The terms disciple and Christian are related but not synonymous.
The Greek term for “disciple” in the New Testament is mathetes, which means more than just “student” or “learner.” A disciple is a “follower,” someone who adheres completely to the teachings of another, making them his rule of life and conduct. The Pharisees prided themselves in being disciples of Moses (John 9:28). Jesus’ followers were called “disciples.” Their discipleship began with Jesus’ call and required them to exercise their will in response (Matthew 9:9).
Jesus was quite explicit about the cost of following Him. Discipleship requires a totally committed life: “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Sacrifice is expected: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).
Not all of Jesus’ followers were able to make such a commitment. There were many who left Him after a while. “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
The term Christian was never used by Jesus. The first instance of the word Christian is found in the book of Acts: “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). Most Bible scholars agree that it was highly unlikely that the believers themselves thought up the name “Christians.” The early church had other terms for themselves, such as “disciples” (Acts 13:52; Acts 20:1; Acts 21:4) and “saints” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1; Ephesians 1:1) and “brothers” (1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Peter 3:8).
The name “Christian,” meaning “belonging to Christ,” appears to have been invented by those outside of the church. It was most likely meant as a derogatory term. Only two other times does the word appear in the New Testament (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The idea that the term Christian was originally a pejorative finds some support in the first epistle of Peter: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).
Biblically speaking, a Christian is someone who has placed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:12). A Christian has been born again by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3). A Christian “belongs to Christ” and is daily being transformed into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
A true Christian (and not one in name only) will also be a disciple of Christ. That is, he will have counted the cost of following the Lord and has totally committed his life to Jesus. He accepts the call to sacrifice and follows wherever the Lord leads. The disciple completely adheres to the teaching of Jesus, makes Christ his number-one priority and lives accordingly. He is actively involved in making other disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).
A true Christian is a believer in Christ and possesses new life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Because he believes in Christ, a Christian will also be an obedient disciple. Paul describes the reality of taking up one’s cross and following the Lord: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).