How Does the Bible Define a Disciple of Jesus?


The term, 'disciple' comes up often in Christian conversations. It's important to know, considering Jesus' disciples we are called to make disciples. What in the world is a disciple?  It's also relevant when dealing with the question about who is and who is not a Christian.  Christian and disciple, given how the Bible uses the term disciple, suggests that the Bible might provide evidence to this question. 

I propose that a disciple of Jesus hears the voice of the Lord and does what he says in the Christian journey toward spiritual maturity. Allow me to show you from God's Word.  

The gospel of John tells of an event where Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. The healing event happens in the ninth chapter of John, but the connected narrative of chapters seven and eight suggest the timing of the event was during or shortly after the Feast of Booths.[i] As Jesus was defending himself from the accusations of the Pharisees in chapter ten, he made a curious statement. 

Jesus said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of a stranger.[ii]

The Pharisees did not comprehend what Jesus was saying, so Jesus shifted to another allegory with sheep. Jesus said in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Two verses later he referenced other sheep that are not of the same fold and said, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

On the one hand, Jesus’ allegory is clear. “These details,” writes F. F. Bruce, “were familiar to many of Jesus’ hearers; even today they are aptly illustrated by the way of a shepherd with his sheep in the Holy Land.”[iii] Bruce further argues that the pen would likely have been a stone enclosure with one door and briars lining the top of the walls. A watchman would guard the door, only allowing the shepherds to enter.[iv] “More flocks than one might be accommodated in the same enclosure;” per Bruce, “but all that was necessary was for the shepherd to stand at the entrance and call; his own sheep would recognize his voice and come to him.”[v] In shepherding terms, the shepherd knows his sheep, and his sheep know the shepherd. When the shepherd calls, the sheep follow.

On the other hand, there is much more behind Jesus’ allegory. “It is hard to read these words without thinking of several backgrounds,” writes D. A. Carson.[vi] Carson suggests that Ezekiel 34 is the most important backdrop for consideration. God is tough on the leaders of Ezekiel’s day for the gross mishandling and lack of care for God’s people. “God insists that they are his sheep, his flock.”[vii] Leon Morris also argues for an Old Testament view, writing, “This chapter should be read in light of Old Testament passages which castigate shepherds who have failed in their duty (see Jer. 23:1-4; 25:32-38; Zech. 11, and especially Isa. 56:9-12 and Ezek. 34). God is the Shepherd of Israel (Ps. 80:1; cf. Ps 23:1; Isa. 40:10f.), which gives the measure of the responsibility of His under-shepherds.”[viii] Jesus was both instructing his people to listen to him as the true shepherd while simultaneously blasting the leaders of the day for their disobedience to God’s instruction to rightly care for God’s people. If the assigned undershepherds had failed, it was because they did not obey God. Jesus was showing the Pharisees their lack of obedience as well as his authority over the flock. In both cases, hearing and knowing the Lord’s voice and obeying him are in view.

If the primary matter of the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees centered on hearing from the Lord and doing what he commanded, it was important the Pharisees understood how to hear from the Lord. The same would be true for undershepherds and the flock today. Knowing how to recognize the Voice of the Lord is vital. “In the OT,” writes Andreas Köstenberger, “God communicated with his people preeminently through the law (which spelled out God’s moral expectations for his people) and the prophets (who called people back to obedience to the law). People listened to God’s voice by living in conformity with his revealed will.”[ix] The leaders in the crosshairs of Jesus’ rebuke had the Old Testament Voice of the Lord available yet did not recognize it, showing them as being outside the flock of God. However, Jesus was calling his people by name and charging them to follow his voice, both physically and through the revelation of Scripture. “At the present time (from the perspective of the earthly Jesus),” continues Köstenberger, “those who desire to follow God should do so by listening to Jesus’ words and by obeying his commandments (e.g., 15:10). In the future, God (and Jesus) will speak to his own through the Spirit (16:13-15).”[x]

A couple of months after this exchange, during the Feast of Dedication, the Jews brought the question up again with Jesus.[xi] “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” demanded the Jews in John 10:24. There is much debate if Jesus had or had not divulged his complete identity to them publicly, but Carson argues that no matter the answer, the entirety of Jesus’ life, words, and deeds had served to inform them.[xii] However, they had not heard. “The request reveals, somewhat pathetically,” jests Köstenberger, “that the entire significance of the preceding good shepherd discourse had eluded Jesus’ opponents.”[xiii] Jesus responded with the sheep allegory once more, saying,

I told you, and you do not believe. The words that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.[xiv] 

A disciple of Jesus is a person who hears and recognizes the Lord’s voice through Scripture and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this person not only hears Jesus’ voice, but he or she follows Jesus. Disciples follow Jesus to salvation. In his discourse with the Jews, Jesus said his sheep will have eternal life and shall never perish. However, on the journey toward the promised salvation, Jesus gives his disciples the opportunity to learn and grow. While salvation is not dependent upon spiritual maturity, the road of faithful discipleship leads straight through opportunities for Christian sanctification.

While much of the Bible speaks of spiritual growth and maturity, few passages show the Christian journey like 2 Peter 1:3-15. In his letter to Christians,[xv] Peter urges his brothers and sisters in the faith to follow in the Lord’s leading to both the eternal Kingdom and a sanctified life. Verse 3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” Toward the conclusion of the road map, Peter reminded his readers, “For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”[xvi] Peter was not arguing that the instructions between these bookends earn an entry into the kingdom, but that entry has already been granted at the call and promise of Jesus. He further stirred up his readers and reminded them that in doing what Jesus says, a disciple might be a partaker of the divine nature.[xvii] The body of this section of Scripture shows a growth pattern, starting with faith. As a disciple begins to hear from the Lord and follow him, Scripture tells the disciple to supplement that faith with virtue. Then he or she adds knowledge, then self-control, and so on. Eventually, Scripture calls the disciple to learn to love. These supplements are learned and practiced qualities in the discipleship journey, but there are consequences for those who do not follow Jesus toward Christian maturity. “For whoever lacks these qualities,” wrote Peter, “is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”[xviii]

A disciple of Jesus recognizes the voice of the Lord and knows him. Jesus stands and calls to the disciple to follow him, just as a shepherd calls out to his sheep. Then, like the shepherd leading the flock to excellent things the sheep need, Jesus leads his disciples into Christian maturity, if they follow him. The sanctification roadmap Peter offered to his readers is an unadorned picture of the journey Jesus offers to his disciples. Peter’s words in verse 8 should still stir disciples today. They read, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[xix] To learn more about Jesus means faithfully walking the journey he has put before his people.

After this examination, it is reasonable to say disciple of Jesus hears the voice of the Lord and does what he says in the Christian journey toward spiritual maturity.  Of course there is more discussion to be had here, especially when we see the Bible mention disciples who ended up not following Jesus in the end, like Judas.  However, these cases are likely the exception.  Normatively, a disciple recognizes Jesus voice and obeys him as Lord. 

[i] John 7:1ff.
[ii] John 10:1-5, English Standard Version.
[iii] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, Grand Rapids (Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1983), 224.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid., 224.
[vi] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 380.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1971), 498.
[ix] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2004), 301.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] John 10:22-24.
[xii] Carson, 392.
[xiii] Köstenberger, 311.
[xiv] John 10:25b-28, italics added.
[xv] 2 Pet. 1:1.
[xvi] 2 Pet. 1:11.
[xvii] 2 Pet. 1:4.
[xviii] 2 Pet. 1:9-10.
[xix] 2 Pet. 1:8.