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.
A disciple is defined by a vertical relationship: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…” (8:31) No less than during Jesus’ earthly ministry, disciples must still be marked by a relationship to the their Teacher’s Word and words so close it can only be described as “abiding.”
A disciple is also defined by horizontal relationships: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (13:35) Here is the most radical way Jesus spoke of his disciples. No one batted an eye when a rabbi told his disciples to listen to his words. But when our rabbi said that would be marked by love for each other, he permanently called us to be unmistakably unique from any other group of disciples.
Defined by their Leader
Revelation 14:4 gives us one of the best descriptions of disciples anywhere in Scripture: “It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” To be a disciple of Jesus is to be entirely, joyfully and unapologetically focused on following him wherever he goes.
The disciple follows Jesus spiritually by trusting the Father as he trusted the Father and being filled with the same Spirit with which he was filled.
The disciple follows Jesus geographically by going into the world with the message of the gospel.
The disciple follows Jesus relationally by loving his bride because he loved her first. Disciples follow Jesus by sacrificing themselves in love, even for their enemies.
The disciple follows Jesus by making their entire life the pursuit of his glory and kingdom.
Scripturally speaking, a disciple is a Christian. That we sometimes speak of turning a Christian into a disciple shows how little we expect from those who claim to be born again. It would be much more Biblical to speak about mature and immature disciples (Heb. 5:12-13). Just as Jesus’ goal was not mere converts, but full-fledged followers, so our goal must be to make disciples through evangelism and to make mature disciples by raising each other up through the corporate and interpersonal ministries of the church.
Let us have the right aim: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col. 1:28)
This article was originally published in the Reformed Presbyterian Witness.