Summary: Discipleship was not simply a program through which Jesus ran the disciples. Discipleship was life.
In the New Testament mathethes occurs only in the Gospels and Acts. The term occurs at least 230 times in the Gospels and 28 times in Acts. The usage is characterized by the fact that mathethes denotes the men and women who have attached themselves to Jesus as their master. Acts has an absolute use of mathethes in the sense of a disciple of Jesus. In the early Christian usage, mathethes was the common term for the disciples of Jesus.
Rengstorf observes that in the New Testament, mathethes is characterized by a uniformity of usage. It always implies the existence of a personal attachment, which shapes the whole life of the one described as mathethes, and which, in its particularity, leaves no doubt as to who is deploying the formative power. The control of the mathethai by the person to whom the disciples have committed themselves extends in the New Testament to the inner life. In the New Testament, there are no instances where mathethes is used without this implication of supremely personal union. The common non-New Testament Greek use for purely formal dependence never occurs in the New Testament.
Jesus’ Form of Discipleship
We have seen that discipleship was a common phenomenon in the ancient world. It primarily involved commitment of an individual to a great master or leader. Jesus took a commonly occurring phenomenon and used it as an expression of his own kind of relationship with the followers. Jesus built upon a prevailing master-disciple context. He started from the common concept of discipleship and slowly clarified his distinctive form of discipleship. Jesus worked contextually from the commonalities to the distinctive.
Jesus initiated a kind of discipleship which was unique. It was similar and yet different from other forms of discipleship in the first century. We will now look into Jesus’ particular form of discipleship.
The Uniqueness of Jesus’ Form of Discipleship
The Gospels describe the relationship between the disciples and Jesus in terms that far transcend those describing the Rabbis and their pupils. One difference was that the initiative comes from Jesus and not from the pupil who is seeking a master. A fundamental mark of the disciples of Jesus was that they are called by him to discipleship. In Rabbinical circles, a disciple would choose his own master and voluntarily join his school. But with Jesus, the initiative lay entirely with him. His disciples were personally called by Jesus to follow Him. Another difference between Jesus’ form of discipleship from other forms of discipleship was that the disciples do not intend to become masters, and thus to succeed or surpass Jesus; they always remain disciples (Mt. 23:8). Jesus’ call to discipleship does not mean that a disciple was put in a learning relationship from which he can depart as a master. A disciple of a Rabbi might dream of someday becoming even better, if possible, than his master; but a disciple of Jesus could never expect that someday he himself might be the “Son of Man.”