In the first post of this series (“A Disciple of Jesus Christ: Introduction“), I defined a few terms related to “disciples” in Scripture. As we saw, the terms have a wide range of meaning. Also, in the second post (“A Disciple of Jesus Christ: Bounds“), I observed that John uses the term “disciple” in various ways corresponding to the ranges in the definitions.
However, even though John uses the term “disciple” to refer to people in both a positive and a negative way, it is clear that he is encouraging his readers toward being a certain type of disciple, which I will call a “true disciple.”
I get the term from this passage in John:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 ESV)
Notice that this statement was spoken to Jews “who believed in him.” Was this “saving faith,” or simply a belief in his ability to perform certain miracles or make certain claims? With John, it is always difficult to tell with certainty. However, if you keep reading in John 8 following the passage above, you will see that these Jews “who believed in him” are not shown in a positive light.
So, what does Jesus say about “true disciples” in the passage above? He says that “true disciples” are those who are abiding (dwelling, remaining) in his word (or message). What does this mean? Well, in the next passage, Jesus explains that he is talking about being freed from sin. While the Jews claim that they are “children of Abraham,” Jesus ignores their statement for a moment and explains:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36 ESV)
Jesus then returns to their statements about being “children of Abraham,” and he explains that even the offspring of Abraham are slaves to sin. (Of course, the Jews do not like this very much…)
Thus, “abiding in my word” in this passage seems to indicate trusting Jesus’ word that they would be forgiven of their sins. “True disciples,” then, live with the understanding that their sins are forgiven, that they are no longer slaves to sin, and that they are now living a sons of God and will remain children of God forever.
Later in John, Jesus makes another claim about those who are truly his disciples:
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 ESV)
So, besides a recognition and acceptance that they have been forgiven (and continuing to live in that state), Jesus’ disciples also demonstrate love for one another. In fact, it is by their love for one another that other people will recognize them. (Perhaps this is why John continuously exhorts his readers to “love one another.”)
In another “abiding” passage (John 15), Jesus explains another “mark” of his true disciples:
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:8 ESV)
“Bearing fruit” is an important metaphor in the Gospel of John (John 4:36-38 and John 12:24-25) and especially in John 15 (John 15:2, John 15:4, John 15:5, John 15:8, and John 15:16). Associating “bearing fruit” with spiritual growth is too limited an association. Similarly, associating “bearing fruit” with “conversions” is also too limited. In John, the idea of “bearing fruit” seems to be similar to the idea of the increase of the kingdom of God as found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).
Thus, disciples are interested in advancing the kingdom of God, which glorifies our Father and again shows that we are Jesus’ disciples.
Certainly there are other aspects of being a “true disciple” that could be brought up at this point. However, these are the three points that John mentions. A “true disciple” lives as a child of God in the forgiveness of God, demonstrates love to other disciples in a manner that the world recognizes and notices, and seeks to advance the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, Jesus is also shown doing these three things while he is physically on the earth. He lives as the son of God recognizing his special relationship with God that is not marred by sin. He loves people unconditionally, and those around him notice. He seeks to advance God’s kingdom through word and through deed.
Thus, when we are a “true disciple” we are following in Jesus’ footsteps, doing the things that he would be doing.