25 October 2012

Seeing yourself as a disciple, and the difference it makes

by Dan Phillips

Decades back, I used to ask groups I came to teach whether anyone could define the word "disciple." As a rule, folks were fairly confident, and completely wrong. They'd never been taught about it. Probably the most common answer was "follower." After that came "apostle," or "disciplined person." None of which is true.

The Greek word translated disciple is perfectly straightforward and uncontroversial. It is μαθητὴς (mathētēs), and it means "student, pupil, learner."

That's it.

What, you're waiting for some deeply-spiritual, mystical sense? There isn't one. And I think that in itself is really terribly important.

The way I've seen many folks approach Christianity in general, and church-selection and church-involvement in particular, has convinced me that they have no clue about this element. They do not see themselves as disciples, which is to say they do not see themselves as students, learners, pupils of Jesus Christ.

For instance, I taught one group of older (than I) folks back in the seventies. The focus was the book of Colossians. I introduced it, and I asked them in the intervening week to read the book. It's four chapters long, and reading it takes all of ten minutes or so.

The next week I asked (casually, friendly) for a show of hands as to who in the class in this long-standing Baptist church had read Colossians in the intervening week. Not a single hand went up. Smiling, I went on with the lessons. No one was caned or assigned sentences.

Yet after the class one brother took me aside and rebuked me. He felt I had been out of line. "You made me feel like I was back in school!" he complained, clearly expecting that I would see that as a bad thing that I would want to avoid at all costs. Because we surely don't want anything like that, right? Nothing where someone teaches, and someone else is expected to learn. Which is to say, we don't want anything like discipling going on.

Christians simply do not see themselves as students who are expected (by God!) constantly to learn and grow, and never to graduate. So when it comes to picking a church, the thought of selecting a church which above will (hel-lo?) teach them the Word of God simply is not a priority, or perhaps not even a factor. When they evaluate a church, its music or furnishings or programs or a thousand other elements are central, but its effectiveness in teaching them God's Word is not.

But once they have selected a Bible-teaching church, even then this concept seems to fall by the wayside. They sit and stand, sing and pray; they watch the pastor. They go home, they have lunch. They've already forgotten what happened. So how were they disciples? Surely, if they seriously saw themselves as disciples, they would have taken some steps to make sure that the service contributed to their growth as disciples?

Perhaps someone is thinking, "I don't see the Bible making the big deal about this that you're making." No? How about this?
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
"Make disciples" (mathēteusate) is the lone imperative verb in the Greek text, so it is the anchor-thought. The rest supports this activity. The presence of Jesus is guaranteed to the church as it engages in this activity — making disciples, pupils, students, learners.

"Oh, huh," you say. "I always thought that was about evangelism." Evangelism is included, but it's just the introduction to the whole enchilada, the discipleship enchilada.

But did you know that Jesus defined, in so many words, what it meant to be a genuine disciple? He did in a number of ways, but in our connection one passage stands out: John 8:31-32 —
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Break it down:
  • The path to freedom lies in knowing the truth.
  • The path to knowing the truth lies in being a genuine disciple/student.
  • The path to being a genuine student is in continuing in Jesus' word.
Straightforward, eh?

Spread the word. Make it loud, plain, and inescapable: if you're a real Christian, you're a student. Your priority is to get taught, and to learn. It is to learn the words of God.

And if you're not being a student, you're not being a Christian.

It's definitional.

Not optional.

And it should affect how we approach church selection, organization, and involvement.

Dan Phillips's signature


Tom Chantry said...


Kerry James Allen said...

Most excellent and convicting.
"You will never get comfort to your soul out of what you do not understand, nor find guidance for your life out of what you do not comprehend; nor can any practical bearing upon your character come out of that which is not understood by you." CHS

Michael Coughlin said...


Michael Coughlin said...

LOL, I was third (and now fourth). Kerry must've solved the captcha faster!

Mizz Harpy said...

Excellent post, Dan.

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." II Tim 3:16,17 (ESV) And all of Psalm 119.

Maybe learning, experiencing reproof and being corrected are too difficult or aren't 'fun' like so many other distractions? I know it's true for me.

Meanwhile you've reminded me, I've got to go start the enchilada sauce and make tortillas.

Unknown said...

Lord give me the desire and "discipline" to apply this to my life.
Please pray for me.

Tom Chantry said...

In a nutshell, people who don't see the importance of this post cannot be bothered to deal with Tuesday's post.

I just endured a "Pastor's Appreciation Program" at a Christian School, the main theme of which seemed to be "Pastors do more than just preach." Just preach? Is this what we've come to, missing the weighty solemnity of the words "those who spoke to you the word of God"? (Hebrews 13:7)

My suspicion is that the thought behind this language is something like this: "There isn't really that much that we need to know, so learning isn't important. That means we don't need to get much from sermons. After all, sermons are 'just preaching.'"

Andrew W. Moir said...

Thank you for this post Dan, I really needed some reaffirmation today. I find myself lately having lost the point of studying--frustrated by so many people I know who would rather believe whatever they're told, or whatever nonsense they make up in their head, than to actually pick up God's Word (much less a commentary or two) and mine the depths of God's truth themselves. Much easier to hear a sermon (long forgotten when asked later what it was about), glance over a nice religious-sounding status/hit "like"/slap "Amen!!!" in the comments--and then "agree to disagree" when you try to show them how what they think doesn't line up with the Bible. Not trying to pat myself on the back, just feeling a little Lone Ranger, more by circumstances than intent. Anyway, time to hit the books. :)

Terry Rayburn said...

A few thoughts:

1. Really good post. Important.

2. "Seeing Yourself", as in the title, is critical. It's not enough to just study. It's a matter of an identity which "naturally" is carried out in lifelong practice.


...and me...


3. "...students, learners, pupils OF JESUS CHRIST." (Words from Dan, emphasis mine) We are not learners of fallible men, but are to be hungry learners of the One whom they teach about.

And if they don't teach about HIM, they are bad teachers, even if they expound verses.

4. A sermon, even a good one, once or twice a week is not enough.

It's great. But it's not enough, leading to....

5. Information is not enough without communion.

There are head-stuffed academes and their head-stuffed students who have not spent five minutes in the last week "supping", "communing", "meditating" with Jesus.

Believe me, I'm preaching to myself here too, but it's a sad disciple who reads the written brief but won't attend the briefings in person -- a few will get that analogy :)

Joel Knight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel Knight said...

Great post, thanks.

On a tangentially related point, I sometimes wonder if in the circles most visitors here run in (and the circles I run in) we elevate teaching so highly that it becomes the functional point of the sunday sermon. When the pastor preaches he's proclaiming God's words, and while he cannot do this without teaching, preaching isn't ultimately concerned with information transfer it's concerned with proclamation. And the purpose of proclamation is heart change, hearts change that results from God speaking through his word and by his spirit in the proclamation of his word. As a result you cannot preach without teaching (for it is through rightly handling and explaining the meaning of the text that God speaks) but you can teach without preaching.

DJP said...

Amen Terry, and thanks. Value-added.

Ken said...

I like the post and would also stress
"A disciple of Christ" not just a
disciple. Many people in cults are
also disciples and others have only
became disciples of their church or
maybe their favorite pastor...

DJP said...

Hm... not seeing the rhyme...


Solameanie said...

I don't often do this, but I think this one I am going to read in its entirety in my Sunday school class this week. Teaching through Ephesians, which fits somehow. ;)

Jim Pemberton said...

You know you are in a good church when you have more people willing to teach scripture than you have places for them to teach. Teaching means that they studied and were excited enough learning that they want to share the great stuff they learned with others.

What's not healthy is what I often see where too many people are only interested in learning inasmuch as they can justify what they think they already know. These are not teachable people.

HiTechT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HiTechT said...


donsands said...

I love to be fed the Word: Especially when the text of the Bible I am hearing and consuming is brought to life with even more light when there is a genuine teacher of our Lord teaching the Word, and so the Gospel is almost always within the sermon, or teaching as well.

Man shall live by every Word. His Word is true food. There's absolutely nothing, nothing on earth like the Word of God for a soul to be nourished, nothing.

And this goes well with worship, and song and praise, and prayer. Love it.

I pray our Church in America will be given a hunger for the Holy Word of our Savior. Amen.

Webster Hunt (Parts Man) said...

Your post left a mark today, Dan. I'm completely comfortable with "disciple" meaning "follower". I can be a follower - there's very little accountability for that. But being a learner? Having to submit myself to someone else like they know more than I do? That requires humility, steadfastness, the willingness to learn and apply what I've learned. That requires I be accountable for what I hear. That's a tough pill to swallow.

trogdor said...

The problem is more than just a lack of desire/expectation to learn. It's not uncommon for learning to be presented as antithetical to discipleship. Because of course 'knowing God' necessarily excludes 'knowing about God' and 'knowing what God says'.

When I encounter that, I like to apply the same logic to mawwiage. I might axe the guy if he knows anything about his wife, and express sympathy that they have such a horrible relationship. Or maybe I'll axe if he can teach us how to diligently avoid learning anything about each other, to keep our mawwiage strong and stay in wuv.

donsands said...

That would be twue wuv, right Trog.