Most pastors I talk to know instinctively that they need to be making disciples. But ask a group of pastors to define a disciple and you will get a huge variety of answers. Getting a solid biblical definition of a disciple is mission critical.
The term “disciple” that Jesus used in Matthew 28.19 is the word mathetes which means “to learn.” The Hebrew term for a disciple is talmidim, which also is derived from the word “to learn” and was used for a young man who left his home to study under a Rabbi.
A disciple is more than a learner.
Therefore, a disciple is, at the core, a learner. But a disciple is more than that. A disciple is more than just a student or a person who acquires Biblical facts. To find out more, you have to dig deeply into the culture of the Old Testament because disciple making didn’t start with Jesus. It pre-dates him.
Throughout the Old Testament you see spiritual leaders gathering disciples around them to train. One of the best examples of this is found in I Kings 19. Elijah was a mighty man of God. This was the man who faced off 450 prophets of Baal in front of the entire nation on Mount Carmel. This was the man who defied a king and ran from a queen. Elijah was the man who would eventually go up to heaven in a fiery chariot.
Suffice it to say, he was an important guy. He was so important that when Jesus was preparing to go to the cross, on the mountain of transfiguration, only two men appeared there to encourage him—Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17.3). The prophet Malachi predicted that Elijah would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord (Malachi 4.5). But Elijah was a person just like you and me.
James 5.17 tells us he got discouraged like we sometimes do. He had some great moments, some exhilarating mountain-top experiences, but he also had people after his head and threatening to bring him down.
Every pastor can relate to this man. One minute he is calling fire from heaven, the next minute he’s ready to call it quits. But in his darkest moments, God drew close to Elijah. Elijah traveled to Mount Horeb in the southernmost point of the Sinai Peninsula, and there God spoke to him.
It is really an encouraging story because if you have ever felt like quitting or felt like a failure, this story proves that God cares about you more than your production or your bottom line. God has a purpose for you. He knows what you are feeling. He understands the times when your heart is tired and the seasons when ministry is hard.
Two times God asked Elijah a simple question: “What are you doing here Elijah?” Each time Elijah rattled off his problems, the resistance he was facing, and the issues that were weighing him down. Elijah’s face was buried in his troubles.
God instructed Elijah to go out and stand before him. It was there that Elijah saw the power of God in a tornado which splintered the rocks. Elijah experienced the fury of God in a blazing fire. Elijah felt the might of God in a furious earthquake.
But what Elijah needed to hear the most was the voice of God speaking to him. Let’s pause right here. When ministry is hard and discouragement sets in like a dark cloud, the only cure is to be still enough to hear God’s voice—to draw away long enough to lift your eyes from your problems and set your eyes on Jesus.
Once that happens, then you are ready to hear God give you practical next steps to take in your ministry. Elijah set his face toward the Lord and tuned his ears to hear his voice. Then God gave him some instructions. I picture Elijah writing this all down so he doesn’t forget.
“Return on your way to Damascus.” Check.
“Anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.” Got it.
“Anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi king over Israel.” Ok.
“Then anoint Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah to replace you as prophet.”
Roger that. Wait a minute. What was that again? Replace me?
The curtain was coming down on the days of Elijah and the curtain was about to rise on the ministry of Elisha. So Elijah did as the Lord instructed him. He anointed Hazael and Jehu, and made his way to the place where Elisha lived. I love how the story unfolds. “So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth.
Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ And he said to him, ‘Go back again, for what have I done to you?’ And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it
to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.”
Elisha was working the fields as he had done since his youth. But God knew his address and he knew his potential. God instructed Elijah to “cast the mantle” of disciple making across Elisha’s shoulders.
In many ways, it is reminiscent of the way Jesus called his disciples, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4.18-19). Elijah called Elisha out to be trained, and Elisha was ready and willing. He said goodbye to his family and friends, cooked a barbeque with his cattle and plows, and set off to follow his master. When his time of training was completed, Elisha experienced a double portion of his master’s strength and power (2 Kings 2.9, 14).
Eventually Elisha carried on the work his master left behind for him to do. The prophets even declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2.15). The purpose of Elisha’s training wasn’t simply to learn facts about Elijah. The purpose of Elisha’s training was to transform him in such a way that he became like his master so as to carry on the work.
A disciple is a follower.
This is the heart and purpose of a true disciple maker. A disciple is more than a learner, he is a follower who is determined to become like his master and to carry on the work.
Throughout the Old Testament you see this model of disciple making. There were schools of prophets built around the disciple-making model (Isaiah 8.16). There were schools of musicians, trained for service in the temple (I Chronicles 25.8). Later there were Rabbinic schools established.
The idea of disciple making is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. As you move into the gospels you see different kinds of disciples. There were “disciples of Moses” (John 9.28), disciples of the Pharisees (Matthew 22.16; Mark 2.18; Luke 5.33), “disciples of John the Baptist” (Matthew 9.14; Mark 2.18; Luke 5.33), and disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28.18-20). A disciple was a person who was close to a master, and followed that master to become like him and to carry on his work.
A disciple is a believer.
In the New Testament, the term “disciple” becomes synonymous with a “believer” in Jesus Christ. In Acts 4.32, “those who believe” are later referred to as “disciples” in Acts 6.2. A disciple had become synonymous with a believer (Acts 6.7; 9.26; 14.21-22).
When you look at the gospels, the term disciple is the primary term used to describe a follower of Jesus. The term is used 261 times in the gospels and the Book of Acts. Later, disciples of Jesus would be called “Christians” (Acts 11.26).
As we move past the Book of Acts and into the epistles, the use of the term “disciple” begins to fade away and it is replaced with terms like “brother/sister,” “saint,” “believer,” or “Christian.”
This blog features an excerpt from one of our books, Bold Moves.