A brief definition
The word “disciple” comes from the Greek word “mathetes”, which refers to a person who has been “taught” or is a “trained one”.1 In the gospel records of the life and ministries of Jesus in the New Testament the “disciples” were the particular group of individuals who were especially invited by Jesus to “follow” him around so that he could teach them or train them to be “servants” in the kingdom of God. So “discipleship” refers to the process through which an individual becomes a “trained” “servant” of God. In regard to various church programs and ministries, discipleship can be seen in its Christian education classes and efforts for the development of its leaders and members. In regard to one’s understanding of basic Christian theology, discipleship can be recognized as God’s work of sanctification in those whom he has called into his “kingdom”.
A brief description of a disciple’s service
The book of Acts, which comes after the gospels, in the New Testament records, reports on the various experiences of service or ministries that these “disciples”, as well as others, conducted in their lives after Jesus had left them and returned to be with God, the Father, in their heavenly kingdom. As you may recognize from a reading of these records, discipleship was not, and it is not, a simple or an easy intellectual process. It is an ongoing life changing experience, as these early “disciples” discovered.
Learning the identity of Jesus
One of the basic facts that Jesus had to teach to the special group of individuals that he had called to “follow” him so that they could become his “disciples” was who he was. And this wasn’t a simple matter for them to understand. These individuals were Israelites who had centuries of teachings regarding various leaders that God had brought to them. These leaders included Abraham, the “father” of their national covenant with God, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, the great kings of David and Solomon, and great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Although John the Baptist, who was recognized as a prophet, as Jesus was starting his ministry, proclaimed that this man, Jesus, was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), even calling him “the Son of God” (vs. 34), Jesus' true nature and identity was not clearly understood by these “disciples” and most of the people who frequently gathered around him. And the more that Jesus taught and performed miraculous deeds in the presence of these “disciples” the crowds, and the leaders of the Israelites, whose center of power and authority was in Jerusalem, the more his identity became a crucial issue in how individuals responded to him. And these biblical records regarding Jesus cite fifty two different titles or analogous references to him as a result of his efforts to teach his followers who he was.
Early in his ministry, Nicodemus, a leading lawyer of these Israelites, came to Jesus one “night”, probably to personally find out more regarding about who he was. In his initial greeting to Jesus, he recognized Jesus as “Rabbi”, indicating that “we know that you are a teacher come from God...”. (see John 3:2 for this greeting) Jesus engaged Nicodemus in a very important discussion to try to expand his understanding of who he was and God’s work from his “kingdom”. (see John 3:2–21 for this complete discussion) Basically Jesus told Nicodemus that he would have to be “born again” (John 3:7), meaning that he would have to be “born of the Spirit” (vs. 6) before he could “see the kingdom of God” (vs. 3) or really understand who Jesus was or where he came from.
Initially his “disciples” had this same perception regarding Jesus, that he was a “Rabbi”, because they referred to him with this title in their conversation with him by Jacob’s well outside the city of Sychar in the area of Samaria (see John 4:31). But the woman with whom Jesus had a conversation with at the well, had a life-changing experience with Jesus through which she perceived his special identity as the “Christ” or the “Messiah” who was understood to be the God-anointed “Savior” of Israel. (see John 4:7-29 for the record of her experience) And because of her testimony and their personal experience with Jesus over the course of “two days” many of these “Samaritans” believed that Jesus was “the Savior of the world”. (see John 4:38–42)
The challenge of this learning process regarding the identity of Jesus can be further illustrated by John’s report of a discussion that Jesus had with a group of his followers in Capernaum. (see John 6:22–71 for a complete account of this discussion) These followers were looking for a “sign” (vs. 30) from Jesus that he had come from God in heaven and that they should “believe” (vs. 30) him. When these followers indicated that they believe that God gave their “fathers” “the manna” as “bread from heaven to eat”, Jesus tried to teach them that he was “the true bread from heaven”, the “bread of life”. (see vss. 31-35 for this part of the discussion) But they couldn’t believe that he had “come down from heaven” because they knew him as “the son of Joseph”, and his family lived right there in Capernaum. (vs. 41) And Jesus went on in his remarks to try to teach them that in order for them to have a vital life-giving relationship with God they would have to figuratively “eat” his “flesh” and “drink his blood”, because, as he taught, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him”. (vss. 50- 56)
When these followers, who are identified as “disciples” (vs. 60), heard these details of teaching from Jesus, many of them began to grumble and some of them “turned back and no longer walked with him”. (see John 6:60–66) So Jesus asked the small group of “the Twelve” if they wanted “to go away as well”. (John 6:66–67) But Peter said to Jesus that “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God”. (vss. 68–69) But it is interesting to note that at this stage in the training of these ”disciples” this title that Peter used in his testimony to Jesus’ identity is the same one that a demon used when he was cast out of a man in Capernaum shortly after Jesus had called these “disciples” and began his ministry. (see Mark 1:21–28, particularly vs. 24)
Although Jesus made a great effort to teach these “disciples” who he was by various comments that he had with them and discussions regarding this matter that he had with the Scribes and Pharisees and all of the miracles of healing, even raising individuals from the dead, and delivering others from demons to demonstrate his God-given power, these “disciples” didn’t really know who Jesus was until they got reacquainted with him after his resurrection from his tomb. Thomas was not present with the ten “disciples” when they first met the resurrected Jesus in the locked room where they had been hiding in fear. (see John 20:19–20) So Thomas didn’t believe them when they told him that they had “seen the Lord”. (John 19:25) But “eight days later” Jesus appeared to them again when Thomas was present. And Jesus gave Thomas a personal invitation to physically examine his body so that he might “believe” (vs. 27), and then Thomas declared Jesus to be “‘My Lord and my God!’”. (vs. 28)
On the day of Pentecost, which was fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion, after God had poured out “the Holy Spirit” upon these “disciples” (see Acts 2:1–36), Peter preached an inspired sermon in which he declared that God made Jesus “both Lord and Christ”. (vs. 36) Paul makes it very clear in his letter to the Romans that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead”, identifying Jesus as “our Lord”. (Romans 1:4)
It is this recognition of Jesus as “Lord” that is the foundation of discipleship. It is where this process of “training” to become a “disciple” of Jesus really begins. And this recognition or learning can only be accomplished through the indwelling power of the “Spirit”, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus when he was teaching him about “the kingdom of God”. (see John 3:1-21, particularly verse 5)
Learning to be a servant
Initially in their learning experience with Jesus as they followed him around and listened to him, these “disciples” assumed that “the kingdom of God”, about which Jesus often spoke, would be an earthly kingdom like that of their great king, David. And the more impressed that they became with the divine power that he demonstrated in the various miracles that he performed, the more convinced they became that he would be the messianic (God’s anointed) “Savior” who would deliver their nation from their oppressive Roman rulers so that once again they could be an independent nation of God’s people.
In various statements to the crowds of people who followed him around and to his “disciples” Jesus described the basic qualities of those who would be members of “the kingdom of God” as his “disciples”. They would have to be intensely committed (see Luke 9:57–62), as Jesus said, “‘any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple’” (see Luke 14:25–33, particularly vs. 33), yet they would have to be humbly grateful for God’s personal blessings to them. (see Matthew 20:1–16) And they would have to be constantly ready to serve “the master” when he needed them. (see Luke 12:35–48, particularly vs. 37)
One time when Jesus was back in Capernaum with his “disciples”, he had heard them “discussing” “who was the greatest” among them. (Mark 9:33–34) And he taught them that “‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” (vs. 35) According to Luke, these “disciples” got into this dispute again as they were preparing to eat the Passover supper with Jesus in Jerusalem. And he taught them again about this matter, saying “‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at the table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.’” (Luke 22:24–27) And then, according to John, Jesus “laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel....” (John 13:4–5) And he explained to them that this was “an example”, saying, “‘you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master....If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’” (John 13:15–17)
So these “disciples” got some very basic verbal teachings and a physical demonstration of “service” as Jesus trained them to be “servants” in this process of discipleship.
Learning to follow and to depend upon the Spirit
Shortly after Jesus had given these “disciples” a special lesson in being a “servant” in “the kingdom of God”, he “taught” them some very basic principles regarding how they would have to live and to serve in the following days of their lives. And his words of instruction were particularly important, because he was trying to prepare them for his departure from them before he would establish God’s “kingdom” on earth. The record of his words and this “training” session that Jesus had with his “disciples” is contained in chapters 14–16 of the gospel of John. For a brief summary of the particular work of the Spirit in the lives of “disciples” see the statement regarding The Spirit on this website.
It was necessary for these “disciples” to know who Jesus was and to believe that he had really come from God, because as Jesus “taught” Thomas and them about “the way” to God, he said, “‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (see John 14:1–6) And Jesus went on in this special lesson to indicate that the “authority” for his words of instruction came from his union with God, “the Father”. He asked Philip and them a basic question about what they believed and then gave them some further words of insight into this matter. He said, “‘Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.’” So Jesus was teaching these “disciples” and all the others who would be called to “follow” him that they should accept the divine “authority” for his words of instruction at least on the basis of the divine power that they frequently saw displayed in the various miraculous works that he performed within their presence even if they couldn’t quite believe that he had really come from God on the basis of the “truth” alone of his words. (See John 14:7–11 for this complete teaching conversation that Jesus had with these “disciples”.) And the authority over every thing “in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18-19) was given to Jesus because of his willingness to be crucified to pay the price of humanity's sin. And acting in accord with this “authority” and conferring it upon his “disciples” (vs. 16) he commanded them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations....” (vs. 19).
This principle for the connection between what a “disciple” believed and the “works” that he or she would do is clearly stated in these words of his teaching: “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do.’” (John 14:12) And the reason that they would be able to do such “works” would be due to the fact that Jesus would be with “the Father” and with them (see Matthew 28:20) and he would enable them to do it, as they asked for it in his “name”, in his ongoing “work” as God’s “Son” that “the Father may be glorified”. (John 14:13–14)
Although Jesus was “training” these “disciples” in preparation for his departure from them, he indicated that he would send them a “Helper” who would be with them “forever.” (John 14:16) This “Helper” would be “the Spirit of Truth”, (vs. 17) or “the Holy Spirit”. (vs. 25) And they will know that Jesus lives and they will “live”, because, as Jesus says, “‘ you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’”. (vss. 19–20)
As Jesus’ “disciples” they had Jesus’ “commandments”, and it would be “whoever” “keeps them...who loves me. And he who loves me will beloved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”(John 14:21) And Jesus continues to teach these “disciples” about this important union of obedient love that they must have with him and the “Father” with these words: “‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.’” (vs. 23)
A few minutes later in this “training” conversation that Jesus is having with his “disciples”, he compares this union that he will have with them to that which must exist between a “branch” and its “vine”. And he emphasizes his lesson by saying, “‘Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.’” (John 15:4–5) And their ability to produce “fruit” would glorify the “Father” and “prove” them “to be” his “disciples”. (vs. 8)
Historically this fruitful “union” between “disciples” and Jesus and God, the “Father” through the “Spirit” has presented “followers” of Jesus with the challenge of trying to figure out what God did and does in bringing about such a fruitful “union” and what they, as “disciples”, would be expected to do as “disciples” in this process of bearing “much fruit”. The challenge became focused on the importance and nature of “works” in the process of the disciple’s life of “service” for his or her acceptance into God’s “kingdom”, or his or her salvation.
Paul explains the nature of this united process in his encouraging letter to the Philippians when he instructs them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12) This means that as “disciples” individuals who are seeking to serve God in “union” with Jesus through the “Spirit” must do so with sober and humble reverence and awe for God’s act of justifying grace in the righteousness of Jesus that brings them by faith into an initial “union” with Jesus and the “Father” where the “Spirit” of God can then do his transforming “work” to not only create the desire within the individual to bear “much fruit” but to also be able to do it through the individual’s own personal “Spirit”-empowered coorperative works of service for the glory of God.
And then Jesus goes on in his “training” session with his “disciples” by commanding them to “love one another” (John 15:17) to expect to be “persecuted” by “the world” (vss. 18–20), to “bear witness” (vs. 27) “about” him, and to expect “the Spirit of truth” to “guide” them ““into all the truth”. (John 16:13) Jesus even indicates to these “disciples” that it will be this “Spirit” who will “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judment”. (John 16:8)
Jesus recognizes that these “disciples” are sadden by his announcement that he would soon be leaving them and be “going to the Father” (John 16:17), but then he would return in a short while, and they would “see” him again and their sorrow would “turn into joy,” (vs. 20)“ and he tells them that “no one will take your joy from you”. (vs. 22)
Conclusion regarding discipleship
So these followers of Jesus and all of the others who would also “follow” him in the subsequent centurings of time should understand that discipleship is the process by which they individually learn that Jesus is “Lord”, that he is the anointed “Savior” of those who “believe” in him, that individually they must be intensely committed to being a “servant” to him as “master”, and that they would have to surrender in loving cooperative obedience to the indwelling presence of the “Spirit” in their lives in order to be dynamically united forever to Jesus and the Father as “disciples” in God’s “kingdom”.
1. Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, (by Robert Young, LL.D, Funk and Wagnall Company, New York, 1936) p. 257.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.