The Lookout | 1.9.11
By Alan Dowd

The dictionary defines disciple as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another…a convinced adherent of a school or individual.” Indeed, the word is rooted in the Latin term for student.

But I think Jesus has a slightly different definition of disciple.

The first time the word is used in the Gospels is in Matthew 4, at the “calling of the first disciples,” and Matthew 5, when Jesus’ “disciples came to him.”

Jesus apparently has no problem with his followers being identified as disciples. In Matthew 12, for instance, the Pharisees tattle on the disciples by saying to Jesus, “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” And Jesus, tellingly, does not correct the Pharisees for using the word. Moreover, in Matthew 26, Jesus himself uses the term, declaring, “I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”

Those of us who know the rest of the Gospel story know that these disciples did not really meet the dictionary’s definition of the term—at least not at that point. Sure, they may have spread Jesus’ teachings. But had they fully “accepted” those teachings? Were they “convinced” of his teachings? Did they “adhere” to his teachings—or to him?

The answer is no, which leads me to Jesus’ definition of disciple:

A disciple is sometimes proud, sometimes petty, sometimes uncertain, sometimes too impulsive, sometimes too deliberate, sometimes arrogant, sometimes judgmental, sometimes cowardly, sometimes a fraud, sometimes a failure, sometimes selfish, sometimes deceitful, sometimes power-hungry, sometimes harsh, sometimes hard-headed, sometimes self-assured, but always loved, always forgiven, always a work in progress.

If you don’t like this definition of disciple, just consider what the Gospels tell us about the 12 disciples.

One of the 12 was a thief—he literally stole from God—and a betrayer (see John 12). Yet Judas was called a disciple.

Peter was proud, too proud to let Jesus wash his feet. He also had a childlike impulsiveness that made him special to Jesus and yet got him into trouble from time to time: Telling Jesus that he would never let him down, jumping out of the boat only to sink in fear, slicing off the guard’s ear—these are not exactly the actions of a mature Christian.

On the very week Jesus would be crucified, James and John were maneuvering to get a better place in heaven. When they asked Jesus to seat one on his right and the other on his left, Jesus answered, probably rhetorically, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Oblivious to what Jesus meant, they responded without hesitation, “We can” (Mark 10).

How’s that for arrogant?

Apparently, all the disciples were petty and prideful. Consider how the disciples reacted when they heard James and John trying to bargain with Jesus for those front-row seats in heaven. “They became indignant,” according to Mark’s account.

Or consider the time Jesus was anointed with “very expensive perfume” by a nameless woman. Rather than letting the woman honor her savior, they tried to embarrass her and make an example of her. “When the disciples saw this, they were indignant,” Matthew reports. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold…and the money given to the poor.”

Jesus knew what was in their hearts and rebuked them.

The disciples were, at times, hungry for power and eager to use it against their enemies. For example, when a town refused to welcome Jesus, James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

That’s awfully harsh—and hard-headed—coming from a couple of guys who’ve been listening to sermons about grace and mercy for three years. 

Thomas took hard-headedness, denseness and deliberateness to a whole new level after the resurrection, refusing to believe until he touched the risen Jesus. Because of his stubborn unbelief, his name is synonymous with doubt.

However, all of the disciples were doubtful and uncertain at times. Andrew and Philip, for instance, doubted that Jesus could feed the 5,000. Testing the disciples, Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

Andrew’s response was to point to a young man’s meal pouch of five loaves and two fish, and ask, “How far will they go among so many?” Philip tried to calculate how much it would cost, concluding that not even eight months wages would be enough.

Moreover, the disciples were so uncertain about Jesus being the real deal that, as Mark’s Gospel tells us, “Everyone deserted him and fled” when the Roman centurions marched into Gethsemane. One of the disciples was so terrified that he “fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”

Their doubt exposed their cowardice and showed them to be frauds—at least for a while.

Something More
The bad news is that what was true of the first disciples is true of us. At least, it’s true of me.

I’m a miserable jumble of overconfidence and fear, a teenager’s shortsightedness and an old man’s pessimism, Peter’s pride and Thomas’ doubt, James and John’s longing for prestige and Judas’ acquiescence to the enemy.

Yet I am a disciple. Jesus looks beyond the grime and sees something more.

That’s the good news. Jesus sees something more in all of us.

It’s not so much that we have been transformed, but rather that we are being transformed. Like the first disciples, we are becoming humble and selfless. We are shaking off our fears and becoming courageous. We are trading away our doubts for certainty in a risen savior. The pretense of piety is being replaced by the desire just to please the Lord. Impulsiveness is giving way to spiritual maturity, and stubbornness is giving way to trust in the Holy Spirit. We are learning to rely on God, to die to self, to love.

It’s no coincidence that disciple means student, or that it shares the same root as discipline.

A student, after all, doesn’t know as much as his teacher knows. A student is, by definition, learning. A student is a work in progress. And it takes discipline for a student to learn, to understand, to be transformed.

What’s that look like for us? It looks a lot like it did for the first disciples. Like them, we need to spend time with Jesus by worshipping him and listening for him. We need to learn more about him by studying his word. And we need to imitate him, the author and perfecter of our faith.

We do that by denying ourselves for the good of others, just as he did for mankind. We do that by building bridges within the Church rather than walls. “All men will know that you are my disciples,” as Jesus put it in John 13, “if you love one another.” And we do that by finding new disciples. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commands.

Discipleship is about the transformation—not the final product. It’s about the journey—not the destination.

We know this because the first disciples were identified as disciples before they were transformed, before they reached their destination. We should find hope in that.