The Definition of Disciple
Discipleship is the core of Christian ethics, especially as the last command of Jesus (28:19). When I heard the word “disciple” in childhood Sunday School, I envisioned an eager, bearded man with dirty robes straining intently towards Jesus, like a child begging to hear more of a bedtime story. In high school youth group, we talked about being good disciples by obeying the rules: no kissing, no running, no talking in church. But as I re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s stirring, straightforward work, The Cost of Discipleship as a Lenten devotional, my idea of what a disciple is and does is crumbling like old paint.
A few extremists, citing Matthew 16:25 as their justification, say that only those in the situation to literally die for their faith can be called true disciples. An entire denomination claims the name, so that those who belong to a certain church can assume the title “Disciples of Christ.” Even some who identify with the New Age movement call themselves disciples of Christ, for they do indeed believe and follow Jesus as a great teacher.
The word disciple itself is derived from the Greek mathetes, or learner (Greek Lexicon). This word also applied to the students of Socrates and Plato, so perhaps Jesus’ followers were simply caught up in the philosophical frenzy of their time (Longenecker 3). However, the word that most often accompanies mathetes is akoloutheo, which implies not simply “to follow” but “to make a commitment” or “to count the cost.” This additional definition unveils a far deeper intention behind Jesus’ ethics than merely to be a good teacher. Especially because the term disciple identifies Jesus’ followers far before the term Christian, exploring its myriad meanings in the context of Jesus’ ethics may redeem the concept of discipleship from mere religious dogma and cheap grace.
Discipleship in Matthew: Building Community
The gospel of Matthew is thought to have been written between 60-85A.C.E for those within the Jewish community who believe in Christ as the Messiah. Because the young sect still saw themselves as part of Israel, the persecution they experienced from fellow Israelites called for decisive action: either reconcile with the Jewish leaders or separate completely. In response, Matthew writes a narrative account of Jesus focused on building a solid community still rooted in Jewish heritage, but distinctly different in practice because of Christ (Koester).
Establishing a new community requires multiple individuals willing to dedicate themselves to a common identity. Therefore, Matthew’s gospel uses the word disciple or disciples 68 times, more than any other synoptic gospel (Longenecker 4). The text is mostly the direct words of Christ, revealing what it means to be a disciple through listening to and obeying Jesus’ teaching.
In using narrative and didactic styles to convey Jesus’ story, Matthew not only shares about the disciples, but seeks to make disciples...