What Is A Disciple?

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The word disciple occurs frequently throughout the Bible and ‘discipleship’ is something that the Bible references often. But what does the word disciple actually mean? And what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?

What Is A Disciple?

Our English language Bibles were translated from manuscripts written primarily in two languages; Hebrew (in the Old Testament) and Greek (in the New Testament). The translative history of the Bible is a fascinating journey, from an academic and historical perspective, and is well worth exploring. You can read more about the translation process here.

In the original language of the New Testament, the word disciple is translated from a Greek word, mathētēs (μαθητὴς), from manthano,  meaning “to learn”. Mathētēs therefore means (unsurprisingly) a learner, a pupil or a scholar. More accurately though, it means to be a learner in the style of an apprentice, that is, someone who not only accepts the views of their teacher but is also practicising the same so as to eventually become like their teacher (Matthew 10:24, Luke 6:40).

It’s a word that would have been in common use during ancient times and its meaning was applicable beyond a Christian or religious setting (ie as a disciple of Plato or Socrates). Although the word has several applications, in the widest sense it refers to those who accept the teachings of anyone, not only in belief but also in life and practice. 

Who Is A Disciple Of Jesus?

When we come to the Bible, we see the word disciple used most often in the context of a follower of Jesus and sometimes of John the Baptist (Matthew 27:57, Luke 14:27, Matthew 11:1, John 3:25). Throughout the gospels, it’s the only name used for those who followed Jesus, and even those who had only been baptised with the baptism of John the Baptist (and hadn’t received the Holy Spirit) were called disciples (Acts 19:1-4).

It would be accurate to say that a disciple of Jesus was someone who believed the teachings of Jesus, who surrendered to his leadership, and who endeavoured to imitate his life.

When we move into the early history of the church (found in the book called the Acts of the Apostles), we see these disciples began to be called Christians (from the Greek word Χριστιανός (Christianos), meaning “follower of Christ”) (Acts 11:26).

The Acts Of The Apostles

The book of the Acts of the Apostles provides a unique glimpse into the story of the early Christians, and to a time when these disciples of Jesus took their faith and began boldly proclaiming it to the world. In Acts, we are observing the very birth of Christianity – the movement which recognised and preached a resurrected Jesus as the promised saviour and king of the world.

The Book of Acts opens with this introductory paragraph by its author, Luke, also one of the four Gospel writers and one of Jesus’ 12 closest disciples:

“Dear Theophilus, in the first volume of this book I wrote on everything that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he said goodbye to the Apostles, the ones he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven. After his death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about thing concerning the kingdom of God.” | Acts 1:1-4, MSG

The book’s narrative describes the disciples as first-hand witnesses to the resurrected Jesus; witnesses to the astonishing truth of the Gospel message, and how they took that Good News to the world, beginning first in Jerusalem, then moving throughout Judea and eventually to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:7-8).

The following interactive map shows the power of their witness to the gospel message, demonstrating not just areas where professing Christians are the majority of the population, nor where Christianity has been declared the national religion, but also the true extent of the global spread of the gospel since the first century. It’s a powerful, visual reminder of God’s promise to save people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9)

What Was The Good News?

Peter the Apostle, when making his speech to the Jews in Jerusalem after the day of Pentecost, summarised the Good News in this way:

“Jesus the Nazarene, a man thoroughly accredited by God to you – the miracles and wonders and signs that God did through him are common knowledge – this Jesus, following the deliberate and well-thought-out plan of God, was betrayed by men who took the law into their own hands, and was handed over to you. And you pinned him to a cross and killed him. But God untied the death ropes and raised him up. Death was no match for him…All Israel, then, know this: There’s no longer room for doubt – God made him Master and Messiah, this Jesus whom you killed on a cross. Change your life. Turn to God and be baptised, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites.” | Acts 2:26-40, MSG

Peter is attesting to the validity of Jesus of Nazareth, as God’s appointed saviour and king. He is witnessing to the truth of the resurrected Jesus and the confirmation of his true identity as Son of God. And he is urging his listeners to believe this truth, to surrender their lives to Jesus and receive God’s promise of forgiveness of sins and the hope of life, even after death. In short, he is urging them to become disciples of Jesus, followers and imitators of the Christ. He is urging them to become Christians!

The number of people who heard his message and believed his words on that day was incredible! The book of Acts tells us that over 3000 people were baptised. And not only that, every day their number grew as God added those who were saved. (Acts 2:47)

“That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptised and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.” | Acts 2:41-42, MSG

The Teachings Of Jesus: The Gospel Of Good News

Peter was, in reality, only reconfirming the teachings of Jesus; that of the Good News of salvation for humanity and truth of the kingdom of God; God’s rightful rule and sovereignty over all the earth (Matthew 16:27Luke 21:26-27James 2:51 Corinthians 2:9, Numbers 14:21Psalm 22:27Habakkuk 2:14).

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” | Mathew 4:23, NIV

“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. “The time is fulfilled,” He said, “and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel!” | Mark 1:14, BSB

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, for the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” | Isaiah 61:1, NLT

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” | Matthew 9:13, ESV

Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation;nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” | Luke 17:20-21, NKJV

How Do I Become A Disciple?

Becoming a Christian and becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is the same thing; we just don’t really use the word disciple much anymore. The basis for us to become Christians remains the same as for those in the first century, who were Jesus’ followers. So what is it that makes us a disciple of Jesus? What is it that makes us a Christian?

We need to look no further than Peter’s words to the people at Jerusalem (Acts 2:22-42):

  • We must believe that Jesus was God-sent and God-endorsed, as the appointed saviour and king of the world. We acknowledge that Jesus came as one of us, like us in every way, so that he could defeat sin and death on our behalf (1 John 4:14, Galatians 4:4, John 3:16, Hebrews 2:14-17, Romans 5:12).
  • We must believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world and was raised to life, never to die again (1 John 2:2, John 4:42, 1 John 3:5, Acts 2:32, Acts 3:15, 1 Corinthians 6:14, Romans 8:11).
  • We must be convicted of our sin, acknowledging our need for God’s forgiveness and recognising that the name of Jesus is the only name under heaven by which humanity can be saved (Ecclesiastes 7:20, 1 John 1:9-10, Romans 3:23, James 1:15 Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5).
  • We must believe in the teachings of Jesus and surrender to his guidance and leadership in our life, not only as an apprentice to a teacher, but as a willing subject of God’s designated King. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth, he has first claim on our affections, he is the motivating force in our decisions and the final judge of our soul (Matthew 28:18-20, Isaiah 9:6, Luke 1:33, Acts 10:36, 1 Corinthians 15:27, Colossians 1:27, Romans 8:10, Ephesians 3:16, Acts 10:42, John 5:22. 2 Timothy 4:8, James 1:21, 1 Peter 2:25).
  • We must follow the example of Jesus and be baptised, as directed in Mark 16:16. Baptism is God’s arrangement for a person to gain a clean conscience based on their faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We choose to end one kind of life and begin another and the way of demonstrating that choice is to be baptised ‘for the repentance of our sins’. The Bible compares baptism to burial, ‘dying’ to our past course of life and beginning a new one as a Christian, dedicated to God and saved through Jesus (Matthew 3:15, Matthew 10:28, Acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21, Colossians 2:12, Mark 16:16, Matthew 28:19-20, Ephesians 4:4-6).

Written about 300 years after the birth of Christ, the Apostles’ Creed summarises foundational Christian beliefs taught by the early church and is a bold declaration of our faith in Jesus Christ. It particularly affirms the teachings regarding Jesus, that of his virgin birth, his crucifixion, his death, and his subsequent resurrection; core elements of the gospel of good news. It is a primary statement of faith shared by Christians around the world, uniting them in common union with the work achieved in and through Jesus.

Not Just A Disciple Of Jesus But Family Of God

Welcome to the family! When God puts you in Jesus, He also puts you in community. When you believe and are baptised, you become a disciple of Jesus – a Christian – but not only that, you also become a valued member of God’s family (1 Corinthians 12:27, Galatians 4:7, Romans 8:17, Galatians 3:26, 1 John 3:1-2, Ephesians 2:18-19, Ephesians 3:14-19). Becoming a Christian means you join a great cloud of faithful witnesses to the truth of the resurrected Christ (Hebrews 12:1), as believers of the message of Good News and disciples of Christ the King.

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” | Romans 10:10, NIV

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