Disciple Defined

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If we are going to be disciples and live for Jesus in this life, it is helpful to have a solid definition of what we are talking about. People can mean dozens of things when they talk about discipleship or being a disciple or making disciples. We will look at the definition of disciple from several perspectives to give you a sense of what this word really means.

The Hebrew Definition

In the Hebrew Old Testament the words for disciple are lamad which means ,

A pupil or apprentice[1]

“having learned what one’s teacher has taught.” [2]

“Learned, practiced, disciple” [3]

And yasar which means,

“To instruct”[4]

Both of these words have to do with learning that transforms our lives and behavior. The Jewish people understood that learning Torah wasn’t enough. One had to learn to live it in obedience.

In Ray Vander Laan’s work on Rabbinic discipleship, he points out that the word commonly used for the disciple of a Rabbi was talmid. Vander Laan points out that around the time of the first century, Rabbis would take on disciples for the disciple to learn the teachings and practices of the Rabbi in order to live them out and pass them on. This is what we see Jesus doing in his ministry. His view is that a disciple learns the teachings of the rabbi to teach them and then lifestyle of the rabbi to live it.

The Greek Definition

The Greek word in the New Testament is mathetes and it means “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice.”[5]

This word is used 262 times in 246 verses in the Greek New Testament. It might surprise you that the word Christian is only used three times in most English translations of the New Testament.

Jesus’ Definition

Jesus never directly defines what it means to be a disciple in any one-time comprehensive way. But he does instruct on it throughout his ministry. Here are a few keys to what Jesus meant when he talked about being a disciple.

On of the simplest explanations I have seen from the gospels is from Jim Putman. He plays off of Matthew 4:19,

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of people.”

Putman says a disciple is someone who is called by Jesus (come, follow me) to be changed by Jesus (I will make you), and is committed to the mission of Jesus (fish for people). He has an entire chapter explaining this definition in Real-Life Discipleship, chapter 2.

This definition is helpful because it comes straight from the Bible and is easily remembered due to the familiarity of the verse.

Mark 3:14 is another glimpse into what discipleship is all about,

“He appointed the twelves that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.”

Discipleship is about spending time with Jesus (learning from and changed by Jesus) to go out and preach for Jesus. That doesn’t mean this is just for preachers. The word here for preach is keruso which means to announce or make known. This is something anyone can do. This word is used in Mark 5:20 of the formerly demon possessed man,

“So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.”

He began to tell – this guy who had less than 1% of the knowledge of Jesus that we have today went out and proclaimed Jesus to new people. We cannot spend time with Jesus in the flesh but we can be in the Word, in prayer and reliant on the Holy Spirit He sent to help us which Paul in Romans 8 calls the “Spirit of Christ.”

Jesus also taught that his disciples would:

  • Be taught by Jesus (Matthew 5:1)
  • Be sent by Jesus (Luke 9:1-11 & 10:1-24)
  • Take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23)
  • Endure suffering for Christ (Matthew 5:10-12)
  • Be empowered them with the Holy Spirit (John 16:1-15)
  • Be obedient to the Father (Luke 11:28)
  • Serve each other and others (Luke 22:26-27)
  • Go and make more disciples (Matthew 28:18-20)

In short, a disciple is someone who is following Jesus to become like Jesus. A disciple learns Jesus’ teachings to share them with others and learns Jesus’ practices to help others. They are following in submission to King Jesus and obedience to the Father. Disciples are on mission to spread the message and methods of Jesus into the world to help others also become disciples who make more disciples.

Last, disciple is not a special group of super Christians. Disciple is what every Christian is and continues to grow into being. You can be used by God to follow Jesus and help others do the same.

How would you define disciple? Comment and let’s talk!

If discipleship resonates with you, you might read this next – How Every Christian Can Make Disciples – and Enjoy Doing it!


1 – Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament

2 – The Lexham Theological Workbook

3 – New International Dictionary of Old Testament Exegesis

4 – Lexham Theological Workbook

5 – A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition

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