The New Penguin Dictionary (an excellent dictionary I heartily recommend) defines disciple as, ‘a person who learns from, and is much in the company of, a teacher or instructor…’ It goes on to say, ‘any of the followers of Christ during his lifetime…’
The key for our purpose is, ‘much in the company of.’ A disciple is defined as much by the company he keeps as the ideas he embraces. Furthermore, disciples don’t just agree with a set of ideas from their favourite teacher, they emulate that teacher, putting into practice all they see of that teacher’s life. Clearly, learning, for a disciple, includes practice as well as theory.
This is illustrated by the example of the pupils in the music school of the Temple in the Old Testament, “The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the LORD, all who were skilful, was 288. And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.” (1 Chron.25:7-8, ESV)
Another notable Old Testament example is that of Isaiah who, recognising that his message had been rejected by his people, determined to entrust it to a band of followers:
“Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in him.” (Is.8:16-17)
The parallel between Isaiah’s disciples and the disciples of Jesus is striking. Disciples are entrusted with the prophetic truth of God and are responsible for its preservation, proclamation and application.
Some other notable biblical disciples are, Joshua who was discipled by Moses; Elisha who learned his craft from Elijah; Timothy who learned from Paul. Then, of course, there were the disciples of John the Baptist.
Disciples are not confined to the Bible. Discipleship was commonplace in the ancient world, for example, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had their followers. Disciples chose who they would follow so if you were drawn to a materialist philosophy you might follow an Epicurean teacher. If you were searching for a philosophy that taught clear judgement and inner calm you might seek out a Stoic teacher.
Jesus and Me?
In this respect what made Jesus stand out was his statement:
“You did not chose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit...” (Jn.15:16)
What we make of this statement, typically, is that he chose me, personally, as though it is all about me. We use phrases like, my personal Saviour. We sing songs with words like, My Jesus, my Saviour. There is an unhealthy preoccupation with personal pronouns as we imagine Jesus somehow ‘coming through for me.’ There is a ‘Jesus and me’ tone pervading much of Christian thinking today.
We are familiar with the thought expressed as“God has a plan for your life.” We sometimes hear people quote Jeremiah, “’I know the plans I have for you,’declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jer.29:11)
Well, here goes a sacred cow to slaughter. God doesn't have a plan for your life. Too many Christians hang on to this misunderstood promise in the way children wait for Santa on Christmas eve. Too many name-it-and-claim-it frauds build up false and worldly hopes in naive people on the basis of such thinking. But God doesn’t have a plan for your life. Rather, God has a plan and your life fits into it for his purposes.
Sometimes God’s plan will require something very specific for you, concerning your career, your calling, your life-partner, even where you live. Missionaries of all kinds are called to spread the gospel further afield over many years of sacrifice and service; church leaders are called to work locally, giving up worldly ambitions to serve the church in key roles; volunteers are called to serve in various ways in the church and community.
However, God doesn't always have a specific plan but simply wants you to be obedient. If you marry you should marry well, meaning marrying a Christian, you should work hard, raise a family, and do all things to the glory of God and, by the way, sometimes he uses you in a particular way. Otherwise simply live for him wisely and faithfully. In other words, since Jesus chose us for his purposes it is not about me and my bespoke life plan, but about Jesus and my faithfulness and obedience to his plan.
Next time I will look at what is God’s plan and how we fit into it.