Though the word "disciple" is often associated with the Apostles and those who follow Jesus today, "disciple" simply means follower, or someone who aims to pattern their life after another. A disciple is more than a student, and identifies someone who devotes themselves to living the kind of life in accordance with the one they follow. The Pharisees, for example, identified themselves as disciples of Moses (John 9:28).
Is there a difference between a Christian and a disciple?
Jesus called specific men to be His apostles, who were also disciples among many other disciples of Jesus. However, not everyone who listened to and followed Jesus were able to commit themselves to discipleship. Jesus' hard teaching had a negative effect on some of His followers. John 6:66 says, "After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him."
As the early church began, those who believed in Jesus' were identified as disciples as well. "And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). This is in keeping with the Great Commission in which Jesus commanded, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19–20). Making disciples is something Jesus wants His followers to do.
As for the word "Christian," which means "belonging to Christ," it never appears in the Gospels, but first in Acts 11:25–26: "So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians."
It is one of the few instances that followers of Jesus, members of the early church, were identified as Christians. Mostly, the letters of Paul and Peter referred to members of the early church as "disciples" (Acts 13:52; 20:1; 21:4), "saints" (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 16:1, Ephesians 1:1), and "brothers" (1 Corinthians 1:10, 1 Peter 3:8).
"Christian" is not synonymous with "disciple." But Christians should be disciples of Jesus, understanding and following His commands and life, completely committed to allowing Him to transform their lives (Mark 8:34; Galatians 2:20).
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