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What Is a Disciple?

  • August 2020 Issue
Practical Theology

Teachers, as well as learners, are essential to the life of the church. The term disciple comes from the Latin word meaning “pupil” or “learner.” In the ancient world, philosophers and rabbis gathered students to themselves. John the Baptist and the Pharisees had disciples (Matt. 9:14; 22:16) and so did Jesus (Matt. 5:1; Luke 19:39).

Discipleship is not a secondary commitment that we make after we come to Christ. If we have trusted in Him for our salvation, then we are disciples. According to Jesus, disciples hold to His teaching (John 13:35). They follow Jesus by imitating His example (Matt. 16:24). There is a fundamental order to the practice of discipleship. It begins with learning that leads to action. In other words, we don’t obey in order to become a disciple. We obey because we are Christ’s disciples. We cannot act on something we do not know. For this reason, all discipleship is grounded in God’s Word.

Discipleship demands a devotion to Christ and His teaching that takes priority over every other commitment (Luke 14:26–27). Those who follow Jesus value the relationship they have with Him above anything else (Luke 14:33). However, the example of Jesus’ disciples in the New Testament also indicates that we don’t learn everything all at once.

Jesus’ early disciples understood more about what it meant to be His followers after they had walked with Him for several years. They were slow to understand some aspects of His teaching and sometimes failed (John 12:16). It is reassuring to realize that discipleship is not a life of sinless perfection but one of growth into maturity (Luke 22:32; Gal. 2:11–17).

We learn the art of discipleship differently than the apostles did. While they lived and traveled with Jesus, we learn how to follow by studying God’s Word and by observing mature followers of Jesus. Disciple-making is the primary mission of the church (Matt. 28:19–20).

BY Dr. John Koessler

Dr. John Koessler, who retired as professor emeritus from Moody Bible Institute, formerly served in the division of applied theology and church ministry. John and his wife Jane enjoy living in a lakeside town in Michigan. A prolific writer, John’s books include Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good (Moody Publishers), The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody), and True Discipleship (Moody). John is a contributing editor and columnist for Today in the Word.

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