If you asked the average Christian what the features of a disciple of Christ are, you would most likely hear answers like these (hat tip to Gene Edwards for this list):
- Go to church.
- Read and study the Bible
- Hang out with other Christians
- Depending on what stripe, tell others about Jesus, work for peace and justice, speak in tongues, etc.
In the New Testament, “church” is never a meeting and much less a building. “Church” in the Bible is never a meeting or a place, but it is the people of God. You can’t go to church in the New Testament meaning because you are the church. Likewise, for more than 300 years the early church had no Bible. And when the canon of scripture was finally settled, more than 9 out of 10 people could not read. Even today, literacy rates are not sufficient for believers to count on reading the Bible as the foundation of personal growth. Prayer is good, but the way we often pray today has little resemblance to how they early Christians knew to pray. We make prayer an event of recitations, while in the Bible it was a relational exchange between the believer and God. Hanging out with other Christians, often referred to as “fellowship,” is rarely the same today as what the New Testament refers to as fellowship. Our “coffee and small talk” approach would seem strangely (if not ridiculously) shallow to the early Christians.
There is clear teaching in the Bible on the critical and defining features of a true disciple. These are what Jesus taught as vital practices of discipleship.
- Love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- Know your God deeply and intimately.
- Union with your God that is expressed in conversational communion with Him daily.
- Living by true faith, which is not knowing facts about our God but truly trusting Him and obeying Him.
- Absolute surrender to Him in every area of life every day.
My personal journey toward these five critical practices began when I was a child. My parents helped me to enter into faith in God when I was young, but I confess I did not understand the call of my God on my life at that time. As I was going into high school, I began to become alive in my faith, and my God became the most important factor in my life.
Yet a deep love and intimacy with my God did not begin to take shape in me until college when a professor challenged me to pursue intimacy with my God in this way. I was quite surprised to find that knowing our God intimately is a major theme in the Old and New Testaments and a core feature of a New Covenant faith.
This New Covenant, according to Jeremiah the prophet, would replace religiosity and ritual with a life of intimacy with our God. Jeremiah 31:31-34 “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”
This truth reoriented my faith journey. I began exploring my faith as an adventure in going deeper into my God and knowing Him intimately. I also began to hear Him speaking to me. At first it was only on occasions, and I admit my hearing Him was a pretty unreliable. Over time, my God and I began to have more conversations. He began to reveal truth and open my heart to the Scriptures in ways I had never imagined.
I experienced what Isaiah the prophet wrote about in Isaiah 30:18-21 “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
In my spirit, which is the part of us that connects to the Spirit of God, I heard the voice of my God speaking like a voice behind me. Jesus told us that He would send to us the Holy Spirit to have these very kinds of conversations with us. John 16:12-15 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
This truth, and the journey on which it took me, has changed everything.