Great Commission Ministry

Great Commission Ministry

As Christians, we hear the word ‘disciple’ a lot. We can read books about discipleship. We can hear sermons about being a faithful disciple. Churches often follow programs that are designed to help Christians be better disciples. We can be exhorted to “be a disciple who makes disciples.”[1] Yes, we know that, as Christians, we are disciples of our Lord Jesus.

But what exactly does that mean? What is a ‘disciple?’ How do we define one? In this article, we will answer these questions so that we might more fully trust Jesus to lead us as His followers.

The Greek word often translated as ‘disciple’ is mathētēs (μαθητής). The word occurs only in the four Biblical Gospels and the Book of Acts. There are at least three things to consider regarding the intended referent of mathētēs in each occurrence. First, it can refer to either a male or a female (Luke 6:17; Luke 19:37). Second, even after Jesus’ resurrection, a follower of Jesus was called a mathētēs (Acts 9:1). Third, in the Book of Acts, mathētēs refers almost exclusively to those who believe in Jesus. In the Book of Acts, ‘disciple’ is almost equal to ‘Christian.’ [2]

This leads us to two primary ways the word is used. First, mathētēs can refer to “one who engages in learning through instruction from another.”[3] That is, the word is used to refer to a pupil, student, or apprentice. Second, mathētēs can refer to “one who is constantly associated with someone who has a reputation as a teacher.”[4] Disciples are students of a teacher or rabbi. In the New Testament we encounter disciples of primarily two rabbis, John and Jesus (John 1:35–42).

What then does a disciple of Jesus do? Although there is a clear distinction in the New Testament between all disciples of Jesus and those who are sent out as His Apostles (Matt 10:1–14; Matt 28:16–20; Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16; Acts 1:12–26), the four Evangelists give three general characteristics of ‘following Jesus’ as a disciple. First, Jesus calls His disciples to follow Him. They do not choose to be His disciples. Second, disciples of Jesus receive His divine revelation. They receive it by hearing with faith His teaching and preaching. Then Jesus’ disciples follow Him, obey Him, and often, like Jesus, suffer for their obedience. Jesus says in John 10:27–28: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Third, disciples of Jesus are suffering servants. They follow Jesus by denying themselves and picking up their crosses (Matt 16:24).[5] The life of a disciple is a cross-shaped (cruciform) life.

In summary, a disciple of Jesus is called to belong to Him (Rom 1:6). The Spirit of God “calls through the Gospel.”[6] This means that only God can ‘make a disciple.’ Called by the Gospel and joined to the Savior in Baptism (Romans 6:3-4), a disciple of Jesus is “enlightened with His gifts” and “kept in the true faith[7], and now has His strength to follow and obey, to live a new life. A disciple of Jesus follows and receives Him and His eternal gifts as God, the Father reveals Him and His gifts in a word of teaching, preaching, as well as through a sacramental word. The disciple who knows and follows the “voice” of Jesus and receives His gifts is formed not only as a disciple but, through the highs and lows of life, as a suffering servant in the image of Jesus, the Suffering Servant (Rom 8:29). Such a disciple willingly trusts Jesus to lead, however difficult and treacherous the path.

“Lord, help us seek your living Word, the food Your grace imparts” (“O Christ, You Walked the Road” in the Lutheran Service Book, 424, vs. 2).

Photo (c) enterlinedesign/lightstock

[1] See especially Growing Up: How to be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples (Paris, ON: B&H Books, 2013).

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W., A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 609.

[3] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W., A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 609.

[4] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W., A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 609.

[5] These three characteristics of a disciple in the Biblical Gospels are drawn from Jack Dean Kingsbury, Matthew as Story (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988), 129–45.

[6] Small Catechism, “The Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed” in the Lutheran Service Book, 323.

[7] Small Catechism, “The Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed” in the Lutheran Service Book, 323.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *