Webster’s defines a disciple as a pupil of another’s ideas and ideals, and a follower as an attendant or one who adheres to another’s beliefs and teachings. What’s the difference? It’s ultimately a matter of commitment, yet what a difference that can make. It would seem to be significant that the word Disciple is derived from the word Discipline: training that develops self-control, orderliness, obedience in thought and deed; making ourselves a part of something – not copying a routine, belief or habit – but learning ideas, and developing responses so thoroughly that they become our own. A follower, simply put, can stop. A disciple won’t!
Scripture confirms this principle by instructing us to, “… not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12:2 Jesus declaring, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself (discipline) and take up his cross (commitment) and follow me.” Luke 9:23 Elsewhere instructing, “If you hold to my teaching (perseverance), you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31,32
Luke’s gospel gives a short history of John the Baptist’s ministry; which was soon to be mirrored by Jesus’ own. John’s involved a preliminary call for repentance, which generated interest and followers. He developed some rather specific teachings, some of which were considered harsh. His ministry saw a build-up of curiosity, excitement, expectation, close scrutiny, disappointment and persecution. It ended in his arrest, imprisonment and execution. Jesus ministry started shortly after his baptism by John. Many came out of curiosity, some with a real sense of hope; the Jews expecting, needing, and desperately wanting help in the form of a leader who would hear their cry, address their needs, and re-establish a sense of destiny and glory to Israel. But Jesus’ popularity brought him into conflict with the religious/political leaders of the day who were more concerned with appeasing Rome and ensuring their safety, comfort, and control than seeing to the physical, political, and spiritual needs of their people.
They feared Jesus and his followers, biding their time for the most advantageous opportunity to “control” him. Scripture succinctly saying, “The chief priests and the teachers of the Law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.” Mark 11:18 (See also Luke 19:47-48) This pattern of fear, disbelief and resolve to kill as a solution was an oft-repeated means of dealing with trouble-makers. Gamaliel, a respected teacher of the Law spoke to the Sanhedrin after Christ’s death concerning the tenacity of his teaching among the disciples. In his caution on how to handle these men he mentioned two other recent “messiahs” who had risen, inspired a following and led revolts; only to be killed, their followers dispersed and the movement wiped out. He infers, ‘Give it time, this will happen here too.’ Yet cautions, ‘If it is of man, it will fail. If it is of God, how can we fight it?’ Acts 5:27-39
Followers become disappointed, disillusioned and change their minds. They quit trying to understand – and quit following. Disciples are disciplined. They may question and at times falter, but they keep on keeping on; looking for answers and understanding. They don’t demand to be accommodated and understood but strive for proper application of what they know and adjust their expectations to the one they follow. They understand that what is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular. You still don't quit. Of them was said a few years later, they “...have turned the world upside down.” Acts 17:6 (KJ) They changed the world, followers – followed it.
Scripture acknowledges that Jesus at times espoused “hard teachings”; while people, then and now, often prefer quick, easy answers. He occasionally failed to meet everyone’s expectations; many of his followers became bored, disappointed, even angry. They felt betrayed and in turn betrayed him. After a particularly difficult teaching, “Many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” and “…no longer followed him.” John 6:60,66 John also notes stark differences of opinion about Jesus in chapter 7:12,13; while Luke shows how some people had no intention of understanding if a preconceived notion or traditional belief was challenged; revealing in themselves a fickle nature, one quick to resort to violence. (Luke 4:28 – 30 See also John 10:19-21,31 & 39). I wonder how many of these same angry people had witnessed a powerful miracle of provision some time before and tried to dictate to him what he should be and do; only to have “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” John 6:15 He just wasn’t cooperating! He wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do. Their force of will now took another form.
In the beginning of Christ’s ministry, those who hated him because of the influence of His teaching did nothing to stop Him out of a greater fear of the people who followed Him. (Mark 12:12) Later, they were able to take him into custody, parade him back and forth between Pilate and Herod, have him publicly questioned, give false testimony against him and openly crucify him. Before the nails were driven and the spear plunged into his body – they were given a choice. As, “... it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.” Pilate wanted to release Jesus. Every time he devised a way to do it, he was foiled by the people now crying, “Give us Barabbas” and “Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:20-26) Their expectations of him as a political leader had been wasted; they were disappointed, disillusioned and just plain mad. (Most of his inner circle of friends and disciples fearful and in hiding.)
Jesus gave his all in coming to us, ending his earthly ministry with the ultimate sacrifice; he expects no less from us, as “…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:33 But what does that mean? Must I give up the hope of marriage, family, home, job and enjoyment in life to be a disciple of Christ? No. What it does express is an expectation of commitment; a purposeful dedication of life, relationships, acquisitions and expectations to ministry, service and Christian priority – by which all men will know we are his disciples. (John 13:34,35 – see also John 15:8) This is Jesus’ message to the rich young ruler. (Mark 19:16 – 14) He knew the importance wealth had for this young man. That’s why he required him to give it up to find new importance in obedience and service. It’s not a requirement to give up all we have to follow, but we do have to be willing to if the call ever comes, being able to put our faith to action when asked to do so. (See also Matthew 7:16-20)
Jesus declared, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” John 13:15 That being the case then we must go, teach, baptize, love and nurture; live out Christ in our lives and lifestyle – for disciples follow and lead! Jesus advising, “I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:16,17
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