A question was asked in a public forum recently that I am going to take on briefly here. The question was two fold. What is discipleship, and what is the originating point of discipleship.
Discipleship originates in the call of God to us. In the United Methodist tradition we have this neat and fancy word for it called Prevenient grace. (OK, so technically the Fifth council of Trent beat Wesley to the punch, but that is a different story altogether.) This is to say, basically, that God is calling us to Himself, and thus to discipleship, before we have any interest in Him. We see this idea throughout the Old Testament with the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We see it reaffirmed in Exodus, Leviticus and by prophets. It commonly takes the form of a phrasing similar to this: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people”. In the Old Testament this was expressed as a national community devoted to God that would be a blessing to the Earth and those who lived on it. We see it in the New Testament expressed in many ways as well. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Jesus calling us. God initiating the relationship through the second person of the Trinity. Even a casual reading will reveal many more instances where Christ is calling others, that is to say initiating, discipleship. The origin point of discipleship lies with God and God alone.
Now what is discipleship is a bit of a trickier question. Simply put, a disciple is a follower, or student of a teacher. In our Christian context however, there seems to be more to this. To be honest, we have examples in scripture where discipleship is presented in different ways. For the twelve, following Jesus, being a disciple, meant to count the cost of allegiance to Jesus. The first disciples were called to leave everything behind. Family, friends, professions, etc. were all abandoned to follow Christ. Others were called to this sort of following as well. (Luke 14:25-33 and Matthew 8:18-22) We have example of others who were willing to follow Christ on His journey, but Christ sent elsewhere. (Mark 5:18-19) We have the examples of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38-42; John 3:1-14) who at some point in Jesus’ earthly ministry were followers, that is to say disciples, yet remained in their Earthly stations yet still came forward when faith required it of them. All of these varying examples are valid forms of discipleship, yet they look very different. The original twelve had the purpose of becoming teachers themselves who would in turn garner followers, though always in submission to God through Christ. We have the demoniac who was told to simply go home and tell what had been done. We have others who stayed in their earthly station until such time as something was required of them. Discipleship takes many forms and has many purposes.
What do these varying forms and varying purposes have in common that we may identify then? One aspect is the counting the cost. We must daily choose to take up our cross to follow Christ. (Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) Wesley, commenting on Mark 8:23 says the following: “And when he called the people – To hear a truth of the last importance, and one that equally concerned them all. Let him deny himself – His own will, in all things small and great, however pleasing, and that continually: And take up his cross – Embrace the will of God, however painful, daily, hourly, continually. Thus only can he follow me in holiness to glory.” So, an essential ingredient in discipleship is complete submission to God through Christ. God’s will, not ours, God’s dream, not ours, God’s desires, not ours. We are dead to ourselves, and all of the sinful desire that comes with it, so that we may be alive in Christ. (Paul in about every letter he ever wrote and probably even when he was talking in his sleep)
Another aspect is being conformed to the likeness of Christ. Understanding that Christ is our teacher, we should then, naturally, become more like Him if we are to be successful in following His teachings (Luke 6:40). This has several functions. First and foremost is our desire to be like Jesus because He is indeed the fullest expression we have of all of the essential attributes and nature of God. We strive to be holy because He is holy if you will. We do this because we recognize that this is where the true fullness of life lies and also because, as stated above, we are in submission to God through Christ, and quite frankly He has commanded it. We do this because it serves as a model, for those who come in contact with us, of what the life of a Christian looks like when one lives what they believe. We do this for the reasons that Paul did it. Come and follow my example as I follow the example of Christ. (1Cor 11:1)
Still another aspect is that we learn. We study the scriptures to indeed show ourselves approved for the good works prepared for us. We study the scriptures because we want to know God and live a life that is pleasing to Him. We study the scriptures so that we can fulfill the teaching command of the great commission. We study the scriptures because we love God and want to know Him. We learn from teachers that we trust. We learn from the church and her doctrine. We do all of this because we also want to know how it is that God would have us act. Our studying is not intended for an academic knowledge only, or even for a deepening relationship with the risen Christ only, but also so that we may know what actions we engage in that will be pleasing to God. Not only because it was it commanded (be holy for I the Lord your God am holy), but because we should want to please the one who has given us life.
To sum up, discipleship is the gospel message taken as whole. It is the point of the Old Testament and New Testament and the harmony they share. It is the ultimate expression and fulfillment of the words given through out the scriptures, expressed best I think in Leviticus (because if you read me often, you know Leviticus is coming into play), where God tells us the following: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” (26:12) On this Wesley said ” And I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people – The sum of the whole gospel covenant. “ The sum of discipleship.