What Does Discipleship Mean?

Rabbis Lesson with kids
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In Judaism, the concept of being a disciple goes much farther than it does in Christianity. It is not merely learning from a teacher. Rather, the disciple of a rabbi seeks to be like his master in all ways, not only to relay his master’s teachings, but to walk like the rabbi, talk like the rabbi, dress like the rabbi, and eat like (and with) the rabbi. A student (talmid) was expected to walk away from family and career without hesitation and without looking back if given the honor of being chosen (i.e., elect) by a great rabbi. There is actually a story (meant to be humorous and probably apocryphal) of a student who was caught hiding under his rabbi’s bed because he wanted to sleep like the rabbi.

Yeshua calls us to this same level of dedication:

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” (Mat. 20:24f)

“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” (Mat. 10:37f)

And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-62)

By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. (1Jn. 2:3-6)

We should also note that it was never the place of a disciple to contradict his rabbi. That is not to say that he could not raise a question about his master’s teaching so as to come to greater understanding–in fact, it is said that when R. Simeon ben Laqish died, his master R. Yochanan was inconsolable: “When I would state something, ben Laqish would raise questions against my position on twenty-four grounds, and I would find twenty-four solutions, and it naturally followed that tradition was broadened . . . Where are you, ben Laqish?! Where are you, ben Laqish?!” (Baba Metzia 84a)

However, such questions were always to be couched in the respect due the master so as to elevate his honor and humble one’s self. This is why Nicodemus phrased his question about being born again in such a way that Christian commentators have mistaken him for being dense. To Nicodemus, being born again was the process of a Gentile becoming a Jew, so his real question was, “But I’m already Jewish! What do you mean?” He asked his question in the manner he did out of respect for his master, Yeshua Himself.

Nevertheless, when the question was answered, it was never the place for a student to contradict it thereafter. Rabbis Eliezer and Yochanan were praised that neither “said anything that he had not heard from his master” (Sukkah 28a). In this way, traditions and knowledge could be passed down through the centuries orally. The Mishnah (which means “repeating”) was only written down because so many died during and after the Roman conquests that it was feared that the knowledge would be lost.

This explains Yeshua’s injunction: “But don’t you be called ‘Rabbi,’ for one is your Rabbi, the Messiah, and all of you are brothers. Call no man on the earth your father, for one is your Father, he who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for one is your master, the Messiah.” (Mat. 23:8-10) If we are the disciples of mere men and treat them as expected in Judaism, then we will pass down not only what they got right, but also their errors as well.

I happen to be an ordained Messianic rabbi. However, I can use that term because the connotation today isn’t what it was in Yeshua’s time. Now it means a teacher and expert in Jewish Law who is authorized to make legal rulings, but not a person who inspires such awe that those he is teaching could never disagree with him. (The Hasidic rebbe is actually closer to the concept of a rabbi in Yeshua’s time.) Or, to put it another way, I am a senior disciple (or perhaps an undergrad) whose job it is to assist my Master, Rabbi Yeshua, in teaching His vast classroom. I take joy in wrestling with His teachings so as to further our collective knowledge and understanding, but in the end, His words are Law and will continue to be passed down unadulterated by those whom He has called.



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