As followers of Jesus Christ, we are often called Christians. Jesus, however, never referred to those who followed Him as Christians; He called them disciples. The word disciple comes from the Greek word mathetes, which literally means “a learner.” A learner is not only a pupil but also an adherent to the teachings of Jesus. We prove to the world we’re followers of Jesus by what we say and do, by applying what He taught to everyday life.
In the Gospels, Jesus gives six marks that identify His followers as disciples. Let’s examine each one.
The first is applying Jesus’ words to everyday life. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31, 32). Disciples of Jesus put into practice what He taught. When we apply His words to life, we discover truth, and that truth sets us free from spiritual bondage.
In the parable of the wise man, Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). When the storms of life blew, the house stood firm.
Anyone can say he believes in Jesus and is a Christian. He can even call himself a disciple. But the real proof is in applying His teachings to life. Many know the Word of God, but the true disciple of Jesus Christ obeys it!
The second mark that identifies disciples of Jesus is love. In John 13:34, 35, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The word Jesus used for love is agapao — the same word that expresses God’s love for humanity and for His Son (John 3:16; 17:26). We’re to have this love for each other — a sacrificial and forgiving love, a love that extends to others despite their faults and failures. We must have agapao to be called disciples of Christ.
Another proof is our fruit — and how much we bear. Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8). It’s not just fruit that identifies us as His disciples but bearing much fruit. Though true disciples will do this, we don’t all bear the same amount of fruit.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus said only the good soil produced a crop (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). This soil is the responsive hearts of His followers, and some yield a hundred times what was sown, some sixty times, some thirty times. But they all produce much fruit! When the Holy Spirit lives within us, we produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23).
If we’re led by the Holy Spirit, all of these fruits will be in our lives in abundance. If we aren’t producing much spiritual fruit, we need to examine ourselves and discover why. The problem is not Christ or the Spirit living within us. The problem is whatever hinders us from being fertile soil. This third mark of discipleship is important because Christ desires His disciples to bear much fruit.
The fourth identifying mark of a disciple is making Jesus our number one priority. Is He more important than anyone or anything else in our lives? It’s not good enough for Jesus to be in the top ten of what we care most about. He’s not satisfied with second place.
Jesus helps us understand the intensity of this priority: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26, NKJV). Jesus was not telling us to actually have feelings of hate toward family members or ourselves. He was saying that our love and commitment to Him must be much greater in comparison to the most important things in our lives: father, mother, wife, children, siblings — even ourselves.
Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23, 24). We may claim to love Jesus, but the proof that we love Him more than anyone or anything else is our obedience to Him. If we aren’t willing to make Him our first love and priority, we cannot be His disciples.
Carrying the cross
In Luke 14:27 Jesus gave a fifth mark of a disciple: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (NASB).
To carry our own cross means doing our part to grow into the character of Jesus Christ. We cannot depend on others to grow us to spiritual maturity. It’s our responsibility to put the spiritual disciplines into daily practice: being in the Word, prayer, worship, and fellowship.
In carrying our cross as disciples of Christ, we die daily to self, and if need be, face physical death for the sake of Christ. Some people follow Christ from a distance, not bearing the responsibility of a disciple. Real disciples of Christ, however, carry their own cross daily and follow Jesus His way.
Counting the cost
The sixth mark is in Luke 14:28-32. Jesus said if a man is going to build a tower or a king is going to war, he must first count the cost to make sure he can finish what he’s started. Then Jesus made this profound statement: “ In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (v. 33).
It’s our responsibility to count the cost to see if we can completely surrender every area of our lives to Christ. We cannot fully belong to Him when we’re holding something back. Surrender is giving it all to Christ.
Do we have the marks of disciples? Are we applying Christ’s teachings, loving others, bearing much fruit? Do we love Jesus more than anyone or anything else? Are we carrying our own cross and following Him His way? Have we surrendered every area of our lives to Jesus?
If we can say “yes” to these six marks, we’re true disciples of Christ. We have earned the right to the name Christian with the disciples who came before us — those who were called Christians first (Acts 11:26)!
Michael Vlad recently retired and lives with his wife, Debbie, in the Missouri Ozarks. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, except where noted.