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The word translated ‘disciple’ (mathetes) means learner, that is, a pupil, a student. It is derived from the verb manthano, which means to ‘teach’, or to ‘make disciples’.

In the New Testament, the word ‘disciple’ is used only in the Gospels and Acts. It is used to refer to various people, not just to people who believed in Jesus:

Disciples of John the Baptist – multiple references.
Disciples of the Pharisees – Mark 2:18
Disciples of false teachers – Acts 20:30.
Moses’ disciples – John 9:28.

The bottom-line meaning of ‘disciple’ is that a disciple is someone who is being taught, or who has been taught, by another person or a group, and listens to or follows the teaching of that person or group.

When we look at the references to ‘disciples’ of Jesus Christ, we discover that his ‘disciples’, his ‘pupils’ – those he was teaching – fell into three groups:

[1] There were those who saw his miracles and heard his teaching, but, when they realised what he was teaching, and the implications of that teaching, decided that it was not what they wanted to hear, nor how they wanted to live. They never really believed in him, even though their temporary interest in his teaching made it look like they did.

The following verses from John 6 show us these ‘disciples’:

‘On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” ... Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. ... From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him’ (vs 60, 64, 66).

These are the kind of ‘disciples’ of whom John commented:

‘... many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to (the Greek has ‘believe in’) them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person’ (John 2:23, 24).

They were observing Jesus’ miracles and sitting under his teaching. On the outside they looked just like the disciples in category #3 below. But although they were listening to his teaching, they eventually did not agree with it, believe it, or follow through with it.

[2] There were the twelve disciples who, with the exception of Judas, really did believe in Jesus. They heard his teaching, they saw his miracles, they saw how he lived, and they concluded that he was the Messiah, the one who spoke from God.

Following on from the conversation quoted from John 6 above, we read this:

‘“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”’ (John 6:67 – 60; read vv60 – 71).

These, along with Matthias who replaced Judas (see Acts 1:21ff), were the Twelve Apostles, appointed by Jesus to lay the foundation of his church. They were also part of the next category of ‘disciples’.

[3] There were others, mostly unnamed, who believed as the disciples/apostles believed: they listened to Jesus’ teaching, they observed what he did, and they believed in him, really believed in him – that he was indeed the Holy One sent from God. Some of these disciples/believers he sent out on mission, just as he sent the Twelve on mission (Luke 10:1). Some were secret believers (John 19:38). All had learned from Jesus and all held to his teaching.

Jesus pinpointed the key difference between a disciple who has heard his teaching but not taken it to heart, and a disciple who has both heard and really believed:

‘Even as he spoke, many believed in him. To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”’ (John 8:30 – 32).

The rather heated conversation that followed (8:33 – 59) reveals that these Jews who appeared to have ‘believed in him’, actually couldn’t stomach Jesus’ teaching when they saw what he actually meant. They rejected his teaching about himself so vehemently that they picked up stones to stone him to death for blasphemy.

In the New Testament letters the term ‘disciple’ is never used. The followers of Christ (that is, those we today would call ‘Christians’) are referred to with words such as ‘the saints’, ‘God’s holy people’, ‘the brothers (and sisters)’, ‘the church’, ‘those who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’, ‘the faithful’ (that is, the ‘believing ones’), ‘God’s elect’.

The important question is not which word is used to refer to the followers of Christ, but, for each of us, it is this: Which kind of ‘disciple’ am I? Leaving aside ‘the Twelve’, whose foundational apostolic role can never be repeated:

Am I a ‘disciple’ who hears, but doesn’t really believe in Jesus?

Or, am I a ‘disciple’ who hears and really believes in Jesus, who really holds to Jesus' teaching about himself and his kingdom?

© Rosemary Bardsley 2021