What does it mean to be a disciple today? What did it mean to be a disciple to the first twelve disciples whom Jesus chose?
In ancient history the word disciple referred to an “apprentice” or a student under someone such as a teacher. By the time of Christ, the Greek word MATHATAS usually referred to a person who gave himself to a philosophy or religion. The master-disciple relationship was part of the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day. History tells us that the Greek philosopher Socrates was a master teacher who had a following of disciples. While some master-teachers such as Protgaros required payment from their disciples, Socrates, Aristole and Plato refused money. The master-disciple relationship is the approach that Jesus used to train His disciples.
Discipleship – Jewish Education
Jewish education was not interested in philosophy but in religious training. Jewish education had three major stages. The first one was called the House of Scribe or the House of Reading (Beth Sepher). This was the starting point, and it focused on the reading of the written law. The second level of education was the House of Instruction or the House of Learning (Beth Midrash or Beth Talmud). It focused on the oral law. The final or third level was advanced studies under a great scholar. The focus here was on principles of interpretation of the law. This was required in order to be ordained as a rabbi. Paul, the apostle, is an example of a Jewish boy who was a disciple under a great scholar. Here are the words of Paul.
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today. And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, (NASB) Acts 22:3-4
Paul studied under Gamaliel, one of the great Jewish rabbis or sages. Tradition says that he was the grandson of the famous Hillel. This means that Paul, the disciple, had a great rabbi, Gamaliel, as his master. They had a master-disciple relationship.
Discipleship – Jesus’ Concept
Jesus approached discipleship differently. The gospels tell us that Jesus found His own disciples. He selected them (Luke 6:12-19). One of them, Simon, must have been surprised when Jesus asked him to follow because he was fishing.
And walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (NASB) Matthew 4:18-19
The Master called his own disciples (John 13:18), unlike Socrates, Plato and Aristole. Jesus taught His disciples in groups (Luke 6:20) and one-on-one (Luke 7:40). Jesus demonstrated His deity by miracles (Luke 8:22-56; 9:12-27) and He personally revealed Himself (Luke 9:28-45). Jesus also assigned personal ministry to His disciples.
And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons, and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to perform healing. And He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece.” (NASB) Luke 9:1-3
Jesus called them. He taught them. He openly revealed His personal side to them. He demonstrated the fact that He was a supernatural person, and He shared that power with them. He was preparing them to replace Him – to the degree that was possible – after He left. Jesus also encouraged them and expected them to be fully committed. Jesus revealed this early in His ministry to them. Many of His potential disciples decided to leave Him after they heard Jesus teach something they did not believe. But the twelve disciples remained with Him. So Jesus asked them a question to firm up their commitment.
As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore. Jesus said therefore to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. (NASB) John 6:66-68
Jesus’ concept of discipleship includes more than teaching. It involved revealing Himself. He sought their commitment and gave them ministry assignments. He was preparing men to have spiritual eyes fixed on Him, men who would be faithful. Men who would be slaves for others and seek to be leaders. Jesus was looking for humble leaders. Men and women who did not see themselves as “more gifted” or more spiritual or more “anything” than others.
It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; (NASB) Matthew 20:26-27
Discipleship – The Goal
What is the goal of discipleship? If we desire to disciple others, we need to know where we are going. Jesus modeled biblical discipleship. It is about preparing men and women to be spiritually mature. Matthew 28:19 tells us the goal and the starting point.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, (NASB) Matthew 28:19
When we place our trust in Jesus to forgive us of our sins, that is the point we become Christians (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28). It is also a mark of a successful discipleship – one who makes disciples. A growing disciple is one who makes disciples. If you are a Christian, are you a growing disciple? 1 John 2:12-14 is the major passage in the Bible that gives the marks of a spiritual maturity – it tells us what discipleship is all about.
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (NASB) 1 John 2:12-14
This passage describes three levels of Christian growth. A master teacher starts with a baby Christian; his sins have been forgiven. The second level is a young man. The mark of a young man is that he is overcoming the evil one; he is spiritually strong, and he knows the Word of God both intellectually and in his life. The mark of a mature disciple is one who really knows the Father.
Discipleship – How?
How do we get there? Jesus gave the example – teaching, openly sharing yourself, doing ministry together and by assignment. It involves commitment by both. The master should be one who is mature in the Lord. This does not necessarily mean older people. Chronological age does not always result in spiritual growth. Many older people do not really know the Word. Nor does this mean that young men with Bible knowledge are spiritually mature. Many are not overcoming the evil one. There is too much sin in their lives. Others are seasoned with wisdom that only comes with years of experience.
Discipleship cannot be as effective as it should be when the teacher is not a master of what he is teaching. The true master-teacher is the key to successful discipleship. A baby master-teacher can only produce baby disciples. A master-teacher who is a young man in the faith will not be able to produce men or women who are more than a spiritual young man in the faith. The master-teacher is the key. The point we are making echoes Jesus’ words to His disciples.
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master. (NASB) Matthew 10:24
The disciple will not rise above his master. I love Jesus’ words “it is enough.” It is enough to become like Jesus. There is nothing greater than to be like the Master. That is the goal – to be like Him. Why were the apostles so great? Their master-teacher was the key and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. His name was Jesus!