The Goal of Discipleship: Knowledge or Obedience?

By David Servant

It is interesting to ponder the fact that, until relatively recently in Christian history, most believers have not owned a Bible. The ramifications of that fact are profound.

Of course, the early Christians did have limited access to what we call the Old Testament, as it was contained in a collection of scrolls in Jewish synagogues. So, the early Jewish Christians who had attended synagogue all their lives had heard portions of the Old Testament read many times.

The early Gentile Christians, however, had no such advantage, and they would have had to rely on Jewish-background believers in order to learn what God had been saying for the past thousand years. The same would have been true regarding the teachings and life of Christ. Everything the early believers knew about those things was passed on to them orally, first-hand by the apostles, and second- and third-hand after them. They didn’t have the four Gospels.

Scholars speculate when those four Gospels were written, and the most conservative ones believe the Gospel of Matthew, for example, was written ten to twelve years after Jesus’ ascension, in about A.D. 43, and that all the rest of the Gospels were penned sometime prior to A.D. 70. Copies of the Gospels, however, once they were penned, would have been relatively rare, as there were no copy machines or printing presses. All copies were transcribed by hand.

Naturally, Christians who came across copies of any of the Gospels would have been very motivated to invest the time in hand-copying those precious documents—if they had access to ink, as well as velum or papyrus on which to write those copies. There was no such thing as paper.

Church-planting apostles Peter, James, John, Paul and Jude eventually wrote some letters to the churches, of which we thankfully have translated copies today. But the earliest Christians lived and died without ever seeing any of those letters. And when those letters first started being copied and circulated (Col. 4:16), it was unlikely that any Christian alive during the early part of that era ever saw them all. In fact, the earliest compilation of New Testament books that we know of occurred in about A.D. 170, and that compilation did not include Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John.

All of this is to say that, until the invention of the printing press in 1440, easy access to books of the Bible did not exist, and even after the invention of the printing press, the average Christian would not have been able to afford a copy. We don’t realize how blessed we are to have such easy access to the books of the Bible. We actually own copies that we keep in our homes! That is a rare phenomenon in Christian history.

And that brings me to my primary point. Historically, Christians over the past 2,000 years have not practiced daily Bible reading, something that is universally emphasized as an important discipline for modern Christians. I am certainly not going to argue against believers regularly reading the Word of God. But I want to point out the fact that, for true followers of Christ during at least the first 1,800 years of Christianity, the emphasis was not the acquisition of more knowledge about the Bible, but on obeying Jesus. And that is a profound fact with important implications.

In most modern Christian circles, spiritual growth is equated with spiritual knowledge. The more you know, the more “spiritual” you are. We admire (and sometimes idolize) those who “know a lot.” Yet we never question if spiritual knowledge is actually the true measure of spirituality.

So many “Bible scholars,” for example, have never led a single other person to Christ, and they aren’t even trying, and they have no concern, for example, for those whom Jesus defined as “the least of these,” which marks them as “goats” according to Jesus. And their personal lives are not characterized by godly devotion and holiness in other significant ways. But they can deliver sermons that can hold most people’s attention for 30 minutes.

We imagine that “making disciples” is done by means of preaching sermons to them, week after week after week, because the more our “disciples” know, the greater is their spiritual maturity.

Worse, the goal of many Christian groups seems to be for everyone to agree on their peculiarities of doctrine that differentiate themselves from other groups “who don’t hold to the truth like we do.” The Bible is dissected, and we argue over various interpretations. We divide on nonessential doctrines. In so doing, Jesus’ prayer that His followers be one is desecrated, and His commandment that we love one another is mocked. Meanwhile, the Bible we all claim to believe warns, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Cor. 8:1).

I submit that the actual measure of spiritual maturity is obedience to Jesus’ commandments. True disciples are not those who know a lot, but those who obey Jesus regardless of the cost. And that is reason some “baby Christians” are actually more spiritually mature than some alleged “mature Christians.” The former know a little but obey a lot, while the latter know a lot but obey a little.

The best illustration I’ve ever heard of what I am trying to convey is the illustration of the three-legged stool. All the legs of such a stool need to be of equal length if it is to be stable and stand upright. So, imagine the first leg representing our knowledge of God’s will. Then image the second leg representing our obedience to all we know. Many believers will have to admit that their second leg is much shorter than their first leg. Which is to say, we really don’t need more knowledge; rather, we need more obedience to what we already know. If you can’t say “Amen,” say “Oh me!”

Now imagine the third leg representing our sharing with others what we know and obey. That leg, too, should be just as long as the others. Jesus said, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Paul wrote to Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

I dare say that “third leg” is completely off the radar of most Christians, as they relegate it to their pastor. (and he likely relegates it to himself as well) But every Christian, no matter how young in the Lord they are, can and should share with others everything they know and obey concerning God’s will. We are all called to make disciples, which are obedient followers of Christ.

You can’t make disciples, however, unless you are a disciple yourself. It is impossible, because the primary means of making disciples is not by giving sermons or lectures, but by modeling obedience to Christ. That is something that is tragically missing in most churches, as the chief “disciple-maker,” the pastor, is someone whom the average Christian sees from a distance as he delivers one more sermon to add to the hundreds of sermons he has already delivered, and someone who maybe shakes their hand as they walk out the door. That is not how Jesus made disciples!

So, keep reading your Bible every day. But read it to heed it! And then share what you know and obey!