Whenever I drive up 36th St. on the east side of Oklahoma City I see a great big sign along the side of the road that advertises a local church. The sign reads, " The True Disciples" and has a large arrow pointing in the direction of their church building.
I've always found it a bit aggressive to put up such a sign but in reality aren't these people saying pretty much what every religious group says?
- We're the true ones.
- We're the legitimate ones.
- We're the genuine disciples.
I mean, we don't have a sign like that out front --- but isn't this what we think of ourselves?
That in all truth, we are the true disciple and everyone else is deluded, mistaken or liars? To our credit we don't actually say this but like many others we think it. Of course this has been the debate between religious groups for centuries - who are the true disciples?
Wars have been fought over this question. Empires have been won and lost in the pursuit of an answer. It's no surprise then that the Bible deals with this issue, an issue so fought over by those who call Christ Lord.
In his 1st Epistle the Apostle John very clearly lays out the criteria for discerning who are and who are not, the true disciples.
In the Churches of Christ, much to our advantage, we have always deferred to the Bible for the resolution to religious issues and controversy. Let's look at I John and see if we measure up as true disciples.
1. Criteria For True Discipleship.
Now we know that John is not the symmetrical writer that Matthew is.
A - Mathew's writing is perfectly organized in a series of narratives balanced by action sequences. It is very much like today's organization of material where we group things by categories. Roman numerals (I) Sub idea (A) etc.
B - John's writing is like stream of consciousness expression. It's not like a building, it's like a river with ideas that float by and reappear further down stream. I explain this to you because we'll cover the entire epistle in this lesson but not necessarily in chronological order. Throughout the epistle, John will give 3 main criteria for determining who is a true disciple, a genuine Christian.
These three however are spread out in an uneven pattern through out the letter and it helps to know this when we approach to study.
1. True Disciples Walk in the Light
5 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
- I John 1:5-10
It's interesting to note that this passage is often used as a proof text to support the idea that our righteousness is dictated by the degree of obedience we achieve through self-effort. For example, If you obey Jesus, if you follow the rules, you're walking in the light and therefore pass the test for true discipleship.
This is true to a point---you can't disobey Jesus and claim true discipleship: But, this is not the point John makes here.
You see, John isn't equating "light" here with the level of obedience you've achieved. For example, if I obey a lot, I walk in really bright light; if my obedience is weak then I'm in a lesser light.
In this passage John equates light with understanding/knowledge (I see the light). Walking in the "light" is living with the understanding of the revelation of the gospel.
So what is the understanding / the light that true disciples live by? The understanding that they are sinners and without the blood of Christ they are lost. John says that those who say they have no sin, demonstrate by their ignorance that they are in the dark: Whether they think they have no sin because they don't believe in sin (as certain Greek Philosophers did at that time) Or whether they think they have no sin because they keep the Law perfectly (as some self righteous Jews thought).
For whatever reason, if they think they have no sin they are not true disciples. True disciples, first and foremost, are those who understand and live with the knowledge that they are sinners and they need Christ to save them, every day because they sin everyday. Because they walk with this understanding / belief, the blood of Christ continually cleans them of all their sins.
2. True Disciples Obey Jesus' Commands
John doesn't list every single thing Jesus ever commanded, but he does mention three, which serve as a litmus test for sincere obedience. This is where we have to jump around a bit in order to identify the three John describes. So, those who are sincerely obeying Jesus:
A - Cultivate a Loving Attitude
Love is a defining characteristic of a true disciple. John describes the way a true disciple's love is expressed:
True disciples love their brothers in the Lord 2:9-11
It's interesting to note that loving one's neighbor is a basic tenet of the Christian faith, but loving one's fellow Christian is always a priority. This not an idea peculiar to John because Paul states the idea more emphatically in Gal. 6:10:
So then while we have opportunity let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
The loving of Christian brothers and sisters as a priority was, of course, first established by Jesus Himself as a primary credential for true discipleship when He said,
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
- John 13:35
Anyone who disregards the Church or thinks they can have a relationship with Christ without a strong relationship with His people, is deluding himself just as John says in chapter 1.
True Disciples Love Good Deeds - 3:11-24
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. (1st John 3:16-18)
John says that our good deeds (done especially on behalf of the brethren in the light of truth) these are the things that confirm our sincere faith. True disciples do good because they believe in Christ and want others to believe and honor the Lord because of these.
John spends much of his epistle writing on the fact that True Disciples obey their Lord by loving their brethren and doing the type of things that express this love.
B. Don't Love The World - 2:15-17
but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him:
- I John 2:15
This is the flip side of loving the brethren, loving others and loving to do good in order to glorify Christ. You cannot do these things and love the world at the same time. You can pretend to do one and secretly love the other but you can't truly love both. Because the one who loves the world invest himself in the world.
Just check your priority list and if you bump away spiritual things for worldly things --- you love the world. If you fish instead of worship on Sunday--- you love fishing more than you love God. If the majority of your disposable time is invested in the world instead of the kingdom---you love the world more than the kingdom.
People hate to admit what is so plainly obvious in their lives.
If they know that this world is temporary and they only have a few years here and yet they still devote most of their time to activities and achievements that will soon perish --- instead of serving Christ with an increasing measure of their energy and resources. If they know the world will perish and still pour their energy into it --- they're in the dark even though by sitting in the pew on Sunday mornings they think they're in the light.
True disciples repudiate the world and its values and it is evident in their priorities as well as their lifestyles.
C. They Purify Themselves - 2:28 - 3:10
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
- I John 3:2-4;10
This point goes to our personal behavior. The good thing about John is that he is not ambiguous --- even though he is called the Apostle of love because he writes so much about God's love for man, he makes very clear that God's love does not extend to those who practice sins. Of course the key word here is practice: Christians have to acknowledge that they are sinners in order to truly walk in the light.
Some people think that this means that they can sin without consequences; that they can be worldly and fleshly and this is acceptable. John is saying here that a true disciple recognizes his predisposition to sin but attempts to overcome this in order to live a pure life before God. The effort at righteous living is a sign of obedience and faith and provides an excellent witness to the world.
You can fake a lot of things in religion, but a sincere and ongoing desire to do and say what is right and good and pure is an undeniable mark of a True Disciple.
So True Disciples Walk in the Light; they obey Jesus' commands to love each other, hate the world and purify their lives..
3. True Disciples Acknowledge Christ as Lord
Again John makes a point but spreads his details about this point throughout his epistle. Basically John describes 3 ways that True Disciples continually confess Christ as Lord:
A - They persevere against false teachers - 2:22-24
Paul and Jude both warn against apostasy in their epistles. John was dealing with teachers who tried to make Jesus into a ghost or a man but denied His unique God/Man character.
True disciples always teach that Jesus, the divine Son of God came to earth a man… They neither support nor tolerate any teaching or teacher that strays from this truth.
B - True Disciples Persevere in the Doctrine of the Apostles - 4:1-6
Some have tried to isolate the teachings of Jesus as the only authoritative writings in the Bible. Some have set aside Paul's writings because they don't agree with his teachings on the family or church organizations.
John says that you can spot the true disciple because he holds to all the writings of the Apostles as the authority of Christ. This mirrors the very first disciples who were baptized on Pentecost Sunday and Luke writes that they were "..continually devoting themselves to the Apostles' teaching --- Acts 2:42
Note that more than one apostle was teaching and the disciples were receiving the teaching from all of them not just one or two.
C - True Disciples Persevere in their personal faith in Jesus Christ 5:1-12
People sometimes transform their faith into some kind of allegiance to a cause, a building, a person, a religious tradition. True disciples begin and end their religious experience by faith in the Son of God.
I never want to be anything more, less or different than a Christian. John says that everything God has done, He has done in order to point to Christ as His Son and our Saviour.
To say that you believe in Jesus Christ as God's Son and your personal Saviour, and not back away from that in any circumstance --- this says everything anyone needs to know about your religion and your personal faith as a disciple, a true one. And so the final criterion mentioned by John in his letter as far as True Discipleship is considered are the following:
- True Disciples walk in the Light.
- True Disciples Obey Jesus.
- True Disciples Acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
Summary / Invitation
Now John doesn't exactly put it this way but there's a fourth criterion that marks the True Disciple and that is … The True Disciples have something special to look forward to. John says that if we: walk in the light, obey Jesus, and persevere in faith, we are true disciples and as such we can look forward to the following:
A - Eternal life
Not just the concept but the actual knowledge and experience of this spiritual state beginning now and perfected when Jesus comes. - 5:13
B - Having our Prayers Heard - 5:14-15
This gives us great confidence and joy knowing that our communication with God is open and productive. Is there anything more we can ask for or hope to have? To be eternally safe from the second death and to have access to the throne of God through prayer --- is there anything more powerful or precious? It's no wonder, then, that there is so much friction between groups vying for the honor of being the True Disciples. Of course that's not for man to judge, nor can it be decided simply by putting up a sign by the side of the road.
True Discipleship will be decided the way Jesus said it would be --- according to His Word.
He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings has one who judges him, the Word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.
Let's measure ourselves not against our religious neighbors or even ourselves, let's measure ourselves against God's word and let others do the same --- and then let God decide who were the true ones and who were not. In the meantime let's ask ourselves the essential question posed by this lesson:
Am I a True Disciple?
I want you to ask yourself that question this week as you get up in the morning and as you go about your business and as you deal with people. Ask yourself that question as you allot the moments of your life to various activities. Keep the question in mind as you choose your entertainment, your friends, your speech, your priorities.
And then when you lay your heads down to sleep at night, review your day and ask yourself if you're lived it as a true disciple.
- Did you walk in the light?
- Did you strive to obey?
- Did you persevere in the faith?
And when you answer these questions and the answers drive you back to your knees before the cross of Christ --- then, maybe then, the light of true discipleship will dawn in your hearts and the journey with the Lord will begin. If you are ready to take the first step of that journey in the waters of baptism or step back into the light by acknowledging your unfaithfulness and sin, come now.