Discipleship For Today

By Alfred Bouter

If we would add together the number of times “disciple” and “learn” (learn as a disciple) occur in the New Testament, we would find them almost 300 times – a vast topic, for sure. In the following pages we will look at some of the challenges and blessings of walking as a disciple of the Lord.

While giving instructions to the Twelve, the Lord Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master” (Mt. 10:24-25 NKJV). In this statement Christ emphasized the relationship between Him and His followers and showed the need of their formation, without which it would be impossible to send them out as His representatives. He compared it with the bond between a teacher and his students and a master and his servants. By the time He gave those instructions the Lord had called several young men to be with Him and follow Him, so at a later time He might send them out as His representatives (Mk. 3:14).

Even though the disciples the Lord had called were different from each other and of various backgrounds, just as are all believers, they had certain things in common:

  • All were called by Christ and had responded to His call; 
  • They left all1 in order to be with Him and follow Him, and
  • They kept learning from Him.

These things were necessary before the Lord could send them out on a specific mission which He gave them, as detailed in Matthew 10 (which we will see later). Similarly the Lord, who is now at God’s right hand in heaven, is training the believers to equip them for special tasks He has given. When sent out by the Lord they need to constantly rely on Him, being then able to represent the Master in a way that pleases Him.

Nathanael Meets Jesus – A Pattern For Disciples 
Let’s briefly look at the relationship with the Master, as illustrated in Nathanael (Jn. 1:45-50).

The disciple Philip told him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v.45); and he invited Nathanael to “come and see” the Messiah. Despite his initial objections, Nathanael accepted the invitation. When he met the Lord Jesus, this One who knows the heart (Acts 1:24) said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” (Jn. 1:47). When meditating under the fig tree (v.48), Nathanael must have been occupied with the question of the Messiah and of his own condition. The Lord knew all this and had been working in him through the Holy Spirit.

Scripture links the fig tree with practical righteousness; and while meditating under this tree Nathanael had come to judge himself in God’s light. Therefore, Jesus the Messiah could say to him those special words (v.47). As a true Israelite, Nathanael had learned lessons similar to his forefather Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28). Now Nathanael recognized Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God and the King of Israel (Jn. 1:49). He became His disciple and was further instructed by the Lord (vv.50-51). So we see that a disciple is a learner, taught by the Lord and who follows Him according to His instructions. 

Calling, Formation, Obedience, Love 
Christ’s calling of disciples is seen with Peter and Andrew, John and James (Mk. 1:16-20), and Levi – who was called Matthew (Mt. 9:9). But in Nathanael we see “the other side of the coin”: the inward preparation needed to respond to the call. The responses are different according to each one’s character but they have some elements in common, namely obedience to and love for the Master. In a general way the Lord summarized the calling and the response with these words: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28-29). Applying this for today, we say:

  • We are attracted by Him,
  • We come to Him,
  • We follow Him,
  • We learn from Him, and
  • We obey and love Him.

At the same time He forms, goes with, leads and protects us even in the midst of opposition and difficulties. The disciple is also a servant (literally bond-slave), and these two aspects cannot be separated.

Finally, the one who serves and follows the Master will be rewarded and honored, not only by the Master but also by the Father (Jn. 12:26). It is very special to the Father to have children in this world who are followers of His beloved Son – the One who was and still is rejected in and by this world. 

The Instructions For The Disciples’ Mission – Many Object Lessons For Today 
The twelve disciples sent out by the Lord after their initial formation received many specific instructions in view of their mission. Today, the immediate context is not the same, yet we can draw many lessons from these instructions by learning from the seven directives:2

  1. The Twelve were sent only to the house of Israel, especially to the lost sheep among the nation (Mt. 10:5-6,38) – just as the Lord was sent (9:13,35-36). The nation was occupied, not only by Rome, but by Beelzebub [prince of demons] as well (12:22-45). Today, the period of grace, God’s message is to the Jews first (Rom. 1:16), but it also goes out to all people (Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:47).
  2. The Twelve were to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near (Mt. 10:7; compare 3:2, 4:17). This announcement implied the need for repentance (Mt. 4:17; Mk. 6:12) because of Israel’s failure. But morally this message applies to all “for all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Initially John the Baptist, while introducing the King, emphasized the need of repentance. This complete U-turn, with inward sorrow for sin, was needed then as it is today; and it will also be needed after the rapture of the Church when the message of the coming Kingdom will again be proclaimed.
  3. The Lord empowered His disciples to perform signs to accompany their words. These acts of power were fourfold: to (1) heal sick ones; (2) cleanse lepers; (3) raise dead individuals; and (4) cast out demons. These miracles were signs of the age to come and of Messiah’s reign in glory. Though postponed because of the King’s rejection, these signs will be given again (Heb. 6:5). However, during the period of grace in which we live, even though sometimes physical healing occurs, there is a particular emphasis on the moral transformation (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Such transformed lives demonstrate the power of the King, even though He is absent from this scene.
  4. The disciples had received their gifts freely and, therefore, they must give freely. They would wear a girdle for service (a belt, sometimes also used to carry money), but it was to be a service without commercialism or consumerism [business terms that relate to exploiting people for personal profit] – two things which happen when mixing God’s Word with man’s riches. 
  5. No special provisions need to be made. Trusting the Lord who provides (Lk. 22:35), the disciples must simply go out as they are, without taking extra things. This is similar to Israel in the desert when the Lord was taking care of all their needs, whereas after arriving in the Promised Land they had to do everything themselves in faith with the Lord’s help. So it is for disciples sent out today: rely on the Master and, on the other hand, make the necessary provisions (Lk. 22:36) in order to go out as His disciples, representing Him in a world that is opposed to Him. These two verses, Luke 22:35-36, present two sides of discipleship. 
  6. The instructions the Lord gave in Matthew 10:11-13 relate to a worthy reception of the messengers. A positive reception would bring peace (blessing) to the house.
  7. The Lord foresaw a general rejection (10:13-15) and described its consequences. The greater the light, the more responsibility – where much was received (Israel and the Church), much will be demanded. Stephen, addressing the leaders who had rejected the message of grace, outlined the dire consequences of their hardening and rejection (Acts 7). These things are described for our learning on whom the ends of the age have come (1 Cor. 10:11-12). 

The Disciples’ Preparations In View Of Persecution 
In view of opposition and persecution, the Lord prepared His disciples and us also by giving specific instructions for the special needs that would arise.

  1. In the setting, disciples are as sheep among wolves – vulnerable but relying on the Master who is with them in dangerous situations. In such cases disciples need to be prudent (wise as serpents), and marked by purity, sincerity and innocence (as harmless doves).
  2. “Beware!”, “Take heed!” and “Pay careful attention!” are appeals repeated five times in Matthew (6:1, 7:15, 10:17, 16:6,11). Persecution would come from religious as well as political or civil authorities, but help would be given by the Holy Spirit (10:17-20). Similarly, the apostle Paul warned of dangers coming from outside and inside the Church (Acts 20:28). 
  3. Persecution must be “for My name’s sake” and not because of our own failures. Such persecution will take place even inside the family circle (Mt. 10:21-22), often in the most aggressive and difficult forms. Yet, disciples need to “keep going” – enduring to the end. This means Christians must continue even when facing dreadful opposition, now and until the rapture. In a prophetic sense, after the rapture endurance will be needed when disciples of that day will have to keep going on throughout severe persecution, until the coming of the King in judgment and glory. Notice also that there is a progression in the severity of the rejection: (1) opposition and dangers (10:16), (2) persecution (vv.17-20) and (3) delivering up to death by relatives (vv.21-22). 
  4. The work must to go on despite opposition and persecution (v.23). The book of Acts and the Epistles give many examples of how the testimony continued.3 May we take courage! 

The Lord’s Seven Words Of Encouragement For Disciples

  1. The disciple is identified with the Master/Teacher, who is Lord (vv.24-25). He or she learns from Him, being formed and fed by Him while serving Him. 
  2. The message cannot be kept hidden. It must be spread despite resistance (vv.26-27). 
  3. They can kill the body but not the soul (v.28). There is a three-fold challenge and encouragement, “Do not fear” and “Don’t be afraid” (vv.26,28,31). 
  4. The Father’s care is promised (v.29). This is similar to the promise that the Lord will be with the disciples (28:20), His presence with the sheep among wolves (10:16), the Holy Spirit in and through them (v.20) and the Father that is for them (vv.29-32). 
  5. The Lord Himself is the great Advocate with the Father in heaven (see 1 John 2:1), and on earth the Holy Spirit is in them (Mt. 10:20). Both help the disciples in their testimony (consider vv.31-32). 
  6. The Prince of Peace sends a sword (spiritually), subduing the enemy and giving victory (morally, not necessarily physically) to those who love Him above all else (vv.34-39). To “take up the cross” because of love for Him may imply that we have to go through this world expecting to be executed for His name’s sake. This would not be for selfish interests – whether for one’s self or group. 
  7. The chain of command implies a chain of blessing (vv.40-42). Those who receive the disciple receive the Master, who is the Sender, and therefore the receiver(s) will be blessed.

Brief Summary Of Qualities And Functions Needed For Disciples 
The disciples, called from various backgrounds to be sent out by the Lord while He is rejected, must have many qualities and abilities to function in different roles as outlined in Matthew 10. This applies to all believers since Christ calls them from various spheres of life to function as: 

  1. Apostles or sent ones4 (vv.1,5), or messengers – the Lord Himself also was sent (v.40); 
  2. Workmen or laborers (v.10) – workers God can approve (2 Tim. 2:15); 
  3. Sheep, reaching out to the lost sheep (v. 6) among wolves, in need of prudence (like serpents) and of purity (as doves) (v.16); 
  4. Disciples, learners and followers (v.24); 
  5. Bondmen, bond-servants or slaves (v.24); 
  6. Members of Messiah’s household (v.25), in contrast to those who belonged to the house of Israel, now occupied by the enemy (Beelzebul, lord of the dwelling (NASB), Mt. 12:43-45); 
  7. Prophets, the Master’s spokes-persons (v. 41) anticipating His rule in glory;
  8. Righteous ones representing the righteous King (v.41) and walking in practical righteousness; 
  9. Little ones representing the One who humbled Himself (v.42) as the little Child (18:2-4). 

In conclusion, we may be reminded of a verse from a hymn writer of old, Samuel Tomkins (1841-1926):

We worship at Thy Holy feet,
And long to serve Thee still;
Take Thou our heart, our lips, our lives,
And mould them to Thy will.

1. This does not mean that they neglected their wives and families, but that they learned to give the Master His rightful place in their lives. 
2. For the moral qualifications needed for disciples, see Matthew 5:2-13. 
3. Understand the differences between (1) a literal meaning partly fulfilled then and partly afterwards in church history, (2) the prophetic or future fulfillment, before the Lord’s return in glory; (3) the moral and spiritual application for the Church period; and (4) practical lessons, personally or collectively, today. 
4. Understand the distinction between official authority they had received, then, accompanied by God-given signs and wonders, and moral authority by being doers of the Word as applies to believers today.