Did you know that the word ‘Christian’ is used three times in the New Testament? Interesting, isn’t it? By and large, the primary label we, as followers of Jesus, use to describe our faith is only used a handful of times in the Bible. That stat is interesting in and of itself. But in light of the next little factoid, it starts to tell a bigger story.
Did you know that the word ‘disciple’ is used 268 times in the New Testament? Overwhelmingly, ‘disciple’ is the moniker used to describe what it means to be followers of Jesus.
Forgive me if this seems like I’m being pedantic about semantics – I’m really very happy with that little turn of phrase, by the way – but I can’t help but wonder if there’s something about that to be read into? I’m not the only one, and I’m not suggesting it’s my idea. John Mark Comer’s work at Bridgetown Church has helped shape my thinking on a lot this.
Neither am I so delusional to think that followers of Jesus around the world need to stop calling themselves Christians and start calling themselves disciples. But stick with me for a few minutes. I think there’s a bit of mileage here. Take the most census, for example. The question: ‘What is your religion?’ can be answered without much serious consideration, perhaps aptly summed up in the fact that 176,632 people responded with ‘Jedi Knight’. More than 33 million checked the box marked ‘Christian’, down from 37 million 10 years previous. That over 70 per cent of the population self-identified as Christian is probably more worrying than the fact that now just over 50 per cent do. It’s easy to check that box, there’s not much of a cross to pick up in doing it. I can’t help but wonder how many of those 33 million would describe themselves as disciples.
I’ve got no substantive evidence and I really don’t want to appear to be pouring shame on those who may have. I’m merely reflecting on the (probably fair) likelihood that a fair few of that number check ‘Christian’ because that’s a label they grew up with. Or they check ‘Christian’ because they know they’re certainly not ‘Muslim’. And ticking ‘no religion’ is maybe just a step to far. Is there a chance that a good chunk of those 33 million that ticked ‘Christian’ are professing a basic belief in God, maybe attend a church service now and then – take your pick of Christmas and Easter – and have some sense of morality? I suspect – and hope I’m wrong – that for many of those 33 million, Christianity is more about Jesus following you – answering your prayers, rubber-stamping your plans, etc – rather than you following Jesus (discipleship).
Dallas Willard, as he so often does, said it best:
“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of Heavens into every corner of human existence.”
That’s an outrageous claim. But then Jesus’ call was and is more outrageous still. Jesus calls us to follow him. We are to be followers of Jesus. And not followers in a modern social media sense. Actual followers. And what did Jesus say about being his follower? Mark 8 is a good place to start, from verse 34.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Notice first that the invitation to follow Jesus is to become a disciple, not a Christian. Notice also that there are two types of people in this chapter: the disciples and the crowds. And the disciples aren’t limited to just the 12, that’s just a subgroup. Jesus had hundreds if not thousands of disciples in Galilee and across Israel. This sharp divide between the disciples and the crowds can be seen as a literary device used by Mark – and other writers – to ask which group we are in. Are we a face in the crowd? Or are you a disciple of Jesus? It’s a question that’s still as piercing two millennia later. And that’s before we even get on to the whole “denying themselves and take up their cross” part. We’ll get on to that next week.
Jesus isn’t simply after converts to Christianity, but disciples of the kingdom of God. What kind of follower are we going to be?