“Are there still disciples?”
The plaintive-sounding question grabbed my attention when it appeared on my blog’s list of “search terms.” I wish I could have located the writer, for I have not infrequently asked the same question. Fellow-disciples can be terribly hard to find!
By definition, a “disciple” is a student – a learner – an apprentice – to a Master teacher (see W.S. #46). But sadly, most of the folks that many of us encounter, who claim the Lord Jesus as their Master, seem to feel called-upon to provide neatly proof-texted “answers” to every sort of theoretical question, rather than to embark together upon a limitless quest to learn and emulate the Master’s ways.
I must believe there are still disciples – but how I wish I knew how to find them! Such creatures are enthusiastically un-welcomed in so many “churches”!
The word mathetes, “disciple”, was common in the Greco-Roman world, ever since the 6th – 4th centuries BC, when it was applied to the pupils of classical philosophers and rhetoricians, or of those who explored mathematical, scientific, or astrological studies. Interestingly, it appears only twice in the LXX (Jer.13:21 and 20:11), revealing a vastly different understanding of faithfulness from the one we discover in the New Testament, where the word appears 269 times. All of these occur in the gospels and Acts.
It is not uniformly obvious to whom the term refers. There are references to “the disciples of John (the Baptist)” ( Mt.9:14, 11:12, 14:12; Jn.1:35, 37) ; “the disciples of the Pharisees” (Mt.9:14, 22:16); and a group of Pharisees on one occasion described themselves as “disciples of Moses” (Jn.9:27-28). And when the reference is to “Jesus’ disciples”, the term is alternately applied to the twelve, who are also called “apostles”, to the crowds eager to hear his teaching, and to a few individuals who were very quiet about their support “for fear of the Jews” (Jn.19:38).
Although “the disciples” occasionally seems to have referred to an inner circle, larger than the 12, but smaller than the crowds, who received more careful explanations and explicit teaching than the general public (Mk.4:34), and on occasion served as assistants (in all the crowd-feeding scenes), even that seems to have been a somewhat fluid group (Jn.6:66).
Jesus’ own teaching about “being” his disciple appears much more restrictive and deliberate, requiring one’s giving that task priority over all other loyalties (Lk.14:26-27). The parallel passages in Mt.10:37 and Mk.10:29 carry the same flavor, although they do not use the word “disciple.”
The goal that Jesus sets for disciples is clear: (Lk.6:40, Mt.10:24) – “to become like one’s Teacher.”
Jesus also specifies (Jn.8:31) that it is necessary to “continue [live, persist] in my word” in order to be a disciple; (Jn.13:35) to be readily identifiable by outsiders, by the mutual love of disciples; and (Jn.15:8) to be a fruitful branch of his Vine. Whatever else may be implied here, it certainly includes mutual, continuous effort that results in a reflection of the Lord Jesus’ own life!
As the disciple group expanded – Luke records 120 present in the prayer meeting of Ac.1:15 – so did the vocabulary, and the terms “disciples”, “brethren”, and “the church” seem to be used almost interchangeably. I wonder if the shift to “brethren” or “churches” in the epistles may not have been deliberate, in obedience to Jesus’ instructions forbidding the elevation of any individual (Mt.23:10-11) – see also chapter 8 of Citizens of the Kingdom. Paul’s corrective in I Cor.1:11-13 would make a lot of sense in such a context.
Calling a person a “disciple” was used in a manner similar to the way some folks today would characterize each other as “a believer” – except that a much deeper level of commitment was assumed, both to the Lord and to the group. Whether Ananias of Damascus accepting the frightening assignment of ministering to Saul, the blinded persecutor (Ac.9:10), Dorcas in Joppa caring in practical ways for the needy in her congregation (Ac.9:36-40), young Timothy in Lystra (Ac.16:1) recommended by his home congregation to travel and study with Paul, or the thousands whose names we may not know until we meet around the Throne, we may find in each – and each other – challenge and encouragement to faithfulness in our own situations.
The entire group of disciples was involved in mutual care: (Ac.9:19-25) looking after the newly converted Saul in Damascus, (Ac.11:29) deciding to send famine relief to Judea; and (Ac.19:30) first keeping Paul out of the arena when the mob demanded his hide, and then being encouraged by him before he left town! The term was applied to whole congregations in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Ac.14), and specifically included Gentile converts (Ac.15:10). Travelers were frequently recommended to one group of disciples by another (Ac.18:27, 21:4, 16).
It is instructive – or should be – to note Paul’s discovery of a group in Ephesus (Ac.19:1) who, though imperfectly taught, he clearly recognized as “disciples”. They responded warmly to his corrective teaching – but notice also that he had not summarily read them out of the kingdom upon first encounter! Would that such graciousness – on both sides – were more prevalent today!
Such warmth contrasts sharply with the late 1st/ early 2nd century writing of Ignatius. The earliest writer to advocate strongly for hierarchical structure in the nascent church (he demanded submission to a single “bishop” rather than to plural “elders”), Ignatius wrote in a condescending-sounding tone in a letter to a Roman congregation (thought to have been written enroute to his expected martyrdom), “As long as a Christian’s blood has not been shed, he is only a beginner in discipleship.”
With the advent of the extreme veneration of martyrs, and the dominance of the hierarchy, devoted followers of Jesus were even that early, denied the designation applied by the Lord Jesus to ALL HIS LOYAL FOLLOWERS/STUDENTS!
I guess it all boils down to the same old question: whose word do you accept?
What did Jesus say?
I choose to cast my lot with my gracious Lord, whose invitation , “If you all remain in [continue to live by] my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn.8:31), has never been rescinded.
“Are there still disciples?”
Yes, thank God – and there always will be, as long as some of us continue to seek for faithfulness.
May we help each other to do so!