Discipleship According to

the Gospels

Discipleship According to the Gospels

David A. DeSilva

“What must I do to be saved?” Taking the New Testament scriptures as a whole, we find an array of answers to this question. I believe it is a mistake to privilege any of the available answers as the answer. Many seem to esteem answers that do not place great demands upon them. For example: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). Although Paul himself would disagree, Paul becomes the authority for the view that inviting Jesus to be one’s personal Lord and Savior is the only moment of importance where one’s eternal destiny is concerned. 


We gather a different picture from the Gospels. Here we find Jesus himself putting a great deal more emphasis on obedience than mere confession, on following than mere assenting – in other words, on discipleship and what it means to respond to Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.” 


In the first instance, discipleship involves rebuilding our lives, both individually and collectively, on the foundation of doing what Jesus says to do. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (6:46). Jesus equates putting his words into practice with building one’s house on a solid foundation, such that it will survive the storms and floods that are sure to come. Failing to put his words into practice is likened to building on sand, such that the whole house is liable to be washed away. Whatever we might make of the storms and floods in the parable, one thing is clear: Jesus expects his followers to obey what he says and assures them that doing so will mean the difference between safety and disaster (Luke 6:47-49). This emphasis on doing as Jesus instructs is also prominent in John’s Gospel: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (14:15); “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them…. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (14:23-24). It’s not enough for Jesus to confess with one’s lips that he is Lord; one must also live under his lordship. Faith that matters, that leads to security from the coming storms and floods, trusts Jesus to know better than we do when it comes to how we are to live together – and, thus, puts Jesus’ instructions into practice. 


I occasionally encounter the claim that the Sermon on the Mount, intensifying the requirements of the Law as they do, were meant to drive people further into despairing of ever keeping the Law and, thus, drive them to rely on Christ’s merits alone. This is simply wrong. Jesus plainly expects the opposite: that those who claim him as “Lord” (and, thus, hope for a place in his kingdom) will do what he says (Luke 6:46) or will do “the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21), which context clearly shows in Matthew as well to be hearing Jesus’ words and putting them into practice (Matt 7:24-27). 


Spend time each day with the words of Jesus – the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) and “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6) are great places to spend the first few weeks. Pray to discern each day what needs to happen or change in your heart and then practice to align yourself obediently with what the Lord tells us to do. This is how the “seed” that is the word (Mark 4:14) comes to bear fruit in a hundredfold measure: that which is heard and accepted (Mark 4:20) is also lived – or else it has not been “accepted” in any real sense. Those points at which we resist doing what Jesus says are particularly important. At such points we discover where our socialization into the beliefs, practices, and values of “this age that is passing away” is particularly strong and, thus, where faith especially has to be exercised to be that “faith working through love” that has value in God’s sight (Gal 5:6). 


Discipleship also involves walking as Jesus walked (see 1 John 2:6), which – unsurprisingly, given the consistency of Jesus’ speech and practice – overlaps significantly with doing what Jesus says. It means discovering how to devote ourselves more fully to serving one another as Christ served us (John 13:1-17; Matt. 20:26-28). Jesus chose to wash his disciples’ feet to impress upon all of us that no act or serving is beneath us, for Jesus allowed none to be beneath him. It means devoting ourselves to the discipline of setting our interests aside (“denying” ourselves) so as to put ourselves out for the interests of others (“taking up one’s cross,” even as Jesus bore the cross, setting his life aside to benefit us).  


It means loving one another as Jesus loved us – and laid down his life for us (John 13:34-35; 15:12-13). No act of serving is too costly for us, for Jesus embraced the greatest cost to love us and bid us do the same for one another. The elder gives us a good interpretation of how we “lay down our lives for one another.” He describes how we can use whatever resources we have in our power (“this world’s goods” in all of their variety, including privilege, position, and power alongside disposable wealth) to relieve the crying needs and the languishing pain of our sisters and brothers. There is a great deal of room here both for the work of seeking justice (i.e., the fresh ordering of life that represents the kingdom of God, Matt 6:33) and for works of mercy (Matt 25:31-46).


It means seeking unity – being “one” – among ourselves as each of us seeks to yield to Jesus as he dwells in us even as Jesus yielded to God as God dwelt in him (John 17:20-23). Certainly, it is important to know where the “edges” of Christian faith and practice are and to draw clear lines to mark off those boundaries. But many of us admittedly give too much attention to drawing lines and too little to submitting ourselves fully to Jesus as he dwells in us and among us. And if all of us who confess Jesus as “Lord” are willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads, doing all that he has commanded, walking as he walked, which of us can possibly fail to arrive where he is leading – and that in unity with all others who are like-souled?  

Ultimately, such discipleship is a process of formation. It is the process by which the person who sets out on the journey of following Jesus dies so that the person Jesus is calling into being can come fully to life (Matt 16:24-26). It is not accidental that following Jesus in the Gospels requires leaving a lot of things behind – nets and boats, a customs desk, important family obligations, accumulated wealth. It involved a lot of deconstruction of lives that had been hitherto built like houses upon sand. It is the journey towards becoming “a people” together “that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt 22:43), a people characterized by overflowing love for God and for our neighbors, which is where doing what Jesus says and walking as Jesus walked always take us (Matt 22:37-40).

About the Author,
David A. DeSilva


Dr. David A. deSilva, PhD is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of over twenty-five books, including Day of Atonement: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (Kregel, 2015), The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Oxford, 2012), Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of Revelation(Westminster John Knox, 2009), An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (InterVaristy, 2004), Introducing the Apocrypha (Baker Academic, 2002), Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (InterVarsity, 2000), and Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on the Letter “to the Hebrews” (Eerdmans, 2000). He was involved in several major Bible translation projects, serving as the Apocrypha Editor for the Common English Bible and working on the revision of the Apocrypha for the English Standard Version. He has also created several video resources and Mobile Ed courses for Faithlife, including “The Apocrypha: Witness Between the Testaments” (BI 291), “The Cultural World of the New Testament” (NT 201), and “Interpreting the Epistle to the Hebrews” (NT TBA).

Dr. deSilva is a brilliant professor who leads his students into challenging and rewarding topics, not just for the sake of learning but also for the sake of transformation. One of his many contributions to the Kingdom is his collection of published works. In particular, he is most proud of An Introduction to the New Testament, which has nurtured thousands of Christian workers in English, Arabic, Chinese, and Korean contexts even beyond the walls of Ashland Theological Seminary.

A landmark in Dr. deSilva’s spiritual life was the Gospel of Matthew, which he read in its entirety as a young boy. God used that reading to bring him into an encounter with Jesus. Dr. deSilva also cites the liturgy and hymnody of the Episcopal Church as very formative in his walk with Christ.

Dr. deSilva has a gift for music, having been an organist and choir director in the church setting since his undergraduate years. He’s even had some anthems and organ arrangements published. His favorite types of music are Renaissance and Baroque.

In addition to his musical interests, Dr. deSilva enjoys pulse-pounding movies, Indian food, and traveling to Sri Lanka and around the Mediterranean with his wife Donna Jean.

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