What Does it Mean to Be a Disciple of Christ?

Being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ means to learn from Him and to stay close to Him. These two requirements were essential for Christ’s disciples then, and likewise are necessary for followers of Christ today.

Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 10, 2021
What Does it Mean to Be a Disciple of Christ?

When Christ called His first disciples He simply said, “Follow Me.”

These humble fishermen responded by leaving their careers, their possessions, and even their families to follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22).

A parallel passage in Luke 5:1-11 uses the phrase “they forsook all” as they began this new journey with Jesus. The word “forsake” literally means that they turned their back on their former lives. It implies a choice and a commitment.

This wasn’t just a part-time project for them where they could change their minds in a few days and go back to their profession as fishermen. They left everything — and by doing so they were making a promise to complete the course and finish this new assignment.

By agreeing to follow Jesus they consented to be His students or His learners in the Jewish method of a Rabbinical school of discipleship. They recognized Him as a teacher and a leader, and they made this commitment to be His disciples.

What Does it Mean to ‘Follow’ Jesus?

It’s interesting to note that the first directive that Jesus ever said to His disciple Peter, was “follow Me” (Matthew 4:19), and the last thing that Jesus said to Peter was also, “follow Me” (John 21:22).

Although these two mandates seem identical in the English language, they are actually quite different. Christ used two distinct phrases intentionally and Peter certainly understood the profound distinction between them.

Christ’s first command, “Follow Me” (Matthew 4:19) was forceful and very persuasive. Peter, and the other fishermen, understood what He meant. The Lord was formally and powerfully directing Peter and the others to become His students.

By leaving their past behind, these four disciples were making a commitment to learn from Jesus. They recognized Him as a teacher, a Rabbi, and were willing to dedicate themselves to becoming His official pupils. In a sense, Christ was saying, “I want you to learn from Me.”

The Lord’s last directive to Peter seemed like more of a request or a plea. Jesus has just finished an important conversation with this blustery former fisherman where Christ had asked Peter three times if he loved Him (John 21:15-19).

That motivating, confrontational, and personal conversation was coming to its conclusion when Peter turned around and saw the Apostle John following them (John 21:20). Perhaps John was eavesdropping on their discussion or perhaps he too wanted some alone time with Jesus, but for whatever reason Peter used this occasion to try to redirect the Lord’s pointed and convicting questions to someone else.

Peter looked at John and then said to the Lord, “What about him?”

It’s here where Jesus gives this last word of instruction to Peter. In today’s vernacular, Jesus responded, “It doesn’t matter about anyone else, you follow Me.”

This last command sounds like the first, but His tone and intent is much different. Here, with love, compassion, and purpose the Lord is saying, “Peter, you stay close to Me. Don’t worry about anyone else. I want you to stay close to Me.”

These two bookend commands clearly articulate the genius of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. His followers were expected to learn from Him. He wanted them to be students, to be eager pupils who desired to soak in everything He could possibly teach them.

But He also wanted them to stay close to Him to learn by following His example. Christ wanted his disciples to be motivated by their love for Him to follow His pattern and to model themselves after Him.

What is a Disciple of Jesus?

To be a disciple, I think, at the most basic sense, is to be a follower of Christ. I think the idea of discipleship that Jesus left us with is to be a whole-hearted follower of Christ. We grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ through the renewing of our minds. We have a new heart, we have the Holy Spirit within us, and by God's grace, He has given us this revelation. 

2 Peter 3 helps us to see through the knowledge of who God is, through the knowledge of the salvation that He's given to us, through knowledge of the promises He's given to us. By faith in God, by faith in his promises, our minds are renewed as we know Him more and more. We're growing in the knowledge of Christ, we're growing in understanding of the promises, we're growing in understanding of grace that allows us to trust Him more and more.

Practical Implications of Being a Disciple of Jesus

Being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ means to learn from Him and to stay close to Him. These two imperatives are the very core of true discipleship. These two requirements were essential for Christ’s disciples then — and likewise are necessary for followers of Christ today.

How to Learn from Christ?

1. Christ’s disciples learned from Him by listening carefully to His teaching. The teaching ministry of Christ was one of the most important aspects of His earthly ministry. It is interesting to note that immediately upon calling His first disciples, they followed Him throughout Galilee listening to Him “teaching” and “preaching” (Matthew 4:23).

In fact, Christ’s most familiar sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, was presented soon after He instructed Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow Him. Obviously, the Lord’s teaching ministry was one of the most important aspects of how He discipled His followers.

Christ’s final mandate to His 12 disciples also included an emphasis upon teaching. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”

Teaching and preaching have almost become blasé in today’s church environment. It was just a few years ago when believers gathered several times each week to participate in a variety of educational ministries of the church that featured lectures — the public presentation of biblical truth.

Now, many churches only offer one unique message each week; although some churches offer multiple services, they usually offer the same message in each service. It seems as if the proclamation of Scripture is no longer the priority it once was.

Christ emphasized teaching then — and He expects teaching to be a priority for His disciples today. These followers of Jesus were learners, pupils, or students. Christ-followers today must be all those things as well. Learning from Christ today means hearing, listening to, studying, and applying the written Word of God.

2. Christ’s disciples learned from Him by willingly doing what He said. There is a second important aspect of Christ’s teaching ministry that He continually emphasized with His disciples. He expected His followers to put what He taught them into practice in their lives. He wanted His disciples to apply the truth of what He instructed — and He wants His followers to continue that today.

This principle too is included in the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you;” (Matthew 28:19-20). The word “observe” in this passage does not mean “to see” or “to look.” Rather, it means “to do” or “to implement.”

There are several other passages in the New Testament (2 Timothy 3:16-17; James 1:22) that underscore this same idea. It is obvious that Christ expects His disciples to put what He taught them into practice.

How to Stay Close to Christ?

1. Christ’s disciples stay close to Him by personally spending time in His Word. It’s obvious from any study of Christ’s dealings with His disciples in Scripture that the key to His ministry with them was that He spent quantity and quality time with them. This principle is highlighted in passages like Mark 3:14, where it says, “…that they might be with Him…” The key to discipleship was the opportunity to get close to the teacher.

After Jesus’ resurrection, His followers gathered on that hillside in Palestine to watch as He ascended back into heaven. The Lord took that opportunity to give them one more set of instructions (Matthew 28:19-20), but He also gives them an amazing message of encouragement, “…I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

His earthly disciples realized that He was about to leave them to return to His Heavenly Father; but in this last time together, He helped them to understand that because He was God, they could actually be with Him for the rest of their lives.

It’s so important for Christ’s disciples today to understand this important truth as well. Being a disciple of Christ means spending time with Him. Even though Jesus is not physically present today, His followers can stay close to Him by spending time in His Word.

2. Christ’s disciples stay close to Him by making prayer a top priority. There was one other essential ingredient in Christ’s ministry with His followers — He prayed (Luke 9:18), He taught them to pray (Luke 11:1-4), and He expected them to pray (Luke 22:39-46).

God Himself established prayer as a way for Christ-followers to communicate directly with All-mighty God (Hebrews 4:14-16). Prayer proves that His disciples are dependent upon Him — and true disciples of Christ will be characterized by a vibrant prayer life.

Why Does This Matter?

Christ expects His disciples to follow Him — to learn from Him and to stay close to Him. That’s what He wanted from His followers during His earthly ministry and that is what He wants from His disciples today.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/kevron2001

Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is currently in the process of raising financial support to serve with VFY on a full-time basis. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 45 years. He is also an author, speaker, and consultant with churches. Mel has written 13 books on various subjects relating to youth ministry. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.YouthMinistryQuestions.com. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.


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