by Brian Allred
If you tell someone in Germany that you’d like to give her a gift, she might feel insulted. The word gift in German doesn’t mean present – it means poison. If you order biscuits in London, you’re going to get cookies. And if someone in Argentina invites you to play football, they’re not talking about the kind where you score touchdowns against linebackers but the kind where you kick goals against goalies.
These examples serve to illustrate the frequent need to define our terms in conversations in order to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Defining our terms can be crucial at times. For example, what some people mean by the term racism today might not be what you understand it to mean, so important dialogue is rendered unproductive because we end up talking past each other.
Defining our terms is important with biblical and theological words, too. Consider that people can mean very different things when talking about stuff as common and fundamental as the gospel, sin, and the kingdom. The same goes for the word disciple. Some people have very concrete ideas about what a disciple is that might be very different from someone else’s ideas. Others may have only a vague idea of what is meant by a disciple. But given that the Great Commission assigned to the church and Jesus’s last commandment to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew is to make disciples, understanding what a disciple is pretty important.
Let’s take some steps toward understanding discipleship with a series of three posts exploring the definition, the demands, and the development of being a disciple. We’ll start with the definition.
The Definition of Being a Disciple
The best way to gain an understanding of what a disciple is and what it means to live as a disciple in the biblical sense is to see what Scripture says about it. While the Bible may not provide us with a succinct definition of a disciple, we do get helpful descriptions, principally from Jesus. Before considering what Jesus says about being a disciple, it might be helpful to note that our English word disciple comes from a Latin root rather than from the New Testament Greek word1. But both the Latin and Greek words share the basic idea of “learning” or “being a learner.” The basic idea of being a disciple is being a learner.
The basic idea of being a disciple is being a learner.
We should be careful not to impose common notions of modern classroom learning onto the New Testament idea of a disciple. Learning involves more than sitting at a desk taking notes and taking tests. Indeed, learning to tie our shoes or ride a bike doesn’t happen that way. Lots of learning takes place by doing. And learning by doing often involves imitating. Consider that learning to speak, learning to write the letters of alphabet, learning how to resolve conflict, and learning social etiquette, just to name a few things, all involve degrees of imitation. Of course, the New Testament idea of a disciple being a learner certainly doesn’t exclude common elements of learning like reading and studying—after all, God gave us a book to be read and studied in order that we might know him, love him, and worship him—but the New Testament idea of a disciple as a learner revolves around this idea of imitation. Even reading and studying the Bible is undertaken with the goal of imitation. We detect the importance of imitation in being a disciple in Jesus’ words in Luke 6:40: “A disciple is not above his teacher but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” Assumed in Jesus words is that a disciple has a teacher from whom he or she learns, and that the aim is not merely being better informed but being transformed, or better yet, becoming like or conformed to the teacher.
But Jesus also makes it clear that being specifically his disciple involves certain things, namely following him in cross-bearing self-denial. Jesus says in Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The language of “coming after” Jesus is tied to being a disciple just a few chapters later in Luke 14:25-27: “Now great crowds accompanied [Jesus], and he turned and said to them,‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.’” Being a disciple of Jesus means to come after him – following him in self-denial and cross-bearing.
A disciple is a person following Jesus in cross-bearing self-denial as a life-long, obedient learner with the aim of being informed, transformed, and conformed to our Savior.
With these things in mind, I might offer this as a definition of a disciple: a disciple is a person following Jesus in cross-bearing self-denial as a life-long, obedient learner with the aim of being informed, transformed, and conformed to our Savior. We could expand on this definition in order to tie in some other important biblical truths. Certainly, being a Christian disciple involves loving God, the first and greatest commandment. Additionally, it involves loving the Trinitarian God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it involves not only loving this God but exercising faith in him, his word, and his promises. Moreover, being a disciple who exhibits such love and faith is possible only by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and empowered by grace. We are not capable of being or living as faithful disciples in our own strength. With these things in mind, we might say a disciple is a person in loving fellowship with God by grace through faith in Jesus following him by the power of the Holy Spirit in cross-bearing self-denial as a life-long, obedient learner with the aim of being informed, transformed, and conformed to our Savior. While this longer definition is more thorough, one might opt for the shorter one as it is a bit easier to commit to memory and it captures the essence of many of the features explicitly connected to being a disciple in the New Testament.
A disciple is a person in loving fellowship with God by grace through faith in Jesus following him by the power of the Holy Spirit in cross-bearing self-denial as a life-long, obedient learner with the aim of being informed, transformed, and conformed to our Savior.
Not overtly reflected in the language of either the shorter or longer definition, however, is the seemingly extreme nature of Jesus’ words about hating our own fathers, mothers, wives, children, brothers, sisters, and even our very own lives. This teaching can be perplexing to say the least. Jesus is using exaggerated language to confront the crowds—and us—with the demands of being a disciple. We’ll consider the demands of being a disciple in the next post.
 The Greek word in the New Testament translated disciple is μαθητής (pronounced mah-thay-tace).