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Discipleship: Its Definitions and Dangers (Matthew 23:1-12)


Apart from His sacrificial work on the cross, the most significant thing our Lord did upon the earth was to make disciples. Our Lord had written no books, He had built no organization; there were no physical structures or monuments left to commemorate Him. He had placed the future of His earthly work entirely in the hands of His disciples. Had they failed their task, humanly speaking, the church of Jesus Christ would not exist today.

In the last decade, discipleship has become a popular subject in Christian circles. The great difficulty is that when we use this term we frequently mean something entirely different from that denoted by the biblical term. For instance, we hear much talk about discipling others or being discipled. Being in close proximity to a great seminary, I have seen many young and enthusiastic theologs come and go. Very frequently, they will go to the pastor of their church and ask to be discipled, just like Paul ‘discipled’ Timothy. A friend of mine and fellow-laborer in the ministry used to respond to such a request, “And just how did Paul disciple Timothy?”

This is precisely the problem. We almost completely fail to grasp the biblical concept of discipleship. It is interesting that we never find the term ‘disciple’ used with reference to the relationship between Paul and Timothy.194 As a matter of fact, we find the two primary terms for discipleship195 employed very frequently in the Gospels, sporadically in the book of Acts, and almost never in the rest of the New Testament. Did Paul really disciple Timothy, and if so, how? Most of the young men who desire to be discipled, and I say this seriously, ask more of me than does my wife. It is because of this lack of clarity as to what discipleship really is, and how it is done that we shall devote several lessons to its study. What was so important in the life and ministry of our Lord should be very clear to us today who wish to be known as His disciples.

The Backdrop to New Testament Discipleship

The concept of discipleship was not foreign to men in the days of our Lord Jesus Christ. The terms used in the New Testament of disciples had through years of use developed nuances important for us to comprehend. It is the distinctions between our Lord’s concept of discipleship from those of His contemporaries which is most crucial for us to grasp, for it is here that the great differences arise between Jesus and His opponents. It is also here that many present day misconceptions find their origin.

In Ancient Greek, the verb manthano is used to denote the process by which one acquired theoretical knowledge.196 A disciple was a learner. A man was known as a mathetes or disciple when he bound himself to another in order to acquire his practical and theoretical knowledge.197 The word was sometimes nearly synonymous with the term apprentice.198 There was never a disciple without a master or teacher. In some Greek circles the teacher was paid by his disciples.

In the Old Testament, the concept of discipleship is strikingly absent.199 Men were, of course, to be learners of the will of God (cf. Deuteronomy 6:10-12, etc.), but they were not disciples. In my estimation the reason is to be found chiefly in the fact that there was no master worthy for them to attach themselves to. We know of the relationship between Elijah and Elisha, Moses and Joshua, and so on; but these men were known as servants, not disciples. Moses was, in the final analysis, only a servant of God, one through whom God revealed Himself.200

Rabbinical Judaism, unlike the Old Testament, made much of the concept of discipleship. The advice of a pre-Christian writer was: “Take to yourself a teacher and acquire a companion.”201

As R. T. France has observed, “Every Jewish teacher worth his salt had his circle of ‘disciples’ who ‘followed’ him (literally walking behind him as he rode or walked ahead), looked after his daily needs, and soaked up his teaching. Their teacher was the most important person in their Lives.”202

In Judaism one must learn not only the Old Testament Scriptures, but also the oral traditions, the traditions of the fathers. One would attach himself to a Rabbi, who would serve as a kind of mediator between the student and the Scriptures. One dared not to interpret the Scriptures independently, and could only speak with authority after years of study under a master.203 Since there were several masters, there sprang up several schools of rabbinical thought, each in competition with the others.

The New Testament Definition of a Disciple

In the New Testament, the picture of a disciple is not as clear or simplistic as one might wish, for the terms, mathetes (disciple, learner) and akoloutheo (to follow) are used in a variety of ways.204

Not only did Jesus have His disciples, but so did John the Baptist (Matthew 9:14; 11:2; John 1:35,37, etc.), the Pharisees (Matthew 22:16; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33), and even Moses (John 9:28).

There is great diversity among those who are identified as the disciples of Jesus in the Scriptures. John (John 6:60,66) uses the term ‘disciple’ to refer to those who are uncommitted, unbelieving followers of Jesus, motivated mainly by curiosity or impure desires. The masses who have come to faith and trusted in Jesus as their Messiah were also called disciples (John 8:30,31). Then, of course, the term was used particularly and most frequently of the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:1, etc.) one of whom was His betrayer (John 6:70,71). Within the circle of the twelve was an inner circle of three: Peter, James and John (Luke 9:28). In the book of Acts, the word ‘disciple’ seems to be used synonymously with the term ‘believer’ (cf. Acts 6:1,2,7).

What is a disciple? I suspect that Mark summarizes it best in his gospel: “And He went up to the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And He appointed the twelve, that they might be with Him, and that He might send them out to preach, and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:13-15).

Who is a disciple of our Lord? Anyone who is deeply and personally committed to Jesus Christ by faith, who manifests the power and authority of our Lord, and who continues and extends His work.

Distinctives of Christ’s Discipleship

Although the concept of discipleship was common knowledge in the days of our Lord, His teaching on discipleship differed greatly from contemporary thought. Several of these distinctives will serve to illustrate what I mean.

(1) Jesus called His disciples. In Jesus’ day, it was the followers who chose their master.205 The students chose their teacher or rabbi. But in Jesus’ ministry, it was He Who chose them (cf. John 15:16). Some of those who ‘volunteered’ their services were put off by the Master (cf. Luke 9:57,58,61,62).

(2) The relationship between Jesus and His followers was more personal than pedagogical.206 In Judaism, the relationship between a rabbi and his disciple was largely a matter of academics. It was the impartation of knowledge. Granted, on the part of the disciple, there was a very pronounced dependency upon the Rabbi, but there was never the sense of intimacy which existed between Jesus and His disciples (cf. John 15:15). Although Jesus taught His disciples, they perceived their commitment as a very personal one. It was only after His death and resurrection that His teaching was fully understood and valued. For example, when Jesus was crucified, the disciples were so taken back by the loss of His person that His teaching about His death and resurrection never occurred to them.

(3) The path of a disciple of Christ was far different that than of contemporary Judaism. One who chose to be a disciple of a great rabbi looked forward to the time when he, too, would be a great leader in Israel. The path which a disciple of our Lord chose to walk was the path of service and self-sacrifice. His disciples must take up their cross (Luke 9:23-24). They must suffer rejection and persecution (John 15:20,21). They, as their Master, must give up their lives in service (Mark 10:45).

(4) Christ’s discipleship was not a burden, but a blessing. It is obvious that the demands of our Lord’s discipleship were great. These we shall study in a later message. But it is amazing that in the final analysis it is the disciple of the scribes and Pharisees who has the real burden: “And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matthew 23:4).

How different is this from that of our Lord: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The Dangers of Discipleship

Failure to fully comprehend the distinctions between the discipleship of our Lord and that of the Jews of His day would have led to disaster for the followers of Christ. The horror at Jonestown is perhaps the most striking reminder in recent times of misdirected allegiance. The warning of our Lord recorded in Matthew chapter 23 addresses the dangers of discipleship as practiced by the Jews of His day.

“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them. And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:1-12).

At first glance, the direct connection between this warning in Matthew chapter 23 and discipleship may not be convincing. However, we must bear in mind that the meaning of the term disciple implies that the disciple submit himself to a higher authority who will serve as his teacher, guide and leader. This is the way the Jewish leadership regarded themselves and their position of authority. In effect, the whole clash between Jesus and the Jewish leaders was one of authority (cf. Matthew 21:23). They were greatly distressed over the fact that the masses appeared to be slipping from their grip, and submitting to the leadership of Jesus (cf. Matthew 27:18; John 4:1,2; 11:47,48). The warning of Jesus in Matthew 23 is at the heart of the dispute between Judaism and Jesus. It also exposes the critical danger threatening evangelical churches today.

The error of the scribes and Pharisees was that they had exalted themselves to a position higher than that of Moses (verse 2). They had boasted to the man born blind that they were disciples of Moses (John 9:28). Such was not really the case, however. To have been a disciple of Moses would mean that they would have placed themselves under the authority of his teaching and doctrine. In effect, they had ousted Moses (that is the five books of Moses) by making the interpretation and application of these sacred writings subject to their own traditions and interpretations (Matthew 15:1-9).

In a more contemporary vein, I suspect that the authors of our constitution might roll over in their graves at the way the Supreme Court has changed the intent of the Constitution by their interpretations of it. This is precisely the error of the scribes and Pharisees. They had placed themselves in the chair of Moses. They were now over the Scriptures, judging them rather than being judged by them. Such is the case in much of religion today. Man is the highest authority. If Paul condemns homosexuality, that is just narrow-minded Paul, they would have us believe.

The scribes and Pharisees usurped the authority to subject men under them as disciples. In so doing they commanded men to follow the clever system they had created by codifying the Law of Moses into 365 prohibitions and 250 commandments.207 The effect was to place upon unsuspecting Israelites a burden which no one could bear, and which they did nothing to lighten (verse 4). While they ingeniously devised ways to circumvent their own regulations, the masses were buried under them. It is no wonder that our Lord said to His hearers: “My yoke is easy, and it load is light” (Matthew 11:30).

The motives of the scribes and Pharisees were at the heart of their sin. They were proud and puffed up, just as Satan was when he fell (Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:2,17). These men desired disciples because they basked in the glory and adulation of men. They desired the seats of prominence and greetings which puffed up their pride (verses 5-7).

Verses 8-12 are some of the heaviest words of the Word of God for church leaders. Here is described in the plainest of words the great danger of Christian leadership: We wish men to become our disciples. We aspire to have authority over others who become our disciples.

“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-12).

Although this passage in Matthew has always been significant to me, I never really grasped its full impact until I came to it from the perspective of discipleship. Essential to discipleship is a master, or teacher to whom the disciple submits.208 The sinfulness of Jewish religious ‘establishment’ is beautifully contrasted against the humility of our Lord in this matter of disciples. They gloried in the limelight, while He came to be overlooked and rejected by the nation as a whole. He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45); they lived only for the praise and adulation their position gave them.

Our Lord cautioned His own disciples and the crowds that the favorite titles of the scribes and Pharisees were not to be part of their religious vocabulary. The three titles, Rabbi, Father, and Leader, were never to be taken by men, nor were men to bestow them on mere mortals. There is only one authoritative teacher or Rabbi, our Lord Himself. No one dare usurp His title (as did the Jewish Rabbis). Moreover, there is to be no hierarchy among men in Christ, for we are all brothers (verse 8). The title ‘Father,’209 respectfully applied to Jewish men of prominence, belongs only to God. He alone is our Father. To take His title is to usurp His authority (verse 9).

Neither should we assume the title of leader, or guide, for the Lord Jesus alone is our guide and leader (verse 10). Greatness in the kingdom of God is not measured, as the Rabbis supposed, by determining how many disciples they had under their authority. It was rather to be measured in terms of service. It is the number whom we serve that reflects our measure of greatness in God’s sight (verses 11-12).

Conclusions and Application

Frankly, I am frustrated by the lack of understanding in Christian circles of this concept of discipleship. We use the term glibly, without any real grasp of its implications. Worse yet, I am frightened as I look about the Christian community and observe that the very same evils practiced by the Jewish leaders in New Testament times are blatantly evident in the church of Jesus Christ.

Many who are either poorly informed or insufficiently motivated find it easier to be the disciples of men than to become the disciples of Jesus. They cannot go to the Scriptures independently to search out a matter. Instead, they would prefer to read a man’s book on the subject, especially if a truth is presented in a very cut and dried or simplistic way. I do not condemn the use of books, or tapes, or printed messages, or listening to sermons ‘live.’ I do insist that an attitude of dependence and unqualified submission to any one man or group of men is wrong. The reason why we have so many authoritarian, dogmatic, puffed up preachers today is because people want them that way. How much easier to believe something because an authoritative, pulpit-pounding preacher does, than by personal study and conviction.

I cannot stop yet, for the other reason why so many ‘little popes’ are prevalent in Christianity (as well as the cults) is because there are men whose pride has been fanned by unwitting followers who have become their disciples.

I know it is difficult to explain to other people why we, as a church, do not have a man that we call ‘our pastor.’ But, you see, to take on a title such as that in our day and time implies that there is some physical head of the church, who usurps the place of our Lord. I remember well hearing one preacher refer to himself as the chief shepherd from 1 Peter chapter 5 and verse 4, a passage in which Peter himself only dares to refer to himself as a fellow elder (verse 1). In this same passage, the elder is forbidden to oversee as a lord (verse 3, ‘lording it over’) but as an example.

We are a church that fallibly strives not to exalt men, but our Lord Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that we reject titles commonly used by other Christians. More than this, whatever the titles may be, we reject the concept of men setting themselves in the place of our Lord.

Perhaps the heart of what I am trying to get at so far as our church (or any other) is concerned is found in the use of either the definite article, ‘the,’ or the indefinite article, ‘a.’ If you say, Bob Deffinbaugh is a teacher, an elder, a leader, hopefully you are not terribly far from the truth. But when you say Bob is the minister, the pastor, the teacher, then we have a real problem. God has ordained leaders who guide and give counsel, but not in such a way as to elevate themselves above others.

Lest you think that this is only the problem of an individual (usually the full-time preacher, or senior pastor), it can also be a great problem collectively. I have read recently of churches in which the elders, as a group, have placed themselves in a position of total and unquestionable authority. In a rather dictatorial and arbitrary fashion, they direct the wife contrary to her husband. They tell a man what job to take or to turn down. In short, they assume the position of our Lord in the lives of their congregation. These things should not be! As I view the authority of an elder, it is not due to his title or office, but is a direct result of his work, his manner of life, and his skillfulness in the Scriptures (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 2 Timothy 3:10,11, etc.).

Herein lies one of the great dangers in Christianity. Men and women seem to be more interested in being a discipler or a disciplee than a disciple. Worse yet, we are seemingly encouraging people to become our disciples rather than disciples of our Lord.

In Matthew chapter 23, our Lord was warning His disciples not to look at themselves as did the disciples of the Pharisees. They were not to view their discipleship as a kind of stepping stone to prominence and authority. They were not to seek to get men to be their followers and to submit to their authority. They were not to take upon themselves either titles or positions which would exalt themselves while usurping the position and prerogatives of God Himself.

Let us not seek to disciple others, so much as to be disciples ourselves. Let us not seek to become disciples of men but rather followers of God. I fear that we have become obsessed more with the process, the practice, and the prestige of the discipler than we have with the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. I fear that we all too often equate the study of the Bible and theology with spirituality. I fear that there is far too much emphasis upon becoming leaders, rather than becoming servants.

194 Passages such as 2 Timothy 2:2, and others in which Paul exhorts Christians to imitate his example, will be dealt with in a later message.

195 The two primary terms relative to discipleship are the verb ‘to follow,’ and the noun, ‘disciple.’ For an excellent study of these terms, cf. Collin Brown, General Editor, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), I, pp. 480-494.

196 D. Müller, “Mathetes,The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, I, p. 483.

197 Ibid., p. 484.

198 K. H. Rengstorf, “Mathetes,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), IV, p. 416.

199 Ibid., pp. 426, 427.

200 Ibid., pp. 430-431.

201 Joshua B. Perachiah, Aboth 1:1,16, as quoted by Rengstorf, TDNT, IV, p. 434.

202 R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 1976), p. 50.

203 “The situation is different in Rab. Judaism. Here the talmid is someone whose concern is the whole of Jewish tradition. According to Shamai (Shabbath 31a), this was the written Torah (the biblical writings of the OT) and the oral Torah, the paradoseis ton presbyteron (the traditions of the fathers) which includes the Mishnah, Midrash, Halachah and Haggadah. The talmid now, as originally the Gk. mathetes, belongs to his teacher, to whom he subordinates himself in almost servile fashion. It was the distinct casuistic form of Rab. theology, built around emphasis on achievement in the religious thought of developed Judaism, which created the pre-requisites for attributing a value of its own to human authority which previously was entirely unknown in Israel and Judaism. Since the Rabbi’s knowledge gives him direct access to the Scriptures which facilitates right hearing and right understanding, he becomes a kind of mediator between the talmidim and the Torah. To listen to the Scriptures without the guidance of a teacher is something to be avoided at all costs (cf. B. Berakoth 47b). lamad and manthano still mean to learn, to occupy oneself with the Torah in order to discover God’s will in it. But now learning is determined by the authority of the teacher and his interpretation of the Torah—not by a personal and, as far as possible, unbiased study of the Torah. Therefore learning means primarily that the talmid appropriates the knowledge of his teacher and examines it critically by comparing it against the Torah. Only one who had studied and served under a hakam (a Jewish scholar) for an extensive period, and had thus concluded his essential study, could later become a hakam with authority to teach his own tradition in his own school. The pupil-teacher relationship of Rab. Jud., in contradistinction to the OT, thus became an important institution for detailed study of the Torah.” D. Müller, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, I, pp. 485-486.

204 Cf. Fn. 2.

205 D. Müller, p. 488. (3b).

206 “The Gr. pupil and the Rab. talmid bound themselves personally to their master and looked for objective teaching, with the aim of themselves becoming a master or a Rabbi. But Jesus’ call to discipleship does not mean that a disciple is put in a learning relationship from which he can depart as a master (cf. Matt. 23:8). Following Jesus as a disciple means the unconditional sacrifice of his whole life (Matt. 10:37; Lk. 14:26f.; cf. Mk. 3:31-35; Lk. 9:59-62) for the whole of his life (Matt. 10:24f.; Jn. 11:16). To be a disciple means (as Matt. in particular emphasizes) to be bound to Jesus and to do God’s will (Matt. 12:46-50; cf. Mk. 3:31-35).” D. Müller, p. 488.

207 “The Pharisees had devised a system in which they had codified the Mosaic Law into some 365 prohibitions and 250 commandments. They required those who followed them to submit to their interpretations of this Law. Because the Pharisees considered themselves the official interpreters of the Law, they promoted themselves to a position of authority in Israel. In Matthew 23:2, Christ referred to the Scribes and the Pharisees as men who “sit in Moses’ seat.” Claiming the authority of Moses as interpreters and teachers of the Law, they demanded that all in Israel who submitted to Moses also submit themselves to them. They demanded that men by submission become disciples of the Pharisees, and that individuals in Israel recognize themselves not only as disciples of Moses but also as disciples of the Pharisees. This is seen in a passage such as Mark 2:18 where Christ is asked the question, “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?” This shows us that those who submitted themselves to the Pharisees were disciples of the Pharisees. They became disciples by voluntarily submitting themselves to the rule of the Pharisees over them.” J. Dwight Pentecost, Design for Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), p. 24.

208 “One can only be a mathetes in the company of a didaskalos, a master or teacher, to whom the mathetes since the days of the Sophists generally had to pay a fee.” D. Müller, p. 484.

209 “Father is used as a title of honour for a priest (Jdg. 17:10; 18:19), and for a prophet (2 Ki. 6:21; 13:14). In 2 Ki. 2:12, on the lips of the prophet’s disciple, it also expresses spiritual relationship. In Rab. Judaism, where the title of father was frequently used of respected scribes (SB I 918 f.), the metaphor of father and child is occasionally applied to the relationship between a teacher of the Torah and his pupil (SB III 340 f.).” O. Hofius, “Father,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, I, p. 617.

Related Topics: Christology, Discipleship