As I said in the previous post in this series (“A Disciple of Jesus Christ: Introduction”) simply defining the terms related to disciples and discipleship does not define what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
The term “disciple” can refer to someone who is a pupil or student, or it can refer to someone who continuously and consistently follows a teachers and the manner of life of a teacher.
We find the term “disciple” used from one extreme of these definitions to the other extreme. While the term is primarily used positively in the Gospels, there are a few exceptions.
John gives us a glimpse of the range of meanings of “disciple” in the sixth chapter of his Gospel. For example, Jesus teaches about the necessity of “eating the bread that was sent from heaven, that is, his flesh.” While some equate this with the Lord’s Supper / Communion / Eucharist, it seems in context to refer to both trusting completely in Jesus Christ for life and to living life according to Jesus Christ.
After this “hard teaching,” John says:
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (John 6:66 ESV)
Notice that these people are identified as “disciples,” and yet they choose to follow Jesus no longer.
In contrast, when Jesus asks “the Twelve” (who have previously also been identified as “disciples” – see earlier in this same passage John 6:3, John 6:8, John 6:12, John 6:16, John 6:22, and John 6:24) if they intend to stop following him also, Simon Peter, answering for the group, says:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69 ESV)
Furthermore, in case we think there is something special about being a disciple who is also one of the the Twelve, John writes:
Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him. (John 6:70-71 ESV)
In this short passage, we see “disciple” referring to those who were interested in Jesus but only up to a point. We see “disciple” referring to those who are physically close to Jesus and remain with him after others leave, but even those are not guaranteed to be “true disciples.”
So, at the beginning of John 6, there are many disciples. They follow Jesus around the lake. After Jesus points out what it takes to truly follow him, some turn back, but others continue to follow him. At this point, there are fewer disciples. However, even those are not all “true disciples.”
In this passage, and in other passages in his Gospel, John helps us understand (beyond the definitions of certain terms) what it means to truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I’ll continue examining what it means to be a “true disciple” in my next post in this series.