Episode 12: Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples but many would be surprised to find out that the institution of discipleship existed centuries before the time of the apostles. In episode twelve viewers will gain a better understanding of what it means to be a disciple from the understanding of Judaism in the days of Messiah. Jesus tells us that “Every disciple fully trained will become like his teacher.” Indeed, to be a Christian means to be a disciple of Jesus, a student responsible for learning and becoming like one’s rabbi.
The Lesson: The Mystery of the Meaning of Discipleship
Whenever we consider being disciples of Christ, most of us in the church probably think that means being believers in Jesus. However, according to First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teacher and author Toby Janicki, it’s really much more. But how much more? What does it really mean to be a disciple of Jesus?
Toby first spends a lot of time in this episode showing the audience what discipleship meant in Judaism in the late Second Temple period; during the earthly lifetime of Jesus:
The disciples of Yochanan and the disciples of the Prushim would often fast, and they came and said to him, “Why do the disciples of Yochanan and the disciples of the Prushim fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
–Mark 2:18 (DHE Gospels)
Here we see that not only did Jesus have disciples but that John the Baptist and the Pharisees had disciples. In fact, all of the teachers or Rabbis in all of the streams of Judaism in that day had disciples. But we still need to understand what it is to be a disciple in general and a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth in particular.
To me, a lot of the information presented about discipleship wasn’t a great revelation since I’ve been exposed to it before, but it may be that some Christians believe only Jesus had disciples and that he only had twelve of them. This, of course, is not correct:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.
–Luke 1:10 (ESV)
While some translations say that seventy were sent out and others say seventy-two, Toby says that from the context in the rest of this chapter, those sent out were also disciples of Jesus. This illustrates how common disciples were in that day and age. He also cites Acts 9:36 to illustrate that women were disciples, Acts 6:1 and 6:7 to illustrate how there were many, many disciples, and Acts 11:26 to show that there were both Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus.
According to Toby, the word “Christian” is used only three times in the Bible, but the words “disciple” and “disciples” relating to followers and students of Jesus were used many times. Perhaps it’s more accurate to call ourselves disciples of Christ rather than Christians. But then again, that would depend on the meaning of disciples and discipleship. Which brings us to our first clue:
Clue 1: All early believers of Jesus were called disciples.
But going back to the question I just asked and the question Toby repeatedly asks, we need to understand how Christ’s original Jewish audience and the first Jewish readers of the Gospels would have understood discipleship. To get the answer, we turn to FFOZ teacher and translator Aaron Eby in Israel.
Aaron provides a great deal of background information on early Jewish discipleship including the fact that discipleship predates Jesus by quite a bit. Discipleship was considered the primary method of higher Jewish education, but it wasn’t just a matter of going to school and studying different subjects. A disciple was a student but specifically, a student of a Torah teacher. In the days of Jesus and before, when a young man thought he wanted a life of Torah learning, he would apprentice himself to a Torah master, however, this apprenticeship might not be what you imagine.
A disciple was to be a learner/imitator. He would memorize all of his Master’s teachings, learn to imitate his Master’s style of dress, mannerisms, inflections of speech. The disciple in some ways considered himself a servant or even a slave to his Rabbi, his “great one.” In some ways, he thought of himself as a son to a Father, but the Rabbi was considered greater than the disciple’s biological Father. Disciples were tremendously devoted to their Masters, more so than to their own families or even their own lives. And so it was with the disciples of Jesus, their Master and ours.
Back in the studio, Toby describes the concept of discipleship as a job description.
A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.
–Luke 6:40 (NASB)
That the disciples of Jesus were imitators of their Master and memorized his teachings is the reason why we have the Gospels today.
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
–1 Corinthians 11:1 (NASB)
Here we see that Paul considered himself a disciple of Christ as his imitator, and he suggests to the readers of his letter that they should imitate Paul. Were they then Paul’s disciples? I’ll answer that in a bit, but we have arrived at our second clue:
Clue 2: The primary job of a disciple was to be like his teacher.
Even the Pirkei Avot or “Ethics of our Fathers,” a set of Jewish teachings that predated Jesus says, “Raise many disciples.”
A Rabbi’s job was to create a new generation of disciples who would learn everything from the Rabbi and about the Rabbi and then, when they were fully trained, the disciples would become Rabbi’s themselves, raising up their own generation of disciples in order to preserve the Torah teaching and wisdom of their own Master. This process would be repeated from one generation to the next with the goal of creating an unbroken line of discipleship, generation by generation, that would preserve the teachings of Torah for each Teacher, often by establishing great schools such as the Houses of Study of Shammai and Hillel. This maps well to Matthew 28:19-20 where Rabbi Yeshua instructed his Jewish disciples to raise up a generation of disciples from the people of the nations, which the Church often refers to as “the great commission.” However, as we’ve seen, the idea of “the great commission” hardly does justice to what Jesus was actually commanding.
Now we have arrived at the third and final clue:
Clue 3: The job of a disciple was to raise up more disciples.
But here Toby introduces a strong caveat:
But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
–Matthew 23:8-12 (NASB)
This set of verses has often been misunderstood or just not understood at all. Does this mean we shouldn’t have respect for our Bible teachers and Pastors? Here’s where having a Jewish perspective on the New Testament comes in especially handy. According to Toby, this is Jesus defining the difference between the relationship of Jewish disciples to the Sages and disciples of Jesus, our Master, to himself.
Remember, the purpose of discipleship was to learn all there was to learn from your Master and then to establish your own House of Study in your name passing on what you originally learned. Your disciples would be taught in your name, not in the name of your own Master, and your disciples would teach in their own names, not in yours (actually it was more like, “I teach you in the name of my Master, who taught in the name of his Master,” and so on).
Jesus said his disciples would be different. Each Torah Master would eventually age and die, but his teachings would be preserved in his disciples and in each generation of disciples that followed. Jesus is alive! We hear this enthusiastically declared every Easter or Resurrection Day in Church. James, Peter, and Paul were not to set up their own houses of study and teach in their own names by making their own disciples (in spite of what we saw relative to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1). They were not to raise up disciples for themselves but instead, they were and we are to raise up disciples for our Master, our one and only Master, Jesus the Messiah, Yeshua HaMashiach.
What Did I Learn?
I learned the meaning behind Matthew 23:8-12 which I tended to ignore in the past because I couldn’t figure it out. It makes a lot of sense now. I used to think that we inherited a broken system of discipleship since the teachings of Jesus were never transmitted generation to generation in the manner we have seen described in this FFOZ TV episode. Now I realize that it was by design, since we were never intended to be the students of any Master except Jesus. He is our only teacher, our only Torah Master. This does not mean we shouldn’t respect any Bible teacher or Pastor in our Church, but we must always remember that none of them take the place of Jesus. If we see a group of believers who esteem their Pastor or spiritual leader as anything approaching our true Master, then there is something wrong (and sadly, such situations make an appearance the news media from time to time, usually as scandals involving some highly public and popular religious leader).
I also thought of some questions as I was watching this episode and in fact, I was reminded of some of the narratives of Toby from other episodes that involve how he commonly introduces himself. He says that he isn’t Jewish but rather a Gentile who practices Messianic Judaism. It isn’t always apparent, but he usually wears a kippah while on camera (A kippah is a head covering typically worn by religious Jews either just in synagogue or during their waking hours, depending on their level of observance).
What is the difference between being a Gentile who practices Messianic Judaism and a Gentile who practices Christianity? More importantly, how do these two “states” relate to being a disciple of Christ, our Master? Since this television show was created to present the Gospels and Jesus Christ to a more traditional Christian audience by introducing a more Jewish perspective and interpretation, what does that say about the level of discipleship and imitation of our Master relative to “Messianic Gentiles” and Christians?
This question is especially important to me, since it factors into how I think of myself as a disciple of the Master by calling myself a Christian and attending Church. One of the motivations for me to return to Church after an absence of many years was the book Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile written by FFOZ president and founder Boaz Michael. Have I become a better imitator of my Master by following this template of church attendance and Christian affiliation or a worse one? At some point in the near future, as the one year anniversary of my returning to Church comes near, I plan to write one or more “meditations” on the application of Boaz’s Tent of David in my life and the results I see so far.
Closely related to this situation, Toby also didn’t drill down into something that I think it’s vital to know. When we say that a disciple of Christ is an imitator or Christ, just exactly what are we imitating? This isn’t an idle question. Many in the Hebrew Roots movement insist that discipleship means imitating the Jewish Jesus in every aspect of his Judaism, including wearing kippot (plural of kippah) and tallitot (plural of tallit) and to otherwise look and act in a manner identical to modern religious Jews (in spite of the fact that Jesus isn’t a “modern religious Jew,” but rather, he was an ancient Jewish Rabbi and he is the Jewish Messiah King).
The clue that may lead to an answer was provided at the end of this episode by Boaz Michael who appeared on camera and said that next week (episode 13), the topic would be how the Torah is the foundation of Messiah Yeshua’s instructions to his disciples. How can the Torah be applied to both the Jewish and Gentile disciples of our Master?
I’m hoping my review next week will help answer these questions.