28.10.12 What Is A Disciple? – Peter Cheyne

READ Mark 1:14-20

On my first day at High School I opened my new Latin textbook. The first two sentences were “Discipuli picturam spectate. Britannia insula est.” That means “Pupils, look at the picture. Britain is an island.”

The first word there (discipuli) is the word from which we get the term “disciple” and it means “a pupil” or “a student”. That is exactly what a disciple is – a student – except that, in the New Testament, a disciple is always a disciple of a person, a teacher. My Latin book obviously was addressing students of Latin but New Testament discipleship is always about being a student of a person with the aim of becoming more like that person. Maybe another translation would be “follower” – a follower of Jesus.

Jesus wasn’t the only person in the Bible to have disciples. John the Baptist had disciples. The Pharisees had disciples. It was a well established means of training. In many ways, Jesus simply adopted the Jewish pattern of a rabbi with a school of disciples. The more able Jewish boys, once they had completed their basic education, would approach a rabbi and ask if they could join that rabbi’s school of disciples. If the answer was yes then the rabbi would say, “Follow me.” That was a great privilege and the young man would then spend much of his time with the rabbi. The rabbi would instruct. The rabbi would ask questions and force his disciples to think. The scriptures would be memorised. But the primary means of teaching was simply that the disciples would watch the rabbi and imitate him. In fact, diligent disciples would seek to watch the rabbi in every aspect of his life so as to learn from him how he studied the scriptures, how he prayed, how he managed his money, how he related to his wife… everything. That is because the goal was to become like the rabbi.

Jesus was a rabbi. He is called “Rabbi” many times in the gospels. You might notice many parallels between the rabbinic teaching method and Jesus’ method. The disciples lived with Jesus, watching everything He did. Jesus used instruction and questions. And the objective was to become like Him.

Luke 6:40            Students are not above their teacher but, all who are fully trained will be like their teacher.

The aim was to be like the teacher. Disciples of Jesus are aiming to be like Jesus. That is the goal.

However, there were ways in which Jesus broke with rabbinic tradition. I said before that the more able young men would approach a rabbi. The less able, after their basic education, would learn a trade. But Jesus turned that around the other way. The disciples did not approach Him; He invited them. And He approached fishermen and tax collectors – not the academic elite but the tradesmen and the despised. With Jesus, discipleship is not for a privileged few. Discipleship is for all of us. The privilege is just as great. What an amazing thing it is to be invited by Rabbi Jesus to be one of His disciples. We don’t have to be anything special to be a disciple of Jesus. Simply being loved and chosen by God makes us special.

So the Latin word “discipulus” does accurately reflect the biblical concept of a disciple as a student. We might therefore define a disciple as “a student of Jesus who is learning from Him so as to become like Him in thought, character and actions.”

In the New Testament there is no distinction at all between a Christian and a disciple. Disciples are not elite Christians. Every Christian is a disciple. To be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus. To be a disciple is to be a follower of Jesus. The two are the same. So we could say, “A Christian is a student…”

When Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow Him, he was, of course, inviting them to be His disciples, although he didn’t use that word. Instead He described discipleship.

“Come! Follow me” A disciple is someone who follows Jesus.

“And I will make you…” A disciple is someone who is being changed by Jesus.

“..fishers of people” A disciple is someone who carries out the mission of Jesus (or, at least, is being trained to carry out the mission of Jesus.)

A disciple is someone who follows Jesus. We have already thought a little about what it meant to follow a rabbi. It is that idea of being a student, absorbing everything my teacher says and does. That is exactly what Jesus was inviting those four fishermen to do – to leave their nets and their livelihood and their families and their security to literally follow Him – to travel with Him so as to learn from Him and become like Him.

For us the situation is exactly the same. Following Jesus is not trivial. It remains a call to put Jesus ahead of possessions and family and security; to give our allegiance to Him and to commit to learning from Him so as to become like Him.

You wouldn’t know that if you look at the lives of many so-called Christians. It seems that all we expect today is that someone comes to church, at least occasionally, and maybe goes of a roster or two!

If I said that I was a follower of Karl Marx or Nelson Mandela you would expect to see that in my life. You would expect me to adopt their teaching and to live an appropriate lifestyle. You would expect me to be loyal to them and to defend them. If not, you would question if I really was a follower. Following means more than simply tipping our cap to someone. Following means following.

Disciples are first of all followers of Jesus.

Secondly, according to Jesus, disciples are being changed by Jesus – “I will make you”. The whole purpose of following is that we be changed. Again, remember that the goal is Christ-likeness. There are various passages that reiterate this truth.

Rom 8:29             Those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that he might be the first-born of many brothers and sisters.

God’s plan for His people is that we might be like Jesus – conformed to the likeness of His Son. That is a wonderful thing. Imagine being like Jesus – compassionate, caring, strong, patient, holy, forgiving, full of grace and truth. Imagine being Christ-like in your actions – teaching, praying, healing, befriending. Wouldn’t it be great to be like Jesus? That is God’s plan for you.

But, of course, we must be willing to change. Disciples must be willing for the Holy Spirit to work away in us, transforming us – pruning the things that are not very Christ-like and growing those things that are.

Being willing to be changed by Jesus is fundamental to discipleship.

Thirdly, Jesus says what He will turn them into – “I will make you fishers of people” (because, of course, it is not just men.)

How are we to understand “fishers of people”? At the very least it means that Jesus has a task for His disciples. Disciples are being prepared for a particular task, for the mission Jesus has given them.

At the beginning of the training process, Jesus said he would make them fishers of people. At the end, He sent them out to do it – to make disciples. The mission is making disciples.

Disciples of Jesus do not sit around doing nothing. Disciples are recruited as Jesus’ co-workers in His mission.

John 15:16          You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last…

If we are Christians, we have been chosen by Jesus –just like He took the initiative in selecting and calling his first disciples – we have been chosen by Jesus – what a privilege that is. But we have been chosen to bear fruit. That is also a privilege. It is the privilege of being able to say, “I am a co-worker in God’s business. I have made a difference for eternity.”

So, we have defined a disciple two ways although they say the same things. One definition was: A disciple (or, a Christian) is a student of Jesus who is learning from Him so as to become like Him in thought, character and actions.

The other is: a disciple (or, equally, a Christian) follows Jesus, is being changed by Jesus and carries out the mission of Jesus. (Or maybe we could say “Disciples are converted, transformed, and obedient”)

Are those definitions faithful to the Bible? Is that what the Bible says? You need to consider that yourself, or talk with others about it.

If they are, then we can approach them from two different angles. We can use them to assess both our discipleship and our disciple-making. At the beginning of their training, Jesus called those fishermen to be disciples. At the end, as we saw last week, He sent them out to make disciples.

Using those definitions, we can each ask, “Am I a disciple of Jesus?” That is a crucial question. I am willing to assume that we all are but that would be a dangerous assumption.

Am I a student of Jesus? Am I studying Him and eager to learn from Him? Am I observing how Jesus operated and seeking to do the same in my life? The goal of the disciple is to be like the teacher. Am I consciously trying each day to be more like Jesus, transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit?

The answer might be “yes” or “no” or “partly”. I am going to suggest that we spend a little time in silent prayer after the sermon. If you are a disciple of Jesus, you might want to just rejoice in God’s grace towards you that He should have chosen you. If you have concluded that you are not a disciple of Jesus, do you want to be? God’s arms are open waiting for you, and you can tell Him in prayer that you want to be a disciple.

If you said “I am partly a disciple” that is OK because a disciple is a student. It is a learning process. But are you still learning? You might just want to ask God what the next step He wants you to take is. And please remember that there are people here who would be more than willing to help you grow as a disciple. You only have to ask.

Secondly, we can use these questions as disciple-makers. You might already be mentoring a younger Christian or you might be involved in a group of Christians. What is your goal for them?

How can you relate to those people so that they become students of Jesus, learning from Him so as to become like Him in their thinking, character and actions?

Just being clear about what we are called to do can help us know how we do it. Over the next few weeks I want to unpack this whole business of disciple-making so that we can understand it better. I don’t expect immediate results. Let’s take it slowly and journey together.

We might feel inadequate but God is keen for us to make disciples and he will use us. Jesus said He would be with us always. Jesus will do it through us, if we will let Him.

But before we can make disciples we must be disciples.

Let’s take some time just to reflect on that. You can look at the definitions as you consider your response. You can spend some time in prayer. But let’s reflect: Am I a disciple of Jesus?

For reflection and action

  1. Do you agree that there is no distinction between being a Christian and being a disciple? If not, what do you see as the difference?
  2. Do you agree that the definitions given do reflect a biblical understanding of discipleship? If not, how would you describe a disciple?
  3. In what aspect of these definitions (or your own definition) do you feel God wants to see you grow?
  4. How will that happen?
  5. What can you give thanks to God for?
  6. What do you need to ask God for?

Further resources

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