rethinking discipleship

This past Sunday, Michael Ly and I team-taught on making disciples at Burlington City Church’s monthly worship gathering.   Our notes from the talk give a good overview of how we approach making disciples.  Enjoy!


One of the topics we talk a great deal about at Burlington City Church is making disciples.  The reason we think it’s a big deal is because it is a big deal to Jesus.  If you take a look at the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament that describe the life and ministry of Jesus, the words disciple and disciples are used 261 times.  It’s more than a passing thought- it’s an overwhelming theme.  Even Jesus’ final command to His disciples found in Matthew 28 is all about making disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

When we look at the gospels, Jesus takes a small band of men who have been passed over by the religious insiders, for around three years He pours His life into them, and they eventually become the leaders of the Jesus movement in the first century.  His invitation to each of them began with two simple words: “Follow me.”  What we see over and over again in scripture is that a disciple is a follower of Jesus who leads other to follow Jesus.  In other words, a disciple makes disciples who make disciples.

So, where did this idea come from: Rewind to the 1st Century.

The word disciple comes from the Greek work mathetes which literally means learner or pupil.  What are some thoughts that instantly come to your mind when you hear the words learner or pupil?

These words instantly make me think of an academic setting- an instructor standing at a lectern sharing information (i.e. teaching) with  a group of students sitting in neatly arranged desks.  Maybe if the instructor is really interactive he/she will even use power point, a marker board, and set up the desks in a semi-circle.  The whole process is focused on one goal: passing on information.  (If we look at  much of our “disciple making” in the modern church, it’s often the Christianized version of an academic approach.) Discipleship was much more than that in the first century.

Every disciple (or learner or pupil) was under a rabbi.  Rabbis were the authoritative teachers with the unique role of interpreting God’s Word for the living of a righteous life – defining right beliefs and behavior that please God.  (One side note- most disciples would ask to become pupil of a rabbi, while Jesus personally invited those who’d been passed over.)

People have written entire books on the 1st century rabbi-disciple relationship.  Rather than trying to be exhaustive, I want to give you four specific “handles” or “ingredients” to help you better understand what this looked like.  I’m indebted to a researcher and writer named Doug Greenwold for much of what I’m sharing.

Scriptural Instruction.  It’s difficult to emphasize this enough since most would be disciples in the first century would have memorized the entire Hebrew scriptures by the time of their bar mitzvah (age 13).  So the issue was not knowing what God’s word said, but understanding it’s meaning and application.

An Open Life.  The first century rabbi-disciple relationship was based on this “continual ongoing relational living experience because the rabbi and disciples lived in a close knit discipling community- it was literally life on life.   Disciples by nature had a deep desire to be like their rabbi in all arenas of their life: their belief, values, preferences, and practices. The life of the rabbi and disciples were essentially open books to each other.  Which leads to the next idea…

Wrestling with Questions.  The freedom to ask questions about both meaning and application was vital.  This would involve the rabbi asking the disciple, the disciple asking the disciple-maker, and the disciples discussing with each other.  (As I’m typing this, I wonder what you would call a gathering where scripture focused discussion is happening between leaders and multiple disciples. Hint: in the New Testament they called this environment a church.)   In the first century these rabbi-disciple Q& A interchanges were not simply to gain information but to better understand God’s way or God’s will for how they should conduct their lives.  I love this quote: By always asking questions, the rabbis were concentrating on developing discernment in the mind of the disciple, not the imparting of “how to” formulas.

Total Surrender.  The idea was not just that at disciple would share their rabbi’s beliefs but that they would submit their behavior in all arenas to the authority of their rabbi.  They believed their rabbi knew the best way to honor God.



What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?  Read Matthew 28:16-20.

To understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, it begins with:

  • Who is God? 
  • What Has He Done in and through Jesus? 
  • Who are we now in Christ?

Jesus started by showing and teaching the Disciples who God really is, God’s work accomplished in and through Jesus, and who the Disciples are now in Christ.

Being disciples of Jesus is about who we are now in Christ, not about what we do for Christ.  We’re human beings not human doings.

The Great Commission starts with the recognition that Jesus has complete authority in heaven and on earth.  Disciples of Jesus start with recognizing that their lives are now in complete submission to Jesus.

Baptism is an “Identity” ceremony – Disciples of Jesus have been baptized in their new Identities: 

Learner Disciples submit to our “Rabbi” Jesus for a lifetime.  We depends on His words, share life with Him, discuss openly with Jesus through prayer, and completely surrender.

Family – (John 1:12-13) We are now Sons and Daughters of the Father.  We are part of the Family of God.  We are Brothers and Sisters in the Spiritual Family of Christ.

Servants – (John 13) the Son – King Jesus, was the perfect Servant to us, so now we can be servants to others.  We have been set free from the bondage of Sin so we could be released to be servants of God.

Missionaries – (Acts 1:8) – We are witnesses by the power of the Spirit of the works of God in the Jesus.  The Spirit empowers us to accomplish great things.



The big question we (leadership at BCC) have been contemplating lately is, what then does it practically look like for us to make disciples?  Especially considering the context of the rabbi-disciple relationship and the way Jesus uniquely approached making disciples.  Here are some thoughts with diagrams included:

 Many times we approach being a disciple as an individualist where we focus almost exclusively on my personal relationship with Jesus, my personal time in the scriptures and prayer.  Although personal time with Jesus is crucial, discipleship is not a solo pursuit.

When we do enter into a discipling relationship, it’s often isolated and compartmentalized. Discipleship is often limited to a weekly one on one meeting and separated from identifying with the same spiritual family (i.e. the church) and living on mission together.   Too often in this context the mentor-disciple relationship is focused almost exclusively on sharing information.

A more scriptural perspective leads to taking a more communal and holistic approach to making disciples.  One mentor meets with multiple disciples (different mentors have different relational capacities) where the exchange of questions, encouragement, and accountability happens between both the mentor and disciple and between disciples.  I wonder what you’d call a gathering where scripture focused discussion is happening between leaders and multiple disciples.  Hint: in the New Testament they called this environment a church.   The church is essentially a spiritual family of disciple making disciples living on mission together.

One trap to avoid, though, is the idea that discipleship is merely about a weekly mentor-disciple meeting, a weekly church meeting, and an occasional community service project.  That would still make it compartmentalized- into three compartments instead of one.  True discipleship requires life on life where those seeking to grow can see what it means to follow Jesus in the messiness of real life.

2 thoughts on “rethinking discipleship

  1. Good overview. What was not mentioned is the role of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who will lead us into all the truth (John 16:14), the disciple-maker is merely the instrument of God and needs to be led by the Spirit him/herself. This is crucial. When we are not completely following His leading and are not under His total control, we are prone to substitute it with human wisdom/methods clothed in “spiritual attire” to “get the job done”. All with good intentions, but outside of God’s plan.

    What was also not addressed is what happens after this initial period of mentoring new disciples. A glimpse of this is given in 1.Cor. 14: 29 ff.

    Also, where do the spiritual gifts such as evangelist and apostle fit into all this according to you view? To round out the discipleship theme much more needs to be added.



  2. Interesting perspective. I think this article points out, accurately, what discipleship was in Jesus’ day! How much the Church is missing out on their understanding of discipleship today because of their lack of knowledge of historical Rabbinical discipleship. I’m a Millennial, and I know discipleship is directed primarily at my generation, but I believe that the Church is WAY off on discipleship today. It’s true that you pointed out that a Rabbi would have his own disciples, but why does NO ONE talk about the most obvious verse about discipleship in the ENTIRE Bible:

    “But you, do not be called Rabbi, for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.” Mt 23:8

    This must have been one of THE most radical things Jesus said, and yet it is drastically overlooked today. He put an end to discipleship. No longer were we to become Rabbi’s and have disciples following us around and becoming like us, we were to make disciples UNTO Jesus, so they could deny themselves and follow Him so HE could be their Rabbi and they could follow Him and become like Him. Jesus became the last and final Rabbi within the history of the world! We are all equals, as brethren, being discipled by our Master Rabbi, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is so simple, a child could understand it, and yet we are complicating it to no end.

    Kevin, you mentioned Doug Greenwold on, well there is another EXCELLENT article about discipleship on that website by Bob Deffinabugh, which I think is well worth anyone’s time, who is interested in discipleship today :

    I hope and pray that my generation will come to lay aside ALL and completely follow close in the steps of our Rabbi, Jesus Christ!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s