BY ANTHONY J. CARTER*
The bible reminds us that the early followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians as the testimony and witness of the faith came to the city of Antioch (Acts 11:25). Though it initially was likely a term of derision, the followers of Christ soon embraced the designation Christian because it openly and unashamedly identified them with Christ. But before the title of Christian was widely accepted, what were the early followers of Christ called? They were simply called “disciples.” Disciple was the preferred reference for believers. But what is a disciple?
In short, a disciple is a student. A disciple is one who disciplines himself in the teachings and practices of another. The word disciple, like discipline, comes from the Latin word discipulus, meaning “pupil” or “learner.” Consequently, to learn is to discipline oneself. For example, if one is to advance in the arts or the sciences or athletics, one has to discipline himself and to learn and follow the principles and fundamentals of the best teachers in that area of study. So it was and is with the disciples of Christ. A disciple follows Jesus.
When Jesus called His first disciples, He spoke the simple words, “Follow me” (Mark 1:17; 2:14; John 1:43). A disciple is a follower, one who trusts and believes in a teacher and follows that teacher’s words and example. Therefore, to be a disciple is to be in a relationship. It is having an intimate, instructive, and imitative relationship with the teacher. Consequently, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is being in relationship with Jesus—it is seeking to be like Jesus. In other words, we follow Christ to be like Christ (1 Cor. 11:1) because as His disciples, we belong to Christ. The disciple of Jesus has certain traits that are commensurate with a relationship with Jesus. What are the qualities of a disciple of Christ? What are the traits of those who follow and are called disciples of Christ?
No one can say he is a disciple of a teacher unless he is ready to listen to that teacher. The world is awash in teachers vying for listeners and followers. Listening to Jesus is what a Christian disciple does. When Jesus speaks, the disciple listens. The disciple hangs on every word of the Master as if that word were bread for the hungry or water for the thirsty. When Jesus gathered with His disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, God the Father spoke from heaven with a clear command: “This is my Son, whom I love … listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). You cannot be a Christian and not listen to Jesus.
Listening to Jesus is not enough. A disciple does not listen and then turn away as if the teacher’s words have no impact. When Jesus calls His disciples, He calls them to learn as well as to listen. When they come, He says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (11:29). The disciple is a learner, and the words of Christ carry weight with him. When Jesus Christ weeded out the joyriders in John 6, He turned to the Twelve and asked, “Will you go away as well?” Peter, speaking on behalf of the others, replied: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69). Learning from Christ is the disciple’s greatest desire. It is the foundation of all that he believes. He joyfully receives the words of his Master. They are his daily bread. He meditates upon them day and night (Ps. 1:2).
No one can truly call himself a disciple of Jesus who is not willing to obey Him. The disciple, the one who truly listens and learns, will put into practice what he learns. For the disciple, obedience is not optional. Jesus has proven Himself worthy of all obedience. Those who know Him best are most aware of this. When the wedding at Cana ran out of wine, Mary (Jesus’ mother) told the servants of the house to find Jesus and “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). That was great advice. Putting the Master’s teachings into practice is the fruit of true discipleship. Jesus Himself declared that those who love Him evidence their love for Him by keeping His commandments (14:21, 23; 15:10).
Some try to make a distinction between being a disciple and being a Christian. Yet, the Bible never makes such a distinction. Before they were called Christians, they were called disciples. Being a disciple of Christ is being a Christian. Being a Christian is trusting Christ. Being a Christian is listening to Christ. Being a Christian is learning from Christ. Being a Christian is obeying Christ. Consequently, being a Christian is being a disciple. It was that way in the beginning. It continues to be that way today.
Anthony J. Carter, “What Is a Disciple?,” Tabletalk Magazine (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, Inc., 2018), 8–9.