When Luke Skywalker landed on Dagobah he was eager to begin Jedi training and return to the rebel fight. Shortly after landing, he met a small, odd green swamp man who pestered his makeshift camp. Luke frustratingly told him, “Would you move along little fellow? We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He offered to bring the ambitious Jedi student to meet Yoda.
What Luke didn’t know is that this odd little fellow was Yoda and that his training had already begun. Luke was gifted and ambitious, but he was also reckless and had an underlying anger problem. Yoda was testing Luke and working on these issues. He wanted Luke to become a Jedi master before acting like a Jedi master. The only pathway to becoming a Jedi master was by apprenticeship with him.
Like young Skywalker, believers often focus on the work of a Christ follower and skip the inward transformation. Christianity is about an apprenticeship that radically changes us. This apprenticeship is called discipleship. Discipleship is a relationship with Jesus wherein the focus is upon being before doing, intimacy that leads to imitation. Discipleship is a distinctive feature of Christianity. In fact, it’s a feature that makes the gospel unique among the world’s religions.
Discipleship and Defense
Religious pluralism tries to flatten out all differences between various belief systems. It takes the diverse landscape of religious worldviews and says that we’re really all the same. If they are all expressions of the same reality, then what’s the point of committing myself to a single religion? Therefore, we have the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd. Christians must answer this pervasive attitude in our culture by defending the uniqueness of Christianity.
We should acknowledge that world religions actually do have much in common. Yet, these similarities are merely superficial. Take, for example, that generally all religions do intend on making you a better person. Moral improvement is a characteristic of all of the world’s major religions; however, Christianity stands apart in how and why one should grow ethically.
The basis of every other religion is that you improve yourself in order to gain acceptance and maintain a good standing with God. Whether it is a list of rules, an ethical code, or spiritual path, the emphasis is that you perform the work of that religion to become a member.
The gospel stands apart from all of these options. In Mark 1:17, Jesus called his first disciples. Surprisingly, he doesn’t tell them to show him why they should be worthy of his teaching. Jesus doesn’t share with them some wisdom or a new set of rules to follow. Rather, Jesus simply tells them: “Follow me.” The disciples are invited into a relationship with Christ wherein they will be transformed into men who look more like him. Therefore, the gospel invitation is a gift to be received before it is a task to be performed.
Luke Skywalker wanted to know how to perform like a Jedi, and he thought Yoda would teach him how to perform. Yoda, on the other hand, intended on making Luke the kind of person who could perform like a Jedi because he had been transformed. Other religions tell you to perform so that you may become. This is behavior modification. Jesus calls us to become so that we may perform. The process of becoming happens in discipleship. Discipleship is something you be before something you do, a relationship before it is a task.
Discipleship and Intimacy
The object of Christian discipleship further underlines its uniqueness. When Jesus calls people to follow him, he neither calls them by another authority nor to another authority. Jesus himself is the object of discipleship.
When rabbis trained their students, they taught them to follow the Torah. Whenever I disciple people in our church, I do so by the authority of God’s Word and as someone leading people to follow a person greater than myself. Jesus calls his disciples to follow himself because there is no greater authority or person for them to follow.
So, discipleship is fundamentally relational. As we saw above, Jesus invites people to follow him prior to any moral improvement that they have achieved. After they follow him, however, they do not then receive their rules to follow. The relationship with Jesus is still the primary basis for moral performance. Jesus desires for his disciples “to be with him” (Mark. 3:14).
Here’s the vital distinction: in works-based religion, your performance is the basis for your acceptance; in the grace-centered gospel, your acceptance in Christ is the basis for your performance. We often get this backward. We believe that Christ blessed us with the gift of salvation, but then we must prove the effectiveness of that salvation in our moral performance. Rather, the gospel is that Jesus blesses us with the gift of salvation — expressed in discipleship — and we then perform good works by virtue of being transformed in the context of that grace-centered relationship (Ephesians. 2:8–10).
Therefore, the mark of a true disciple is that he or she is ever growing into a closer relationship with the person of Jesus Christ and that relationship is transforming her from the inside out. If you are trying to figure out why you are not changing, overcoming sin, or experience the power of the Holy Spirit in your life, the answer is not “trying harder” or adding new rules to your life. What you need is to dive deeper into intimacy with Jesus, then add what disciplines are necessary to aid that endeavor.
Discipleship and Imitation
Finally, consider that the goal of your discipleship is not just your “personal” relationship with Jesus but that you would be integrated into Jesus’ community of disciples. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Though we all have to enter upon discipleship alone, we do not remain alone. If we take [Jesus] at his word and dare to become individuals, our reward is the fellowship of the Church.”
As we grow into a community of people reflecting Jesus, we should imitate his life in our world. Jesus clearly shared this intention across the four Gospels. In Jn. 15:16–17, he said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. This is what I command you: Love one another.” Here are three ways we imitate Christ and produce fruit.
First, we imitate Christ by serving. Paul said that Jesus took on the mind set of a servant and that we should imitate that humility in ourselves (Matthew 20:28; Philippians 2:1–11). Second, we imitate Christ by discipling others. Mark Dever made a helpful distinction between discipleship and discipling. Discipleship is a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Discipling is the act of helping someone else follow Jesus. One of the highest acts of service to our fellow believers is to help them follow Christ.
Lastly, we imitate Christ by sharing. Jesus consistently sent his disciples on mission. Their objective was to spread the good news to all who would hear (Mark 6:7–13; Acts 1:8). We should imitate Jesus by being messengers of the gospel to a world that desperately needs its word of grace.
Luke Skywalker’s ambitions were too low. He sought out Yoda expecting to have his behaviors changed; instead, he was transformed into a Jedi. If you follow Christ, then you will receive transformation before behavior modification. The gospel always exceeds our expectations. We receive far more than we ever dared to ask for. Yet, we are also asked of much more than we would have offered. Will you obey Christ and make a case to an unbelieving world by following him?