Whose Disciple?

In the past couple weeks, I have learned a lot about how Jewish boys would learn. I encourage you to start searching the internet (Google things like “Jewish disciple”). Go to “followtherabbi.com” and browse around there. Don’t just take my word for this. I’m not an expert at all. I’m just sharing snippets about what I’ve learned and thoughts I’ve had as this new information settles into my brain.

From what I understand about first century Judaism, all Jewish boys would attend school from ages five to ten to learn the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament. Some really smart boys would memorize huge sections of the Torah. At the end of this schooling, those boys who didn’t seem academically gifted would stop school and learn their family’s trade. The other boys would continue on in a different school where they would learn the rest of the Old Testament. Again, the really bright boys would memorize large sections of the Old Testament. At the end of this schooling, the boys, now twelve to fifteen, who have proven themselves to be scholars, to know the Old Testament thoroughly (and again, much of it by memory), would have the opportunity to continue their education. The others would go home now to learn their family trade.

Those boys who had the privilege of continuing their education would begin to look for a rabbi under whom to study. From what I understand, these boys would search for a rabbi they wanted to become like. Once they found a rabbi and the rabbi agreed, the Jewish young man would begin to follow the rabbi. As I said in an earlier post, the disciple would follow the rabbi everywhere and learn everything — how to feel like the rabbi, how to think like the rabbi, how to eat like the rabbi, how to teach like the rabbi. The disciple learned to wash his hands the way his rabbi washed his hands. He learned to fast the same exact way his rabbi fasted. He learned to say the blessing over food the same way his rabbi said the blessing. The disciple literally became a copy of the rabbi.

And so if there was a rabbi named Jacob, then all of Jacob’s disciples would be little Jacobs. It would be obvious to anyone who knew Jacob which disciples were Jacob’s because they would all behave exactly like Jacob. And the disciples would be known as Jacob’s disciples. Perhaps there would be a School of Jacob or a House of Jacob. And if Jacob’s cousin Isaac were also a rabbi, then Isaac’s disciples would all behave exactly like Isaac. They would eat like Isaac and pray like Isaac. And everyone would be able to tell that those young men were Isaac’s disciples. Perhaps he would even call his place of teaching the Academy of Isaac.

Those were Jewish disciples.

Christian disciples were to be different in one important way.

Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 23,

But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.

Jesus would later command them to go and make disciples, but He did not want them to become rabbis in the same way the Jewish men became rabbis. Jesus did not want a School of Peter and an Academy of Paul and a House of James. Jesus is the Rabbi. And any disciples I make are not my disciples, they are His disciples.

Jesus’ disciples also have something very amazing and wonderful that the Jewish disciples never had. The Jewish disciples worked from the outside in to become like their rabbi. They conditioned themselves and trained themselves and practiced and followed and worked to look like their rabbi. As disciples of Christ, we have our Rabbi’s Spirit living in us gradually transforming us from the inside out. The work of looking like our Rabbi is not our own work. It is His work. *The Christian disciple’s role is to read the Bible (his Rabbi’s teachings) and to pray (communicate with his Rabbi) and stick as close to his Rabbi as possible and -most importantly- yield his own spirit to the Rabbi’s Spirit inside him. And our Rabbi, our Jesus’ Spirit, will transform us and give us His mind and the fruit of His Spirit.

*(This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what we are to do. But my point is that the work is not OUR work. The work is Jesus’ since we are His workmanship. If we just cling to Him and stay as close to Him as we can, then we will begin to look like Him and sound like Him and act like Him and think like Him.)

In my last post on discipleship, I asked how Peter and the other eleven could possibly disciple those 3000 who received Christ in one day (Acts 2). These were people who spoke at least fifteen different languages, some of whom were visiting from far away. There is no way those twelve men could live day in and day out, every day for fifteen years with these new disciples. (Fifteen years was about how long Jewish young men studied with their rabbi.) There is no way all 3000 of these disciples could follow Peter everywhere he went, even to the bathroom. But they didn’t need to have Peter with them every minute of every day. They had the Spirit of their Rabbi with them.

I believe Peter and John and Philip and the others did their best to teach these new followers the Way. I believe Paul did his best to teach those he brought into the Way. We know they wrote letters and visited, sometimes for long periods of time. We know Paul sent representatives to stay and teach when he could not. We know Paul sometimes matched up new believers with more mature believers in their hometown.

We also know Paul rebuked early Christians for trying to do discipleship exactly as the Jews had done.

For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?
–1 Cor. 3:4

This idea of “I’m Paul’s disciple” or “I’m of the School of Apollos” was a very Jewish way of thinking about discipleship. Remember my examples of Rabbi Jacob and Rabbi Isaac earlier? But Christians were not to think that way. There were no disciples of Paul or disciples of Apollos or disciples of Peter. There were only disciples of Christ. There are no disciples of Jennifer. There are only disciples of Christ. And so I have a responsibility to teach and train and exhort and spur on those who are my brothers and sisters (as Jesus called them back in Matthew 23), but I do not need to try to become a Jewish rabbi to those I introduce to Jesus. He is their only Rabbi. I am their sister. If I love them, I will not leave them as helpless infants in their faith. I will come alongside them and teach them what I know and learn more with them. I will be family to them. And I will encourage them to know and follow and yield to their One and Only Rabbi.

I think we Christians do not understand what it means to be a disciple, to follow our Rabbi and yield to Him, to desire to be exactly like Him. And so I think we also do not understand what it means to be brothers and sisters with other believers, to love each other and walk alongside each other as we follow the same Rabbi.



Filed under Bible, Christianity, church, faith, missions

6 responses to “Whose Disciple?

  1. Excellent post. I am glad to see a Christian at the western world actually taking time to understand Jewish culture and customs.

  2. Thanks again ~ your posts always make me think!

    [who have proven themselves to be scholars, to know the Old Testament thoroughly (and again, much of it by memory), would have the opportunity to continue their education] I am so glad that Jesus let me come as I was… I had proven myself to be one of His dumbest sheep.

    I had studied the concept of discipleship when I first started home educating. Your entry reminds me of the relationship that Paul had with Timothy. While his goal was that Timothy become a disciple of Christ, he accomplished this goal by allowing Timothy to get real familar with him. I get the feeling that these two men stayed up late into the night discussing their walk, their struggles and how God was working in their life.

    “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings-what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

  3. Julie, thanks for your comment about the notion of proving oneself in order to be a disciple. I know some scholars think that because Jesus chose disciples, those disciples must have been teenage boys or young men (maybe 15 years old) like the disciples of other rabbis. I’m not convinced about that. Jesus didn’t really do everything else the way everyone else was doing things. We also know that Jesus chose fishermen, not smart boys who were just completing their second level of school. Jesus chose men who obviously had already returned to their family trade, men who weren’t considered the smartest and most deserving of furthering their education. I just don’t think it makes sense to assume that Jesus’ disciples were the same age as the beginning disciples of other rabbis.

    Anyway, Julie, I really like your point that we don’t have to prove ourselves worthy. It’s because we realize how unworthy we are and come in humility that we can be His disciple.

    And, yes, good point about Paul and Timothy. Reminds me of the college student and high school student who met with my husband regularly in the early years of our marriage. These two guys came once a week to eat dinner with us and then the three men would study the Bible and pray together and just talk about life and hold each other accountable.

  4. Jeff

    A couple of thoughts – I think you have some great ideas in this post, but (big surprise) I am going to disagree with a few things.

    Jesus was born, grew up and lived his entire life in a certain cultural setting and from almost everything I have studied, there is nothing to indicate he did not act according to the customs, traditions, and lifestyle of that setting. He becomes a rabbi at the age of 30, like every other rabbi. He teaches in the same manner of every other rabbi, using parables, many of which had been used for many years before he used them. Everything Jesus does he does in the context of the cultural setting, one by the way established by God through Moses. To think he is changing this is a bit of a stretch I think.

    The discipleship model that Jesus grew up in is the same one he uses, we don’t know who his rabbi was, but he had to have one for the community to recognize his as a rabbi. I can’t imagine a bunch of older men leaving everything to follow a rabbi around – that just isn’t how it worked. I do believe that the disciples were the traditional age of other disciples for various reasons. First, that is how it was done in the culture. Second, Jesus often refers to his disciples as little ones or children. If they were 30 year olds, let alone grey headed old men, why would he do this? Third, and again based in the culture, is the incident of the collection of the temple tax and the coin in the fishes mouth. All of the disciples are present, they come to Peter and ask if Jesus pays the temple tax, Peter says yes, and then goes to Jesus. Jesus gives a short but powerful lesson about whether the sons pay taxes or not and instructs Peter to go catch a fish, which has enough to cover the temple tax for two men. Now the temple tax was required of all men over the age of 20. If all of the disciples were present, which the text indicates, and they are all over 20, where is there tax? I think that coupled with the other evidence, one can make a pretty convincing argument that only Peter was over 20 and the rest were teenagers. This would fit into the model, as there was always an older disciple who was the “leader” for lack of a better word. He would always speak first, or act first. Sound familiar? I think Peter might not be as impetuous as we think, but may have simply been the first to speak because this was his role.

    Also, as far as discipleship in the early Christian church. I understand your point about not following Paul or Apollos, but I think what Paul was saying wasn’t don’t have a rabbi, but that being like your earthly rabbi is not your ultimate goal. After all, Paul was a “rabbi” to many and his words indicate that we are to follow him as he follows Christ. The Jewish rabbis did not want their disciples to be exactly like them in every way (personality, temperment, etc.), but only in their walk with God. This is exactly what Paul is saying.

    Yes, there are some differences between our discipleship and that of 1st century Judaism. Yes, we have the Spirit living in us to guide us, as did the 3000 at Pentecost. But God did not and does not intend for us to say, “well I have the Spirit, so I don’t need other people to disciple me”. (Not that I think that is what you are saying). I think that our goal is to become more and more like the Rabbi Jesus, one that will one day be completed when we are glorified. As we pursue that goal here on earth, we are not called to do so alone. We are called to walk with people on the journey together, as well as seek the help of those who are further along the path, and to in turn help those who are not quite as far as we are. Yes, the work is His work, but it is also our work. Not for salvation, but we do co-labor with him in our walk of sanctification, not in our own strength, but in the strength He has given.

  5. Jeff, I agree with your last paragraph. 🙂

    Because I wrote so much in response to your comment, I’m starting a whole new post.

  6. Pingback: Jesus and Social Customs and Traditions « My Derbe

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