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Four Essential Marks of Christian Disciples

Four Essential Marks of Christian Disciples

Displaying His Imprint

As Jesus Christ walked the earth as God incarnate, He also taught disciples to follow Him by keeping His commandments and glorifying God through service. The New Testament defines a disciple as a “learner, indicating thought accompanied by endeavor.”[1] To be a biblical disciple goes beyond being a pupil in a classroom, studying for exams, striving for high marks or letter grades. Disciples of Christ are adherents or imitators of Him, exhibiting marks (characteristics) consistent with His teaching and ministry.[2] 

True disciples display the imprint of a life transformed by Jesus to other Christ-followers and the unbelieving world as evidence for belief and trust in the authoritative and sufficient Word of God. This essay will define and demonstrate the four essential marks associated with disciples of Christ outlined in the Bible.

Essential Mark # 1: Disciples Love God Supremely

The biblical principle of “love for God” spans the Old and New Testaments throughout the Bible. Deuteronomy 6:5 says disciples show love for God with their heart, soul, and might,[3] and Leviticus 19:17-18 expands this love through a disciple’s kindly treatment towards a neighbor, or “fellow countryman.” 

In the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus reiterates the Law of Moses, funneling the entirety of the Law into the two commandments of loving God and loving neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27). This love is again displayed through all of a disciple’s being: the heart, soul, strength, and mind. 

True disciples display the imprint of a life transformed by Jesus to other Christ-followers and the unbelieving world as evidence for belief and trust in the authoritative and sufficient Word of God.

The disciple’s love for God stems first from God’s pursuit and love for the creature (1 John 4:19), and as Michael Gorman asserts, “Divine love experienced has to become divine love expressed.”[4] The apostle Paul aptly portrays this divine love in 1 Corinthians 13, and Gorman concludes that love “is the defining characteristic of the individual in relation to others….”[5] 

This earthly representation of love points back to a disciple’s character toward God. Yet, a disciple’s love for the Almighty is not a general affection or appreciation exactly similar to earthly relationships. Instead, a biblical disciple loves God in Christ supremely, exemplifying that all other relationships fall inferior. 

Jesus claims this love is essential to being His disciple. In Luke 14:26, He says, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” In proper context, Jesus is not asserting that hatred is a prerequisite for discipleship. Rather, He emphasizes that the order of love and allegiance for God outranks the love of earthly relationships, including family and marriage.

Essential Mark # 2: Disciples Grow in the Knowledge of Christ

Knowledge is a good gift from God, and as bearers of His image, disciples go beyond knowledge by description or solely knowing about Christ. Biblical disciples are lifelong learners of the Lord, spending time with the living Word of God through the inspired written Scriptures, enjoying knowledge of Him by acquaintance. In his work on spiritual disciplines, Donald Whitney writes, “No one is made right with the God about whom he knows nothing. No one is made right with God unless he or she learns about Him and His message to the world, a message of good news called the gospel.”[6] 

To spiritually mature in Christ, disciples grow in Him by reading and studying the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7, 13), both in private devotion and corporate worship (Acts 2:42). J. P. Moreland describes the maturity of this kind as ordering your overall lifestyle, especially being immersed in the Scriptures.[7] 

In Deuteronomy 6:6-9, the Israelites were instructed to teach God’s Word diligently to themselves and their children as often as opportunities arose throughout a given day. The Scriptures were to encompass all facets of life for the Israelites: “You shall bind them on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9). 

This knowledge not only teaches the truth and wonder of God and His gospel, but it also protects against what the apostle Peter calls being “carried away by the error of unprincipled men…” (2 Peter 3:17). Peter expresses it is far greater to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, both now and into eternity (2 Peter 3:18).

Essential Mark # 3: Disciples Endure Suffering

Loving God and growing in His grace does not always happen unhindered. As imitators of Christ, disciples are promised degrees of hardship, suffering, and possible persecution. In the apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he writes, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Paul also explains that disciples suffer hardship, similar to soldiers carrying out their duty (2 Timothy 2:3). 

To spiritually mature in Christ, disciples grow in Him by reading and studying the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The personal testimony of a disciple may be a powerful pathway toward gospel proclamation. Paul instructed the Philippians to suffer in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27), which provided confidence and compassion for the church when facing various trials throughout the centuries.[8]

Jesus illustrated the nature of suffering for the sake of the gospel akin to carrying a cross. Since the cross was used as an instrument of death, Jesus unfolded the importance of His disciples dying to themselves so that the resurrected life of Christ may be seen. Luke 14:27 says, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Andrew Murray asserts this cross-carrying and death-to-self is evidenced by the Holy Spirit’s work to place “yourself before God in your utter helplessness…and trustful surrender to [Him].”[9] This display of humility was employed most obediently by Jesus’s death (Philippians 2:8). 

Similar to Jesus emptying Himself, He calls His disciples to a complete “self-abandonment,”[10] not on the grounds of meritorious works that would earn salvation… but instead, to fulfill the will of God by His sufficient grace. In the Old Testament, Joseph endured great hardship and rejection at the hands of his brothers until God exalted him in due time (Genesis 37-50).

Comparatively, the book of Job chronicles how Job’s most prized possessions were taken away from him until God restored him (Job 1:13-22; 42:10-17). Even though both of these disciples of God suffered greatly, neither cursed God nor wavered in their faith. These examples, including the sufferings of Christ, abundantly comfort biblical disciples for salvation through Him (2 Corinthians 1:5-6).

Essential Mark # 4: Disciples are Commissioned to Make Disciples

Hardship creates perseverance in biblical disciples when taking their knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ to the unbelieving world. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commissions His followers to go into all nations and make disciples, teaching what has been given to them by Christ (Matthew 20:19-20). 

This task of testifying about Jesus resembles the role of the prophets throughout the Old Testament, speaking forth the truth of God as written in the Scriptures. Disciples in the New Testament age proclaim the good news of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection to a dying world in need of eternal life that can only come through Christ’s finished work on the cross (John 14:6). 

Adam McClendon writes about engaging with the world and proclaiming the good news through every opportunity possible, keeping a gospel mindset always at the forefront.[11] As disciples engage the world, they put the authority of Christ on display through obedience to His call.[12]

Hardship creates perseverance in biblical disciples when taking their knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ to the unbelieving world.

Graciously, the commission of Christ to His disciples to go and make more disciples was not left to figure out on their own. Before His crucifixion, Jesus paradoxically explains that it is to the disciples’ advantage that He departs so that the Helper, the Holy Spirit, comes to them. Further, Jesus unpacks the role of the Holy Spirit: He is the disciples’ advocate who convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment; He testifies of Christ; He helps the disciples remember all that Jesus taught; and He guides them into all truth (John 14:26; 16:8-13). Jesus taught His disciples how to be disciple-makers by the power of the Holy Spirit, a commission that has continued since the first century through today.

Conclusion

As adherents of Jesus Christ, biblical disciples display evidence of imitating Him through the four essential characteristics outlined above. The mark of loving Christ above all earthly relationships shows others His authority and supremacy. By knowing the living Christ through the written Word of God, disciples grow in spiritual maturity and Christlikeness, privately and among the church body. Disciples are also marked by suffering and hardship as they walk with Christ in the process of sanctification. Suffering is seen through multiple scriptural examples and the Lord Himself, who faced the ultimate suffering at the hands of humanity. Lastly, disciples are called and sent out to the world as disciple-makers, proclaiming the gospel for the glory of God.

End Notes:


[1] W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 308.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New American Standard Bible.

[4] Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 2001) Chapter 8, Kindle.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 276, Kindle.

[7] J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 108, Kindle.

[8] Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 139, Kindle.

[9] Andrew Murray, Humility: The Beauty of Holiness, rev. (Abbotsford, WI: Aneko Press, 2016), 58, Kindle.

[10] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Luke 11-17 (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013), 284.

[11] Adam McClendon and Jared E. Lockhart, Timeless Church: Five Lessons from Acts (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2020), 139-140, Kindle.

[12] Trevin K. Wax, Eschatological Discipleship: Leading Christians to Understand Their Historical and Cultural Context (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2018), 96, Kindle.

Nate Schill is a teacher of apologetics and serves as Elder and Admin at his church. He holds a M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Liberty University and is a Doctoral Candidate in Theology and Apologetics at the same institution. He writes essays at https://PursueTruth.me and lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with his wife and two children.
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