An Ancient Picture of Discipleship

Charles Kiser —  September 25, 2012 — 4 Comments

Shawn Anderson is a fellow Mission Alive church planter in Newberg, Oregon. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of hearing him talk about a book he wrote recently about discipleship called Living Dangerously.

He referenced an ancient story recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus that brought discipleship to life for me in a new way. The following is an excerpt from Living Dangerously that shares the story of Anacharsis (see also Herodotus, The Histories 4.77):

A disciple is someone who emulates the behavior and actions of someone else until she actually becomes a different person. In the sixth century BC, there lived a Scythian philosopher named Anacharsis. Although the Scythians hated the Greeks, Anacharsis fell in love with Greek life. He traveled to Greece and immersed himself in Greek culture—he learned the language, he wore Greek clothing, he ate Greek food, he worshipped Greek gods, and he decorated his palace with Greek art. He became so consumed with the culture that Anacharsis was sometimes mistaken for a Greek. When Anacharsis returned home, his countrymen told him that he was not only like a Greek, but had actually become a Greek—and they killed him.

Shawn goes on to make a fascinating observation about this story:

It is significant to note the word choice that Herodotus used in his account. The Greek text literally says that Anacharsis had become “a disciple of Greek.” The word for disciple [mathetes] used by the historian is the same word, in noun form, that Jesus used centuries later when he said, “make disciples.”

This provides a wonderful picture of discipleship!

  • To be a disciple is to look like the one we’re following after – to be so similar that we are mistaken as the other. Disciples of Jesus think, speak and act like Jesus.
  • Like Anacharsis, all of us need someone to imitate to know how to follow Jesus. It simply will not do to say we are imitating Jesus because Jesus isn’t around in the flesh any longer. We need to be mentored by and imitate a living, breathing person who thinks, speaks and acts like Jesus (because they did the same with someone else, who did the same with someone else, and so on).
  • Jesus’ call those of us who are disciples to make more disciples. This story shows us that we can’t disciple people with a class or information alone. In order to make disciples we need to live lives that are worthy of being imitated by others. Paul said: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Are our lives worthy of imitation because we think, speak and act like Jesus?
  • I like what Jeff Saferite says to those he invites to walk with him in discipleship: “I want you to have access to my life. Imitate what you see in me that looks like Jesus. Bring to my attention the stuff that doesn’t.”

What insights do you gain regarding discipleship from this ancient story about Anacharsis?

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

4 responses to An Ancient Picture of Discipleship


    Two responses. First, Jeff Saferite’s invitation seems critical. Since we are inviting others to follow Jesus, not us, we hope they will see what is Christlike in us, what isn’t, and give us feedback on both.

    Second, if the Great Commission was given to individuals who passed that responsibility on to the churches, how do we talk about and do discipleship in a community context?


      Good question in your second point.

      Couple thoughts: 1) I think we need to recover a sense of communal covenant for the sake of discipleship – i.e., inviting people to make a commitment to living out the way of Jesus with our churches. This is why Storyline has a “way of life” and “Partners in Mission” who commit to living out our way of life. 2) making disciples and inviting others to have access to our lives is in some sense being a “tour guide” of sorts, to extend the story of Anacharsis. Disciple-makers translate the language of a community for newcomers and help them learn the customs of discipleship in that particular community. In other words, missional community’s life is the embodiment of discipleship in action, and disciplemaking is helping one learn to live in sync with the way of life of that community. Discipleship, therefore, can’t happen simply in a one-on-one relationship. It requires a broader context of shared life in missional community (church).

      What would you add, Gary?


        I’ve just noticed over the years that discipleship models are based in a one-on-one relationship, as if the way Jesus did it is to be repeated by each of us, now. But, since none of us is Jesus – it takes a whole body – the invitation to follow and learn from Jesus must be shared in community. I think you’ve said that and I hope we can practice it.


        Right on. Part of what I like about the Huddle vehicle for discipleship is the group dynamic. Instead of traditional one-on-one, disciples participate as part of a larger group and get to observe and even have influence in the spiritual formation of the others. Which is more like what Jesus did, too.

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