I’m a Christian.
But so are thousands of people who don’t know what that means.
They were baptized as babies. They grew up in the church. Grandma was a “front row Baptist” and they were right there with her on Sunday morning. Or they sat through youth group and Christian school and assumed, because they knew the FACTS of God, they knew God Himself.It’s an epidemic problem in America, where following Jesus has been distilled down to saying a prayer to “ask Him into your heart”.
Into your heart – but not into your life.
Into your heart… but not to the point you change.
Come and Follow
Jesus and the apostles never actually used the word “Christian”. They used the word “disciple”, which means “learner” in Greek. Disciples were common for rabbis like Jesus, Jewish teachers who explained God’s law. We see Jesus call His first disciples in Matthew 4:18-22 with a simple command: “Come, follow Me.” (4:19)
Even after Jesus’ ascension, becoming a Christian was to become a follower.
In Acts 2 – the first sermon after Jesus ascended to heaven – Peter preaches to thousands of Jews in Jerusalem after the Holy Spirit empowers the believers to share the truth in many tongues. At the conclusion of the message, Luke writes:
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 4Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
In modern church culture that would be it. They’d show up every Sunday and go home to a football game. They’d be “Christians”, work accomplished, secure for eternity. But that is NOT what the early church was about, as we see in the next verses:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42, 46-47
This is so much more than “believing in your heart”. It’s indicative of forward motion, active faith, taking real steps to pursue Jesus in daily life. A disciple follows after Jesus daily because that’s how you learn from Him.
And that’s a lot more than just taking the title “Christian”.
Learn from Me
Jesus expected His disciples to be active followers.
All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
“Yoke” meant teaching in rabbinic circles. Jesus was saying that His teaching, compared to that of rabbis past who added to Scripture a “heavy load” of regulation, was the true teaching of God. But to find rest, we have to take up this yoke. We have to listen, embrace, and walk in Jesus’ teaching. We have to daily learn from Him. That’s what a disciple does! And it’s what a true Christian does, as well.
Following are four characteristics of true disciples of Jesus. I have written these as a challenge for self-reflection. Even those of us who once had a vibrant love for the Lord can become distracted by lesser things, and this post is meant to redirect you back to what is most important.
Disciples Want to Follow
The truly saved WANT to follow Christ. Though victory includes both wins and losses, disciples of Jesus press onward into a deeper knowledge of who Jesus is. They aren’t content to stay at the same spiritual place. They want to know God and make Him known. This is the natural outcome of the Holy Spirit in the life of a true believer.
In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Our obedience does not earn us salvation (see this post) but is a reflection of the inner change salvation brings about. Our new identity in Christ creates a toxic environment for sin and a fruitful environment for righteousness. Though we can choose to go back to our old habits or listen to the Enemy’s temptations, our identity in Christ is secure, and to the degree we seek God and His Spirit, a true disciple will desire to live up to that identity.
Disciples Seek His Word
John 1:1 says Jesus was the very fulfillment of God’s Word to us. The Word of God has, from the beginning, been pointing to who Jesus is. A disciple of Jesus, then, is the person who seeks to know Him the way He has primarily revealed Himself – through the Word!
It is no wonder that the author of Hebrews said:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Only God can pierce that invisible space between soul and spirit, thoughts and intentions of the heart. True disciples bring their whole selves to the Word of God and allow such a piercing to take place – an exposure of “any wicked way within” us (Psalm 139:24) for the Holy Spirit to identify and sanctify through the Word. The Word is key to our growth as disciples. We cannot grow spiritually without it. This is why it’s so important to learn HOW to study the Bible, make time for it, and most of all remember that we meet God within it.
Disciples Pick Up Their Cross
In Matthew 16 Jesus says something very challenging for those who think being “Christian” is enough:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 2For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?
Jesus opens with the assumption that those who take His name will come after Him. This is interesting because – once again – it indicates pursuit and forward motion. He is essentially saying, “If anyone wants to FOLLOW me…” This is the most basic characteristic of a disciple.
Secondly, Jesus lays out the cost of discipleship – because as the famous book by Bonhoeffer told us, discipleship has a cost. Jesus makes it clear that following Him will mean denying ourselves: Denying some comforts, denying our selfish desires, denying our own dreams in order to pursue God’s. This is the cross we pick up to follow Him. There is a cost to be counted before following Jesus – one the early church understood well, but many people today do not understand. They stand to lose nothing by following Jesus, so they add Him on top of an existing worldview. They aren’t taught to follow, to deny themselves, to listen to the Spirit, or to know God through His Word. All they know is to “ask Jesus into their heart”.
“Whoever wants to save [preserve] his life will lose it,” Jesus said. “But whoever loses his life [gives up his autonomy, rights, and comforts] for My sake will find it.” This is the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10: A life only found through actually following Him.
Disciples Bear Good Fruit
The last sign of a true disciple is in the fruit she bears. Once again: Obedience and godly behavior are not a MEANS to salvation, but are evidence of it. The Holy Spirit’s work in our lives proves that we are indeed children of God.
Jesus had a lot to say about the importance of bearing fruit as a believer:
Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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.
Note that Jesus says we are already clean because of Him, so this fruit-bearing isn’t a means to becoming “clean” in God’s eyes, but evidence of the cleanness imputed to us through Christ. He continues:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
Jesus’ GOAL is for disciples to “go and bear fruit and that [our] fruit should abide”. Abide means to remain, stay, especially after others cease to exist. Our works in the Spirit are our only eternal impact on this world. Jesus concludes with a weighty statement:
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
The spiritual fruit we bear (listed in Galatians 5!) PROVES that we are disciples of Jesus. The fruit of our lives PROVES that we are true Christians, not just people who take for granted the name of Jesus, His sacrifice, and the abundant life He died to give. And this fruit – our love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – this fruit glorifies God.
Whether you read this post and realize you never actually surrendered your life to Christ, or you read it and discover it’s time you followed Him like a true disciple does, your next step is the same: Turn to Him humbly, ask Him for help (the Spirit is your helper!), make a plan to get in His Word daily, seek godly community, and take the smallest step toward faithful following of your Savior. You won’t be satisfied, strengthened, or fulfilled in halfway Christianity because it’s not Christianity. It’s not what Jesus called His disciples to live. And it’s not enough for you to know overcoming life.
Today is the day to make a change. Come and follow. Be a learner. His yoke is easy, and the burden is light.