Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

A quick look at the Greek word for “follow”

Greek follow akoloutheo strongs Jesus Gospels

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 these activities were not what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Come follow 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 even help him with his mission. He wanted people to be vitally engaged with him in both learning and doing the work of the gospel.

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.


Footnotes

[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.

[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.


Related Articles

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Partnering Together: Agents of Jesus
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Partnering with Jesus in His Plans and Purposes
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“Come to Me”: A Short Commentary on Matthew 11:28-30
Shepherds and Harvesters, Male and Female, in the Harvest Field

7 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. Wondering if you could refer me to citations for these alternative meanings. 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), that would be helpful. (And Strong’s… don’t get me started!) I’m just struggling to see anything in the dictionaries to suggest the notion of assistance by an equal rather than following by a subordinate (ακολουθειν is used often of soldiers and slaves).

    1. Hi Timothy,

      I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything like “assistance by an equal.” And I don’t for a second regard Jesus as equal to his disciples. Jesus is Lord. So I’m quite confused by your question. Have you read something in the article that was not my intention?

      I’ve stated that most NT lexicons do not give meanings other than “follow.” But some lexicons 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 texts, 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.”)

      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 an endnote.

      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. I was not making a point about equality. Not all my articles have a focus on equality.

  4. Hi, Marg.

    As I re-read your article I honestly don’t know where I got the notion of ‘accompany’ as being the action of an equal. Please forgive me for reading something that wasn’t there.

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

    1. It’s all good. 🙂

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