My Mac dictionary (which I think is related somehow to the Oxford Dictionary) defines ‘disciple’ as ‘a personal follower of Christ during his life, especially one of the twelve Apostles’ or, more generally, ‘a follower or pupil of a teacher, leader, or philosopher’. The word is derived from the Latin discipulus meaning ‘learner’, from discere‘learn’. In the New Testament, the Greek word behind ‘disciple’ is mathetes. This, as in Latin, is derived from the verb ‘to learn’, manthano. So straightaway we see that being a disciple is deeply connected to the idea of being a learner – a student.
So unsurprisingly, in the New Testament, we see that the disciples of Jesus are people who are learning from Jesus. But their learning is not like the learning which is typical of our modern, Western schools and universities. My experience of uni was attending lecture theatres with hundreds of other students to hear various lecturers for a couple of hours per week and usually having no personal interaction with my lecturers. Moreover, the learning was usually done in abstraction – not in the context of everyday life.
By contrast, with Jesus we see him discipling his disciples ‘on the way’ – in the context of everyday life. Just to take a few examples from Matthew’s Gospel: We see Jesus take a boat ride with his disciples in which they experience a huge storm (ch. 8); have dinner with his disciples and a bunch of tax collectors and sinners at Matthew’s house (ch. 9); take his disciples along with him as he goes to raise a young girl from the dead (ch. 9); teach his disciples personally and also in the context of larger crowds (passim); give his disciples authority to drive out impure spirits and heal every disease and then send them out on a dangerous mission to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ to preach the good news, heal, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons (ch. 10); and commission his disciples to go and make more disciples – baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything he has commanded them (ch. 28).
Along the way, Jesus explicitly reflects on the disciple-teacher relationship in the following words:
‘The student [mathetes] is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!’ (Matt. 10:24-25)
The point being that being a disciple entails being like your teacher – including suffering the same kinds of things that your teacher suffers!
Discipleship comes with a great cost:
‘Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’ (Matt. 16:24-25)
A disciple of Jesus is someone gives up everything to follow him – this is what denying yourself, taking up your cross and losing your life means.
So being a disciple of Jesus means being a student of Jesus – but not the kind of student we are used to thinking of. It means to learn from Jesus through following him everywhere, watching him, listening to him, hanging out with him, imitating him, suffering with him, and giving up everything for him. Being a disciple also means going and making more disciples.