What does Jesus demand of his followers for them to be recognised as true disciples? A brief look at the Sermon on the Mount helps us find out.
First, true disciples have their character defined in the Beatitudes. The list of features includes humility, sorrow for sin and its effects, gentleness, purity of heart, love of mercy, and a desire for peace. If we have these, we are true disciples.
Second, true disciples take seriously the matter of indwelling sin. In a series of references to the Ten Commandments, Jesus takes his listeners through several situations in which he stresses the necessity of inner conformity to the law of God.
He said it was not enough to refrain from actual murder; instead, hateful thoughts and spiteful words kill the person’s own soul. He said it was not enough to refrain from physical immorality; instead, lustful thoughts are as dangerous as physical sin.
He said that the command to love one’s neighbour extended far beyond acquaintances. Instead, the concept of neighbour includes loving one’s enemies and doing them good. He even said that to engage in acts of revenge (‘an eye for an eye’) is a sign that a person is on the road to a collapse.
But the point he was making is that all these wrong attitudes and actions arise from failure to deal with indwelling sin. He stated that dealing with such sins is difficult and painful, like cutting off a limb or removing an eye. Yet it is better to have limited pain than wholesale collapse.
Third, a true disciple engages in regular spiritual activities. Jesus mentions three in particular: giving to the poor, prayer and self-denial (fasting).
The first is a practical evidence of concern for those in need and such a basic evidence of true Christianity that it is stressed throughout the Bible. A person that does not have compassion on the needy is not a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Of course, it is hard to imagine why a person who never gives to the physically needy should expect anything from God for his spiritual needs.
Prayer is performed in obedience to Jesus Christ and it is clear that Jesus regarded prayer as the straightforward activity of a disciple, a child of God drawing near to the heavenly Father and an activity of delight and expectation.
He taught his disciples to speak to the Father about the beauty of his perfections, the progress of his kingdom and the provision of their own needs.
I am not sure if fasting alone is recommended here, or whether this is an example of doing without activities that give pleasure, in order to pursue more important goals. Fasting was not to be continuous, otherwise the person engaged in it would not be here for long.
I suspect Jesus may be using it as an example of assessing our priorities and testing our willingness to make personal sacrifices, in order to obtain for ourselves and others greater spiritual blessings.
Fasting without prayer is of no value in a spiritual sense. Similarly, sacrifices of time and possessions are of no value, unless accompanied by prayer and seeking for God.
Fourth, a true disciple will live primarily for heaven and secondarily for earth. Jesus highlights this distinction by referring to how his disciples react to possessions.
He doesn’t mean his followers shouldn’t have any, but he stresses that material things should not distract them from their priorities.
Instead, he points out that possessions, as with everything else in life, are under the providential control of God. The understanding of this great reality will enable his followers to have a proper attitude of trust in God.
Their priority in life should be living for heaven day by day. This attitude will give to each true disciple an eternal perspective on all the things of time.
This brief look at the Sermon on the Mount enables us to identify four basic principles of true discipleship. So how should we respond to these searching requirements of Jesus?
First, his words demand that we become realistic regarding the spiritual life. We are called to a life of spiritual discipleship. It is not enough to have an external list of practices that may satisfy onlookers; our souls are under the eye of the One who can penetrate the depths of our hearts.
Second, we must repent of our failings. The fact is, no disciple is perfect. We can see this for Jesus’ twelve apostles. A very important distinguishing mark between the true and false among them was the issue of repentance. Take Peter and Judas: Peter repented and continued as a disciple; Judas did not and his life ended in calamity.
Repentance should not be a reluctant activity in a true disciple. On the contrary, he should enter God’s presence to confess sin with an expectant heart — sorry for sinful failures, but anticipating divine forgiveness. It should be a habitual attitude.
Third, we must continually resolve to walk in the path of inner obedience. This should be our aim each day. And we can have this resolve, because we know that the Holy Spirit will continue to enable his people to move on in the life of holiness, desiring to be increasingly obedient to the Saviour’s words.
The author is editor of The Record, the magazine of the Free Church of Scotland