THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP – I
NEED TO BE TRANSFORMED
Character of Christ - Being Prepared To Change
A Moment in the Life of a Disciple
For the best part of three years you
have hung around with Jesus and his roving band of followers. You
have travelled, eaten, slept out under the stars and got cold and
hungry together. The amazing thing has been the extent to which Jesus
has opened Himself up to the group. The relationship you have all
shared has been based on trust and honesty, not just esoteric
instruction or emotional manipulation that characterizes other
Masters and their disciples. Jesus’ teaching is simple but
very confronting. It is beyond philosophy or ethics. He emphasizes
relationship with God, character and renewal. He demands obedience;
yet He is not a demagogue. You often reflect on the personality
differences between the disciples. In other times and places they
would have had nothing to do with one another. They belonged to
different circles. Peter is uneducated, explosive and impetuous; he
seems a born leader but is apt to “put his foot in it”
when things go wrong. John is young and impressionable, but he
sometimes “loses it”. Jesus has nicknamed him and James
“sons of thunder”. Matthew is educated; he used to work
as a tax collector, an occupation Jews hate and urban guerillas
routinely murder. Before he met Jesus, Simon was a Zealot, a member
of a reactionary ultra-nationalist party whose members assassinate
Roman officials and their stooges, particularly tax collectors. It
has taken a minor miracle to get the two of them to work together.
Jesus took this group of men, and others like them, from very
different backgrounds and passions, and invited them to live with
Him. From the first day, when they wanted to know where he lived he
invited them home. After that they never really left. Jesus united
them and transformed their lives. Few people are prepared to be that
open. Or vulnerable. He did so because the key to pleasing God and
experiencing the fulfilled life is by imbibing His character and
values. When the disciples are imperious He serves them. When they
complain about life he models a thankful attitude. When they become
resentful and want to manipulate God’s power to destroy others,
He uses it to touch people for good, regardless of whether or not
they are grateful. He faces down opposition that is organized by the
powerful religious leaders. They can’t fault Him, which makes
them doubly furious. Jesus seems so different, so perfect. You all
admire Him, but agree it would be asking too much to be expected to
be like Him. One day he poses that very challenge: anyone who wants
to be His disciple must be perfect, just like Him; they must be more
godly than the religious parties, without depending on their own
strength to do so. Discipleship is going to mean radical
transformation and there will be no turning back. Pay the cost and
be prepared to change if you want to remain in the group.
As Christians our ultimate goal is to
know Jesus and become like Him. The external character of a disciple
is a reflection of what is happening on the inside. That’s
24/7. Anything less is not discipleship; it is just a hobby.
The people of God in your society
Many non-Christians in the West view
churches as moral guardians and grudgingly or indifferently accept
their function on the social landscape. But what about the role of
individual Christians, located in the marketplace six days a week?
How should we live when we are the only Christians in our work world?
To whom are we accountable? What are our limits? What “right”
do we have to be different when so many people are comfortable with
The Biblical answer is: wherever we
are we represent Jesus Christ and our first loyalty is to our
Heavenly Father. As followers
of Jesus, we are not simply members of a Church; we are THE Church.
I often meet people who are surprised
(and uncomfortable) when they meet Christians who view the world
outside church walls, and their part in it, from God’s
viewpoint. “Who do you think you are”, they demand,
“God’s agent?” Most are accustomed to Christianity
operating in an organized, established way, putting on Christmas
pageants, conducting weddings and funerals and looking after the
poor, but otherwise not interfering in their lives. Contemporary
Western society is not overtly “religious”. Christians
worship and faith that are both meaningful and helpful in daily life
do not fit the common stereotype.
At the heart of
vital and effective discipleship is a live, personal and growing
faith and relationship with Jesus. By extension, a valid purpose of
a community of disciples is to point others to God, helping them
discover and worship Him and live out Christian faith in all aspects
of their lives. Faith
doesn’t grow in isolation. The Bible teaches that Christians
are to be like “light in the dark”; “salt”
that flavours food; and “yeast” that makes dough rise.
We are not to be bound by the confines of a church sanctuary but free
to follow Jesus at home, within the family, at work, in community
groups, interest groups and sports and social clubs. That means
influencing people around us, including those who are different in
age, socio-economic status, ethnic grouping and special interests.
The link between belief and life
connections exist between what we believe and who we are in practice.
When you look at
someone and listen to their speech closely enough you can tell what
is important in their lives and whether they are being hypocritical.
If they are aware of the fact that they are under the spotlight they
may put up fronts – for a while. But what about when no one is
Character means making the hard
choices to do what is “right”. It means living honestly,
paying taxes accurately, running our business affairs according to
the law, remaining morally faithful (even in our thoughts), pursuing
relationships based on truth and saying “No” when it is
necessary to do so, not simply expedient. Character is not just
doing what is expected by God and good people because they are
monitoring us; it is having a heart that genuinely wants integrity.
The grace of God (through the Holy Spirit in us) teaches us how to
say “No” to sin (Titus 2:11). The true disciple is,
first of all, a man or woman of God.
Growth in discipleship and conformity
to the image of Jesus don’t come about naturally; but are the
results (the “fruit”) of values we esteem, boundaries we
set, decisions we make, our willingness to change and the power and
presence of the Holy Spirit. If you are serious about your decision
to identify as a disciple of Christ you will be called on to make
decisions that realign or re-define your priorities and styles,
thought life, feelings, speech, work, study environment and financial
affairs. This call demands character transformation. It involves
more than merely painting over cracks (like tradesmen in Lima, where
I once lived, who re-plastered buildings after earth tremors but left
the structures flawed).
Change through discipleship is ongoing
and incremental, making us more like the Saviour as time goes on.
Anything less than the character of Christ is not discipleship.
Anything more is equally not valid. The disciple is not greater than
his or her Lord (John 15:20).
There were many people in Jesus’
day who followed Him on the edges of the crowd, but who thought they
were “right” and didn’t need to change. Growth and
maturity as God’s people are more than assuming that Jesus’
personality will simply “rub off on us” if we hang around
long enough. (After all, nature
trends to degenerate, not improve.
It is true that “Bad
company corrupts good character”; 1 Corinthians 15:33.)
Discipleship involves obedience to the Lordship of Christ – all
the time. Jesus confronts us with the challenge: “Why
do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?” (Luke
disciples were able to imitate many of Jesus mannerisms long before
they became Christians in the true sense of the word. All too often,
believers assume that they are growing and maturing, when, at heart,
all that is occurring is that they are going through motions and
becoming smug about their level of “spirituality”. Jesus
calls us to die to ourselves (including our achievements), not to
feel good about how well we are doing. The Christian life is about
Him; not us.
real growth and maturity
I vividly recall
a church service, in which the senior pastor preached about spiritual
growth. He made the somewhat rash statement that those who came
forward for prayer at the end of the service would return to their
seats “more mature Christians”. As a consequence, the
front of the church was packed as scores of people crowded around the
preacher looking for the advertised short-cut, expecting in an
instant the type of growth that normally has to be lived through,
growing pains and all, to be authentic. We need to take heed of
embracing cheap and easy formulae, lest, self-confidently thinking we
are standing strong, we set ourselves up to fall and be unfruitful in
areas that count. Some things in life are obtained in a moment: like
instant coffee; hamburgers and fries, instant dinners (thanks to
microwaves), mashed potato (add hot water and stir) and instant
messaging. Some people have conceptualized “instant karma”.
Discipleship, on the other hand, is a life-long experience. It is
anything but accelerated. Weeds grow overnight; oaks take years to
mature. It doesn’t take an Einstein to tell which of the two
endures over time. Worthwhile growth comes through fresh commitments
to follow Jesus every day, for the rest of our lives.
Peter’s second letter to a group of first century churches has
a great deal to say about growth and maturity as disciples. It is
worth reproducing the entire quote here:
“As we know Jesus better, his
divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life. He
has called us to receive his own glory and goodness! And by that
same mighty power, he has given us all of his rich and wonderful
promises. He has promised that you will escape the decadence all
around you caused by evil desires and that you will share in his
“So make every effort to
apply the benefits of these promises to your life. Then your faith
will produce a life of moral excellence. A life of moral excellence
leads to knowing God better. Knowing God leads to self-control.
Self-control leads to patient endurance, and patient endurance leads
to godliness. Godliness leads to love for other Christians, and
finally you will grow to have genuine love for everyone. The more
you grow like this, the more you will become productive and useful in
your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who fail to
develop these virtues are blind or, at least, very shortsighted.
They have already forgotten that God has cleansed them from their old
life of sin.
“So, dear brothers and
sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has
called and chosen. Doing this, you will never stumble or fall away.
And God will open wide the gates of heaven for you to enter into the
eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter
1:3-11 New Living Translation)
Let’s look at this list a bit
more closely: Peter urges us to build into our character a number of
features that will remind the world of Jesus (as it should, if we are
continuous faith in God for everything we cannot grow; it is the
bedrock of discipleship)
excellence, goodness (what the world sees, because our hearts and
appetites are being transformed into those of Jesus)
better (not simply an accumulation of facts in our brains but
transformation of our minds and motivation)
(compared with being “out of control”, or controlled by
circumstances or other people)
endurance and perseverance (this includes keeping going as
Christians, even when we don’t feel like it; when we feel
weak, confused, disappointed, discouraged, angry, or are suffering
(being like our Father in Heaven)
love for other
Christians; brotherly kindness (if we can’t love one another
as believers, how can we hope to love the world around us?)
everyone (having the love of God, and love for God, in everything we
do, in all our relationships, regardless of the actions and
attitudes of others).
This is a tall order. It demonstrates
that becoming a committed follower of Jesus, is just the first step
in a committed life of active discipleship. It is clear that the end
product has nothing to do with how long we have been Christians, but
how we live.
Time alone will not do it (see Hebrews
5:11-14). Failure to grow as disciples is a result of failure to
take heed of the key indicators mentioned by Peter. Nor does it have
anything to do with how we “feel”. Did you read
“feelings” on the list?
How about ”self-esteem”?
It’s not there either. Growing as disciples is, when all is
said and done, how we decide, with our will. We become believers,
not on the basis of emotions alone, but the exercise of choice. We
grow as Christians through the decisions we make every day. God does
The building blocks of discipleship
are held together by the power and promises of God. Christian
character does not come about through self-effort or hoping for the
best, but by yielding to the transforming radical work of the Holy
Peter goes on to point out that if we
are not growing as disciples, we are going backwards. Not only will
we become “ineffective
and unproductive in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ”, we
will become set in our ways and unable to detect that we are going
nowhere fast. When you
think you are doing well, or are comfortable with your life, change
is difficult. If you are “cruising along” as a
Christian, take inventory against Peter’s words and you will
see, if you are honest, that there is always room for growth and
Character that convicts others
The religious leaders of Jesus’
day all came from the same mould: conform to expectations or perish.
This wasn’t discipleship; it was crowd control, for political
and personal agendas. When Jesus came along he didn’t fit into
the mould, so they set out to destroy Him. As Christians in the
marketplace we can’t afford to be squeezed into moulds either
(Romans 12:2). We should not be surprised if our form of
discipleship disturbs others and raises hackles, even if such
hostility is irrational.
said) Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than
his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. (John 15:20)
As we grow in character as Christians
our priorities and goals alter. Being a disciple sometimes leads to
conflicts in relationships with others (Matthew 10:34-36). For
example, when a work colleague, a business partner or a spouse
becomes a Christian and sets out to live for Christ, their life
patterns are re-aligned. This can lead to tensions in the way they
interact with others. Such tensions are understandable if the
Christian comes across as pious and obnoxious. On the other hand,
just being a follower of Christ is often sufficient to produce
relational stresses because colleagues do not share our values, or
feel uncomfortable about our beliefs.
“Dear friends, do not be
surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something
strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in
the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory
is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you
are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you
suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of
criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a
Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that
name.” (1 Peter 4:12-16)
In Jesus’ day, it was the
priests, who claimed to represent God, who opposed Him more than
anyone else. It has been the same down through history.
Some years ago I was posted to
Seville, to oversee the construction of the Australian Pavilion for
the Universal Exposition hosted by Spain, and to manage protocol and
operations during the event. Occupying 215 hectares of the “Isla
de la Cartuja” on the Guadalquivir River, the Expo provided a
unique opportunity for 112 countries and a clutch of transnational
mega-corporations to showcase the best they could offer on the world
Not far from the Expo precinct, on
prime real estate, was a gravel car park. Its location was
incongruous. All around it were beautiful buildings and elaborate
statues celebrating the Habsburg dynasty and Spain’s long and
colourful history, but this site was undeveloped. When I asked why
it had apparently been overlooked and only served as an outdoor car
park locals told me it had been the site of executions of “heretics”
during the long Spanish Inquisition.
Just to be sure, I consulted better
records than street mythology. Sure enough, they confirmed that this
was the spot where individuals whom the church authorities deemed not
fit to live, and were “handed over to the secular arm”
(after all, the organized Church piously did not want to be
associated with the taking of human life) for punishment, were
paraded through the street, tied to stakes on top of piles of wood
and slowly burned to death. They did this because the religious
authorities believed there was virtue in undertaking an “Auto
de Fe” (an Act of Faith) to destroy the body in hope of saving
the soul. Many of those who perished were evangelical Christians.
Their version of Christianity did not meet official expectations, so
they were done away with.
The test of discipleship for the
church of the day was unquestioning conformity to dogma, ethnic
purity and political correctness of the worst kind. Those who
presided over the system thought they were serving God (cf Romans
10:2). They believed that they had the monopoly over the character
of Jesus Christ and His teaching.
Celebrating change that makes us
Christian character emerges as the
Holy Spirit transforms us.
“For we are God's
workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God
prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
The Campa village of San Francisco (St
Francis) lies on the Ucayali River in Pucallpa, Peru. The stream is
part of the headwaters of the mighty Amazon River. It is the
location of an important operational base of the Summer Institute of
Linguistics, a community of missionaries working with language groups
of the area (42, when I first visited). Using aircraft they
criss-cross huge swathes of jungle it once took weeks or months to
traverse. San Francisco hasn’t changed much; it still looks
fairly “indigenous”. As Miguel (his adopted Western
name) took me around his village he pointed out how grass huts were
made, where animals were kept and how the families escaped rising
waters during wet seasons. Chickens scratched the earth and fled
when we approached. Children played in the water. Women chatted.
Old men sat and stared.
I asked Miguel what life was like
before the missionaries came. “We killed our neighbours, to
avoid being killed. There were no laws. Our lives were short. We
learned the hard way that we could trust no one.” He showed me
bows and arrows decked out with colourful plumes of local birds.
“When food was scarce, we robbed our neighbours or we died.”
Miguel went on. If I had come here when he was a boy, I would have
needed weapons to defend myself. Why, I asked, did the villagers
change? “Because of the missionaries. They came in canoes and
told us about Jesus. We couldn’t understand what they were
saying at first, but one day we understood; we believed what they
said and we changed”. What visitors see today is a new
village, with new people, living differently. The evidence of
discipleship in faraway San Francisco, Peru, was transformation that
not only made people think and act differently; it also saved the
community from man-made disaster.
Paul says we are God’s
“workmanship”. That word has two meanings; the first
denotes the work He performs in our lives; the other is the basis for
our word “poem”. Transformed lives are poetry in action,
eloquent expressions of the “Word” of God breathed into
us, making us new. This change takes place when we allow God to have
His way in our hearts and minds. Following Christ moves from mere
assent to deep and abiding commitment to the person of Jesus, who
died for us, so that we could represent His life to the world.
The culmination of change
I recently saw a sign on a partition
separating clients from renovation works in The Regent Hotel in
Singapore. It stated:
“We ask your patience whilst
the pursuit of perfection is in progress”
Discipleship does not imply having
”arrived”, as far as Christian character is concerned.
It is a life-long journey. From the moment we become Christians the
work of perfection is under way. We don’t always see the
change taking place.
As we are being transformed, the world
around us will be able to see beyond our limits and mistakes and
acknowledge that the power in us is not something we generate, but
comes from the wisdom and power of our Heavenly Father. You and I
are “called” to be like Jesus. Are you ready to change?