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What Makes a True Disciple? (Part One)
Among the world's more than seven billion people are upwards of two billion who identify themselves as Christians. Self-identification is fine for what it is worth, but we know that professed Christians come in many varieties with very different beliefs and practices. It seems impossible to believe that they could all be Christian, especially when so many of them live in a way that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
How can we know who is truly Christian? Is there a biblically verifiable way to identify who are true Christians and who are deceived, false Christians? What distinguishes a true disciple of Jesus Christ? Is it the keeping of God's commandments? Is it observing the Sabbath and the holy days? Is it attending a church with the right name? Is it believing specific prophecies or following the right leader? Just what is the identifying sign of a true follower of Christ?
Acts 2 illustrates how Jesus' disciples, now apostles, were first identified:
Notice that this event did not occur privately, but people from every nation under heaven witnessed the astounding miracle of God's giving of His Spirit to those He had called. God did this so that the world would know that He identified Himself with the disciples of Jesus. He did this through His Spirit inspiring the apostles to behave in a certain way.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt, He did it so that the world would see that He was identifying Himself with the people of Israel. He performed many miracles to prove that Almighty God was with them. When He "baptized" Israel in the Red Sea (I Corinthians 10:2), it was accompanied by an astounding parting of the waters, the death of the Egyptian army, and God protecting and leading Israel personally in the pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 14).
When John baptized Jesus, God again made sure that people knew that He was with Him. With a miracle visible to many who had also come to be baptized by John, God identified Himself with His Son:
How does God identify Himself with the disciples of Christ today? When people are baptized into God's church, no miracle manifests itself when He sends His Spirit to live in the newly converted. They do not speak in tongues. A pillar of fire does not appear. The heavens do not open, and no doves fly from heaven. But He does give His Spirit to those He calls, which is truly miraculous. Paul writes in Romans 8:14, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God." So, those who have God's Spirit in them are true Christians.
But we still have a problem in identifying them because we cannot see the Spirit in other people. To know who true Christians are, we must see the miraculous in what they do, something that is astoundingly rare in this world—something that only those with His Spirit can do. Jesus tells us what this miracle is in John 13:34-35: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus says that God's law can be summed up in two commands: 1) "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind"; and 2) "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." What, then, is so different about His command here that He can call it "new"?
We should note that it is a command given by our Lord to the church and not to Israel. His instruction is directed specifically at His disciples about their relationship with one another. True, we can find the two great commandments in black and white in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18), but there is a significant difference in this command.
What makes Jesus' command to His disciples new is the standard or condition that He places on their love for one another. Notice again John 13:34: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (emphasis ours). The "new" dimension to His command is the incredibly high requirement He sets for their love: His own model of godly love. It is one thing to love one another in the same way we love and care for ourselves. It is a vastly greater love that motivates a person to give up his life for another, that sacrifices self-interest to promote the interests of someone else (see Philippians 2:4).
The "newness" then, was not in its originality, but in its extent. The practice of this kind of love would cause the world to recognize these men—and us—as disciples of Jesus. It is a love so rare and wonderful that when it happens, everyone who witnesses it takes notice. The true disciple, then, can be identified by his or her practice of the love of God. That criterion considerably narrows the field of those who are true Christians!
In Romans 8:9, Paul writes, "Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His." This is only logical since only through Christ living in us by His Spirit can we reproduce His way of life. With the application of His Spirit in our lives, we can begin to produce the fruit of His Spirit, the first of which is His love: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
In Part Two, we will see how two of these fruits help us understand what love is so that we can love one another as our Savior commands.