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Understanding The Meaning of the Term “Disciple”

IA. The Term “Disciple” and the Concept of “Discipleship”

1B. Basic Meaning of μαθητής

The Greek term μαθητής (mathētēs) refers generally to any “student,” “pupil,” “apprentice,” or “adherent,” as opposed to a “teacher.” In the ancient world, however, it is most often associated, with people who were devoted followers of a great religious leader or teacher of philosophy.

2B. In the Old Testament1

1C. The Term

The term μαθητής does not occur in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (i.e., the Septuagint [LXX]).2 This does not mean, however, that other terms are not used or that the concept and practice is not there. Indeed, it seems that it is.

2C. The Concept and Practice

Several traditions within the national life of Israel make it reasonable to assume that the concept and practice of personal discipleship existed.

1D. Isaiah 8:16 and 50:4

“Tie up the scroll as legal evidence, seal the official record of God’s instructions and give it to my followers” (בְּלִמֻּדָי). The Hebrew term for followers is fromלמד which means “to learn” or “instruct” and may indicate that Isaiah had built up “a circle” of disciples whom he personally instructed and who could promulgate his teachings among many in the nation. As Watts says, it seems that Isaiah wanted to deposit “his treasure of warnings and teachings with his disciples.”3 That is, while he may not have had a formal school, as we see in the case of Elisha (1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 2:3-15; 4:1-38), he, nonetheless, gathered around himself certain men and passed his teachings on to them.

In Isaiah 50:4 the writer says that God wakes him every morning and gives him attentiveness so that he can listen and learn. In this way he is like a disciple (כַּלִּמּוּדִים). Therefore, involved in the concept of being a disciple is a willing, listening, and obedient heart.

2D. Other Texts and Israelite Traditions

There are other institutions and traditions in Israel that seem to involve some level of personal discipleship. This could be expected in the school of the prophets (1 Samuel 19:20-24;4 1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 2:3-15; 4:1-38) and is further evidenced in the entire wisdom tradition running throughout the Jewish way of life (Prov 1-9). There is, however, no explicit instruction given on how to personally disciple another, except perhaps in the home (cf. Deut 6).

3B. In Greek Culture

The Greeks used the term μαθητής to refer to a “learner,” or on a more committed level, an “adherent.” The Sophists also used the term to refer to an “institutional pupil.” At the time of Jesus μαθητής was used in Hellenism to refer simply to a “learner,” but apparently more often to an “adherent” of some wise teacher (Dio Chrysostom, Regno 1.38.6). Regarding the nature of the adherence involved, Wilkins observes:

The type of adherence was determined by the master, ranging from being the follower of a great thinker and master of the past like Socrates, to being the pupil of a philosopher like Pythagoras, to being the devotee of a religious master like Epicurus.5

4B. In Jewish Culture of the First Century

Just as there were “disciples” in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, so there were people called disciples in Judaism as well. Such people were committed to a recognized leader or movement. This involved Jewish adherents to Philosophical schools or to religious and political sects. The Pharisees apparently had their own disciples and they too claimed to be disciples of Moses (John 9:28-296). John the Baptist also had disciples who lived with him and followed him, practiced his ascetic lifestyle, and promulgated (to some extent) his teachings (Mark 2:18; Luke 11:1; John 3:25; Acts 19:1-7).

In general, the education of boys in first century Judaism centered in the home around Torah learning. The Torah was taught primarily by the Father. But during the time of Jesus there is good evidence to suggest that primary schools (beth Sepher) had been developed to mitigate against the inroads of Hellenism.7 But after a boy was thirteen years of age there was no more formal education as such. If he wanted further training in preparation for being a judge, teacher, scribe, or head of a synagogue, he might continue his study of the Torah in a small group or seek to study as a disciple under a certain scholar.8 The apostle Paul was an example of a Jewish boy who had left home (i.e., Tarsus) to study the Law under Gamaliel, a famous Rabbi in Jerusalem (Acts 5:34; 22:3).

5B. Summary

There is evidence that personal discipleship was carried on among the Greeks and the Jews. Though the term “disciple” is used in different ways in the literature of the period, there are examples of discipleship referring to people committed to following a great leader, emulating his life and passing on his teachings. In these cases, discipleship meant much more than just the transfer of information. Again, it referred to imitating the teacher’s life, inculcating his values, and reproducing his teachings. For the Jewish boy over thirteen this meant going to study with a recognized Torah scholar, imitating his life and faith, and concentrating on mastering the Mosaic Law as well as the traditional interpretations of it.

IIA. Jesus’ Call to Discipleship: It’s Threefold Nature

1B. Discipleship as a Call to Personal Commitment to Jesus

1C. The Call: To Be With Him and To Know Him (Mark 3:14)

Early in his earthly ministry Jesus called certain men to be with him and to follow him; he summoned twelve disciples to his side. Though we cannot literally walk with him today, through his Spirit, we nonetheless have been summoned by Him as well. We have been summoned to his side in order that we might be with him, that we might really come to know him, and that we might follow him along the path of discipleship. But the heart of the call of Christ is to be with him and to know him intimately.

1D. Mark 3:14

He appointed twelve (whom he named apostles), so that they might be with him and that he could [then] send them to preach.

2D. 1 Corinthians 1:9

God who has called us into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord is faithful.

3D. Philippians 3:10

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 3:11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

2C. The Goal: To Enjoy Him and Become Like Him (Luke 6:40)

Jesus has summoned us to his side, but not simply to put us to work. His summoning—and make no mistake about it, it is a summoning—is first a call to know him (cf. Matt 4:19), to have intimate fellowship with him (1 Cor 1:9) and to enjoy Him. This is primary and necessary. If the disciples were to have lost interest in him as a person and friend, they would never have continued to walk with him. We are no different. It is in the context of deepening intimacy that he commands us to be like him. In short, it is primarily through fellowship with the Master that we begin to look, feel, and act like the Master (cf. 2 Cor 3:18).

1D. 1 Corinthians 1:9

God who has called you into fellowship with Christ Jesus our Lord is faithful.

2. Philippians 3:10-11

10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

3. Luke 6:40

A disciple is not greater than his teacher, but everyone when fully trained (κατηρτισμένος) will be like his teacher.

2D. John 13:14-17

13:14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 13:15 For I have given you an example (ὑπόδειγμα): you should do just as I have done for you. 13:16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master (κύριος), nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 13:17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

4D. 1 Corinthians 11:1

Be imitators (μιμηταί) of me, just as I also am of Christ.

2B. Discipleship as a Call to Follow Jesus

Discipleship is a call to be with, know and enjoy the Master. In this sense, the call to Biblical discipleship presupposes salvation, i.e., that a person has believed in Christ as Lord and Savior and continues to believe in Him. But discipleship is also a summons to follow Jesus and this is, at times, no easy matter. He demands exclusive, complete, and unflinching obedience to Himself. This is where his summons to discipleship is so radically different from Plato who stressed the freedom of the student from the teacher or even the Jewish religious leaders who focused more on the Torah and steered their disciples away from themselves. Jesus, on the other hand, pointed people to himself9 (and still does) and calls them to radical commitment to him. Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to Christlikeness which includes at least three related facts: (1) the demand; (2) the added promise; and (3) the grace.

1C. The Demand

Jesus’ call to discipleship is an all-or-nothing summons, reaching into every area of our lives. It involves giving him preeminence over the closest of our human relationships and over the desires we have for our lives. In short, it involves becoming his servant in the world and giving your life to that end. Paradoxically we give up that which we cannot keep to gain that which we cannot lose. If we don’t, we lose all in the end (cf. Matt 16:25).

The cross was an instrument of death and well known to the Jews. The suffering was intolerable. But Jesus says we are to take it up and follow him. This will, in the nature of the case, involve self-denial. The one who picked up the cross-beam of his cross was headed down a one-way street, never to return.

1D. Luke 9:23-24

9:23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. 9:24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

2D. Luke 14:25-35

14:25 Now large crowds were accompanying Jesus, and turning to them he said, 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 14:27 Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 14:28 For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t sit down first and compute the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 14:29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish the tower, all who see it will begin to make fun of him. 14:30 They will say, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish!’ 14:31 Or what king, going out to confront another king in battle, will not sit down first and determine whether he is able with ten thousand to face the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 14:32 If he cannot succeed, he will send a representative while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace. 14:33 In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions. 14:34 “Salt is good, but if salt loses its flavor, how can its flavor be restored? 14:35 It is of no value for the soil or for the manure pile; it is to be thrown out. The one who has ears to hear had better listen!”

3D. Mark 10:42-45

10:42 Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 10:43 But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 10:44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave (διάκονος) of all. 10:45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

2C. The Grace

The demand of Jesus’ call to discipleship is impossible for a human being, unaided, to fulfill. We must have resources to accomplish this kind of life. Those resources come directly from Christ and are promised to us if we abide in him. This is the point of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1-11ff. He told his disciples that even though he was departing the world, he would nonetheless carry on his life and ministry through them, his chosen ones (15:16). From John 14:26, 15:26 and 16:13-14 we know that his life would be lived in and through the disciples via the indwelling Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 3:16). We will discuss this a little more when we talk about the relationship of discipleship to the kingdom of God.

1D. Matthew 11:28-30

Those who listened to Jesus were agrarian and familiar with his farming metaphors. They knew the meaning of physical “burdens.” Jesus is probably also referring to the religious burdens imposed on people by their religious teachers, who incidentally, never lifted finger to help. But, Jesus was different. He definitely had a yoke, but he was gentle, humble in heart, and his yoke was easy and his burden light.

11:28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 11:29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 11:30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.”

2D. John 15:5-8

15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. 15:6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and burned up.15:7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. 15:8 My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.”

3C. The Promise

The call to discipleship is not without its struggles, suffering, and sometimes intense difficulties. But it is not without its promises either. In Mark 10:28ff Jesus was quick to remind the inquiring disciples that there was a reward for following him. Jesus did not rebuke Peter for his implied question, “What then will be for us?” but rather addressed it with a three-fold promise introduced by a solemn declaration: “I tell you the truth….” Those who leave family, friends, etc. for Jesus and the gospel will not fail to receive (1) a hundredfold what he has lost (in the new community of faith); (2) to suffer persecutions, and (3) to have eternal life in the age to come.10 The timing on the giving of reward and persecution is in the hands of the Lord.

Mark 10:28 Peter began to speak to him, “Look, we have left everything to follow you!” 10:29 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel 10:30 who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much—homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. 10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

3B. Discipleship as a Call to “Make Disciples”

The idea that Jesus was calling the disciples to himself for a special purpose is evident in his initial call. He summoned his disciples saying, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17).11 This initial comment about reaching men was reasserted as a command when the resurrected Lord stood before his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20. Let’s explore that now.

1C. The Text: Matthew 28:18-20

28:18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 28:20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

2C. The Context: “All Authority in Heaven and Earth”

Jesus exercised absolute authority during his earthly ministry. He raised the dead, judged men and forgave sins. He performed miracles and spoke fresh and binding revelation (24:35). His authority, however, now extends to both heaven and earth, the entire universe (cf. Heb 1:3).12 He not only rules the earth, but also heaven. He is in control of all things. It is in light of the unlimited exercise of his absolute authority over every person, tribe, nation, and tongue that he commands the disciples to “go and make disciples” (cf. Eph 1:20-23).

3C. The Command: “Therefore, go and make disciples….”

The term “go” does not mean “as you go” but takes with it some of the imperatival force of the main verb “make.” It is subordinate in focus to “make,” but still communicates the command to “go!” The idea of making a disciple is fleshed out more in the idea of teaching them to obey all things Jesus commanded. We are to encourage people to submit to the Lordship of Christ as expressed in his teachings to the disciples and we are to show them what that looks like with our own lives.

4C. The Content: Baptizing and Teaching

The two participles “baptizing” and “teaching,” while related to the main verb “make,” do not simply convey the idea of means, but rather are intended to show two elements that predominate in the process of carrying out the action of the main verb. In other words, two elements that should characterize the process of making disciples are baptizing and teaching. Disciples are to be baptized into a Trinitarian understanding of God and relationship with him, and they are to be taught to obey implicitly whatever Messiah Jesus has taught us (now preserved in Scripture). As we carry out the task of discipling the nations, the Abrahamic covenant is being fulfilled (Matt 1:1).

5C. The Continuity: “I will be with you….”

In the daunting task of discipling the nations, the disciples needed to know—and so do we—that their (our) risen Lord would be with them. He is in control of the nations and has sent us to them with the message of eternal life. Now, through the strength provided by His indwelling Spirit (Col 1:28-29) we are to encourage them to welcome the kingdom and to live out Jesus’ life, values, and commitments.

IIIA. Summary

Let’s summarize what we’ve been talking about thus far. For our purposes, then, a “disciple of Christ” is someone who has been called first to know Christ, then to follow him, and then to make disciples of all nations. That is, in our knowing Christ we are becoming like him—thinking, feeling, and living as he commands. In this spiritual ambience of personal relationship with him, that is, in light of our experience of the kingdom, he summons us to be his disciples. We are to follow him, through thick and through thin, knowing that he is there and that he will reward us in his time; after all, he is the Master. But discipleship not only involves being with him, being like him, and following him, it also means that we make it our goal to disciple others—indeed, every nation under the sun. The Great Commission is not just another good idea—though it is that—it is the church’s marching order. As far as I know, he never communicated another plan.

IVA. Questions for Thought

1. Put into your own words what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

2. Why does Jesus call us to such radical commitment to him?

3. Why is it important to see that our allegiance to Christ must be first, even ahead of the work of discipling others?

4. What is most important to you about discipleship and what are you most reluctant to do? What are you most afraid of?

5. How does the promise of Matthew 11:28-30 and 28:20 help you in your willingness to step out and disciple people?

6. Jesus said that discipling another person means to teach them to obey. Are you exempt from the task of discipling others if you do not have the gift of teaching?

7. Who are some people that you can begin praying for right now? How could God use you to disciple them, working with them for their progress and joy in the faith?

1 See M. J. Wilkins, “Disciples,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 176. Cf. also K. H. Rengstorf, TDNT, IV: 415-461, s.v. μανθάνω.

2 But cf. Codex A, verse 1 of Jeremiah 13:21; 20:11. See BAGD, s.v., μαθητής.

3 John D. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, in The Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 24 (Dallas: Word, 1985), in loc. (electronic version).

4 In this passage Samuel is referred to as the “leader over the prophets” (נִצָּב עֲלֵיהֶם) and in 2 Kings 2:5 Elijah is referred to as Elisha’s “master” (אֲדֹנֶיךָ). Undoubtedly, these texts imply a discipleship relationship of sorts. The fact that Elisha was constantly with his master Elijah, and that he was to carry on the ministry of his master (2 Kings 2:10), is further evidence of this.

5 Wilkins, “Disciples,” 176; Rengstorf, s.v. μαθητής.

6 The Pharisees were unwilling to accept Jesus’ testimony about himself. He had no authority in their minds, whereas they regarded themselves as the official interpreters of Moses upon whom the life of the nation had been built. The implication in their argument is that they are vitally connected to the tradition of interpretation of the Mosaic Law and Jesus is not. He, therefore, has never heard God speak. In their use of the term “disciple,” the Pharisees are not altogether different than Socrates (469-399 BCE) who has been called the disciple of Homer. Formally the Pharisees had never met Moses, and Socrates had never met Homer (if the latter ever existed at all), yet through the Law the Pharisees claimed to follow Moses.

7 These schools were developed primarily, but not exclusively, in and around Jerusalem. Classes were held in the synagogue and taught by a scribe or azzan (in poorer communities). The emphasis was on reading the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as learning and memorizing the Torah. Secondary schools seemed to have developed by the second century. They focused more on learning oral law, i.e., the traditions of interpretations. See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 102-103.

8 See D. F. Watson, “Education: Jewish and Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 308-313; Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, revised and edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979), 415-22.

9 Often using the Torah and entire Old Testament.

10 See William L. Lane, Mark, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 371-73.

11 Recall too that this call comes ultimately in the context of Jesus’ proclamation of the advent of the kingdom of God. Thus the call to discipleship comes in the context of the expansion of the kingdom as directed by the Lord.

12 D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 594-99. There may be an allusion to Daniel 7:14 in this text. See Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, New Testament Theology, trans. J. Bradford Robinson, ed. James D. G. Dunn (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 138-41.

Related Topics: Discipleship