What Is a Disciple?

What Is a Disciple?

When Jesus speaks we listen.

That makes sense, right? Jesus is the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is the one of whom it will be said, forever, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). He’s the one to whom every knee will bow (Philippians 2:10) — the one by whom all the tribes of the earth will wail (Revelation 1:7), and from whom the fury of God’s wrath will be executed (Revelation 19:15).

Jesus has that kind of supremacy — so what he says matters.

And beyond that, we’ve been united to Jesus by faith (Romans 6:5), made alive in him by grace (Ephesians 2:4–5), counted righteous in him because of his work (Galatians 2:16). Jesus, in all of his supremacy, is also our shepherd — so we know his voice (John 10:27).

Therefore, by virtue of his power and grace, because he is the Sovereign and our Savior, when he tells his church to make disciples of all nations, we really want to do that.

Toward a Definition

Jesus commissions us to “go” — because of his authority — “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).

This raises a fundamental question, though — one that even takes priority over the how-to’s of discipleship. What does it actually mean to be a “disciple” of Jesus? If we are going to make disciples, we need to know what that is.

The standard definition of “disciple” (noun) is someone who adheres to the teachings of another. It is a follower or a learner. It refers to someone who takes up the ways of someone else. Applied to Jesus, a disciple is someone who learns from him to live like him — someone who, because of God’s awakening grace, conforms his or her words and ways to the words and ways of Jesus. Or, you might say, as others have put it in the past, disciples of Jesus are themselves “little Christs” (Acts 26:28; 2 Corinthians 1:21).

The four Gospels give us the definitive portrait of Jesus in his life on earth, and if we really want to know what it means to be his disciple, the Gospels are likely where we start. In particular, John’s Gospel shows us three complementary perspectives on what it means to follow Jesus, each patterned after Jesus himself. Building off of John’s profile, we could say that a disciple of Jesus is a worshiper, a servant, and a witness.

Disciple Means Worshiper

Most fundamentally, to follow Jesus means to worship him exclusively. This is at the heart of Jesus’s ministry on earth. As he told the woman at the well, the Father is seeking true worshipers — not faux worshipers, but true worshipers — those who worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:23–24). Which means, as it did in her case, we shouldn’t be so quick to change the subject. If we will follow Jesus, we must worship God — through Jesus, because he is our Mediator (John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5), and Jesus himself, because he is God (John 10:30; 20:28–29).

This is the fundamental perspective of a disciple because it is more ultimate than anything else we are or do, and most distinctive in our context. As far as ultimate, worshiping Jesus — gladly reflecting back to him the radiance of his worth — is the greatest act for any creature. As far as context, nothing will irritate our pluralistic society more than being an exclusive worshiper of Jesus. Lots of people are cool with Jesus (at least their notion of him), and even following the “ways” of Jesus, when it leaves out the exclusivity part. Jesus the Moral Teacher, the Nice Guy, the Judge-Not-Lest-You-Be-Judged Motivational Speaker — that Jesus is everybody’s homeboy. But that is not the real Jesus. That’s a manmade figure — a far cry from the portrait Jesus gives of himself.

To follow Jesus, to be his disciple, doesn’t mean community involvement and the veneer of tolerance. It means, mainly, first and central, to worship him — with joy at the heart. Making disciples of Jesus means gathering his worshipers.

Disciple Means Servant

John shows another picture of the Jesus we’re to worship, and this time he is kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet (John 13:5). I know, it doesn’t sound right, especially when we think of him as the object of our exclusive praise. It didn’t sound right to Peter either, until Jesus said, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). But Jesus is a servant. He came to earth not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as the rescue for sinners (Mark 10:45).

And as a servant, Jesus says of his disciples, to his disciples, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14–15). In one sense, the posture of servant should characterize Jesus’s disciples on all fronts. But in another sense, being a servant like Jesus has a particular focus on disciples serving disciples. It’s a family thing. “Let us do good to everyone,” Paul said, “and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

This one-another angle is where Jesus takes us in giving “a new commandment,” just after he washed the Twelve’s feet: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34; 1 John 3:23). In fact, it is this love that disciples have for one another that identifies us as disciples of Jesus to a watching world (John 13:35), and even assures us of saving faith (1 John 3:14).

To be a disciple of Jesus means to serve like him. It means to serve, primarily, by looking at your brothers and sisters and going low in acts of love, even when it’s an inconvenience to yourself, even when it flip-flops the world’s social order and expectations. Making disciples of Jesus means making servants who love one another.

Disciple Means Witness

John gives us another helpful picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This time it comes in the commission of Jesus, when he says of his disciples, to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21; John 17:18). This means that Jesus’s disciples are on a mission. It means, in the broadest sense, that they are missionaries, that they are envisioned and empowered to step into this world (not of it, but sent into it) as his witnesses (Acts 1:8).

Jesus was sent for a purpose — to reveal God and redeem sinners (John 1:14, 12) — and he set his face like flint to see it accomplished (Luke 9:51; Isaiah 50:7). We too, as his disciples, filled by his Spirit, are sent for a purpose — to tell his good news (Romans 10:14–17).

To be a disciple of Jesus means to point people to him. It means to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love so that others would know him and worship him. It means, in other words, that we gladly seek more worshipers-servants-missionaries. Which is to say, a disciple of Jesus makes disciples of Jesus, as Jesus tells us to (Matthew 28:18–20).

And, of course, when Jesus speaks we listen.


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Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God, and is the lead planter of Cities Church in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their four children. He is also the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.