Jesus—His Life and Message: Discipleship (Part 1)

September 12, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

The Gospels tell us the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and they also address what He taught those who followed Him as disciples. Throughout the four Gospels we read about Jesus’ interactions with His followers, and their spiritual journey toward understanding who Jesus was. In this and other upcoming articles, the focus will be on what Jesus taught His disciples, issues that arose because of the way they sometimes misunderstood His teachings, and how His teachings relate to those who follow Him today.

Before focusing on the specific instruction Jesus gave His disciples regarding discipleship, it might be helpful to look at the general portrait of discipleship found within the Gospels.1 Each Gospel shares similarities when speaking of Jesus’ disciples, and there are also some differences. For example, the Gospel of Luke speaks of the twelve disciples (who Jesus appointed as apostles) as well as a larger body of seventy-two disciples, over and above the twelve, who aren’t mentioned in the other Gospels. Luke’s Gospel also makes reference to a “multitude of disciples.”

When day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles.2

The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.3

As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen.4

The Gospels portray the disciples as ordinary people who made mistakes, misunderstood what Jesus said, argued among themselves, exhibited pride and selfishness, but who also stuck with Jesus when others left, and who eventually came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”5

During Jesus’ lifetime, Jewish men who wished to honor God by fully obeying His Word would sometimes become disciples of rabbis. To do so would require that they take the initiative to identify and choose a specific rabbi whom they would learn from and serve, and then entered into a master-disciple relationship with that rabbi. Jesus reversed the usual process when it came to His disciples, as He chose His followers, or at least some of them.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.6

He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”7

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.8

While Jesus chose and called His disciples, it was His disciples who responded to His call, as seen in the cases of the brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew, who immediately … left their nets and followed him,9 and James and John, who left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.10 Responding to the call of discipleship resulted in a significant change of lifestyle for the disciples.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”11

It also meant entering into new relationships with other believers within the family of God:

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”12

Discipleship in Jesus’ lifetime meant giving primary allegiance to Christ, and it still means this today. This allegiance took various forms in the Gospels. The twelve apostles, as well as others of Jesus’ disciples, were called to leave all—their professions, property, and family—to follow Jesus in His ministry, which involved regularly traveling from place to place.

He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women … Mary, called Magdalene … and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.13

Here we read of disciples, both male and female, traveling with Jesus in His ministry.

The disciples were called to give their loyalty to Jesus before any others they owed loyalty to. This didn’t mean that they no longer had any obligation of love and loyalty to their parents or family, but their primary allegiance was to Jesus.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.14

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.15

While all disciples were called to count the cost of discipleship, the call to physically leave everything and follow Jesus as He traveled from town to town was not intended for all of them. This is seen, for example, in the story about the man who, after Jesus had delivered him from a demon, begged Jesus to let him follow Him as a disciple. Jesus’ response was, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.16 He obeyed Jesus, and successfully preached about Him, thus acting as a disciple, without joining Jesus in His travels.

Joseph of Arimathea became a disciple at some point, but apparently remained within the Jewish religious establishment. He was a respected member of the Council,17 a rich man,18 and also a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.19 He showed his allegiance as a disciple when he went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock.20 Disciples, even in Jesus’ time, didn’t always leave their jobs, homes, or families, but were still called disciples.

It’s clear from the Gospels that the disciples were far from being perfect, and they often didn’t understand what Jesus taught. We also see that they grew in understanding as time went on. We read how, in spite of their weaknesses, Jesus taught the disciples21 and corrected them22 so that they grew strong enough to make more disciples and to help spread the gospel throughout their world.

All of the Gospels give us insight into what Jesus taught His disciples, but the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, both of which were authored by Luke, give us insight into both Jesus’ teaching and how the application of His teaching played out in the early church. Together, they give us an idea of what discipleship meant in the time after Jesus’ resurrection. In Acts, we find that the word disciples was synonymous with believers.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke refers to believing in and following Jesus as being synonymous with discipleship. He calls those who believe in Jesus and follow His teachings followers of “the Way.” An example is when the Pharisee Saul (who, after coming to belief in Jesus, became the apostle Paul) asked the Jewish high priest for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.23 He later said: I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women.24 Those who belonged to the Way were believers—disciples—who were persecuted for their beliefs.

We then read of the apostle Paul’s conversion and of his time preaching in Damascus. We’re told that after some time there was a plot to kill him, and that disciples helped him escape. He then went to Jerusalem, where he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.25 They didn’t believe that he was a believer in Jesus, since he had recently been persecuting believers.

Later in Acts, we read that Paul came to Ephesus, and there he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”26 These believers in Jesus (referred to here as disciples) had not heard about the Holy Spirit. After Paul and Barnabas had preached in a number of cities, we’re told that they returned to them, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church 27 Here again, we see believers being called disciples, and also read that elders were appointed over the disciples/believers.

Luke emphasizes that entry into the Way of salvation and discipleship, being a believer and follower, is through faith in Jesus. We find mention of “the Way” in the first part of the book of Acts, and then in the latter part of the book and in the Epistles, we find that believers came to be called “the church.” Members of the Way and the church were eventually referred to as Christians:

In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.28

“Disciples,” “followers of the Way,” and “Christians” were all terms used to refer to believers in Jesus. When we recognize that being a Christian is synonymous with being a disciple of Jesus, then we understand that when we read what Jesus said about what disciples are supposed to believe and do, it applies to all of us as believers. It isn’t just guidance for people who have been called to full-time Christian service, such as missionaries, Christian workers, pastors, or preachers. Jesus’ words are directed to all believers, and all of us are called to believe and enact those words. Many of those words are tremendously challenging, especially those that speak about our allegiance to Christ above all other allegiances. Jesus’ teachings of self-denial, taking up the cross daily, following in His footsteps, and readjusting our relationship with material wealth all call for action and change—which requires both internal changes in how we think and external changes in how we live. Being a Christian/disciple calls for us to understand what Jesus taught, and apply it to our daily lives.

The articles which follow this one will focus on Jesus’ teachings and sayings about discipleship, with the goal of shedding further light on what Jesus’ call to discipleship entails for us who believe in Him and His Word.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

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Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

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Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

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Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.

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Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

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Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

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Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

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Witherington, Ben, III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

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1 The points in this article are summarized from the section “Discipleship,” by M. J. Wilkins, in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Edited by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 182–188.

2 Luke 6:13.

3 Luke 10:1.

4 Luke 19:37.

5 Matthew 16:16.

6 Matthew 9:9.

7 Matthew 4:19.

8 John 15:16.

9 Mark 1:18.

10 Mark 1:20.

11 Luke 9:23–25.

12 Matthew 12:46–50.

13 Luke 8:1–3.

14 Matthew 10:37–38.

15 Matthew 16:24–25.

16 Mark 5:19–20.

17 Mark 15:43.

18 Matthew 27:57.

19 John 19:38.

20 Matthew 27:58–60.

21 Mark 4:10–34.

22 Matthew 16:5–12.

23 Acts 9:1–2.

24 Acts 22:4.

25 Acts 9:26.

26 Acts 19:1–2.

27 Acts 14:22–23.

28 Acts 11:26.