When I look at what others say about the difference between a follower and a disciple of Jesus there doesn’t seem to be a real difference in their definitions. This is a topic that I have been wrestling with, and when I tried to get a handle on it by looking at what others said about them, they seemed to treat them as being the same. This only made me even more confused at why I kept feeling like I was seeing a difference between a follower and disciple in the Bible accounts I read. I especially recalled Jesus pointing to being willing to give it all up, money and family, to follow him. In Luke 14:25 Jesus said that there was a cost to being His disciple.
I looked up the definitions of disciple and follower in the dictionary and found a bit of a difference in their behaviors. The dictionary says that a disciple is “someone who accepts and helps to spread the teaching of a famous person, which implies devoted allegiance to the teachings of the one chosen as master.” A follower was defined as “one who attaches themselves to a person or beliefs of another.” These seemed to define what I was already thinking. A disciple has a higher level of commitment and investment than a follower.
I began to study discipleship in the Biblical times of Jesus. There I found that a recognized leader would attract followers and some of those followers would become very committed to learning all they could from that leader or teacher. The custom was that the leader (master) would invite out of the group of followers those he saw who were committed to learn and carry out his message to others. I see this in Jesus calling out the twelve disciples too. You could ask to be a disciple, but it was up to the teacher to pick you. In other words, it didn’t matter if you asked or not, the teacher would choose the ones he wanted. That explained to me why Jesus went around and called certain ones to His side and stopped at twelve. These twelve were to have a very close relationship with Him. They were to travel with Him, learn from Him, eat and sleep where He did, and in every way learn to follow Him in all ways. He could not do that with the thousands that followed Him. He could only have a limited number of intimate relationships as a human on this earth, like you and I. If He was to have an everyday, very close relationship with all His disciples, He had to limit the number He would interact with. He could teach thousands, but He could only mentor and live with some. Now that Jesus is in heaven and the Holy Spirit is available to us, we can all have that intimate closeness, but there is something in me that still wishes He would walk on earth here with us like those days because I have so many questions to ask Him.
The idea of master, servant, intern began to pop up into my mind. I remember wanting so much to get into the “hands on” part of my college education. I really wanted to do my “practice teaching” in my Freshman year, but I had to wait for my Junior and Senior years before I was allowed to take those parts of the program. I loved those times when I came under two different master kindergarten teachers (I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher) and for a period of time I watched them teach and then slowly, when they felt I was ready, I was given parts of the day to practice my teaching skills until in the last days I was teaching fulltime.
In the Middle Ages the guild system set in motion a plan to pass skills from one generation to another. A master at something, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, art, or many other things would take on a teenager as their student, their follower. The apprentice would watch the master do the tasks, would live with him, eat with him, ask him questions, and help him for several years. After a while the master would let the apprentice do some of the work. When the apprentice became adept at many things he would then be raised to the level of a journeyman who would get paid a daily wage and would even go out and do some of the master’s work on his own. After a number of successful years he could ask to be become a master. He had to do or make something that showed his mastery in that work and, if he was approved of by the guild, he would be deemed a master in his own right and he would then go out on his own and teach others through the apprenticeship process.
I see this program reflecting Biblical life even before Jesus. Moses mentored Joshua, who in the early days is called his servant. We see Elijah mentoring Elisha, Ruth being mentored by Namoi, Jesus mentoring the twelve, the disciples continuing Jesus’ work and mentoring others, Paul later mentoring Timothy, Barnabas mentoring Mark and on down through the ages certain teachers were raised up to mentor others in the faith, then those, who were once followers became full fledged disciples and began to teach and preach and love and serve and evangelize others. In addition, mothers and fathers have always been called to be the mentors of their families. It has always been their Biblical responsibility to pass the teachings down to their children, so when their children have families of their own they would continue the call to follow Jesus, all in an effort to transfer Christian practices and leadership responsibilities to the next generation.
We are called to discipleship, not just following Jesus. Crowds followed Jesus, but it was the disciples who mentored and multiplied the believers after He left. In Matt. 28:19 Jesus did not say make followers, but it says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (ESV)* So what does a disciple look like that is different than a follower? A follower I think, tends to observe. I guess you would call that the apprentice level. The follower is watching the master and imitating some of what he does, but mostly he is learning by seeing. Eventually he has seen enough, learned enough by watching the master that the master suggests he try some things for himself. Jesus did that with His disciples and some followers. He taught them, He showed them, and then He asked them to go out and do what they had seen Him do. Remember the “72” Jesus sent out? (Luke 10:1-12, 17-20) He told them to pray for the harvest, carry nothing with them, find a house that welcomed them, speak peace, eat and drink there, then travel from town to town the same way, healing the sick and telling that God had come near. When they returned they were joyful as they had done what they had seen Jesus the Master do, and they as his “journeymen” disciples said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (v. 17) These 72 had gone from follower to disciple because they had gone from sitting under and watching and listening to the master to doing the same things the master did!
There were always the special twelve, but on three separate occasions they were just the three: Peter, James and John. We find these three pulled out of the group to be the only ones to see the transfiguration of Jesus (Matt. 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36), the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37-43, Luke 8:51-56), and be in closer proximity to him at Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Why? Could it mean that He just didn’t want so many around Him or could this mean that Jesus saw a deeper relationship with them than with the others? I think that since it was the same three in each story that had a special glimpse of Jesus that they may have had a more intimate level of relationship. Or was it because Jesus knew the lasting effect these three would have on everyone else? James was the first of the twelve to be martyred. Herod had him killed in 44 AD. Talk about “count the cost.” Peter and John continued on and many of their stories are found in Acts and the epistles (letters) written by them. Peter was imprisoned and then later martyred. John was the last of the twelve to die. He died of old age. Their deaths were not what we remember them for; we remember the way they lived and how their lives changed as a result of being with Jesus.
This whole pursuit as to the differences between a follower or a disciple I think can be summed up in several scriptures I’ve come across. Mark 2:14-15 talks about Jesus calling Levi the tax collector to follow Him and then being invited to Levi’s home. “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.” There were many who followed, but few who were called disciples at this time. I know that that designation changes in Acts but I still think there is something to be said about our need to step up another step in our following Jesus to become disciples that reflect His life and teaching. I know that I am not at the master level yet. I hope that I am at the journeymen level, but some days I’m afraid I might just be an apprentice, a follower. So what does it take to become a disciple in the image of the master? I think that 2 Cor. 3:18 speaks to that: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (NKJV) To become like the master you must look and act like the master. Then you are to teach others how to follow, learn, then do like the master. If you become like the master, you look just like him. That is the true end goal of the disciple. If you have accomplished your goal it would be like looking in a mirror and seeing Jesus. I have a very long way to go for that to happen but the Lord promises through His word that I as long as I behold Him and His ways, and begin to walk in them the Spirit of the Lord will change me little by little into His glorious image so that when I come to the end I will reflect Jesus just as a mirror would reflect Him. But there is a cost. We have to let go of it all and pick up our cross of daily self-denial to follow him. He’s a tough act to follow, but I’m determined to allow Him to transform me in His time and His way, because my efforts have failed. My prayer is, “Holy Spirit have Your way in me. I give you permission today to take me from glory to glory so I can reflect Jesus to our world.”
*All scripture except those noted otherwise are from the English Standard Version