In this three-part blog series, I want to answer the following questions: what does it mean to be a disciple, how do we make disciples, and what is the church’s role in light of the first two questions?
What does it mean to be a disciple?
"And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'" -Luke 9:23
Growing up in New York City afforded me many privileges. These were privileges like living within walking distance of Yankee stadium, having access to foods from many cultures, and going to high school eight blocks from Times Square. What I appreciated most was the privilege of being raised in a city that was famous for basketball—street ball to be exact. Home of the once great New York Knicks, New York is a city where being good at basketball makes you one of the elite or, as we would say, one of the cool kids in your neighborhood.
As a young man, I did everything I could to become an elite. This required many hours of playing basketball, practicing jump shots, going up against guys bigger than me, and having the arrogance to go into other neighborhoods to challenge their best players. But most importantly, becoming an elite meant being humble enough to be coachable.
The best coach I had was a 5’7" Arabic dude name Ramadan Naasir (Coach Naas as we called him). I thought I was good already, but Coach stretched me. He helped me work harder than I ever worked, longer than I ever worked, and with more structure and results than I could have ever wished to have gotten on my own. Coach Naas was the expert, and I was a hungry player who wanted to grow, but I had to be humble and trust him enough to follow his lead at all times.
As I think back on those high school years and my time with coach Naasir, I have noticed that the basic premise of the relationship between a player and a coach can help us more clearly define and understand discipleship.
Discipleship is the process by which we grow to reflect Christ more and more in our everyday lives.
This growth comes as we are equipped by and with the Word of God. With this, we are accountable to other Christ followers and are focused on getting the message of who Christ is to any and everyone we can. Jesus has given all of us who are a part of this process the name "disciple."
Based on our definition of discipleship, we can define a disciple as someone who has put their faith in Jesus for salvation and submits to and governs their life based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.
A clear example of what a disciple is can be seen to a small degree in my relationship with Coach Naasir. Specifically, in how I intentionally submitted to his teaching and governed my approach to basketball based on what he taught me. Basically, I played by his rules.
A follower, or disciple, of Christ is someone who plays by Jesus’ rules. The main ingredient in a disciple’s life is cross-bearing self denial.
Jesus says denying ourselves involves picking up our cross and letting Jesus lead us. We often use the phrase “leave and cleave” when speaking about a man leaving his father and mother when he gets married. Just as in marriage, when we leave mom and dad and pick up our new life with our spouse, taking our cross requires putting ourselves down and picking up Christ in exchange.
Jesus uses strong and offensive language when he tells the people wanting to follow Him that they must pick up their cross. A cross in that time was a symbol of death and destruction. Only condemned men would be associated with a cross. But this is the symbol Jesus uses when speaking of what it takes to follow Him. Indeed, we must daily pick up our cross by dying to ourselves and submitting to the way of Christ.
If we are going to follow Christ, we must let go of our way of thinking and our self-centered tendencies in exchange for Jesus himself.
Jesus has to become the center of our world. His eyes must become the lenses through which we see the world. His teaching must become the playbook of our lives. Disciples follow Christ in everything and enter into a lifetime of service to Him.
You may be wondering, if Jesus has called me to follow him, where exactly is He leading? Every teacher has a message that their followers must spread. Every teacher expects their followers to know the content of their message and to pledge their allegiance to it, even if it may lead to death. Jesus is no different. He is leading us to spread the message of salvation to the entire world. We serve Him by proclaiming the gospel message.
None of us will be able to deny ourselves, submit to Jesus, and spread His message perfectly, but these are the essential qualities that demonstrate our knowing Jesus.