Several years ago, I was sitting outside a Starbucks that I used to work at as a barista. I just so happened that day to be wearing a shirt with the slogan, “Men Discipling Men,” promoting a biblical counseling conference in the area. When a coworker, who was not a Christian, walked outside, she came up to me, took one look at my shirt, and said to me in a rather surprised tone, “Men Disciplining Men? James, I had no idea you were into that kind of stuff!” Obviously, she misread what my shirt said. But to her credit, it’s not every day you see the word “disciple” as a verb. In fact, the word “disciple” itself is not all that common in our society to begin with. Most people probably have an idea of what it means, but the word has lost its place in the English language. Whatever the case, it doesn’t surprise me that my coworker was confused.
As sad as I am to see “disciple” go out of vogue, it breaks my heart even more to see it disappear from the church. Don’t get me wrong! I don’t believe it’s disappearing from our vocabulary. I know Christians today know what “disciple” means. They get that it’s just an old-fashioned term for a “follower” of Jesus. Yes, Christians know what “disciple” means, but many Christians don’t know what it means TO BE a “disciple.” There’s a difference. One focuses on the meaning of the word. The other on the meaning of the practice. The practice of discipleship is quickly being lost on our Christian culture. In a world where being a follower only requires a quick “click to subscribe,” Christians have fallen prey to a form of “easy believism” that requires nothing more from you than typing “Jesus follower” on your Instagram bio. Never mind that nothing changes in your life. Forget that Jesus is left undefined. Just check the box, “I accept the terms & conditions,” and you can go on your merry way. That’s NOT a disciple of Jesus. Not even close.
So then, what is a disciple of Jesus? If we’re going to construct a good definition, we should go to the source Himself: Jesus. What does Jesus say it means to be His disciple? Mark 8:34 gives us a good starting place, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (ESV). Here, Jesus arranges the fundamentals of discipleship into three parts. I must warn you, each one is not easy to swallow, but each one is absolutely essential to follow.
1. DENY YOURSELF
The first prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus is to deny yourself. That may look straightforward on paper, but it’s a little more complicated than you may think. If you were to ask someone today what it means to deny yourself, you might get an answer like, “Deny myself what?” That’s because we’re used to denying ourselves something, like food or pleasures. But Jesus is not asking you to deny yourself a cup of ice cream or a night of Netflix. He’s ordering you to deny your very self. YOU are the one you need to deny!
That doesn’t sit well with a culture that’s inundated with a “you be you” attitude and a “follow your heart” mentality. Christians are being coached by the world to stay true to themselves and follow their dreams. But Jesus demands the exact opposite. Being a disciple of Jesus starts with a full and complete abandonment of yourself and all your dreams.
What do I mean by this? Denying yourself is all about your identity. You must reject who you are as a person inside and out. You must recognize that you are created; you are not the Creator. You must realize that you do not set the course for your life; God defines the purpose and direction your life should take. You must disown every notion that you are in charge; God now calls the shots.
You must also recognize that you are a sinner. That’s who you are at your core. So you must reject you, because you are a sinner. But that also means you must reject your entire lifestyle, because it’s infested with sin. Every goal, ambition, desire, and plan must fall under new management. The entire direction of your life must change. You no longer live for yourself, because you—by virtue of denying yourself—are no longer independent. You belong to the Lord and you live for Him now.
How does this work? It’s common for Christians today to have dreams and future aspirations. But it’s hard to find Christians who have dreams that are shaped by the priority of the gospel. There’s nothing wrong with having dreams and goals, but when was the last time you scrutinized your dreams for the advancement of the gospel? If you don’t think it’s that big of a deal, take a look at what Jesus says right after Mark 8:34, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (8:35, emphasis mine). Jesus envisions a disciple as someone who replaces all his dreams and expectations with the one dream of the gospel. And when he's emptied himself of every human ambition, he carefully calculates how he can use the skills God has given him to promote the gospel. When was the last time you processed your life with that in mind? Is God all about you or are you all about God? That’s what it means to deny yourself. That’s a disciple of Jesus.
2. TAKE UP YOUR CROSS
The second prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus is to take up your cross. Jesus may sound like He’s exaggerating here a little, because “take up your cross” seems a little extreme. But let me assure you, Jesus is not exaggerating at all. “Take up your cross” is not the same as “Persevere through the usual hardships of life.” Losing your job doesn’t count. Getting cancer doesn’t count. Even being sexually abused doesn’t count (as tragic as that is). Only suffering and persecution as a direct resulting of being a follower of Jesus counts. What Jesus demands of every disciple is the fullest extent of commitment: A readiness to suffer death and shame for Him. That’s what Jesus conveys by the second mandate, “Take up your cross.”
Let’s face it, not every Christian is going to undergo death by crucifixion. Some did. Some still might. Most will not. But the cross in this context suggests more than literal crucifixion. In ancient times it represented the ultimate death. It was reserved for criminals, the worst of society. It was not only a painful way to die; it was also a shameful way to die. Execution by cross was the worst way to go in the ancient world, because it combined the maximum amount of physical pain with the maximum amount of social torment as the last sensations you will ever feel before you leave this world. It was designed to strip you of both your life and your dignity.
If you want to be Jesus’ disciple, you must take up this cross. Keep in mind, taking up the cross is not the same as dying on it. Just picking up the cross doesn’t mean you will suffer and die for the cause of Christ. Not everyone does. But by picking up the cross, you demonstrate you’re willing to do so. Jesus is more concerned about your undying commitment to Him, no matter the cost, rather than a masochistic need for you to actually die for Him. Christians should not have a martyr’s complex. They should not go out of their way to find ways to die for Christ—like Muslims are taught to do for Allah—but they must be willing to go through it for His glory.
So the question is not, “Do you have to die for Christ,” but rather, “How far are you willing to go to be His disciple?” That’s the real issue. God doesn’t want part of you. God doesn’t want most of you. God wants all of you, because partial allegiance is no allegiance at all. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and . . . [FILL IN THE BLANK]” (Matthew 6:24). There is no room for compromise. That’s what it means to take up your cross. That’s a disciple of Jesus.
3. FOLLOW JESUS
The third prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus is to follow Jesus. That may sound like the same thing as being His disciple—and it is, in part—but there’s an underlying distinction we need to make. The verb, “to follow,” is placed in a different Greek tense than the first two commands. This new tense adds an element of duration to the equation. Whereas the first two picture a moment of conviction, the last one envisions a lifetime of consistency. Following Jesus is not just one moment when you prayed a prayer. It’s not just one point when you gave your life to Christ. It’s a lifestyle that begins the second you are saved and carries through the instant you die. In other words, a disciple of Jesus never stops acting like a disciple of Jesus.
This, of course, flies in the face of today’s version of Christianity that has bought into the lie that you can profess faith in Jesus and continue living the way you want. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Christian life is one of persistent faith and constant growth in obedience to the Lord. It should be the ambition of every disciple of Jesus to “be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9b–10). Following Jesus requires unending faithfulness in every area of your life.
It’s easy to ask Jesus into your heart. It’s easy to be moved at a camp revival or a church retreat. But what does your life look like day-to-day? Are you walking with Jesus? Are you seeking to grow in godliness? Are you aiming to put sin to death day in and day out? I’m not saying a real disciple is perfect. No one is. But by God’s grace a disciple of Jesus is comprised of a heart, mind, and attitude that is committed to Christ. And by God’s grace his desires, thoughts, and actions are always being challenged to change. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. That’s a disciple of Jesus.
HOW DO I BECOME A DISCIPLE OF JESUS?
If you’re honest, you have to admit this is hard. But what you call hard Jesus actually puts into the realm of impossibility. No one can do this. It’s outside of our capacity and disposition to reach this level of discipleship. You and I are just far too sinful.
Take the rich young ruler as an example, who wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life (Luke 18:18–27). When Jesus probed his life, he found out that this man kept all of God’s commandments. He did not commit adultery. He did not murder. He did not steal. He was the poster child of what everyone in those days would call a true disciple. But Jesus wasn’t satisfied. He said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). “But when [the young man] heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich” (Luke 18:23). This man still had not done enough, even though he was better than most of us. And when faced with his final assignment, he couldn’t do it.
If he can’t be a disciple, who can? It seems impossible and after Jesus finished talking with this young man He Himself admitted, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24–25).
If you’re like me, you’re asking the question, “Then who can be saved?” That’s exactly what the crowds around Jesus asked Him (Luke 18:26). His answer is stunning: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). The truth is that no one can be Jesus’ disciple by his own efforts. It takes an act of God to make someone a real disciple. Jesus exposed what was really going on in the rich young ruler’s heart. He loved money more than God or others. What he was missing wasn’t another superficial command he needed to keep. He was missing faith in God. He did all the right things, but he did them in his own strength and for his own glory and benefit (i.e., money). He did not trust in God for salvation and did not obey Him for His glory.
If you want to be Jesus’ disciple, you must humble yourself before God. That’s the key. That means you must first admit that only He can save you. You cannot save yourself. Only God has submitted a sufficient sacrifice for your sins when Jesus died on the cross. Either you believe that He paid for your sins there, or you will pay for your sins in hell forever. But it also means you must admit that only He is worthy of being the center of your universe. Not your career. Not your spouse. Not getting 100% healthy. Just Him. Only then can you let go of yourself and endure to the end. When you realize that life is about God and it’s not about you, everything falls into place and you will find the words of Matthew 11:28–29 a source of immeasurable comfort, “Come to me, all 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.”
That’s a disciple of Jesus.