Discipleship, What Is It?
The New Testament is a Jewish book! With one possible exception (Luke, who may have been a Gentile proselyte) every author is Jewish. But more than that, the very structure and flavor of the New Testament reflect the Jewish culture of its time. As I studied Judaism for the purpose of witnessing more effectively, I received many insights into the New Testament.
One insight I received was a better understanding of the term disciple.” Christians talk a great deal these days about “discipleship.” But often when we use words that we know only from the Bible, we don’t really understand them. For fuller understanding, we need to know what the word meant when it was written.
In the Gospels, we note that Jesus was not the only one who had disciples. John the Baptist had disciples (Matthew 9:14), as did the Pharisees (Matthew 22:16). Jesus’ command, “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations” (NIV: “make disciples of”) is paralleled by the rabbinical dictum, “Raise up many disciples” (Compare Matthew 28:19 with Mishnah Avot 1:3). The Greek mathetes means learner, just as the Hebrew talmid means learner or student.
The disciple-rabbi relationship was an established institution in the time of Jesus, and it ought still to be a part of the believer’s relationship to Jesus now (Matthew 23:8, John 13:3). Through various passages of the New Testament, we can see what this relationship involved.
Matthew 10:24-25a teaches, “The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be like his teacher, and the servant like his lord.” Here Jesus shed some light on the relationship between disciple and rabbi. The disciple was, by definition, a student, but what kind of student? The above reference indicates that the disciple was like a rabbi’s “apprentice.” Just as an apprentice carpenter would observe, learn from and imitate the master carpenter until he could make tables, plows and other items with equal precision and excellence, the rabbinic disciples were to observe, imitate and study all their rabbi’s ways, that they, too, might become masters of the Word of God, able to handle it with equal skill and compassion. Of course we can never attain the goal of equality with Jesus, but by the same process of continual imitation and study, we should strive toward that ultimate goal of being as much like him as we can be until we see him; then we shall be like him (I John 3:2).
In ancient times the actions of a rabbi’s disciples were taken as representing the rabbi’s teachings, and vice-versa. We see this principle in Matthew 9:11 and 14: “And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, ‘Why eateth your Master with tax collectors and sinners?’…Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy disciples fast not?”
A rabbi could teach his disciples much more by doing something than by merely saying it. For example, in speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made a much stronger statement to the disciples about racial and sexual discrimination than he would have done by mere verbal instruction.
A disciple’s actions were expected to be consonant with his master’s doctrine. The disciple often would represent his rabbi in legal discussions and other matters. In general, the actions of a disciple reflected on the “family name” of his teacher. The disciples and their master were considered a “household” (see Matthew 10:25).
Ordinarily, disciples were the apprentices of their rabbi in a practical trade, as well as in the study of religion. For example, one famous rabbi was a blacksmith, and all his students were blacksmiths under him. There is encouragement in the thought that we who follow Jesus today can also fulfill our roles as his disciples, even in the mundane aspects of our lives. We accomplish this by emulating him in all that we undertake.
Matthew 5:1-2 reads, “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was seated, his disciples came unto him. And he opened his mouth, and taught them…” Here we see that before Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount, he made sure his disciples had the “best seats in the house.” Their responsibility as his disciples involved catching every word he spoke. This is reflected in the amazing accuracy and detail of the Gospel writers.
Jesus would be physically present with his disciples for only three years. After that, there would be no chance to recapture what they had missed. As his disciples today, we believers ought to learn, meditate on and indeed memorize the teachings of Jesus. In taking care to emphasize the fact that Jesus is our divine Savior, we sometimes neglect the riches of his earthly teaching ministry. We who would call ourselves his disciples must know and obey his teachings so we may please him during our allotted time here on earth.
Finally, I want to mention one more Scripture passage that became much clearer to me through my study of Judaism. We read in Matthew 23:8-10: “But be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, who is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.”
At one time, I had a great deal of trouble understanding that passage. I could not see that it was any more wrong to call a Jewish clergyman “Rabbi” than it was to call a Protestant minister “Pastor.” My confusion came from the fact that Judaism’s social organization has changed in modern times, so that now a rabbi does fulfill the same basic role as a minister. It was different when Jesus spoke those words, and even for centuries afterwards. If you have ever known an old-fashioned Chasidic Jewish person and have seen his devotion to his rebbe, you would understand Jesus’ words. Such a disciple would hang on his rabbi’s every word, would see him as a spiritual father, and virtually would approach God, or at least the Scriptures, totally through that rabbi’s guidance. Such a relationship is like that of a seeker to his guru in the Eastern religions. Jesus taught that such a relationship was wrong. He told his disciples, “No! I am to be the only and constant object of your devotion and affection. I am your example, your teacher, the One you represent, and the only One you shall follow.”
In light of this, the new “discipleship” jargon is dangerous. We must be careful in our role as spiritual teachers. We must remember that when we “make disciples,” we are never to make individuals our disciples. We teach them in order to make them disciples of Jesus.
As I see more of Jesus and learn to know him better, I realize more and more how worthy he is of my allegiance to him as Rabbi and Master. Let’s pray for one another that our lives might stay close to Jesus, and that all of us, as his disciples, might truly represent him to a lost and needy world.