Defining a Disciple

By Danny Saavedra

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that Christians talk a great deal these days about “discipleship.” But often when we use words we know only from the Bible, we don’t fully understand them. In fact, we usually only scratch the surface of what some of these biblical concepts really mean. And not only that, but because this happens so often with us never really diving into biblical meanings and context, it seems that everyone has their own definition of what a disciple is. But in the end, there’s only one definition that matters . . . God’s definition.

So, how do we discover God’s definition? We need to go the Bible.

What Is a Disciple?

There are two prominent words found in the Bible that are translated into English as disciple: talmid (Hebrew) and mathetes (Greek). They both mean the same thing . . .  student, learner, pupil.

So, in its simplest, most basic definition: A disciple is a lifelong student of Jesus Christ, one who follows after Jesus and learns to live, act, speak, and work like Jesus.

Let’s look at two verses that demonstrate this.

John 8:31 (ESV, emphasis added): “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”

John 15:5–8 (ESV, emphasis added): “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

We can only produce much fruit, and thus prove to be His disciples, if we abide in Him, in His love, and keep His commands.

So, I’ve now shown you two passages with the word abide (meinēte), which means “to sit in, to make your home, to lodge.” Basically, to move in, to put down roots. It’s your forever home.

When we moved from our old home to our new home, we had to pack everything we owned and bring it here. But all our stuff didn’t stay in boxes. We unpacked everything, settled in, painted, hung up TVs and family photos. We fully settled in.

This’s what abiding looks like. It’s not a hotel or temporary living situation. Abiding in Christ means making Christ your home—living, building, rooting your life entirely in Him (Colossians 2:6­–7).

Fully Devoted

Being a disciple of Jesus is a complete and all-encompassing commitment to building your life in Him. Ephesians 5:1–2 (NLT) says, “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.”

One of the best ways I ever heard the idea of a disciple described comes from Dallas Willard. He said, “I like the word apprentice because it means I'm with Jesus learning to do what he did. When you look at the first disciples, that's what they were doing. They watched Jesus and listened to him, and then he said, ‘Now you do it.’

“Discipleship—or apprenticeship—to Christ is the status within which the process of spiritual formation in Christlikeness runs its course. The result is ‘growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.’ (2 Peter 3:18) That is the normal Christian life. As his apprentices in Kingdom living and acting, we are with him learning to be like him.”

Now, I personally love using the term apprentice here to describe what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus. Why? Star Wars! When I think apprentice, I think of Obi Wan and Anakin, of Yoda and Luke, and more poignantly of Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger from Star Wars Rebels.

Why them? Because some of the other limited master and apprentice pairings we’ve seen, with Kanan and Ezra, there were four seasons of training, of a true master and apprentice relationship. Kanan taught Ezra how to be a Jedi, how to use the Force, and more importantly, as Ezra points out in the season 3 finale, "about life, about being a good person.”

We as apprentices of Jesus—fully devoted to Him in prayer, the study of the Bible, worship, fellowship with other believers, and training under a mentor or leader—we get to learn how to walk like Jesus, talk like Jesus, work like Jesus, pray like Jesus, interact with the Word like Jesus, love like Jesus, grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, and operate in the gifts and calling that Jesus has for us. And eventually, we get to pass all that down to someone else through the continued legacy of discipleship.

The Cost of Discipleship

Now, here’s the thing: Being a disciple of Jesus allows us to experience the greatest, most filling and fulfilling life we can ever possibly hope to experience. It’s the abundant and grace-filled life we were created for. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Jesus promises to give anyone who will follow Him abundant life (John 10:10), but He also makes it very clear that to follow Him is costly.

So, what does it cost? In Mark 8:34–35 (NIV), Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Let’s break that down.

  1. Deny yourself.

The word Mark uses in verse 34 is aparnēsasthō. It means “to disown, disregard, to refuse or reject.” The HELPS Word Study Concordance describes it as “utterly refusing to recognize the original source involved.” It’s the same word Peter used when trying to convince people that he didn’t know Jesus.

Although denying yourself may involve denying things, behaviors, wants, and feelings, that’s not what Jesus is getting at here. To deny yourself means to deny your self-lordship, to refuse to recognize yourself as the lord of your life. It is surrendering lordship of your life over to Him. Not just in some areas, not in most areas, but in every area and committing every facet of your life to Christ fully, daily.

  1. Take up your cross.

This phrase is often misunderstood and misapplied. Many times, people use it to refer to enduring an illness or a disability, a difficult relationship, or a general annoyance in life. “This is my cross to bear.” That’s not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus’ words mean so much more than that.

Consider that Jesus’ phrasing likely rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in a first century Roman occupied territory. Why? Because the phrase would have evoked a picture of a criminal having to carry their own cross beam to then be publicly executed on it. This would be akin to telling someone take up their electric chair.

You see, when a criminal carried his cross through the streets, for all intents and purposes, he was a dead man walking. His life was essentially over. So here, Jesus is calling us, His followers, to think of ourselves as having died to our old selves—to bury all of our worldly desires and dreams, all the plans and agendas we’ve made for ourselves. Why? Because our new life is not about us, it’s all about living for Him, in Him, and by Him.

Now, some of the plans and dreams we had prior to new our life in Christ may be where He wants to move us and position us. Or He may replace those plans and dreams with something better, something with divine purpose and holy intention. The directive is proclaiming our need to be willing to surrender anything and everything in order to be His disciples.

Now, on the surface, this may not sound like fun, but the undeniable truth of humanity is this: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12 NIV). Galatians 5:1 (NIV) says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and part of that freedom is a freedom from our self-rule and our self-direction. Our ways, our paths, our plans are flawed, limited, and often dominated by pride, selfish ambition, and sinful desires. But His plan for us is perfect.

Letting go of self-rule and self-direction means we can be ruled by the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Letting go of self-direction means we can be directed by the One who sees it all and knows it all, the One who lead us in paths of righteousness, who gives us life in abundance, and uses us to accomplish far beyond what we could ever ask, think, or imagine.

  1. Lose your life for my sake.

This is where the great paradox of real life comes into play: We finally, truly find ourselves when we lose ourselves for Jesus’ sake. This isn’t finding ourselves like the world says it. This is finding our true identity and true life, joy, peace, and purpose in Christ and Christ alone, who is the only source of life, joy, peace, and purpose!

Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

So, how do we lose ourselves? By investing all that we are and all that we have in Him and His gospel; by saying to Jesus, “Lord, here is my life, my home, my family, my checkbook, my career, my talents and gifts, my brain, my heart, my hands, my feet, my mouth, my desires, my ambitions, my world. It’s all yours. Use it all. Use all of me to glorify Yourself and advance Your kingdom and Your purposes here on earth!”

So, as Jesus said in Luke 14, we must all count the cost. Being His disciple is costly. Are you all in?

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra has served on the staff of Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.