No word has more often vexed Christians than the word discipleship. The word disciple occurs 28 times in the New Testament. The word disciples (plural) occurs 245 times. The possessive word disciples’ and the words fellow disciples one time each. Depending on the translation you use that is somewhere between 270-280 times the idea occurs. The word is mathetes and comes from the root word manathano, which means “I learn.”A disciple is one who learns from another person. It carries the idea of mentoring in our modern usage.
The word disciple is used to refer to the 12 apostles of Jesus, one of whom fell away. Other followers of Jesus are also called disciples. Even the broader circle of his friends, his companions, were disciples. Consider also Acts 6:1ff. 9:1,10; 11:26; 14:20ff to see how the early church employed the terminology. Even Moses is said to have had disciples in John 9:28.
The emphasis in the New Testament is not on formal education when it speaks about discipleship. This does not mean formal education is unimportant. But it is not a requirement for being a disciple. What is required is fellowship with Christ and the teaching of someone, or many, who follow Christ as well.
Such disciples derive more than information. They get inspiration from others. And the disciples of our Lord learned their Teacher’s entire outlook on life, not just the stories he taught and the doctrines they might have heard.
Two facts mark discipleship biblically:
1. Fellowship with a teacher is necessary.
2. The disciple carries on a tradition, namely the life of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
When a discipler died his followers carried on the tradition they got from him/her.
We learn in the Gospels that the disciples of Jesus sometimes failed. They did not comprehend his teaching easily. They also failed to recognize his power. And they surely did not see his role at all. But once the Spirit comes, in the Book of Acts, we see things change. These disciples, the term used to collectively describe what we would call Christians, were marked by insight, power and joy. If I had to pick one attribute I think it would be incredible, supernatural joy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once write: “Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace means discipleship.”
Robert Coleman, who has influenced me by his writing and by our relationship, adds, “The kind of manpower Christ needs does not happen by accident . . . Christians must be reached and trained to become effective disciples.”
The church needs to take seriously, in a whole new way, that we are not called to get decisions for Christ but rather to make disciples of Christ. This will require that we who lead focus on this process, not on winning arguments or debates. It will require more than information and books. It will require that we sacrifice ourselves and mentor real people. Far too many of us talk a lot about discipleship when far too few of us have ever made real disciples in the biblical sense of the term. I am convicted to work even harder at this process. I hope you will join me.