Not all disciples, over the history of the world, were in the sort of relationship with their leader so that they could be said to be “abiding” in him.
Socrates had Plato. Gamaliel had Saul. Leaders of various religions had their devout followers. More than that, every teacher—of some certain kind of medicine, for instance, such as Hippocrates or Galen, or of a certain philosophy, such as Plato and Aristotle—had disciples. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (Harper 2010) this is the background of the word: O.E. discipul (fem. discipula), Biblical borrowing from L. discipulus “pupil,” from discipere “to grasp intellectually, analyze thoroughly,” from dis “apart” (see dis-) + capere “take” (see capable).
So the disciple was seen simply as a student, a serious one who was willing to “analyze thoroughly” and “take apart” a teaching. There was nothing extraordinary, therefore, about the fact that Jesus had a group of disciples. It was customary for teachers to have a following of “interns.” What was it, then, that made that word become synonymous with Christianity, to the point that today, if you look online for a definition, some of the first ones you get will be about Jesus and Christianity? What was so unique about this particular Master?
Unique Call. First, there was the odd way these disciples were chosen. Other teachers were chosen by their followers. They could choose to accept or turn away whoever came to them, but they didn’t generally go out seeking certain people to be their disciples. Jesus, on the other hand, spent time with those who naturally followed Him, took time to get to know them, then spent all night in prayer before choosing twelve.
And what a startling crew He picked! Jesus saw potential in these men that most of us would not have suspected, and certainly neither Plato nor Hippocrates would have chosen them. It is also remarkable that they were instantly willing to leave their daily business and follow this Carpenter from Nazareth. They apparently saw something extraordinary in this Man that even most of His own relatives had not yet discovered.
Unique Task. All disciples had as their goal to become like their masters or teachers. In Jesus’ case, His major mission, to die for all humanity, could not be imitated, duplicated, or learned. His disciples, in contrast, had the unique task given to them to make more disciples.
After Jesus called the Twelve, He also called the Seventy (Luke 10:1–20) and then, at the end of His earthly ministry, commanded His disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Thus, again, unlike earthly systems, this discipleship is not restrictive: it is governed by the same “whosoever” principle that operates in God’s plan of salvation (John 3:16). So a Christian disciple’s job is to encourage others to become disciples too.
Unique Guide. Every other teacher could teach only while he lived, and then, after death, through whatever writings he might have left. Jesus, however, promised that even when He was no longer with them, He could still teach His followers new things. How could this be? Before His trial and death, Jesus had so much to tell His beloved disciples. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12-15, NKJV).
This is one of the most important differences; our Teacher is still with us. We can’t see Him, feel Him, or hear Him—yet we can do all those things, in some unexplainable way. And we never graduate. Our job is to be a lifelong learner and to pass it on.
Unique Motivation. The most important difference, though, between what would have been seen as ordinary, garden-variety discipleship and the discipleship of Jesus is that the former was based on the content of a philosophy or teaching, whereas the latter is rooted in the accomplishment of Jesus. What Jesus achieved is redemption from sin through His death and resurrection. His disciples very soon made it abundantly clear that they were willing to lay everything, even their lives, on the line for this Master, and He wasn’t even here anymore! It was amazing to the ancient world, and when it’s real, it’s still amazing today.
Whoever heeds His call experiences His forgiveness and commits himself or herself to Christ’s service as His disciple. Christian discipleship is an operative link between the saved and the Savior. The former to live, obey, relate, experience, and serve within the will of the latter. Thus, Paul could say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20, NIV).
Thus, Christian discipleship rests not so much on Christ’s teachings as on what He did for the salvation of humanity. Jesus bids all His followers to identify themselves fully with Him and take up their cross and follow Him (Matt. 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Without walking in the footprints of Calvary, there is no Christian discipleship.*