What Is Discipleship?

“Discipleship” is popular in our churches. The English word means “one who learns” and is synonymous with “pupil.” An analysis of the biblical usage of the underlying Greek and Hebrew words, though, offers a much deeper and more nuanced concept.

The most important Hebrew word for this discussion is lamad, which means both “to learn” and “to teach.”* These meanings are set side by side in Deut. 4:10:

Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn [lamad] to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach [lamad] them to their children.”

In other words, the goals, content, and methods of learning and teaching are exactly the same in the Hebrew mind because all learning and teaching is ultimately rooted in the fear of the Lord (see also Deut. 14:23; Prov. 1:7; etc.).

Thus, in the OT there is no distinction between secular and sacred knowledge. To learn truth or teach truth is to honor and know God. This was not the case in the Greek culture anymore than it is in our own, unfortunately. The main Greek word for learning is manthano, while the word for teaching is didasko, both of which are consistently used to translate lamad in the Greek translation of the OT.

Manthano is used in the NT only in Acts 23:27 to mean simply becoming aware of a fact. There, it is used by a Roman when he discovers Paul’s Roman citizenship and is thus consistent with non-biblical use. Beyond that, like lamad, it is always concerned with coming to know God, especially through the witness of Scripture. Thus, when Jesus challenged the Pharisees in Matt. 9:13 saying, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” He was not simply telling them to come to a proper interpretation of Hos. 6:6 but to take up God’s will as their own as He had. Likewise, in John 6:45, Jesus says that everyone who “hears and learns from the Father comes to Me.” The hearing is to culminate in “learning,” and since what the Father teaches concerns the Son, to learn is to accept Jesus as Christ. As a final example, in Gal. 3:2, Paul wants to “learn” from the Galatians how they received the Holy Spirit. Again, this usage is not merely a matter of fact. It demonstrates that all things point to God Himself, for by examining the Galatians, Paul can “learn” something about the nature of God, the Law, grace, and salvation. That is, he (and they, if they pay attention!) can understand and apply God’s will in this area (as an aside, he may be being sarcastic, in which he would be asking the Galatians to “disciple” him in this area, since they clearly knew more about the Holy Spirit than he did. Either understanding takes a proper view of his use of manthano). In sum, manthano is no mere intellectual exercise.

All this leads us to mathetes, the word for disciple. It comes from manthano and carries the same ideas. A disciple is one who “learns,” but again, learning is living as Jesus does, not just knowing what He says. Finally, it is instructive that Luke, who uses the term frequently, abruptly stops using it in Luke 22:45 once the twelve scatter in Gethsemane. This is probably because he viewed their abandonment as a breach of relationship, which, again, points to the relational nature of the biblical concept of learning/discipleship.

Much more could be said about this, but all we’ve seen here is sufficient to make our basic point: discipleship is not about the impartation of knowledge, but living according to the God’s will. Any church or individual who wishes disciple others must keep the relational aspect in mind and not substitute it for mere orthodoxy (that is, right belief).

How does this fit with or go against your concept of discipleship, or perhaps the discipleship programs you have been through?

* The meaning in the Hebrew text is easily distinguishable by context and grammar. Each meaning is signified by a slightly different spelling, even though the word is the same. Technically, in the Qal stem it means “to learn,” and in the Piel stem it means “to teach.”

One thought on “What Is Discipleship?

  1. This seems to match up with Dallas Willard’s teaching in books like The Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart. He also speaks about this a lot. Great write-up, and thank you for putting in the effort. I dig your word studies.

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