Jesus’ commission was clear, “Go make disciples of all nations.” The key command – the divine imperative – is to “make disciples”. But what exactly is a disciple? This question reminds me of Vince Lombardi, arguably one of the greatest football coaches of all time. The NFL Championship Super Bowl trophy is named after him: The Lombardi Trophy. He was a stickler for fundamentals. Legend has it that during one practice, he stood in front of his team in stone-cold silence, football in hand and surveyed the men in the room. No one dared speak. Finally, he broke the quiet with the now famous words, “Men, this is a football.”
In one sense, we have to go back to the basics. If Jesus told us to make disciples, then we need to clearly know what a disciple is. After all, we will be answering to Jesus for whether we made one or not (1 Corinthians 3.12-13 ESV). The term “disciple” that Jesus used in (Matthew 28.19 ESV) is the Greek word “mathetes,” which means, “to learn.” The Hebrew word for a disciple is “talmidim,” which also is derived from the word meaning “to learn,” and was used for a young man who left his home to study under a Rabbi. Therefore, a disciple is at the core, a learner. But a disciple is more than just one who learns religious content. 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 predates Him.
The idea of disciple making is rooted in the Old Testament. The ancient prophets often pulled young men around them to train them how to serve God (Isaiah 8.16 ESV). Temple musicians were regularly trained in special schools by master teachers for the purpose of serving in temple worship (1 Chronicles 25.8 ESV). Later, Rabbinic schools were established for the purpose of raising up teachers and leaders. In the days of Jesus, there were many different kinds of disciples. There were “disciples of Moses” (John 9.28 ESV), “disciples of the Pharisees” (Matthew 22.16; Mark 2.18; Luke 5.33 ESV), “disciples of John the Baptist” (Matthew 9.14; Mark 2.18; Luke 5.33 ESV) and “disciples of Jesus” (Matthew 28.18-20 ESV). Therefore, in its most basic definition, a disciple was a person who followed a master teacher to become like him and to carry on his work. Now underline that last statement, and think about it. A disciple was one who followed a master so that eventually, he could become like that master and carry on the master’s work.
In the New Testament, the term “disciple” is primarily used to describe a follower of Jesus. The term is used 261 times in the Gospels and the book of Acts. [“Discipleship in the New Testament” by Robert Foster, Society of Biblical Literature, www.sbl.org]
It’s clear that a “disciple” is synonymous with a “believer” in Jesus Christ (Acts 6.7; 9.26; 14.21-22 ESV). In (Acts 4.32 ESV), “those who believe” were later referred to as “disciples” in (Acts 6.2 ESV), and those same disciples of Jesus were called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11.26 ESV). 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,” and “Christian.”
Clarifying and simplifying the definition of a disciple is critical if you are going to be committed to making disciples. You can’t have a fuzzy vision of your end product. Just as workers in a tire factory know about tires and produce them – just as a computer manufacturer knows about computers and knows how to build them, healthy disciples of Jesus know what a disciple is and how to make them. The Apostle Paul was very clear on what he was trying to produce in the lives of every person he met and every church he planted.
See if you can pick up on Paul’s end product. To the church at Rome he wrote, “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born among many brothers,” (Romans 8.29 ESV). To the churches in Galatia he wrote, “…I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4.19 ESV). To the church at Corinth he wrote, “But we Christians have no veil over our faces; we can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him,” (2 Corinthians 3.18 TLB). And to the church at Colossae he wrote, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me,” (Colossians 1.28-29 ESV).
From these verses, it’s clear that Paul’s goal was to see people become more and more like Jesus. He wanted people to be conformed to the image of Jesus – to be mirrors that reflect Jesus and to be matured into the likeness of Jesus. Paul’s end product was Christ-like followers, and this should be the end product of every church and every disciple-maker. As you pour your life into another person, you are not just trying to convey Bible knowledge. You are not trying to simply build a learner. You are investing your life to raise up men and women who will follow Jesus, grow to be like Him and carry on His work.
Written by Craig Etheredge
Photo credit: Ben Hershey