Chosen: Living as a disciple in a strange land
Christian discipleship occurs in relationships. It begins with responding to Jesus’ call to connect with and abide in Him. When we commune with Him regularly and participate with other believers in worshiping Him, we begin to be transformed.
What does it mean to live as disciples of Christ in a secular and strange environment? How shall we live in a world in which most of our classmates and friends have not chosen God? What will our lives look like as chosen ones?
In John 14, the disciples learn that Jesus will be leaving them and returning to His Father in heaven. In those final hours with His followers, Jesus seeks to comfort them. He promises that He will come back to take them home; He promises the Holy Spirit will comfort, counsel, and teach them; and He promises that they will have His peace. But He also challenges them. Beginning in Chapter 15, He challenges them with the image of a vine: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser … I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:1, 5).1
Observe how Jesus provides a heavenly link to the concept of discipleship. The Father is the vinedresser. The Son is the vine. The disciples are the branches on the vine. Jesus reminds His followers then and now that they are the branches of the true vine, not because of any worldly factor but because of their link with Jesus. It is He who provides them life; it is their link to Him, which will cause them to bear the fruits of discipleship. Our connection with the church is not what provides us life or makes us bear fruit. Although the body of Christ is crucial to our growth as disciples, and our coming together regularly to support and encourage each other is essential, it is our connection with Christ that sustains our life and role as disciples.
It is in this context that we approach His words: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16, NIV).
Quantity versus quality
When one thinks of a vine and branches, one realizes that the branches are an outgrowth of the vine. The branches are totally dependent on the vine for life. The vine initiates the growth of the branches; the branches merely hang on to the vine for dear life!
It is easy to think that because we are creatures of free will we are the only ones who are making choices in our relationship with God. Yes, like the branches, we are choosing to hang on to the true vine for life. But the vine chose us long before we chose it. Why? To bear fruit. The vine depends on us to bring forth the fruit that will last. Our connection with Christ should empower us to love each other so deeply that we will lay down our lives for each other. “The closer we come to Christ, the nearer we shall be to one another. God is glorified as His people unite in harmonious action.”2
When the term “bearing fruit” is used, more often than not it is used in the context of evangelism. “Pastor Melana really does bear fruit. He baptized 30 souls in his last evangelistic series.” Or, “Sister Maria is a tremendous worker for the Lord. She gave 20 Bible studies last month.” Yes, reproducing disciples numerically is an important aspect of what it means to bear fruit that will last. However, qualitative fruit is just as important as quantitative fruit. Becoming transformed into the image of Christ is the desired outcome of Christian life. And discipleship is a lifelong process of transformation and ever-deepening maturity through the work of the Holy Spirit that aims for the likeness of Christ to be reproduced in the life of the disciple. Do we think that it honors God to bring people into His body only to neglect their growth?
Be a disciple, and disciple others
From botany, we learn that four nutrients are necessary for the growth of a plant: nitrogen, lime, phosphoric acid, and potash. The key to using these nutrients is to know their proper balance. Plants that receive too much nitrogen have a lot of foliage (leaf) growth, but are not strong. But if they don’t receive enough nitrogen, they turn yellow. When your plant gets too much lime, it makes the soil too alkaline. When your plant doesn’t get enough lime, it makes the soil too acidic.
Likewise, strong disciples are made not by their receiving only one nutrient. It takes a diversity of nutrients to make a child of God flourish. We shall speak of four “nutrients”3 essential for Christian growth, for producing strong, fruitful disciples of Jesus.
Connecting. Christian discipleship occurs in relationships. It begins with responding to Jesus’ call to connect with and abide in Him. When we commune with Him regularly, participate with other believers in worshiping Him, and pay attention to what He is doing in the world and in us, we begin to be transformed. Through this transforming connection with Him, we come to know ourselves as Jesus created us to be, appreciate our infinite value to Him, and trust Him enough to surrender our hearts and wills to Him. As His Spirit guides us in the development of our identity in Christ, we are then able to connect with those around us in more healing and redeeming ways, in more fruitful ways.
Indeed, because of this Christ-connection, we become radically new. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Don’t allow the enemy to steal your new identity. Your life depends on it. Even when you don’t feel worthy to be chosen by God, cling to the fact that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Understanding. When Roy and I married, I knew him enough to know that I loved him and wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. Now, after 30 years of marriage, my understanding of who he is and my love for him have grown and deepened.
Our relationship with Jesus is similar. When we start our journey as disciples of Jesus, we know just enough about Him to know that we love Him and want to follow Him for the rest of our lives. But there’s so much more to discover about Him – who He is at His core! Satan, however, wants to distort our understanding of who Jesus is. Satan will warp our understanding primarily through two means. First, he will encourage us to believe that “Jesus is all I need,” without going deeper to discover the true character of the Jesus we serve. Second, Satan will deceive us by taking what we learn about Jesus from His Word and making us believe that we are unworthy to ever warrant receiving those promises.
One way in which God’s people can understand His character more deeply is through our beliefs or doctrines. Of course, some Christians use their beliefs to whip people into believing what they believe. However, doctrines are – or should be – at the core of our attempt to understand His character from His Word. Thus, when our understanding of His character deepens, we view the world, our relationships, and even our purpose for living through His eyes. We learn to depend on Him to provide everything we need for our redemption and restoration into His image.
Serving. As we develop an identity that is complete in Christ and seek to understand more of His character through His word, we will desire to share our journey with others.
A person does not have to become a pastor in order to share his/her journey with others and to serve them in Christ’s name. When we remember that being a disciple is not only what we do but who we are, we will realize that we can carry out our calling to ministry through whatever occupation to which the Lord has led us. When I pastored at a local church, I told my church members who worked outside of church employment, “You have an opportunity that I do not have. You have the opportunity to reach people in your work world who otherwise will not step foot in a church. The world needs praying doctors, faithful businesspersons, and spirit-filled artists who realize their calling and who walk with godly courage.”
Whether it is supporting the ministries of your local church with your time, talents, and finances; whether it is serving your local community by recognizing and responding with compassion to the suffering and injustices that take place there; whether it is investing yourself in mentoring other followers of Christ; or whether it is sharing the story of your relationship with Jesus with your family, friends, or coworkers: when you to choose to serve them, you are fulfilling your calling to serve.
Living in community. Do I have to go to church to be saved? The answer is no. The Bible contains no commandment that says, “Thou shalt go to church in order to be saved.” However, we do have several indications from God’s Word that show the importance of living and worshiping in community. Listen to this: “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
Scripture often speaks of “one anothering” in the Christian life.4 Living in community gives us the opportunity to walk alongside one another in order to:
- Support, nurture, and strengthen one another in love
- Deepen our relationship with God and one another
- Study God’s Word together and live in obedience to its teaching
- Hold ourselves accountable to one another for growing toward wholeness in Christ
- Discern where God is working in the world and in our lives
- Support one another in the use of our spiritual gifts to fulfill God’s mission
However, we are not called to reside solely within the confines of Christian community in order to be fruitful disciples. Our Christian life must be manifested in the very midst of the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s challenge is worth noting: “The value of the secular calling for the Christian is that it provides an opportunity of living the Christian life with the support of God’s grace, and of engaging more vigorously in the assault on the world and everything that it stands for.”5
The image of Christ
My mother suffered a massive stroke last year. It rendered her unable to walk or talk. Our communication became laughter, hugs, and kisses. I tried to instill in her the belief that through her sweet spirit and loving nature, the Lord could use her to touch those around her. However, caring for her and watching her suffer through this ordeal was difficult. During this time, she slid off her chair and broke her ankle. At first, we didn’t know her ankle was broken because she couldn’t speak to us, and her cognitive deficits from the stroke made her unable to point to the spot. The physicians assumed her hip was broken. When the X-ray did not reveal a hip fracture, they sent her back to her assisted living home, but she was still in excruciating pain. She looked at me with a look of “Please do something.” But I was helpless. It was after giving her two rounds of heavy analgesic that didn’t even touch her pain that I lost it.
“Don’t You think she’s had enough?” I said to the Lord through angry tears. “She can’t walk. She can’t talk. Now she’s in unbearable pain. What do You want from her?”
Soon after this ordeal, her assisted living home hosted a Christmas party. One of the resident’s daughters came up to me afterward and said, “Bonita, your mom is so sweet. I just want you to know that when I look into your mother’s face, I see Jesus.”
I realized at this point that even though Mom couldn’t walk or talk, give Bible studies, or pass out literature, God was using her very being to touch the lives of those around her.
There will be times when you wonder if you’re making a difference in anyone’s life. But I believe that as we choose Christ daily and seek to be fruitful disciples – connecting, understanding, serving, and living in community – that we will be changed. We will look more like Jesus. And the world will be drawn to Him through us, and embrace their chosenness as well.
Bonita Joyner Shields is editor and assistant director for discipleship in the Sabbath School/Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, Adventist Home (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Pub. Assn., 1952), 179.
- The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and Andrews University have partnered in identifying and developing a spiritual growth model to aid in growing fruitful disciples. To access this model, go to www.growingfruitfuldisciples.com.
- For a few examples, see John 13:34, 35; Romans 12:10; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 5:21.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1959), 239.