What is a Disciple?

As he so often does, Jesus took something common to this world and made it extraordinary.

Although used in the Old Testament, the term disciple is primarily a New Testament concept. There we find it is a very common word; John and many other rabbis had disciples, too. It was historically used to describe dedicated students following a particular teacher. In fact, both the Hebrew and Greek terms come from the root “to be taught.” So at the most basic level, a disciple is a follower and a learner.

 

As my eight-year-old self could have told you, if you kick the ball at the wrong goal, it doesn’t matter how accurate or hard the kick is. Likewise, if we aim to “make disciples” as Jesus told us to, but don’t know what we’re aiming at, our ministry will be in vain. Perhaps because the word disciple is frequently used, it is easy to use it thoughtlessly.

“Disciple” in Scripture

Although used in the Old Testament, the term disciple is primarily a New Testament concept. There we find it is a very common word; John and many other rabbis had disciples, too. It was historically used to describe dedicated students following a particular teacher. In fact, both the Hebrew and Greek terms come from the root “to be taught.” So at the most basic level, a disciple is a follower and a learner. But as he so often does, Jesus took something common to this world and made it extraordinary.

If we trace the title through the gospels and Acts—the only places in the New Testament disciple is used—we clearly see the gospel writers used this word more than any other to talk about those people who followed Jesus and learned from his teaching. The Scriptures nowhere speak of someone who is truly born again yet isn’t a disciple; to be one is to be the other. Perhaps most interesting is that the word continues to be used after Jesus’ ascension as one of the normal synonyms for Christians. It turns out one can still follow a Savior who doesn’t walk on the earth anymore.

Defined by their Fruit

In the gospel of John, Jesus uncomfortably prevents us accepting any definition of disciple not involving character and cost. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (15:8) One isn’t a disciple simply by self-definition or wishful thinking. A disciple is one who can be identified as such by those around them. In our case, a disciple of Jesus is someone who bears “much fruit”—fruit like repentance, obedience, the beatitudes and the fruit of the Spirit. Disciples are observably so.

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