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To be a ‘disciple’ is to be a pupil, a student of a teacher. Jesus, as a teacher, had many ‘pupils’. In the Gospels we are told that many people came to listen to his teaching. At one level they were all ‘disciples’ in the broad sense of the word.

But Jesus knew that some of them, indeed most of them, did not accept what he was teaching. They heard with their ears, there was some interest in their hearts, even some excitement when they saw the miracles, but this interest did not go deep enough for them to let his teaching change their minds. They were not convinced that what he taught was the truth. In fact, they ended up rejecting both Jesus’ teaching and Jesus himself.

But there were some ‘disciples’ who not only heard with their ears, but also understood, believed and embraced his teaching. According to Jesus’ definition, these were truly his disciples – ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples’ (John 8:21).

When we read Acts it is this narrow understanding of ‘disciple’ that is used. It refers to those who have responded to the message about Jesus Christ with appropriate faith and submission.

And that is the last we see of the word ‘disciple’ in the Bible. It is only used in the four Gospels and Acts. The New Testament letters and Revelation use several different words to refer to people who have responded appropriately to Jesus Christ, but never the term ‘disciple’. Instead of ‘disciple’ we find the following words:

‘saints’ (KJV), ‘holy people’ (NIV). The word is hagioi – which is the plural form of the adjective ‘holy’, which means to be set apart. Some translations have ‘God’s holy people’. It refers to the truth that those who follow Jesus have been set apart by God for himself. Sometimes the phrase ‘God’s people’ is used.

‘brothers’ (or in recent translations, ‘brothers and sisters’). The word ‘brothers’ is sometimes used to refer generally to our fellow humans, but was also used to refer to our fellow-believers. This word draws attention to the truth that all who follow Jesus Christ belong to the family of God. We are all his dearly loved children, and are therefore ‘brothers’. We are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’.

‘children of God’ and ‘sons of God’ – these names refer to two truths: (1) that followers of Jesus, his disciples, have been regenerated (born again) by the Spirit of God, and (2) adopted by God as his children.

‘children of light’ – who have embraced Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, and been rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light.

‘the faithful in Christ’ – literally, ‘those who believe in Christ’. The word is not talking about the quality of our faith but about the focus or object of faith. We, the followers of Jesus, his disciples, believe in him.

‘the church’ – those called out of the world by God. This word is used to believers/disciples collectively. It reminds us that there is a distinction between the follower of Christ and the world in which they live. We are still in the world, but no longer of the world.

‘servants’ of God or of Jesus – referring to our allegiance, our submission and our commitment.

All of these terms, and others, are used to refer to people who have acknowledged Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. And just as the New Testament letters and Revelation never refer to believers as ‘disciples’, nor do they command us to ‘be a disciple’ or to ‘make disciples’. The word ‘disciple’ is simply not there.

Does this mean that the concept of ‘discipleship’ is redundant? Was this concept just for the initial years of the church? By no means.

In referring to Christ’s followers by all the above terms, the New Testament letters and Revelation challenge us to live our lives committed to Christ. Not only committed, but also ‘worthy’ of such a Lord and such a salvation:

‘I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received ...’ (Ephesians 4:1).

‘...whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’ (Philippians 1:27).

‘...that you may live a life worthy of the Lord ...’ (Colossians 1:10).

‘...live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory’ (1Thessalonians 2:1).

As followers of Jesus Christ, as his disciples, may we all walk worthy of that calling.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2021