Answering the question “What is a disciple?” is not as easy as it might first appear.
First, there is a shift in the meaning of the term disciple from the gospels to the book of Acts. For instance, in John 6, many of Jesus’ “disciples” leave him. These are the ones who follow him to hear his teaching and to eat his bread, but when he calls them to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they can go no further. In this situation, disciples are simply those who followed and learned from him, but were not saved by him. Likewise, you could say of Judas, that he was a disciple in one sense (he followed and learned from Jesus), but not a disciple in another sense (he failed to follow Christ until the end and he betrayed his master). Thus, in the Scriptures themselves, there is some ambiguity in the term.
Why does this matter? Well, the other day, I heard a radio preacher stating that the disciples in the Bible are just like us. Yes and no. There is much similarity between the followers of Jesus in his day, and in genuine believers today. However, there is dissimilarity too. Few are called to leave their fishing nets behind to become Christ’s disciples and none are called to to follow a wandering Nazarene through the hills of Israel. Likewise, at a more doctrinal level, many of the followers of Jesus did not abide in him, and thus were not saved (cf John 6:66). But this reality should not form the basis of our doctrine of discipleship. True disciples today are those who are born again, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and will not fall away because through the Spirit and the Word, God will preserve them even as they persevere in faith.
That is the first qualification, but there is another. In popular Christianity, there interpretations of discipleship. Perhaps two of the most helpful explanations of discipleship today to explicate these differences are Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship and Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus The Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship. Gleaning from their observations, I would posit a few ways that disciples are defined today.
(1) Disciples are COMMITTED believers. Salvation is one thing, discipleship is another. There are Christians and then there are disciples. This posits a two-tiered system in the Christian life–with the saved and the sanctified. The problem with this is that it rips apart the unified work of salvation, and it does not fit with biblical language. In Acts 4:32, the church is described as a band of believers; but Acts 6:2 describes the church as “the full number of disciples.” Disciples are believers; believers are disciple. No tiers!
(2) Disciples are ministers. Like the twelve, disciples are called to a special ministry of service. This results in a view where churches have clergy and laity, disciples and congregants. This separation is often found in special dress for the clergy, or unhealthy veneration of church leaders. By contrast, the Great Commission calls all people to discipleship and to disciple others. Church work is for everyone. Disciples are ministers, but if I am reading Ephesians 4 correctly, we are all called to various roles of ministry in the church. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Jesus calls us to join him in the work.
(3) Disciples are Christians. Christians are disciples. While we are at different phases in our journey with Christ, Christianity is not two-tiered, any more than your families are two-tiered. While wisdom cautions against young disciples leading, there is no two-stage approach. Rather, as in any family, there are babes, children, young adults, and mature adults. The same is true in the church, and every age are called disciples.
A Definition of Discipleship
In light of these previous observations, here is an attempt at a definition: A disciple is a man or woman who is a new creation in Christ that no longer lives for self, but who has (a) believed on Christ for the forgiveness of sins, (b) possesses eternal life, and (c) lives to learn, follow, and imitate Christ in all areas of life.
To say it another way, if we take our cues from the Great Commission: (a) Disciples identify themselves with Jesus Christ in baptism; (b) Disciples learn AND practice all the words of God has given us; and (c) Disciples serve our Lord, going into the world to herald the message of Christ and to reproduce disciples. This is the Great Commission. This is what the twelve did, this is what Paul did (Acts 14:21), and this is what Paul called his followers to do (2 Tim 2:2).
Another place to get our bearings for defining a disciple is Mark 3:13-19. There we find that discipleship goes all the way back to Jesus, and that three things stand out. Those whom he calls to be disciples (and apostles– a calling that makes the twelves position different than our own), he gives three requirements: First, the twelve are to be with him so that they might learn from Jesus, copying him, imitating him; Second, the twelve are sent to preach. So they are not passive learners but active servants. Third, the twelve were given authority to cast out demons as is witnessed in the Gospels and Acts.
Now, on this last point, we may think that this is only for them, after all we do not cast out demons. But I would suggest, that the calling we have to win souls and to nurture them in the grace and truth of the gospel is even greater than the commission given in Mark 3. Just listen to John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” In the gospel, we have been given authority to declare forgiveness and eternal life. We are not simply casting out demons, we are calling men to eternal life, and by God’s design, the effectual call that converts a man is conveyed through the general call of God’s human witnesses.
Thus, according to Mark 3–if we can use this text in any sort of prescriptive way–Scripture shows that disciples are those who are with Jesus, who serve at Jesus commission, and who are involved in Christ’s ministry of making other disciples. Certainly, more can and should be said, but this is a start.
Tomorrow, we will consider in more detail who is able to make disciples.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss