The word “discipleship” sounds daunting. Is discipleship only for elite Christians? Is the path of discipleship reserved for Jesus’ special forces division, while the rest of us simply hope to stumble our way through basic training?
Absolutely not—at least, not as Jesus has defined discipleship. For Jesus, the path of discipleship is for every believer. For Jesus, discipleship is simple, although certainly not easy. In this article, I’ll walk through the core principles of discipleship that Jesus lays out for us, and then simplify this message to a short definition that captures the nature of discipleship: learning to lead.
Jesus’ Disciples Learn to Serve
Let’s start with a definition. The word “disciple" means learner. By learner, we shouldn’t think of a graduate student buried in the stacks of a library. Instead, a disciple is more like an apprentice. R. C. H. Lenski gives a great definition of the word when he writes that the word disciple “means more than pupil or scholar, namely a follower and adherent, i.e., one who accepts the instruction given him and makes it his rule and norm” (Lenski, The Interpretation of John’s Gospel, 186).
If we then ask what disciples are learning, Jesus consistently answers that his disciples must learn to serve. Here is what Jesus says in John 13:12-16
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him." (John 13:12-16)
Jesus serves his own disciples in order to give them “an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Disciples of Jesus learn to serve.
Additionally, notice how Jesus acknowledges and approves that they call him “Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13). Here, Jesus connects the idea of servanthood to leadership. By “Lord,” Jesus indicates his exercise of authority to command his disciples in what to do, and by “Teacher,” Jesus indicates his expertise to direct his disciples how to do what he commands them to do. Whether by ruling or teaching, Jesus redefines leadership in his kingdom as servanthood.
And this not only refers to Jesus’ leadership, but to the leadership/servanthood that he sends his disciples to execute: “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16). Just as the Father sent Jesus to lead by serving (including this feet-washing, and including the cross), even so Jesus likewise sends his his disciples to lead by serving (John 20:21).
Jesus’ Disciples Exercise Authority by Serving
First, Jesus says that his disciples will execute their authority not by throwing their weight around, but by serving. In the world, a lord (i.e., ruler) has the ability to command a servant to do what he doesn't want to do. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Jesus says,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25–28)
Here, Jesus demonstrates this principle through his own service. He is Lord (“for so I am”), but he does not leverage his authority to command his disciples to serve him. Instead, Jesus first uses his authority by serving his disciples. Then, he uses his authority to command them to do as he has done to them—that is, to serve one another. Jesus’ disciples will lead in Jesus' kingdom by serving in the way that Jesus has modeled leadership.
Practically, speaking, this means that Jesus calls his disciples to exercise whatever authority and dominion he entrusts to them not to build themselves up, but to serve those whom they lead. For example, parents are entrusted with authority over their children not so that their children can serve them, but so that they can serve their children. So, parents teach their children God’s word so that the children never remember a day when they didn't know Jesus, and parents discipline their children to prepare them for life in the real world. Parents rule over their children by serving them, not by exploiting them, and so it is in any position of authority, whether in the business, government, or the church.
Jesus’ Disciples Teach to Serve
Second, Jesus says that his disciples will teach not in order to gain glory for themselves, but in order to serve. In the world, the office of Teacher brings along with it deference, respect, and other benefits. Elsewhere, Jesus warns of such teachers:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38–40)
If you were a Teacher like one of the rabbis, scribes, or Pharisees, the people would hang on your every word and serve you in whatever capacity they could. Gaining this glory is not the purpose that Jesus sends his disciples to teach. Jesus sends his disciples to teach not to build a larger platform with more followers, bigger speaking fees, and more lucrative book deals. Instead, Jesus commands that his disciples should teach in order to serve. That is, the teacher must make himself or herself a slave to those whom they teach, seeking their students' good rather than their own glory.
Discipleship is Learning to Lead
With all this in mind, I want to suggest a very simple definition for discipleship: learning to lead. We must learn to make ourselves servants for the purpose of leading others toward Christ. Whether we serve with words or with deeds, our service seeks to lead people to worship God and, in turn, to take up the task of discipleship for themselves. There are three implications from this:
Every Christian is called to discipleship.
Every disciple of Jesus is learning to serve someone.
Every disciple of Jesus is learning to lead someone.
Jesus models the example of taking the position of a servant by washing his disciples’ feet in order to teach them how they must serve. Then, Jesus sends them into the world in order to learn to serve the world by faithfully seeking the world’s true good—not only through seeking peace and prosperity, but through pointing the world to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, every disciple is learning to serve someone—that is, learning to lead someone. All of us must learn to lead our own lives as disciples of Jesus, and all of us must also learn to lead others as disciple-makers who are seeking to help others take the next step toward Jesus in whatever capacity God entrusts to us. We will fear, fail, and falter along the way, but Jesus calls us to walk the path of discipleship by continuing to learn how to lead as his disciples through it all.