Matt 28:19 — Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…

This final command of Jesus is familiar to many—so familiar, we forget to consider whether we really understand what it means. In particular, what exactly is a “disciple”? Is it just another way of describing someone who is a Christian? Or is a “disciple” a second-tier believer, only appropriate to describe Christians more serious about their faith? Additionally, does “disciple” mean something different today than it did in the 1st century when it could refer to people who literally followed Jesus around the Judaean countryside?

The Greek word for disciple, mathētēs, occurs only in the Gospels and Acts. While it is used to refer to followers of a variety of great teachers (such as Moses and John the Baptist), in the Gospels it usually refers to a follower of Jesus: (1) specifically, the Twelve men Jesus chose to become apostles; and (2) generally, the larger group of people who committed to him (Luke 6:13).

What is interesting is how the use of the term shifts in Acts, where mathētēs never refers to the Twelve (who are instead called “apostles,” emphasising their leadership in the early church) and instead becomes the most common way to refer to men and women all around the Roman Empire who believed in Jesus as a result of the gospel-proclamation of the apostles.

The significance is this: “disciple” is not a term reserved for second-tier Christians nor should it be restricted to those able to be with Jesus while he was on earth, but is the most basic identity of all who believe in Jesus.

Mark 1:17 — And Jesus said to them, “Follow me…”

In the 1st century, mathētēs was a technical way of denoting a committed follower of an esteemed master. This is the background for understanding the New Testament’s use of the term disciple.

When Jesus went around calling people to become his disciples, he did so with this simple command, “Follow me.” With these words, Jesus asked fishermen to leave their nets (Mark 1:18), a tax collector his booth (Mark 2:14), a rich man his wealth (Mark 10:21), and communicated that remaining near him had priority over every earthly obligation (Luke 9:59-62).

While the Twelve were able to demonstrate this attribute of a disciple by literally following Jesus wherever he went, for them it also had a metaphoric application. In its broader sense, “following” was not merely about physical proximity but about total commitment to him—willingness to surrender whatever they were tempted to hold onto more dearly than Jesus himself.

This aspect of following is what lay behind Jesus’ harsh demands that those who follow him must hate their family, bear their cross, and renounce all things (Luke 14:25-33). While this sounds offensive, these are not to be taken as blanket statements and applied exactly the same way for every disciple. Rather, they are intended to reveal the kinds of things—even good things—that can keep disciples from committing themselves to following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Though Jesus’ disciples today don’t have the option of physically following him around, Jesus still invites his disciples, “Follow me!” What keeps you from total commitment to your great master?

Matt 23:1, 8, 10 — Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples…“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher… Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”

While mathētēs meant a “committed follower” or “disciple” by the time of Jesus, it was originally (in the 5th century BC) used more generally to denote a “learner” or “student.” This meaning came from its derivation from the verb meaning “to learn,” manthanō. A disciple as one who learns from Jesus is a second characterization made evident in the Gospels. 

Jesus was recognized as a teacher—not only by committed followers (Mark 13:1), but also by seekers (Mark 10:17) and those who opposed him (Matt 22:16). While much of his teaching was available to the crowds, Jesus reserved some—such as the interpretation of the parables (Matt 13:10-11) and his approaching death (Matt 16:21)—for his disciples.

Additionally, while Jesus himself initiated many teaching moments, the Gospels also record the disciples approaching him with questions, sometimes for more explanation on a teaching (Mark 7:17), to present him with a theological conundrum (John 9:2), or even in order to learn something practical like how to pray (Luke 11:1).

Even now, contemporary disciples have the opportunity to learn from Jesus: (1) by studying his words and deeds as recorded in the Scriptures; and (2) by the Holy Spirit, sent to teach Jesus’ disciples after he ascended to the Father (John 14:26)!

John 13:13 — You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.

As Teacher, Jesus taught his disciples and they learned from him; as Lord, he commanded and they obeyed. Obedience to the words of Jesus is thus a third attribute of a disciple.

Jesus’ disciples obeyed him in very concrete ways: leaving when he sent them on ahead (Mark 6:45), making preparations when he asked them to get things ready (Matt 26:19), and not speaking of that which he had silenced them on until the appointed time (Matt 16:20). 

This trait of a disciple, however, is about more than obeying when Jesus asks for something practical to be done. Jesus indicated this when he said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).

The Greek word translated here as “abide,” menō, communicates that Jesus’ disciples “remain,” “live,” or “continue in” his instruction. In other words, they consistently obey all of Jesus’ teaching. 

In the Great Commission, Jesus gave his disciples a two-pronged approach to disciple-making: (1) baptize; and (2) teach to obey all of my commands (Matt 28:19-20). While Part 2 sounds like a tall order, it helps to remember that Jesus himself summarized the two most important commands as loving God and loving people (Matt 22:36-40). Therefore, they encapsulate all of his commands.

Jesus’ disciples are still characterized by obedience! How have you loved God and loved people today?

Luke 6:40 — A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.

In the 1st century AD, a philosopher wrote this about the Greco-Roman understanding of a disciple, “For whoever really follows anyone surely knows what that person was like, and by imitating his acts and words he tries as best he can to make himself like him.” Here, this Greek writer identified a fourth trait of a disciple, which is also observable in the Gospels: one who becomes like his teacher.

Jesus wanted his disciples to be like him in at least two ways. First, they were to be like him in his authority. Even while Jesus was on earth, the disciples were given authority to do the very same things he did: drive out demons, heal, and preach the kingdom (Luke 9:1-2). Because they were sent with his authority, they were his representatives. Thus, when they were received it was as if Jesus had been received; when they were rejected, it was Jesus himself who had been rejected (Luke 10:16).

The disciples, though, were not supposed to be like Jesus in his authority only, but also in his humility. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he commanded, “You also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). He, the great Son of Man, had not come to be served but to serve; so too, his disciples should not seek to be first but last (Mark 10:43-45).

Jesus’ disciples continue to be called to be like him in his authority and his humility. Which aspect do you struggle with more?

Mark 8:29 — And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

As has been indicated in this series, the concept of a disciple has a historical context which precedes the time of Jesus. Thus, a disciple as one who follows, learns, obeys, and is called to become like their master is not exclusive to the New Testament. However, the Christian understanding of a disciple includes an element which distinguishes Jesus’ disciples from all others: that is, a disciple believes that Jesus is the Christ.

While his disciples did not always have an accurate perception of what it meant, the Gospels nonetheless present them as believing that Jesus was the long-expected Jewish Messiah (aka the Christ). When less-committed followers began walking away because of the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching, Peter confessed the Twelve’s continued belief in this fact saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus’ disciples initially thought that the Christ would be a great military leader and deliver Israel from Roman oppression (Acts 1:6). They came to understand that the Christ’s mission was even grander: to conquer the devil, defeat death, and deliver all people from slavery to sin (Luke 24:46-47).

A disciple of Jesus believes that Jesus is more than a human teacher; he is the very Christ of God who saves us from what we most need saving.

John 11:16 — So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 

Of the 261 times mathētēs occurs in the New Testament, 234 are in the plural. In fact, the word only appears in the singular in speeches by Jesus on the nature of discipleship. This suggests another aspect of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: that they do not have a relationship with their master only, but are in community with other disciples.

This is illustrated in the verse above, where “fellow disciples” is the translation of one word in the Greek, summathētēs. This noun is a combination of the word for “disciple” (mathētēs) and the preposition “with” (sun). Although there are a variety of ways of expressing “with” in Greek, sun often emphasizes “relational with-ness” or “being together.” Thus, disciples spend time being with other disciples.

A disciple is not relationally connected to Jesus without also relationally connecting with his disciples. How have you been connecting with other disciples?

Matt 26:56 —Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Thus far, this series has painted a very positive portrait of a disciple. Does it seem impossible to you to always maintain the standards of one? 

Note, however, that The New Testament often depicts the disciples as afraid, (Matt 14:26), missing the point (Matt 16:11), and full of doubt (Matt 28:17). In the moment when Jesus needed them most (and right after they had so faithfully promised to die for him), they abandoned him totally (Matt 26:35, 56). The Gospels, then, include imperfection and failure as part of the characterization of disciple of Jesus.

Jesus’ disciples don’t always do the right thing. They are inconsistent followers and learners. Sometimes they don’t obey; sometimes, they don’t

look like Jesus at all. They struggle to believe that Jesus is the Christ and cut themselves off of relationship with one another. The good news is that a true disciple is an imperfect disciple; one who desires to faithfully follow Jesus and yet stumbles along the way.

Both Peter and Judas failed Jesus greatly. Why was Judas disqualified as a disciple (Acts 1:25) and Peter reinstated (John 21:15-19)? Simply because of this: after failing him, only Peter returned to Jesus.

A disciple of Jesus frequently fails to act faithfully. Do you feel overwhelmed by your failings as a disciple? Today, return to Jesus. He is always ready to embrace you.