What Is a Disciple? A Bible Professor Answers

Frederick Cardoza has ministered for 20 years in church and parachurch ministries of all sizes and has taught academically for more than 15 years at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels.

In this excerpt, adapted from his course Discipleship in History and Practice, Cardoza offers an answer to the question, “What is a disciple?”—and how being one means more than just believing in Jesus.

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What is a disciple?

A disciple is a follower or a devotee of a teaching or a person. In Christianity, a disciple is a Christ-follower.

A Christ-follower is someone who converts from his or her previous manner of living through repentance of sin and faith in Christ and then begins a lifelong, loving relationship with the living Christ, evidenced by a pursuit of becoming like him through obedience to his teachings.

A lifelong relationship

Now, let’s unpack that just a little bit. So we’ve said that a disciple is a follower; it’s a devotee. Fundamentally, that’s what a disciple is, and in Christianity, we are disciples of Christ, of Jesus. We want to pattern our lives after him.

And this is a person who converts from the way that they were living, however it was. Maybe they were religious. Maybe they were irreligious. Maybe they spent the first 60 years of their lives apart from Christ. Maybe they’re just a young child, and now they’re converting at age seven.

But what happens is this person comes to a point in their life when they realize that they need to turn to God, and so they repent of their sin and express faith in Jesus, just like Mark 1:15 says. Jesus, remember, says, “Repent and believe in the gospel.”

And then this person begins a lifelong relationship, a love relationship, with the living Jesus as Jesus lives within them, and it’s important that we understand that a disciple is someone that evidences this relationship with Christ by pursuing to become like him.

The key here that we really want to underscore is that discipleship is not just belief; discipleship is the entrance into a life with Christ from now until the end and that we do that through obedience to his teachings. And, of course, that is what Matthew 19–20 is all about—that we teach them to observe everything he’s commanded.

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Mathētēs

You know, “disciple” is the standard English translation of the Greek mathētēs and its verb form mathēteuō. Now, these and other related forms of the word had to do with being a pupil. A disciple is fundamentally a student; a disciple is a follower. Sometimes we use the word—and I really like this word—an “apprentice,” an apprentice of Jesus.

A disciple includes the idea of being a learner who sits under a teacher or teaching, and the goal is that they become like the teacher—that they embody (literally, physically in their bodies) the teaching of that teacher (in this case, of course, Christ).

The noun form of this word occurs about 260 times in Scripture, and at least 230 times the word “disciple” occurs in the four Gospels (the remaining 28 times in Acts), but apparently—and this is an amazing thing—apparently, nowhere else in the New Testament.

Now, the verb form (meaning the action of being a disciple or making a disciple) appears four times in the New Testament. We see it in Matthew 13:53, Matthew 27:57, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, of course, and then again in Acts 14:21.

The English word “disciple” comes from the Late Latin word for “pupil.”

You know, it’s curious why the word for disciple does not carry through the rest of the New Testament. After the Gospels and Acts, Christians are called things like “saints,” “believers,” and “brothers.”

Now, there’s a lot more that can be said and that will be said, but these are the basics of what a disciple is.

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Dive deeper into what discipleship is, the history of discipleship, how to be a disciple, and how to make disciples with Dr. Cardoza in the Mobile Education course Discipleship in History and Practice, available now.

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