Discipleship

Preaching and Worship Resources about Discipleship

Discipleship refers to the lifelong commitment of Jesus's followers to go where the Master leads and to conduct themselves in ways consistent with what Jesus said and taught during his ministry as recorded in the gospels. Imitation of Christ is the hallmark of all true discipleship.

In Scripture

Although the word "discipleship" does not occur in the New Testament, the presence of Jesus's disciples is dominant in the gospels. The Greek word is mathete, which means "student" or "apprentice." In the NRSV translation of the Bible, the word occurs 263 times in the New Testament, 235 of which are in the four gospels with the remaining 28 occurrences in Acts. In the ancient world, wise teachers, philosophers, and (in Jewish circles) rabbis would attract a following of those who wished to learn at the feet of a master. Some apprentices were selected by the master; others volunteered to join. Jesus always took the initiative when calling his inner circle of twelve disciples, although there is evidence in the gospels that Jesus had also a much wider following of disciples including both men and women.

As noted, the singular and plural form of "disciple(s)" is used extensively in the four gospels — although principally to refer to the twelve — and in the book of Acts but nowhere else in the New Testament. In the epistles, believers in Christ often are not referred to as disciples but as brothers and sisters in Christ or members of the body of Christ. In Acts 11:26 we are told that "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called `Christians.'" It is possible this term "Christian" soon became the common way to refer to Christ's followers, eclipsing "disciple." But the use of this word in Acts indicates that in the earliest days of the church, anyone who joined the church was referred to as a disciple (as opposed to the remaining eleven disciples — and later also Paul — who were soon referred to principally as "apostles"). Acts 6:7 is typical of this association: "The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith." When Ananias is directed in Acts 9 to go meet with Saul after his Damascus Road experience, Ananias is likewise referred to as "a disciple." Thus, despite the lack of this term in New Testament letters, the idea that believers are all disciples of Jesus — and the idea that lifelong efforts at learning from Christ and imitating Christ constitutes ongoing discipleship — has continued in history.

Points to Ponder

The Cost of Discipleship: In the original German of his well-known book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's title was simply Nachfolge, the German word for discipleship that literally means "to follow after." Disciples are the ones who trot along behind Jesus, following where the Master leads and taking their behavioral cues from Jesus's own words and actions. But because the way of Christ ultimately leads to the way of the cross, discipleship is never a cheap or easy prospect. Grace may be free, but it does not come to anyone without the very dear cost of no less than the life of God's own Son. Indeed, Bonhoeffer would claim that if anyone claims to be a Christian but does not seek to imitate Christ and follow his commands, it is a false version of Christianity — indeed, it is not Christianity at all. A more recent author who wrote at length on the absolute necessity of a serious discipleship is Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy. Like Bonhoeffer, Willard believed that too few Christians today regard discipleship — actually trying to be like Jesus — as the utter necessity for the Christian faith that it is.

The Great Commission: Perhaps the single most vital text indicating that making disciples did not end with the ministry of Jesus comes at the end of Matthew's gospel when Jesus commissions his followers to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Here we see not only that the church is to be in the business of continuing to produce apprentices to Jesus Christ, but that baptism into the triune name of God is the first step of discipleship, followed by a lifelong instruction in the commands of Jesus. Disciples may well be saved by grace alone, but grace also transforms believers such that obedience becomes the hallmark of all true discipleship.

Among the words of Christ that would surely count as fitting the category of "everything that I have commanded you" were all his words about self-giving and sacrificial love. On the final night of his life as recorded in John 13 and memorialized on Maundy Thursday, Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34 - 35). Because this new commandment followed Jesus's taking on a servant's role in washing the dirty feet of his disciples — and because this comes just before Jesus lays down his life for the creation by dying on the cross — it is clear that the love Jesus commands is a self-forgetting, humble, potentially painful, and sacrificial form of love in which we regard all others as worthy of all the service we can offer. But also among the sayings of Jesus that count as commands is all that he taught in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus radicalized the literal meaning of the law by getting to the root of why God had forbidden things like murder and adultery. It is not enough for a disciple not to kill someone literally; anger, hatred, and all that leads to name-calling in our very hearts also are ruled out. Committing adultery is not only waking up in the wrong bed; for disciples the silent lust of the imagination with which one fantasizes about such a tryst is also ruled out in their hearts and minds. Discipleship, in short, is about a wholesale transformation of not only a disciple's actions but of also the very patterns of a disciple's thoughts.

Uniqueness of Jesus's Disciples: According to The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, pp. 947 - 48), Jesus distinguished himself as a master with disciples by virtue of several factors. First, Jesus called his own disciples, whereas the rabbis of his day who likewise had disciples mostly accepted those who asked to be a one. Indeed, a few times in the gospels Jesus even seemed to reject those who wanted to sign up as disciples by making the demands of discipleship so daunting that many turned away (Luke 9:57 - 62). Second, Jesus did not teach in formal classroom or synagogue settings but mostly assembled his followers in the open air, teaching them all along the way wherever his ministry took him. Third, unlike other rabbis who mostly repeated tradition and perhaps added no more than their approval of tradition, Jesus taught many things new and from scratch, even claiming that his own words superseded or definitively fulfilled various aspects of Jewish tradition. Finally, unlike most rabbis at the time, who tended to accept disciples from a somewhat traditional milieu, Jesus called disciples from a variety of places and vocations, from fishermen to tax collectors to political activists. As noted, it appears that women were likewise included in the wider circle of Jesus's disciples during his ministry.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.