There are two main categories of Jesus’ disciples:
- those from the 1st century who physically followed Jesus during his earthly ministry; and
- all other Christians.
Within the first category, we might distinguish between the 12 disciples specifically called by Jesus to be leaders of other disciples (Mark 3:13). However there is very little in Mark’s gospel to suggest any further distinctions.
All would-be disciples, whether physical followers or not, must meet 2 requirements, according to Mark’s gospel: give up their old lives; and follow Jesus (8:34). (1)
Jesus’ teaching on discipleship used broad inclusive language (See uses of ‘whoever’ e.g. 8:34f.; 9:35, 37, 41, 42). (2) The early church in Acts considered all those who confessed Jesus as the Messiah to be a disciple (Acts 11:26), so we can consider the words disciple and Christian (‘follower of Jesus’) as synonymous.
Some further observations on discipleship from Mark’s gospel:
Discipleship is cross-based. The best explanation for the apparent ‘messianic secret’ in Mark’s gospel is that Jesus wants his followers to know him for who he really is, not just a miracle worker, healer or teacher. DeSilva links Jesus’ 3 messianic predictions of his death in Mark’s gospel with Jesus teaching on discipleship (8:31-38, 9:31-50, 10:32-45). That is, Jesus’ death and what it means to be a disciple are intrinsically linked. (3) It’s only when we know Jesus as the suffering Saviour Messiah, who died and rose again, that we can be a true disciple.
Discipleship requires self renunciation. (4) This is the heart of the message of 8:34-36. This is not necessarily about giving up material possessions or suffering physically for Christ, but its giving up the right to direct our own lives now, so that we might share in the glory of the Father when Jesus returns. As the example of the rich young man in Mark 10 further illustrates, wealth in this life (whether material or not) can not credit you anything towards entering the kingdom of God. Discipleship is nothing about your own achievements now, but all about the master whom you are following. Mark 8:35 cannot make the argument any stronger – your achievements are worth so little that we are to lose our life entirely to Jesus and the gospel now, in order to gain life in Christ.
Discipleship is modeling Jesus. As Jesus modeled ultimate servanthood (9:35, 10:42-45), disciples of Jesus are to strive to show the same attitude of servanthood, humility, and love for others.
The gospel of Jesus is the best investment you can make. Although Jesus was speaking directly to his disciples in Mark 10:29-31, it appears as though Jesus was teaching a general principle that you can never fail to reap an abundant return, even in this life now, for investing with your life now in the gospel of Jesus. I am reminded of Jesus’ words in John 10:10 here – Jesus comes that we may have life to the full; and consider also Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he says we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. This is the abundant return from the gospel now, and in the life to come.
Discipleship is a process. Disciples receive the kingdom of God with faith like a child (10:15,52), even if sometimes mixed with doubts (9:24). Sometimes disciples can believe the truth (Peter in Mark 8:29-20) but fail to live it out (8:33). Mark 9:42-50 suggests that disciples are involved in an ongoing process of putting sin to death in their life. The consequences of sin is hell, and there is therefore no cost too great to avoid sin now, which is all part of the discipling process.
Wilkins summary is excellent:
“The disciple who is privileged to be a member of Jesus’ kingdom is a servant, which means thinking God’s thoughts (Mk 8:31–33), pursuing the life of the cross (Mk 8:34–38) through the message (Mk 9:1–8) and example of Jesus (Mk 9:9–32), and thus rejecting status (Mk 9:33–37), exclusivism (Mk 9:38–10:16) and the treasures of this world (Mk 10:17–31).” (1)
(1) M. J. Wilkins, “Disciples and Discipleship,” ed. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; IVP, 2013), 204-209.
(2) David Wenham and Steve Walton, Exploring the New Testament: The Gospels and Acts (vol. 1, Second Edition.; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 215.
(3) David Arthur deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 202-204.
(4) Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (2nd Edition.; Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), 323–324.