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Jesus’ commission was clear, “Go make disciples of all nations.” The key command—the divine imperative—is to make disciples. But what exactly is a disciple?
The life of Vince Lombardi, who was arguably one of the greatest football coaches of all time, provides a great analogy for the importance of answering this question about the nature of a disciple. He was such a great coach that the Super Bowl championship Trophy was named after him as the “Lombardi Trophy”.
Part of what made him so great was that he was a stickler for the fundamentals. Legend has it that one practice he stood in front of his team in stone cold silence, football in hand, surveying the men in the room. No one dared speak. Finally he broke the quiet with the now famous words, “Men, this is a football.” He was simply bringing them back to the basics. That’s what we need to do in making disciples sometimes: we have to go back to the basics.
What is a Disciple?
If Jesus told us to make disciples, then we need to clearly know what a disciples is. After all, we will be answering to Jesus the substance of our work in disciple making one day (1 Corinthians 3:12-13). The term “disciple” that Jesus used in Matthew 28:19 is the word mathetes, which essentially means “to learn” in Greek. The Hebrew term for a disciple is talmidim, which is also derives from the word for “to learn” (in Hebrew) and was used for a young man who left his home to study under a Rabbi.
This is from Craig Ethredege’s eBook, Invest in a Few. Download the eBook here in your favorite format at no cost.
Therefore, a disciple is, at the core, a learner. However, a disciple is more than just one who learns religious information and more than just a student who merely acquires biblical facts. To find out more, you have to dig deeply into the culture of the Old Testament because disciple making didn’t start with Jesus—it pre-dates him.
The idea of disciple making is rooted in the Old Testament. The ancient prophets often pulled around them young men to train on how to serve God (Isaiah 8:16). Master teachers regularly trained temple musicians in special schools for the purpose of serving in temple worship (1 Chronicles 25:8). Later, Rabbinic schools were established for the purpose of raising up teachers and leaders. In the days of Jesus, there were many different kinds of disciples: “disciples of Moses” (John 9:28), “disciples of the Pharisees” (Matthew 22:16), “disciples of John the Baptist” (Matthew 9:14), and “disciples of Jesus” (Mt 28:18-20)—and that’s just well-known Jewish disciples (in addition to non-religious disciples like those in philosophical schools and other contexts). Therefore, in its most basic definition, a disciple was a person who follows a master teacher to become like him and to carry on his work.
Now underline that last statement and think about it. A disciple followed a master to eventually become like that master and carry on the master’s work.
The Blog Reader’s Discount on the 2017 National Disciple Making Forum
In the New Testament, the term “disciple” is primarily used to describe a follower of Jesus. The term is used 261 times in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. It’s clear that a “disciple” of Jesus is used synonymously with a “believer” in Jesus. For example, in Acts 4:32, “those who believe” are later referred to as “disciples” in Acts 6:2. As we move past the Book of Acts into the Epistles, the term “disciple” begins to fade away and it is replaced with terms like “brother” and “sister”, “saint”, “believer”, and “Christian”. That “disciple” is used so many times in the early days of the church reveals how important it was to the earliest Christians. Therefore, it should be important to us, too.
Clarifying the definition of a disciple is critical if you are going to be committed to making disciples. You can’t have a fuzzy vision of your “end product” (to use industrial language, if I may). Just as a tire factory knows what a finished tire looks like and a computer manufacturer knows that computers are their final project, healthy disciples of Jesus know what disciples are and how to make them.
The Apostle Paul was very clear on what he was producing in the lives of every person he met and every church he planted. He wanted mature disciples, people who had learned how to obey God by following Jesus. He said this in various ways, not always using the word “disciple”, but always referring to the characteristics of a disciple, one who is mature in Christ.
Read what he wrote to believers in Rome to see if you can pick up on Paul’s “end product”: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). And to the churches in Galatia he wrote, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19). Then, to the church at Corinth he wrote, “But we Christians have no veil over our faces; we can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him” (2 Corinthians 3:18, TLB). Then, to the church at Colossae he wrote, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28-29, NIV). From these verses, it’s clear that Paul’s goal was to see people become more and more like Jesus. He wanted people to be conformed to the image of Jesus, to be mirrors that reflect Jesus, to be matured into the likeness of Jesus.
Paul’s end product was Christ-like followers and this should be the end product of every church and disciple maker. As you pour your life into another person, you are not just trying to convey biblical knowledge; you are not simply trying to form a learner; instead, you are investing your life into men and women who will follow Jesus, grow to be like him, and carry on his work.
Written by Craig Etheredge
 Anne Spangler and Louis Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2009) 54.
The Blog Reader’s Discount on the 2017 National Disciple Making Forum
A gifted communicator, author, and Bible teacher and the Lead Pastor at First Colleyville, a thriving church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Craig Etheredge is the host of Morning Thrive, a radio program that covers central Texas. He is Founder and President of discipleFIRST ministries and a regular speaker at the FlashPoint Conference across the United States. Craig is also Adjunct Professor of Discipleship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas and is actively involved in his local community serving on various boards.
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