by Alan Dowd
The dictionary defines disciple as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another . . . a convinced adherent of a school or individual.” The word is rooted in the Latin term for student.
But I think Jesus has a slightly different definition of disciple.
The first time the word is used in the Gospels is in Matthew 4 at the calling of the first disciples and Matthew 5 when Jesus’ disciples came to him.
Jesus had no problem with his followers being identified as disciples. In Matthew 12 the Pharisees tattled on the disciples by saying to Jesus, “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” (v. 2). And Jesus did not correct the Pharisees for using the word. Moreover, in Matthew 26, Jesus himself used the term, declaring, “I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples” (v. 18).
Those of us who know the rest of the gospel story know that these disciples did not really meet the dictionary’s definition of the term—at least not at that point. Sure, they may have spread Jesus’ teachings. But had they fully accepted those teachings? Were they convinced of his teachings? Did they adhere to his teachings—or to him—in every situation?
The answer is no, which leads me to this definition of disciple based on Jesus’ ministry with the 12.
A disciple is sometimes proud, sometimes petty, sometimes uncertain, sometimes impulsive, sometimes deliberate, sometimes arrogant, sometimes judgmental, sometimes cowardly, sometimes a fraud, sometimes a failure, sometimes selfish, sometimes deceitful, sometimes power-hungry, sometimes harsh, sometimes hard-headed, sometimes self-assured, but always loved, always a work in progress.
If you don’t like this definition of disciple, consider what the Gospels tell us about the 12 disciples.
One of the 12 was a thief—he literally stole from God—and a betrayer (see John 12:4-6). Yet Judas was called a disciple.
Peter was too proud to let Jesus wash his feet. He also had a childlike impulsiveness that made him special to Jesus and yet got him into trouble from time to time—telling Jesus he would never let him down, jumping out of a boat only to sink in fear, slicing off a guard’s ear. These are not exactly the actions of a mature Christian.
The week before Jesus was crucified, James and John were maneuvering to get a better place in Heaven. When they asked Jesus to seat one on his right and the other on his left, Jesus answered, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Oblivious to what Jesus meant, they responded without hesitation, “We can” (Mark 10:35-45).
How’s that for arrogant?
At times the disciples were petty and prideful. Consider how the disciples reacted when they learned that James and John were trying to bargain with Jesus for those front-row seats in Heaven. “They became indignant,” according to Mark’s account.
Or consider the time Jesus was anointed with “very expensive perfume” by an unnamed woman. Rather than letting the woman honor her Savior, they tried to embarrass her and make an example of her. “When the disciples saw this, they were indignant,” Matthew reports. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold . . . and the money given to the poor.”
Jesus knew what was in their hearts and rebuked them.
The disciples were, at times, hungry for power and eager to use it against their enemies. When a town refused to welcome Jesus, James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”
That’s awfully harsh—and hard-headed—coming from a couple of guys who’ve been listening to sermons about grace and mercy for three years.
Thomas took hard-headedness to a new level after the resurrection, refusing to believe until he touched the risen Jesus. Because of his stubborn unbelief, his name is synonymous with doubt.
However, all of the disciples were doubtful and uncertain at times. Andrew and Philip, for instance, doubted that Jesus could feed the 5,000. Testing the disciples, Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat” (John 6:5-12).
Andrew’s response was to point to a young man’s meal pouch of five loaves and two fish and ask, “How far will they go among so many?” (v. 9). Philip tried to calculate how much it would cost, concluding that not even eight months’ wages would be enough.
Moreover, the disciples were so uncertain about Jesus being the real deal that, as Mark’s Gospel tells us, “Everyone deserted him and fled” when the soldiers marched into Gethsemane. One of the disciples was so terrified that he “fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”
Their doubt exposed their cowardice and showed them to be fair-weather followers—at least for a while.
The bad news is that what was true of the first disciples is true of us. At least, it’s true of me.
I’m a miserable jumble of overconfidence and fear, a teenager’s shortsightedness and an old man’s pessimism, Peter’s pride and Thomas’ doubt, James and John’s longing for prestige and Judas’ acquiescence to the enemy.
Yet I am a disciple. Jesus looks beyond the grime and sees something more.
That’s the good news. Jesus sees something more in all of us.
It’s not so much that we have been transformed, but rather that we are being transformed. Like the first disciples, we are becoming humble and selfless. We are shaking off our fears and becoming courageous. We are trading away our doubts for certainty in a risen Savior. The pretense of piety is being replaced by the desire to please the Lord. Impulsiveness is giving way to spiritual maturity, and stubbornness is giving way to trust in the Holy Spirit. We are learning to rely on God, to die to self, to love others.
It’s no coincidence that disciple means student, or that it shares the same root as discipline.
A student, after all, doesn’t know as much as his teacher knows. A student is, by definition, learning. A student is a work in progress. And it takes discipline for a student to learn, to understand, to be transformed.
What’s that look like for us? It looks a lot like it did for the first disciples. Like them, we need to spend time with Jesus by worshiping him and listening for him. We need to learn more about him by studying his Word. And we need to imitate him, the author and perfecter of our faith.
We do that by denying ourselves for the good of others, just as he did for mankind. We do that by building bridges within the church rather than walls. “All men will know that you are my disciples,” as Jesus put it in John 13:35, “if you love one another.” And we do that by finding new disciples. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commands.
Discipleship is about the transformation, not the final product. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
We know this because the first disciples were identified as disciples before they were transformed, before they reached their destination. We should find hope in that.
Alan Dowd is a freelance writer in Fishers, Indiana.
Your Journey as a Disciple
• With which disciple’s characteristics do you most connect? Why do you relate to those?
• Which of your personality traits hold you back from being a better disciple of Jesus? Which of your strengths are you allowing God to use to the fullest?
• Disciple means “student.” Are you willing to learn as a student of Christ? What can you do to be a more moldable student, ready to be formed by the Teacher?