Discipleship in the New Testament

Definition and Origin
The term “disciple” comes from the Greek word μαθητής (mathētēs), meaning “learner” or “pupil.” In the New Testament, this term emphasizes the relationship between the teacher, Jesus, and His followers, who are committed to learning from Him and living according to His teachings. This relationship is foundational to understanding the Christian faith.

Jesus’ Commandments to Disciples
Discipleship is characterized by obedience to Jesus’ commandments as an expression of love for Him:

  • John 14:15: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
  • John 8:31-32: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'”

These verses underscore that true discipleship involves both learning and applying Jesus’ teachings, leading to a transformation of life and spiritual freedom.

The Term “Christian”

Historical Context and Usage
The term “Christian” (Χριστιανός, Christianos) appears three times in the New Testament:

  • Acts 11:26: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
  • Acts 26:28: “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'”
  • 1 Peter 4:16: “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.”

Originally, “Christian” was a label used by non-believers, often with scorn, to identify followers of Christ. Over time, believers adopted this term to positively denote their identity and commitment to Christ.

The Context of 1 Peter 4:16
1 Peter was likely written around AD 64, during a time of persecution for Christians. The epistle emphasizes enduring suffering for Christ and glorifying God despite opposition. The use of “Christian” in this context highlights the honor and responsibility of bearing Christ’s name even in adversity.

The Relationship Between Discipleship and Christian Identity

Learning and Obedience
Discipleship involves a commitment to learning from Jesus and obeying His teachings, which is essential for true spiritual growth and freedom. This concept is rooted in the term “disciple,” which reflects the discipline required to follow Jesus faithfully.

Community and Identity
While “disciple” focuses on individual learning and transformation, “Christian” identifies believers collectively as followers of Christ. Both terms are significant:

  • Disciple: Emphasizes learning, growth, and following Jesus’ teachings.
  • Christian: Denotes the communal identity of believers as belonging to Christ.

By embracing both aspects, believers acknowledge their call to follow Jesus’ teachings (discipleship) and their identity as members of the community of Christ’s followers (Christians).


Understanding the terms “disciple” and “Christian” is crucial for grasping the essence of the Christian faith. Discipleship highlights the process of learning and obeying Jesus’ teachings, while the term “Christian” identifies believers as followers of Christ, especially within a community context. Together, these terms provide a comprehensive view of what it means to follow Jesus and live out His teachings.