What Does It Mean To Be A Disciple?
By Cody McCain
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.’” Matthew 16:24 (New Living Translation)
The term “discipleship” has almost become an archaic term in the church, particularly the church here in the United States. We’ve often time replaced the word disciple with terms such as “church member,” “parishioner,” “covenant partners,” etc. But the true essence of Christianity is not just “joining an organization” but living as radical disciples of Jesus Christ. Disciple literally means “disciplined one,” something we don’t want to truly address in our teachings. We talk much about personal advancement, achievement, wealth, and overall “prosperity” but what about discipleship? What is Jesus truly looking for from those who profess His name in this hour? About two years ago I had a dream one night that I was in a church service and suddenly someone yelled out, “come outside!” I immediately ran to the outside of the church and saw in the distance a huge water tower – larger than any I’d ever seen – that was rotating at an extremely high rate of speed. Suddenly, the water tower collapsed and a huge wall of water – almost like a tsunami – began to race toward the area I was standing. I braced for the impact of this deluge and it indeed hit the area I was standing, yet I was not knocked down but continued to stand. The water ran through the entire church, moving everything in its path and even filling up the baptistry. The dream then shifted, and I beheld a line of hundreds possibly thousands of individuals that went from the inside of the church, around the building, and into the distance. I walked back inside the church and these individuals were lined up, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, being baptized, and going out to serve. There were so many people, I had to get into the baptistry and assist with the baptisms! When I woke up the Holy Spirit began to minister to me saying: “The spinning water tower is symbolic of the prayers of the righteous causing a stirring of the reservoirs of Heaven. Its collapse is the release of my Word and Spirit that comes to cleanse the Body of Christ and turn many from their transgressions. It will disrupt ‘church as usual’ and bring her back to a true worship and devotion of Me! Because of this cleansing, salvation and redemption would flow THROUGH my Body to reach the lost and make disciples that will continue the spread of my eternal Word!” Yes, it is the heart of God to refocus the church to discipleship! You may ask, “What does discipleship look like?” The answer lies in the words Jesus spoke to his disciples in the above verse; but to understand Matthew 16:24, we’ll need to look at the preceding verses (particularly verses 22 and 23).
To give a summary of the occasion of verses 22 and 23, Jesus was preparing His disciples for His ordained trip to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and be raised again on the third day. Peter – who had just confessed His revelation of Jesus as the Messiah in verse 16 – came under the influence of the kingdom of darkness and began to rebuke Jesus, saying, “This cannot happen to you!” Jesus’ response: “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me, for you don’t have in mind the things of God but the things of man!” This begs the question, what are the “things of men” that Jesus mentioned? The New Revised Standard Version of this text translates it this way: “…for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The “setting of the mind” is a Greek verb phroneō which means: “to have understanding” or “to side with one.” Peter being a Jew – and familiar with teachings from the Law and the Prophets – already had in mind the way the Messiah would set up His Messianic rule on the earth! I’m sure Peter heard the passage from Isaiah 9:7 at some point which stated, “He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” However, what Jesus was describing regarding suffering and death looked like a completely different picture of the Messiah that Peter had in mind! Let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves a question: how often do we do what Peter did? How often do we have our own carnal perspective of the things of God versus a Biblical perspective? Could it be that many times we don’t have a Biblical perspective because we don’t discipline ourselves to study God’s Word and allow Holy Spirit to give us revelation and insight? After all, if Peter would have read Isaiah 53 (another passage concerning the coming Messiah as the “suffering servant”) he would have clearly seen that what Jesus was describing was perfectly in line with what the Messiah would look like! The focus of discipleship cannot be carnal, or “what can I get out of it.” The focus of discipleship must be how we can reveal Christ to others through our submission to Him! In Peter’s mind (along with other Jews of the time), the Messiah was supposed to initiate an earthly kingdom unlike any other (which will happen at the end of this age) yet failing to understand that there is more to “Messiahship” than just being an earthly “hero”! American Christianity has perpetuated a similar mindset: “Serve Jesus so you can be blessed in this life!” Because we fail to have a revelatory understanding of scripture regarding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, this allows room for disappointment and even deception in the life of a believer! Let’s break down each clause of this verse to get the full understanding of what Jesus was saying!
“If any of you wants to be my follower…”
There is a powerful concept behind this statement which points to one thing: THE POWER OF CHOICE! The word “want” (or “will” in the KJV) is the Greek word thelō which literally means: to have in mind, intend, or desire; this word is also in the present active tense which suggests ONGOING or CONTINUAL action. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ we must daily WILL OURSELVES to do so! Our will is that part of our minds that intentionally directs it toward specific thoughts our actions. If we will ourselves to follow Christ, this means intentionally directing our minds toward the thoughts and actions of Christ! This goes well beyond how we “feel” (let’s be honest, we don’t always feel like studying the word, praying, worshiping, attending church, walking in obedience, etc.)! But we choose to will ourselves to follow Christ simply because of who He is (we see His track record in the Word of God!) and our love for Him! After all, He willed Himself to shed His blood for us when he declared, “…yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42)!
“…you must give up your own way…”
Now we are on to the next part of this verse which says, “you must give up your own way” (the King James Version reads, “let him deny himself”). Literally speaking, to “deny one’s self” in this context means to “affirm that one has no acquaintance or connection with someone; to lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests. Now, this sounds like a hard pill to swallow that we are so accustomed to having things our way or no way! True discipleship means that we lose sight of ourselves (from our own fleshly perspective) and see ourselves the way Christ sees us. It also means that we abandon our own selfish interests and seek to know and understand Christ’s interests! Discipleship leaves no room for doing what pleases our fleshly nature (the part of us that focuses on pleasure, convenience, comfort, materialism, etc.) but challenges us to sow our lives to please the Spirit. Galatians 6:8 affirms this when it says, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” When we deny ourselves for the sake of Christ, we make our lives reflective of His heart and nature! Yet if we choose to be selfish and prioritize “our way” then we will cause our minds to be directed towards thoughts and actions that pertain to self!
“…take up your cross…”
Let’s examine what it truly means to “take up your cross.” In the ancient Roman empire, a commonly used form of execution was crucifixion on a wooden cross. For a criminal to carry a cross meant certain DEATH! In Jesus’ case, the cross was His PURPOSE and ASSIGNMENT. He declared in John 18:37, “To this end I was born, and for this cause came I into the word, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” He bore witness to the truth through His death on the cross, testifying that He was the Lamb of God, that was to take away the sins of the world! How do we take up a cross and testify to the truth as Jesus did? By understanding what our purpose and assignment are from God! Whatever God has assigned to us will kill us! Whoa, that’s kind of extreme, but the essence of our purpose and assignment is not for our flesh to be glorified but for it to DIE (as we see in the previous section) so that God is glorified! Our purpose and assignment are also designed for someone else’s redemption! Just as Jesus’ assignment of the cross brought about our redemption, what God has assigned to us should follow the same pattern. This should cause us to ask some serious questions: Do I know and understand my purpose and assignment? If I am walking in my purpose and assignment am I walking in it in such a way that God is glorified and the lost are being drawn into a relationship with Christ? If no one is coming into a knowledge of Jesus Christ because of our activities, we really need to evaluate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it!
The final portion of this verse presents us with another powerful principle. I love the way the Amplified Version of this text reads when it says, “…follow me [cleave steadfastly to Me, conform wholly to My example in living, and if need be, in dying also].” The word “follow” in this portion of the verse is the Greek verb akoloutheō which means “to join one as an attendant or to accompany one;” it also means “to side with a party” (as in politics). There are two implications here regarding a disciple of Christ, the first being this: a disciple joins with Christ in His redemptive plan for mankind! Romans 8:17 describes us being “heirs and joint heirs in Christ Jesus.” This verse is most commonly used to point us to the spiritual blessings that we have in Christ Jesus (which is indeed true) but there is a deeper aspect of what we “share” with Christ. We are not only called to share in the blessings but we are called to share in the LABOR and THE SUFFERING of Christ! As Christians, we aren’t purposed to just sit around and personally benefit from the blessings of Christ; these blessings enable us to effectively labor (or work) in the cause of Christ and even endure the suffering that comes along with laboring for Him! The second implication of discipleship is this: a disciple takes Christ’s side! Just as we take sides in sports, politics, and even arguments, following Christ means taking His side! To take Jesus’ side is to take upon His reasoning, His perspective, His passion, and His truth! You may ask, “Well how is this possible?” 1 Corinthians 2:16 reminds us that, “We have the MIND of CHRIST;” because we’ve been given His mind we can take His side! Christ’s side leaves no room for partiality, but only truth and righteousness!
Father in Jesus’ name we glorify you for who you are! We thank you that you have called us your disciples. Father, we ask that you forgive us for where we have had the wrong idea and perspective regarding discipleship. Cause Holy Spirit to rise within us to stir up a holy passion and desire to seek you, die to self, walk in the divine purpose you’ve given to us, and follow you wholeheartedly. Lord cause us to be radical disciples for your namesake and your glory! In Jesus’ name, we pray……….AMEN, AND IT IS SO!
Cody T. McCain Sr. is the owner, funeral director, and embalmer of McCain Funeral Home & Cremations, LLC located in Morganton. He, along with his wife Shaunda, have a passion to serve their community with the love, integrity, and excellence of Christ.
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