What Is A Disciple of Jesus Christ? (The Biblical Meaning)


The word “disciple” appears 261 times in the 27 books of the New Testament. It’s one of the most common words associated with Jesus Christ in the Gospels. While “disciple” has the same basic meaning each time it’s used in the Bible, it occasionally describes different people.

A “disciple,” which literally means “learner,” is a common New Testament term for followers of Jesus Christ. However, Jesus’ disciples are more than mere students because he is more than just a teacher. Biblical disciples follow Jesus in a way that shapes their identity, worldview, and way of life.

What is the definition of the Greek word translated disciple and its range of meaning? How were Jesus’ disciples different than others? Who were the 12 disciples and why don’t the Gospels agree on the exact names of some of them? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also see What Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? to learn more.

Jesus Christ
What obligations did a disciple of Jesus Christ have? See below

What does the word disciple mean?

In the New Testament, the word “disciple” mostly describes followers of Jesus of Nazareth (see other uses below). Jewish and Greek cultures also used the word. Yet as the Christian church grew, and the influence of Jesus expanded as his followers preached the good news about him, “disciple” became primarily associated with Christianity.

Greek wordμαθητής, οῦ, ὁ
Part of speechNoun, Masculine
Transliterationmathétés
Phonetic spelling(math-ay-tes’)
Definitiona disciple
Appearance261x in the NT
Usagea learner, disciple, pupil
Translationover 99% of the time, “disciple”
“Discipleship”the process of maturing as a disciple

Who were Jesus’ first disciples? One of the first tasks Jesus performed after he started his public ministry was calling his disciples. His first two disciples were followers of John the Baptist.

“The next day again John [the Baptist] was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus” (John 1:35-37).

Because John’s ministry paved the way for Jesus’ ministry (cf. John 3:30), it was natural for them to leave John and follow Jesus instead. Andrew then told Peter about Jesus and he followed him as well (John 1:41-42).

Next, Jesus called Philip, who was from the same town as Andrew and Peter. Philip then told Nathaniel about Jesus who eventually decided to follow Jesus as well (John 1:43-51).

What is the nature of a disciple’s commitment? Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathaniel, and the others that Jesus called, would soon learn that being a disciple wasn’t a temporary or shallow commitment.

Jesus was calling them to a different belief system and worldview; to different priorities and values; to value heaven over earth, and to live for God and not themselves.

Robert Tannehill reflects this when he writes that discipleship “is not merely another commitment which we add to the long list of our other commitments, but it is the commitment – demanding a reordering of our lives from the bottom up.” [1]

For a full list of the 12 disciples and to compare their names in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, see the table below.

Also see Why Was Jesus Christ Nailed to a Cross? to learn more.

Christian Bible
What did Jesus tell the disciples to do? See below

Jesus’ disciples were different than other disciples

The nature of discipleship in relation to Jesus is fundamentally different than that of other teachers. This is because Jesus was different than all other teachers, in part, because he was much more than a teacher.

Jesus was (and is) the second member of the Trinity, fully God and fully man, who took on human flesh at the incarnation (John 1:1; 1:14). Jesus is a teacher, but his identity is much greater than that.

Being a disciple of Jesus was also different because of the content of his teachings and the message he charged his disciples to preach and spread. Disciples of other teachers fit the conventional definition of a student. However, the disciples of Jesus are servants of God and serve his purposes in the world.

There are three main ways that Jesus’ disciples were different than others.

Jesus called his own disciples

One of the key differences is seen in that Jesus called his disciples. Normally, potential disciples would pursue teachers they wanted to follow. They would volunteer to learn from a certain teacher, like a rabbi, or join a school that embraced a particular philosophy or worldview.

In contrast, Jesus pursued his followers. He went to them, called them, taught them, and equipped them.

  • Mark 1:17, “And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.'”
  • Mark 2:14, “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”
  • Luke 5:10, “Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.'”

Even when it appears that a person chose to be a disciple, Jesus says something that suggests it was God’s plan all along (e.g. Nathaniel in John 1:48). Note: The description “chose” doesn’t necessarily mean salvation because Judas Iscariot was among the 12 (see list below).

Jesus chose disciples from different backgrounds, professions, class standings, and education levels. They had different families, political views, and skill sets.

Also see How Many Followers Did Jesus Have? to learn more.

Jesus’ disciples would always follow him

In non-Christian discipleship models, disciples would eventually turn into teachers who had their own disciples. Jesus’ model is different because they would always remain his disciples.

Jesus’ disciples would duplicate themselves by spreading the gospel and creating more followers of their Master, but they would never teach a different message. And while some may be considered “teachers,” what they are teaching people to do is be disciples of Jesus, not disciples of themselves.

  • Matthew 23:8, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.”
  • Matthew 23:10, “Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”

“There are many willful, wayward, indifferent, self-interested Christians who cannot really be classified as followers of Christ. There are relatively few diligent disciples who forsake all to follow the Master.” – Phillip Keller

Jesus’ called his disciples to preach the gospel

Jesus told the disciples to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God. Mark 6:7 reads, “And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” This included encouraging repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick (6:12-13).

Beyond the 12, Jesus commissioned all his followers to make more disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Also see Is Jesus Christ Our Brother? to learn more.

Christian cross
What characteristics do disciples have? See below

The 12 disciples in the Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain lists of the 12 disciples, but they don’t read exactly the same. In part, this shows that the writers weren’t copying and pasting the lists from each other’s Gospels, but had a unique way of presenting the information. For explanations of the differences, see below.

Mark 3:13-39Matthew 10:1-4Luke 6:12-16
Simon (Peter)Simon (Peter)Simon (Peter)
his brother Andrewhis brother Andrew
James son of ZebedeeJames son of ZebedeeJames
his brother Johnhis brother John
John (Boanerges)
Andrew
PhilipPhilipPhilip
BartholomewBartholomewBartholomew
MatthewThomasMatthew
ThomasMatthew, the tax collectorThomas
James son AlphaeusJames son AlphaeusJames son Alphaeus
ThaddeausThaddeaus
Simon the CanaaniteSimon the CanaaniteSimon the Zealot
Judas the son of James
Judas IscariotJudas IscariotJudas Iscariot

Possible solutions to alleged discrepancies:

  • Simon “the Canaanite” vs. Simon “the Zealot”: Canaanite is the Aramaic word for Zealot. Luke probably translated the name to Greek because he’s writing for Gentiles.
  • Andrew’s name: Matthew and Luke list Andrew’s name with his brother’s. Mark lists it separately for unknown reasons.

The biggest inconsistency is Thaddeus (Matthew and Mark), and Judas son of James (Luke). There is a general consensus among Gospel scholars that these names describe the same person. The name “Judas” is Hebrew and “Thaddeaus” is Greek.

Some speculate that Matthew and Mark thought the name Judas was stained, and they didn’t want readers to confuse the son of James with Judas Iscariot.

Also see What Is the Law of Christ? to learn more.

The way of life for disciples of Jesus

In one sense, the entire New Testament is instruction for how followers of Jesus ought to think, behave, and live. As examples of this, the verses below list certain characteristics disciples should possess:

  • Service: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12)
  • Humility: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
  • Perseverance: “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)
  • Faith: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). And John 6:69, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

“Faithful discipleship that will stick it out to the end does not rest on a momentary burst of feeling. Enthusiasm may wane as quickly as it blazes up.” – New Testament scholar David Garland

Also see Did Jesus Claim To Be God? to learn more.

Disciples beyond the 12

In the New Testament, the word “disciple” doesn’t only describe the original 12. It’s also used for followers of other disciples of Jesus as well as John the Baptist.

Other followers of Jesus:

“Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” (Matthew 8:19-22)

John the Baptist:

  • Matthew 11:2, “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples
  • Mark 6:29, “When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.”
  • Luke 11:1, “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.'”

Also see Where Was Jesus Crucified? to learn more.

Christian discipleship
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” – Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1

7 more verses about being a disciple of Jesus Christ

  • John 8:31-32, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'”
  • John 12:26, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
  • Luke 9:23, “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'”
  • Luke 14:33, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
  • 1 Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
  • John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
  • John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

“It is impossible to be a follower of Christ while denying, disregarding, discrediting and disbelieving the words of Christ.” – David Platt

Also see How Many Lashes Did Jesus Get? to learn more.

References:
[1] From The Sword of His Mouth by Robert C. Tannehill. p. 159.
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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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