He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19, ESV).
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes. The word is found about 250 times in the New Testament and the book of Acts.
The method of discipling found in the Gospels isn’t found in the Old Testament.
With the word for disciple mentioned only in the Gospels and the book of Acts but not in the letters of the New Testament and with no Jesus-style discipling in the Old Testament, I’ve asked myself, “Am I a loon for emphasizing disciplemaking as a primary feature of the Bible?”
Let’s consider the origins of first-century disciplemaking.
Discipling isn’t found in the Old Testament.
Yes, Joshua stayed at the Tent of Meeting to bask in God’s glory after Moses met with God. Joshua did succeed Moses, but there is no evidence of a “follow me” relationship between Moses and Joshua. Elisha did follow Elijah around Israel, and Elijah’s mantle fell to Elisha, but there’s nothing about a close discipling relationship between Elijah and Elisha.
There were bands of Old Testament prophets, but it was based upon God’s revelation to each prophet, with no prophetic school of major prophets discipling upcoming minor prophets.
Where did the idea of disciplemaking originate?
Probably from Socrates and his disciple Plato, as both had a desire to disciple students by relational learning and not mere teaching of pupils. The Pharisees and Sadducees adopted the Greek practice of this teacher/disciple training.
Jewish and Greek disciples were allowed to follow their teachers because of their qualifications of ability, cultural status, and wealth. Saul (changed to Paul) came from an influential family in Tarsus, who were also Roman citizens.
With both the Greeks and Jews there would be no acceptance letters to their schools of discipleship for lowly fishermen, and especially tax collectors. The rest of the disciples of Jesus wouldn’t qualify either.
Jesus practiced discipling (common during His time), but He considerably changed the practice.
The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians that Jesus came in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4). This fullness of time had (for the first time in history) created a worldwide empire with a system of travel, similar culture, the Pax Romano of peace, and a common language in which the Gospel could spread. But another “fullness of time” change was that disciplemaking was already accepted and practiced.
Jesus just had to adapt it.
First: Disciples of Greek philosophers, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, attached themselves to their teacher. But Jesus called the twelve to “Follow me!”
Second: The Pharisees and Sadducees promoted a certain system of thought. Sadducees discipled Sadducees, and Pharisees discipled Pharisees. However, Jesus offered Himself as both the teacher and the topic while saying, “Follow me!” Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
Third: The disciple-making of the Pharisees and Sadducees taught allegiance to a way of works and law, but Jesus taught a “follow me” that led to a relationship with God.
The “follow me” discipleship with Jesus meant that His disciples didn’t learn a system of beliefs or emulate a set of religious rules, but they walked with the Lord of Life Himself.
This new manner of discipling was the cause of the actual word “disciple” disappearing from the last half of the New Testament. The word changed from “disciple” to saints, believers, co-workers, and Christians – words that wouldn’t be confused with the Greek and Jewish practice of discipling.
The diminishing usage of the word “disciple” in the New Testament did not negate the Great Commission of Jesus, as the entire New Testament promoted the principles of one-to-one disciplemaking.
Discipleship is still the foundational practice through which a new believer learns to live the exchanged life with Jesus.
Jesus still says to all of us, “Follow me!”