What is a Disciple?

Before I begin to examine what a disciple of Jesus is, I'd like to state that there is a difference between being a regenerated believer in Jesus Christ, that is, being a Christian, and being a disciple.  This question is only seeking to understand what it is to be a disciple.

What is a Disciple?

            Sitting on a mountainside in Galilee, Jesus told his eleven disciples to make more disciples.[1]  He further tells them to teach “them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[2]  Throughout the book of Acts, believers are referred to as disciples, and chapter 14 records that Paul and Barnabas “preached the gospel and made many disciples.”[3]  But who is a disciple of Jesus Christ?  What does it take to be a disciple?  Some today would argue that it is simply being a follower of Christ, but George Barna says it is more than that, much more.[4]

            R. S. Rayburn explains that the term ‘disciple’ was a common term in the first century.  John the Baptist had disciples, as did many other rabbis.  It was so common in fact, that Jesus’ disciples “required some elaboration to be distinctively Christian (e.g., ‘disciples of the Lord,’ Acts 9:1.”[5]  Whether or not the discipleship of others came with a cost, Jesus placed expectations on his disciples.  Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate is own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”[6]  After explaining that his disciples must consider the cost of discipleship, he then says, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”[7]  Matthew tells of a rich man that first wants to bury his father and then follow Jesus, but Jesus replies, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”[8]  And the disciples are expected to follow Jesus’ teachings[9] and “bear much fruit,”[10] which proves that they are his disciples.  Jesus, it would seem, does not consider his disciples to be simply following and believing in him.  There is more.

            From a variety of New Testament Scriptures,  Barna has compiled a list of what a person must do in order to be a disciple of Christ, although many of the Scriptures do not specifically state that “a disciple must . . .” Additionally, Barna’s list is designed for today’s disciples, taking into account a systematic look at the New Testament.  He says,
Disciples must be assured of their salvation by grace alone.  Disciples must learn and understand the principles of the Christian life.  Disciples must obey God’s laws and commands.  Disciples must represent God in the world.  Disciples must serve other people.  And disciples must reproduce themselves in Christ.[11]   
Barna continues to suggest that there are three simple “marks of a true disciple.”[12]  He explains that, “Disciples experience a changed future through their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and of the Christian faith as their defining philosophy of life.  Disciples undergo a changed lifestyle that is manifested through Christ-oriented values, goals, perspectives, activities, and relationships.  [And,] disciples mature into a changed worldview, attributable to a deeper comprehension of the true meaning and impact of Christianity.”[13]  However, Barna’s list says nothing about hating family and even one’s self, or giving up everything to follow Christ as indicated in Luke 14 and 18, Matthew 19, and Mark 10.  Nor do Barna’s “marks of a true disciple” include what Jesus said were the indicators of his disciples.  Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”[14]  So it stands to reason that one indicator of a disciple is one who is bearing much fruit, glorifying God.  Jesus also said, “By this all people will know that your are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[15]

            Therefore, a disciple of Jesus is one who is willing to give up everything, including family, wealth, and even his own life to follow Jesus.  Essentially, nothing else can come before him.  The disciple must pick up his cross daily, being willing and prepared to sacrifice himself, be it his comfort, security, or even his life for others in glorifying God.  He or she must observe the teachings and commands of Jesus.  Disciples must also bear fruit, symbolic for doing good works.  He or she must love one another.  Additionally, as was instructed to the first eleven disciples, Jesus’ disciples must become fishers of men, going into the world to make more disciples.[16]

Barna, George. Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of
     Christ. Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press, 2001.

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker reference library. Grand Rapids,
     Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001.

Grudem, Wayne.  Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids,
     Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.

     [1] Matthew 28:16-20.
     [2] Matthew 28:20, (ESV).
     [3] Acts 14:21, (ESV).
     [4]  George Barna, Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press, 2001), 17-30.
     [5] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001) 235. 
     [6] Luke 14:26-27, (ESV).
     [7] Luke 14:33, (ESV).
     [8] Matthew 8:22, (ESV).
     [9] John 8:31.
     [10] John 15:8, (ESV).
     [11] Barna, 20-23.
     [12] Ibid., 27.
     [13] Ibid., 27-28.
     [14] John 15:8, (ESV).
     [15] John 13:35, (ESV).
     [16] Matthew 28:16-20.

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  
** Photo is registered under a Creative Commons License: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lenarpoetry/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0