He didn’t form a political party. He didn’t start a business or an organization. He didn’t plant a local church (at least not in the way that we usually think of it). Jesus called disciples. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins and ends with a call to discipleship (see Mat. 4:19; 28:19). And between these two great bookends? Yep, more discipleship. Lots of it.
That’s all fine and good. But what exactly is a disciple? Unfortunately, it’s one of those slippery words, the kind that is often used in 10 different ways by 10 different people. It can be confusing: Are we talking about spiritual disciplines? Is this the same thing as conversion? Or are we talking about some kind of ‘next-level’ faith – a call for a special few Christians?
While a definition that reflects all of the nuance of scripture may be allusive, Jesus’ call of Peter and Andrew provides a pretty good starting point. Here are Jesus’ words to these two fishermen: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mat. 4:19). This verse gives us a great way to get our hands around this idea of discipleship. In fact, I think that we can look at each phrase as an aspect of discipleship (see also Putnam and Harrington’s DiscipleShift).
The call to follow Jesus… is just that – a call to Himself. That sounds like a no-brainer. But it actually makes Jesus unique among His contemporaries. Other teachers in Jesus’ day said, “Follow me, and I’ll teach you Torah.” Or maybe even, “Come with me, and I’ll teaching you the traditions of the fathers.” Jesus’ call was audacious, in part, because He simply called people to Himself. So, first and foremost, the call to follow is explicitly Jesus-centered.
These first two words are an invitation… to accept Jesus’ teaching, his authority, and his path. In accepting this call, we are recognizing Jesus as our Lord. This invitation to follow means putting ourselves behind Jesus. He’s the master-teacher; I’m the apprentice.
…and I will make you
Discipleship involves being molded and shaped by Jesus. This is about transformation, that’s the work of God in our hearts, making us more like our master. A disciple of Jesus is changed by Jesus into the likeness of Jesus (Jesus’ discipleship is not primarily Torah-shaped, but Jesus-shaped; hence his defense in Mat. 5:17). We don’t make ourselves presentable, and then follow Jesus. No, discipleship is that journey of change. In following Jesus, He transforms us. We begin to reflect the character, passions, and values of our master-teacher. This is so necessarily, because fundamentally only Jesus can change our hearts.
…fishers of men
Discipleship also involves action: there is something we do. We are called for a purpose. And here it means that we join Jesus on His mission. And Jesus isn’t just making a cute pun here (fishermen, fishers of men). What does it mean to be a Jewish fisherman in the first century? Well, it looks like casting nets, hauling in the catch, and (this is often missed) discerning the good fish from the bad. More specifically, fishermen had to discern clean/Kosher fish from the unclean (see also Mat. 13:47). Yes, Jesus is foreshadowing here the call to be disciple-making disciples… but he’s also including in that vision a process of discernment. Disciple-making demands discernment (and in a sense, judgment). Just like Jesus, we don’t necessarily share our time equally with everyone, or invest the same in everyone. I think this is a helpful detail… but don’t miss the big idea: Jesus is inviting his disciples to take part in his mission!
So, Jesus calls Peter and Andrew: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Right here we have an accessible and helpful definition of discipleship. A disciple follows Jesus, is being transformed by Jesus, and shares in Jesus’ mission. Putnam and Harrington emphasize the head-heart-hands trifecta here (Discipleshift, 51):
Putting all three attributes together, we see that a disciple is a person who (1) is following Christ (head); (2) is being changed by Christ (heart); (3) is committed to the mission of Christ (hands).
The head-heart-hand may lack nuance and may even be a little kitschy… but if helps us remember what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus, I’ll take it!
What do you think? Does this definition of discipleship have teeth? Is it helpful to you? Does it oversimplify?