Being a disciple is more than just being a follower

In the time of Jesus, the relationship between a disciple and master teacher was deep commitment and loyalty by both the teacher and the disciple

In his 2022 address to the young adults of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson pleaded with his audience to understand their true identity. Although he discussed numerous labels that can describe aspects of our identity, he emphasized that “no identifier should displace, replace or take priority over … three enduring designations: ‘child of God,’ ‘child of the covenant’ and ‘disciple of Jesus Christ.’”

He described them as “three paramount and unchanging identifiers.” Further, he taught that “any identifier that is not compatible with these three basic designations will ultimately let you down. Other labels will disappoint you in time because they do not have the power to lead you toward eternal life in the celestial kingdom of God.”

While our 2023 study of the New Testament will include teachings on all three of these eternal labels, this article will focus on the third identifier, that of “disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Discipleship is a major focus of Jesus’ ministry, but what does it mean to be a disciple in the New Testament? The English word “disciple” is a translation of the Greek word “mathētēs,” which basically refers to a student who studies with a master teacher. I use the term “master teacher” in a similar sense to what today we sometimes refer to a master plumber or master carpenter, someone who has expertise in a subject or skill that comes from additional training and certification. This additional training qualifies them to teach their trade to others.

In the time of Jesus, the relationship between a disciple and master teacher was one of deep commitment and loyalty by both the teacher and the disciple, with the goal that the latter could one day themselves become a master teacher. Sometimes a disciple can be described as an apprentice. Inherent in this relationship between teacher and student is the recognition that the master teacher had knowledge and experience the disciple valued and was seeking to attain.

The New Testament often distinguishes disciples from members of the crowds who followed Jesus because of the miracles He performed. Disciples certainly were followers of Jesus, but not all followers were disciples. Crowds followed Jesus after He taught the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 8:1), they followed Him seeking to be healed (Matthew 12:15; 14:13–­14; 20:30­–34; John 6:2), or because He could feed them (John 6:26), but there is no indication that the commitment of these individuals lasted any longer than the immediate circumstance. In other words, their interest in Jesus generally did not rise to the level of commitment that comes with discipleship.

Jesus extended two main invitations for people to become His disciples. He invited them to “follow me” (see Mark 2:14; Matthew 16:24; 19:21; Luke 18:22; John 1:43; 12:26) and He also invited them to “come unto me” (Matthew 11:28–30). Each of these invitations have slightly different emphases.

Christ calls Peter and Andrew to follow Him, in “Calling of the Fishermen” by Harry Anderson. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In extending the invitation to Peter, Andrew, James and John to “come follow me,” in the Greek text, or “follow me,” in the King James Version, He was inviting them to embark on a new life path (Matthew 4:18–22). They responded immediately with a willingness to leave behind boats, nets and even Zebedee, all of which represented their old life. As James and John’s father, Zebedee was a symbol of the power that gave them mortal life, and the boat and nets were symbols of how that life was sustained.

Jesus’ invitation was thus a call to leave behind the lives that they knew and embark on a life of discipleship that would require a new set of priorities and responsibilities focusing on an eternal understanding of life. It was a call to do the things that Jesus did — to “preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand … to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, [and] cast out devils (Matthew 10:7–8). In other words, it was a life dedicated to preach the good news of Jesus’ message and to minister to others and their needs.

Related Stories
How to make 2023’s study of the New Testament with ‘Come, Follow Me’ the best yet
‘Come and see’: Finding the long-promised Messiah in our study of the New Testament

This life of discipleship certainly brought blessings of growth and refinement, but it was not without its costs. Jesus taught that disciples needed to put God first in their lives and to love Him with all of their heart, understanding, soul, strength and mind (see Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:33; Luke 10:27), which included keeping His commandments (see John 14:15), putting God’s will above their own (Matthew 16:24) and taking up their cross daily (Luke 9:23).

Two scholars have noted that “the disciples — and implicitly all believers — must not passively observe their Lord and what He does. They are not seated spectators watching from the grandstand” (W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, ”A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew”). Disciples are those who are not content to watch from the sidelines. Their commitment to the Savior means they are actively engaged in the kingdom even if it is inconvenient, or difficult, or even if they don’t fully understand what Jesus is asking of them. For example, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God, even without perhaps knowing all that would be required of her, she nevertheless responded with faith and declared, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).

In another place, Jesus taught that unless people are willing to “hate” their family they “cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The language here seems harsh, especially because families are an important part of God’s eternal plan. But here Jesus seems to intentionally use language that will capture His audience’s attention. He is using the family as a symbol for that which is most precious to us. He is teaching that discipleship ultimately requires a willingness in people to consecrate to God their whole souls, including the things that they value most. He follows this saying with two parables that invited His audience to evaluate their commitment to their discipleship by considering the cost that is expected of them (Luke 14:28–32). Jesus then concludes by explaining, “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

Cristo fala com o jovem governante rico enquanto os apóstolos observam ao fundo, conforme retratado nesta cena dos Vídeos da Bíblia.
Christ speaks with the rich young ruler while the apostles watch in the background, as depicted in a scene from Bible Videos. | A Igreja de Jesus Cristo dos Santos dos Últimos Dias

The story of the rich young man is a reminder that some people, as the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles describes, “hold back a portion” of their consecration (Matthew 19:16–22); not willing to commit fully to the cost of discipleship. Rather than seeing this cost as a negative thing, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles describes it as the “joyful ‘burden’ of discipleship” (April 2014 general conference).

In addition to inviting people to follow Him, Jesus also invites those who “labor and are heavy laden” to become disciples by coming unto Him, a phrase that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught “is the key to the peace and rest we seek” (April 2006 general conference). This invitation is not focused on people acting like Jesus. Instead, it is focused on them coming to Him so that He can minister to them in their needs. The Greek text suggests that Jesus is inviting everyone who feels weary or burdened. He invites them to take His yoke upon them so that He can help carry their burdens. He also invites them to learn of Him, which can be understood to both learn about Him and to learn from Him. He assures them that His “yoke is easy and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). This is an invitation to experience His personal ministry, in a way that is only available from the Son of God who, through His atoning sacrifice, acts as a Savior, a Redeemer and an Enabler for us. Although there are costs to discipleship, those costs should never overshadow the pricelessness of this gift of discipleship.

Speaking of the Bible, the Prophet Joseph taught, “He [or she] who reads it oftenest will like it best” (Letter to the Church, circa March 1834, Joseph Smith Papers). As we avail ourselves of another opportunity to study the New Testament in the coming year, I hope that we can all learn more about and from the Savior and thus experience more deeply the joy that comes from our committed discipleship. Being known as a disciple of Jesus Christ is, after all, one of the most important labels that we can seek to obtain.

— Gaye Strathearn is a Brigham Young University associate dean of religious education.

Related Stories
Episode 114: The Sunday School general presidency on coming closer to Jesus Christ using the 2023 ‘Come, Follow Me’ curriculum on the New Testament
What members need to know before studying the New Testament this year
What Church leaders have promised those who study the Savior’s life and teachings
How ‘Come, Follow Me’ is helping Latter-day Saints have ‘transformational’ experiences with the scriptures
BYU scholar offers 4 keys to help understand the New Testament parables of Jesus
New Testament verses used by Church leaders in 2022, part 1 — 4 Gospels
New Testament verses used by Church leaders in 2022, part 2 — Acts through Revelation
See 9 images representing New Testament events
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed