What is Discipleship?

Published on June 10, 2013 by

Is there a Difference between a Christian and a Disciple? Why has there been so much Confusion over the Great Commission? Jesus’ final words became the foremost priority of these men’s lives. In Matthew 28:18, the Lord announced His supreme authority over heaven and earth. Then, He directed His followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In order to fully carry out the command of the Great Commission, we must understand a crucial term in this verse. The King James Version of the Bible renders the Greek word for make disciples as teach. Matthew 28:19 in the King James Version reads, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” (emphasis mine).

jesus with the boat

Many diligent believers simply read this word and merely teach people about salvation—share the gospel and lead them to a decision for Christ.  This is good and admirable, but it is not enough: more is required to make a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is only one aspect of Jesus’ command. Making disciples requires equipping, training, and investing in believers. 

So what is discipleship? We could say that it is intentionally equipping believers with the Word of God through accountable relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ. In other words, a disciple learns what Jesus said and lives out what Jesus did (Matthew 28:19).

Christian vs. Disciple

Do you know how many times Christian appears in the Bible? Only three times (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). In its two occurrences in Acts, which present the history of the term, it is used in a derogatory fashion. In fact, Christian was likely coined as a term of derision. Those who despised Christ displayed their disgust for His followers by calling them “Christians.”  It wasn’t until years after Christ’s ascension that the term was used in a positive light.

On the other hand, the term disciple appears 269 times in the New Testament, with 238 of those occurring in the four Gospels (the root word is used 281 times in the New Testament and 250 times in the Gospels alone). Why is this so important? The answer is, because Christ did not come to make Christians; He came to make disciples. Immediately before leaving this world to return to heaven, He commanded us—His disciples—to carry on that work in His absence. But before a person can make disciples, he or she must first be a disciple. What does it mean to be a disciple? 

At the very core, a disciple is a learner, one who is set on growing and developing. In nearly every sphere of life, people learn specific skills from someone else that has developed those skills. An electrical certification is attained only after an extensive apprenticeship with a more experienced electrician. When a prospective doctor finishes medical school, he or she invests several years in a residency, a time of shadowing an experienced physician. If a psychiatrist bases his or her practice on the teachings of Sigmund Freud, we might say he or she is a disciple of Freud. If a musician, following the methods of Wynton Marsalis, plays jazz in the same style, we might comment that he or she is a disciple of Wynton Marsalis.

This concept of learning directly through the expertise and experience of another is the foundation of what Jesus envisioned when He used the term “disciple.” You should be able to answer these two questions: What is discipleship and what is a disciple?

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