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Discipleship (2) – What Is A Disciple?

Scriptural use of the word disciple is virtually limited to the Gospels and Acts. Except for two passages in Isaiah (8:16 & 19:11), all 295 times the various forms of disciple appear in the NIV Bible are in the four Gospels and Acts.

Discipleship is not an Old Testament concept. The close, personal relationship and commitment to a person the word disciple implies is simply not there. Though the Jews once in John 9:29 called themselves “Moses’ disciples” it was only in contrast to the formerly blind man whom they styled “this fellow’s disciple.” The Old Testament expected Israel to live in Covenant with God, but not as disciples of God.

Jesus and The Twelve

Jesus and The Twelve

On the other hand, the New Testament uses the term disciple from the earliest days of Jesus’ personal ministry to refer to those who gathered around him to follow him.

What Does the Word Mean?

In the Greek world of Jesus’ day, a disciple was one learning information or conduct from an “authority” (or personal teacher) on whom the disciple depended. This teacher, superior in knowledge to the disciple, would always be the student’s superior (cf. Matthew 10:24f where student is from the word usually translated disciple.)

The greatest ambition of the disciple is that he be like his teacher. A disciple always has a teacher, but more than instruction is involved. The disciple depends on the teacher for all of his thinking. The true disciple is committed to the teacher and will go to no other. (Cf. John 6:66-68 where some left Jesus, but the Twelve refused, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”)

In the New Testament the word finds its highest use in the relationship of Jesus’ followers to their Master. They left all to follow him (Mark 10:28). He called some of these to be with him that he might teach them and send them out as apostles (Mark 3:13ff).

Jesus expected much from these. He talked about hating father, mother and even one’s own life. In a characteristic statement, He said, “Anyone who does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). They were sure they could give him their all. Peter was especially confident that he would endure, even if others fell away (Mark 14:27-31). Their performance, however, fell far short of His demands and their expectations.

Yet, in all this you can see their commitment to the person of Jesus, not merely to his teachings. It is this complete trust in him in all things that marks them as disciples, not mere pupils or learners.

Relationship to Other Words:

A number of other words are similar to disciple. It will be helpfulfor us to consider how these are alike and different from disciple.

An apostle of Christ is a disciple, but not all His disciples are apostles. An apostle is literally “one sent.” Most times in the New Testament, this refers to one of The Twelve (or Eleven, after the fall of Judas), who were called by Jesus to be his witnesses in a special way.

Believer came to be almost synonymous with disciple, though some believe without following (see John 12:42f). This would not be the case for a disciple. A disciple does not have a dead faith (see James 2:13-14).

Christian is used much as disciple (see Acts 11:26) but seems to be a derogatory name used by enemies (cf. Acts 26:28 & 1 Peter 4:15-16). The Christian gloried in this name as one by which he suffered.

A disciple is more than a pupil; he is a follower. Learning without following is foolish (see Matthew 7:24-27). One cannot follow without learning; however, you can learn without following. For example, Dr. James D. Bales, former professor at Harding University, was a student of Marxism. He was not, however, a disciple of Marx. He studied Marxism academically in order to refute it. On the other hand, the disciple learns in order to follow.

What Does This Mean to Us?

Are we Church Members or disciples? What is the difference? Ideally, there is none. As a practical, prag­matic matter there is a difference. The 20/80 rule says 20% of the people in the church do 80% of the work and give 80% of the money. It might cause us to cry out, “Where are the 80?” (Instead of “Where are the nine?”) If the 80% can become active, serving disciples the church will experience a true revival.

The question in this series, then, is “Can the Sunday Morning Only Church Member become a true disciple? A second question is like the first: “If so, how?” The answer to this question is not found in cajolery but in deeper knowledge of and commitment to Jesus, our Master.

In this series, we hope to examine ourselves with respect to our commitment to Jesus. Do we qualify as disciples? We need to consider our priorities. Are we more committed to becoming like Jesus or to preserving the structures of the Church? Do we seek Him or do we seek doctrine about Him? Have we become like the Jews who dilligently searched the Scriptures (John 5:39), but did not come to the One of Whom the Scriptures testified?

But we need to do more than examine ourselves: we must give ourselves to greater levels of service and personal commitment to the person of Jesus.

We want him to be our mentor, teacher, guide and Master. We want to become his apprentices, protégés, pupils, followers and servants. He is willing to take us under his wing – if we are willing (cf. Matthew 23:37).

If we are unwilling, the alternative to discipleship is too frightful to contemplate. It will mean “your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38).

– (3) The Call to Discipleship

– (1) Who Is Your Mentor?


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