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?