When Jesus called people to follow Him, He called them to be His disciples. He also commanded His disciples to go and make other disciples, not to make “Christians” (Matthew 28:19-20).
In fact, Jesus never used the word “Christian.” In the gospels, the followers of Jesus were always called disciples. The word “disciple” wasn’t just used to describe that specific group of twelve men Jesus chose. It indicated anyone who followed, listened to, and learned from Jesus.
The Greek word translated “disciple” means student or learner. Disciples not only followed a teacher around to learn from them, they also put his teachings into practice. (See also “What is a Disciple?”)
It was almost two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection before disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians.” The term was first used in Antioch to describe the disciples there. The word “Christian” means “one who follows Christ” or “one who is like Christ.” Scholars think the nickname “Christian” may have originally been used as derogatory term to describe those “foolish” people who followed a crucified Savior and modeled their lives after His.
The name “Christian” is only used three times in the Bible and two of them were probably derogatory (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16). The New Testament Scriptures most often use a few other words to refer to those who chose to follow Jesus – disciples, saints, brothers/sisters. (See also “Are you a Christian or a Disciple?” by J.D. Greear.)
The Bible never presents discipleship as a deeper, but optional level of Christianity. Instead Scripture equates those who put their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord with discipleship. Those who are saved are disciples.
3 Essential Characteristics of a Disciple
So, what does it mean to be a “disciple” of Jesus? What does it look like in our daily lives? We don’t have to wonder. Jesus described it for us. One day Jesus turned to the crowds around Him and declared:
“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'” Luke 9:23 ESV
Jesus’ call on our lives is not an easy or passive one. While salvation costs us nothing, living it out day to day can be very costly.
This call is not just for the super spiritual or the full-time minister. Jesus calls anyone and everyone to discipleship. He asks the same from anyone who wants to “come after” Him.
We see three specific components in Jesus’ call to discipleship:
- Surrender – The Greek word translated “deny” means “to forget one’s self, lost sight of one’s self and one’s own interests.” When we “deny” ourselves, we surrender fully and completely to the will and way of God in our lives.
- Obedience – The “cross” represents complete obedience to God no matter where it takes us or what He asks of us. Jesus’ complete obedience to the Father took Him to the cross. (See also “What is Your Cross to Bear?“)
- Pursuit – The Greek word translated as “follow” means “to go after, emulate, stand with.” Following Jesus is active, deliberate, and often costly. We must purposefully and repeatedly choose to pursue Jesus in everything. (See “Free Discipleship Tools to Encourage Spiritual Growth.“)
So, can we be a Christian without being a disciple? The short answer is “no.” We cannot be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus. A follower of Jesus is a disciple. So, to be a true Christian is to be a disciple – one who surrenders, obeys, and purposefully pursues Jesus.
What does this mean for us?
If truly being a Christian means to be a disciple of Jesus, that means serious implications for our daily lives. First, our faith is not an “addition” to our lives. We can’t keep Jesus in one compartment of our life like family, work, or recreation. Our faith in Jesus is our life. Following Jesus is our foundation. It shapes and dictates everything else in our lives.
Have you been taught that you can be a Christian without being a disciple?