By Christopher VanDusen

In my last article, we studied what the Book of Acts says about the early church’s methods of discipleship. In this article, we’ll answer this question:

Why and how should Christians imitate the example of discipleship that the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament gives us?

There are three main things we need to do in order to appreciate and imitate the example of the New Testament church:

  1. Recognize that the apostles and their teaching are generally the standard for living
  2. Define the goal of discipleship
  3. Understand what we need to become more like Christ

The Apostles and Their Teaching are Generally the Standard for Christian Living

First, before we even decide to follow many of the examples in the New Testament for discipleship, we need to have good reason to do so. The reason for this is the Book of Acts and the other example passages often don’t explicitly command Christians to do anything, but rather describe what the apostles and the early church did by the power of God the Holy Spirit.

One of the clearest reasons for following the example of the early church is that the apostle Paul teaches that this was the standard for discipleship that he practiced and taught. In two of his letters, he calls this standard “the traditions”.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1-2, he tells the Corinthians,

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” (ESV)

Here, he first commands the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ. Secondly, he commends them because they maintain the “traditions” as he “delivered” them to them. Why does he call these things “traditions”? Because they were practiced by the early church, and were expected to be practiced by every church. This is the reason Paul commends, or praises, the Corinthians for following those traditions.

Paul’s second letter in which he refers to these traditions is 2 Thessalonians, where, in verse 15 of chapter 2, he commands the Thessalonians to

“. . . stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (ESV)

Now, Paul goes a step further from simply commending Christians for holding to the traditions he taught, and commands them to do so.

In verse 6 of chapter 3, he again teaches about this tradition by saying,

“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (ESV)

In this verse, Paul warns the Thessalonians that anyone who isn’t living “in accord with the tradition that [they] received” is to be shunned, since that person is living in sin. Why? Because “walking in idleness” isn’t in accordance with “the tradition”. Hence, we see here that the apostles’ tradition was the standard for living, and any failure to live up to that standard was seen as sin.

Leaving this explicit talk of apostolic tradition, Paul teaches something similar in Philippians 4:9, where he promises the Philippians,

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (ESV)

Here, Paul not only tells the Corinthians to practice what they “learned”, but what they had seen” by watching his way of life. And if they do this, he promises that God will be with them, or will help them and use them to glorify Christ.

The final passage we turn to in this matter of following apostolic example is 1 Corinthians 11:16, where Paul finishes his instruction about wives wearing head coverings during church meetings by warning,

“If anyone is inclined to be contentious [about his instruction], we have no such practice [of neglecting to wear head coverings], nor do the churches of God.” (ESV)

Why does Paul bring up the fact that “the churches of God” don’t practice allowing wives to go without head coverings? Because he’s using this fact as a reason that no one should be “contentious”, or opposed to, his instruction about it. As a side note, this instruction about head coverings only applied back then because the head covering was a sign that a woman wasn’t a prostitute, and was submitting to her husband, since prostitutes wore nothing on their heads in that culture. Since this, or something similar, isn’t usually an issue, women usually have no obligation to wear head coverings.

Laying that aside, we must notice that Paul here implies that what “the churches of God” practiced in that day was normative for all churches, and was expected to be practiced by all of them. Hence, we see that following the example of most of the churches then in existence was crucial to following Christ, as it is today.

The Goal of Discipleship

Now that we’ve seen that the apostles, their traditions, and their teaching, are the standard for discipleship, we now need to define what the goal of discipleship is. Before you set out to do something, you must have a goal in mind. In general, the goal of following Christ is to become more like Him by obeying Him, and to teach others to obey Him as well. However, the New Testament gives us very specific aspects of this goal, so we’ll take a look at some of them.

In 1 Timothy 1:5, Paul defines the church’s goal of making disciples in this way:

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (ESV)

The word “charge” here could also be translated “instruction” (NASB), and, in the context, refers to the instruction that Timothy was to give to some in the congregation he was pastoring. The first goal of this pastoral instruction, and of all Christian instruction, is love from “a pure heart”, a “good conscience”, and a “sincere faith”. This love, of course, is Christlike love of action and truth, as John defines it in 1 John 3.

In Colossians 1:28, Paul further defines the goal of discipleship by saying,

“Him [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (ESV)

In this verse, Paul defines disciple-making as “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom”, and defines its goal as to “present everyone mature in Christ”. That is, the goal of making disciples is to present them to Christ, their Master, as spiritually mature Christians.

In Philippians 3:8-14, Paul goes even further in defining the goal of his own personal discipleship by saying,

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (ESV)

What is “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”? Well, since Paul has just been talking about “becoming like” Christ, and being resurrected from the dead — when he will become perfectly like Christ — he must be talking about this perfection. Thus, Paul is saying that the goal of his life was to become as much like Christ as possible.

The last passage that provides one of the best descriptions of the goal of Christian discipleship is Ephesians 4:11-16, which says,

“And he [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (ESV)

In this passage, Paul first says that Christ gave the church the gifts of the speaking offices to equip the rest of the saints “for the work of ministry”, or service. This involves the work of discipleship, and leads to “building up the body of Christ”, or making the church more like Christ. But how do we know when we’ve reached that goal? We won’t reach it until “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God . . . to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. This may be achieved in this life at the level of the local church, since Paul says that the result will be that Christians will “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine . . .”

In summary, these passages teach that the ultimate goal of discipleship is to become as much like Christ as possible, as much as possible.

What We Need to Become More Like Christ

Now that we’ve seen the various goals, and the ultimate goal of following Christ and teaching others how to follow Him, the last thing we need to consider is what we need to do in order to achieve that goal. There are at least four main things we need to do in order to become more like Christ:

  1. Recognize Who We are In Christ
  2. Consider Ourselves Dead to Sin and Alive to God
  3. Fix Our Eyes on Jesus
  4. Devote Ourselves to Serving a Local Church

First, we need to recognize who we are in Christ. In the New Testament, spiritual growth is the product of the very nature of who Christians are. That is, because Christians are a certain kind of people, they are naturally inclined to become more like Christ.

In 1 John 3:9a, the apostle John says that

“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him . . .” (ESV)

What is this seed? It refers to the spiritual life that God gives every one of His children when they are born again. Now, what is one of the essential characteristics of a seed? That it is designed to grow and produce fruit of some kind. In the same way, all Christians are designed in such a way that they have everything inside of them they need to become more like Christ in some degree.

But what is it about the identity and nature of a Christian that promotes spiritual growth? Again, John tells us in 1 John 3:1-3:

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (ESV)

In this passage, John praises the fact that God the Father has made Christians His children. Then, he says that, although they are His children now, what they will be isn’t yet known, or hasn’t “appeared”. However, he goes on to say that they do know that they’ll be like Him who “appears” — Jesus — when He comes.

What does John mean when he says that Christians are God’s children? In the context, he’s saying that it means they are in some measure like what they will be when they become perfectly like Christ at His second coming. That is, like Jesus, God’s Son, they are God’s “sons”, and thus bear the family resemblance. Yet, they’ll perfectly bear the family resemblance when Jesus comes.

And what is the response of the Christian’s hope in their perfection at the second coming?

“And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

This means that the Christian, knowing that he is a child of God, and knowing that he will become perfectly like Christ some day, purifies, or cleanses, himself for those very reasons. Hence, we see here that knowing who one is as a Christian — a child of God — inevitably results in moral transformation.

However, there’s an even longer list of things that the Christian is called in the New Testament. And all of them ought to motivate him to seek to become more like Christ. Here’s a few:

  1. set apart for God’s use or holy
  2. righteous or justified
  3. a temple of God, or a dwelling place of God

All of these things are realities, and yet in this life, they are imperfectly manifested in the Christian’s life. A Christian is set apart for God, but not all of his actions are set apart. God has judicially declared him to be perfectly innocent in His sight, and yet he constantly sins. He manifests the presence of God, and yet he still also manifests the presence of sin. Therefore, the Christian should seek to be more set apart, more righteous, and more spiritual. In other words, knowing what one is in Christ should give the Christian the desire to be more like that.

The second thing that the Christian must do to become more like Christ is to consider himself dead to sin, and alive to God. This is the command Paul gives in Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (ESV)

This passage teaches the point I made in the previous step, but it’s so crucial that it ought to be singled out. There are a number of things here that Paul says are realities about the Christian:

  1. The Christian has been baptized, or literally “immersed”, into Christ. This means that all that is true spiritually of Christ in His humanness, is true of a person’s spiritual state and condition if he is “in Christ”.
  2. Therefore, since Christ died in the place of the sinful self of those in Him (the “old self”), their sinful selves, or “old” selves, died with Him.
  3. Also, since Christ died to the power of sin when He left its realm when He died, so all in Him died to the power of sin as well.
  4. Finally, since Christ rose from the dead in a new, perfect, body, and was restored to that fellowship He had with God that was legally broken when God punished Him for our sins, all who are in Him also live in fellowship with God, or “live to God”.

Because all these things are true of the Christian, Paul gives this command:

“. . . you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

First, he says they must consider these things to be true. That is, they are to believe that these are true of them, and to live as if they are true. And what is true of them?

First, that they are “dead to sin”. This means that they are “no longer . . . enslaved to sin”. In other words, sin no longer controls them, and they now can choose not to sin.

Second, Paul commands Christians to consider themselves to be “alive to God”. This means that the Christian now lives with God as His friend, and God Himself lives inside of him, and works through him. Thus, there is no barrier that is between God and him — he now has intimate fellowship and communion with God. But this and the first thing are only true “in Christ Jesus”, or because the Christian shares in all the spiritual blessings that Christ has as a Man.

From this command, we can conclude that the Christian life is not a life that is dominated by sin, but rather, that is dominated by God. Sin has no rightful claim on a Christian, and the Christian, rather than being enslaved by sin, now has power over sin, and can avoid it, and kill it. Why? Because he is alive to God, and in Christ Jesus. Since he’s alive to God, God Himself lives inside of him, and since he’s in Christ Jesus, all that he needs to live for God’s glory is available to him.

The third thing that needs to be done in order to become more like Christ is to fix one’s eyes on Jesus. In Hebrews 12:1-2a, the Holy Spirit commands Christians to do this in this way:

“. . . let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus . . .” (ESV)

First, the author commands Christians to “lay aside” or “throw off” every obstacle or distraction, along with sin. This means that anything that is hindering one from following Christ must be abandoned.

Second, this passage commands Christians to “run with endurance”. That is, the Christian is to resolve to race to become more like Christ, and to endure anything that seeks to slow him down.

Finally, the way this must be done is by “looking to Jesus”. That is, the Christian must have his focus and attention on Jesus Himself. How does this work itself out in everyday life?

First, the Christian must recognize the reason for his very existence, and for the existence of everything, is the pleasure and glorification of Jesus. In Colossians 1:16-18, Paul teaches this:

“. . . by him [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (ESV)

Here, Paul says that “all things were created . . . for him”. That is, the universe is like a gift from God the Father to the Son, which they Both created for Jesus, the Son. Second, he says that Christ is “the firstborn from the dead”, or the first Man to be given a perfect, glorified, body, so that “in everything he might be preeminent”. In other words, Christ is the most important Person in the universe.

Thus, it’s reasonable to see why Christians must be “looking to Jesus”. He’s the reason for the universe, and He’s the Person above all persons that must be loved, worshiped, and known — to the glory of God the Father.

But how do Christians look to Jesus? Put simply, this is done by thinking about Him, talking to Him, studying Him, and trusting Him.

And how does this relate to becoming more like Him? Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:18a:

“. . . we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another . . .” (ESV)

Here, Paul says that the result of “looking to Jesus” and “beholding the glory of [Jesus]” is “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”. What does this mean? It means that, as a Christian thinks about and studies the glory, or character, of Jesus, he will become more like Jesus.

But how is one to behold the glory of Jesus exactly? Well, the first place to look is His Word, which is all about Him. Every single part of the Bible is about the glory of Jesus, and if understood properly, will explain who He is, and what He does. Second, the glory of Jesus is seen in the church’s community life, as they love one another as Jesus loved them. Third, Christ’s glory is seen in individual Christians, since they are followers of Jesus, and are transformed by His Spirit to be like Him.

The fourth, and final, thing that the Christian ought to do to become more like Christ is to devote himself to a local church family as a part of everyday life. As we saw already, Ephesians 4:11-16 clearly teaches this:

“And he [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (ESV)

There is simply no way that these things can be accomplished unless Christians regularly meet together to “equip the saints”, “for the work of ministry”, and to “speak the truth in love”. Besides this passage, Hebrews 10:24-25 explicitly commands Christians to not neglect to “meet together”:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (ESV)

First, before even prohibiting the neglect of meeting together, the author commands Christians to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”. That is, Christians must think about how to best motivate one another to love more, and to do good works.

And how are they to do this? By “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near”. What is this “Day”? It’s the Day of the Lord, or the day when Christ comes to judge His enemies, and to bring the completion of salvation to His people. In short, it’s the second coming. Therefore, not only are Christians to encourage one another when they meet together, but they are to do this “all the more” as they see the world continuing to get worse, and eagerly long for the day that Christ comes.


So, if you are trusting in the God-man Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and resurrection, as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of your sins, how does all this apply to you?

  1. Recognize that the apostles, their teaching, and the way of living they taught are the standard for our living. We aren’t only to obey the commands in the New Testament that apply to us, but also to imitate the general practice of the New Testament church. This does have its limits, as I pointed out with head coverings, but in general, not only the commands of the New Testament are our rule, but also New Testament practice — that is, “the traditions” that the apostle Paul taught and practiced.
  2. Resolve to be as much like Christ as possible, and to help others to become like Him as well. Like Paul, “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”.
  3. Remember that, in Christ, you are truly a child of God, set apart, and righteous.
  4. Remember that you are dead to sin, and alive to God.
  5. Obsess yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, since He’s the reason for the everything, and He ought to be everything to you.
  6. Devote yourself to a local church family as part of your spiritual family.

Here are some more things that you ought to do every day in your efforts to become more like Christ:

  1. Talk to God constantly.
  2. Read and think about God’s Word every day.
  3. Talk to a brother or sister in Christ on a regular basis, if not every day, and encourage them to obey Christ more.
  4. Share the gospel with unbelievers.

If you have no desire to do these things, then you are almost certainly not a Christian. Please make sure you know this gospel and are obeying it:

God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to willingly let Himself be executed on a cross, where He suffered God’s punishment for our failures to love, worship and obey Him, to raise Him from the dead, and to bring Him into heaven as the King of the universe. He’s now commanding everyone to change their minds and trust in Him, His death, and resurrection as the only grounds of His forgiveness and reconciliation, because He’s sending Him soon to judge everyone perfectly according to everything we’ve done, and to punish sinners by casting them into hell for eternity. Please make sure you’ve changed your mind about Christ, God, yourself, and your sins, and that you’re only trusting in Christ as your Lord and Savior the forgiveness of your sins. If you’re doing that, then you’ll be a different person, and if you are, then Christ commands all of His disciples to be baptized by one of His people as a public profession of faith.

All Scripture quotations are taken from these versions:

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation