The 4 Characteristics of a Disciple
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Now Reading: The 4 Characteristics of a Disciple
4 years ago
What does it mean to be a disciple?
The twelve men Jesus originally chose were some of the most colourful, courageous and conflicted characters in the Bible. They were ordinary men – fishermen, tax collectors, political zealots – who went on to become the pillars of a worldwide movement.
Reading about their journey in the New Testament, it’s easy to feel like we could never follow in their footsteps. We will never have the leadership of Peter, the courage to die for our faith like James, or the close relationship to Jesus that John possessed.
But if look closely at the lives of these men, what we see is that their journey as disciples was defined by four core characteristics:
For each of the disciples, their journey began with a pivotal moment when Jesus said “follow me.” I was to focus on just one of these call stories – the call of Matthew, the tax collector. In Matthew 9:9 we read:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
The entire story only comprises one verse, but there’s a lot we can take from it. Matthew was a tax collector, a Jew who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans. A large part of a tax collector’s income typically came from forcing their fellow Jews to pay more tax than was necessary, and keeping the extra for themselves.
Consequently, tax collectors were absolutely reviled in Jewish society. Matthew would have been hated by his countrymen and deep down, he probably hated himself as well.
We find Matthew sitting at his tax booth. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to a bank or a post office at peak hour, but I suspect it would have felt a bit like that. There was probably a big line, filled with impatient people, none of whom wanted to be there in the first place.
In the midst of this agitated scene, a man approaches Matthew. He draws the tax collector’s attention, and when Matthew looks into his eyes, he sees something different. In contrast to the revulsion he often encounters in the eyes of his fellow Jews, looking into this man’s eyes, Matthew is reminded of the way his father would look at him as a young boy. He sees love.
Immediately, there’s a sharp sense of guilt. Matthew is embarrassed that such a man would find him in this situation, taking money from his own people. But those emotions are quickly overwhelmed by a deeper sense in Matthew’s heart that he is meant for more. He is meant for more than a life of taking from others, more than a life of greed and indulgence.
This stirring in Matthew’s heart continues to build, reaching its crescendo right as the man utters two simple words, “follow me.”
So he does. Matthew stands up, walks straight past the line of confused tax payers, and walks into his new life. He becomes a disciple.
In our own walk as Christians, each of us probably remembers a moment when we first answered Jesus’ call to follow Him. For some of us, it may have been an intense, emotionally moving experience. For others, it was just a quiet decision made in the silence of our hearts. Regardless, it was in that moment that we first became disciples.
Looking at the lives of the disciples, we see that the call wasn’t a one-off event. Every day, the twelve would have had to wake up and make the decision again to follow Jesus.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.” If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, it begins with answering his call to follow him anew each day.
When we think about Jesus’ public ministry, the first thing that often comes to mind is the enormous crowds. We think of Jesus feeding the five thousand, or the hundreds who would have been listening as he delivered his sermon on the mount.
But preaching to large crowds was not at the heart of Jesus’ public ministry. Instead, a critical examination of the gospels reveals that these years were primarily about forming his disciples.
Time and again, we see Jesus leaving the crowd behind after giving them a particular teaching, but then taking the time to explain that teaching to his disciples (Matt 4:10-20). He was preparing them to carry on his mission after he had gone.
It’s easy to forget, as well, that the vast bulk of the time Jesus spent with his disciples isn’t recording in the Bible.
For every day that Jesus was preaching to the crowds and performing miracles, there was a night when Jesus sat around a fire with these twelve, sharing stories from the day and laughing together. The disciples weren’t just Jesus’ students; they were his closest friends. They were formed through their close relationship with him. We see the effects of this formation in Mark 8:27-29:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
In this passage, an important distinction is drawn between the crowds and the twelve, between the unformed and the formed. To the crowds, Jesus is just another prophet. But to his disciples, who’s spokesman is Peter, he is the Messiah.
Because of their formation, the disciples see Jesus for who he truly is.
It’s an important reminder of our own need for formation. There have definitely been times in my life where, despite calling myself a Christian, I haven’t spent time in relationship with Jesus every day through prayer.
There have been times when I haven’t made an effort to seek out the formation of a spiritual director or mentor in my life.
There have been times when I’ve been part of a big church and I’ve felt like just another person in the pews. If I’m being honest, during these times I was more a part of the crowd than one of the disciples.
It’s because of their formation that the disciples understand who Jesus really is. It’s through their formation that they eventually come to understand what that means for their own lives as his disciples.
If we want to see Jesus and follow him, we have to get formed.
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The disciples were called by Jesus and they were formed through years of ministry, but they weren’t perfect. Time and again in the gospels, we see them fail to understand both Jesus’ mission and his identity.
Nowhere is this more clear than on the moment when Jesus is arrested, before being crucified. At this decisive moment, we read that all of Jesus’ followers “deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).
The disciples who had walked Jesus during the past three years, the men who had become his closest friends, run from him. In the hours that follow, Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he would build his church, denies Jesus three times (Mark 14:66).
I think we’ve all had moments like Peter. We’ve all had moments where we deny that we’re Jesus’ followers, if not with our words then through our actions.
Since I first answered that call to follow, I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve fallen short of what it means to be a disciple. There have been so many moments when I’ve made the wrong choice, been selfish, or haven’t been true to my faith.
Dealing with these mistakes often feels more difficult now than it was before I was a Christian. I feel like I should know better, that I’m a hypocrite, that I’m not worthy to be called God’s son.
I’m sure Peter was feeling a similar way. But at the end of the gospel of John, after Jesus’ resurrection, we find a poignant scene.
Once again, Peter is out fishing, and once again Jesus calls to him on the shore.Recognising that it is Jesus calling to him, Peter leaps from his boat and runs to meet him. Standing on the shore, Peter declares his love for Jesus three times, once for every time he denied Jesus.
Peter returns to God’s forgiveness and once again, Jesus looks at him and utters those two world-changing words, “follow me.”
When we fall short of who we are meant to be as disciples, God doesn’t want us to run from him, He wants us to run to Him. Just like with Peter, Jesus is waiting for us on the shore. All he wants is for us to tell Him again that we love Him, and that we’re sorry. Every time we do, he forgives without hesitation.
In Jesus’ final moments on earth with his disciples, his last words to them are “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This is it – the culmination of the call, the final purpose of those three years of formation. The disciples are sent out to be Jesus’ witnesses.
When we think about any kind of witnessing in our own lives, any kind of ministry or missionary work, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “that’s something I’d love to do… eventually.”
Or perhaps we that that kind of work should be left to the professional ministers; those extra holy Christians who aren’t dealing with the demands of day-to-day life.
But when Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples, his final words aren’t “you will receive power… so make sure you identify yourselves as Christians”, or “you will receive power… so maybe get together every Sunday and have a lukewarm cup of tea afterwards.”
He says “you will receive power… and you will be my witnesses.” Witnessing is at the core of what it means to be a disciple.
In the years that followed this moment of being sent, thousands would come to know Jesus through the witnesses of his first disciples. This blog exists, two thousand years later, because of them.
So, what are you doing to be a witness? When was the last time you invited a friend to a church event? When was the last time you got involved in a church outreach program? Are you open about your faith with your colleagues, your classmates, or those around you?
Because Jesus’ didn’t just call us to be Christians. He wasn’t interested in people who gave themselves that particularly label church each Sunday and occasionally contributed something to the parish fundraiser.
Jesus called us to be disciples. If we want to live that out, we have to answer Jesus’ call to follow every day. We have to seek out opportunities for regular formation. We must return to God’s forgiveness every time we fail.
Finally, we must be sent out. Jesus is still calling people to follow – He’s calling our family members, our friends, our co-workers. It’s our job to be His witnesses.