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The Meaning of the Term

The Greek word for disciple, μαθητής , mathētēs, is related to the verb, μανθάνω, manthanō, which means “to learn.”

The Teacher-Pupil Relationship

The teacher-learner relationship was involved as is seen in Matthew 10:24-25, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master” (cf. Luke 6:40). But more was involved. A disciple was not just a learner, he was also a follower and adherent of the teacher. He was a disciple and not just a pupil.

Specific Groups of Disciples

Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Epicurus developed their own schools and had their own followers who were their disciples. Among the Rabbis there was the school of Hillel and the school of Shamai. In the New Testament, we read of disciples of John the Baptist (Matt. 9:14; 11:2; 14:12; Luke 11:1; John 1:35, 37) and disciples of the Pharisees (Matt. 22:16). The Jews in John 9 called themselves disciples of Moses (John 9:28). Jesus also had his own disciples. This was a common term to refer to his followers. The word disciple (mathētēs) occurs 261 times in the New Testament (Matthew-72x; Mark46x; Luke-37x; John-78x; Acts28x; the word is not found in the rest of the New Testament).

The Absence of the Word “Disciple” in the LXX

It is striking and significant that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, the word mathētēs does not occur. Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament were not teachers with their own group of disciples. They were spokesmen for God who were calling all the people of Israel to follow the Lord and obey him. They did not have their own authority, their own school, nor their own followers as did the heads of the Greek philosophical schools or even the Rabbis. Joshua is called the servant of Moses rather than his disciple (Ex. 24:13). This is also the way we should look at the relationship of Elisha with Elijah and Baruch with Jeremiah.

Disciples of Jesus

Jesus was different from Moses and the prophets. He did call men to be his disciples. He taught with authority (Matt. 7:29) and called men to follow him (Matt. 4:19). In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) he commanded his followers to “go…and make disciples of all nations.” This does not mean that Peter, Paul, James, and John each had their own group of disciples. They were to preach the gospel so that men and women would turn to Christ in faith and become his disciples.

It is the uniqueness of the person of Jesus Christ which makes him different from Moses, the prophets, and the New Testament apostles. He is the Messiah, the unique Lord, the Son of God. He is God who became man. He has an immediate relationship with each of his followers who trust in him and become his disciples. Apostles, prophets, and teachers in the New Testament were directing the allegiance of men and women to the Lord and not to themselves. It is inappropriate and wrong to refer to anyone today as a disciple of a certain Christian leader. It is wrong for me to call others “my disciples.” There are only disciples of Christ. Paul might say, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). But he was not seeking to have people follow him. He himself was a disciple of Christ and was encouraging others to follow the Lord. He was only an example.

The Broad and Narrow Sense of Disciple

Disciple in the Broad Sense

The term “disciple” can be used in a general sense to refer to the followers of Jesus. But it was used in the Gospels in both a broad sense and a narrow sense. In the broad sense, it refers to the multitudes who gave some acceptance to his teaching and in the narrower sense, it refers to a more restricted group.

In Luke 6:17 Jesus delivered a great sermon to a “large crowd of His disciples”. At the triumphal entry “the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen” (Luke 19:37). In John 6, after the bread of life discourse, many of his disciples were offended at what he had said and were grumbling (vv. 61-62). The result was that “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (v. 66). Here the term disciple is used of many who had shown an interest in Jesus’ teaching and had attached themselves to him as followers. But their commitment was superficial and they were not genuine believers. In John 8:31 he says that a true disciple will continue in his word. This was said to Jews who had “believed him” but who ultimately rejected him. They were not truly his disciples.

Disciples in the Narrow Sense

In the great majority of uses of the term “disciple” in the New Testament, reference is made to a small group who had left their past lives and were actually following Jesus on his journeys. His disciples could fit into a boat (Matt. 8:23; 14:22, 26), go into a house with him (Matt. 13:36), and were traveling with him (Matt. 12:1-2) even into the regions of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:23). In Matthew 10:1 the twelve apostles are called “his twelve disciples.” In the Gospels, the term “disciples” is usually a reference to the twelve, although it is often difficult to determine if it is exclusively the twelve.

The Challenge to Discipleship

While the twelve were a specific group of disciples chosen by the Lord Jesus himself, the challenge and invitation to be his disciples was broader. But the cost of discipleship was high. In Luke 14:25-35, the Lord Jesus describes what discipleship requires. It involves a total commitment to him. He is to be the number one priority in our lives and our first love. He is to have first place in everything (cf. Col. 1:18). Three statements show what true discipleship entails.

  1. “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). The command to hate is not literal but rhetorical. Husbands are commanded to love their wives (Eph. 5:25). In Genesis 29:31 Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, but in verse 32 “the Lord saw that Leah was unloved” [lit. “hated”]. The expression is comparative. Our love for our dearest family members must seem like hatred in comparison to our love for Christ. He must be the supreme object of our love. All others must be loved less.
  2. The second challenge involves willingness to suffer and die for him. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27). The world rejected the Lord Jesus and made him carry his cross to his death. The world will also reject his disciples (cf. John 15:20). The disciple must be willing to bear the pain and suffering which goes with following him.
  3. The third cost involves our possessions. “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33). It is so easy for us to become attached to the materialistic things of this world. Our hearts cannot be divided if we are true disciples. We cannot love our possessions and also truly love the Lord. Does this mean that we may have no home, car, change of clothes, or any possessions whatsoever? Of course not! A man is required to provide for his own family (1 Tim. 5:8). He is not to deliberately become homeless and a beggar. But the Lord Jesus is making a radical demand. Possessions cannot have a higher affection in our hearts than does the Lord. There is nothing we should be unwilling to give up for him.

The demands for discipleship are for total commitment. But we should also notice that some of our Lord’s “true” disciples were not always perfect. Peter denied the Lord. He was not willing at that moment to bear his cross. We see a different Peter in the book of Acts, and according to early church tradition, he did suffer the martyr’s death of crucifixion—upside down! No one has a perfect love for Christ and a perfect commitment to him. Discipleship involves growth in the spiritual life.

Marks of Discipleship

When the apostles were called to follow Christ in Mark 3:14, he appointed them “so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach.” They were called first to a relationship with him. The relationship precedes the service. In John 15 he calls the disciples to abide in him. This is the basis for their bearing fruit, and by bearing much fruit the Father is glorified and they are proved to be Christ’s disciples (John 15:8). The mark that distinguishes them as true disciples is that they “have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Disciples in Acts and the Epistles

In the book of Acts, the term disciple has become a common term for all who are part of the church (Acts 6:1, 2, 7; 9:1, 26, etc.). Acts 11:26 says that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” In the Gospels, it was the apostles, those who spent time with Christ and followed him in his ministry, who were the disciples. The use of the term in Acts recognizes that it is not just a small inner group who follow Christ. He is with us always (Matt. 28:19-20). We may all be in his “inner fellowship.” All Christians should be disciples. Christ should have the first place in the life of every believer. Self and all other aspects of life should be subordinate to him. Radical commitment to Christ is not the part of a select group of disciples but should characterize every believer.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of Journey Magazine.

Dr. Jack Fish has taught Biblical studies and Biblical languages at Emmaus since 1969. After earning a B.A. in linguistics from Brown University he went on to Dallas Theological Seminary where he earned a Th. M. in Semitics and Old Testament and a Th. D. in New Testament Literature and Exegesis.

Posted by Jack Fish

Dr. Jack Fish has taught Biblical studies and Biblical languages at Emmaus since 1969. After earning a B.A. in linguistics from Brown University he went on to Dallas Theological Seminary where he earned a Th. M. in Semitics and Old Testament and a Th. D. in New Testament Literature and Exegesis.

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