I’ll admit as a pastor I’ve used the terms synonymously. But more and more I think to do so can be dangerous.
The Gospel writers did not see believers and disciples as synonymous. For them, believers and disciples represented two different groups of people. To be sure there was some overlap. A disciple of Jesus was a believer in Jesus, but a believer in Jesus was not necessarily a disciple of Jesus.
In the Gospels, what Jesus required of a disciple was different than what he required of a believer. And because of that, the rewards Jesus promised to a disciple were very different than the rewards he promised to a mere believer.
Jesus called many people to believe in him. And the Gospel of John, frequently tells us that “many people believed in Jesus”. But it seems that out of the many who believed, many did not follow. For example after Jesus ministered to the Samaritan Woman, her village welcomed Jesus, believed in Jesus, yet did not follow Jesus. John 4:40-42 says,
So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
But then in verse 43 Jesus leaves for Galilee and no one from Samaria followers him. In fact throughout the Gospels there is no indication that anyone from Samaria joined the crowds of disciples that followed Jesus. It seems the people physically stayed where they lived and went back to their normal life. The only difference was that now they believed that Jesus was the Savior of the world.
How will these believers in Jesus be rewarded?
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John1:12)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned… (John 3:16-18)
All believers are rewarded with being adopted into the family of God, and receiving eternal life. These of course are great and wonderful acts of God’s grace. But they are not the only rewards offered by God. There are greater rewards for a disciple.
When Jesus called people to be his disciple he raised the stakes from believing in him, to dying with him.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24)
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27)
To be a disciple of Jesus was serious business. It obviously required more than praying the sinners prayer, and asking Jesus into your heart. Jesus called people to not only believe in him, but submit to him, and physically follow him.
To be a disciple required death. Death to calling your own shots. Death to the idols of your heart. Death to other people’s opinions and expectations of you. Death to finding your security in the things of the world. Death to your version of success. Death to finding significance outside of Jesus. Death to letting your life be about anything else other than following Jesus.
The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote:
If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (Romans 14:8)
So, how will disciples of Jesus be rewarded?
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Matthew 16:25)
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you,…everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:29-30)
The first reward for a disciple of Jesus is life. The Greek word used in verse Matthew 16:25 is “psychē” . It can also be translated “soul”. Jesus is saying the disciples reward is deep soul-life.
But more than life for your soul, Jesus also promises rewards in heaven. To give up something for Jesus is like making a deposit, or investment in future rewards in heaven. And Jesus pays enormous returns (100 times) to those invest in him.
Believers will go to heaven. But to the degree that they did not invest in Jesus on earth is to the degree that they will miss out on rewards from Jesus in heaven. To be sure heaven is joyful place for everyone who is there. But that doesn’t mean that everyone’s experience is the same. Jesus is clear, what you do on earth affects your experience of heaven. And for disciples of Jesus, the experience is better.
Maybe, this is one reason why Jesus wants disciples, and not just believers.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”(Matthew 28:18-20)