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Disciple (math¯et¯es)

by Douglas A. Oss

The New Testament usage of the Greek noun math¯et¯es, commonly translated "disciple," is a key to understanding what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. The New Testament uses this word in contexts that give it new significance because of its association with Jesus. The word occurs with such frequency in the New Testament that our survey of its import will by no means be exhaustive. Rather, we will survey key aspects of usage that are foundational and definitive of a disciple of Christ.

Historically in the Greek language math¯et¯es referred to a "student" who would attach himself to a teacher (dida´skalos) to acquire theoretical and practical knowledge in a certain discipline (e.g., philosophy, medicine, a trade). Likewise in the rabbinic tradition a talmid was a student of Torah who would attach himself to a teacher to learn the Scriptures and the traditions of the fathers. In both instances the pupil eventually would qualify to become a teacher in his own right with the authority to establish his own school, often carrying on and developing further the traditions of his master. (For a detailed description of this background see: New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, 485-86; Theological Dictionary of New Testament, vol. 4, 417-28.)

In the New Testament the word is used in similar fashion with regard to John the Baptist’s disciples (e.g., Matthew 11:2; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33) and the Pharisees (e.g., Matthew 22:16; Mark 2:18). However, our primary interest is the use of the word to identify followers of Christ. This particular usage is not restricted to the Twelve; in fact, only a small percentage of the occurrences refer exclusively to the Twelve and then in exemplary fashion for the Church. By far the most common usage generally refers to followers of Christ, and in these contexts there are similarities as well as some striking differences with the common usage of math¯et¯es.

"Disciple" cannot be defined apart from the teacher to whom the disciples in question are attached. Jesus presented himself publicly as a teacher and was well versed in the rabbinical traditions, even from an early age (Mark 12:18; Luke 2:41–50; 12:13). Although some in the religious hierarchy refused to acknowledge His authority (e.g., Mark 2:1–11; 6:2; John 7:15; 8:13–59), He was nevertheless recognized as a Rabbi by His own disciples as well as the broader public (John 1:38; 3:2; Mark 9:5; 11:21). But His teaching and ministry were clearly unique, a fact that is demonstrated in the responses of the crowds who heard and saw Jesus, and recognized in Him an authority that was absent from the traditional Rabbis (Matthew 7:28,29; Mark 1:27; Luke 4:32,36). At the heart of New Testament discipleship, then, is this Master with whom disciples are called to have a living relationship; the last Adam who became a life-giving Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45; cf., Ephesians 3:14–21; Philippians 3:10,11).

Following Jesus as a disciple meant that one was bound to live according to His teachings as well as to pass on His teachings to others. The link between discipleship and teaching is clear in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. Moreover, in this text Jesus’ fundamental expectation of His disciples is evident—specifically, that His disciples will "observe all things…I have commanded you" (verse 20). Thus obedience to Jesus’ commandments is definitive of living as His disciple. Also notice this pivotal statement is about moral and spiritual conformity to Christ.

While obedience to Christ’s teachings is central to New Testament discipleship and well within the range of established contemporary usage of the word, New Testament usage is unique in the way it calls disciples to become participants with Christ.

Now consider three distinctive passages that focus on what it means to be a disciple-participant with Jesus.

1. Matthew 10:1–42 (cf., Mark 3:13; Luke 9:1): The word disciple occurs four times (verses 1,24,25,42) in this text, but the entire passage is Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be a disciple. The main element required by the Lord of His disciples (and this was not restricted to the Twelve [cf., Luke 10:1]) was the abandonment of self-interest and this-worldly concerns in absolute commitment to Him (e.g., verses 9,10,16,32–39; cf., Matthew 19:27; Luke 9:57). This level of commitment was evident in a life of submission and obedience to Him and unconditional trust in Him (pervasive of the passage but see especially verses 19,20,22,26,27–31).

While the disciples shared in Christ’s life of self-denial (e.g., verse 38), they also shared in His power and authority. Following the Lord meant they proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom as He had taught them, and they did so with the authority that He gave them (verse 1). Thus the Lord’s disciples participated in His power over demons and disease. Moreover, the purpose of their participation in the Master’s power was not to have power for power’s sake but, rather, for proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom with signs following.

2. Luke 10:1–24: In fashion evocative of the sending out of the Twelve, Jesus sent out the 72 (the KJV records 70) other disciples to proclaim the gospel. They went forth with the authority of Christ (e.g., verse 16) into the harvest field. This passage is distinctive in its conclusion. When they returned, they rejoiced over the fact that even the demons were subject to them by Jesus’ authority (verse 17). Jesus told them that the submission of demons was not a proper reason for their joy; rather, they should rejoice that their names were written in heaven (verses 19,20). This, then, is the focus of a disciple. Participation in Christ’s power is not the end—it is a means. The eyes of His disciples are set on the eternal goal.

3. Luke 9:46-50 (cf., Matthew 18:1–5; 20:20–28; Mark 9:33,40). In this passage the disciples exhibited their orientation to the Kingdom in a dispute over who would be the greatest. Such a dispute displayed a worldly orientation in which position, power, status, privilege, and the like were important. But the Kingdom functions in ways that are in diametric opposition to the operating principles of the world. So Jesus instructed them that the least of the disciples is greatest in the Kingdom (verse 48)—a call to lay down self-interest for the sake of service to the Lord and others. In fact, welcoming children is more important in the Kingdom than position (verses 47,48).

John recounted an incident (verses 49,50) that displays a proprietary attitude toward the work of the Kingdom. In attempting to stop a man who was not one of Jesus’ inner circle from casting out demons in His name, the disciples expressed a desire to institutionalize the power of Christ within a limited and official group. Jesus responded by forbidding them to prohibit his activities because the man was on their side. This was simply another expression of the desire to be great. By restricting God’s work to a select group, the disciples would confine greatness to themselves. But the kingdom of God is not about greatness, and God chooses whomever He wants to display His power and reveal His kingdom.

These perspectives are at the heart of New Testament discipleship. The disciple today is required to abandon the things of the world, enter into relationship with the risen Christ, and to carry His gospel to a lost world.

Douglas A. Oss, Ph.D., is the Division of Biblical Education chair, Central Bible College, Springfield, Missouri.