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What is a Disciple?

Answers | Justin Martz | 8 mins

In Matthew 28:19-20 we read these words of Jesus:

 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." 

This is the Great Commission. Here, the main verb is to “Make disciples.” This begs the question: What exactly is a disciple? This is an important question since it is what Jesus calls us to be. This paper will explore both the meaning of disciple and what it means to be a disciple, as this is Jesus’ command to us. 

A Definition

The Greek word for disciple is μαθητής (ma-thei-teis) which is a learner or a pupil. It’s where we get the word “math” from. A disciple is one who follows and learns from someone else. It is not, however, only about engaging in learning, but it also includes the attitude of humility and being teachable and able to receive correction from our teacher. 

Being Yoked 

Jesus talks about what it means to be His disciple in terms of “being yoked.” In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus says,

"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." 

To be “yoked” literally means to connect two things. In the cultural context, you would yoke two oxen together so that they can share their work or burden. To live as disciples of Jesus, He tells us to “yoke” ourselves to Him. According to Jesus, to be yoked to Him means to learn from Him. The word Jesus uses for learn is related to the word for disciple and can be defined as directing one's mind to something and producing an external effect, or learning through instruction; to be taught or learn from someone (John 7:15); or even as learning through practice or experience. Jesus wants His disciples to learn from Him in all these ways, to hear His words, to listen to them, and to experience Him. 

What does a disciple do? 

So, what exactly does a disciple do? Well, they learn from, listen to, and follow their teacher. If Jesus is our teacher, then we need to listen to, learn from, and follow Him. We do this today primarily by reading in Scripture what Jesus said and did and learning from Him. In the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5-7, Jesus gives many lessons on what it means for us to be His disciples. Among all the things He teaches, He includes quality characteristics we should be, such as “poor in spirit,” “gentle,” and “merciful” (5:2-11). He also says that His disciples are “salt” and “light” as they shine and are attractive to the world around them (5:13-16). He wants His disciples to not just follow rules but to be different from the inside (5:17-48). He teaches how to show humility and how to pray properly (6:1-14). He teaches us to focus on Heaven and what is eternal over what is temporal (6:19-21). And ultimately, to seek His Kingdom first (6:23-24). 

Come, follow me

Discipleship begins when we respond to these two words: Follow me. Becoming Jesus’ disciple starts by following Him. That means putting away what we were following. We see this example when Jesus calls his 12 disciples. In Mark 1:17-18 it says, “And Jesus said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” Jesus called them and they left what they had and prioritized their new teacher.

A great example of being a disciple is the woman at the well in John 4. After her interaction with Jesus the text says, “So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, ‘Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?’” 

And then,

“From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.’” 

The call of Jesus is to leave behind what we used to prioritize, who we used to be, and follow Him. As His disciples, He is our new teacher. Just like the disciples and the woman at the well, we leave our old things to follow something much greater. 

The importance of the church in discipleship  

The best place to learn about discipleship and to grow is the local church. The church is the place for discipleship to flourish. As Mark Dever aptly states,

“The local church – this Father-designed, Jesus-authorized, and Spirit-gifted body – is far better equipped to undertake the work of discipling believers than simply you and your one friend. Jesus does not promise than you and your one friend will defeat the gates of hell. He promises that the church will do this. You cannot recognize yourself as gifted and called to teach God’s Word, or to baptize and administer the Lord’s Supper, like a local church is so authorized.”

Jesus calls us to join His movement, His Kingdom, His Church. Learning how to live in His Kingdom, to use our gifts, and to bless others is our calling. The local church gives us the means to do this well. We learn, grow, use gifts, are encouraged, experience the sacraments, are refreshed, etc. 

The Great Commission revisited 

As mentioned earlier, the main verb in the Great Commission is to “make disciples.” Surrounding this main verb are three participles that help us with discipleship:

“While going” is a participle which stresses that being a disciple is our life. It is “while we are going” that is, while we are living our lives, we are to be making disciples.

The second participle is baptizing. Baptizing is both following Jesus’ example, and it is publicly showing our new life in Christ.

The third is teaching. Specifically, teaching others to observe all that Jesus taught and did.

In other words, being a disciple of Jesus means while we are living, we are making disciples, baptizing, and teaching; we are helping people to truly follow Jesus.

I had a college professor named Tim Reed who would say, “Be a disciple, make a disciple.” This phrase encapsulates discipleship. As we yoke ourselves to Jesus as our teacher, we become His disciples. We then must listen to Him and learn from Him. As we grow, we need to both learn from others and teach others. Being His disciple means we are on mission, leaving behind who we were, embracing who we are now, and living as lights in the world.

Written By

Justin Martz

Husband and father. “The Professor” and teacher of Sun Valley University, and in my DMIN program. Love to read, listen to podcasts, and watch movies. I am also an associate at Rayhons Financial Solutions.

Published on Jun 6, 2023