What is a Disciple?

by Mike Ratliff

7 The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.  Acts 6:7 (NASB)

This post will primarily be a Greek word study. Our primary Greek word for this study is μαθητής (mathētēs), which means “disciple.” However, it means more than that. Let us take a closer look.

While mathētēs comes from μανθάνω (manthanō), “to teach,” it means more than just being a student or leaner. Manthanō, in fact is comparable to ἐπίγνωσις (epignōsis), “a full and thorough knowledge.” In Classical Greek, mathētēs is what we would call “an apprentice,” one who not only learns facts from the teacher but other things, such as his attitudes and philosophies. In this way the mathētēs was what we might call a “student-companion,” who does not just sit in class listening to lectures, but rather, who follows the teacher to learn life as well as facts.

While the same basic idea is present in New Testament usage, mathētēs goes even deeper. Interestingly, while it appears over 260 times, those occurrences are only in the Gospels, and Acts. It pictures total attachment to the Lord Jesus, a connection that goes even further than the idea of an apprentice. Being a disciple of Christ means that we are, like the twelve disciples were, with him night and day, day in and day out. Being His disciple means that we are true followers, true believers, imitating all He does and quoting all He says.

I have heard some say that there is a distinction between a “Christian” and a “committed disciple.” However, that idea is a modern invention and is foreign to Scripture. They are clearly synonymous (Acts 6:1-2, 7; 11:26; 14:20, 22; 15:10).

One of the many significant occurrences of mathētēs is its first appearance, “When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them…” Matthew 5:1-2 (NASB). What follows in chapters 5-7, of course, has been called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Its first outstanding feature is that it is addressed not to the multitude, but to disciples, true believers. It does not deal with salvation, but with how the true follower of Christ lives. From that time on, the disciples could not only remember the words Jesus spoke, but they would also see those words lived out in His life. 

At the opposite end of our Lord’s earthly ministry, we see the verb form in the “Great Commission” He gave to His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19). “Make disciples” is the verb μαθητεύσατε (mathēteusate) the second plural, aorist active imperative case of μαθητεύω (mathēteuō), so the disciples are now “making disciples” of others, who in turn make other disciples. This is our commission. 

Soli Deo Gloria!


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