The Marks of a Disciple

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Jermaine Wilson experienced tremendous transformation. He grew up in Leavenworth, Kanson and started to sell drugs out of his childhood apartment at an early age. He was eventually incarcerated at the maximum-security wing at Lansing Correctional, a state prison in Kansas where he had a realization. “If I don’t change,” he thought, “I’m either going to spend the rest of my life in prison or dead in a casket.” In a strange turn of events, Jermaine is now the mayor of Leavenworth, according to a story that air on CBS earlier this year. Jermaine credits the transformation to God, education, and volunteer work. After prison, he started serving his community and got his felony record expunged, paving the way for a political run.

Jesus used a parable of the vine and the branches to teach us about spiritual transformation in John 15:1-17. Like Jermaine Wilson, the disciples experienced a transformation while they followed Jesus. In one sense, they become disciples the moment they said, “yes” to Jesus. In another very real sense, they didn’t become disciples until they put their faith in the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:29)

The parable of the vine and the branches invites the question, “When does an unbeliever become a disciple?” This metaphor and the explanation follows gives us three marks of a disciple. Notice that these marks are dynamic, not static, meaning they grow and develop over time.

1. Disciples build a friendship with Jesus.

Social media has changed the way we view friendship. It used to be that you had to be physically present with someone to make a friend, but now you can become friends with people all over the world with the click of a button. Social media can increase our ability to communicate, but it can’t increase our capacity to care.

A friendship with Jesus is based on trust and affection. Friends depend on each other because they have a two-way bond. Jesus calls us to “abide in me and I in you” (v. 4). We are branches and branches can do nothing by themselves, they are just sticks (v. 5).

Friends are better than servants because they care for each other. Jesus considers us friends because he gave his life for us (v. 13). He also reveals God’s Word and will to us (v. 15).

It takes time to build a friendship with Jesus. It takes up to three years to grow grapes on a vine. After the vine and branches are established, grapes grow like the life of the vine moves into them. Jesus could have downloaded everything he wanted his disciples to directly into their brain the moment he called them, but he didn’t because he wanted to develop a relationship with them.

2. Disciples bear fruit that lasts.

Spiritual fruit is the Word of God put into practice. In a broad sense, it’s every act done in obedience to Christ. Spiritual fruit is every display of Christ-like character, ever prayer prayed in accordance with God’s will, and every deed done to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ. The beauty of the vineyard is in the sheer magnitude of grapes produced, not just one particular grape. In a narrow sense, its ever act of love done for another believer (more about that in a moment).

God prunes us to make us more fruitful. The vinedresser removes all the old growth to make room for new growth and fruit. God uses His Word to prune and clean us (v. 3). He works to remove things in our lives that get in the way of our fruitfulness. Those things might be sinful habits, misplaced priorities, or even harmful relationships.

People who don’t bear fruit aren’t disciples, they’re imposters (v.6). True spiritual fruit remains to the end. Anyone can do something that looks spiritual on the outside. Only the deeds done in the power of God will make a lasting impact.

3. Disciples demonstrate love for other believers.

Spiritual fruit has a broad and a narrow definition (see the previous point). Demonstrating love for other believers is a prominent mark of a disciple because grows out of the first and second Greatest Commands revealed by Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40.  The first command is assumed in this passage while the second command is reinforced (v. 9).

We must follow Jesus’ example in demonstrating love for others. Jesus laid down his life for the ones he loved – his friends. We must show love to everyone we meet as our “neighbor,” but we have a special responsibility to love our fellow disciples.

Our special relationship with Christ must not become a source of pride. He chose us, we did not choose him (v. 16). Back to the parable, he planted us we did not plant ourselves.

In summary, an unbeliever becomes a true disciple when he or she builds a friendship with Jesus, bears fruit that lasts, and demonstrates love for other believers. These activities cannot be accomplished without the transforming power of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Have you tapped into that power?

Photo by Nacho Domínguez Argenta on Unsplash

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Hope in the Face of Death

Scattered Cumulus Clouds in a Blue SkyRecently, I walked into a dimly lit nursing home room to say goodbye to an elderly friend for the last time.  He wasn’t able to vocalize any words with his lips, but his eyes spoke volumes.  As we sat together in the faint glow of the television, I held his hand and noticed the fragile rhythm of the pulse in his wrist.

Before I left I prayed with him and realized that things were not as dark as they might have been.  A few years earlier, he had opened up to me about one of his greatest fears: he was afraid to die.  He had been in church and around church for a long time.  He had made a profession of faith and was baptized years earlier, but he still wondered if he was really saved.  This lack of assurance haunted him as he thought about the end of his life.

As we talked, I shared what I hoped would be helpful words from 1 John 5:1-4.  One of the reasons The Apostle John wrote this letter was to encourage believers who were tentative and insecure about where they stood with God.  In order to find assurance, John asked them look at the effects of their  faith.  According to these verses, saving faith produces three loves: a love for God and His Son, Jesus Christ, a love for others, and a love for keeping God’s commandments.  Love is one of those things you can’t fake.  Sooner or later, your true feelings will surface.  One of the ways God’s children can be identified is by the way they love.

As my friend looked at this life from this perspective he gained a newfound confidence in his relationship with God and changed his perspective on death.  Not just because he had rediscovered his feelings, but because he was able to see God’s transforming work in his life, in spite of his sin.  His faith had produced love.

Maybe you or someone you know is struggling with your salvation.  You’ve come to the end of yourself and ask God to forgive you based on Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.  You’ve made a declaration of faith and maybe even shared it your family, friends, or church.  But somehow, you just don’t feel confident in your decision, especially when you think about death.  If that is you, or someone you know ask yourself the following questions: what is your faith producing?  Are you growing in your love for Jesus?  Do you treat other people with love?  Do you love God’s Word?  These are just three indications that you have been adopted into God’s family and sealed your fate for eternity.