WHAT IS A DISCIPLE?

© Rosemary Bardsley 2004, 2014

 

A. WHAT IS A DISCIPLE?
A.1 The meaning of the word mathetes

The word translated ‘disciple’ in our English Bibles is mathetes.  This word is derived from manthano, which means to learn, to be taught, to acquire a custom or a habit, to learn by experience, to ascertain or be informed, to understand or comprehend.

A disciple, then, is a learner, a pupil. The word assumes that there is a teacher. In itself it does not indicate whether or not the pupils, the disciples, are agreeing with or believing what they are learning, or agreeing with or believing what the teacher does or says.

Interestingly, the word ‘disciple’ is used only in the Gospels and Acts. This means that in all the New Testament letters and Revelation the writers use other words to refer to those whom the Gospel and Acts call ‘disciples’ or ‘pupils’ of Christ.

Check out these verses and note the allegiance of different groups of ‘disciples’ – whose disciples were they?
Matthew 5:1


Matthew 14:12


Matthew 22:15,16


John 9:28


Acts 20:30

 

A.2 Two significant questions:

There are two significant questions about being a disciple of Jesus Christ:

Can you be a disciple without being a believer?
Can you be a believer without being a disciple?

Let’s expand the questions:

Is it possible to be a pupil of a teacher without believing, trusting or being committed to obey the teacher?
Is it possible to believe in, trust in and be committed to obeying a teacher, without being a pupil of that teacher?

On the basis of the understanding you have at the moment, discuss these two questions in small groups and write your conclusions below. Include the reasons for these conclusions.

 

 

 

 

A.3 Two levels of believing
Before we look at the Biblical perspective on the two questions we need to note that in the Bible there are two different levels of believing.

Briefly discuss and compare these references. What do you learn from them about the two different levels or kinds of believing in Jesus Christ?
Matthew 13:20-21


Matthew 13:23


John 2:23-24

 

James 2:14-19


1 John 2:19

 

It is obvious from these Scriptures that there is a ‘believing’ which is a superficial, temporary human act. And there is a ‘believing’ which is the deep, permanent result of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. From God’s perspective he knows the difference from the beginning. He knows all along that some ‘believers’ are not genuine. It is no surprise to him that they fall away, for they were never true believers in the first place. From our human perspective, we can only tell the difference after the passing of time, and we are surprised and disappointed, and sometimes discouraged and unsettled when they fall away.

A.4 Two levels of being a disciple
Similarly, the Bible records indicate that there are two different levels of being a ‘disciple’ or ‘pupil’ of Jesus Christ.

Discuss and compare these Scriptures. What do you learn from them about the two different levels of being a disciple or pupil of Jesus Christ?
Matthew 8:18-22

 

Matthew 10:1, in conjunction with John 12:4, and John 13:21-22.


Luke 14:26,27,33


John 6:60-71

 

Level 1: These Scripture references make it clear that there were ‘disciples’ who were simply ‘pupils’ – they were hanging around with Jesus, joining the crowds that followed him, listening to what he said; but they did not believe what he was saying and claiming, nor were they committed to living a life of obedience to his teaching. We could call this being a physical disciple.

Level 2: On the other hand, there were ‘disciples’ who were hanging around with Jesus, joining the crowds that followed him and listening to what he said, and, as well as this, were developing belief in what he said and what he claimed, and becoming more and more committed to a life of obedience to his teaching. We could call this being a real or spiritual disciple.

In addition, as a sub-group of Level 2, there were secret ‘disciples’, such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who did not publicly hang out with Jesus nor join the crowds following, but who were, nevertheless, hearing and developing both genuine faith in this teaching and claims, and commitment to obedience [John 19:38-39; Matthew 27:57].

 

A.5 Back to the two significant questions:

Can you be a disciple without being a believer?
Can you be a believer without being a disciple?

We are now at a point where we can formulate some answers these questions.

It is possible for a person to be a physical disciple without being a genuine believer, because a person can be physically a pupil – hearing the words, hanging out at church, identifying with believers, yet not really believing any of it – just like Judas, and just like the people in the references in John’s gospel in the references above.

It is not possible for a person to be a disciple at the second level, the real/spiritual level, without also at the same time being a genuine believer.

It is possible for a person to be a superficial believer without being a physical disciple at the same time.

It is not possible for a person to be a genuine believer in Jesus Christ without being his real/spiritual disciple. Every genuine believer is also a real/spiritual disciple of Christ, because they have learned from Jesus at least this much: that he has called them to believe in him and to receive him as the one he claims to be, and, having really learned this, not just heard it physically, they have responded with genuine belief. They may be only at the beginning, they may not at this point look very much like a person who is learning from Jesus, but they have learned and believed the most important part of all his teaching, and responded on the basis of what they have learned, with genuine faith.

 

A.6 The perspective in Acts
When we move from the Gospels to Acts, we find that the term ‘disciples’ is used to refer to Christian believers.

Check out these verses in Acts:
6:1-7


9:1, 19, 26


9:25


11:26


19:9


B. HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU ARE A REAL DISCIPLE [A GENUINE BELIEVER]?

Is there any way of knowing whether you are true disciple, (not just one who is a physical disciple), a disciple who is with him spiritually as well as physically? Is there any way of knowing that you are a genuine believer, not a superficial temporary believer? These are highly significant questions. The answer, and the criteria for knowing, are the same for both questions.

Before we look at the positive criteria given in the Bible, we need to set some boundaries from the Biblical records, lest we misunderstand the whole concept of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

B.1 A disciple is ‘a work in progress’ or ‘under construction’

Discuss the verses below. Analyse the words or actions of the disciples, and come to some conclusion about the understanding, faith and obedience of Jesus’ genuine disciples, and how closely their values compared with his values or contrasted to his values.

Matthew 8:25-26

Matthew 13:36

Matthew 14:15

Matthew 15:23

Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 19:13

Matthew 26:8

Matthew 26:56

Mark 6:45-32

Luke 11:1

John 4:27


Because disciples, even genuine spiritual disciples, are ‘pupils’ or ‘learners’, they are ‘works in progress’, they are ‘under construction’. They are people in the process of learning how to follow Jesus. From the verses above it is clear that Jesus’ genuine disciples:

  • Did not understand everything, and knew that they didn’t
  • Did not yet share all the values and priorities that Jesus’ held
  • Did not really understand his vision or his mission
  • Tried to box him into their own perceptions and expectations of what he should do
  • Sinned greatly against him
  • Physically deserted him under stress and because of fear
  • Neither understood nor trusted him fully
  • Failed to treat people with the same compassion that he showed

But they were learning, and they wanted to learn more, from Jesus. When Jesus rebuked them they took it, and learned from it. They discussed his difficult teaching with him, so that they could understand it better [see Mark 10:23-31], unlike non-genuine disciples who stopped learning from him when they couldn’t stomach what he was saying [John 6:60-71].

In case we think this ‘works in progress’ identity of disciples is limited to pre-resurrection, pre-Holy Spirit disciples, consider the following:

Analyse these verses. Describe the ‘under construction’ aspect of the disciples in these verses.
Acts 6:1

Acts 10:9-17

Acts 11:1-3

Acts 12:14-16

Acts 15:1-2, 5

Acts 15:36-41

Galatians 2:11-14


This is how it is today. Every genuine Christian believer/disciple is a work in progress – learning from the teaching and the example of Jesus Christ. Note the word learning – present tense, continuous tense.

 

B.2 What distinguishes a genuine disciple/believer?

Discuss these verses. What do they teach as the distinguishing characteristics of genuine followers of Jesus Christ?
Matthew 7:21


Matthew 11:29


Matthew 13:23


John 8:30-32


John 10:27


John 13:35


John 15:8

Now go to 1 John and list below the characteristics of true believers/disciples/followers you find there.

 

 

 

 

 


As we have seen in B.1 disciples are learning. They are not there yet. But as they learn, the characteristics of Jesus Christ will begin to be evident in their lives. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 we are taught that as we contemplate or look at Jesus, the Holy Spirit within us is gradually transforming us into his image, bit by bit. This is what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. Looking at Jesus, learning from him, becoming more like him.

 

B.3 The contemporary situation

Compare or contrast contemporary concepts of the Christian as a ‘disciple’ with the concept you have gained from this study.