How Did Jesus Relate to His Followers?


The purpose of the Gospels is to tell the story of Jesus. Some calculate that Jesus spent 90 percent of his ministry time with his twelve chosen followers. That is a significant amount of time together! When I was a young teaching pastor studying the life of Jesus and looking at how he interacted with his followers, I found myself wondering, is there any significance difference between the different ways Jesus calls his followers?

So I began to research and found that Jesus asked some to “come and see,” others to “come and follow me,” a few to “come and be with me,” and finally “remain in me.” On the surface there seemed to be a few small differences, so I read to find out if anyone had considered what they might mean. I was gratified to learn that A. B. Bruce in his classic book, The Training of the Twelve, notes a progression of calls.[1] Upon further study, I found that Robert L. Thomas in The NIV Harmony of the Gospels also discusses that the disciples’ commitment was a progression.[2] It just so happens that Thomas was my New Testament professor when I attended Talbot School of Theology in the 1970s. My first book, Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker, was largely based on my research findings on this question.[3] In that book, I provide the structure for how Jesus trained his followers. In this section, I will summarize what I learned and have taught for the past four decades.

Sequential and Segmented

As I researched, it became clear to me that there were three distinct periods in Jesus’ ministry marked by differences in how he related to his followers. We can see these periods through careful study of the Gospels. And as we uncover the sequential development of Jesus’ relationship with his followers, a clear structure emerges on how to disciple people through different stages of their growth. While some leaders teach a segmented and sequential process of discipleship, I find that the majority have not taken the process seriously. If anything the last twenty years, deeper skepticism or bias against systematic approaches has resulted in teaching designed to meet people’s needs or interests. While such teaching “in the moment” is helpful—for instance when you have a flat tire or need to unplug a toilet—learning in a structured manner has greater advantages. Let’s be honest. Even those who advocate a “felt need” or “as needed” learning approach start their children in the first and not the fifth grade of school. The majority of formal learning is still done systematically. Though this method is not the only way to learn, it is still effective.

Both Styles

In fact, I advocate both styles of learning for spiritual growth. Both proactive and reactive approaches to growth have value. We grow when the unexpected happens, when we encounter suffering and conflict, and when life doesn’t go as planned. But for this kind of learning, we must rely upon the safety net. We also need to be proactive, establishing a plan and process that is fueled by intention. Because of the nature of life, Jesus taught his disciples using both approaches. He had a plan, though it was probably not written down and carried around in a notebook. He clearly understood the dynamics of his work and how to prepare men and women to take over his work. They needed to understand it well enough to teach others and to believe in him enough to die for the cause.

If you are a pastor or leader, I caution you not to be foolish. Don’t wait for the unexpected to provide your curriculum for making disciples. Instead, develop a plan that follows the lead of Jesus and intentionally train willing disciples to become the kind of people who will naturally do what Jesus did and react the way Jesus did. So how did Jesus do this?

Four Phases

Four phases mark Jesus’ discipleship ministry. I think of these as four key invitations.

  1. “Come and See”—An invitation to explore. This was the period when Jesus introduced a group of disciples to his nature and ministry.
  2. “Come and Follow Me”—An invitation to learn. In this period, the chosen disciples and other followers left their professions to travel with Jesus.
  3. “Come Be with Me”—An invitation to serve. During this period, Jesus kept his twelve called disciples with him and concentrated on training them so they could go out and preach.
  4. “Remain in Me”—An invitation to multiply.

Jesus introduces the new relationship he will have with his disciples and how they will relate to him as they take over the mission of making disciples. He wants them to know they will have a helper, the Holy Spirit. They will not be left alone, they will have special power to fulfill his instructions.

[1] A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve (New Canaan, CT: Keats, 1979), 11–18. second edition published in 1871.

[2] Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, The NIV Harmony of the Gospels, revised edition of the John A. Broadus and A. T. Robertson A Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christ (New York: Harper One, 1988).

[3] Bill Hull, Jesus Christ, Disciplemaker, twentieth anniversary revised edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004). Navpress, Colorado Springs, 1984.

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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Unsplash.