During Jesus' earthly ministry, and during the days of the early church, the term that was used most frequently to designate one of Jesus' followers was "disciple" (mathetes [maqhthv"], 262 times). Hence, discipleship is a central theological theme of the Gospels and Acts. The situation is different in the Old Testament and in the rest of the New Testament. There is a curious scarcity of words for "disciple" in the Old Testament, and mathetes [maqhthv"] does not occur at all in the Epistles and Revelation. However, other terms and expressions point to abundant theological concepts of discipleship everywhere in Scripture. Discipleship enjoys its most concrete expression in Scripture when Jesus walked with his disciples during his earthly ministry. Yet the Old Testament prepares for that relationship, and the Epistles and Revelation describe how that relationship was carried out after Jesus' ascension.
Called to a Relationship with God. The roots of biblical discipleship go deep into the fertile soil of God's calling. That calling is expressed in the pattern of divine initiative and human response that constitutes the heart of the biblical concept of covenant, manifested in the recurrent promise, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people." That call from Yahweh is reiterated in the call of Jesus, when he said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" ( Matt 11:28 ). God has called his people to represent him on the earth, to be with him in every circumstance of life, to be transformed in personal character to be like him. That calling is at the heart of biblical discipleship, both in the Old and New Testaments.
God and Israel. The ideal of discipleship in the Old Testament is the covenant relationship between Israel and God. Although the call came from God to individuals Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob it was directed toward their offspring ( Gen 13:15 ). God was creating a national community that would be his people. In turn, his people were to be a source of blessing to all peoples of the earth ( Gen 12:1-3 ). That calling was reiterated and confirmed in the exodus from Egypt and in the wilderness ( Exod 13:21-22 ). No other person or god was to take a place of preeminence and thus usurp God. While God placed men and women in leadership roles (e.g., Moses, Joshua, the judges, prophets), they were only intermediate leaders. God alone was to have the place of preeminence.
The ideal form of discipleship for Israel was the nation in covenantal relationship with God. That ideal is richly expressed in the prophets as they look ahead to the time when Israel would have the ultimate realization of that relationship. Isaiah expresses the personal nature of this relationship in the prophecies of the new covenant ( Isa 30:20-21 ; 31:31-34 ).
When giving the Law to Israel in the wilderness God stressed his covenant intent: "I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people" ( Lev 26:12 ). The nation was called to a relationship in which God was with his people.
Jesus and His Disciples. The Old Testament theme of God with his people finds explicit fulfillment in Jesus with his people. The promise of a coming Davidic Messiah is intertwined with the promise that God himself would be with his people. The significance of Matthew's interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' name, "Immanuel, " therefore, cannot be overstated: "The virgin will be with Child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call him Immanuel' which means, God with us'" ( Matt 1:23 ). In Jesus, God has come to be with his people, to fulfill the deepest meaning of the covenant God with his people as Master, Lord, and Savior.
Although discipleship was a voluntary initiative with other types of master-disciple relationships in the first century, with Jesus the initiative lay with his call ( Matt 4:19 ; 9:9 ; Mark 1:17 ; 2:14 ; cf. Luke 5:10-11 Luke 5:27-28 ) and his choice ( John 15:16 ) of those who would be his disciples. The response to the call involves recognition and belief in Jesus' identity ( John 2:11 ; 6:68-69 ), obedience to his summons ( Mark 1:18 Mark 1:20 ), and counting the cost of full allegiance to him ( Matt 19:23-30 ; Luke 14:25-28 ). His call is the beginning of something new; it means losing one's old life ( Matt 10:34-37 ; Luke 9:23-25 ) and finding new life in the family of God through obeying the will of the Father ( Matt 12:46-50 ).
Following God. Israel Walking in the Ways of God. The relationship established between God and Israel was a divine-human relationship that anticipated the relationship to which Jesus would call his followers. To fulfill the covenantal relationship means simply that God must be God, giving him preeminence in all things. The abstract covenantal relationship with God finds concrete expression in "following God" and "walking in his ways." When the nation fulfills its commitment to the covenant it is said to be following God (e.g., Deut 4:1-14 ; 1 Sam 12:14 ) and walking in his ways ( Deut 10:12-13 ). When the nation violated the covenant, it is said to be following the gods of the heathen and walking in their ways ( Deut 6:14 ; Judges 2:10-13 ; Isa 65:2 ). Elijah calls to the people of Israel and says, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him" ( 1 Kings 18:21 ). Following God is understood in a metaphorical sense of walking in the ways of God.
Personal Commitment to Jesus. During Jesus' earthly ministry the disciple was to "follow" Jesus, an allegiance to his person regarded as the decisive act, whether a literal or figurative attachment. Jewish disciples would follow their master around, often literally imitating him. The goal of Jewish disciples was someday to become masters, or rabbis, themselves, and to have their own disciples who would follow them. But Jesus' disciples were to remain disciples of their Master and Teacher, Jesus, and to follow him only. Following Jesus means togetherness with him and service to him while traveling on the Way.
The call to be a disciple meant to count the cost of allegiance to Jesus, but this took various forms. The Twelve were called to leave all and follow Jesus around including leaving family, profession, and property as a training time for their future role in the church. Apparently others besides the Twelve were also called to such a following. But, while all disciples were called to count the cost of allegiance ( Matt 8:18-22 ; Luke 14:25-33 ), leaving everything and following Jesus around was not intended for all ( Mark 5:18-19 ). Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea apparently became followers of Jesus sometime during his earthly ministry ( John 3:1-14 ; 19:38-42 ), yet presumably remained with the religious establishment and retained their wealth. When demonstration of their faith and allegiance to Jesus was required, they came forward to claim the body of Jesus ( Matt 27:57-60 ).
Even as entrance to the Way of following Jesus required the would-be disciple to count the cost, so traveling on the Way requires disciples to count the cost ( Mark 8:34 ). The disciple must daily deny self, take up the cross, and follow Jesus ( Luke 9:23 ). It is possible for one not to be a true part of the Way while externally traveling with Jesus (e.g., Judas).
The Church Follows the Risen Christ. Peter exhorts those in the church to look at Jesus' example and to follow in his steps ( 1 Peter 2:21 ). One of Paul's favorite metaphors is "walking with God." The expression indicates how a person "lives" or conducts himself or herself in relationship to God and others. The summary of this theme is found in the statement, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" ( Gal 5:16 ). This defines Paul's concept of the Christian life.
The Goals of Discipleship. Toward Self: Become Like Christ. A primary goal of discipleship is becoming like Jesus ( Luke 6:40 ). This is also understood by Paul to be the final goal of eternal election ( Rom 8:29 ). The process of becoming like Jesus brings the disciple into intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and, as such, is the goal of individual discipleship.
Toward Others: Servanthood. But discipleship is not simply self-centered. In a classic interaction with two of his disciples who were seeking positions of prominence, Jesus declares that servanthood is to be the goal of disciples in relationship to one another ( Mark 10:35-45 ). The reason that this kind of servanthood is possible is because of Jesus' work of servanthood in ransoming disciples. He paid the price of release from the penalty for sin and from the power of sin over pride and self-centered motivation. The motivation of self-serving greatness is broken through redemption, and disciples are thus enabled to focus upon others in servanthood. This is very similar to Paul's emphasis when he points to Jesus' emptying himself to become a servant: Jesus provides the example of the way the Philippian believers are to act toward one another ( Php 2:1-8 ). Mark and Paul declare that even as Jesus was the redemptive servant, authentic discipleship entails selfless servanthood. This is the goal of disciples in relation to one another.
Toward the World: The Great Commission. Through his Great Commission Jesus focuses his followers on the ongoing importance of discipleship through the ages, and declares the responsibility of disciples toward the world: they are to make disciples of all the nations ( Matt 28:16-20 ). To "make disciples" is to proclaim the gospel message among those who have not yet received forgiveness of sins. The command finds verbal fulfillment in the activities of the early church, as they went from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth proclaiming the message of Jesus and making disciples. In the early church, to believe in the gospel message was to become a disciple (cf. Acts 4:32 ; 6:2 ). To "make disciples of all the nations" is to make more of what Jesus made of them.
Jesus concludes the commission with the crucial element of discipleship: the presence of the Master" I am with you always, to the very end of the age" ( Matt 28:20 ). Both those obeying the command and those responding are comforted by the awareness that the risen Jesus will continue to fashion all his disciples. The Master is always present for his disciples to follow.
As disciples become salt and light in this world, walking the narrow path, loving and providing hope to the world, they become living examples for others to follow. Such is Paul's entreaty, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" ( 1 Cor 11:1 ).
Michael J. Wilkins
Bibliography. E. Best, Disciples and Discipleship: Studies in the Gospel According to Mark; D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship; A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve; D. G. Dunn, Jesus' Call to Discipleship; M. Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers; H. Kvalbein, Themelios13 (1988): 48-53; D. Mller, NIDNTT, 1:483-90; K. H. Rengstorf, TDNT, 4:415-61; E. Schweizer, Lordship and Discipleship; F. F. Segovia, ed., Discipleship in the New Testament; G. Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity; M. J. Wilkins, The Concept of Disciple in Matthew's Gospel: As Reflected in the Use of the Term Maqhth; idem, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Disciple, Discipleship'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".