Discipleship in the Gospels: Following Jesus

Discipleship in the Gospels is more than “being a Christian.” Putting it this way grants a notion of being a Christian that falls short. I don’t see a better way to speak about Christianity today. The reality is, many consider themselves Christians who have never been discipled, never considered the difference between discipleship and church membership, and never taken up the cross to follow Jesus. No doubt, this assertion sounds harsh. But can any other conclusion stand up to the witness of the Gospels? Perhaps the call to discipleship is harsh in some fundamental sense; it is certainly a narrow way. It is gracious too. I take this tension seriously but endeavor in this post to represent what following Jesus means in the Gospel stories.

Two key words guide this study: the noun disciple (mathētēs) and the verb to follow (akoloutheō). Other words are relevant, but these two terms dominate the narratives. The tension between discipleship and Christianity that I’ve identified is already evident in the various uses of both terms. Of course, the term Christian postdates the Gospel stories (Acts 11:26), so the point is not to defend an argument about the distinction between Christian and disciple. Rather, I’m arguing that a theology of discipleship should begin with an understanding of the difference between a discipleship that follows Jesus to the cross and a Christian self-identification that follows Jesus only so far.

Becoming a Disciple

The noun disciple appears 261 times in the New Testament: 72 in Matthew, 46 in Mark, 37 in Luke, 78 in John, and 29 in Acts. The cognate verb to be a student / to cause one to be a student (mathēteuō) appears 4 times: 3 in Matthew and 1 in Acts.

These data don’t tell us much, but they do suggest that the notion of discipleship is not only core to the Gospels and Acts, but it is so in a way that contrasts with the rest of the New Testament. I leave speculation about why the words above do not figure in the lexicon of Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers for a later moment. The present task is to explore the usage of this terminology and its implications. To this end, I forumulate some broad categories of usage and focus particularly on what they might indicate about the differences between various kinds of “discipleship” and about the process of becoming a “true” disciple. My argument is that this process of becoming is itself the essence of true discipleship.

Disciples in the Broadest Sense

All of the Gospels bear witness to the notion of people attending in a general sense to the teachings of Jesus. All refer to “his disciples” as a large, ambiguous group of adherents, particularly early in the Gospel narratives. As Jesus’s ministry begins, he teaches and baptizes many. John tells us, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee” (John 4:1–3). This text presents a few key points. (1) Jesus made “disciples” in a recognizable sense comparable to other such groups. (2) Discipleship to Jesus entailed not only learning but also a commitment embodied in baptism. (3) Disciples of Jesus participated in the process of making more disciples.

The convention of “discipleship” is further recorded in references to John’s and the Pharisees’ disciples in all four Gospels (Matt 9:14; 11:2; 14:12; 22:16; Mark 2:18; 6:29; Luke 5:33; 7:18; John 1:35, 37; 3:25; 9:27). In this sense, discipleship signifies adherence to a school of thought and practice. Hence, when the Pharisees refer to themselves as disciples of Moses (John 9:27), the implication is devotion to their particular interpretive tradition in contrast with Jesus’s teaching. Early in the narrative arc of the gospel stories, therefore, various references to “his disciples” depict a seemingly large and growing group of adherents to Jesus’s teachings about religious practices like table fellowship, prayer, sabbath-keeping, and ritual purification (see Mark 2:16, 18; 3:23; 6:1; 7:2, 5; and pars.).

Even by the time of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem toward the end of the story, Luke refers to “the whole multitude of the disciples” (Luke 19:37). Notably, John also entertains the notion of a “secret” disciple whose “fear” prevents open devotion (John 19:38; cf. 3:1). In its broadest usage, then, disciple refers to a significant number of adherents to Jesus’s teaching with varying degrees of commitment.

Yet, the difficulty of Jesus’s teaching has a winnowing effect throughout the story, and some identified as disciples are faced with critical moments of decision. Matthew, for example, records two dramatic exchanges: “A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead'” (Matt 8:19–22). Both of these followers are called disciples, suggesting an initial decision, but Jesus confronts them with a secondary decision in view of an unfolding understanding of his way of life. The implication is that discipleship in the broadest sense is a status that depends on an ongoing deepening of commitment.

John captures this dynamic most directly in the statement that, after a particularly difficult teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). Certainly, then, the Gospels use disciple in a way that encompasses those who will follow Jesus only so far. This is, of course, true of all the disciples in the end. Save perhaps a core group of women (see below), all abandon Jesus upon his arrest (represented paradigmatically in Peter’s denials; Mark 14:66–72 and pars.). The cross is the ultimate moment of decision for everyone who would be a disciple.

Accordingly, the most pivotal text in this discussion is Mark 8:34 (and pars.): “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'” The NRSV has rendered the phrase thele opisō mou akolouthein (“wants to follow after me”) as “want to become my followers,” adding with “become” a sense of process that applies even to the disciples. (Matthew and Luke vary the verbiage for “follow” but phrase the assertion in essentially the same way.) In my view, this is entirely appropriate because the cross poses the question of a decision that even those who identify as disciples must answer. To “take up their cross,” Luke adds the phrase kath’ hēmeran (“daily”), further heightening the sense of an ongoing process. All who are “disciples” in the broadest sense must decide whether they will truly follow Jesus and, on a daily basis, make that choice again.

Disciples in Contrast to Others

Mark 8:34 encapsulates three distinctions between “disciples” and others interested in Jesus to a limited extent: (1) disciples in contrast to the crowd that also “follows” Jesus; (2) the twelve disciples (aka the apostles) in contrast to other disciples; and (3) the disciples who take up their cross in contrast with those to do not. These distinctions are more numerous than the broader usage of disciple and establish the church’s more limited understanding of discipleship in light of the whole gospel story (Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension).

The Disciples and the Crowd

Mark notes that Jesus summons both the crowd and the disciples for the crucial teaching in 8:34. The discussion of commitment and baptism above already marks a difference between those who commit to Jesus as rabbi and those who do not. Yet, the Gospels are full of references to those who follow Jesus in order to hear his teaching in contrast to the disciples. The Sermon on the Mount begins: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him” (Matt 5:1; cf. Luke 6:17). One might read “the crowd” and “his disciples” as one and the same in this case, but it is clear that a multitude of people who were not his disciples regularly followed Jesus throughout his ministry. For example, “the crowds” are the thousands miraculously fed after extensive teaching (Matt 14:15, 19, 22; 15:32, 36 and pars.), while the disciples are those who participate in feeding them. Likewise, there is a distinction between the disciples and the “tax collectors and sinners” with whom Jesus eats (Matt 9:10–11 and pars.). And again, Jesus marks a difference between the crowds’ and the disciples’ identification of Jesus (Luke 9:18 and pars.; Mark and Matthew refer to “the people” rather than the crowds). Over and over in the Gospels, this distinction stands.

The Twelve and the Rest

From among the disciples, Jesus chooses twelve to be “apostles” (sent ones) (Luke 6:13). These are distinguished from the “great crowd of the disciples” (Luke 6:17). Mark adds that they are given “authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7; cf. 3:15), and Matthew expands the description to “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matt 10:1). They are, in other words, commissioned to extend Jesus’s kingdom ministry. Matthew uniquely refers to them as “the/his twelve disciples” (Matt 10:1; 11:1; 20:17; cf. “the eleven disciples” in 28:16). These chosen ones are paradigmatic disciples. Jesus later commissions seventy others (Luke 10:1) in similar fashion, but the twelve have a permanent special status (see also the eleven in Acts 1:13 and the addition of Matthias in Acts 1:26).

At various moments in the Gospels, however, it is difficult to discern whether “the/his disciples” refers to the twelve or the larger group. But the situation often suggests the twelve are in view: they can fit in a fishing boat, the upper room, or other small settings (Matt 8:23; 14:26; 16:15; 26:8; 17–19, 26, 35, 36, 40, 45, 56 and pars.) or they are in private conversation with Jesus (Matt 13:10, 36; 15:12; 17:10, 13, 19; 24:3 and pars.). All of these circumstances betoken a key characteristic that Mark highlights: they are called “to be with him” (Mark 3:14) in some special sense. This phrase speaks of intimacy that the rest of the disciples do not have.

At the same time, the Gospels present the twelve not as categorically different than but as representative of all who would draw near to Jesus. Following the biblical pattern of election—quintessentially manifest in the call of Abraham, who received blessing in order that all nations might be blessed (Gen 12:1–3)—the twelve are chosen to become disciples in a deeper sense in order others might become disciples. So Mark completes his depiction of apostleship: “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14–15). To be with him and to be sent out is the paradigm of discipleship that the twelve embody.

Cruciform Discipleship

The final distinction intensifies our notion of discipleship one step further. As I’ve already argued, Jesus’s teaching about the cross marks the critical distinction between disciples who ultimately follow Jesus and those who do not. The linguistic data of the Gospels indicate that there is no point in claiming the latter are not actually disciples. Delimiting our language in that way is a handy shortcut, but it ignores biblical terminology. The deeper question is which use of the term informs the church’s theology of discipleship. I began with a distinction between “being a Christian” and discipleship that assumes a limited use of disciple, though not an absolute restriction of the language (as though anyone could practically arbitrate such a restriction!). I am after a theology of discipleship that persuasively identifies the meaning of “true” discipleship in the church’s contemporary language. The discussion hinges on what true signifies in this sentence.

John provides a handle on what true discipleship means in contrast with mere belief in Jesus: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples'” (John 8:31). One may be truly Jesus’s disciple, and the criterion for deciding the point is “continuing” (menō) in Jesus’s “word” (logos). There is much to unpack regarding sin and freedom in this passage, but the saying establishes a critical distinction between belief and discipleship.

And again, John asserts, “‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another'” (John 13:35). Here as well, Jesus’s teaching (“a new command;” John 13:34) is the condition of discipleship—not assent but a practical way of life. This is a profoundly useful criterion because it allows us to pose a decisive question: can there be such a thing as an unloving disciple of Jesus? Finally, Jesus asserts, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). Once more, the notion of “becoming” resounds in connection with discipleship. Being a disciple follows from bearing fruit. Fruitless disciples, who do not “abide” (menō) in Jesus, are cast away, whereas those in whom his “words” (hrēma in v. 7; cf. logos in v. 3) abide accordingly abide in his love. This “word” about love binds together all of these teachings on discipleship and serves as John’s version of taking up the cross: “‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends'” (John 15:12–13). Denying self and taking up the cross become laying down one’s life for others in John’s Gospel. The logic of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in which Jesus “gives his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), resounds in John’s story as a way of life for disciples who must lay down their lives for others in order to abide in Jesus’s word.

Laying down one’s life has economic implications. All three Synoptics record Jesus’s teaching about the difficulty of entering the kingdom while holding on to riches. As a representative of the disciples’ desperation, Peter declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Matt 19:27 and pars.). Evidently, this sacrifice entails property, family, and livelihood (Matt 19:29 and pars.). Among the Synoptics, Luke especially emphasizes such cruciformity (cross-shaped-ness): “‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. . . . So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions'” (Luke 14:26–27, 33; cf. Matt 10:37–38; John 12:25). True discipleship, apparently, entails a death to self that results in loving Jesus and others at the cost of everything one possesses, including family and livelihood. Cruciform discipleship means nothing less.

Obviously, not all who are called disciples (much less believers) in the Gospels meet this standard. And the point of emphasizing the characteristics of cruciform discipleship is not to cast judgment on or discourage those who are at another point in the discipleship process. The point is that discipleship is a process aimed at cruciformity. Therefore, cruciformity is the standard of true discipleship defined in terms of its aim.

Following and Following

The uses of the verb to follow in the Gospels can be organized in the same way as the noun disciple, highlighting the difference between the crowd that follows Jesus, the disciples who follow Jesus’s teachings broadly, and the disciples who follow Jesus to the cross and beyond.

First, the word that characterizes the crowd’s relationship to Jesus is follow (e.g., Matt 4:25; 8:1; 12:15; 14:13; 19:2; 20:29; 21:9 and pars). Evidently, this relationship is, to some extent, about seeking the healing and blessing of the kingdom that he manifested and, to some extent, about responding to this benefit (e.g., Matt 9:27; 20:34).

Second, other references to “following” seem to apply to the “many” who comprise the broader group of disciples (Mark 2:15). These are “his disciples” in general (Mark 6:1). To them Jesus speaks publically about the cost of following him (Matt 8:19; 22 and pars.). The inner group of disciples identify this broader group as those who follow “us” (Mark 9:38; Luke 9:49). For Mark, “those who followed” contrast with the twelve (Mark 10:32). For John, this broader group includes “whoever” follows Jesus (John 8:12; 12:26) and recognizes the shepherd’s voice (John 10:4, 27).

Third, the disciples called directly by Jesus are commanded to “follow” him (Matt 4:20, 22; 9:9 and pars.). Likewise, the demands of cruciformity are expressed in terms of following (Matt 10:38; 16:24; 19:21, 27 and pars.). And John extends the notion of following to a figurative post-crucifixion notion (13:36–37). John’s account of Peter’s restoration accordingly includes the personal command, “Follow me!” (John 21:19, 22).

Female “Followers”

Before offering some concluding reflections, Jesus’s female followers deserve comment because they are an important use case regarding the intersection of disciple and follow. Jesus, as a first-century rabbi, is famously unconventional in his relationship to women, at times astonishing “the disciples” (John 4:27). Many read these stories as evidence that Jesus subverted established Judaistic gender roles, opening the church to a notion of discipleship without gender distinctions and even to female leadership among his followers. Others note that his selection of male apostles is conventional and highlight the fact that no women are explicitly called disciples in the Gospels.

The evidence following the Gospels is mixed. On the one hand, male leadership is predominant in the first-century church, and a patriarchal model emerges subsequently. On the other hand, an inclusive notion of discipleship indisputably prevails (Acts 2:17–18; Gal 3:28), and women serve in leadership roles—Priscilla (Acts 18:26), Phoebe (Rom 16:1), and Junia (Rom 16:7) to name a few. So what does the language of discipleship in the Gospels indicate?

First, women repeatedly manifest exemplary faith in the Gospels (Matt 9:22; 15:28; 26:7 and pars.). The theological significance of faith in Christian theology must inform our understanding of what these passages mean. All disciples are meant to learn from them. Given that there is a variety of uses of “to follow” in the Gospels, faith in Jesus undoubtedly plays an important role in distinguishing between them.

Second, a key group of women figures prominently in the category of followers in contrast to the crowd (Matt 27:55 and pars.). This group is uniquely described as providing financial support for Jesus’s ministry. These women are, in turn, those whom Jesus chooses to proclaim the resurrection to apostles (Luke 24:10 and pars.), making them not only the first preachers of the gospel but also reordering their relationship to the twelve in an astonishing way. Notably, the twelve refer to them as “women of our group” (Luke 24:22).

Third, Jesus treats women as disciples. Perhaps most tellingly: “And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!'” (Matt 12:49 and pars). He adds, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50 and pars.). Jesus accordingly indicates that both women and men are “his disciples.” Mary Magdalene, in particular, “sat at the Lord’s feet” as a disciple (Luke 10:42) and, along with her sister Martha, refers to Jesus as “Teacher” (John 11:28; 20:16).

Despite these indications, the distinction between the twelve and “certain women” remains (Acts 1:14). But, obviously, the distinction between the twelve and all other disciples, regardless of gender, remains. What stands out is that these women alone are with the twelve in the aftermath of the resurrection. Like the apostles at the Last Supper, they are among the small group together in an upper room following Jesus’s ascension (Acts 1:13). They are part of the one hundred twenty believers to whom Peter preached (Acts 1:15). An inclusive vision of the church emerges at the beginning.

So what can we learn about the language of discipleship from Jesus’s female followers? (1) Disciples are those who demonstrate faith in Jesus. (2) Disciples are those who economically support Jesus’s ministry and proclaim his resurrection. (3) Disciples are those devoted to Jesus’s teaching, who do the will of the Father that Jesus reveals. (4) Disciples are those who remain prayerfully faithful to the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Jesus.

Sincere Discipleship

The Gospels demonstrate that the process of becoming is the essence of true discipleship. In view of John’s language, reference to “true” discipleship is justified, but perhaps it is better in the contemporary American context to speak of sincere discipleship. The cultural importance of sincerity is difficult to overstate. While the word connotes truth in provocative ways, it offers other semantic nuances that resonate with the idea of discipleship that the Gospels portray.

If discipleship in the broadest sense is an ongoing deepening commitment to Jesus, sincerity speaks of the personal nature of this commitment. It is not a binary, as many understand true/false to be. It is the quality of a disciple in process, one who truly seeks, who asks every day what it might mean to take up the cross here and now, who struggles and falls short but really seeks. So the ultimate decision to follow Jesus is not a single decision. It is ultimate because, every time, it is a life-and-death decision about the self in relation to others.

The apostles embody sincere discipleship. They not only respond to Jesus’s call but, through misunderstanding, frustration, fear, failure, and betrayal, draw near to him over and over in order to receive clarification, forgiveness, and renewed responsibility. This persistent seeking is our essential model of the process called discipleship. Those who follow Jesus to the end embark on a way of life characterized by love for Jesus and, therefore, love for others at the cost of everything else. Sincere discipleship is the relentless pursuit of this cross-shaped way of life.

So how should the church speak of discipleship? What do the Gospels tell us about the idea of being a disciple? The biblical language presents important distinctions without absolute categories. Many follow Jesus to some extent. Many who claim to be disciples do not follow Jesus when the cross looms. Many who falter do not come to Jesus for transformation. Yet, the point is not to draw lines for the purpose of judgment, much less exclusion. If discipleship is a process, Christians can easily admit that we are all in process. At the same time, the mere claim to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, or a disciple is irrelevant if sincerity is the issue. We rightly ask ourselves whether we are engaged in a process of increasing cruciformity. And the church rightly speaks of discipleship in these terms. Self-denial, not self-identification, is the criterion for our use of discipleship language.

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