It is always important to define our terms to make sure we are on the same page. Several people have asked for me to define my terms. I hope this is helpful. Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on how you define this.
I was at a conference a few years back and had a chance to ask a question of a very prominent New Testament scholar. I had read enough of his work to be intrigued by his view on baptism, as he spoke in ways that sounded very much like he believed it was essential. The time came for some Q&A and I asked him about his view on the essentiality of baptism. He gave four reasons why he believed it was extremely important. I enjoyed his answer and we went on to the next question. As soon as the next person asked their question it hit me – when he said “baptism” he and I may not mean the same thing. He may be thinking infant baptism and I am thinking believers baptism. These things always hit you when it is too late!
So what do we mean by the word disciple and the word discipleship?
The answer to this is going to be given in two stages. The first stage is this post where I am going to share my initial thoughts on how I conceive of these terms from a biblical perspective. The second stage will come over time as we work through these things together in conversation.
Why two stages?
If Jesus asked you to be his disciple and you replied by asking him how he defines that word I am sure his answer would come in two stages. He could explain what it would entail. He could define the terms. But he couldn’t show you all that really means or teach you all that really means until you were on the road with him for quite some time…possibly all the way up until his ascension three years later.
I am not claiming to be Jesus but I am looking at things through that lens.
Let’s launch into stage 1 of the answer – what is a disciple and then we will discussion what is discipleship?
What is a disciple?
First, we look at education in ancient Israel. We don’t know an awful lot about how they educated their youth in the scriptures. We do know that there wasn’t one set approach as various teachers went about this with different philosophies. Rabbi Shammai believed that only the best students should be chosen and educated. Rabbi Hillel believed all children should receive education.
There was something written in Sayings of Fathers chapter five that gave one person’s take on development and education that said,
“At five, children are ready for scripture; at ten, for Mishnah; at thirteen, for the Commandments; at fifteen, for the teachings that gave rise to the Talmud; at eighteen, for marriage; at twenty, for the pursuit of righteousness; at thirty, for full strength; at forty for discernment; at fifty for counsel; at sixty, for old age; at seventy, for gray hairs; at eighty, for labor and sorrow; at ninety, for decrepitude; at one hundred, death.”https://archive.org/stream/sayingsoffathers00unse/sayingsoffathers00unse_djvu.tx
To the best of our knowledge education in Israel began around age 5-7. They spent time in prayer and in studying Shema (Deut 6:4-6) and Torah. The study could be rigorous and the punishments for failing harsh. Most of the study centered on past interpretations, not gaining new insight. This was about preserving their scriptures and culture.
Schools weren’t typical until at least 200 B.C. with most of the training taking place in the home by the parents. A lot of what we know about Jewish education systems comes from the Mishnah, which was written after the first century and may not be a perfect representation of how things were in Jesus’ day. Ray Vander Laan has popularized some of these views and you can find that at That the World May Know website. For more on this see Crenshaw’s book “Education in Ancient Israel.”
We know some people excelled in their education and we see them in the New testament as the scribes. Everett Ferguson calls the scribes, “the official scholars of the Torah.” (Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 516).
The New Testament itself gives us some insight into what a disciple is. We see that John the baptist had disciples (John 1:35) and, of course, Jesus did as well. The word in Greek for disciple is the word “mathetes” which means an apprentice. It is a stronger, more involved word than student. This isn’t about going to class a few hours here and there. It is an intensive apprenticeship that spans the course of several years.
Mathetes is used nearly 300 times in the New Testament. How many times is the word Christian used? Three times and all of them are pejorative. This means that disciple is the word early Christians thought of themselves as. Christian came later. If we want to have a semblance of early Christianity, today, we need to embrace being disciples.
There is no such thing as a “disciple in name only.”
You can be called a Christian or call yourself a Christian and not be a disciple. But you cannot be a disciple and not be a Christian. That is because Christian is a title, a name. Disciple can be used that way but it is an action word – a follower. John the Baptist and Jesus had disciples who learned from them as they were apprenticed by them…as they followed them around.
The closest thing to discipleship I have ever experienced was in graduate school. I was studying Clinical and Healthy Psychology at the University of Florida and every student had a mentor professor. The professor was purposefully shaping you to become like them. You worked in their lab, wrote chapters for them, did research and therapy under their supervision, etc.
Do you know when I knew it was time to drop out of the program? When I looked around at all the professors and no longer wanted to become who they were. That isn’t a slam on them. That was a reflection of a change in direction in my life at the time. They were discipling us to make us into little versions of themselves. They did this through us following them around, learning to do what they did and learning to teach what they taught.
That is what being a disciple looks like. Jesus is the instructor. We are his disciples.
What is discipleship?
Discipleship is the process where followers (apprentices) become like their instructor through hands on training. In our case Jesus is always the instructor. Sometimes people get discipleship wrong because they fail to make Jesus the instructor. Once Jesus is understood by all parties involved to be the instructor we remove the hierarchy from the process that often poisons the discipleship water hole.
In order to be discipled by Jesus we have to understand that the goal is to become a little version of him. I don’t have time to go into all of the verses but know that this is what spiritual formation or transformation is all about – to develop the mind of Christ, attitude of Christ, image of Christ, and so much more – to become like Jesus in all things (read here for the verses).
Next, discipleship is never done alone. It is done in community. It is done like Deuternomy 6 says – we learn when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we sit up – in all postures and walks of life. You don’t stop being a disciple and you don’t stop being discipled by Jesus. Discipleship is an active process. As Brian McLaren once wrote “we make the road by walking.” That walking is done by following in Jesus’ steps, watching him and learning from him. Watch the way he does it and learn to do it his way rather than the ways that come most naturally to ourselves.
How do we follow someone who isn’t here if we aren’t following the person who is?
I am glad you asked.
We do this through studying the gospels. We can follow Jesus by studying what he said and watching (through reading) what he did. We learn his teachings and his doings from the gospel to go on to teach what he taught and do what he did.
Consider the Great Commission from this perspective. Jesus didn’t just say go baptize people. He said “go and make disciples” by doing two things – baptizing and teaching them to obey everything Jesus had commanded. That is discipleship 101. Jesus is passing on his teaching (the Jewish people called this a “yoke” like Matt 11:28-30?). You follow the Rabbi/teacher to learn their teaching and learn to do life their way to teach it to others.
We must be in the Gospels daily and we must discuss them with other people so we can share insights with one another, so we can have mutual accountability (uni-directional accountability is a recipe for disaster) and so we can encourage each other along the way. Once we get through the introductory stage of this process here on the blog we will be in the gospels discussing discipleship by paying close attention to Jesus, together. I am looking forward to that and I hope you are too!
There is so much more I want to say that I will get to in upcoming posts but let me say this. When Jesus sent out the 72 in Luke 10 he didn’t send them alone. He sent out 26 groups of two!
Discipleship ends our spiritual and relational isolation. Like God said, “Man is not meant to be alone.” This is something we must do together with Jesus in the lead. If man is in the lead, we are doing this incorrectly and it is destined to be abused.
Let’s review. A disciple is an apprentice-follower. The goal is to become like your teacher. The teacher is Jesus and we become like him through study, through obedience, and through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus with other people, not alone. We follow Jesus to learn his teaching to teach it to others. We follow Jesus to learn what he did to imitate his actions toward others. This is discipleship. God calls every Christian to be a disciple…to learn from Jesus in order to become more like Jesus.
Let me know what questions or concerns you have as we work these things out together.