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A quick look at the Greek word for “follow”

The Gospels contain many references where Jesus personally invited people to follow him. The Greek word translated as “follow” in most of these references is akoloutheō. This is a common word and is used throughout the Greek New Testament, but especially in the Gospels.[1]

While akoloutheō is almost always translated as “follow” in English translations, it has a broader range of meanings. It can also mean “accompany” and “assist.” Many New Testament translations and lexicons do not give these other meanings, this is because they tend to favour the traditional translation of “follow.” Strong’s, however, is one lexicon that gives the extra meanings of “accompany” and “attend,” as well as “follow.”[2]

The word “acolyte” is derived from akoloutheō. An acolyte is an assistant or attendant. Several Christian denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox churches, the Lutheran church and others, have assistants called acolytes. Acolytes perform rituals in religious services which may include lighting candles, carrying crosses, swinging censers and ringing bells. However meaningful people may find these rituals, we can safely assume that Jesus did not have these activities in mind when he said, “Come follow/ accompany me.”

If we understand that akoloutheō can have the meanings of “accompany” and “assist,” as well as “follow”, we can see that when Jesus was calling people to follow him he wasn’t just saying “tag along.”

Jesus didn’t want people to just listen and believe in him from a distance. He was inviting people to come close, to join him and join in, and help him with his mission. He wanted people to be vitally engaged with him in both learning and doing the work of the gospel.

He taught and trained his disciples. He sent them out on missions, and he wanted them to continue his work after his ascension and to take the gospel into new territory.

Jesus is still inviting people to be his disciples and to personally join him, learn from him, and help him in gospel ministry. There is nothing passive about being a true follower of Jesus Christ.


[1] Verses where Jesus invites people to follow him with the word akoloutheō: Matthew 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 10:38, 16:24, 19:21 (19:28); Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21; Luke 5:27, 9:23, 59, 61; 14:27, 18:22; John 1:43, 8:12, 10:27, 12:26, 21:19, 22. Every occurrence of akoloutheō in the Greek New Testament can be viewed here. Occasionally, there is a preposition meaning “behind” or “after” in these verses.

[2] Strong’s Concordance (first published in 1890) is not always completely accurate. Strong’s was written shortly before the discovery of numerous Greek papyri in Egypt (and elsewhere) in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century that helped to give us a better understand the Greek of the New Testament.

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6 thoughts on “A quick look at the Greek word for “follow”

  1. I like this insight, Marg.

  2. Thanks Deborah. I learnt about it this week in a Greek class. The word came up in a reading (of an ancient political speech) and I immediately recognised it and translated it as “follow”. But the lecturer said that it had other meanings and that in the context of the speech it probably meant “assist”. I went and checked the word in NT lexicons and found out that they don’t always give these other meanings.

    I believe that many Christians don’t have a good grasp of what it means to follow Jesus and be his disciple, so I posted this tiny article.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your research on this big word ‘follow’. It will help me as I prepare for my Sunday message from Jn. 21:20-25

  3. Hi, Marg. LSJ pretty much just gives ‘follow’. The Diccionario Griego Español gives (actually as its first gloss) acompañar (accompany) and gives seguir (follow) second; BDAG also offers ‘accompany’. So that tends to support your prof’s idea, but if he/she can offer additional evidence (the later derivation ‘acolyte’ illustrates but doesn’t really substantiate). (Strong’s… don’t get me started!) I’m struggling to see anything in the dictionaries to suggest the notion of assistance rather than following by a subordinate (ακολουθειν is used often of soldiers and slaves).

    However, your article reminds me of John 15:15, “No longer do I call you [merely] servants … but friends.”

    1. Hi Timothy,

      Most NT lexicons do not give meanings other than “follow.” But some do, as you’ve seen for yourself.

      Nevertheless, in my non-biblical reading, I have come across instances where “accompany” arguably conveys a better sense, given the context. I can’t off the top of my head remember which text we were discussing in class, except for Lysias I (On the Murder of Eratosthenes) paragraph 18. (A comment above jogged my memory.) And this paragraph is most definitely not about people with an equal relationship. (This translation has the word “follow” but my teacher prefers “accompany.”)

      It’s translated as “accompany” here (Plato, Laches 187e), but the relationship (father-son) is also unequal.

      “Accompanied” fits the context in Xenophon’s Anabasis 7.5.3.

      I didn’t use “acolyte” to substantiate the “assistant” meaning. (And “assistants” are usually not equal to the person they assist.) I simply used acolytes as an illustration. And I fully share your concern about Strong’s. I’ve expressed this concern briefly in a footnote.

      Anyway, my intention was to critique a passive kind of discipleship. We are not meant to tag along, we are meant to be involved in and continue Jesus’ ministry, which we do empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit.

  4. […] Many women were dedicated followers of Jesus during his ministry on earth. Some of these women seem to have been independent of fathers and husbands and were independently wealthy.[6] These women, like the male disciples, had left everything to follow Jesus. […]

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