BY DAVE STEEL
Discipleship was not invented by Jesus. Various secular and religious forms of discipleship were already well established when Jesus called his first disciples. And yet Jesus’ brand of discipleship was different in one very important respect.
In the ancient world, a disciple of some master or movement was someone who was committed to learning a particular skill, acquiring some body of knowledge, or pursuing a certain way of life. By the time of Christ, discipleship increasingly emphasized the relationship between the disciple and the master, who embodied the ideals the disciple wanted to emulate. Still, the master was, strictly speaking, a means to an end.
The reason the Pharisees of Jesus’ day considered themselves “disciples of Moses” was that, in their own words, “we know God spoke to Moses” (John 9:28). The goal here was to hear from God, and Moses was a means to that end. Even though they self-identified as Moses’ disciples, they considered it blasphemy to make Moses the ultimate goal of their discipleship, as if he were God himself. We know this because that’s how they responded to Jesus’ claim to being the ultimate goal of his brand of discipleship. They picked up stones to stone Jesus, telling him it was “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33).
In saying this, they put their finger on the uniqueness of discipleship to Jesus. The one who calls us is not just a wise teacher or even the personification of the noblest of ideals (though he is both of these). Jesus points us to the highest goal of all. He points us to himself.
Oswald Chambers points out that, “There is a difference between devotion to principles and devotion to a person. Jesus Christ never proclaimed a cause; He proclaimed personal devotion to Himself.”
So here’s the one thing about following Jesus we must never forget:
While the fruit of our discipleship to Jesus is a transformed life, that’s not the ultimate goal. Jesus is not a means to an end. He is the end.
“But wait a minute,” someone will say. “Didn’t Jesus come proclaiming that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16)? Isn’t eternal life the ultimate ideal Jesus points us to?”
Indeed it is. And what is eternal life? Jesus answered that question when he prayed, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The ultimate goal of discipleship to Jesus is knowing him. No amount of knowledge about him or service to him can substitute for the sheer joy of knowing him.
The apostle Paul speaks for every disciple of Jesus when he says, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).
May we never forget it.
For a thorough discussion of this topic, see chapter five in Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992).
Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1960), 16-17.