During his earthly ministry, Christ promised that he would build his church (Matt 16:18). The manifestation of this promise is achieved through discipleship. This article will examine the theology of discipleship as revealed in Scripture with the goal of applying those principles in a philosophy of discipleship.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for disciple is μαθητης, and can be translated disciple, learner, pupil, or follower. Simply defined, a disciple is a student who learns from and follows someone else.
Basic discipleship was a common practice in ancient times and has continued to be throughout history. Even the Bible bears testimony to the existence of discipleship. The Epicureans in Athens, for example, were philosophers who ascribed to the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (Acts 17:18). Prior to his conversion, Paul was educated under a prominent Jewish rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). In more recent times, influential figures such as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and Tony Robbins have successfully amassed countless individual followers committed to their teachings and philosophies.
It is important to note that a disciple’s progress is directly related to the disciple’s relationship with their teacher. Because discipleship involves relationship, and humans are relational beings, everyone experiences discipleship at the basic level. Scripture affirms this reality while including a trenchant observation: “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
While the progress of a disciple is impacted by the relationship he has with his teacher, the product of a disciple is directly related to the personal example (evidenced in character) and practical instruction (evidenced in content) of the teacher. As an example, we often see children becoming the products of their parent’s discipleship (Prov 22:6). Because discipleship is critical in shaping the outcome of human lives, God has mercifully provided in Scripture the wisdom necessary to go beyond basic discipleship to biblical discipleship.
Biblical discipleship can only occur when the personal example and practical instruction that is communicated from teacher to disciple finds their source in God’s truth. In the church age, the fullness of truth and wisdom has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of divine truth (John 14:6), and wisdom (1 Cor 1:30). Therefore, it is paramount that biblical discipleship begins with the God-man, Christ Jesus.
Over the course of Jesus’ public ministry, the word ‘disciple’ came to refer to someone who followed Christ. This change is indicative of the difference between a basic disciple and a true disciple. True disciples are followers of Christ, for he is the truth and the fulfillment of Scripture (John 5:39). Jesus warned that forms of discipleship that are not based on the truth are destructive, fruitless endeavors in which the blind lead the blind (Luke 6:39-44). Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10) and he began this process by calling people to himself (Matt 9:9) and implementing a discipleship process centered in the truth of God’s Word.
Initially, Jesus’ disciples were those who followed him in a general sense even while they didn’t understand who he truly was (Matt 16:14). But as time passed, many of his disciples could not endure his teaching and stopped following him (John 6:60-69). After his ascension into heaven and sending of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s true followers became empowered to forward the work of the gospel, eventually earning them the name of “Christian” (Acts 11:26). Every true disciple, therefore, is a Christian, and every Christian is a disciple of Jesus.
True disciples are those who have committed to following Christ in accordance with Scripture. Disciples are new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17) who have been born-again of the Spirit (John 3:5-6) and justified by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (Rom 3:21-26). They daily take up their cross and lay down their life for his sake (Matt 16:24-25), following his personal example and obediently applying his practical instruction (John 13:15-16; 34-35). Disciples yield to the lordship of Christ (Rom 10:9), submitting to him as the One having all authority (Matt 28:18). As Christ builds his church, he will continue to raise up more and more disciples to bring the good news of salvation to all nations and make disciples of those who believe.
In the next few articles on this topic, we will look at the mandate, method, model, and marrow of biblical discipleship.