Word Study: Disciple


Albert Gomez

The word disciple/s is found in approximately 250 occurrences, 29 times in singular (Matt. occurs 4 times, Lk. 4 times, John 16 times, and Acts 5 times), and 244 times in plural (Isa. occurs 1 time, Matt.71 times, Lk. 34 times, John 65 times, and Acts 26 times in the KJV.

Interestingly, the word disciple is not found in the Epistles. Does it mean that they do not believe in discipleship? Why does there seem not to be an emphasis on discipleship?

Considering these questions let us first study the word disciple before coming to any conclusion.

• Dictionary Definitions

• Webster's 1828 Dictionary[1]

DISCIPLE, n. [L., to learn.]

• A learner; a scholar; one who receives or professes to receive instruction from another; as the disciples of Plato.
• A follower; an adherent to the doctrines of another. Hence the constant attendants of Christ were called his disciples; and hence all Christians are called his disciples, as they profess to learn and receive his doctrines and precepts.


• To teach; to train, or bring up.
• To make disciples of; to convert to doctrines or principles.
This authority he employed in sending missionaries to disciple all nations.
• To punish; to discipline. [Not in use.]

• Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary[2]

Noun (before the 12 century)
1: one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another; as a; one of the twelve in the inner circle of Christ's followers according to the Gospel accounts, b; a convinced adherent of a school or an individual
2 cap: a member of the disciples of Christ founded in the U.S. in 1809 that holds the Bible alone to be the rule of faith and practice, usu. Baptizes by immersion, and has a congregational polity.

• Strong's NT Concordances Definitions (Nouns)[3]

• NT: 3101 – Learner/Pupil

Mathetes (math-ay-tes'); from NT:3129; a learner, i.e. pupil:
This word for disciples appears for example in John 8:31, and reads as follows: Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; KJV

• NT: 3129 – Learn/Understand

Manthano (man-than'-o); prolongation from a primary verb, another form of which, matheo, is used as an alternate in certain tenses; to learn (in any way): KJV-learn, understand.

The words understand (occurs only once in Acts 23:27), and learn/learned/learning (occurs 6 times in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John; and 20 times in the Epistles). Therefore, the Greek root word mathano (Strong's NT: 3129) from where the Greek word mathetes (Strong's NT: 3101) for disciple comes is used frequently in the Epistles. The word "learned", for instance in 2 Timothy 3:14, implies to abide in the teachings that the Lord commanded us (Matt. 28:19), which involves discipleship:

But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; KJV

• NT: 1320 - Teacher

Didaskalos (did-as'-kal-os); from NT:1321; an instructor (genitive case or specially): KJV-doctor, master, teacher.

One illustration of this word for teacher contrasting the word for disciple is found in John 3:2:

The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. KJV

• NT: 3102 – Pupil (female)

Mathetria (math-ay'-tree-ah); feminine from NT:3101; a female pupil:

This word for a female disciple is found in Acts 9:36:

Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. KJV

• NT: 4862 - Derives from NT: 4827 – Fellow Disciple

NT:4827 - Summathetes (soom-math-ay-tace'); from a compound of NT:4862 and NT:3129; a co-learner (of Christianity): KJV-fellow disciple.

NT: 4862 - Sun (soon); a primary preposition denoting union; with or together (but much closer than NT:3326 or NT:3844), i.e. by association, companionship, process, resemblance, possession, instrumentality, addition, etc.:

KJV-beside, with. In composition it has similar applications, including completeness.

This word for fellow disciple in some instances is translated as “brethren” (Acts 1:15, RV), “we” ( Acts 20:7, RV), and “disciples” (John 11:16, KJV). [4]

The application of this word in John 11:16 reads,

Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellowdisciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him. KJV

• NT: 3100 – To Disciple (Verb)

Matheteuo (math-ayt-yoo'-o); from NT:3101; intransitively, to become a pupil; transitively, to disciple, i.e. enrol as scholar: KJV-be disciple, instruct, teach.

This word for disciple is found in Matt 27:57:

When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus' disciple: KJV

• OT:3928 – Learned/Taught

Limmuwd (lim-mood'); or limmud (lim-mood'); instructed: -accustomed, disciple, learned, taught, used;.from OT:3925 parembole (par-em-bol-ay'); from a compound of NT:3844 and NT:1685; a throwing in beside (juxtaposition), i.e. (specifically) battle-array, encampment or barracks (tower Antonia): KJV-army, camp, castle.

This word for disciple is twice found in Isaiah (8:16; 50:4) and once rendered "taught" (54:13)[5]

The word disciple in Isaiah 8:16 reads:

Bind thou up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. ASV

In contrast, the same word limmuwd used for learner/disciple, it is used for teacher in Isaiah 54:13:

And all thy children shall be taught of Jehovah; and great shall be the peace of thy children. ASV

• Disciples in the Epistles

The word disciple is found only in the Gospels and in the book of Acts of the NT as we have seen in the first paragraph in reference to Jesus' disciples, although not exclusively for them. The word disciple is used for the followers of the Pharisees (Mk. 2:18), the Jews considered themselves being disciples of Moses (John 9:28), and the followers of John the Baptizer were known as his disciples also (Mk. 2:18; John 3:15). It seems that disciples were called specially those taught by Jesus recorded in the Gospels and Acts, especially the twelve disciples (Matt. 10:11; 11:1; 12:1 et al.), although the members of the early church were also known as disciples. However, even if the word disciple is not found beyond the book of Acts all those who confess Him as Messiah, are Christ's, His disciples. Even if they are not called specifically disciples, it is implicit that Christian believers are Chris'’s disciples. The New Illustrated Bible Commentary says that the word, " Abide means to remain, to continue. A believer who continues to obey the Word is a disciple, a learner."[6] In addition, looking at John 15:8 expression that says, "They shall know" becomes "so you will be Christ's disciples. Where there is a good fruit, there are also seeds for propagation."[7]

• Scriptures Interpreted with Scriptures

Using two epistles' verses that imply discipleship in Christ ( 2 Cor. 3:18b and Rom 12:3c), it will be expounded with other Scriptures related with the selected portion on discipleship in the manner that follows:

• "Are changed in the same image"

• Romans 8:29

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. KJV

• 1 Corinthians 15:49

And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. KJV

• 2 Corinthians 5:17

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. KJV

• Galatians 6:15

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. KJV

• Ephesians 4:22-24

That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. KJV

• Colossians 3:10

And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: KJV

• Titus 3:5

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; KJV

• 2 Peter 1:5-9

(5) And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; (6) And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; (7) And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. (8) For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (9) But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. KJV

• "According as God has dealt to every man the measure of faith."

This portion of Scripture from Romans 12:3c in "The Treasury of the Scripture Knowledge"[9] has four cross-references (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor; 4:7; 12:7-11; Eph. 4:7, 13, 16.) that show the characteristics of a believer (disciple) in Christ.

• Romans 12:6

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; KJV

• 1 Corinthians 4:7

For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? KJV

• 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

(7) But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. (8) For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; (9) To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; (10) To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: (11) But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. KJV

• Ephesians 4:7, 13, 16

(7) But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ… (13) Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ… (16) From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. KJV

Final Analysis

The word applied to anyone who is learning from a teacher is a disciple. Who according to the word study is identified a pupil, a learner, and a fellow disciple (by association companionship, resemblance, etc). As we have seen, not just those instructed by Jesus were called disciples, but at that time the followers of the Pharisees, Jews, and John the Baptizer were called so. This word disciple is even found in the secular world referring to Plato's followers (Webster's 1928 Dictionary). Therefore, can be inferred by this word study that a learner of someone's teachings is a disciple. 2 Timothy 3:14 is a good illustration for a disciple in the Epistles.

Jesus himself, in the so-called "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:18-20), the last instruction He gave to His disciples was to teach (the Greek word for teach in verse 19 is matheeteúsate, Strong's NT: 3100, which is translated disciple in NKJV, ASV, NAS, RSV, NIV, etc.), and baptize them. Consequently, doing what He commanded them to do produced disciples, even if the word disciple is not specifically included. Farrar describes that the Disciples of Christ today are as "one who believes His doctrines, rest upon His sacrifice, imbibes His spirit, and imitates His example."[10]

[1] Webster, N. (1991). Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. Disciple [CD-ROM]. Independence , MO : Christian Technologies.

[2] Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10 th ed. ). (1993).Word: disciple. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

[3] New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordances with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. (1994). PC Study Bible (Version 3.0) [Computer Sofware]. USA: Biblesoft.

[4] Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (1985). PC Study Bible (Version 3.0 ). [Computer Software]. USA: Biblesoft

[5] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago Illinois (1988). PC Bible Study (Version 3.0). [Computer Sofware].USA: Biblesoft

[6] Radmacher,E., Allen, R. B., & Wayne House, H. (1999). Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. John 8:31 (p. 1334). Nashville, TE: Thomas Nelson.

[7] Ibid., p. 1348.

[8] The Treasure Bible Knowledge (1994). PC Study Bible (Version 3.0). [Computer Sofware]. USA: Biblesoft

[9] Ibid

[10] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1998). PC Study Bible (Version 3.0). [Computer Sofware]. USA: Biblesoft