When writing to the Galatian Christians who had deviated from the gospel of grace he had laboured so hard to root them in, the apostle Paul – concluding his letter to them – declares, From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. (Galatians 6:17) He sets an ultimatum.
We do not know for certain what these marks were. We can, however, be sure that he was not talking about body tattoos relating to Jesus. We can also be sure (since he says that the marks are on his body) that these would be physical marks. Working our way back, the most probable scenario is that he was talking about the permanent scars and marks he bore on his body from the beatings and hardships he endured as a soldier of the cross. Here’s his list of what he went through in the physical for the sake of Christ and His gospel:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)
An astonishing and truly astounding list of hardships he gladly endured for the sake of achieving his God-ordained purpose in life. All these left clear, physical marks on the body of this giant of an apostle as testimony to his commitment to Christ and His calling upon his life. He calls them, “the marks of Jesus”. For him, they represent his undying association and unswerving commitment to his Lord and Master.
Hence he boldly and without hesitation declares that no one should even think of troubling him anymore.
The overwhelming majority of us will never get anywhere near the marks of Jesus the apostle had on his body. But what, if anything, marks us out as Christ’s and those who follow Him?
Or is our life as disciples of The Lord Jesus Christ a clandestine affair, one that is neither evident to others nor points people to Christ?
What are the marks of a true disciple that single us out (with pinpoint accuracy) and firmly associate us with Christ unmistakably distinguishing us as His?
What are the undeniable marks of a true disciple of Jesus Christ?
Let’s get a few things out of the way when considering what these may be. First, we are not here talking about the initiation rites or particular events and rituals but marks that are permanently bore and consistently visible in the life of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. These are visible, tangible and enduring marks and not abstract, invisible or fleeting ones.
Second, it is definitely not loyalty of church membership or regular attendance thereof though both are required and essential elements of the life of a disciple. These are but external manifestations and disciplines which of themselves do not proof or mark one as a disciple of The Lord Jesus Christ.
Subsequently, neither does the one-off event of water baptism nor other external observations of religious rites and rituals marks one as a true disciple of Jesus Christ though again, these have their legitimate place in the lives of a disciple of The Lord Jesus Christ.
How then do you discern true disciples?
For starters it is good to know that these marks of a true disciple have already been established for us by The Lord Jesus Christ Himself. We don’t need to search hard or formulate our own theorems as what these are or could be. They have already been determined by the Master Himself so this is something we can go definitive on.
But before embarking on the marks of a true disciple, a quick reminder of the role and importance of discipleship in the eternal plan and purpose of God will go a long way in helping us appreciate its significance in our Christian lives today.
In short, discipleship is Christ’s sole and greatest commission to the church (Matthew 28:19–20). It follows then that the Church’s entire mission is none other than discipleship, making disciples of all peoples, for this is what Christ has tasked His Church with until His return at the end of the age. This is what Christ and God are earnestly looking for today, now, in the age of the Church. As individuals, it is to discipleship we are called to. To date, Christ calls us not only to believe in Him but to follow Him as the act of our verbally professed faith in Him. Our primary calling is to follow the Master, to be His disciples, to follow and learn from Him – all other callings we receive from God are secondary to the call of discipleship and always subject to it.
Moving on then, the first mark of a true disciple as defined by the Master is one who lives and orders his/her life entirely in accordance with His teachings. In other words, one who observes everything that Jesus commanded and taught.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you…” Matthew 28:19 – 20
Note: it is the observance of everything that Jesus taught and not just a knowledge of it that counts as the enduring mark of discipleship. Observance, that is keeping and holding on to, is essential to marking a true disciple of The Lord Jesus Christ.
This same mark is directly and clearly communicated (again by Christ Himself in John 8:31) to those who came to faith in Him as a clear marker, a defining characteristic of a true disciple – So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide (“continue” HSCB) in my word, you are truly my disciples,
The word “truly” implies that there is a possibility of faking it. Therefore, this turns out to be pivotal in the life of a disciple, the most critical mark, the evidence that lends credibility to the profession of belonging to and following Christ.
It follows then, based on the above two verses and as a direct result of the words of Christ Himself, a disciple is recognised and distinguished as one who continues diligently in the teaching/words of Jesus Christ. True discipleship is contingent upon one walking or continuing to consistently walk in the teachings of Christ. By implication, all other so called “discipleship” which is not founded and grounded in continuing in the teachings of Christ is fake. This is essential and foundational regarding true discipleship.
It is this abiding, dwelling, living (call it whatever you want) in Christ and His words that will produce the fruits that will prove the authenticity of one’s discipleship of Christ. Cue John 15:8. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be My disciples. It is the fruit that we produce as we abide in Christ and His words that is taken as proof of our discipleship – nothing else.
The other mark of a disciple as defined by Christ is one who is committed to loving the brethren – just like Christ did – one who is wholly given and committed to genuine and active fellowship of the brethren.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
This is the corporate part, the part that clearly and unfailingly marks us out, distinguishes us as a community of Jesus followers, a people modelled after their Master living in sacrificial love for one another. This represents our corporate witness to our discipleship of Christ. The first mark of a disciple is individual, one that is primarily lived out in one’s daily life on an individual level while the second is corporate, one that is made evident in our community life, in the fellowship of the brethren.
Don’t neglect the getting together of brothers and sisters – it is the platform for growing and nurturing the love by which we are truly be marked out as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24 – 25
Both the individual and corporate marks of a disciple are equally important if we are to have an impact in the world as disciples of The Lord Jesus Christ, if we are to be the salt of the earth as The Lord intended us to be. Impact on the world is virtually nil without the life of a true disciple as clearly attested by Christ. “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Luke 14:34-35.
The third and final mark we see in the scriptures that characterises those belonging to Jesus, as his followers and disciples, is an unusual boldness engendered by the Holy Spirit. Let us look at an incident that marked the first century disciples out as Jesus’ followers, as those belonging to and definitely associated with Him. This can be found in Acts 4:13 – Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognised that they had been with Jesus. Their association with Jesus was identified by the unusual boldness that fuelled the apostles’ witnessing to Christ as a direct result of the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2. This boldness was carried through into the next chapters of the Acts of the Apostles marking these people out as disciples of the One who Himself was bold and forthright.
So we see then, that not only do we need the Holy Spirit to boldly and fearlessly witness to Christ but what He brings to our lives characterises and distinguishes us as Christ’s, as those who belong to Him. Consequently, we should not relent or give up in our pursuit of being filled with the Spirit of Christ. Not only is the baptism in the Holy Spirit our spiritual birth right as Christ’s followers but the Spirit’s power and enabling in our lives is essential and mandatory for victorious Christian living (discipleship) and effective Christian testimony.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit is the birth right of every disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is an essential requirement for the disciple’s life of witnessing to the resurrection power of Jesus he/she has experienced, to the power of the resurrected Christ whom he/she has experienced for themselves. A personal experience of the Holy Spirit is yours for the taking – stretch out in faith to make it your own, to realise it.
Do not be laid back or causal in your quest to be baptised in the Spirit. God wants you to up your faith in Him, to trust in His faithfulness – His person, His character, His promises and integrity to fulfil them. And how does faith come? So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Rom 10:17
There is no other way our faith is cultivated and grown but through engaging with God directly and personally through His word. So, don’t be casual or random but disciplined and serious about your engagement with Christ through His word – it is the hallmark of your being His disciple.