What Is Discipleship? [What the Bible Teaches]


Discipleship was one of the central teachings of Jesus Christ, according to the Gospels. It plays an important role in several narratives, including stories about Peter, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, and many others. It’s also critical that Christians today understand what Jesus asks of them.

Discipleship refers to following Jesus Christ as a way of life. The word “disciple” refers to a student or pupil. The suffix “ship” describes a condition or state of being. Thus, discipleship is a faith-based commitment to deny oneself and intentionally live according to all that Jesus said and did.

What imagery did Jesus use to describe the meaning and cost of being his disciple? How does discipleship change a person’s life, including their priorities, values, and relationships? What does it mean to count the cost? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

biblical discipleship
Is discipleship hard? See below

Following Jesus In Complete Surrender

Jesus gave his followers a powerful picture of discipleship when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24, ESV). It’s clear from this verse that following Jesus isn’t about being entertained or chasing shallow forms of happiness.

Denying oneself implies surrendering to and following Jesus’ teaching and way of life, which is what “come after me” means. Abandoning one’s ambitions and following Jesus even when it’s difficult defines a disciple’s identity.

True disciples don’t simply know information about Jesus that would be good for passing a test in school or winning a game of trivia. Instead, they know him personally and follow him in their values, priorities, and behaviors.

Discipleship Means Living for Jesus

Jesus shapes their relationships, including marriage and parenting. Their finances also reflect his values. Disciples also endure trials as Jesus did. In summary, discipleship touches every aspect of a person’s life.

Christian author Robert Tannehill writes, “[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]

Additionally, the degree of surrender must be total, not partial. Like Jesus’ surrendered to the Father’s plan when he carried his cross to his death, his followers must carry their own. Of course, this metaphor doesn’t mean that all who follow Jesus will be crucified.

Total Commitment

The image of carrying a cross expresses the degree to which Jesus’ disciples must be willing to follow him. It’s easy to follow Jesus when he changes water to wine (John 2:1-11) or multiplies bread and fish (Mark 8:1-10). It’s harder to follow him to the cross.

Yet, discipleship is so thorough. Disciples should be so committed to Jesus that they would die for their faith. Stephen’s death is an example of this, though he was stoned, not crucified (Acts 7:54-60).

A short time after Jesus spoke these words, the disciples saw Jesus carry his own cross as he walked to his crucifixion. Yet the Roman soldiers beat him so severely that he needed help to carry it (Matt. 27:32-56).

definition of a disciple
How many times does “disciple” appear in the New Testament? See below

Discipleship in the Gospels

The Greek word translated as “disciple” (mathetes, μαθητής) appears 261 times in the New Testament. 233 of those times, it occurs in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

“Disciple” mostly describes followers of Jesus, but it can refer to any pupil or student. For example, John the Baptist had disciples (e.g., Mark 2:18; Luke 11:1), as did the Pharisees (Matt. 22:16; Mark 2:18).

In the Gospels, the disciples often referred to a small group of 12 (e.g., Matt. 19:27-28). Yet, at the end of Matthew, after his death and resurrection, Jesus commissions 11 of them (minus Judas).

He instructs them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

The book of Acts also uses the word to describe all Christians, not just a small group of them (e.g., Acts 9:1, 11:26).

disciple Bible
What does Jesus say about discipleship and family? See below

Counting the Cost of Discipleship

Two examples of the cost of discipleship are prioritizing Jesus over one’s family and leaving a profession if called to do so.

Jesus’ teaching about prioritizing him over family relationships is uncompromising. He said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time” (Mark 10:29-30a, ESV).

Jesus isn’t telling his followers to abandon their families completely. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Christians are called to provide for their families (1 Tim. 5:8). Instead, he is saying that his values, priorities, and commitments must rule a person’s life and not the people in their household.

Another example of the cost of discipleship could be resigning from a job. Matthew reports: “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men'” (Matt. 4:18-19, ESV).

God doesn’t call all disciples to full-time ministry, but some are, which may result in sacrifice like a reduction of income.

Another example of applying this verse is that if the nature of a person’s work or the company that employs them is in some way opposed to Jesus’ teaching, then a change is necessary.

Matthew scholar Michael Wilkins explains the application: “The brothers call serves foremost to highlight Jesus’ authority to enlist mission workers as the inaugurator of the kingdom. The brothers’ response illustrates how obedience is the only appropriate answer to Jesus’ authoritative call.”

Wilkins continues: “When Jesus calls, we also must obey. Jesus has authority over every area of a disciple’s life, and to whatever he calls us, we must immediately obey.”

References:
[1] From The Sword of His Mouth by Robert C. Tannehill. p. 159.
[2] Matthew by Michael Wilkins. NIVAC. p. 187.

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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