Is there any difference between being a 'believer' and being a 'disciple?'
If asked, I doubt if many Christians today would feel there was much, if any, difference between the two. Part of the reason for that is that there is little, if any, teaching or training on what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. We have reduced the idea of discipleship to 'loving Jesus' and sharing the gospel, when in reality Jesus said we are to go and "teach them to obey everything I have commanded you."
Jesus made a very sharp distinction between believing and being a true disciple...
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Luke 9:23 (NIV)
In another place he says that we are his disciples if we "abide in his word." And again, if we "bear much fruit." He compounds this idea of true discipleship in John 14:27 when he declares, "And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
It seems like Jesus had a very specific idea of what it meant for someone to be his disciple!
So let's go back to the three requirements stated in Luke 9 for those who "want" to be his disciple. They are: deny himself, take up their cross daily, and follow him.
Got to say, this sounds much more demanding than what we usually hear on any given Sunday morning. This sounds like it's going to require a lot more than a daily devotion in Jesus Calling and a couple of hours on Sunday! And it is definitely far more serious, thought provoking, and dangerous sounding than 'love Jesus and share the gospel.'
Truth be known, my Christian DNA was formed by a lot of preaching, teaching and discussion about denying, taking up crosses and following Jesus. We didn't just consider it an interesting doctrinal consideration, we embraced it with zeal and enthusiasm. We genuinely tried to live this 24/7/365.
And for all that, I always had a somewhat negative reaction to this verse and verses like it. As a fellowship, we talked so much about denying, dying, mortifying, taking things to the cross, reckoning things dead, putting to death, crucifying, etc., that for me there was a bit of a pall cast over my yearning to be a disciple. I was so determined to be dead to everything, that I crossed a boundary line somewhere and lost perspective on what it really means to be his disciple. (Things can get pretty grim when you are always on the wrong side of the cross.) In the midst of a lot of self-inflicted negativity and asceticism, I lost sight of the fact that his calling should be liberating, invigorating and satisfying.
With that in mind, let's take another look at these three requirements for discipleship.
I have to say this was a big one for me...
I interpreted it to mean that God wanted me to be an 'empty' person. By that I mean, I felt like God was saying that the 'me' in me was evil, wicked, and bad and had to be ruthlessly rooted out. That meant that the passions, longing, desires, perspectives, etc. that I held need to be eradicated. I had to crucify them, mortify them and put them to death, lest they manifest my innate selfishness and inexcusably dark and wicked heart.
I have come to understand that the 'me' in me is what God sent his Son to redeem! I don't have to run away from my personality, my giftedness, my peculiarities, and my weaknesses. I don't need to be putting things to death and trying to crucify myself, because I have been crucified with Christ! It is now no longer "I" who lives, but Christ lives in me. That means that the me in me has been sanctified by his work on the cross. I am a new creation in Christ and all things have become new. I can embrace, and live out of, what God says is true about me and as a consequence realize his intention for creating me!
And as a result, I am now completely free to deny myself!
The Greek term aparneomai, translated in English as "deny" has the meaning "to disown" or "renounce." As that new creation in Christ I am no longer under any obligation to give any attention to, feel obligated to or be in bondage to, who I once was. As that new creation, I am free to renounce and disown the need to be driven by my fears, self-interest and self-centeredness. By denying myself I am in reality embracing the whole person that I am in Christ. The turning away from, is actually a turning to, something infinitely grander!
What is interesting to me is that Jesus seems to imply we do this once...
He does not indicate that this is something that we need to do daily or even continuously. He seems to imply that once we have renounced our old selves and embraced the reality of the new creation, it is done. It is as if the true disciple has made a decision about who they are and they no longer look back. They are like those in Hebrews 11:15-16 that "if they had been thinking with [homesick] remembrance of that country from which they were emigrants, they would have found constant opportunity to return to it. But the truth is that they were yearning for and aspiring to a better and more desirable country, that is, a heavenly [one]." They had renounced where they came from and were fixed upon where they were going. They were true disciples!
Taking My Cross
Again, I always colored this concept with a very dark crayon. The cross was always that ominous, negative thing God was demanding at the moment, the sacrifice, the pain, the suffering. Or it was the 'trials of life.' Either way, it was always a grim experience. And in truth, the cross was a very grim experience for Jesus. It was a place of indescribable pain and suffering. And it says of him that he 'endured the cross' and despised its shame.
So on the surface, maybe my impression of what it meant to take up my cross was not so far off...or was it?
I got to thinking about this and realized that he was saying this to all those that were with him -- the disciples, the believers, the doubters, the ones that were just there for bread and fish, and the curious. He said it to all, and this was months before his own walk up to Golgotha. I am sure that they were probably a little confused about what it all meant.
Did Jesus want them all to be shameful, desperate criminals condemned to a most horrific and terrible punishment? And were they supposed to do this daily if they were going to be his disciple? I imagine that would have thinned the crowd a bit if that was all he was saying. But I think there is more here.
I want to suggest that taking up my cross daily means to completely embrace God's purpose and intention for my life -- regardless of what that is -- every day. And it is something that must be daily. His purpose for us is like manna...it just won't keep for tomorrow. It is for today, this moment in time. And it will be different for each one of us. Some will endure suffering and death in a variety of ways. Some will live long and fruitful lives. And I believe there are others that will be prosperous and generous. We just don't know where God's purpose will take us. But the question is are we taking hold of it, are we shouldering it, every day and moving ahead with a sense of the incredible dignity of furthering God's purpose in the world?
To me, this is what it means to take up my cross daily...it means to be daily engaged in God's purpose in the fullness of who I am in Christ!
This is the final requirement for being his disciple and I think it is a capstone of encouragement for our consideration. The bottom line is that God has not left us to go it alone! We are to be following Jesus...the one that has gone before and demonstrated that God is faithful and true and will never abandon us. And that indescribable joy is at the end of our journey.
The Greek word translated "follow" is Akoloutheō and it means much more than to simply amble along behind someone. Thayer describes it as meaning "to follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant, accompany him." It has as a part of its composition the word that means union. So to me, "following him" means to be engaged with him as one who walks alongside him as an attendant or apprentice. Someone who is learning from him in every way how to behave and respond to need and engage with people and trust God so deeply and profoundly that nothing can divert us from the path.
And the great comfort is that he is with me always! He is not sending me to the back of the line to suck up the dust of all those 'worthies' who have earned the preferred places. No, in a way that can only be possible because of his divinity, he has room at his side for all of us. There is no back row!! He is right alongside us all, as we follow him, encouraging us, instructing us, comforting and supporting us. All the while he is saying, "It's not long now, we're almost there. Don't lose heart, your salvation is closer than when you first believed."
Oh that there were more individuals out there helping 'believers' to understand what it means to be 'disciples' and showing them the way in grace and love.