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Being a First-Century Disciple

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What is a Disciple?1 When Jesus said go and make disciples, it was a Jew speaking to other Jews in a Semitic dialect. As such, those words had a very specific meaning and embodied a well-known paradigm that first-century Jewish listeners well understood. Since then, those words have been translated into Greek, and then into Latin, before being translated into the constraints of the English language more than a thousand years later. To more fully understand what Jesus said, we first need to disconnect from our traditional Hellenistic understanding of those words - easier said than done - and then ask how the Jews who first heard those words would have understood them. Only then are we in a position to ask what might those words mean for our discipling efforts today.

The Role of the Rabbi Every first-century Jew knew that the Scriptures had authority over all aspects of life. God may have been a mystery to them, but behavior was not. Furthermore, it was scrupulous behavior, not the condition of your heart that defined a “righteous” person. Thus, many Jews had a desire to honor God by doing all the right things. In the world of Pharisaism, rabbis were the teachers who had been given the authoritative role to interpret God’s Word for the living of a righteous life – defining what behavior would or would not please God.

Willing Submission to Authority If a rabbi ultimately agreed to a would-be-disciple’s request, and allowed him to become a disciple, the disciple-to-be agreed to totally submit to the rabbi’s authority in all areas of interpreting the Scriptures for his life. This was a cultural given for all observant Jewish young men – something each truly wanted to do. As a result, each disciple came to a rabbinic relationship with a desire and a willingness to do just that - surrender to the authority of God’s Word as interpreted by his Rabbi’s view of Scripture.

Wresting with the Word of God Yeshivas, or groups of disciples intensely dialoging over an aspect of life and Scripture’s claim on it, was a standard part of rabbinic teaching methodology. Studying their rabbi’s view of Scripture and wrestling with the texts to comprehend God’s way for the conduct of their life was the main priority of a disciple and the yeshiva experience. Since all disciples have memorized most, if not all of their Hebrew Scriptures in preparation for their Bar Mitzvahs at age 13, the issue was not what God’s word said, rather what did it mean and how was it to be lived out.

Real Life Questions Life questions were the causative factors in searching the Scriptures for authoritative direction. For example, everyone knew about the broad “no work” injunction regarding the Sabbath. But how should that command work itself out in specific terms? Thus, a real-life question regarding Sabbath observance might be, “May I light a candle on the Sabbath?” Or, “How many candles may I light on the Sabbath?” A real-life question regarding marriage might be, “Can I divorce my wife if…” A real-life question regarding tax collectors would be, “If I know my taxes are going to oppress our people, should I pay them?” The rabbi would authoritatively address such daily practical questions concerning righteous living and that response was understood as coming through Scripture as defined and interpreted by the rabbi.

As part of this how-should-we-live interactive process, the disciples would debate various rabbinic interpretations of the texts pertaining to a real life issue. This might involve weeks of dialogue and debate, for the rabbis were in no hurry to resolve these issues and questions. However, when the rabbi ultimately did declare his authoritative interpretation on an issue, all further debate ceased. His declared interpretation was now known and therefore binding on his disciples’ lives for the rest of their days. As such, the rabbi was the matrix, the filter, the grid, through which every life issue flowed, as well as the lens through which every life issue was viewed.

Transparency Unlike many of our contemporary discipleship programs, there was no curriculum or agenda for this multi-year discipling experience. Rather it was a continual daily relational living experience where either the rabbi would ask questions of the disciple as he closely observed the disciple’s daily life, or the disciple would initiate a discussion by raising an issue or asking a question based on some aspect of his daily life.

In the dynamics of this intimate discipling community, all of a disciple’s daily life was observable by the rabbi. A disciple would expect the rabbi’s consistent and persistent question, “Why did you do that?” The emphasis was always on behavior formation, not just the imparting of wisdom and related interpretive information. In this interactive manner, the rabbis functioned to clear up gray areas of understanding and difficult areas of textual interpretation for their disciples. By always asking questions, the rabbis were concentrating on developing discernment in the mind of the disciple, not the imparting of “how to” formulas. Notions of three principles of prayer or four steps to prosperity would be abhorrent to a first-century rabbi.

Emulation While not overtly required, disciples invariably had a deep desire to emulate their rabbi. This often included imitating how their rabbi ate, observed the Sabbath, what he liked and disliked, as well as his mannerisms, prejudices and preferences. Some disciples would go to extreme lengths to try to imitate their rabbi. The story is told of one disciple who so wanted to emulate his rabbi that he hid in the rabbi’s bedchamber. That way he would be better able to emulate with his own future wife how the rabbi was intimate with his wife.

Believe is a Verb The Semitic understanding of “believe” was not based on an intellectual assent to a creed, doctrinal statement, or series of faith propositions. Rather, to a first-century disciple believe is a verb in which you willingly submitted to your rabbi’s interpretive authority regarding God’s Word in every area of your life. Thus, to say you were a disciple in the name of Gamaliel, meant that you totally surrendered your life to Gamaliel’s way of interpreting Scripture. As a result, you conformed all of your life’s behavior to his interpretations.

Summary The essential qualities of first-century disciples were desire and submission and assumed that emulation, biblical literacy, community, transparency and a willingness to wrestle with God’s word where a “given.” This included a passion together with zeal to give up any and all of their preconceived notions of how to live one’s life and then to embrace the behavior that their rabbi deemed best to honor God. It was a radical, willing, and totally conforming submission to the interpretive authority of their rabbi.

Observations Reconstructing some of the context implicit in first-century disciples allows us to make some observations regarding disciplemaking and spiritual formation today.

  • A disciple of Rabbi Jesus is one who totally surrenders to Him and His way of seeing and doing things. As such, a disciple comes with a willing desire to conform all aspects of his or her life to the authoritative Lordship of Jesus Christ. To Jesus, righteousness was a matter of the heart, not a codification of behavior. Furthermore, Jesus came to reveal further “who God is and how God does things,” a favorite phrase of Dr. James C. Martin, co-Founder of Preserving Bible Times. Thus, a disciple of Jesus is one who is always asking Jesus, as revealed in Scripture, more about who God is as well as God’s will and ways.
  • Jesus’ disciples should come with a deeply rooted desire to want to surrender to His authority. Jesus is always the authority. He is our rabbi as well as The Rabbi. It is to Him and Him alone that we surrender. Disciples of Jesus today cannot explicitly or implicitly transfer any authority to a pastor, teacher, or well-known author, and thus taking any authority away from Him in the process. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus states He will be with His disciples always. Thus, with the continual indwelling of the Spirit of Christ within every believer, there is no need for anyone else to assume His role as rabbi of His disciples
  • Jesus revealed much about who God is and how God does things in His encounters with people. His disciples learn much about what it means to be His disciples by studying the cohesive context of Jesus’ explicit and implicit teachings in these encounters. The role of the teacher-preacher-author in disciplemaking is to be a co-disciple with certain spiritual gifts that can help open the depths and riches of the Scriptures, thus further revealing to all disciples more of who God is, His will and His ways.
  • The central issue of being a disciple of Jesus is: Will I willingly surrender – submit for a lifetime - every aspect of my life, including worldview, paradigms, career, personality, character, ethics, desires, motivations, values, family, ego, sexuality and attitudes to the authority of Jesus and His teachings?
  • Small groups and one-on-one relationships can often serve much of the purpose of a yeshiva if those involved consistently ask and explore what it means to daily surrender every aspect of their lives to the Lordship of Christ. It is important that these groups and relationships define what they are about, and what their purpose is. The difference between accountability groups, Bible study groups, fellowship groups, and social groups can be vast in terms of their respective impacts on the daily, personal holiness of a disciple.

Then and Now In the Gospel texts, Jesus often did not answer a direct question, but responded with another question or a parable. That was standard rabbinic teaching technique. This forced the questioner and the listeners to wrestle with the issues that came with their questions as well as with their encounter with Him. Jesus’ intent was to develop discernment in his listeners regarding who God is and how God does things rather than providing easy answers without the often-rigorous effort of wrestling with God’s Word and its demands. The yeshiva environment was very intentional in wrestling with the difficult questions and issues of daily life and God’s authority over them.

Today we don’t seem to have as much of an appetite to wrestle with the biblical text as it relates to the daily issues of our lives and God’s authority over them. We seem to prefer simple answers that we can selectively embrace when convenient. Thus, much of what it means to be a committed follower of Jesus Christ today is often reduced to simple formulas of “how to” steps. As previously observed, all of us are familiar with this simplistic genre with its four principles of humility and five steps to Spirit-filled living. Such an approach would never have survived rabbinic scrutiny in the first-century yeshiva environment. Being discipled by Jesus was not a quick, fill-in-the-blank Bible study. He was not handing out “principles” (a non-biblical word and notion) for daily living. He came to reveal God’s Truth. In fact this whole Greek notion of biblical principles was alien to the world of the rabbis. It is to a Person, not a “principle,” that we submit.

We Do Understand Observe how we develop board certified surgeons, nurses, licensed electricians, schoolteachers, biochemists, counselors, and golf pros today. Common to each are long periods of study, training, mentoring, practical experience, as well as continuing education. We are accustomed to the practice of placing ourselves under the watchful mentoring oversight of others who have established proficiency in our areas of interest. Ironically, we seem to put far more passion, commitment, and dedication into becoming a disciple of someone, or some thing, than we seem to do in developing and nurturing our piety as committed disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, we are all disciples of some thing or someone - be it hedonism, atheism, career, self-absorption, materialism, our favorite cause, or Jesus Christ.

Some Things to Ponder

This overview of what it meant to be a disciple during the time of Jesus has highlighted some of the assumptions and presuppositions embedded in the rabbi-disciple relationship. These first-century “givens” provide us with issues to wrestle with as we ask questions of ourselves, and raise issues for our small groups, churches, and informal communities of faith. This wrestling should also include our discipleship programs and ministries.

  • How would you describe your biblical understanding of making disciples to others? Do you see any cultural expectations that may have shaped our view of “discipleship” (another non-biblical word) today? How would you contrast the disciplemaking of the first century with today’s notions of “discipleship” as you have observed them?
  • Is there a difference today between what it means to be a believer in Jesus Christ and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Is “believe” only a creedal statement to you, or is it also a verb to live out each day? Sit down sometime and read that great Hebrews 11 “Faith” chapter and note all the action verbs used to summarize those brothers and sisters who are held up as case histories for us to emulate.
  • To what extent do we wrestle today with life issues in relationship to the Scriptures? Are we willing to conform every issue in our life to the Word of God, or do we seem to want to avoid wrestling at all costs? When we do wrestle, are we prepared to place ourselves under the authority of His revealed response in His Word? Have you ever found yourself not bringing an issue to the Scriptures because you didn’t want to hear, or didn’t want to have to encounter God’s authoritative response regarding money, ego, sex, alcohol, career, materialism and pride. The reader is encouraged to add to this list.
  • We live in a culture that chafes under almost any concept of authority. “Do your own thing” is the mantra of the day. How might this cultural malaise impact our understanding and willingness to put ourselves under biblical authority? To what extent do we even have a desire to surrender to the authority of Jesus today in the same manner that first-century disciples had a willingness to surrender to their rabbi’s interpretive authority?
  • Contrast total surrender to the authority of Jesus with a partial surrender, or an occasional surrender, a convenient surrender, or even token surrender to Him. How would you assess your willingness factor in regards to surrendering all areas of your life to the authority of God’s Word? When you do surrender, is it a willing surrender, or a surrender that arises from some form of resentful, obligatory obedience?
  • In today’s church culture, our facade of Sabbath piety, put on with the refined religious behavioral cosmetics of our day, is about the only thing that is observable about us by our pew mates. Thus, during the week, except perhaps by our family, our real spiritual (or secular) life is not observable by others in our respective communities of faith. As a result, others can’t really use God’s Word in our lives for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness (II Tim. 3:16). How might this tendency towards Lone Rangerism constrain our spiritual growth and development in maturing us as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
  • Are there any areas of your life that are either off limits, or have limited accessibility to the Lordship Authority of Jesus Christ? What are they, and why are they off limits?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how would you assess these distinctive qualities of being a disciple of Jesus in your life –

Desire, Passion, Submission and Emulation
Community of Intimacy and Transparency
Biblical Literacy and Wrestling with God’s Word?

Since we only have one life to live here on this earth, it behooves us to ask: How are we doing as disciples and disciplemakers of Jesus in the Kingdom of God?

Doing what we do because context always matters when engaging the Scriptures. SHALOM, SHALOM


1 Doug Greenwold, Teaching Fellow Preserving Bible Times Reflection # 307 © Doug Greenwold, March 2007

Related Topics: Discipleship