Note: This article is excerpted from Deeper into the Word: New Testament.
In order to understand the word disciple in the New Testament, we must first understand that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, or teacher. And like other rabbis of his time, he had disciples. The word disciple is mathetes in the Greek, and it appears 269 times. While the New Testament was of course written in Greek, Jesus and his contemporaries spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and would have called them talmidim, a Hebrew word that was defined in part by the culture that revolved around the learning of, discussion of, and reverence for the Torah.
The Greek word mathetes comes from the word manthano, to learn, "from a root math—indicating thought accompanied by endeavor" (Vine's Concise Dictionary of the Bible).
"Thought accompanied by endeavor." This was the type of learning that talmidim did. The rabbi would live out application of the Scripture in front of them, and their knowledge was immediately put into action. So often, our own discipleship seems to lean heavily on thought and less on endeavor. But the two were inextricably linked in Jesus' culture.
Jewish children were taught the Torah from age 5 or 6. The most talented students would continue to study the Torah, often memorizing the entire Scriptures, in what was known as beth midrash. From there, pastor Ray VanderLaan explains,
A few (very few) of the most outstanding beth midrash students sought permission to study with a famous rabbi, often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time. These students were called talmidim in Hebrew, which is translated disciple. There is much more to a talmid than what we call student. A student wants to know what the teacher knows for the grade, to complete the class or the degree or even out of respect for the teacher. A talmid wants to [be] like the teacher, that is to become what the teacher is. That meant that students were passionately devoted to their rabbi and noted everything he did or said. This meant the rabbi/talmid relationship was a very intense and personal system of education. As the rabbi lived and taught his understanding of the Scripture his students (talmidim) listened and watched and imitated so as to become like him. Eventually they would become teachers passing on a lifestyle to their talmidim.
Authors Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg provide great insight into the "Jewishness of Jesus" in their book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. They write:
Along with instructing the crowds, a rabbi's greatest goal was to raise up disciples who would carry on his teaching …. As important as knowledge of Scripture was, there was one thing more important—a rabbi's moral character …. The mission of a rabbi was to become a living example of what it means to apply God's Word to one's life.
The New Testament mentions not just Jesus' disciples but the disciples of John, Moses, and the Pharisees. The term is used not just to refer to the twelve apostles but to the large group of men and women who followed Jesus. Jesus himself uses the word only a handful of times.
In John 8:31, we read, "To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.'" In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
Likewise, in his famous teaching in John 15 about the vine and the branches, the central point is that the mark of a disciple is a life that bears the fruit of love. Just as our rabbi went to great extremes to show us the extent of his love, so should we love others. As his disciples, we want not just to know what he knows, but to live as he lived. In other words, thought accompanied by endeavor. It is what we are called to as disciples of Rabbi Jesus.
—Excerpted from Deeper Into the Word: New Testament by Keri Wyatt Kent. Copyright 2011 by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.