Follower of Jesus Christ, especially the commissioned Twelve who followed Jesus during His earthly ministry. The term “disciple” comes to us in English from a Latin root. Its basic meaning is “learner” or “pupil.” The term is virtually absent from the OT, though there are two related references (1 Chron. 25:8; Isa. 8:16).
In the Greek world the word “disciple” normally referred to an adherent of a particular teacher or religious/philosophical school. It was the task of the disciple to learn, study, and pass along the sayings and teachings of the master. In rabbinic Judaism the term “disciple” referred to one who was committed to the interpretations of Scripture and religious tradition given him by the master or rabbi. Through a process of learning which would include a set meeting time and such pedagogical methods as question and answer, instruction, repetition, and memorization, the disciple would become increasingly devoted to the master and the master’s teachings. In time, the disciple would likewise pass on the traditions to others.
Jesus’ Disciples In the NT 233 of the 261 instances of the word “disciple” occur in the Gospels, the other 28 being in Acts. Usually the word refers to disciples of Jesus, but there are also references to disciples of the Pharisees (Matt. 22:16; Mark 2:18), disciples of John the Baptist (Mark 2:18; Luke 11:1; John 1:35), and even disciples of Moses (John 9:28).
The Gospels often refer to Jesus as “Rabbi” (Matt. 26:25,49; Mark 9:5; 10:51; 11:21; John 1:38,49; 3:2,26; 6:25; 20:16 NIV). One can assume that Jesus used traditional rabbinic teaching techniques (question and answer, discussion, memorization) to instruct His disciples. In many respects Jesus differed from the rabbis. He called His disciples to “follow Me” (Luke 5:27). Disciples of the rabbis could select their teachers. Jesus oftentimes demanded extreme levels of personal renunciation (loss of family, property, etc.; Matt. 4:18-22; 10:24-42; Luke 5:27-28; 14:25-27; 18:28-30). He asked for lifelong allegiance (Luke 9:57-62) as the essential means of doing the will of God (Matt. 12:49-50; John 7:16-18). He taught more as a bearer of divine revelation than a link in the chain of Jewish tradition (Matt. 5:21-48; 7:28-29; Mark 4:10-11). In so doing Jesus announced the end of the age and the long-awaited reign of God (Matt. 4:17; Luke 4:14-21,42-44).
The Twelve As the messianic proclaimer of the reign of God, Jesus gathered about Himself a special circle of 12 disciples, clearly a symbolic representation of the 12 tribes (Matt. 19:28). He was reestablishing Jewish social identity based upon discipleship to Jesus. The Twelve represented a unique band, making the word “disciple” (as a reference to the Twelve) an exact equivalent to “apostle” in those contexts where the latter word was also restricted to the Twelve. The four lists of the Twelve in the NT (Matt. 10:1-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13,26) also imply from their contexts the synonymous use of the terms “disciples”/“apostles” when used to refer to the Twelve.
A Larger Group of Followers The Gospels clearly show that the word “disciple” can refer to others besides the Twelve. The verb “follow” became something of a technical term Jesus used to call His disciples, who were then called “followers,” (Mark 4:10). These “followers” included a larger company of people from whom He selected the Twelve (Mark 3:7-19; Luke 6:13-17). This larger group of disciples/followers included men and women (Luke 8:1-3; 23:49) from all walks of life. (Even the Twelve included a variety: fishermen, a tax collector, a Zealot.) Jesus was no doubt especially popular among the socially outcast and religiously despised, but people of wealth and of theological training also followed (Luke 8:1-3; 19:1-10; John 3:1-3; 12:42; 19:38-39).
The Twelve were sent out as representatives of Jesus, commissioned to preach the coming of the kingdom, to cast out demons, and to heal diseases (Matt. 10:1,5-15; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6). Such tasks were not limited to the Twelve (Luke 10:1-24). Apparently Jesus’ disciples first included “a great multitude of disciples” (Luke 6:17). He formed certain smaller and more specifically defined groups within that “great multitude.” These smaller groups would include a group of “70” (Luke 10:1,17), the “Twelve” (Matt. 11:1; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1), and perhaps an even smaller, inner group within the Twelve, consisting especially of Peter, James, and John—whose names (with Andrew) always figure first in the lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:16-17; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13), whose stories of calling are especially highlighted (Matt. 4:18-22; John 1:35-42 and the tradition that John is the “Other”/“Beloved Disciple” of the Gospel of John—13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20), and who alone accompanied Jesus on certain significant occasions of healing and revelation (Matt. 17:1; Mark 13:3; Luke 8:51).
All Followers of Jesus The book of the Acts of the Apostles frequently uses the term “disciple” to refer generally to all those who believe in the risen Lord (6:1-2, 7; 9:1, 10, 19, 26, 38; 11:26, 29). In addition, the verb form “to disciple” as it appears in the final commissioning scene of Matthew’s Gospel (28:19-20) also suggests a use in the early church of the term “disciple” as a more generalized name for all those who come to Jesus in faith, having heard and believed the gospel.
Conclusion We have seen that, as references to the Twelve, the words “apostle” and “disciple” could be synonymous. However, just as the term “disciple” could mean other followers of Jesus than the Twelve in the time of His ministry, so also after His resurrection the term “disciple” had a wider meaning as well, being clearly applied to all His followers. Whereas the term “apostle” retained a more specific meaning, being tied to certain historical eyewitnesses of the resurrected Lord, the word “disciple” tended to lose its narrower associations with the Twelve, and/or those who followed the historical Jesus, or who saw the risen Lord, and became a virtual equivalent to “Christian” (Acts 11:26). In every case, however, the common bond of meaning for the various applications of the word “disciple” was allegiance to Jesus. See Apostle.
Robert B. Sloan, Jr.
It seems that the definition of disciple can include anyone from a new convert, knowing little and behaving like a heathen, to a person mature in the teachings and ways of Christ. My question is “Are you still a disciple if you permanently stagnate in the process?” If you quit learning to obey the commands of Christ you exit the discipleship process and are no longer a disciple.