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.”
A third unique feature of Jesus’ form of discipleship was the nature of his disciples. The Rabbis chose only the best - the ceremonially “clean,” the righteous according to the law, and those with sufficient intelligence to study the Torah with a view to becoming Rabbis themselves. But with Jesus chose even ordinary people like fisherman and sinners like tax collector. Jesus broke through the barriers separating the clean and the unclean, the sinful and the obedient. He calls to Himself disciples who do not seem to enjoy the necessary qualifications for fellowship with Him.
Jesus’ Call to Discipleship
In the Gospel narratives, discipleship usually begins with Jesus looking at a person and inviting the person to “come follow me” (Mk. 1:16-20; 2:14; Jn. 1:43; Mt. 10:21; Lk. 9:59). The call of Jesus was a call to salvation, a call to the kingdom of God, a call to believe on Jesus for eternal life. Wilkins explains further:
… Jesus’ call established the high-tide mark of His form of discipleship. That all must be understood within the broader biblical concept of ‘calling’ because it is a call that demands a decision of life commitment from those who are curious. The call focused people on making a commitment to Jesus, summoning them to place their unreserved faith in him as the One coming with the proclamation of the kingdom.
What does it mean when Jesus calls a person to follow him? The call of Jesus has the following implications:
Called to Jesus
When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to His person.
Discipleship means adherence to Christ. Watson expounds:
The call of Jesus was also a call to Jesus. The Jewish Rabbi and the Greek philosopher expected disciples to commit themselves to a specific teaching or to a definite cause. But the call of Jesus was wholly personal: His disciples were to follow Him. They were to have faith in Him, and could become disciples only by repenting of their sin and by believing in Him.