Discipleship: The Missing Ingredient

Discipleship: The Missing Ingredient

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, (Matt 28:19)



Access the internet regarding discipleship and you will find countless hits. Those that have found ways around the algorithms and made it to the top of the list of hits usually have something to sell. Discipleship has become a cottage industry. Most sincere individuals and groups promoting discipleship have not studied the doctrine of discipleship presented in the New Testament. While this may not directly harm the Body of Christ today, it fails to edify in a way that helps God’s people avoid the pitfalls of the Christian life in a consumer culture.

Every doctrine, every verse, and every word of Scripture is profitable and must be taught from sound exegesis. Compare the concept of “sound” when associated with the concepts of doctrine and teaching in Paul’s writings. “Sound (hugiaino, from which we get the English term, “health”) refers to that which produces spiritual health. If we genuinely want to see God’s people grow into spiritually healthy individuals and be equipped for the battles of life under the sun, we need to teach that which produces it. A proper understanding of discipleship in all its ramification will aid in this process.The biblical concept of discipleship

The term translated disciple (matheteuo, the noun, and mathetes, the verb) refers to one who sits at the feet of another as a learner. The verb form in the active voice is found only once in the New Testament.[i] This is known as the Great Commission and is quoted in numerous contexts without first examining the term and its meaning in the both Greek and Jewish cultures of the day. Instead, we are told to make disciples, whatever that means. Such a study might give us pause when using this command by Jesus as a prooftext for what has become known as discipleship in our day.

Space does not allow for an in-depth study of Old and New Testament cultures with regard to discipleship here. K. H. Rengstorf’s article in the monumental work, Theological Dictionary of The New Testament Edited by Gerhard Kittel,[ii] provides extensive information regarding the development and usage of this word group. A more cogent and succinct article by Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, is quoted extensively here. Richards first notes, “The word, “disciple”, seems to fill the Gospels and appears often in Acts. But then the word disappears. “Disciple” is not used in the epistles—even by John, who uses it frequently in his gospel. Today, however, many speak and write about discipleship.” He then asks, “What does “disciple” mean in the NT? And is there a message of the discipleship for the church today?” Of course, there is. Roberts writes:

The Greek word, mathetes (“disciple”) is from the verb manthano (to learn”). Thus, a disciple is a pupil or learner. In Greek culture prior to Socrates, manthano described the process by which a person sought theoretical knowledge. A mathetes was one who attached himself to another to gain some practical or theoretical knowledge, whether by instruction or by experience. The word came to be used both of apprentices who were learning a trade and of adherents of various philosophical schools. After the time of Socrates, the word lost favor with the philosophers, who were not at all happy with the association with labor.

 But the concept of discipleship was most popular in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Rabbis had disciples who studied with them in a well-defined and special relationship. The need for training was intensely felt in the Jewish community, which believed that no one could understand Scripture without a teacher’s guidance. A disciple in Judaism had to master—in addition to the Scriptures of OT—the oral and written traditions that had grown up around the Scriptures. Only After being so taught might a person become a rabbi himself or teach with any authority. This notion is expressed in the Jews’ amazed reaction to Jesus’ public teaching.

 Several aspects of the rabbi-disciple relationship in first-century Judaism are significant. The disciple left his home and moved in with his teacher. He served the teacher in the most servile ways, treating him as an absolute authority The disciple was expected not only to learn all that his rabbi knew but also to become like him in character and piety (Mt 10:24; Lk 6:40). The rabbi in return provided food and lodging and saw his own distinctive interpretations transmitted through his disciples to future generations. So, when Mark says that Jesus chose twelve men “that they might be with him” (Mk 3:14), he accurately reflects contemporary understanding of home future leaders should be trained.

 The features of discipleship on Jesus’ day are clearly seen throughout the gospels. For the first disciples of Jesus in John, where John the Baptist conveys his over to Jesus, their initial response was, “Rabbi (which translated means Teacher), where are You staying?” The understanding of the culture provides a better picture of discipleship. However, already we begin to see the dangers in not have a clear understanding the concept of discipleship. Roberts continues:

Acts continues to use the word “disciple,” but there mattetes is synonymous with “believer.” Luke even records the point at which the believing community began its break with the language of both Jewish and Greek culture. He tells of the time at Antioch when “the disciples were first called Christians” (Ac 11:26). Although it is dangerous to build on silence e, it does seem significant that the term “disciple” is simply not used in the Epistles. This may be because it carried too many associations at a time when a new process was demanded within the church to equip God’s people for growth and ministry.[iii]

We do not need to build on silence to establish reasons why the term ceased to be used in divine revelation. Go back to when the New Covenant was promised.

"Behold, days are coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them, "declares the Lord. "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the Lord, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

"And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the Lord, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."[iv]

Here are a few of the abiding principles in this passage:

  1. It will be a totally different covenant.

When Jesus quotes this promise, He uses the term kaine, referring to “new” in that which is unaccustomed or unused, not “new” in time.[v]

  1. It will be a covenant written on the heart.[vi]

To refer to discipleship without clearly understanding the concept from the New Testament perspective is to not being teach sound doctrine.

  1. It will be a covenant instituted by God between God and His people.

As Paul continues to explain this new covenant and his ministry given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ, he further clarifies the concept.

  1. It is a ministry of the Holy Spirit.[vii]
  2. It is a ministry of life.[viii]

In this context, life is the spiritual life that is awakened in the believer to this new relationship with God.

To the Philippian church Paul said he  prayed that he “might know the power of the resurrection”.[ix] He was not referring to a future resurrection but the resurrection each believer who is born from above experiences in this life. This is what Jesus meant when He told Martha:

"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this? "[x]

Given the abuses of the concept of discipleship in Greek and Jewish society stemming from man’s propensity to power and control, the Christian ministry is meant to avoid these carnal tendencies. Our task is to teach how to study, not teach our views with rote from a studies guide or our own thoughts. The old adage Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime is the missing ingredient in discipleship manuals today.

This is not an attempt at politically correct speech. It is essential that the church today emphasize both through its organizational structure and ministry that the old concept of discipleship is totally inappropriate today. Every New Testament writer makes this clear. By dropping the accoutrements of worldly leadership, and adopting the biblical teaching of leadership and ministry, Christians will be better equipped to face the problems face in this dying world.

We hear preachers constantly exhortation, read the Bible. Of course, this is the first step in equipping a new believer. But it is certainly not the last step. To truly feed upon the Word of God, one must learn how to study. In Paul’s day, translating the message was usually not necessary as it is today. There are may attempts to aid through publications of translations. However, without developing some skill in Bible translation, how do we know if the translators are accurately conveying the original message?

One attempt was the Amplified Bible. It only caused confusion because one was left to pick and choose what sounded right but was left to guess. Other attempts, such as the NIV, use a dynamic equivalency method of interpretation which amounts to a paraphrase rather than a concordant translation. Instead of going to the text itself, the study of the Word is left with what the writer thinks it says. The discipline of translating, which must always precede interpretation, is skipped.

So study Bibles are market to assist one’s study. This is still one man or one group’s interpretation.

All of these “Bible Study Tools” can be beneficial if the student recognizes the limitations of each. A keen desire to know God’s Word should compel a child of God to go deeper into the discipline of study. It only costs time and effort. In America, we have the freedom and luxury others in other generations and countries did not and do not have. We will be held accountable if we neglect so great salvation.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ[xi].

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.[xii]

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we shall do, if God permits.[xiii]

Additional thoughts

At the risk of hitting the nail too many times, it is important to note that a disciple in the New Testament was not necessarily a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ even though he was a follower. Recall that Jesus knew what was in the hearts of those who claimed to be his followers.[xiv] He knew that many who clamored after Him were not seeking Him but the benefits they thought he would provide because they misunderstood His miracles.[xv] Once they understood that they were not going to receive what they wanted, they walked away.[xvi]

Back when the emphasis on discipleship first began through Campus Crusade for Christ and subsequent endeavors, I was deeply involved. At one point, I was meeting weekly with up to eight men one-on-one. After all, the promise was that this type of ministry was going to grow my church (as in numerical growth). It was a great time. I believe the Lord did bring blessings both to me and to some of those with whom I met. However, I noticed something happening I did not anticipate. At the same time, others were noticing it also. Whether or not anyone else reflected on this phenomenon or came to the same conclusions, I do not know. Here is what I saw happening.

The first example, I was meeting with an individual weekly and thought things were going quite well. However, at the beginning of one meeting, the individual announced to me that he did not want what this ministry offered and, in fact, wanted what the world had to offer. That ended the meeting and I never saw him again.


The second example, I meant with a young man almost weekly for two years. He was a member of the board and active in many of the ministries of the church. When I learned that there was a serious problem in his home and marriage, I tried to understand this outcome of so much time and energy spent meeting with him. One day I asked to him to come into my office. I began by asking him how his life had changed as a result of meeting with me for two years. He spent twenty minutes relating to me how much he had learned from the Bible. When he stopped, I called attention to my question and asked it again. What has changed in your life? He thought for a moment and replied, nothing.

The third example, during that time the book, The Measure of a Man,[xvii] was popular. I thought it would be a great tool for my board and I to study together at the beginning of our board meetings. Again, I was surprised by the results. Instead of embracing the concepts and demonstrating increased spiritual growth, there was anxiety and frustration. We never completed the book.

It was time to take stock. What I saw, not only in my ministry but in the ministries of others who were using this approach was that it not only did not work but had the opposite effect. What was the problem? My conclusion, which began then, and upon continued reflection over the years and through countless studies was that the individuals were learning much but not changing. Disparity experienced between what is known and what a person does I call the guilt factor. To simply increase one’s knowledge without increasing obedience increases this guilt factor. In turn these quenches the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the individual’s desire to learn. Instead of edifying, hinders spiritual growth. There is no substitute for personal discovery. This requires the excitement of learning. It is the difference of sitting on the couch watching a travel video and taking the trip ourselves. This self-motivation and effort is the missing ingredient in much of the efforts to disciple.

[i] Matt 28:19.

[ii]K. H. Rengstorf, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1967), Vol.IV, 415-461

[iii] Lawrence O. Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. (The Zondervan Corporation, 1985). pp. 226-227.

[iv] Jer 31:31-34.

[v] Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1965), p. 430.

[vi] Cf. Jer, 31:33 w. 2 Cor 3.

[vii] 2 Cor 3:3.

[viii] 2 Cor 3:6.

[ix] Phil 3:10.

[x] Jn 11:25-26.

[xi] Col 2:8.

[xii] Heb 5:12-14.

[xiii] Heb 6:1-3.

[xiv] Jn 2:23-24.

[xv] Jn 6:26.

[xvi] Jn 6:66.

[xvii] Gene Getz, The Measure of a Man, (Revell, 1974).