Marks of a True Disciple
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Once when I was working for the evangelical thought journal Christianity Today, I heard Carl F. H. Henry, then the editor, say that he wished Christians in our day could have an easily identifiable mark that would at once distinguish them as Christians. “Something like an armband,” he said. That was some time ago. Since then, the Jesus Movement gave us the sign of an upraised index finger, meaning “One Way.” I have noticed that now even evangelicals are often wearing crosses and other religious symbols. But for some reason, Henry’s remark has stuck with me through the years, and it has made me notice “signs” or writings about signs that I might not have noticed otherwise.
One important essay was entitled “The Mark of the Christian” by Francis Schaeffer. It appeared first as a small booklet and then as a final postscript in the volume The Church at the End of the 20th Century. That study was based on John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” According to Schaeffer, love is “the mark that Jesus gives to label a Christian not just in one era or in one locality but at all times and all places until Jesus returns.”
Another piece along the same lines is a chapter in the book The Love Life by Donald Grey Barnhouse. It is entitled “Art Not Thou Also One of His Disciples?” and is based on the text I have already mentioned, John 13:35, plus two others: John 8:31 and John 15:8. In this study I want to take these three texts and, using what has been written about them, explore the essential features of one who would be Christ’s true disciple.
There is a popular use of the word “Christian” by which many would claim to be Christians who are, nevertheless, not disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ at all. Barnhouse points out that the word “Christian” originally came about because those who believed in Christ at Antioch followed him so closely that those who observed them wanted to identify them by the name of their Master. The people of Antioch said, “These are followers of Christ. They are Christ-ones, Christians. They follow him. They are his.” Today, by contrast everyone calls himself a Christian. By some, America is called a Christian nation. Anything that has even the vague flavor of Western religion or culture about it gets the name. But few who call themselves Christians actually follow Jesus.
Obviously, there is a kind of Christianity that is like this, but it is not discipleship. True discipleship is far different. What is it? It is expressed well in 2 Corinthians 8:5, “They gave themselves first to the Lord and to us in keeping with God’s will.” Discipleship is giving oneself wholeheartedly to Jesus.
Continuing in Christ’s Word
The three texts in John’s Gospel I have just mentioned show the marks of a true disciple. The first of these is John 8:31. “To the Jews who believed him Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.’ ” The first mark of a disciple is continuation in the word that Christ has spoken.
Two things are necessary if we are truly to do this. First, we must hear that Word; this means that we must read it, study it, memorize it, and continually put ourselves in a place where it is faithfully taught. The trouble with the discipleship of many begins right here. The Word is taught, but they do not want to hear it. The Word is available, but they do not like what it says. So they hide from it. What are such Christians like? They are like the man Harry Ironside tells about in one of his writings. The man had come to church occasionally with his wife, but he was very irregular in his attendance. So Ironside asked the wife about it. “Doesn’t your husband like coming to church?” he asked.
“I think he does,” she said. “But he has difficulty with your sermons. He hears the teachings, but he doesn’t like them. So he stays home. He says that if he comes one Sunday, it takes him weeks to get over it.”
That is true for many. And that is one reason why people who used to be seen around your church are not seen there so often. They know what the Word of God says, but they do not want to heed it. So they refuse to listen, and eventually they reject even their Christian friends. It is interesting that in this same chapter of John there is a verse in which Christ speaks to his enemies, saying, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say” (v. 43). Here were unbelievers who, lacking the Holy Spirit, were unable even to hear Christ’s speech. No wonder they misunderstood him. But what are we to think of those who claim to possess the Holy Spirit, who should be able to understand Christ’s words, but who refuse to hear them?
The second thing that is necessary, after we have heard Christ’s word, is to continue in it. This means to continue to hold to it by faith, even though we may not understand it fully. The disciples were doing this. We remember as we read this chapter that Jesus had been preaching some startling truths to those who would listen to him, and as a result people were overflowing with questions. “How can a man be born again when he is old?” “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” “What does he mean, ‘You will look for me and not find me and where I go you cannot come?’ ” These were the questions that were raised by his teachings. But we notice that they were raised by the people at large and not by the disciples. The disciples followed him and, therefore, although they certainly did not know all the answers, they believed what they understood and continued in it faithfully.
Barnhouse, from whom I am borrowing much of this material, tells the story of an eight-year-old girl who was joining a church. One of the elders asked her, “Have you read the Bible?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Do you understand it?”
“Yes,” she said, “all of it!”
Well, that is very nice. For her age and mentality, she had understood what she had read. Moreover, it had spoken to her heart, and she had heeded it. This is what the disciples were doing. It is what each of us should do. We may not understand all that is in the Bible. Indeed, we do not. But we can understand what we know and follow in it. Barnhouse writes: “Obviously the disciples did not understand everything, but they believed what they knew and they continued in His doctrine. As soon as they learned more, they believed that also; for that’s the method in Christian life. We are not born again with the full content of doctrine neatly stored in categories in our brain cells, but we go on as babes. We walk as children, desiring the sincere milk of the Word that we may grow thereby.” Unquestioning faith is the first mark of a true disciple.
Love One Another
The second mark of a disciple is found in the verse to which we have come in our study of John 13, verse 35. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It is this verse that is the basis of Schaeffer’s study.
There is a unique quality in this verse that sets it off from the others we are considering. It is Christ’s reference to the world. In the first verse (John 8:31), Jesus says that continuing in his word will make those listening to his word be his disciples indeed. But there is no reference to how this will affect the world. In the verse to which we come next (John 15:8), Jesus says that a disciple is one who bears “much fruit.” But the content refers to the fact that the bearing of fruit will glorify God, not that it will affect humanity, although, of course, it does. It is only in this second verse (John 13:35), with its emphasis upon observable love, that the world is taken into serious consideration. Why is this so? It is so because of what Jesus says about love. Jesus says that it is the mark by which his disciples are to be known as Christians, not only to him or to one another, but to everyone.
Schaeffer says that this is frightening, and he is right. For it is as if “Jesus turns to the world and says, ‘I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: You may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.’ In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative that Jesus gave them.
“And we must not get angry. If people say, ‘You don’t love other Christians,’ we must go home, get down on our knees, and ask God whether or not they are right. And if they are, then they have a right to have said what they said.”
What kind of love must we show if the world is to look at it and conclude that it is explainable only by the fact that we are Christians? Obviously it must be a special kind of love. What are its characteristics? How does such a special love operate? Fortunately, the answer to these questions is given to us in 1 John, a book that, as suggested in the last study, was written in some measure as a commentary on the new commandment.
In one sense, nearly everything in 1 John deals with the new command, for even its other two great themes (righteousness and sound doctrine) relate to it. But to be concise, it is possible to find a rich and fully rewarding answer in just three verses, 3:16–18. These verses say, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” These verses teach that one aspect of Christian love is its action. Moreover, they show that such love is to be exercised at personal cost, if need be, and that it is to be shown to anyone who is needy.
One thing John says is that “we ought to lay down our lives” for one another. Obviously, it is not often the case, at least today, that Christians are called upon to lay down their lives in the literal sense. But just because this is so, we should not pass over the idea too quickly. True, we do not often have opportunities to literally die for someone else. But we do have opportunities to “die to self” or, as we could also say, to “sacrifice our own interests” continually.
The gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ has never been taken to anyone but that some Christian has sacrificed for it to happen. Even if it only means crossing the street to bear a simple witness, some Christian has thought about it, prayed about it, and then ventured to do it (sometimes with great fear and trembling), risking the loss of the friendship or even ridicule. Farther afield the sacrifices are greater. Parents sacrifice their children to allow them to go to distant lands where they may even die in God’s service. Individuals send money to support these children and to underwrite other works. Some give their time to Christian social service projects, all at some (and sometimes even great) personal sacrifice.
Another place for sacrifice is the home. Today’s culture glories in self-satisfaction, teaching that if one is not personally and fully satisfied, he or she therefore has a right to break off the marriage relationship. But this is not God’s teaching. God’s teaching is that we are to die to self in order that the other person might be fulfilled and that it is only as this begins to happen that we ourselves find satisfaction. Do you show observable Christian love in your home? Can unbelievers tell that you are a Christian by the way you treat your wife or your husband?
John’s words in verse 18 are a true conclusion. “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” It is when we love sacrificially and by deeds that we show ourselves truly to be Christ’s disciples.
The third mark of a true disciple is found in John 15:8. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Fruit-bearing is the third mark of being a disciple.
The context of John 15 gives the steps for successful fruit-bearing, and the first is to recognize our own inability to produce it. Three verses before this, in verse 5, Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Does it say, “Apart from me you cannot do the big things. Apart from me you cannot do much”? No, that is not it at all. It says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” So the first step toward successful fruit-bearing is to recognize our own nothingness and so start with Christ. Activity is no substitute.
Barnhouse tells a story in which he discusses this problem. A man came to him once, after he had given a portion of his life to Christian work, and said, “It’s all been fruitless.”
“How did it begin?” Barnhouse asked.
The man sadly told the following story. “I remember so well,” he said. “I was in my room studying, and as I was looking at the Bible, the Holy Spirit started to speak to me. He was putting His finger on things in my life that shouldn’t have been there. It made me restless and I closed the Bible, got up, and went out into the other room and picked up the telephone. I called another Christian and said, ‘You know, I am greatly moved at the need for such and such a thing; couldn’t we start a Christian work for them?’ Well, we got together and we started a Christian work, and we gave ourselves to that great activity—work, work, work—and nothing ever came of it.”
The reason why there was no fruit-bearing was that there was no true discipleship.
Then there is the second step for successful fruit-bearing, and this is to remain in Jesus. To recognize that we can do nothing is connected with remaining, of course; for when we know our need we are encouraged by that very knowledge to abide in Jesus. Nevertheless, the two are not the same. To recognize our nothingness is negative. To remain is a positive thing. It is to draw near when the Spirit begins to speak through the Word (as he did in Barnhouse’s story), and to change our way of living accordingly (as the man did not). “Remain in me, and I in you,” said Jesus. For “no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). To remain in Christ is to allow him to work through us for Christ’s glory.
Are You a Disciple?
John 13:35 is followed by three verses in which Jesus foretells his denial by Peter. When Jesus was arrested Peter was unwilling to go home without knowing the full outcome. So he followed afar off and eventually saw Jesus taken into the courtyard of the high priest. The soldiers undoubtedly shut the large door after them. But there was a smaller door, kept by a maid; and John, who knew the house and had access, went to this door and called Peter. As Peter passed through the entrance, the maid who kept the door asked, “Are you not one of this man’s disciples?”
Unfortunately, Peter forgot the protestations he had made earlier and, so, denied his Master. “I am not,” he said. Then, while warming himself by the fire that warmed Jesus’ enemies, he denied him twice more. The incident shows that even one of the inner band of the apostles may yet fail in discipleship.
Are we Jesus’ disciples? Are you? Am I?
No doubt most of us will answer gladly, “Yes, I am his disciple.” But as we think about it, let us think about discipleship according to the definition Jesus himself gave to it. Jesus defined a disciple as one who continues in his Word, loves the brethren, and bears much fruit. Do we do each of these? Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, then you are really my disciples.” He said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” He said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” God grant that we may do each of these things as we drop all lesser loyalties and draw ever closer to him.
The Preeminent Example of Christ’s Love
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (13:34–35)
The Lord’s charge to the eleven apostles in one sense was not new. The Old Testament prescribed love for God (Deut. 6:5) and people (Lev. 19:18), as Jesus Himself affirmed (Matt. 22:34–40). But it was a new commandment (cf. 1 John 2:7–8; 3:11; 2 John 5) in the sense that it presented a higher standard of love—one based on the example of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Believers face the daunting challenge of loving one another even as Jesus loved them (cf. 15:12–13, 17). Of course, to love like that is impossible apart from the transforming power of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34). It is only “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5; cf. Gal. 5:22) that believers can love as Jesus commanded.
Christ’s example of selfless, sacrificial love sets the supreme standard for believers to follow. D. A. Carson writes,
The new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice … The more we recognize the depth of our own sin, the more we recognize the love of the Saviour; the more we appreciate the love of the Saviour, the higher his standard appears; the higher his standard appears, the more we recognize in our selfishness, our innate self-centredness, the depth of our own sin. With a standard like this, no thoughtful believer can ever say, this side of the parousia, “I am perfectly keeping the basic stipulation of the new covenant.” (The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 484. Italics in original.)
In Ephesians 5:2 Paul exhorted, “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us.” Such love is “patient, … is kind and is not jealous; … does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4–7). If the church ever consistently loved like that, it would have a powerful impact on the world.
In his book The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer listed two practical ways Christians can manifest love for each other. They can do so first by being willing to apologize and seek forgiveness from those they have wronged. What causes the sharpest, most bitter disputes in the body of Christ are not doctrinal differences, but the unloving manner in which those differences are handled. Being willing to apologize to those whom we have offended is crucial to preserving the unity of the body of Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that reconciliation with other people is a prerequisite to worshiping God: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matt. 5:23–24).
A second practical way to demonstrate love is to grant forgiveness. In light of the eternal forgiveness that comes through the cross, Christians should be eager to forgive the temporal offenses committed against them (Matt. 18:21–35; cf. 6:12, 14–15). Because God’s love has transformed believers’ hearts, they are able to extend that love to others in forgiveness. “In this is love,” wrote John in his first epistle, “not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10–11). In Luke 17:3–4 Jesus commanded, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” In Ephesians 4:32 Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (cf. Col. 3:13).
The Lord’s command to love extends beyond the church to embrace all people. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that they would “increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people” (1 Thess. 3:12). He exhorted the Galatians to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10). The writer of Hebrews charged his readers, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).
The Lord’s statement, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples” reveals the effect of believers’ having love for one another: the world will know that we belong to Him. The church may be orthodox in its doctrine and vigorous in its proclamation of the truth, but that will not persuade unbelievers unless believers love each other. In fact, Jesus gave the world the right to judge whether or not someone is a Christian based on whether or not that person sincerely loves other Christians. Francis Schaeffer writes,
The church is to be a loving church in a dying culture.… In the midst of the world, in the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.
That’s pretty frightening. Jesus turns to the world and says, “I’ve something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.” In other words, if people come up to us and cast into our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them. (The Mark of the Christian [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1970], 12–13)
One’s love for other believers also assures that believer that his faith is genuine. As John wrote, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14; cf. 2:10; 4:12).
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1043–1048). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 89–91). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.