The Posture of Discipleship: Humbling Ourselves

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

—Jesus, Matthew 23:12

Humility, simply defined, is freedom from selfish pride. It is the opposite of self-importance. And it is crucial to our life of discipleship to Jesus. We can humble ourselves or we can be humbled by Jesus. Either way, learning humility is part of the core curriculum in the school of discipleship to Jesus. Without humility, we will never reflect the character of our Master, who left us the supreme example of humility by submitting to the cross.[1]

But true humility can be elusive, can’t it? As soon as you profess to have it, you prove that you don’t. According to William Law,

You can have no greater sign of a more confirmed pride than when you think you are humble enough. He that thinks he loves God enough shows himself to be an entire stranger to that holy passion; so he that thinks he has humility enough shows that he is not so much as a beginner in the practice of true humility.”[2]

In the end, humility is not at all about self-improvement. It’s about self-forgetfulness. It’s not about self-entitlement. It’s about self-emptying.

John the Baptist helps us here. He declared, “He [Jesus] must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:3). John teaches us that there is an inverse relationship between my glory and Christ’s glory. The more I glorify myself, the less I can glorify Christ. The less I glorify myself, the more I can glorify Christ. What I cannot do is glorify myself and glorify Christ at the same time. Many would-be disciples live by the unspoken motto: “Jesus must become greater, and I must become greater too!” This does not work. Discipleship is not a matter of adding Christian goals to my personal agenda. Rather, it’s a matter of exchanging my desire to promote self for a desire to promote Christ. The motto of a true disciple is: “he must become more important in my eyes and I must become less important in my own eyes.” Only then will others begin to see Jesus in me. That’s how he designed it to work.

[1]See Philippians 2:3-11.

[2]William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1898), 190.


The Premise of Discipleship: New Life

I am the resurrection and the life.

    —Jesus, John 11:25

Jesus did not come to improve our life. He came to give us life. And there’s a big difference between the two. If Jesus came simply to improve our life, we might expect him to build on what we were already doing. Instead, he taught us that there really is no life at all without him. “I am . . . the life” (John 14:6), he told Thomas. And to his friend Martha, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), a claim he then proved by raising Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead!

As the “author of life” (Acts 3:15), Jesus often spoke with delight about his mission to impart life to all who came to him. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10), he said. And again, “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

The “eternal life” that Christ gives us is not simply an extended life. It’s a fundamentally different life. The apostle Paul explains:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. . . .

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:3-7, 11-13)

Here we have the basis—the foundation—for our discipleship to Jesus: we’ve been given a brand new life to live. This is better than a “do-over.” We’re not simply given another chance. We now share in Christ’s own divine life. It’s a life that enables us to live beyond our own selfish, sinful nature, a life that brings us into vital union with Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul summed it up when he said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The Practice of Discipleship: Holding to His Teaching

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.

—John 14:15

What’s the difference between talking about being a disciple and actually being a disciple? According to Jesus, the difference is choosing to obey what he says. Discipleship is obedience.

G. Campbell Morgan put it this way:

Advancement is dependent always on our obedience in these hours of testing, in our manifesting in actual practice the power of the truth we have heard in theory. No lesson is considered learned in the schoolof Jesuswhich is only committed to memory. That lesson only is learned which is incarnate in the life, and becomes beautiful in its realization and declaration in that way; and until this is so there can be no progress.[1]

So what comes to mind when you hear the word obedience? Does it make you think of being forced to do something you don’t want to do by someone who has power over you—like the time you tried to get out of eating your vegetables and your mom told you to do it anyway “because I said so”?

You may be surprised to learn that with Jesus obedience is a love word. Obedience is how Jesus expressed his love for the Heavenly Father. He said, “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14:31).

Likewise, obedience is how we can express our love for the Father. Scripture says, “This is love for God: to obey his commands” (1 John 5:3). And obedience is also how we show our love for Christ. “If anyone loves me,” Jesus said, “he will obey my teaching” (John 14:23).

But obedience isn’t easy, is it?

Jesus knows all about it. For him, obeying the Father meant allowing himself to be crucified for our sins. On the night before his crucifixion, being painfully aware of the demands of obedience, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

That’s what obedience looks like in its purest form. No conditions. No excuses. Just a firm resolve to do what Jesus wants, no matter what—not just because it’s our duty but because we love him and because he knows best. When we do that we know we’re not just talking about discipleship. We’re actually living it!

            [1]G. Campbell Morgan, Discipleship (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1897), 37.

The Purpose of Discipleship: Becoming Like Jesus

A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.

—Jesus, Luke 6:40

So what exactly is Jesus, our Teacher and Master, trying to do with us, his disciples? He gives us a clue when he says that, “Everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). The purpose of discipleship, then, is to make us more like Jesus—or, as the apostle Paul put it, for Christ to be formed in us (Galatians 4:19).

So George MacDonald was right when he said,

To follow [Christ] is to be learning of him, to think his thoughts, to use his judgments, to see things as he sees them, to feel things as he feels them, to be of the same heart, soul, and mind, as he is—that we also may be of the same mind with his Father . . . Nothing less is to be his disciple.[1]

Imagine thinking the way Jesus thinks, speaking the way he speaks, relating the way he relates, doing what he does. What a transformation that would be! The apostle Paul often referred to this transformation in his letters, as these examples indicate:

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, italics added)

Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29, italics added)

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2, italics added)

Brothers and sisters, this transformation has already begun in us. And it must continue until Christ takes us home to heaven. Only then will the transformation be complete. The apostle John put it this way:

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

For this reason, we join with the hymn writer in exclaiming,

Oh to be like Thee! Oh to be like Thee! Blessed Redeemer, pure as Thou art; Come in Thy sweetness, come in Thy fullness; Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart.  

—Thomas O. Chisholm

[1]George MacDonald, Knowing the Heart of God (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1990), 125-126.

The Power for Discipleship: The Spirit of God

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.

—Jesus, Acts 1:8

They had been through a lot in the three years they lived together. In fact, Jesus felt more connected to his disciples than he did to his own biological family.[1] These disciples had witnessed their master’s death and resurrection and were now trusting in his finished work on the cross for their salvation. They had received Christ’s Great Commission to go and make disciples and were apparently making plans to go and do that. That’s when Jesus told them that they still weren’t quite ready to be his witnesses.

Why not? What was missing?

Christ’s answer: spiritual power.

During the forty days between Christ’s resurrection and ascension he told his disciples not to go anywhere until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3-5). He went on to explain, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, italics added). Clearly, the Holy Spirit’s power is the key factor in this “go, no-go” scenario.

As promised, the Holy Spirit showed up a few days later, as recorded in Acts 2, and the disciples were enabled to do things they were incapable of doing on their own. Perhaps the most astounding example of the Spirit’s transforming effect is seen in Peter. Here’s a guy who, a few days earlier, had deserted and denied Jesus[2] and ended up cowering in fear in a locked room with the other disciples following Christ’s crucifixion.[3] But now that Peter is filled with the Spirit, he boldly preaches the gospel to a large crowd, which resulted in about 3,000 people becoming Christ followers (Acts 2:14-41)! That’s the difference the Holy Spirit makes.

Since then, the baptism of the Holy Spirit has become the normative experience of all Christ followers. The apostle Paul wrote, “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13).[4]

While the Bible never commands Christians to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (because we already are), it does command us to be filled with the Spirit. Paul says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).[5]

But what does this mean? Notice that being filled with the Spirit is contrasted with being drunk with alcohol. When a person is drunk (that is, full of alcohol), the alcohol has control over that person, as reflected in the way he or she talks and behaves. Likewise, when a person is filled with the Spirit, that person is controlled by the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit, then, is not about “filling our tanks” with more of the Spirit. We already have all of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it’s about giving the Holy Spirit more of us. It’s about “being under the influence”—not the influence of alcohol but the influence of the Spirit.[6]

We need not wait for the Holy Spirit as those early disciples did. But we do need to rely on his power at every turn. The success or failure of our discipleship is riding on it.

[1]See Matthew 12:48-50.

[2]See Mark 14:50 and Matthew 26:69-75.

[3]See John 20:19.

[4]See also Romans 8:9.

[5]See also Galatians 5:16.

[6]Examples of Christians being filled with the Holy Spirit include Peter (Acts 4:8), Stephen (Acts 6:5), Barnabas (Acts 11:24), Paul (Acts 13:9), and the disciples (Acts 13:52).

The Prize of Discipleship: Our Heavenly Home

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

—Jesus, John 14:2-3

A great many people spend their lives striving for earthly carrots—carrots like affluence, prestige, comfort, security—only to realize in their twilight years that the carrot was rotten. Even more tragic is that many will never come to this realization—at least not in this life.

King Solomon wrote, “God has set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Nothing temporal can truly satisfy us—not monetary gain, not the accolades of men, not any earthly trophy. We yearn for that which is eternal, transcendent.

This is what makes the disciple’s reward so profoundly relevant, so utterly significant. Our reward is not of this world. It’s heavenly, incorruptible, eternal. It can never perish, spoil, or fade (1 Peter 1:4). It answers perfectly and completely the “eternity” God has set in our hearts.

To the Christ follower nothing could be more thrilling than the prospect of being welcomed into our heavenly home by Christ himself, where there will be uninterrupted fellowship with the Savior forever. But this is more than a hopeful prospect. It’s as certain as anything we know. Christ has promised it. It’s as good as done.

Our part is but to watch and wait. Jesus said, “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:42).[1] Perhaps it will be today! In any case, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

So, this is our happy duty: to prepare to inhabit our place in the Father’s house, a place prepared by Christ for the expressed purpose of enjoying his presence forever. There’s no greater prize than this!

[1]See also Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12.

The Prerequisite for Discipleship: Conversion

I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.

—Jesus, John 3:3

With these words, Jesus identified the prerequisite for participation in his program: we must be re-born. Until that happens we cannot experience the kingdom of God.

How, then, can a person be “born again”? A religious leader named Nicodemus asked that very question. Only God can bring about this spiritual birth of which Jesus speaks. But we must receive it by faith if indeed we are to receive it. This is what Jesus told Nicodemus in what has become one of the most quoted summaries of the good news of the Bible. “God so loved the world,” Jesus said, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

What does Jesus mean by this? He means we need to recognize who Jesus is. He’s God’s own Son, the Lord of heaven and earth, sent here to rescue us. That, in itself, reveals how desperate our situation is: we will perish without this Savior.[1] At the same time, Christ’s coming also reveals how much God loves us, how desperately he wants to rescue us if we will simply turn to him in faith.

Of course, this turning to Jesus in faith implies turning from something else—namely, sin. The Bible calls this repentance, and it’s the flip side of faith.

I recently set out to find a sandwich shop on the other side of town in an area that was unfamiliar to me. I had my trusty GPS, so I should have had no problem finding it . . . except that I decided not to use the GPS. I thought I could find it on my own. (You know where this is going, don’t you?)

Yes, I got lost. When I finally conceded that fact and consulted my GPS for help, it had four words for me: “Turn around when possible.”

Not bear left. Not slight right.

Turn around when possible.

I was going the wrong way, and there was no way to get where I needed to go as long as I continued in the direction I was going.

Turn around when possible. That’s what it means to repent and believe in Christ. It means we admit we’ve gone our own way—the wrong way—and we choose to head in a new direction—his direction. This was Jesus’ message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). The gracious rule and reign of God has drawn near with the arrival of the King himself. It’s time to renounce former allegiances and to declare our allegiance to this King once and for all.

Without this “conversion” we are not born again. And unless we’re born again, we cannot see the kingdom of God. Following Jesus begins here.

[1]In fact, just a few verses later, we read, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).