What Is Christian Discipleship?

Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9: 23

What Is Christian Discipleship?

What is a disciple? According to the dictionary, a disciple is a person who learns from a teacher, philosopher, or leader. Jesus Christ was this sort of person. So, He recruited disciples to follow Him and learn from Him. His goal was to make the disciples become more and more like their Master.

What is Christian discipleship? It is the name given to the process whereby a Christian disciple becomes like Jesus Christ.

How does Christian discipleship differ from other forms of discipleship? Well, Jesus Christ is different from all other leaders. He recruited disciples to bring His message of salvation to a lost and dying world. His disciples must be trained to engage in spiritual battle with the powers of darkness. For this, Jesus requires disciples who are more committed than other disciples.

But how did Jesus prepare His disciples for such an enormous task against such a ruthless and powerful enemy? What was His process of discipleship? Our answer lies in the pages of the four gospels.

Jesus started by commanding them, saying, “Follow Me.” (Matthew 4: 19; Mark 1: 17) This is the first step for any disciple: disciples must follow their teacher. Disciples also must spend time with their teacher. How else can they hear and learn from their teacher unless they follow Him and spend time with Him?

In fact, a disciple can do nothing for the Kingdom of God unless he stays in close contact with Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5, ESV)

After Jesus called the twelve disciples in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, He immediately sat them down and taught them. Matthew 5 – 7 often is called “the Sermon on the Mount.” During this sermon, Jesus spoke to His disciples regarding His coming Kingdom. He also taught them some of the basic attitudes, actions, abilities expected from a citizen in His Kingdom. Jesus also used this opportunity to teach His disciples how to pray.

Next, Jesus demonstrated to them the importance of spreading the good news — the gospel. He provided them with several examples, such as His conversation with Nicodemus (John 3) and with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jesus also led them on soul-winning campaigns, such as in Luke 8: 1-3.

So, Jesus taught evangelism to His disciples. When they were ready, Jesus sent His disciples out to proclaim the gospel. First, He sent out the twelve (Luke 9: 1-6, 10). Then Jesus sent out seventy disciples (Luke 10: 1-20). When the seventy returned to Jesus, they were filled with joy. They were learning the mechanics of Christian discipleship: prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and Christian fellowship.

As the disciples continued to follow Jesus, they began to learn the deeper commitment required by Christian discipleship. Jesus began saying things that sound impossible. For example, He said in Luke 9: 24, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

In John 6: 54, Jesus said, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” This statement caused many of His disciples to stop following Him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” They were beginning to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  

Jesus’ disciples began to learn the extent of discipleship. First, they made the decision to follow Jesus. They learned more about Jesus through the mechanics of discipleship, that is, through listening to Jesus’ words, praying to God, living in fellowship with other disciples, and telling others about Jesus.

Now they were ready to learn about the Christian’s special relationship with God. Jesus began to emphasize the spiritual side of discipleship. Why did Jesus wait so long? Because the spiritual part of discipleship leads to total commitment. Total commitment arises from a foundation of love and trust. Yes, the disciples left everything to follow Jesus. But now they started to realize the truth of the outrageous claims and promises given by Jesus. They were ready to receive the greater mission of Jesus.

Immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Bible says, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16: 21, ESV)

This is the greater mission of Jesus: to die for the sins of the world; to rise from the dead; to restore man’s relationship with God. This mission involves commitment and personal sacrifice. If the disciples chose to follow Jesus after His death and resurrection, their lives also would involve commitment and personal sacrifice.

This personal sacrifice requires a disciple to deny his own selfish wants and desires. Then the disciple must commit himself to following Christ every day of his life. Jesus said it this way, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23, ESV)

Jesus taught His disciples about the difficult life into which He called them. Jesus said, “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. . . . You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.  You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21: 12, 16-19, ESV)

Jesus often taught by example. When Jesus died on the cross, He provided the ultimate example of sacrifice. His sacrifice was not without meaning. He died for the sins of all men. Rising from the dead after three days, Jesus proved that His promise of eternal life is true. The Resurrection also proved that God is willing and able to raise and glorify both Jesus Christ and all who follow Him.

As the Bible says in I Peter 2: 21 (ESV), “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

What is Christian discipleship? A disciple follows Jesus in a close, personal relationship. The disciple gives up his own life to follow Christ. In the process, the disciple gains eternal life.