What is a disciple?

June 22, 2017 | by John B. MacDonald

To hit a target, first locate the bull's-eye.

For the Christian, the target is being a disciple and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

So, it’s important we know what a disciple is

Starting point

Our starting point for understanding discipleship is Jesus – his life, conduct, and teaching. We discover this in the New Testament (NT), primarily the Gospels.

In the NT, the words translated “disciple” (mathētēs), “to disciple” or “to learn” (manthanō), and “to make disciples” (mathēteuō) occur about 290 times. That means there is a wealth of material informing us what it means to be a disciple.

These “disciple” words include the concept of deliberately following, and learning from, a teacher or master. In a general sense, this involves relationship to gain specific knowledge and/or conduct.

There were disciples who followed teachers or masters other than Jesus. This is illustrated by Mark 2:18.

Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?"

Different teachers lead to different understandings and behaviors in disciples. 

What is different about being a disciple of Jesus Christ? 

Jesus' disciples

For disciples of Jesus, something of this “relationship to gain specific knowledge and conduct” is expressed by Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30):

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn [manthanō] from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." 

In the well-known words of the ‘Great Commission’ (Matthew 28:18-20), the mandate to “go and make disciples” is all about Jesus. Discipleship is:

  • Established upon his authority
  • Extended to “all nations”
  • Entered by baptism
  • Expanded by the process of learning and living “everything [Jesus] commanded”

We'll explore these elements in future posts. 

In simple terms, Jesus is the source, substance, and goal of true discipleship

Working definition

Here are three descriptions for understanding what a disciple of Jesus Christ is.

After considering numerous biblical texts, Michael J. Wilkins, in Following the Master, proposes an expansive description:

Discipleship and discipling mean living a fully human life in this world in union with Jesus Christ and growing in conformity to his image.

In his article, “A Biblical View of Discipleship,” James G. Samra concludes:

Discipleship is the process whereby someone becomes more like Christ. It encompasses both the entry into the process (salvation) and growth in the process (sanctification).

Given these definitions, discipleship is equated with spiritual formation. A useful description of spiritual formation is provided by Jeffrey P. Greenman in Life in the Spirit:

Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world.

Do these definitions give you a clearer and larger view of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Jesus is the source, substance, and goal of true discipleship

What are its implications?

Implications

Here are three consequences of this concept of discipleship.

1. All of life is impacted in the process of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It incorporates and permeates all of who you are and how you live. Therefore, being a disciple of Jesus is not a one-size-fits-all program, a short-term course, or a dose of religious education.

2. Learning Jesus – not just learning from Jesus, and about Jesus – is the substance. Being a disciple of Jesus is not simply receiving a knowledge dump or information download.

3. Becoming more like Jesus is the process of growth. Being a disciple of Jesus is not simply behavior modification.

Jesus is the source, substance, and goal of true discipleship

How does this better shape your understanding of what a disciple of Jesus Christ is?


Topics: Discipleship, Leadership, Ministry, Pastoral Care, Workplace/Marketplace Ministry


John B. MacDonald / Dr. John B. MacDonald has served for decades as a lawyer and pastor-teacher. He is an associate with Outreach Canada and focuses on equipping and encouraging others to become more like Jesus Christ and to live all of life with God-honoring competence and joy.
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