On Being Disciples of Christ

by Stephen Rhoda

One of two main emphases in the efforts of Ephphatha Reformation Ministries is the call of Christ to be His disciples.  We hear this call throughout the pages of the Gospels and again in the closing events of the inspired record in Matthew 28.  In the words of our Lord known as the “Great Commission,” we hear not only the church’s missional calling but also the calling of each individual believer to be a disciple of Christ.  “Go therefore,” said Jesus, “and make disciples….”  Surely there is great significance in the fact that even as Christ concluded His earthly ministry in the flesh, even as He was departing to return to the Father’s right hand, He renewed this call in the lives of those who believed in Him, and He called the church to echo this call in the ears of all those who would believe in Him.  Simply put, Christians are those who must understand and identify themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But how conscious are we as believers of our identity specifically as disciples of our Lord?

A Personal Relationship with Christ

Of course, the first step for some will be to take up a more personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I suspect that this expression, namely, a “personal relationship with Christ,” has gained a strong connection to a tradition of Christianity that is sometimes overly personal, to the extreme that for some who have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” their faith is just about “me and Jesus,” specifically in that order of priority.  And too often, it’s a “Jesus” of rather insipid character who does not command the fear and worship of those who claim to know him.  This is not what I mean by calling the reader “to take up a more personal relationship with Christ.”

However, the creeping error at the other end of the spectrum is “nominalism.”  In my experience and resulting opinion, this error has crept too far into the church.  Members of the church, those who would claim to be Christians, are yet Christian only nominally, that is, in name only.  If they are asked, “Are you a Christian?” they are taken aback or even offended by the question, and yet they have no daily communion with Christ through the Word and prayer.  They offer no confession of Christ in their conversation with others, even with other Christians.  The extent of their religious language is to make reference to “God” or to a generic “Lord,” perhaps to “the Spirit,” but strikingly absent, or at best latent, is a clear, eager, and joyful reference to and confession of Christ.

I certainly want to be charitable in evaluating the faith of others, and even as I just re-read the last paragraph, I found myself asking, “Is this fair?”  However, it just should not be — perhaps, it cannot be — that those who are Christ-ians rarely, if ever, confess the name of Christ with joy, yet alone, even mention His name in conversation.  Romans 10:9 says- “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  And Christ Himself said- “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So I think it’s fair to say that underlying both emphases of Ephphatha Reformation Ministries — both the calling of parents to catechize their children and the calling of Christ to be His disciples — underlying and overarching everything is the deeper motivation of wanting to call the church back to Christ.  There are lifelong members of the church who need to ask themselves, “Do I believe in Christ?  Am I a follower of Christ?  If I do and if I am, why does He not fill more of my daily meditation and conversation?”  In this respect, the church can be a dangerous place, if it serves as the cleverest of hiding places for unbelief, leaving a person in the end apart from Christ and still outside the kingdom of heaven.  Even in the church, the Gospel must be preached.  And the call of Christ in the Gospel is to take up a personal relationship with Him.

The Relationship of Discipleship

The next step in answering the call to be a disciple of Christ is to understand that this is indeed the relationship into which He calls us.  In other words, it’s not just any relationship to which He calls us, nor does Christ leave each person to decide for themselves what relationship with Him they want to have.  Is this not the point of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3?  Is this not the point of Jesus’ challenge to the crowds in John 6?  As people came to Him wanting to relate to Him however they would choose, Christ consistently indicted them and confronted them with the challenge to take up a right and saving relationship to Him.

In our own day, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Again, even in the church, people today presume to relate to Christ in whatever way suites them.  Perhaps He is their friend.  Maybe He is their teacher.  Or perhaps Christ is simply the bridge that one must cross and leave behind in order to “walk in the Spirit,” or to “be Spirit-filled,” but otherwise simply to have a relationship with “the Spirit.”  If at best Christ only receives honorable mention in one’s confession of faith, that person has given little indication that he or she stands in right relationship to Him.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of this problem are the ads that churches place as they seek a new pastor.  There are a striking number of ads that say they want a “Spirit-filled” pastor, whatever that means to them, but not one ad that I’ve seen that says they want a pastor who is “a disciple of Jesus Christ,” or who is “following Christ.”  Why is that?  Doesn’t Christ still call us to be His disciples?  Wasn’t His commission to the church to “make disciples”?  Two thousand years later, people are still trying to tell Christ where He fits in their personal version of meaningful spirituality.

Understanding Discipleship

Thus we arrive at the need to understand what discipleship is.  The point is not just to hold a title, nor simply to adopt a certain vocabulary and drop in the right words in conversation.  The point is to be, to act, to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and doing so will require understanding again from God’s Word.  Just as we are not left to decide what relationship we would have with Christ, so we are not left to decide what the discipleship relationship looks like.

Disciple as Student

First, a disciple of Christ is one who listens to and learns from Jesus.  There are few things more clear in the record of the Gospels than the identity of Jesus as Teacher and that of the disciples as students.  So in one sense, “disciple as student” is closer to the heart of discipleship than any other aspect of the relationship, so that the words “disciple” and “student” are virtually synonymous.

Perhaps here immediately is the reason why so few modern Christians are conscious of being disciples of Christ.  Having to learn something is exactly what many do not want.  What is desired is much more of a mutual relationship to Christ or a relationship of experience with the Spirit.  But learning requires submission, time and effort.

The story or scene that most comes to mind here is Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus recorded in Luke 10.  Martha was busy making preparations for their guests while Mary sat listening to the teaching of Jesus.  The story teaches us several important things.  First, it teaches us that while the twelve disciples were men and while Christ still calls ordained men to lead in the church, yet both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ.  Second, I think the sense we are supposed to gather is that Mary found sitting at the feet of Jesus irresistible.  It seems likely that Martha’s negative reaction stemmed not from her poor relationship with Mary but from a cultural expectation that Mary should have been doing what Martha was doing, and she very well might have been, if not for the irresistible opportunity so close at hand to sit and listen to a sermon or lesson from her Lord right in her own living room.

The parallel is obvious.  Today, disciples of Christ do not sit at the physical feet of Jesus, but they actually have more opportunity to listen and learn from Jesus than Mary did.  With the Word of God square in our hands and with modern technology freeing up huge blocks of time compared to our forefathers and mothers, we might very well be spending an hour or more a day as students of Christ.  It might actually be an indictment against us if we have never been accused of “just sitting there” as Mary was.  Ministers must deal with this from certain members of their congregations who feel “led by the Spirit” to confront a pastor who spends too much time in his study, or so they allege.  But others too as disciples of Christ ought to bear this attack to show that they are getting closer to spending as much as they should in the Word of God.  In the very least, disciples of Christ should be those eager for an hour to spend at the feet of Jesus.

Disciple as Dependent

However, there is definitely more to being a disciple of Christ than being a student of Christ.  For example, the disciples did not just show up for their classes every day, meeting Jesus at the temple or synagogue.  Instead, they followed Jesus, they lived with Jesus, they depended upon Him daily for their subsistence and livelihood.  This is the implication and impact of seeing Peter, Andrew, James and John leaving behind their nets and boat to follow Jesus in Matthew 4:18-22.  It seems clear that these men understood the institution of discipleship within their culture and that they heard Jesus calling them to be His disciples.  They left behind their means of support and began that day to depend fully upon Christ to feed, clothe and shelter them, and they lived from then on in full dependence upon Christ.

This aspect of their relationship to Christ helps us understand the consternation of the disciples in John 6 as Jesus calls upon them to feed a great crowd of people.  The sense of their objection seems to be this- “You want to feed these people, Jesus?  It will use up all our funds, and then what will be left for us?”  So it is in both the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand that the number of baskets left over was a perfect number.  With the five thousand, there was one basket for each of the twelve disciples.  With the four thousand, there were a perfect seven baskets left over.  Jesus was teaching them not to be greedy and not to worry but to trust Him fully, to trust Him to provide for their needs as His disciples.

We need to be careful to point out that not every believer is called to quit their job and expect that their physical needs will somehow be met by Christ as they follow Him.  Granted there are some who do this still today in the form of full-time ministry, but the point here is that every disciple is called to live in utter dependence upon Christ.  I believe this is the point of John 21, where after the resurrection the disciples had returned to their fishing.  Jesus found them on the sea and once again provided them with a miraculous catch of fish.  Recognizing Jesus by this miracle, they hurried to shore and found a fire with fish already cooking over it, and bread.  Even still, Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”  I hear Jesus saying to them- “There will no longer be a fund to provide for your needs, and yes, you may have to work at times to eat.  But make no mistake: I am still providing for you, and you still depend upon me.”

However, our dependence upon Christ goes far beyond the provision of physical food, shelter and clothing.  The true disciple of Christ depends upon Him for the provision of His blood and righteousness to save them from their sin.  Here is where the discipleship relationship, a relationship of utter dependence upon Christ, is understood to embody true faith.  Jesus made it abundantly clear to the people that they needed more than bread, meat and water.  They needed Him.  They needed Him to be their bread of life, their sacrificial lamb, and their living water.  Jesus said- “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

Can we not see then the utterly false nature of nominal Christianity?  The relationship to which Jesus calls us is one of utter dependence.  We are not to show up in church once a week just looking for an hour of generic spiritual inspiration.  Instead, we are called to live in conscious dependence upon Christ as our God, the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  And we are not to strive for a miserable 15-minute devotional time in which to practice our faith.  Instead, Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), and he said further of Christ- “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Disciple as One Who Loves Christ

And that brings me to a third aspect of the discipleship relationship.  A disciple of Christ is one who loves Christ deeply in response to His love for him or her.  Here we need to see John in his relationship to Jesus in John 13:21-30.  The main focus of the passage is on Judas as Jesus identifies him as the one who would betray him, but we must not miss the contrast being made between Judas and John.  Even as Judas refuses any longer to follow Jesus and to depend upon Him, relying instead upon what the enemies of Jesus might provide him, we see John leaning on Jesus.  The NKJV is the most archaic and yet the most literal.  It says of John that he “was leaning on Jesus’ bosom.”  As Judas prepares to betray Jesus, we see John loving Jesus.  It’s a posture and gesture of love, a picture of tender fellowship with Christ, and it sounds the call for us, as disciples of Christ, to love Him deeply.

In a very clear sense, surely we must say, “Yes, how can it be otherwise?”  How can they not love Christ who claim and confess that He died for them on the cross?  When He deals with us so tenderly, with such compassion and patience, and when He even took our place as objects of wrath and suffered hell for us, surely He must move us to love Him deeply and endlessly.  While even the most faithful of disciples lacks a fully fitting love for Christ, the nominal Christian is thus exposed in his unbelief.  It simply cannot be that someone who truly believes in Christ consistently neglects even to confess His name, yet alone to spend time with Him regularly in the Word and prayer.  Neither perfect attendance in church, nor a moral lifestyle, not even ordination in the church can compensate for the absence of love for Christ.


Can you imagine what would happen at work if your boss gave you an assignment and you decided to do something else?  When the project was due, would you be able to say, “You told me to do this, but I decided to do something else”?  Why should we find it any less absurd to decide for ourselves what faith is and what relationship with Christ is sufficient and preferable?  The call of Christ is to follow Him and be His disciples.  The commission of Christ to the church is to make disciples of all nations.  God’s Word sounds this call repeatedly and clearly defines and mandates the discipleship relationship with Christ.  And yet the same church that goes to Scripture to confront the world on various issues neglects to sound the call to discipleship.  We dump doctrine like yesterday’s garbage when “doctrine” is simply the teaching of Christ for His students.  We content ourselves with giving Christ honorable mention when disciples are those who depend fully upon Him to save them from sin and hell.  And we find our success in bringing people to spell “God” with a capital “G” when knowing Christ is the surpassing worth of true faith, for which the true believer count all else as loss.

Thus the emphasis and effort of Ephphatha Reformation Ministries is the call of Christ to be His disciples.  May the call be sounded clearly and answered by many disciples, to the glory of Christ, our Teacher, our Savior, our Beloved Lord.

Challenges Made in this Article

Hear the call of Christ to be His disciple.

Take up a personal relationship with Christ, not to the exclusion of the church, but starting in your own mind and heart.

Become a student of Christ in the Word of God.

Recognize and acknowledge your dependence upon Christ for all things, especially for your salvation by His blood and righteousness.

Seek to grow in your love for Christ, matching your confession that He suffered and died in your place.