The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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