Whose Disciples Are We?

In John, chapter 9, we hear the story of when Jesus healed a man born blind, and how he was questioned by the Pharisees who would not believe. In the midst of this confrontation, the issue of discipleship is raised.

The Pharisees said to the man: “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.” (John 9:26-28)

One of the things often overlooked in the discussion of discipleship and Jesus’ great commission to “make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:19) is the question of whose disciples we are talking about. There are many teachers and many guides that people look to, learn from, and follow. For example, Scripture itself speaks not only of the disciples of Moses, but also the disciples of the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, in contrast to the disciples of Jesus (e.g. Mark 2:18).

Simply put, to refer to someone as a “disciple” does not necessarily mean that person is a believer or follower of Christ. The Pharisees in the verses above made it clear that they understood themselves to be disciples. They were, in fact, dedicated students who sought to follow the teachings of the Law and the tradition of the scribes. But they had no interest in becoming followers of Jesus.

It may seem obvious to say, but the distinction is important. When Jesus spoke of our calling to “disciple” others, he meant that we engage in helping others become his disciples.  We are not simply called to encourage others to become generically religious, nor are we called to lay out a regimen of spiritual disciplines for others to follow – as if there were no difference in being a disciple of Moses or a disciple of Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus is more than simply striving to live by a higher moral standard in our religious life; it has to do with the trust of our heart in what Christ has done for us. As Scripture says:

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:16-17)

The Pharisees recognized that there was a difference between them and this man who had been healed of his blindness. They said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.” And in this observation, they were right. The man who had formerly been blind was not set apart by his obedience to the law, by his moralistic lifestyle, nor by his proficiency in spiritual disciplines. Rather, this man was set apart in his knowledge and trust in what Jesus had done for him. He had been the recipient of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

In the same way, this story gives us a glimpse into how our Christian discipleship is different from discipleship in general. As followers of Christ, we look not to ourselves and our lives as the measure of our faith – we look to our Master and Lord, Jesus Christ, as the one who determines our identity. And just as the man in the story still had much to learn about Jesus, our lives of discipleship are shaped by the continuing revelation of what Christ has done – and is doing – each day of our lives.

– Rev. Steven King