What is discipleship?

What is discipleship? What is a disciple-maker? What did it mean to be a disciple of Jesus when He walked the earth? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus now, in today’s world? These are questions every Christian must wrestle with if we are to understand what it even means to be a Christian.  In the following paragraphs I will look at the Greek words used in the Bible for “disciple” and how these words were used in Classical Greek, the Old Testament times, the times between the Old Testament and the New Testament, during the time of Christ, and following the time Jesus walked the earth which applies to you and me today.

First, the times of Jesus and the basic calling to Discipleship of Jesus: In the New Testament there are several words that connote discipleship and which were primarily applied to those who literally walked around and followed Jesus.  The term akoloutheo means to follow, and was used almost exclusively in the gospels with respect to disciples being called to follow Jesus (e.g., the calling of Levi to follow Jesus in Matthew 9:9).  The word was used in the gospels to point to the beginning of discipleship.[1]  The expectation of the one called was “…to decisive and intimate discipleship of the earthly Jesus.”[2]  Theologically there are some important points that must be understood in how this word was used by Jesus.  First, the word was never used metaphorically in the New Testament and had the “semi-literal sense of ‘going behind’ …with reference to the earthly Jesus.”[3]  The words opiso mou were used synonymously with akoloutheo as the most simple call to discipleship in Matthew 4:19 and Mark 1:17, “Come after me (deute opiso mou), and I will make you to become fishers of men.”[4]  Jesus used this word differently than Rabbis; a Rabbi waited for disciples to come to him and apply to become a follower, but Jesus did not wait for volunteers, he sought them out and called them with divine authority (Mark 1:16-20).  Jesus did not create a rabbinical school in order to teach traditional modes of conduct.  Rather, He pointed His disciples “…to the future dawn of the Kingdom of God (Lk. 9:59 f.).  To be a disciple of Jesus was an eschatological calling to help in the service of the ‘kingdom’ which is ‘at hand’ (Mk. 1:15).”[5]  And thus, those who walked the earth with Jesus in this manner had authority in His name (Matthew 28:18-20; cf. Acts 1:8; 2:42; 4:7-22).  The expectation of a follower of the earthly Jesus was to give up the old life and take up the new calling as a disciple of Jesus, which was not worth it for some (e.g., the rich young man in Mark 10:17ff.).  Finally, Jesus taught His followers to ready themselves for suffering, to “‘…deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mk. 8:34; cf. Matt. 10:38).”[6]  These words akoloutheo and opiso mou were primarily used in the gospels.  Throughout the rest of the New Testament different words are used to convey our fellowship with Jesus and the disciple making process for those who did not literally walk with Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20).

Pre-Jesus: The development of the pupil-teacher relationship in rabbinical Judaism set the stage for Jesus to call disciples to Himself and then to launch them to go make disciples of all nations.  The definition of the verb manthano used by Jesus in Matthew 28:19 goes beyond learning and mental assent to a set of doctrines.  Note how Greek philosophers thought of this idea of being a learner, “Socrates held that, when a man is learning something, he should penetrate deeply into the nature of everything (including his own nature).”[7]  The noun mathetes describes a person who has bound himself to a master or teacher “in order to acquire his practical and theoretical knowledge.”[8]  In classical Greek this word describes “an apprentice of a trade, a student of medicine, or a member of a philosophical school.”[9]  In the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) mathetes translates the Hebrew talmid, a disciple who had studied under a Jewish scholar called a hakam.  In the Hebrew Bible, only a hakam had authority to teach his own interpretations of the written Torah (the Old Testament) and the oral Torah (known as “the traditions of the fathers” including the Mishnah, Midrash, Halacha and Haggada).  And only a disciple who had studied under a hakam for an extensive period of time could take on this title and develop his own school to teach his own traditions.[10]  Eventually rabbinical schools were established to train Rabbis (teachers) who would become the local teachers at a Synagogue.  The Rabbi’s duty was to lead a local congregation in worship and to establish Synagogue schools for training children in Torah.[11]

During and beyond the time of Jesus: In the New Testament, the verb to learn as a disciple (manthano) occurs 25 times, six times in the Gospels.  On the other hand the noun for a disciple (mathetes) occurs 264 times, exclusively in the Gospels and Acts.[12]  “It is used to indicate total attachment to someone in discipleship.”[13]  This was true for those literally following Jesus.  But what about those who had never met Jesus, how can they be a disciple of our Lord? The verb manthano had another application in Scripture, to come to know the will of God through Jesus’ teachings.  This learning is not a mere intellectual process, but the acceptance of Christ Himself, along with “rejection of the old existence and beginning of the new life of discipleship in him (cf. Phil. 4:9; 1 Cor. 4:6).”[14]  Paul reminds the Ephesians in 4:20-24 that the understanding of Jesus’ teachings “is revealed in one’s conduct.”[15]  And so Paul uses another word for discipleship, mimeomai meaning to imitate or follow.[16]  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” This is a call from a disciple-maker to disciples to follow the example of a leader in being Christ-imitators, “laying hold of Christ in the consciousness of one’s own imperfection and letting one’s life be continually re-moulded [sic] by Christ in obedience to him (cf. 3 Jn. 11).”[17]

Jesus was like a Rabbi who took on the role of disciple-maker with His disciples whom He called to “follow after” Him and learn to become fishers of men.  He literally walked with them like being on a mission trip and seminary schooling for 3 1/2 years.  After His death and His resurrection He commissioned his disciples to repeat the process to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20; cf. Acts 1:8).  We know every ethnicity has not heard the gospel, thus we can conclude this was a reproducible process Jesus taught His followers, which exists to this day through the Church.  Every time Christians get away from involving everyone in the church in the disciple-making process, the process Jesus’ taught breaks down and the church becomes unhealthy, undesirable to be a part of, and in need of a spiritual awakening.  As Pastor of Grace Church, like a Doctor I am diagnosing this is the problem in many north American churches.  This has been a problem at our church, and like a Doctor I am making prescriptions.  But the patients need to follow the Doctor’s orders: exercise, eat right, take your medication, etc.  For Grace Church: (1) Read your Bible every day; (2) avoid consuming ideas that give your spiritual cholesterol (movies, music, books, articles that feed your flesh); (3) exercise your faith, don’t sit around thinking some diet pill will solve the problem of people not coming to Jesus; (4) go to church every Sunday (your employer can’t prevent you from doing so, if they threaten to fire you or reduce your hours, I know some good lawyers who will stand for your rights – this is where separation of church and state works in our favor); (5) be involved in making disciples through AWANA, or Children’s Church, or Home Community; (6) you need everyday Christian community, which happens through Home Community; and finally (7) seek a strong spiritual mentor.  This will help you remain accountable.


[1] Colin Brown, ed. C. Blendinger, au., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp. 480-482.

[2] Colin Brown, ed. C. Blendinger, au., Vol. 1, p. 482.

[3] Colin Brown, ed. C. Blendinger, au., Vol. 1, p. 482.

[4] Colin Brown, ed. W. Bauder, au., Vol. 1, p. 493.

[5] Colin Brown, ed. C. Blendinger, au., Vol. 1, p. 482.

[6] Colin Brown, ed. C. Blendinger, au., Vol. 1, p. 482.

[7] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 483.

[8] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 484.

[9] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 484.

[10] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 485-486.

[11] J.I. Packer and M.C. Tenny, editors, Illustrated Manners And Customs of the Bible (Nashville, TN; Thomas Nelson, 1980), 501-503.

[12] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 486.

[13] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 486.

[14] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 486.

[15] Colin Brown, ed. D. Muller, au., Vol. 1, p. 486.

[16] Colin Brown, ed. W. Bauder, au., Vol. 1, p. 490.

[17] Colin Brown, ed. W. Bauder, au., Vol. 1, p. 491.