Are You a Christian or a Disciple? Is There a Difference? Why It Matters! - page 2

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From the Summer 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

Are You a Christian or a Disciple?
Is There a Difference? Why It Matters!

by Thomas A. Tarrants, III, D.Min.
Vice President of Ministry, C.S. Lewis Institute


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Three New Testament Occurrences

  Additional insight comes from observing how the word Christian is used and viewed by Peter and Paul as reflected in its three New Testament occurrences. Taking them in reverse order, we find in 1 Peter, written in the early sixties, on the eve of Nero’s persecution, the name Christian is used as a badge of honor: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you . . . Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:14, 16).10 Here Peter not only presupposes the common use of the name Christian throughout the Roman Empire; he also sees it as intimately bound up with the name of Christ and urges fellow believers not to be embarrassed by it but rather to glorify God through it. With such a strong endorsement, it is clear that he embraces the name Christian as an appropriate term to describe believers in Jesus at that time. Indeed, shortly after penning these words, both Peter and Paul (and many others) would suffer martyrdom in Rome at the hands of Nero for being “Christians.”
  This same acceptance of the name Christian is true of Paul. In Luke’s second use of the term, King Agrippa, while listening to Paul defend himself in court (AD 57–59), said, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). The fact that Agrippa used this word to describe those who believed what Paul believed, and that Paul did not contest the word, suggests both its widespread use and its acceptability to Paul as a description of disciples of Jesus.
  The fact that Peter commended the word and that neither Paul the theologian nor any of the other inspired writers of the New Testament raised any questions about it is strong evidence of apostolic approval.
  Luke’s first use of the name Christian gives us an even clearer understanding of what Luke means by the word and its relationship to the word disciple—and why Peter and Paul embraced it. In Acts 11:26, he notes that “in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” In other words, the name Christian is essentially a synonym for the word disciple and does not represent a separate category of believer. Or at least it did not do so in those days. Perhaps the best way to sum up is to say that a true Christian was understood to be a disciple of Jesus; there was no difference between the two. Although this equivalence later became distorted, it remains true that in the New Testament, the words Christian and disciple refer to the same thing.

The Word Disciple

  Let’s now look at the word disciple, which occurs more than 230 times in the Gospels and Acts. Understanding this word is not a matter of simply looking up the basic definition of disciple (mathetes) in a standard Greek lexicon. That is certainly a first step. But some have done this and come away with definitions like learner and apprentice,11 which are correct but far from complete. For an accurate understanding, one must also learn how the word was understood in the context of Jewish and Greco-Roman culture in general and how it was used by Jesus and the gospel writers in particular.12 Noted New Testament scholar Michael Wilkins, who has researched this subject in great detail, helpfully says a disciple is “one who has come to Jesus for eternal life, has claimed Jesus as Savior and God, and has embarked on the life of following Jesus.”13 William Kynes offers an expanded definition: “A disciple is one who responds to the call of Jesus in faith, resulting in a relationship of absolute allegiance and supreme loyalty through which Jesus shares his own life and the disciple embarks on a lifetime of learning to become like his Master.”14

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