What is a Disciple?
Words are important. Words are especially important when they provide definition for who will spend eternity with God and who will not. Surprisingly, the Bible rarely uses the word “Christian” to describe the eternally saved person. In fact, the Bible uses that term only three times (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pt 4:16). The word “Christian” means “little Christ” and was originally derogatory in nature, but over time, it was popularized. So, if that’s not how the Bible referred to Christians, how does the Bible refer to Christians?
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the sovereign choice of God, the Bible identifies Christian people primarily with the word “disciple”. Acts 6:7 says, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” In New Testament context, disciples were followers of a teacher. They were learners who aimed to one day be teachers. The definition is clarified by looking closely at Jesus and his 12 disciples in the Gospels and Acts. Here are four characteristics of a disciple.
Disciples Believe – Jesus called the disciples one by one to leave everything and follow him. There was, however, a precursor to this following. They had to believe that Jesus was worth following. They had to believe that this rabbi was different from anyone they had ever met and that his teaching was true and worthy of their devotion. You cannot become a genuine disciple of Jesus without faith that Jesus is the Christ (1 Jn 5:1). The first disciples in the book of Acts, likewise, were marked by receiving the word (Acts 2:41). They believed in the gospel and thus became disciples of Jesus. Belief in the person and work of Jesus is the first and foremost pre-requisite for being called a disciple of Jesus. Faith is the first principle from which everything else flows.
Disciples Learn – The very word disciple carries with it the anticipation of growth. Disciples are learners. This means that they begin to follow a teacher and, over time, they grow to understand, embrace, and cherish the teaching of that teacher. Learning is, therefore, essential to defining what a disciple is and what a disciple does. This is why Jesus emphasizes in Matthew 28:19, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations… teaching them.” Disciples learn the teaching of the teacher. Learning is essential to being a disciple and, thus, learning is essential to growing as a Christian. We are learners and Christ is our teacher.
Disciples Follow – Learning is superfluous if it ends at learning. Commands known, but not obeyed are not truly known. Disciples that learn but don’t obey are not really disciples. Again, this is why Jesus includes both the expectation of teaching, but also the expectation that what is taught will also be observed, “ 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Christians follow Jesus by first submitting themselves to be baptized. No matter the cost, disciples of Jesus publicly identify with him and acknowledge their allegiance to him through baptism. An individual is marked by their obedience to the first command, be baptized, and from that moment they continue to grow all the more to observe Jesus’ commands. This is precisely why the outside world began to call disciples “little Christs” (Acts 11:26). Their obedience and imitation of Jesus was plain for all to see.
Disciples Disciple – If being a disciple of Jesus means following in the footsteps of Jesus then making disciples is the inevitable goal. Jesus made disciples and molded them to become disciple-makers. Following Jesus, therefore, requires us to do the same. Being a disciple means making disciples. There is no Biblical category for a disciple of Jesus who does not pursue the mission of making other disciples since such a category would be logically inconsistent with the definition of “disciple.” Words matter. Definitions matter and the question is this – does the word disciple describe you? Go therefore and make disciples.