Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet,” centers on two young people – one each from feuding families. At one point Juliet muses that Romeo’s last name doesn’t make him any less a wonderful person. She says, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The meaning is that the names of things do not affect what they really are. While it is true that “Montague” is neither good or evil in itself, any more than “Capulet” – it is also true that many times a name or a title describes exactly the sort of person who carries it. While a “Republican” may be either a liberal or a conservative, a “Christian” ought to thoroughly honor Christ, according to the narrow confines of the Word of God. There are no wide-ranging liberal and conservative Christians.
Tonight I intend, the Lord willing, to begin a series of messages looking at titles which have been applied to God’s people. We will start with those which we find in the Bible, but eventually we will move into historical names. My intention is three fold – the first is simply educational. But my second goal is to show that quite often we fall short of what these titles convey. So my third point will be – here in this title is what we should strive to become for the glory of our Saviour.
Tonight we will start with the term “disciple.” It might be argued there are better places to start. One might think we should begin by looking at the word “Christian” – but “Christian” is rather rare title in the Word of God. Someone else might suggest “saint,” or something else, and they might be right. But having to start somewhere, I have chosen “disciple” because during the ministry of Christ and in the Book of Acts, it was the Holy Spirit’s favorite term. Did I mention when we were looking at Matthew 27 that the word “saint” is found only once in the gospels? And the title “Christian” cannot be found in any of the four gospels. But the word “disciple” or “disciples” is found 226 times in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. Just the sheer number tells me to start with this word. Whether or not it is the most important, we’ll just have to the let the Spirit teach us one way or the other.
Are you one of the Lord’s disciples? Do you know what “discipleship” really entails?
“Go ye therefore and teach all nations.”
When we looked at the great commission a couple months ago, did you notice that we were NOT ordered to make people into “Christians?” Never have we been commanded to turn “sinners” into “saints.” And as much as it might grieve you or me – while we have orders to baptize people – we have no scriptures telling us to make people into “Baptists.” That isn’t to say we shouldn’t long to see people become Christians, saints or even Baptists. But our commission is to make “disciples.” The word translated “disciple” is “mathetes” (math-ay-tes’). In Matthew 28:19 – “Go ye therefore and teach all nations” – “teach” is “matheteuo” (math-ayt-yoo’-o).’ Our commission is to go into all the world and to “make disciples.”
And what is the literal meaning of that Greek word? At its most basic meaning, a disciple is a student, a learner, someone who is being taught. Under the authority of Christ (Matthew 28:18), the Lord’s church is commissioned to teach God’s word. It is our task to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit in looking for people willing to be taught. But wait a minute – that makes THOSE people disciples, but what about us? The answer is in the context of that great commission – “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appoint them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him…. And Jesus came and spake unto then saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and (disciple) all nations.” Who were to disciple the nations? Those who were already Jesus’ disciples.
I will come back to this, but it’s important to realize that true disciples are more than just students. Judas was a disciple in one sense, in other ways he was not. And there were disciples in John 6 who forsook the Lord. Were they ever really disciples? Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple – something which is definitely not ideal. Am I a true disciple of Christ? Are you?
Discipleship involves a special relationship.
Let’s say that I have been pastor of this church for 25 years – and, lo, that is the case. Let’s say that some of the members of this assembly came to know Christ under my ministry. As new born babes in Christ, they joined this church, and this has been their only church. It might be possible that much of what they know of the Bible they learned from me. I have preached and taught a great many messages in 25 years – more than 5,000. But I hope that not one of you would ever say that you are a “disciple” of Kenneth David Oldfield. The term “disciple” suggests a very special relationship which goes beyond teacher and student, or pastor and church member.
Many centuries ago the Old Testament was translated into the Greek language by seventy Jewish scholars. That translation is called the “Septuagint” – and it is commonly denoted by the Roman numerals “LXX.” Those men did not use the Greek word “disciple” in the Septuagint, even though it had been commonly used in Greek literature since before 500 BC. But just because the term isn’t found, we do find disciples in the Old Testament – in a limited sense. Perhaps they began with Elijah, but clearly by the time of Elisha, there were schools of the prophets. There are several accounts of visits, lessons and even miracles among the students of those schools. Would any of his students ever call himself “a disciple of Elisha”? I don’t know. But there was one student who stands out from all the others in the relationship he had with his master. One cannot find a more faithful illustration of a disciple than Elisha was of Elijah. Elisha refused to leave his teacher – he was a servant, student, aide and successor to his Master.
But Elisha and Elijah are not only teachers and students in the Old Testament. Isaiah apparently had his school and his students. Isaiah 8:13 – “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken. Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. And I will wait upon the LORD, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him.” For some reason the Septuagint didn’t translate Isaiah 8:16 with the same Greek word. But the Hebrew has exactly the same meaning – learner, student.
What did the Greek word “disciple” mean to the Greeks who used that word? To be honest it meant different things to different people. But in its highest form, discipleship referred to a surrender to one’s teacher as his master. In Greek literature there are the disciples of Socrates, Plato, Pythagorus and others. The disciples of these people were committed to following their leader, emulating his life, learning what he had to say, and then passing those teachings on to others. To these people “discipleship” was much more than just the reception of information – studenthood. It meant imitating the teacher’s life, ingesting his values and ideas and then reproducing his instructions. IF this is the true definition of a “Christian disciple” are you a disciple of Christ?
In the New Testament we see a variety of disciples.
Sometimes we see the Greek kind of discipleship spilling over into Jewish society. Is this the kind of disciple which followed John the Baptist? Not all of those 226 references to “disciples” in the Gospels and Acts are speaking of Jesus’ disciples. There were apparently people who chose to make John their “master.” They followed him about, learning from him, emulating him, sharing what he taught them. But then he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” At that point the most worthy disciples of John became disciples of Jesus. In Acts the word “disciple” continued to be applied to Johns’ disciples. Those men of Ephesus in Acts 19 were disciples of John, and yet they had probably never met him. What they claimed was to adhere to his teachings, and they went about the world spreading those teachings.
Not only did John have disciples, but so did the Pharisees. The Pharisees were disciples and they had disciples of their own. When Christ cured a man who had been born blind, the Jews began to attack the poor man. But he kept his wits about him and availed himself quite well. John 9: 24 – “Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner. He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see. Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes? He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples? Then they reviled him, and said, Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses’ disciples.” What did they mean in saying that they were Moses’ disciples? Wasn’t it that they claimed to be obedient followers of Moses’ teachings?
Mark 2:18 – “And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast; and they come unto (Jesus) and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?” That is an excellent question – at least in one aspect – Notice that these disciples were not hearers only – not students only – they imbibed and practiced what their masters had taught them. Luke 11:1 – “It came to pass that, as (Jesus) was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.” In John 3 we see the disciples of John quarreling with some of the disciples of the Jews. Why were they quarreling? Because they were more than mere students. And why was Saul of Tarsus such a dangerous enemy to early Christianity? It was because he was a disciple of Gamaliel – the Pharisee. Paul had received the lessons of his master, and at some point decided defend them by attacking the disciples of Christ Jesus. To be a disciple is more than just to be a student of the master.
What does the Bible say is meant by becoming a disciple of Christ?
Sometimes, it isn’t what is said, but what the Bible implies. For example what is meant by the words of Matthew 10:42 – “And whosoever shall give drink unto one these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you shall in no wise lose his reward.” Doesn’t that suggest that the one giving this cup of water is doing so as a representative of Christ. At least in this verse, he is much more than a mere student of the Lord. And what is implied in the next verse – Matthew 11:1 – “And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples…..” At least in this verse the twelve are not students – they are servants and representatives of Christ.
Despite the basic meaning of the word, “disciple” means much more than a mere student. But the critical question is – does it mean anything more TO US? Am I misreading Matthew 16:24 when I say that to be a disciple is to be a selfless follower of Christ? “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Isn’t Jesus saying that disciples deny themselves and follow Christ, bearing their cross?
In John 8, the Lord was teaching various points of doctrine to people of varying degrees of discipleship. In verse 31 – “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, if you continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Is there any special significance to the word “continue” – “if you continue in my word you are disciples?” Doesn’t it mean more than simply to mentally learn the truth? Doesn’t it imply learning, abiding and living in that truth? Doesn’t it involve making that truth a part of one’s life? Based on John 8:31 are you a disciple of Christ?
What would I mean if I referred to someone as a disciple of Charles Darwin? Wouldn’t I mean that the person not only believed what Darwin taught, but that he was a defender and teacher? A disciple of Lenin, is more than a citizen of Russia – he is a a dyed in the wool communist. Are you a dyed in the wool follower of Christ?
What is the instruction of John 15? “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.” Doesn’t our Master tell us that unless we are bearing fruit, we are not really His disciples?
Does I Corinthians 1:9 shed light on the question of discipleship? “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” What is meant by “fellowship”? If I am not mistaken it is more than sitting in class, learning a few Bible doctrines. And although we see some pretended and short term disciples of Christ, those who were disciples indeed, were invited into that relationship – “by whom ye were called.” Called unto what? Fellowship, communion, friendship, instruction, stewardship and service. And never forget that we are talking about disciples of God’s Son “Jesus Christ our LORD” and Master.
Philippians 3:10 also uses that same word “koinonia” – “fellowship.” “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” If there has ever been a true disciple of Christ, Paul must stand among them. Could we say that this paragraph from Philippians 3 is the motto of the true disciple? Then what about I Corinthians 11:1 – remembering that disciples – disciple. Paul says, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” To be a disciple is to be a follower as well as a learner, because our Divine Teacher, our Master, isn’t seated at a desk or standing behind a lectern; He is on the go, working.
And this business of following naturally involves some degree of sacrifice. Can someone be a true disciple of Christ without the involvement of sacrifice? What did the Greek word “disciple” mean to the Greeks who used that word? If someone became a disciple of Plato, then it might mean the loss of his family and his former life. It was more than just learning the principles of Plato, it was becoming a new Plato. Discipleship meant imitating the teacher’s life, ingesting his values and reproducing his instructions. What does Luke 14:33 say? “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” That statement came after Christ said we may have to forsake our parents in becoming His disciples. What was the Lord saying in Matthew 12? “And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Doesn’t the Lord imply that the relationship of a disciple to Christ is greater and more intimate than that of a child to his natural parents? Is this the kind of discipleship that we have? In order to be a disciple of Christ, according to the New Testament pattern, there must be a willingness to forsake everything of earthly value – if it stands between us and our Master. “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.”
The Bible has high standards for Christ’s disciples. Attending the house of God and learning a handful of Biblical doctrines does not make a person a true disciple. So again I ask – Am I disciple of Christ? I mean – Are you a disciple of Christ? And according to the Great Commission, isn’t discipleship a part of our core responsibilities?