Just to be clear from the beginning, this post is not about how disciples of Plato are not Christians. Nor is it about the fact that disciples of Islam or Buddha or Hinduism are not Christians. I intend discussing the proposition that being a disciple (the term means ‘learner’ or ‘student’) of Jesus Christ does not necessarily mean a person is a Christian.
Why should I bother with such a topic? Mainly because the Bible bothers with the topic.
In the first few verses of Matthew 18, we have the disciples of Jesus asking him which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Our Lord Jesus replies by setting a child before them and saying. ‘l tell you the truth, unless you be converted (changed), and become like children, you will in no way enter the kingdom of heaven.’
In this statement, Jesus is not simply telling Christians to be humble if they wish to be great, nor is he saying that humility itself is greatness.
In fact, this is a ‘Nicodemus’ moment. These disciples were told that they were being presumptuous. They were wondering which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven in the mistaken belief that they were already within the kingdom. Jesus words indicate that things were not as the disciples imagined.
He said. ‘unless you be converted, and became like children, you will in no way enter the kingdom of heaven’. They thought they were in, but Jesus — the one who would know — said, ‘No, you are not yet in the kingdom of heaven. You must be changed.’ This looks all the world like the statement that Jesus made to Nicodemus. ‘Unless you are born again, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.’
Jesus is no respecter of persons. The same condition applies to all. These students of Jesus were not yet Christians, or, if you prefer, they were not yet saved people. They did not see themselves as weak and dependent. As yet, they were not born again.
There is, I think, sufficient corroborating evidence from Matthew and the other gospels to show that while the twelve were disciples, they had not yet received the gift of saving faith.
In Matthew 16:17, for example, Peter declares his faith that Jesus is the Christ. the Son of God. This conviction he received from the father. True enough, but notice what happens next. Jesus tells his disciples that he must be betrayed to the religious leaders, be condemned, die, and then rise from the dead.
This message, which is the Gospel, Peter utterly rejects at this time. This is no small matter. Jesus declares that Peter’s thinking is aligned with that of Satan. The evil one had suggested that Jesus might gain the kingdom without dying on the cross, and Peter thought that he could be in the kingdom as Jesus’ associate without the cross. Despite his faith in Jesus as the ‘Christ’, Peter at this stage rejected the idea that he needed saving. Jesus, however, knew how necessary it was. It is more than likely that Peter thought of Jesus as just a divine teacher/king who would establish an eternal kingdom for nice people like Peter.
You might notice that every time Jesus mentioned his going to Jerusalem to die, the disciples avoided those opportunities to ask what he meant, and often they changed the subject to ‘which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 17:22-23 & 18:1-4, Matthew 20:17-21, Luke 22:14-24). Even up to the point of Jesus’ death (and, it seems, even until they saw him alive again after he had suffered), the disciples exhibit clear signs that they were yet to receive the gift of regeneration. Except for Judas, the eleven did eventually come to trust Jesus Christ as he intended, but this required the powerful work of the Holy Spirit before it could happen.
We need to be sure, if we are disciples of Christ, that our only hope is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection on our behalf. We have been warned not to be presumptuous. We must see our great need of Christ’s saving work, and of our equally great need to be born again, if we are to have a part in the Kingdom of Heaven.