…and come, follow Me” (Mk.10:21)
  • “Forsake your life and follow Me” (Mk.8:34-38)
  • “Want to be great? Be a servant” (Mt.20:26-28)
  • “If anyone does not carry his own cross daily and follows Me” (Lk.9:23)
  • “If anyone comes after me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (14:27)

Afterwards, many would go home saying “Jesus, you’re just asking too big a sacrifice from me.” Others would mock His words saying, “You think your God or something?” And others continued to follow. They weren’t many, but they were committed because they counted the cost.

When Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” he was looking for a radical response. It’s as if He says, “If you are really My follower, then you will be willing to go to the grave for Me.” Wow. Let the words of Jesus sink into your skull for a moment. Did you think about that before you committed to follow Jesus?

A disciple dies to self. A disciple is willing to sacrificially lay down his life for Jesus, like Jesus went to the grave for yours.

3) A disciple obeys Jesus’ commands.

One who sacrificially loves, like Jesus, also joyfully obeys His words. Have you joyfully responded to His invitation? What invitation, you ask? Jesus gives you an invitation to be His close companion. This is more than an invitation to be buddy’s, pal, or homeboy. Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” This is not a manipulative or coercive invitation, rather it’s a mark of a follower. A disciple is willing to follow whatever His teacher or master has asked Him to do.

This is good news. Jesus is the earth shaking good news. He followed every one of the defining marks of a disciple. He lived the words He preached. He mimicked His Heavenly Father. So much so, that if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. No one could find a fault in Him. He went to the grave an innocent man. He did not die a fatalist, a moralist, or the most liked by the populist. He obeyed His Father joyfully, even when it cost Him His earthly life. He loved sacrificially, so that by His grace you could live eternally with Him. That’s the kind of friend, teacher, master, God He is.

Jesus last words to His disciples after His resurrection were, “teach them [all future disciples] to observe all that I commanded you.” A disciple learns to live obediently to the teachings of Jesus and joyfully seeks to reproduce the same characteristics in others until He returns.

So what are the defining marks of a disciple of Jesus? Well, in Jesus own words, a disciple is one who loves like Jesus, sacrifices His life for the sake of Jesus, obeys Jesus’ commands, and helps others to do the same. What say you? Do you bear these marks?

Question every disciple should ask himself:
Do I love people more and more?
How do I love those I least like?
What is the motive behind my love for God and others?
Is my love coming from duty or delight?
In what ways am sacrificing my life for the sake of Christ?
What commands of Jesus do you have a hard time obeying?
How are you learning to follow more like Jesus today?

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be*

Growing up I wanted to be an artist. My dad was great at painting and drawing, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I majored art throughout high school with colorful ambitions and continue to doodle unto this day. I am no Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo, or Matisse, but I could draw more than stick figures. What did you want to be when growing up? Did you ever want to be a branch? I suppose not. Although, Jesus says that we need to be branches.

“I AM the True Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser…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.” [John 15:1-11]

In His last major sermon to His followers before his death, Jesus walks them through a common backdrop to make an important point. I could see Jesus walking with His disciples into a neighboring vineyard pointing to the vine and branches and picking off a bunch of luscious grapes. He then compares Himself to the Vine and His Father to the Gardener. He compares you and I to branches. From the context there are two different kinds of branches [15:2]. First, there are branches that do not bear fruit. God as the gardener takes these branches and cuts them off because they are useless.

Why doesn’t the first branch bear fruit? The unfruitful branch is not abiding in Christ—the Vine [cf. Those who do not let Jesus be King will not enter His kingdom]. This is a simple divine illustration of salvation. I cannot bear fruit unless I am abiding in Christ. If I do not abide in Christ I am useless and fruitless as a pile of dead kindling [15:6].

Second, there are branches that do bear fruit but He prunes so that they bear more fruit. This is common for gardeners because they desire to get the most out of their crops. If you abide in Christ you will bear fruit. We still have remnants of sucker branches that continue to need pruning to make room for bountiful fruit.

Jesus says He is the “True Vine.” He is no fake. He is not an impostor. He does not give less than He promises. He is the real deal. He is the life-giving Vine. Those who follow Christ look like Christ. Some look for other vines: drugs, alcohol, cutting, sex, porn, success, money, knowledge, friends or themselves. Whatever vine you seek is the fruit you will bear. Since all other vines are false vines these vines fail. Jesus is the only True Vine.

What does it mean to abide in Christ?

Abiding in Christ appears eleven times in this passage and it also appears throughout the Bible [cf. 1 John 2:6]. If a word appears like this as often as it does, it is probably important. The phrase abiding in Christ [μείνατε ἐν ἐμοί; 15:4] is an aorist active imperative. In other words, “You are to keep on being in Me.” Abiding is not something you get; it is something you are. I am an American: by birth, citizenship and passport. I didn’t just get to be an American I am one. As a follower of Christ we are already have a passport to the kingdom; adopted as citizens of heaven. Abiding is not only what you do it is what you become [BE*]. I abide in Christ because I know I will be with Him one day, and by abiding in Him I can be like Him today.

The better question to ask is: what does it mean to be in Christ? Remember Jesus refers to Himself as being the vine and you being the branches. Jesus then says that if His word abides in me then I am abiding in Him. Therefore, when I lovingly obeying Christ’s commands I am abiding in Christ as He obeyed His Father’s [the Gardener] commands and abides in His love [cf. 14:15, 23].

Be* has been marked with an asterisk not because it is on steroids, but because the work to abide in Christ and bear fruit is Christ’s work. Christ does both the saving and sanctifying work. In other words, my faith to come to Christ comes from Christ, and the fruit of become more like Christ comes from Christ. That is a mystifying work of God’s unconditional love. This love is demonstrated in Jesus words, “The branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in Me…whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” [15:4-5]

Growing up my grandfather had a red delicious apple tree. Let’s say the apple tree didn’t produce much fruit. It just produced dry, wrinkled, brown and mushy apples. Let’s say he decided to fix the tree. So he grabs the tree trimmers, a staple gun, stepladder, and a box of granny smith apples he bought from the store. He cuts off the bad apples and puts on the new store bought ones. Did he fix the tree? Stapling apples will not help because those apples will rot too. Cosmetic changes never satisfy. Are you stapling? Are you faking the fruit? Is Christ your True Vine?

Stapling false fruit is exhausting and tedious. Fruit bearing is not do this and you will be this; rather it is be in Christ and you will live [do things] like Christ. Being in Christ is what I am because I am grafted into the Vine. I am to be a branch that is abiding in the life-giving, fruit bearing doing of Christ. Christ’s doing [sacrificial death] comes before my being [saving faith], and my being [saving faith] comes before doing [sacrificial living].

What does the fruit look like?

We look like Christ—the Vine [cf. Galatians 5:22-23]. When we bear fruit we are glorifying God who has done the fruit bearing work within us through His Son Christ [15:8; cf. Mt.5:16; Phil. 1:11].

In summary, here is how Christ says to bear much fruit: You have to stop being the Vine. You need to let Jesus be the Vine. You need to BE the branch and allow God to bear the fruit as you become like Him. Are you willing to be a branch? As I grow up I want to be a branch that bears much fruit.

being comes before doing

“I AM the True Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser…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.” [John 15:1-5] Abiding in Christ appears eleven times in this passage and it also appears throughout the Bible [cf. 1 John 2:6]. If a word appears like this as often as it does, it is probably important.

The phrase abiding in Christ [μείνατε ἐν ἐμοί; John 15:4] is an aorist active imperative. In other words,  “You are to keep on remaining/abiding in Me.” Abiding is not something you get, it is something you are. If you are in Christ, stay there. Don’t go anywhere else. I am an American: by birth, citizenship and passport. As a follower of Christ we are already have a passport to the kingdom, adopted as citizens of heaven. Having this divine imperative brings a lot of freedom for living in the here and now. I abide in Christ because I know I will be with Him one day, but I can also strive to be like Him today.

What is the difference between being and doing? How do I be? Some followers of Christ get so worked up over performance and playing the part that they forget that Jesus has already performed the work. Children are taught from a young age, even by godly parents or teachers at the church kids program, that if you do this you will be a good Christian. If you memorize these verses, complete this Bible study or workbook page, if you follow all the commandments and pray you will be a complete bonifide follower of Christ. Now each of these disciplines are valuable in themselves: hiding Gods Word in your heart that you might not sin against Him [Psalm 119:9-11], saturate yourself with God’s Word [Psalm 63:1; 2 Timothy 3:16-17], and keep the commands of Christ [John 15:10-17], but doing is not as important as being.

Doing simply leaves you and others exhausted and unmotivated. Each of the verses above and the disciplines within them have a common artery: to have my heart parched for the greatness of our God and utter dependent upon Him for daily nourishment. It is not do this and you will be this, rather it is be like Christ and you will live [do things] like Christ. Being in Christ is what I am because I am grafted into the Vine. I am to be a branch that is abiding in the life-giving, fruit bearing doing of Christ. Christ’s doing [sacrificial death] comes before my being [saving faith], and my being [saving faith] comes before doing [sacrificial living].

So how do I love people who are hard to love? I be like Christ. Sure, I am commanded to love [John 15:12], but just because I am commanded to do it does not mean I am motivated to do it. When I consider the Gospel and how Christ became love [John 15:13], it gives a new perspective on how I can become love to others [John 15:17].