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The Meaning of Discipleship

The essence of discipleship is relationship.

In those days all kinds of people had disciples, and two of the Greek words that were in common use at that time were didaskalos, which means teacher, and mathetes, which means pupil or disciple. Now it was impossible for a didaskalos, teacher, to be a teacher unless he had mathetes. It was equally impossible to be a mathetes, a pupil or a disciple, unless you had a teacher. It was the relationship between mathetes and didaskalos, between pupil and teacher that was the essence of discipleship. I want us to get hold of that basic idea. The essence of discipleship is relationship.

Now just to sketch in some background so that we can get the feel for the days in which our Lord lived and was exercising his ministry of making disciples, let me just point out one or two things to you. The Greeks, to whom we often refer if we want to understand the days of our Lord, were very much into this whole idea of schools of thought. Teachers, the didaskalos, the teacher who gathered together his little group of disciples. And this is usually based on the idea of a certain philosophy. A teacher would have a certain philosophy. He would gather around people who related to him on the basis of philosophy. The key word was disciple. The essence of what was going on was the relationship that existed between a teacher of a certain philosophy and those who went along with his philosophy.

The Greeks were very fascinated with the world in which they lived. They were keen observers. They noticed, for instance, that rivers kept flowing. They believed that no man could step into the river twice for two reasons. One because if you stepped into the river the second time it would no longer be the same river you stepped in because the river you stepped into was downstream. The second reason was you wouldn't be the same person anyway. Everything was changing. And so they were captivated in some schools of thinking of this whole idea of change and motion. And so certain philosophers would get into this observation of change and motion, and they would gather their disciples around and they would be into this change and motion thing.

Then another philosopher sat down and thought about that and said, "If an atom is going to go from point A to point B before it can get from A to B, it has to go half the distances. But before it can go half the distance it has to go a quarter the distance. But before it goes a quarter of the distance it goes an eighth, a sixteenth, a thirty-second, a sixty-fourth, a hundred and twenty-eighth, two hundred and fifty-six, five hundred and twelve, one thousand and twenty-four, two thousand forty-eight, on and on and on and on and on. To in the end you come to the point where it isn't moving at all. Therefore, he said the essence of motion is non-motion. Therefore motion is an impossibility. He gathered his school around.

It must have been fantastic to be a Greek. In those days you just found your philosopher, you got into your school of thought, and you had a marvelous time being a disciple of philosophy. Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that all this was futile. Not at all. Go and see the architects of the ancient Greeks and you'll see their fascination with geometry and architecture was utterly superb. Some of you have learned that the square and the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle equals the sum of the squares on the two sides, and you have to thank or to blame Pythagoras for that. And he had his little school of disciples. And so this whole idea of the didaskalos and the mathetes, the idea of the teacher and the pupil was very common in those days.

In addition to this the Jews had a certain approach to discipleship. There were those who prided themselves on being disciples of Moses. They believed that Moses had received from God the law and that this law was a matter of principle. They also believed that the principles needed amplification, so that people could understand exactly what it was that God wanted them to do. And so they have their rabbis. The rabbi was the equivalent of the didaskalos. And the schools of the rabbis would gather around and they would endeavor to interpret the law so that they would understand the principles that God had ordained. But when you talked about discipleship to the Greeks it meant a discipleship of philosophy. They related on the basis of philosophical thought. When you talked about the disciples of Moses you were talking about a discipleship or a relationship of principle. They were trying to figure out principles.

Now out of this group came what were known in the Scriptures as the disciples of the Pharisees. Now the Pharisees have got a bad press. We're all away of that. We all know that the Pharisees were hypocrites. We all know that they were busy pulling the sawdust out of other people's eyes and ignoring the planks in their own, as our Lord Jesus rather humorously put it. And we don't like the Pharisees very much. But if we're going to be fair to them.

They believed very firmly in the law given to Moses. They were very much concerned about the Talmud and the mishna. And all were concerned about was that people might unwittingly break the law. And so to make sure that they didn't unwittingly break the law, they made everything abundantly clear. They added to the law 365 prohibitions and 250 extra commandments. And they gathered people around them and taught these prohibitions and they taught these commandments. And people were required to identify with them. Now as far as they were concerned it was a matter of procedure. They got their disciples, but it was a discipleship of procedure. You do this or you don't do that. You go here but you can't go there. They built a following of people, the relationship not on philosophy, not on the basis of principle but a relationship of procedure.

Then our Lord speaks, of course, of the disciples of John the Baptist. The passage we read together, John the Baptist had his disciples. They were different kind of disciples. John the Baptist looked around him and he just didn't like what he saw. And so he started what we could call a protest movement. He said things just aren't the way they ought to be and we're going to have some changes around here. He was a wild man. He was outside the establishment. He preached down in the wilderness because they didn't want him preaching in their churches. He didn't wear ecclesiastical garb. He wore sort of wild clothes, and he ate wild honey and had a big, long beard all matted with honey and locusts. And his hair was all over the place, and he waved his arms around. Kind of reminds me of somebody as I think about it. Because he was on, you see, the people gathered to him. And they became his disciples, but it was a discipleship of protest. They were against something. They were trying to turn something around.

So there's no shortage of illustrations of discipleship at the time of our Lord Jesus. The Greeks had them. There were disciples of Moses. There were disciples of the Pharisees. There were disciples of John the Baptist. But the key was there was a relationship between the leader, the master, the didaskalos, the rabbi, whatever you want to call him and those who were listening to his teaching and responding to it.

It Is Fundamental to Discipleship that We Be in Relationship with Christ.

Now into this situation comes our Lord Jesus, and our Lord Jesus does something quite different from any of the rest of them. He invites people to become his disciples, but the relationship is not a relationship of philosophy, it is not a relationship of principle, it is not a relationship of procedure, it is not a relationship of protest. He makes a very, very simple invitation to people, and it is this, "Come unto me. He issues a very simple command to people. He goes to them as their mending their nets if they're fishermen, or gathering their money if they're tax collectors, and he says quite simply, "Follow me. And as he picks his first disciples we read in Mark's gospel a very beautiful poignant little expression that we can slip over if we're not reading it carefully. He selected his disciples that the might be with him.

Now you get the picture? The difference between the disciples of our Lord Jesus and the disciples of all these other people and movements was that it was the relationship with a person. Now we can't stress this enough because this is the absolute essence of Christian discipleship. Let me underline this for you.

It is not uncommon to come across people in our world today who will quite happily adhere to what we could call for want of a better term Christian philosophy. They believe that there's an awful lot of truth in Christianity. They feel that having looked at all the other philosophies it's certainly as good as any and better than most, and they go on with it. But that's as far as they go, and in a sense they would be disciples of a philosophical structure that in some ways related to Christianity.

Other people go further than that. They say, "oh no, we need to more clearly define what we mean by Christianity and we believe that some of the great historic churches have done this. And they have identified themselves with some of the great historic churches, the great historic institutions that have carefully spelled out the details and they adhere to these principles. So, for instance, it is not uncommon to come across a person who will say very, very warmly and enthusiastically that they are a Protestant or they are a Catholic. Then, on the other hand, there are some people who will look further into these things and they will say, "Well, there are certain things you've got to do. If you're going to be part of something there are certain things you can't do, and so they begin to spell out procedures. And they're very careful about these things. Very insistent on these things. And it is not uncommon to come across people who are totally devoted to procedure, totally devoted to a pattern of behavior. At the same time, it is not uncommon to come across people who are into a protest movement. They're against something in the name of Christ.

But the problem very often is this, that you could talk to all these people but you discover something strange, that they don't talk about a relationship with the Lord Jesus. Now it is in this area that we need to concentrate. Now part of the problem in our understanding of discipleship is that we have not adequately understood the uniqueness of Christian discipleship. It is not that we can talk about principle or philosophy or procedure or protest. It is fundamentally that we know Christ and we have a relationship with him. That's what it's all about.

It Is Fundamental to Discipleship that We Move from Curious to Convinced.

Now in the ministry of our Lord Jesus we can see how he went about making disciples. And this is the second thing I want to touch on because it's the second thing in my outline. How he went about making his disciples.

There are many places we could turn to illustrate this, but we'll pick John 6. Here is a delightful story where the Lord Jesus decides to take a day off with his disciples. I'm rather interested on this whole subject of taking a day off. So he takes a day off with his disciples. And as they go away they're having a nice little time, and when they get away with a nice little time suddenly hordes of people arrive because they found out where the Lord Jesus is. He's been doing a few miracles. He's been healing a few people, doing all kinds of stuff like this. And they hope he's going to do some more, and so they all gather around. So the disciples are looking forward to a day off, so they send them away and the Lord Jesus looks and he's moved with compassion. He says forget your day off. And so they begin to minister to these people.

And the Lord, you remember, fed that great crowd of people with five loaves and two fishes. They were thrilled with the whole thing. They ate and they ate and they ate. In fact, the commentary of our Lord Jesus is they stuffed themselves like pigs. That's the word he used. And he told them that. He wasn't at all impressed with them.

Now of course they were all excited not only in the big meal he put on and the miracle that he worked for them, but they couldn't figure out how he got back on the other side of the lake, because only one boat had left and they knew he wasn't in it. Well, he'd walked. It was easy. It was obvious how he got across. He walked, but they couldn't figure that one out either. And so they're all full of excited questions. They're all full of excited response to his miracles. They are the great big glorious band of the curious. That's what they are. They're the curious.

Now there's no question about it that our Lord Jesus had a massive ministry to the curious. He was very happy putting on his spectaculars for a number of reasons. He had to establish his credibility. He couldn't just arrive and say, "Okay, gang. I'm God coming in human form. They'd say, "Sure. You know any more jokes? But if he went around and fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes and said, "Okay, you guys, I'm God, they might have felt that he had some credibility.

He also had to attract their attention. They were all wrapped in all the stuff, and to get their attention away from one thing and onto another, he had to do something different. So he went and did his works, his miracles. In addition to that, he used them as a means of getting across a point. Now this is where he began to lose their interest. You see, there are all kinds of people who are absolutely fascinated with miracles for the sake of miracles, and there are all kinds of people who are absolutely fascinated with something unusual being life is a bit dull and the unusual sure is worth giving attention to. But they weren't interested in his explanation of these things.

Also, of course, he was meeting needs. They were all hungry, these people. They needed feeding. And he wasn't about to say forget them, like the disciples were. "Send them away, said the disciples. "Feed them, said our Lord Jesus. Still the same difference between many of the Lord and the Lord today. "Send them away, said many of his disciples. "Feed them, says the Lord. So he was establishing credibility. He was certainly ministering to their physical needs. He was certainly grappling with getting their attention. But when he tried to get the point across and show them what he was doing and why he was doing it, they weren't interested.

And yet, the strange thing about it is this. In one sense this great big crowd of the curious are called his disciples, because they are following him. They're charging around after him. They're trampling all over the countryside wherever he shows up. But by no stretch of the imagination are they related to him as he wants them to be related.

We have the same problem today. No question about it that in certain instances we can get a tremendous crowd of the curious. There's no question about it that if you want to get a crowd, teach prophecy and be as dogmatic and detailed as possible and explain exactly how everything that is happening today is a fulfillment of what is said in the Old Testament and in the book of Revelation. They'll come. Why? Because people are fascinated with seeing miracles and thrilled at being able to unravel all kind of things. And so they do a little stargazing of looking into the future. But never confuse this mass of the curious with the disciples that our Lord is interested in making, for he shows quite clearly in this passage of Scripture that whilst he is so concerned about the curious, will give himself to them, he wants to get them out of the realm of the curious, into the glorious company of the convinced.

Now this is what happens. In John 6 there are some people who are just curious at it, but there are others who start up curious but they're prepared to be convinced and they start to listen to his teaching. Now as they listen to his teaching they begin to become in a new sense his disciples, quite different from the other. Now what does he want to convince them of? Well, he wants to convince them of his true identity. That's quite clear. Now he says, "Folks, you were very interested in the bread I gave you, and I want you to know that I am the bread who comes down from heaven. And they got into a big argument with him on that. Now why would you argue with that? If someone says, "Hey folks, I'm the bread that comes down from heaven, why argue about it? You say he's a kook or maybe he is.

But what does he mean? Well, bread to those people was the staple diet of existence. And what he is saying is a massive claim. He is saying I am the basic means of existence for human beings. I am God's supply for spiritual existence. That's what he's saying. He goes on to point out to them that these people when they begin to understand the truth of his identity will them begin to ask questions concerning what is his purpose. And he explains that. He says my purpose is that I might give my flesh to you to eat and my blood for you to drink. And they say, "What? They've got to think this thing through. But he clearly is stating his purpose. He's saying I am the bread from heaven, the staple diet of human experience and human existence, and the way I can be what human beings need is through giving my body and giving my blood.

What is he referring to? Well, as we look at other areas of Scripture I think it's rather obvious that he's referring to the fact that he has come down from heaven to provide human beings with their basic need—bread of life—and he's going to do it by giving his body to be broken and his blood to be shed. A clear statement concerning the fact that his purpose is a purpose of , a purpose of giving himself on the cross.

Now then, this was hard for the people to take. Very hard for them to take. There were many of them who were prepared to be convinced of his identity and say, "Right, he is the one come down from heaven. But the one coming down from heaven, Messiah that they were looking for, was going to be a glorious conqueror, a charismatic figure, someone who would turn the society around. For them to be told that Messiah was going to have a broken body and shed blood, for them to be told that he was going to be the suffering servant was totally distasteful to them. But he hammers the point home and he said, "This is who I am. This is what I've come to do, and this is how I'm going to do it.

Now at that point some people said let's get out of here. Let's get out of here. The same is true today. You'll find that many people in the realm of the curious don't want to go any further than being curious about Christ. You'll find other people who are past being curious and are convinced about him but they are not prepared to go along with all that he says about himself. For instance, it is not uncommon to come across people who say I firmly believe that Christ is come from God but I do not see any necessity for Christ to give his body to be broken and his blood to be shed for me. And I see no necessity whatsoever for me to have to feed on the benefits of his death and drink of the benefits of his cross in order that I might live eternally. I don't like that. I don't want that. I reject that. And so they walk no more with him.

That's exactly what happened when our Lord Jesus was speaking to these people. They said, "This is a hard saying. Who can hear it. And if you read this passage of Scripture carefully it says, "From that time on many of his disciples walked no more with him. What kind of disciples were they? Well, they were disciples who were certainly not just in that great crowd of the curious. They were filled up to the point of being convinced. But when it came to being really convinced about the Person of Christ, who he really was, what he'd come to be, what he'd come to do, they weren't prepared to go any further. You know why? Because the Lord Jesus wants you to go from the curious to the convinced and from the convinced to the committed.

It Is Fundamental to Discipleship that We Move from Convinced to Committed.

From the curious to the convinced, and from the convinced to the committed. And this is a very interesting thing. As many of his disciples turn away and walk away from him, he turns to his little group of the twelve and he says to them, "Are you going to leave, too? Isn't that interesting? He didn't say, "Don't go. Don't go. He said, "Are you going to leave, too?

And Peter comes up with the most superlative statement. "To whom shall we go? Where can we go? "You have the words of eternal life. You are the one who is utterly unique. You are the one who alone can bring us to the Father. There is utter uniqueness about you, and we want you to know that there is no way under the sun that we can turn from you and go anywhere else because you are the One. Now that's commitment.

And so when the opportunity comes for people to renege on their relationship to Jesus Christ, Peter says, no we won't renege. When the opportunity comes for some people to say, "I don't want all this talk about a crucified Christ and the necessity for me to draw from the benefits of his cross in order that I might have eternal life and the opportunity came to walk out on that one, they said, "no, we're not going to walk out on that. When the opportunity came for them to say, "well, we don't really want to identify with a Christ who's going to a cross, we don't any part of the shame of all that is going to be involved in that, we don't want any part of that. When the opportunity came to walk out on that, they said no way. No way. Why? Because they're totally convinced of who he is. They're totally convinced of what he's come to do. And they utterly commit themselves to him.

On what basis? They commit themselves utterly to him on the basis of him being the only Savior, the only Savior. They commit themselves to him on the basis of him being the only Lord, the only Lord.

Now here's the question. As we look at our own hearts obviously there's some degree of interest in Christ or we wouldn't be in church on a Sunday morning. There's some degree of interest. There's some degree of "discipleship because it could be used in so many different ways. But the question we need to ask ourselves—and it's a serious question—If our Lord Jesus Christ's ministry was committed to making disciples and if the commission to his church right down through the ages to the end of the age is to go on discipling the nations, where do I personally fit in?

What kind of a disciple am I?

Am I in that great company of the curious that likes a crowd?

Am I in that great company of the curious that looks for answers that aren't going to cost me anything?

Am I in that great company of the curious that are prepared to come along because it seems to be the thing to do around here at the present time? But I don't want any part of Jesus.

If I work through that and I've been part of the curious and I've come around and I've heard the teaching of the Word of the God and I've seen the proclamation of Jesus Christ and I've felt the love and the warmth of other believers and I sense a reality of what's going on, have I found that I've been pulled out of that great realm of the curious and I've become convinced and I say, yes, I know who you are Christ? I know who you are. You're the Lord. And I know what you came to do. You came to give your body to be broken and your blood to be shed. And I know that I personally have got to come to the point of saying, "Lord, I will feed only on your for my salvation. I will draw only from your cross for my forgiveness. You exclusively are my Savior. Have you come that far?

And then have you come to the point of saying, "Lord, I'm convinced of this. I commit myself to you. You want people to be with you. I'll be with you. You want people to come to you. I'll come to you. You want people to follow you. Lord Jesus, I have decide to follow you ?

Now where do you fit? You see if we begin to think of these things we begin to grapple with the reality of discipleship.

Well, let's just wrap this up in these last few moments talking about the measure of discipleship.

How do I begin to look at my own discipleship?

How do I know if I really am a disciple?

What kind of disciple I might be?

I would suggest to you the measure of discipleship is the reality of the relationship that I have with Christ. It's a relationship based on obedience. It's a relationship that is based on dependence.

There's an idea abroad among some people that you can kind of be a Christian without it affecting your lifestyle. That you don't have to let your theology get into your ethics. This is nothing new about this. It's always happened down through the centuries, but it seems to be coming increasingly to bear on our thinking at the present time. That is why it is not uncommon even in the pastoral duties during the course of the week here at Elmbrook it is not uncommon for us to have to grapple with situations where professing disciples of Jesus Christ are living in rank disobedience to him and see absolutely no reason why they shouldn't.

Well, the reason we shouldn't is this. If I am related to Christ I am related to Christ who is didaskalos, who is master, who is teacher, who is leader, who is uniquely the Son of God on whom I feed exclusively. And that means I come to a point of committing myself to a life of obedience to him.

And some people at this point say, "That's a hard saying. Who can take that? Well, then if that's how we respond to this idea that the reality of our discipleship is determined by our obedience, if that's how we react, then the question we ask you is the question that our Lord Jesus asked his disciples. Are you going to leave then? Are you going to leave? Because don't kid yourself and don't kid anybody else. If I want to know the measure of my discipleship all I've got to do is to identify the reality of the relationship of obedience to him. And if I reserve to myself the right to live in blatant disobedience I shouldn't kid myself about discipleship. It's not there.

And notice very carefully that I'm not saying that we measure our discipleship by the perfection of our lives. That is most certainly not what I'm saying. A big difference between being blatantly disobedient and recognizing imperfection in life. And it is this. Very, very often you'll find people who are being blatantly disobedient to the Lord and when of necessity we point things out to them and encourage them to come to repentance and see God change their life, many of them would say, "I had no idea. I didn't realize I was being disobedient. I'm horrified. I'm mortified to realize that was what I was going. They come in repentance and faith in God wonderfully touches and transforms their life. They weren't perfect, but they were being disobedient. But when they realized they were being disobedient they were prepared to change.

On the other hand, you will find people who are disobedient and when it is pointed out to them that they are being disobedient, instead of responding to it, they react against it and you wouldn't believe the kind of heat that I take during the course of a week because of people who want to be disciples of Jesus Christ but insist on being disobedient.

The measure of our discipleship is the reality of our relationship. And if we're related to the only Lord, the only God, then we can identify the reality of that relationship by the degree of our obedience. And I call on you in the name of Christ and the authority of God's Word. If you really want to take seriously what he's talking about here to look very simply to your obedience.

Look also at your dependence. Upon what do you depend for your salvation? Upon what do you depend for eternal life? Are you depending upon being better than the next guy? Are you depending on living a decent life? Are you depending on doing your best and figuring that that's going to be good enough for God. Listen, any of these approaches which are so common, make an utter nonsense of the cross. If you think doing your best would get you eternal life, why would Christ die? If being better than the next guy was good enough, what's the point of the cross? If kind of being more good than bad will merit you eternal life, why did Christ assume your sin on the cross?

You see, there's an exclusiveness about the claims of Christ and about the Person of Christ. It is this. He claims to be exclusively our Lord and demands our allegiance. He claims to be exclusively our Savior. And he says, "I will exclusively, in a narrow sense, be the only means whereby you could know forgiveness. And the reality of my relationship to Christ is determined, quite frankly, by the reality of the dependence that I have on him alone to be the bread of my existence, the source of my supply.

Now this is discipleship. Discipleship to our Lord Jesus is a relationship with his Person—my Savior and my Lord. It's an exclusive relationship. It's an exhaustive relationship. It demands myself made available to himself so that he himself can be made available to me. The relationship of mutual commitment.

Stuart Briscoe served for thirty years as Senior Pastor at Elmbrook Church in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

(c) Stuart Briscoe

Preaching Today Tape # 4


A resource of Christianity Today International

Stuart Briscoe is minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and author of several books, including What Works When Life Doesn't (Howard Books).

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Sermon Outline:


I. It is fundamental to discipleship that we be in relationship with Christ

II. It is fundamental to discipleship that we move from curious to convinced

III. It is fundamental to discipleship that we move from convinced to committed