A Believer or a Disciple?

“… any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

Is there a difference between a believer in Jesus and a disciple of Jesus? If so, are all believers expected to be disciples?

I tackled a similar question years ago on the now defunct blog site Zanga – anyone remember Zanga? – and I received quite a few replies to the effect that all believers in Jesus are expected to be disciples, or that there is no difference between the two.

The answer to this question becomes muddled when we see instances where seemingly ordinary believers are referred to as disciples, as in Acts  19, where Paul encounters some “disciples” in Ephesus who only knew the baptism of John, and were then baptized into Jesus (and received the Holy Spirit) via Paul. If these men were called disciples, then surely all who believe in Jesus must be disciples as well.

Not so fast. Like the term apostle, the designation of disciple may also have varied meanings, not always true to its original usage by Jesus. For example, Jesus welcomed anyone to come to him and believe in him, yet on several occasions he actually warned followers against becoming disciples. To Jesus, a disciple was one who would leave everything in order to live and travel with him, to learn and imitate his way of life and teaching.

On occasion, someone in the crowd would declare that they wanted to follow Jesus as a disciple, and they received an unexpected rebuke, as in Luke 9: 57-62

As they were walking along the road a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

At first, some of these statements by Jesus seem overly harsh, like Jesus is discouraging people from following him. But upon closer examination we see that he is only warning enthusiastic supporters that becoming a disciple entails special hardships and the renouncing of normal family ties and expectations. In other words, it is an all-or-nothing commitment, and no one should embark on it unless they are prepared to pay the cost.

This hints at the distinction between those who would believe in him and those who would become disciples. The distinction is even more clearly stated later on, in Luke chapter 14, where Jesus lays out the requirements for discipleship:

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

To actually be a disciple of Jesus, he says we must renounce our normal family obligations and attachments, and in fact give up “everything” so that we may follow wherever he leads and do the work of the kingdom exclusively, or nearly so. This doesn’t mean we totally abandon our families – we are later told that the brothers of Jesus, and Peter and the other apostles all took believing wives along with them in their ministry travels. But a distinction is made between living an ordinary life with all of the normal family obligations, and living as a disciple where many of those things are abandoned or minimized in importance.

At the very least, a disciple must be prepared to walk away from “everything he has” if necessary – family, home, job, possessions. This was done by the Twelve, as Peter testified, “We have left everything to follow you!” (Mk. 10:28)

In the same Luke 14 passage, Jesus gives two examples that encourage his followers to soberly evaluate their depth of commitment before daring to become disciples. The first is a man who starts to build a tower and then realizes he cannot finish it. The second is a man who might go to war against a superior force. Both men, Jesus says, should carefully examine their situations before deciding to implement their plans, and if they cannot finish what they start, they should make other plans.

In the same way, followers of Jesus who want to be disciples should soberly evaluate their commitment – whether they are willing to forego normal family relationships and obligations, and whether they are willing to renounce everything they have in order to proclaim God’s kingdom. According to Jesus, if we recognize that we are unwilling to give up everything, it’s not shameful, it is wise. It is better to not put our hand to that plow than to do so and later turn back.

The point here is that even in the early church there were many hundreds / thousands who believed the gospel and joined in church fellowship throughout the Mediterranean world of the time, and most of these folks continued living in their homes and working at their jobs and carrying on normal family and social relationships. These were believers and followers of Jesus.

By faith they were now living in obedience to the teachings of Jesus and relying on the Holy Spirit as Comforter and Guide. They were living without fear of death, in the hope of the resurrection, and free from the power of sin to enslave them. It is the same today.

The Apostles, however, were commissioned to go and disciple all nations (make disciples in all nations). These disciples are those who give up everything – just as the Twelve did – to go and proclaim God’s kingdom. It is mainly the disciple who proclaims the kingdom and wins others to Christ, although all believers should be ready to give and answer to anyone who asks about the hope that we have.

But discipleship is an all-or-nothing commitment by Jesus’ own definition. It is not shameful to realize that you do not have “what it takes” to embark on the life of a disciple. It is wise – according to Jesus – to recognize our weaknesses and refrain from a false commitment.  It is no less glorious to live as a faithful believer, shining a light at home, at work, and in the communities where we live. Both paths are pleasing to God, and each will receive its reward.

Some Christians take offense at this, believing that we all ought to be passionate enough about Jesus to become disciples, and magazines like Discipleship Journal promote the notion that discipleship merely entails faithful, obedient living in our ordinary lives. But what they are really promoting is, in fact, faithful, obedient living – a good thing to be sure, but really no more than is expected from every believer in Jesus. How can one confess Jesus as Lord without faithful obedience?

What such publications do not promote (or rarely) is actual discipleship as defined by Jesus himself, and it’s just as well that they don’t. We should not push or pressure people into making a commitment they cannot keep. Rather, we should warn people of the difficulties – as Jesus did – so that they can soberly evaluate whether they are truly willing to forsake all normal earthly pursuits for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Some will, and that’s great. The world needs more disciples. Some won’t, and that’s OK too. The world needs faithful, ordinary believers.

I long ago evaluated my status (as Jesus encouraged) and came to a wise conclusion. I have a wife and a home and a job and an extended family. I am fairly committed to these things, and am able to live in obedience to Jesus while maintaining these ordinary pursuits and relationships. If some special call of Jesus required that I forsake some or all of these things, I like to think I would obey.

But in the absence of a special calling, by merely evaluating myself – as Jesus encouraged – I know that I am not prepared to walk away from it all in order to proclaim God’s kingdom. Rather than making me feel ashamed, I thank God for the wisdom to know my limitations and the spiritual strength to live faithfully where I am.

Yes, the Scriptures do testify that there is an important distinction between a believer in Jesus and a disciple of Jesus, and understanding that difference is key to being at peace where God has placed you, and valuable in keeping us from making rash commitments we don’t fully understand.

“,,,any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

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About Don

I'm an itinerant book lover, an on again off again writer, an amateur (luthier, pianist, composer, carpenter), a movie buff (the dramatic, well-written, well-acted kind, not the remake of a classic or the explosions and bullets kind), and a believer in Jesus, my Lord and Savior who comes before all these things.
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