Raise Up Many Disciples!
by Lois Tverberg
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with
you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19)
Jesus' final words were those of what we call
the Great Commission - to make disciples of the whole world. But what
is a disciple? The ancient, Hebraic picture Jesus had of raising disciples
was unique to his Jewish culture. By learning about this practice, we
can have fresh insight into how Jesus wants us to fulfill his command.
lived in a deeply religious culture that valued biblical understanding
more than anything else. To become a great rabbi was the highest goal
possible, and just to be a disciple of a famous rabbi was an honor. All
boys studied and memorized the scriptures until age twelve, and then learned
a trade after that. Only a small minority could keep studying, and only
a very few were able to go on to learn with a rabbi. Rabbis acted as wandering
expositors who taught in synagogues and homes, and outdoors when a crowd
gathered. They taught general audiences, and also had a small band of
disciples who lived with them and followed them everywhere. They traveled
from town to town teaching, because no mass-communication was available.
They often practiced a trade of their own, but when traveling they were
dependent on the hospitality of the community. Indeed, it was forbidden
to charge money to teach, but people were expected to support them and
invite them into their homes.
Even to the present day, Judaism retains a tradition of discipleship.
When Jewish rabbis are ordained, they are commissioned to "Raise
up many disciples". This is the first verse of Pirke Avot (Wisdom
of the Fathers), from the Mishnah, the Jewish compendium of laws and sayings
from around Jesus' time. Texts like this have much to say about the rabbinic
method for raising disciples. Another passage that describes discipleship
Let your house be a meeting place for
the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink
in their words thirstily. (Pirke Avot 1:4)
This text casts light on several stories from
Jesus' ministry in the gospels. Mary, Martha and Lazarus opened their
home to Jesus in the tradition of showing hospitality toward rabbis and
disciples. Their house would also have served as a place for meetings
for him to teach small groups. We also read that Mary "sat at Jesus'
feet" to learn from him (Luke 10:39), which may be the sense of the
phrase "cover yourself in the dust of their feet". The phrase
may also have meant to walk behind him to listen to him teach, as Jesus'
disciples would have done. On the unpaved roads in Israel, they literally
would have been covered in their rabbi's dust.
What was expected of rabbis and disciples?
Rabbis were expected not only to be greatly knowledgeable about the Bible,
but to live exemplary lives to show that they had taken the scriptures
to heart. The objective of their teaching was to instill in their disciples
both the knowledge and desire to live by God's word. It was said, "If
the teacher is like an angel of the Lord, they will seek Torah from him.
If not, they will not seek Torah from him" (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah
15b). The disciple's goal was to gain the rabbi's understanding, but even
more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that
when the student would become mature enough, that he would take his rabbi's
teaching out to the community, add his own understanding to it, and raise
up disciples of his own.
A disciple was expected to leave family and job behind to join the rabbi
in his austere lifestyle. They would live twenty-four hours a day together,
walking from town to town, teaching, working, eating, and studying. As
they lived together, they would discuss the scriptures and apply them
to their lives. The disciples were supposed to be the rabbi's servants,
submitting to his authority while they served his needs. Indeed, the word "rabbi" means "my master", and was a term of great
respect, the same title that a slave would use to address his owner.
sheds new light on the story of when Jesus washed the disciples' feet.
Jesus was entitled to having them wash his feet, not the other way around!
By his actions he was teaching them a great lesson in humility - that
the one most deserving of being served is serving himself, while they
were arguing who is the greatest. Jesus was using typical rabbinic technique
- he didn't just lecture, he used his own behavior as an example to them.
The rabbi-disciple relationship was very intimate. The rabbi was considered
to be closer than a father to his disciples, and disciples were sometimes
called "sons". When Peter said "Even if I have to
die with you, I will not deny you," he was reflecting the deep love
and commitment that disciples had for their rabbi (Matt. 26:35). In contrast,
Judas' betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been
the Messiah. Jesus' insistence that his disciples leave everything behind
to follow him would not have been considered extreme in that culture.
They held up the image of Elisha as a model of a disciple's commitment,
who burned his plow and left everything to become Elijah's disciple (1
Kings 19). After Elisha had lived with Elijah and served him for many
years, then he received Elijah's authority to go out as his successor,
as the disciples did from Jesus.
What light does this shed on the Great Commission?
Jesus' eastern method of discipleship gives us a new picture of what he
called us to do. Our Western model focuses mainly on the gospel as information,
and our goal is to be a person of correct understanding. We focus mainly
on spreading information about Jesus, not on living our life like him
and inspiring others to do the same. While it is important to teach and
defend truth, Jesus' method of discipleship is much more than that. He
began his Kingdom by walking and living with disciples, to show them how
to be like him. Then they went out and made disciples, doing their best
to imitate Jesus and show others by their own example. Jesus expects that
his kingdom will be built in this way - as each person grows in maturity,
they live their lives transparently before others, counseling them on
what they have learned about following Christ. The kingdom is built primarily
through these close relationships of learning, living and teaching.
Paul uses the same model of discipleship in his ministry. He said,
...in Christ Jesus I became your father
through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason
I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in
the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which
agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4:15 - 17)
We can hear that Paul's goal for the Corinthians
is that they become disciples - who change their lives to be like Christ,
not just learn the correct beliefs. Using rabbinic method, he likens himself
as a father to them, and he send his disciple Timothy, who he calls "his
son". He wants them to learn by the example of Timothy about his
own way of life, which is a reflection of Jesus' teaching. Paul is using
this "whole person" method of evangelism to transform their
lives, not just their minds, to reflect the truth.
Through this model of discipleship, we see that Jesus isn't just interested
in having our minds. He wants our hearts and lives too. Once our lives
reflect what our minds believe, then the belief has actually reached our
hearts. Then our passion for following him becomes a loud witness for
him, and inspires others to do the same.
for this article comes from several articles on first century discipleship
Perspective. Links to some of them are on the Topical
Articles page. Other articles are available at www.jerusalemperspective.com
with a Premium Content Membership. David Bivin, author of these articles
and editor of Jerusalem Perspective, will be in western Michigan this
November. See the En-Gedi Calendar for details.
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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