A few years ago, I posted some teaching notes in regard to discipleship. Today, I am posting the first in what I hope to be a series of thoughts on the topic.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19) 1
We affectionately call this passage of Scripture the Great Commission. As believers, the Great Commission is our marching orders. It is our call of duty. It has been at the heart of evangelistic efforts since the time of the earliest disciples. Yet, during the centuries through which we have passed and the millions of confessions of faith which have resulted from the force of this commission, there have been very few who have truly understood its full meaning. Yes, we have succeeded in the going and in baptizing. But have we truly made disciples? And even more importantly, are we truly disciples? Why is it important that we understand what it means to become a disciple of Yeshua? Aren’t all believers his disciples? In theory this should be true. However, more often than not, reality is different than theory. In order to understand how to become a disciple, we must first learn what a disciple is and is not.
The common practice within Christendom today is to evangelize so that we can get people “saved.” And on occasion, it is hoped that they would participate in some kind of evangelistic outreach event so that they can help bring more sheep into the flock. This is our concept of making disciples. However, this is far from the pattern of discipleship that we see modeled in Yeshua throughout the Gospels. It is also very distant from the concept found within the Hebrew Scriptures and historic Judaism. Judaism has a rabbinic parallel to the Great Commission. “Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah” (m.Avot 1:1). Discipleship is a Jewish innovation. Therefore, in order to truly understand discipleship, we must first understand the relationship between a Jewish rabbi and his disciples.
Rabbis and Disciples
Although Jesus was much more than a Jewish rabbi of the first century, he definitely was one. And although s’mecha (Jewish ordination) did not exist in the time of Yeshua, and the title of “rabbi” was still a bit ambiguous, nonetheless, Yeshua was a rabbi in the first century sense of the word. His pattern of life followed that of a rabbi. He traveled and taught like a rabbi. He forsook earthly possessions. He was called rabbi by his followers. He took on life-long disciples, just as other rabbis of his day. He spent every waking moment with them, pouring into them everything he could in the time that he was given. He was a rabbi in every sense of the word. So, in order to understand the relationship between Yeshua and his disciples (his talmidim), we have to understand the relationship between a rabbi and his disciples. Why? Because we have no modern equivalent. So, let’s take a brief look at the definition and responsibilities of a disciple during the time of Yeshua, particularly disciples of our Master.
What Is A Disciple?
The Hebrew word for disciple is תַלְמִיד (talmid – the plural is talmidim), from the root word למד (lamad), which means to learn. In other words, a disciple is a student, one who is continually learning. A disciple is a life-long student of his rabbi. It is this which we are called to create. We are commissioned, “Go therefore and make disciples…” We are not commissioned to go and make converts, believers or church-members. We are commissioned to make disciples. But in order to “make” disciples, we must first become one. This is what the word “Christian” implies. It implies that we are replicas of “the Christ”; that we are fully able to transmit, communicate and enunciate the message of our rabbi through our teaching and our life practice. Remember, Yeshua himself taught, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). With this in mind, let us take a look at the primary responsibilities of a disciple.
Responsibilities of Disciples
The Four Responsibilities of a Disciple 2 include the following:
- To memorize the words of his rabbi or teacher
- To learn his teacher’s traditions and Scriptural interpretations
- To imitate the actions of his teacher
- To raise up more disciples
Note July 15, 2012: Since this post I have modified this list to be more encompassing to the following four responsibilities: Dedication, Memorization, Imitation, Replication. I will post more on this in the near future.
Let’s briefly go over each of these responsibilities. First, a disciple is to memorize the words of his rabbi. During the days of Yeshua, learning took place orally between a rabbi and his disciples. They didn’t write books or give handouts, and the disciples didn’t take notes or have a digital recording device. The exchange between rabbi and disciple took place orally, and in order to truly learn the teachings of one’s rabbi, a disciple would first memorize his teachings. The rabbis taught, “The disciple who repeats his lesson one hundred times is not as worthy as the one who repeats his lesson one hundred and one times” (b.Chagigah 9b).
Volumes of information passed orally from teacher to disciple, from one generation to the next through the vehicle of memorization. Parables, illustrations, interpretations and insights all passed orally through the great chain of disciples in order to preserve the words of one teacher or another. It is memorization which allowed these words to pass from one generation to the next without their being lost. Memorization is what preserved the teachings of our Master for us so that it could be written down a generation or more after it was transmitted. Memorization was a key component in being a good disciple. It should still be seen as having this value for us today.
Tradition and Interpretation
Secondly, a disciple is to learn his teacher’s traditions and Scriptural interpretations. This is one of the things that distinguished the various rabbinic “schools” during the New Testament period and subsequent years. We need to be asking ourselves, “What traditions did Yeshua have that I can take upon myself?” When we see the phrase, “as was his tradition,” we need to pause and reflect upon the specific tradition being referenced, and find ways of imitation.
In regard to Scriptural interpretations, we should have these things under our belt, as disciples of our Master, the risen Messiah. However, we would do well to be systematic in regard to cataloging our Master’s stance on various subjects and his corresponding teachings. Peter counsels us:
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
We should have a regular time of study each day, set apart and guarded from our other activities, in order to dig into these areas of understanding. At the age of 12 Yeshua was engaged in pilpul (rabbinic debate) with adult, studied teachers of the Torah with a very sophisticated degree of understanding. Our lives should mimic his in that they are characterized by constant learning and applying of the Scriptures so that we may be able to give an account for the hope that is within us.
Thirdly, a disciple is to imitate the actions of his teacher. While this is more difficult with our Master, as his earthly presence hasn’t been around for two thousand years, we have been left with a record of his life. If we do some detective work, we should be able to deduce many things about his actions and with careful examination be able to imitate these. He rose early to pray; he lifted his eyes toward heaven as he gave thanks, etc. The point is that we should notice these things in the life of our Master, and then we should imitate them. Yeshua tells us:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27).
Likewise, Rabbi Shimon said…
“Studying Torah is not the most important thing rather doing it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin” (Avot 1:17).
In order to be a true disciple of the Master, we need to have daily disciplines of living out the Torah, just like Yeshua. It’s good to “know” how the Master lived, but it doesn’t do us any good until we “practice” living as he did. First Fruits of Zion President and Founder, Boaz Michael has made the point that generally, we are more concerned with the trivia of the mitzvot (the commandments) than the performance of them. For example, we would rather read a book on prayer, rather than actually pray. This has to change if we are truly to be disciples of our Master.
We must be more than converts. Converts “believe” the message, but are still the same person. Disciples, talmidim, are constantly growing and changing, because they are learning what it means to wear the yoke of their Master. We must live as talmidim, disciples of Yeshua. We must hang on his every word. Peter said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Lastly, but possibly most importantly, a disciple is to raise up more disciples. As we stated previously, the concept of a disciple is not equivalent to a convert, or a believer, or a Sunday School teacher or even a deacon. A disciple is something much more than these. A major principle that we need to grasp is that discipleship isn’t the end of the chain. A disciple is the middle of a long chain of teacher-disciple relationships. We are to imitate Yeshua, and at the same time be one who is to be imitated. Paul gives us this example when he says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Many believers are terrified of these words. They fear that either they cannot be imitated, due to their shortcomings, or that they cannot ask others to follow them lest they inhibit the relationship between their disciple and Yeshua. It is true that we are not to raise up disciples merely for ourselves. At the same time, however, we cannot be afraid to be an example, a guide and a mentor. We must be courageous enough to fulfill our role in the chain of relationships between teacher and disciple in the process of forging new disciples for our Master.
A disciple is a fruit-producing tree, which produces more fruit-producing trees. Think about it. If a fruit tree produced fruit that in turn did not produce a fruit-producing tree, it would not be a fruit tree. The same is true of a disciple, because “when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” If we are truly his disciples, we will be producing disciples for him as a natural outgrowth of our faith. If one is not producing more disciples, the question needs to be asked if one is truly a disciple, or merely a convert.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ↩
- These four responsibilities are enumerated by D. Thomas Lancaster in his book King of the Jews, p52-53. ↩
- Thoughts on Discipleship
- Discipleship – Retaining the Message of Yeshua
- Discipleship – #FAIL
- Discipleship, Part 4
- Pirkei Avot – Chapter 1, Mishnah 1