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The word disciple and discipleship are used a lot in the church but how do we define these terms biblically?
The greek word used for disciple in the bible is mathētēs. The root meaning of this word means learner, student or apprentice. It was most often used in contrast to the role of a teacher to emphasise the relationship of learner and teacher. A disciple is said to follow the ways and teachings of the teacher.
The word disciple is not one used very much within modern language but has become a word used almost exclusively within Christianity. So perhaps we need a little help in understanding and defining discipleship and applying it to our modern world.
Discipleship can be best defined as the process by which we begin and continue to follow Jesus in such a way that we grow, mature and are transformed to be like Jesus. This process involves us opening our whole lives to Jesus’ teaching and letting it shape our thoughts, words and actions. The Holy Spirit works in our lives to make this process a reality.
Below are 4 important aspects to remember when thinking about biblical discipleship.
1. Disciples Are Apprentices
When we consider the terms teacher, student or learner, we often attach our own personal baggage. Most of our experience of teachers has been formed by our education. We think of lectures and we think of academic learning. We perhaps think of paper tests and grades. We think about learning by rote or cramming at the last minute for exams. Some of this baggage is unhelpful when we define a biblical disciple.
The term apprentice perhaps gives a fuller sense of what it means to be a disciple.
In modern times apprenticeships have become much more common. Partly in response to a realisation that we all learn in different ways and that for many, putting something into practice is as important as learning it in a classroom.
So perhaps apprentice is a more modern term that still captures some of what it is to be a disciple.
So as apprentices we are not left to study faith as a purely academic pursuit. Being a disciple means learning as we go, in the field. Making mistakes under the careful eye of our mentor Jesus. Which is exactly what we see when we read the gospels. A group of men who lived with Jesus, ate with Jesus and learnt on the job. They didn’t pass any academic standards but rather came to understand Jesus’ heart, his nature and wrestle with his teachings.
He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach. Mark 3:14
So if there is a more modern term for discipleship perhaps at least in part it is an apprenticeship to Jesus. Letting his words in the bible guide our daily lives, letting his Holy Spirit challenge our attitudes, actions and our thought patterns.
Being a disciple is being an apprentice to Jesus.
2. Disciples Give Their Whole Life To It
When Jesus chose the first disciples he gave them one simple offer: follow me.
These uneducated fishermen dropped everything, leaving families and businesses to be with Jesus and learn from him. A biblical understanding of discipleship requires us to be as radical. Not that it will require us specifically to leave our family and businesses but in the sense that it requires us to lay down our whole lives.
Discipleship requires a level of intensity and commitment. It means that we go where we are led, we lay down what we are asked to lay down and we pick up what we are asked to pick up.
Discipleship is more than simply learning some new information about God and Jesus, it requires something of us. It is at times inconvenient and costly. Our bibles can’t safely sit on a shelf and gather dust. The words of Jesus must ask questions of how we do relationships in our homes, how we interact on social media, how we work for justice and how we relate to money. Not in an academic sense, but in a way that shapes us.
Disciples give up their former life in order to gain a new one. To follow Jesus means to follow him even when we don’t like where we are being led!
The life of a disciple is thoroughly fulfilling, full of joy, peace and freedom, and puts us front and centre when God moves powerfully. Yet it also requires our everything.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Matt 16:24
3. Disciples Become Like Their Teacher
In a biblical framework discipleship has a goal. As Jesus’ disciples or apprentices we are all on a journey to become like him.
A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Luke 6:40 (ESV)
So the goal of a fully trained disciple and therefore discipleship in general is that we become like Jesus. That is to say that we start to think like Jesus, act like Jesus, reveal Jesus through our attitudes and represent Jesus with our words. This can seem like a tall order and yet that is the clear teaching of the bible.
We are not left on our own in this process. We have the Holy Spirit, the bible and the Church community to help us on this journey. To measure our growth we must become familiar with the one we are becoming like. None of us will arrive in this lifetime and yet that remains our trajectory.
When we see Jesus fully as he is, then we will be like him.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 1 Cor 3:18
4. Disciples Make Disciples
If we follow Jesus we are his disciples, his apprentices. Part of that process of following him is also to make more disciples. This comes up in one of the most famous verses in the bible:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… Matt 28:19
So disciples, make disciples. That is to say that at some point discipleship reproduces. We all mature and grow as we follow Jesus in our own lives and also at some point we become teachers. Not in a way that replaces Jesus but that points directly to him. Paul put it like this:
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 1 Cor 11:1
Disciples become those who make other disciples. At the simplest level this means that we share our journey of discipleship with others and encourage them on in their own journey.
The primary mission of the church is not to make converts but rather disciples. People who give their whole life to following Jesus. In turn these people will then make disciples.
This is how Christianity has grown over the centuries as the good news of Jesus has spread.
For more on some of the challenges of discipleship in our modern world see this article: “The Challenges of Discipleship In Our Modern World (What Has Changed?)”
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