Biblical Discipleship

Jesus made it clear in his Great Commission that we are to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:18-20). But how is this goal best accomplished? I would like to suggest that biblical discipleship takes place through companionship, preparing leaders to serve the church of Jesus Christ. Discipleship can be simply defined as “companionship in preparation for leadership.”

The ancient Greek philosophers were itinerant teachers whose philosophy was a way of living, not merely an explanation of life. Their disciples learned by imitating their teacher’s lifestyle, not just by listening to their teaching. Plato describes Pythagoras as “presiding over a band of intimate disciples who loved him for the inspiration of his company and . . . his way of life.” It is reported that the disciples of Plato not only learned his words, but they imitated his stoop!

The Jewish rabbis in the time of Jesus believed in discipleship. A rabbi taught by what he did as well as by what he said! Rabbis paid special attention to their behavior because they knew that their actions would be observed and followed by their young disciples. To be a student of a rabbi in the first century meant that you not only listened to your teacher with your ears, but also observed him with your eyes.

Some students went to extremes to learn from their rabbis. A disciple named Akiba followed his teacher Rabbi Joshua into the bathroom to learn his method of going to the toilet. When he was challenged for taking such extreme steps in learning the behavior of his rabbi, Akiba responded, “It is a matter of instruction and I am required to learn.”

Like the Greek philosophers and the Jewish rabbis, Jesus taught by example. He knew that preparation for leadership took place through companionship where students would learn not just from his words, but also from his life. We often read in the Gospels of how Jesus withdrew with his disciples to spend time with them (cf. Mk. 3:7; Jn. 3:22). What was Jesus doing with His disciples? My guess is that they were talking, eating, laughing, telling stories, praying together, and asking and answering questions.

Jesus knew that discipleship is companionship that prepares men and women for Christian leadership. One of my favorite examples of Jesus doing discipleship is in the Upper Room on the night before His death, when he took off his cloak and began washing the disciples’ feet. He had taught them in words that greatness in the kingdom comes through serving others. But when he washed their feet, he taught them by example. Through their companionship with Jesus, the disciples learned the pattern of humble service that would distinguish their ministries.

The Apostle Paul also understood this principle of discipleship. He knew that what he did was as much teaching as what he said. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he said, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul lived his life in such a way that others could see and learn from his example. This concept of teaching by example is captured by Paul’s words in Philippians 4:9, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things.” Paul knew that his life was a public display of what a Christian should look like.

In line with the example set by Jesus and Paul, my conviction is that discipleship in the seminary involves more than just giving lectures in the classroom. As a professor, I know that the students I spend time with will learn by my example. That’s why I take students to lunch, and invite them into my home for meals.

Since 1992, I have had the unique opportunity to take a group of students to Israel for a three-week study program every other year. One reason I take these trips is because I love to be in the land of Israel. But the main reason I continue these trips is so that I can spend time with my students. I want them to learn from my life, not just my lectures. Most of the information I give my students in the classroom can be dug out of books. But discipleship is much more than just acquiring data. It requires personal involvement. It is companionship in preparation for leadership.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).