A definition is to a description as an outline is to a portrait. The definition sets the boundaries or creates the framework into which the picture is painted. Definitions tend to be concise, precise, and unexciting. A description, however, gives the definition life, color, explanation, and illustration. The definition is the title on the puzzle box. The description is the picture on the box.
A disciple of Jesus should be recognizable in every culture and era. Even the opposition identified the early disciples of Christ:
“Now as they (the religious leaders) observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” ( Act 4:13).
To build a description of discipleship on the resurrection side of the cross, we need to take the foundation that is laid in the Gospels and develop it with the added implications of the ascension and coronation of Christ. As we focus on Christ now we need to incorporate the fact that he is currently seated at the right hand of the Father (Heb. 1: 1-3, Heb. 12:2) and the Holy Spirit resides in the lives of each believer. In the Old Testament the invitation was to “seek Him’. In the Gospels the invitation is to “be with Him”. Now the invitation is to “abide in Him” (John 15).
I will be painting a description of discipleship that will be developed in more detail in the future. However, for now I want to explain what I mean when I use this term. It is not necessary that you agree totally with my description, but only that you know up front how I use the term in this blog. I invite you to take what I am presenting and wrestle with it against Scripture to see if it holds up.
Michael Behe in his book Darwin’s Black Box used the term “irreducible complexity” to describe the phenomena in nature in which even a simple organism cannot function without all of its essential parts. If even one is missing, the organism is not viable.
With that idea in mind here is my (current) best shot at describing the irreducible complexity of discipleship:
- Discipleship is the personal, persistent pursuit
- of knowing, reflecting, and sharing Christ
- by means of critical spiritual disciplines
- in the context of supporting relationships,
- resulting in the distinctive marks of an apprentice of Christ.
The following is a quick fly over of the description to which I will add more in the blogs to come.
- Discipleship is the personal, persistent pursuit…..
Discipleship is an individual concept. There are no group disciples. Discipleship is a personal pursuit that must be done by each individual. Although it contains some elements of passivity, it is primarily an active pursuit that involves intentionality and effort. It is not something that is happens to us without our cooperation and involvement. Discipleship, unlike justification, is a pursuit not a birthright. Discipleship fits into the doctrinal category of sanctification and transformation.
- …of knowing, reflecting and sharing Christ…
Knowing, reflecting and sharing Christ are the coordinates of our journey. It is our GPS setting. These three pursuits are like a triad in which each one contributes and is enhanced by the others.
- …By means of critical spiritual disciplines…
Discipleship cannot be separated from the means by which it is expressed or achieved. These means can be called spiritual disciplines, habits, or practices. They are the God ordained means by which his grace is experienced. They are the way we “abide” in Christ so that by his power we bear fruit. They are, in the words of Dallas Willard, “what we do so God can do what we cannot do”.
There is no comprehensive list of the spiritual practices, but certain ones have been practiced and promoted throughout Christian history. The most common disciplines in our church culture today involve worship, connecting, and serving. Although important they are not adequate to produce life transformation. But there is a set of inner life disciplines that are historically effective for life transformation. They are not unknown but unfortunately rarely practiced with any skill and consistency. These inner disciplines involve connecting with Christ (such as prayer) and disconnecting from the world (such as fasting).
- …In the context of supporting relationship…
Discipleship is not accomplished in isolation, it is not a phone booth activity. In the New Testament, it is modeled and taught as a pursuit of Christ in relationship with others who are on the same journey. Paul gave the most succinct description of these essential relationships in 2 Timothy 2:2. He describes for Timothy the relationship of a mentor to a team of apprentices and their mentorees. When any part of the triad is missing, the process suffers.
- …resulting in the distinctive marks of an apprentice of Christ.
Finally, Christ gave us the defining traits of his disciples in the Gospel narrative. These traits or marks are what should distinguish his disciples from that of other rabbis or teachers. There are five primary statements in the gospel narrative where Jesus specifically said if you have this trait, you are my disciple; if you don’t, you are not; He set the standard.
It is against his portrait we need to measure our own discipleship as well as how we mentor others. We have not been commissioned to make cultural disciples but distinctive disciples that he would recognize.
Questions for reflection
- Using the description given, how comfortable are you in helping someone fit the portrait?
- Which aspect of the description do you need to develop? Who could help you?