R. Joseph Owles
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What Is A Disciple?

The Greek word translated as “disciple” in the New Testament is “learner” or “pupil.” It is one who engages in learning from another through instruction. In a religious sense, it is used for one who devoted to a teacher. The notion that a disciple is a pupil who is devoted to a teacher or the teachings of a teacher can cause the word to be understood as an “adherent” to a religion, making religious preference synonymous with discipleship. To put it another way, a Christian disciple may simply be thought of as a Christian. But if one examines the practice and beliefs of Christians, one may discover that being a “Christian” does not necessarily make on a “disciple.”

The root word of our word “disciple” is discipline. It, of course, does mean “pupil” and “adherent”; yet, a disciple is more than someone who learns or a member of a religion. The discipline of learning of the disciple is not what may be thought of as learning in the contemporary setting. A disciple is not a student who attends classes, takes notes, receives information, and is examined academically on personal knowledge of the information. To put it another way, discipleship is not a mental or academic exercise. Discipleship is more “hands-on” in the learning process.

Perhaps a common word in our vocabulary that better captures the meaning of “disciple” in the biblical sense is “apprentice.” The common understanding of apprentice is not someone who sits in classes and attends lectures and takes exams. An apprentice is understood more as someone who engages in the activity that is being learned. An apprentice works with someone who is skilled and does what the mentor does, learning the skill through instruction while doing. They spend time with the mentor, watch what the mentor does, how the mentor does it, attempts to mimic the mentor, and over time, possess the same skills and expertise as the mentor. That is what the disciples do.

The implication of this understanding is that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not simply filling one’s head with Jesus quotes, Jesus trivia, quoting the Bible, memorizing chapter and verse. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is becoming an apprentice of Jesus Christ. It is spending time with Christ, watching what he does and how he does it. It is paying attention to what he says to do and how to do it. It is mimicking what he does and how he does it. It is hands-on learning.

The first disciples learned directly from Jesus. Twelve of them were chosen to be Apostles, who would teach others in the name of Jesus with the authority of Jesus. Their teachings became the New Testament. Therefore, even if we do cannot literally study at the feet of Jesus, we can still be taught by him and emulate the example he offers us. We can encounter Jesus in the Gospels and learn from him. We can begin our apprenticeship, instructed by what has been passed down to us by the Apostles, and by those chosen by the Apostles to pass down the teaching to others – a process that has continued to the present day, and will continue until the Lord returns.

Jesus nowhere in the Gospels calls anyone to be Christian. Jesus calls them to be disciples. Jesus calls them to apprenticeship, learning directly from the Master. Learning to become the Master is. Disciples of Jesus Christ do not simply learn information. Disciples of Jesus Christ throw their whole selves into the learning. It is the discipline of learning how to be like Jesus.

A Christian, by definition, is someone who follows Jesus Christ. A disciple, by definition, is someone who learns how to be like Jesus Christ. “Christian” is more of a state of being; “disciple” is more of an action and a process. A Christian is more of a claim and an identity; a disciple is not a claim but an orientation and a commitment of one who learns by doing. A Christian is a Christian through an inner, personal assenting to certain ideas and concepts; a disciple is a disciple through an outward expression of discipline. A Christian may do the choosing; a disciple is chosen. Perhaps if we focused less on being Christians and more on being disciples, the world would be a far better place, resembling more the Kingdom of God. 

From The Disciple's Handbook

The Disciple's Handbook

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