Now that you have spent time investigating the appearance/disappearance of the term “disciple,” let’s move on to consider one of the New Testament books where the word does appear. I will confine myself to Matthew’s Gospel.
When different people use the same term, they often have nuanced connotations. This is why graduate theses and dissertations require their authors to define terms as they are using them. While the old adage, “Words don’t mean things, people do!” overstates the matter, there is a kernel of truth embedded into this memorable exaggeration.
“Disciple” appears 81 times in Matthew. Seventy-seven uses refer to people who have been called into a transformational learning relationship with Jesus. The four exceptions (Matthew 9:14; 11:2; 11:7; 14:12) heighten this point because there the followers of John the Baptizer are being differentiated from Jesus’ disciples.
Matthew sub-divides his presentation of Jesus’ story into three sections by two uses of the phrase “from that time on Jesus began to” (Matthew 4:17; 16:21). The first section reveals the hidden identity of this man, Jesus. Yes, he is the son of David and the son of Abraham (1:1), but he is also the beloved Son of God (3:17) who brings much pleasure to his Father! His genealogy and birth narrative place him squarely within Israel’s salvation history and reveal that Israel’s amazing God has even been known to work through women who were the objects of others whispers!
Until the narrative moves from the man to his ministry, there is no mention of disciples. The second major section opens with the notice that “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 4:17). His ministry was done “throughout Galilee” and consisted of “teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good new of the kingdom of heaven and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
The first mention of “disciples” is found in Matthew 5:1 when they are differentiated from the crowds. Jesus began to teach the disciples and the crowds overhear this introduction to discipleship. The first gospel does not call chapters 5-7 a sermon. No, Jesus teaches on the mountainside. This is not a call to repentance. This is teaching par-excellence!
To this point we have only been introduced to four by name. Peter, Andrew, James and John have left their boats, nets and Zebedee (father of the later two) to become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:18-22). In following Jesus they witness his teaching, preaching and healing ministry. But they also find themselves being called to a radical, life-changing application of Jesus’ amazing, authoritative teaching (Matthew 7:24-29).
Please note, “disciple” has only been used once (Matthew 5:1). A disciple of Jesus must do more than hear his three-chapter teaching! (The crowds hear it and are even amazed at his authority.) Jesus closes by revealing that his hearers will either be wise or foolish (Matthew 7:24-27). They will either build on rock or sand. What is the actual point of delineation? Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).
Matthew’s first and last texts using this word stress the importance of practicing Jesus’ teaching. His final directives are spoken to the “the eleven disciples” who put into practice his call to meet him on this mountain where he had earlier told them to go. Now he will involve them in the teaching component of that three-fold ministry.
Yes, he had earlier “called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness…preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 10:1, 7). But only Jesus teaches in Matthew—until the final scene.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18b-20) Jesus declares.
The only teaching disciples get to do in the first Gospel is to teach the disciples they make to obey all of Jesus’ commands. Disciple-making entails going, baptizing those being discipled and teaching them to obey everything the one with all authority has commanded.
Who is a disciple?
Everyone who hears Jesus’ teaching and obeys it.