Who Is a Disciple?

Written by: Ken Easley, Professor of Biblical Studies, Master of Christian Studies Director at Union University, Germantown @KendellEasley

A Jesus Follower and Cross Carrier, That’s Who…

Recently, I’ve been looking into the term “disciple” as the writers of the Gospels use the term. In the Gospels “disciple” (Greek, mathetes, meaning “learner”) in most places refers to the Twelve that Jesus called to his inner circle. Thus, “disciple” usually equals one designated by the less-frequently-used “apostle” (Greek, apostolos, meaning “someone sent”).

In a few places, however, by the term “disciple” the Evangelists mean the larger group of those who followed after Jesus (Luke 6:17; John 6:66). This usage anticipates the way the Book of Acts (but oddly, never the Epistles) always uses “disciple” in the broad sense of every learner-believer. (In Acts, “disciple” is never a synonym for “apostle.” The most obvious text is Acts 11:26: “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians,”ESV, all Scripture quotes.)

I’m not sure what to make of these differences of usage, but what is clear is that “disciples” (in the Acts sense) means the same thing as “those who follow.” In the Gospels sense, “followers” is a form from the Greek verb akolutheo. In the Gospels, this “following” was usually a literal coming behind Jesus as he moved from place to place. But in a few important texts a figurative or spiritual sense is dominant. The most important, all the words of Jesus himself, are these:

  • “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24; parallels in Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23).
  • “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38; the parallel in Luke 14:27 actually uses “disciple” instead of “worthy of me”).
  • “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:26).
  • “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
  • “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

So then being a genuine follower-disciple of Jesus means I must be completely loyal to him, without hesitation. Following him is costly to me. It necessarily includes self-denial. It necessarily means serving him with all I am. It necessarily includes taking up my cross, that is, identifying so closely with him that I willingly suffer reproach and suffering, to the point of bodily death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and martyr during World War 2, got it right in his terrifying book, The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Macmillan, 1959, p. 99).

But oh, the joy! We who have so committed ourselves to Jesus will be light to others, because we follow the one who is the light of the world. We will be a sheep who hears and follows the voice of our good shepherd.

So disciple cannot mean someone who is casually curious. Only those deeply committed to follow after him, to the point of death, need to apply. Being Jesus’ follower is a serious, costly business. It is the opposite of what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (p. 47). Are you a disciple?