The term "disciple" was used often in the gospels, occasionally in Acts, and never again in the New Testament, as other terms came to be used to describe followers of Jesus during the church age. Here we will examine the components of discipleship in the ministry of Jesus and how discipleship was taught in the church age.
Consider the following passage from the beginning of Jesus' ministry:
And after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
And as He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men (Mark 1:14-17)."
Here we see the distinct presence of two calls in the ministry of Jesus: the people of Galilee were told to "repent and believe in the gospel," but the fishermen were called to follow and be trained to "fish for men." Two different groups, two different messages, two different expectations.
Often, these two calls are merged together, but it is clear from this passage and throughout the gospels that these two distinct and different calls existed in the ministry of Jesus. Recognizing this distinction will help us understand both more clearly. Let us first examine the call of "followship" in the gospels, and afterwards the call of the gospel.
The Greek term methetes (μαθητὴς, meaning "pupil, disciple") and its cognates are used 237 times in the gospels. The vast majority (220 instances) are used to describe Jesus' disciples. A verb cognate of "mathetes,"matheteuo" (make a disciple) is used to refer to the making or training of disciples. This term is used rarely in the New Testament but does appear in one of the more well-known passages on the topic, Matthew 28:18-20.
In the gospels, the term "disciple" is almost always used to refer specifically to the twelve apostles. This is especially seen in Jesus sending out "The Twelve" in the limited commission:
And having summoned His twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. And it came about that when Jesus had finished giving instructions to his twelve disciples, He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities (Matthew 10:1, 11:1).
The Greek New Testament has two other terms that are used to describe the idea of "following after" Jesus, First, akoloutheo (aκολούθησαν), a verb meaning "come after, accompany, follow as a disciple." Second, opiso (ὀπίσω), an adverb meaning "behind, after". Sometimes only akoulotheo is used, other times only opiso. Sometimes these are used together:
And as He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow (opiso) Me, and I will make you become fishers of men." And they immediately left the nets and followed (akoloutheo) Him. And going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. And immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow (opiso) Him (Mark 1:16-20).
In fact, the terms "mathetes," "opiso" and "akoulotheo" are used together in the familiar passage:
And He summoned the multitude with His disciples (mathetes), and said to them, "If anyone wishes to come after (opiso, akoulotheo) Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow (akoulotheo) Me (Mark 8:34).
While usually referring to the Twelve, the term "disciple" also is used to refer to other disciples who are not numbered among the Twelve. There are many passages that indicate that there was a larger group of disciples than just the Twelve, including:
And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles (Luke 6:13).
When therefore the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), He left Judea, and departed again into Galilee (John 4:1-3).
There were at least seventy men in this group (Lk 10:1), including Joseph of Aramathea (Jn 19:38) and those who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13ff). The rich young man (Mt 19:21) declined the offer to follow Jesus. Some took up this challenge on their own, including the healed blind men (Mt 20:34), while others sought to do likewise but were met with warnings (Mt 8:19-22, Lk 9:57-61, 14:25ff). The women who followed Jesus from Galilee (Mt 27:55) were probably the ones spoken of in the upper room (Ac 1:14).
When the eleven apostles sought to replace Judas they proposed two men that were apparently part of this larger group of disciples (Ac 1:21ff).
Because of the lack of precision of the term "disciple" in the gospels, we should speak of "followship" in discussing those who actually followed Jesus physically.
Jesus called men to accompany him for the express purpose of training them to carry out his mission of reaching the world with the gospel.
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him (Mark 1:16-18).
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. And He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him, and that He might send them out to preach (Mark 3:13-14).
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables. With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything (Mark 4:10-11, 4:33-34).
And seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest (Matthew 9:36-38)."
And having summoned His twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, preach this message: `The kingdom of heaven is near (Matthew 10:1, 10:5-7).'"
And ordering the multitudes to recline on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes (Matthew 14:19).
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:45-48)."
As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world (John 17:18).
These passages relate to the Twelve and clearly illustrate the "big picture" of Jesus' purpose is calling and training them&; the call to follow Jesus was a call to leadership.
Faith and obedience are regular themes in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Typically, the object of faith in the gospels is Jesus, his identity as the Messiah, and his message; the object of obedience is the command of Jesus through the gospel:
And after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:14-15)."
Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21).
When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:10-12)."
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
Building on the beginning of Jesus' ministry as recorded in Mark, a look at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) indicates the "gospel of the kingdom," typical material that Jesus taught as he preached in Galilee and Judea. Consider the following passages mentioning a reward or consequence:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).
For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15).
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it (Matthew 7:13-14).
Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven (Matthew 7:21).
According to these and other passages, the "gospel of the kingdom" might be summarized in the following categories:
The point here is not to delineate the criteria for salvation but to illustrate that Jesus' message to the multitudes was centered around salvation. It was not about "following him as a disciple." Salvation came by a sincere, believing and obedient response to the word of the gospel and continued faithfulness afterwards. Jesus referred to this as "true discipleship:"
Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, "If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:31-32)."
Throughout Jesus' ministry, he taught about salvation, and even indicated that certain individuals were saved, and examining these instances elaborates on the teachings discussed above.p>
For example, Jesus said the faithful apostles were saved (Mt 19:28, cf. Jn 17:2, 17:12). Jesus said Zacchaeus was saved (Lk 19:9), he also forgave the sins of some individuals (e.g. paralytic in Mt 9:2, sinful woman in Lk 7:48). Lastly, Jesus also made a promise about Paradise to the thief on the cross (Lk 23:43). These do not relate to "following Jesus as a disciple" but to faith and repentance (in the cases of Zacchaeus, the sinful woman and the thief) and pure grace (the faith of those carrying him, in the case of the paralytic).
Except in the case of the apostles (more about this below), there is no connection between "followship" and salvation; followship was not in view in the pronouncement of forgiveness or salvation.
The apostles have been considered "prototypical" Christians, as though all Christians needed to follow in their footsteps. The apostles certainly had things to their credit, having "left everything to follow" Jesus (Mt 19:28). But there is another side to the story of the apostles, and we must consider it if we are to understand followship and "true discipleship." Let us consider the most significant aspects of this discussion: the "taking up of one's cross" (the ultimate aspect of followship), and then apostolic faith.
This matter of "taking up one's cross" runs head-on into the Messianic expectations of the period, as Jesus' remarks are given in the context of a discussion of his destiny and their expectations. Clearly the masses expected a king (ref. John 6:15, 18:37) to expel the Romans. Consider the words of F.F. Bruce regarding Messianic expectations in the first century:
No single form of messianic expectation was cherished by Jesus' contemporaries, but the hope of a military Messiah predominated. (F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, Doubleday-Galilee, New York, NY, 1980. p. 133).
At the time, however, when to most people 'Messiah' was the Davidic warrior who would lead his people to victory over their Gentile overlords, it was natural that Jesus should warn Peter and the other apostles not to repeat in public what they had said about his being the Messiah. But he said more than that: according to Mark, it was from now on that he began to tell his disciples that, far from attacking and overthrowing the power of Rome, he himself would be repudiated and put to death. When Peter told him to stop talking like that, he insisted that this was the path of God's will for him, and added that those who were still determined to follow him must realize clearly what lay ahead for their leader, so that they might count the cost for themselves and be prepared one day to carry a cross to the place of execution as he was prepared to carry his. (F. F. Bruce, ibid, p. 186-187)
There is ample evidence that the apostles were like their contemporaries concerning Messianic expectations, for they persisted in not understanding the place of the cross in the life of the Messiah:
And from there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He was unwilling for anyone to know about it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later." But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him (Mark 9:30-32).
But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.
And He said to them, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory (Luke 24:21, 25-26)?"
And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6)?"
Jesus' remarks about his followers "carrying their cross" must be understood in this context of erroneous Messianic expectations. Jesus knew the cross and not the throne was in his immediate future, and his disciples needed to have the right expectations about both the Messiah and themselves. The admonition to "carry their own cross" was to emphasize the true direction of the Messianic ministry in contrast to their wrong ideas. Consider Colin Brown's comments:
He (Jesus) would realize that only the Romans had the power of capital punishment and that the form of the capital punishment was crucifixion. This was something that he lived with. He would know also of the practice of the condemned man bearing the patibulum. Whatever fate, therefore, awaited him would also await those who followed him.
The sayings about bearing the cross form part of warning the disciples to count the cost (see the context of Matt. 10:38 and Lk. 14:27). This is coupled with the warning that a servant is not above his master (Matt. 10:24, cf. Lk. 6:40, Jn. 13:16, 15:20). Moreover, the saying common to all three Synoptic Gospels occurs in the context of Jesus' acknowledgement of Peter's confession of him as the Christ. For Jesus the inevitable implication of being the Christ is suffering, death and the opposition of men. Inevitably, therefore, those who associate with him as the Christ are liable to the same fate. (Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1975. Volume I, pp. 403-404.)
This "cross-bearing" certainly wasn't a "criterion to be met" before the apostles started following Jesus; the apostles themselves did not meet this criteria. In fact, they abandoned Jesus at the time of testing, despite assurances that they would not. In the Garden of Gethsemane, followship turned to abandonment; in the court of the high priest confession turned to denial. In a very real sense, followship was over forever. If the Eleven were to be saved, it couldn't be by "taking up their cross" and faithfully following Jesus to his cross, because they didn't do it!
Another significant failing of the disciples is the persistent lack of faith. In one case, the faith of a centurion is praised and immediately afterwards the lack of faith of the disciples is revealed (Mt 8:5-10, 23-27). This persistent problem with the disciples' faith is one of the prominent themes of the gospels (e.g. Mt 14:31, 16:8, 21:21, 28:16, Lk 24:25).
The point here is not to criticize the disciples, but to help us understand the important differences between followship and faith; "taking up the cross" and true discipleship. Hebrews 11:1 says: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Followship had very little to do with faith; faith in what is seen is not faith! Jesus' remark to Thomas at the apex of the gospel of John speaks volumes in this regard:
Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed (John 20:29)."
The message of the gospels does not lift up followship but faith, and the godliness that would result from it. In the case of the apostles, following the physical Jesus was a call that led to faith in Jesus (Jn 2:11, 16:31), but it was primarily a means of training to minister. Comparing faith in Jesus and followship of Jesus, faith was clearly the greater of the two.
Per their training and commission from Jesus, the apostles were charged with taking the gospel to all nations:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20)."
Because English does not adequately translate the Greek verb "matheteuo" (meaning to train or teach), proper English translations must render the passage "make disciples." Yet a better translation would be "teach the nations" or "disciple the nations." There are no "disciples" (noun) in this passage.
Language difficulties aside, Jesus clearly wanted the Eleven to win converts from the Jews and Gentiles alike, to baptize them and teach obedience to his commands. This is exactly what the early church did. How they did it, how they viewed it and how they talked about it sheds great light on the shifting concepts of discipleship in the church age.
The first time the members of the early church are referred to collectively, they are referred to as "believers."
And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common (Acts 2:44).
This pattern continues throughout the earliest days of the church, as is seen in these "summary passages" from the first few chapters of Acts:
But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand (Acts 4:4).
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them (Acts 4:32).
And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number (Acts 5:14).
What happened to the "disciples" and the call to followship? The first time the term "disciple" appears in Acts is Acts 6:1, in reference to the number of disciples increasing at the time of the controversy of the Greek widows. The "believers" were the "disciples!" Let's get a count of the various terms applied to Christians up until Acts 6:1:
|Church, Congregation, Added, Together (7)||2:41, 2:47, 4:23, 4:31, 4:32, 5:11, 5:14|
|Believers (4)||2:44, 4:4, 4:32, 5:14|
The change in terminology makes a lot of sense, since there was no physical Jesus to physically follow after Jesus' resurrection and ascension into heaven. This change reflects the change in the concept of discipleship in the church age compared to the earthly ministry of Jesus. Discipleship shifted from the "follow me" call in Jesus' earthly ministry to 1) believing the message about Jesus as the Christ (Ac 2:38, 5:42, 8:12, 9:22) and 2) becoming a part of the church through baptism (Ac 2:41).
The expected responses to the gospel were faith and obedience, specifically repentance and baptism. To the hearers on the day of Pentecost, the expectation of the apostolic message was "repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). These became known as "believers" (Acts 2:44) who had been "added to their number" (Acts 2:41, 47).
The next few times respondents to the gospel message are discussed, they are referred to by their believing response to the gospel of the Messiahship of Jesus and being added to the church, as we saw above. As the church pushes on its missionary efforts to other parts of the world, these same ideas keep appearing again and again:
Earlier, a chart was presented that discussed the various terms that were used to refer to followers in the first few chapters of Acts. Let us consider the frequency with which certain terms were used in the entire New Testament:
|Term||Gospels||Acts||Paul's Letters||Remainder of NT||Total|
|Pct of NT||47||13||24||16||100|
Another approach might be to consider the various means of address in the epistles, since it is easy to skim the introductions of the letters and see how the churches were addressed in context.
|Fellow (1)||1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1, Philemon 1:1-2, Revelation 1:4 Philemon 1:1-2|
Child in the Faith (3)
|Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2, 2 Peter 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4|
|Saints (5)||Romans 1:7, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2|
|Called/Chosen (4)||Romans 1:7, 1 Peter 1:1-2, 2 John 1:1-2, Jude 1:1|
|Brothers (2)||Colossians 1:2, Philemon 1:1-2|
|Loved by God (2)||Romans 1:7, Jude 1:1|
Of course, there are limitations to the conclusions one could draw from these types of evidence, but the trend to move towards "believer" terminology and away from "disciple" terminology is still overwhelmingly clear.
The introduction to Romans is especially interesting because it ties together many of these concepts:
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name's sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-7)
The early church practiced some aspect of "followship" for leaders and new converts, likely modeled after the ministry of Jesus. We see instances where potential converts and young Christians were in a close band following leaders like the apostles followed Jesus:
And even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip; and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed (Acts 8:13).
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark (Acts 12:25).
And as Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God (Acts 13:42).
But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them (Acts 17:34).
And he was accompanied by Sopater of Berea, the son of Pyrrhus; and by Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia. But these had gone on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas (Acts 20:4-5).
While we see these examples for young Christians and future leaders, it is also evident that the entire church could not and did not follow its leaders in the same way. The church was simply "the assembly," submitting to its leaders but also ministering to its own needs.
There are 2 main conclusions we can draw fromthis study. Let's wrap it up here.
The proclamation and expectation of the gospel changed from the days of the earthly ministry of Jesus to the church age. During Jesus' earthly ministry, he called disciples to follow him as a means to equip them for meeting the needs of others. He also taught about salvation through belief and obedience to his commands.
The early church proclaimed the gospel of Jesus being the Christ. The expectation of the gospel was belief, obedience (namely, repentance and baptism) and becoming a member of the church. The concept of "discipleship" in the sense of physically following Jesus was completely obsolete, since Jesus had ascended into heaven and could no longer be "followed." Yet, those believing in Jesus as the Christ, obeying the gospel and becoming members of the church were still known as "disciples," just as the followers of Jesus during his earthly ministry were known.
Drawing attention to the severely neglected concept of faith in the church age is not to say that the early church somehow practiced a lesser "commitment" to Jesus than those followers during his earthly ministry. The book of Acts readily testifies to their tremendous commitment. But this commitment was based upon faith.
Nor is the call to faith an attempt to minimize the concepts of repentance and baptism, which clearly have their place. The point is that faith is the key and foundation to the rest.
People with real faith live according to their beliefs, since a lifestyle in harmony with those beliefs is the only logical alternative. The heroes of the first century, as in all times, endured hardship and persevered because of faith, not because of "commitment:"
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval (Hebrews 11:1-2).
We should not let the distortions of modern-day "easy believism" drive us to an equally distorted "discipleship" that burdens the gospel and obliterates faith, as though there were an earthly Master to follow, or that commitment is the cardinal Christian virtue. We should pursue the sincere faith as seen in the early church, in the hopes that we may reap the blessing Jesus himself promised:
Blessed are they did not see and yet believed (John 20:29).