Editor's note:

Dal­las Willard takes us on a tour of the rela­tion­ship between dis­ci­ple and rab­bi that began with the destruc­tion of the tem­ple, and sub­se­quent Baby­lon­ian exile of the Jew­ish peo­ple, in 588 BC, and last­ed until the destruc­tion of the sec­ond tem­ple in 70 AD, and so was very much an estab­lished norm of Jesus’ time. Dal­las tells us that, if a stu­dent were accept­ed as a dis­ci­ple, there would fol­low a lengthy peri­od of close asso­ci­a­tion with their rab­bi — hear­ing, observ­ing and imi­tat­ing. They were sim­ply with their rab­bi, serv­ing him and becom­ing like him in thought, char­ac­ter, and abilities.”

We as dis­ci­ples of Christ are called into this same kind of rela­tion­ship with our great Rab­bi. In oth­ers words, you can­not have the with-God life with­out liv­ing life with God. Dal­las gives us the his­to­ry, and Jesus shows us the way.

—Renovaré Team

Evan­gel­i­cal­ism always looks to the Bible as the point of ref­er­ence from which con­cepts are defined, prac­tices legit­i­mat­ed, and prin­ci­ples adopt­ed. So we must ask what can be made of dis­ci­ple­ship and of the dis­ci­ple of Jesus as seen in the life of the New Tes­ta­ment. Indeed, as it turns out, the New Tes­ta­ment dis­ci­ple” is by no means a pecu­liar­ly Chris­t­ian” inno­va­tion (1). The dis­ci­ple is one aspect of the pro­gres­sive and mas­sive decen­tral­iza­tion of Judaism that began with the destruc­tion of the first Tem­ple (588 BC) and the Baby­lon­ian exile, and pro­ceeds through the dis­per­sal of the Jew­ish peo­ple among the nations that fol­lowed the destruc­tion of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Dur­ing this peri­od the syn­a­gogue emerges as the cen­ter of the local Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, devo­tion to the Torah becomes the focus of the syn­a­gogue, and the rab­bi or great one” stood forth in the role of inter­preter of Torah: By degrees, attach­ment to the law sank deep­er and deep­er into the nation­al char­ac­ter…. Hence the law became a deep and intri­cate study. Cer­tain men rose to acknowl­edged emi­nence for their inge­nu­ity in explain­ing, their readi­ness in apply­ing, their facil­i­ty in quot­ing, and their clear­ness in offer­ing solu­tions of, the dif­fi­cult pas­sages of the writ­ten statutes” (2). The rab­bi with his coterie of spe­cial stu­dents was a famil­iar fea­ture of Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tice by the time of Jesus.

There was no one way in which to become a rab­bi in the Jew­ish soci­ety of Jesus’ day. It is true that most of those who became rab­bis did so by study­ing under a rab­bi, and hav­ing a for­mal” train­ing had some obvi­ous advan­tages. But there was no licens­ing” process, and an ele­ment of the Old Tes­ta­ment prophet car­ried over to the role of rab­bi. A rab­bi could, like the prophet, be from nowhere.” His was a per­for­mance-based sta­tus, and pub­lic recog­ni­tion as a rab­bi was a response to the pow­er of the individual’s words and deeds, not to their cre­den­tials.” The usu­al path of advance­ment seems to have been through the schools for young peo­ple around the syn­a­gogue. Some stu­dents did very well, mem­o­riz­ing huge por­tions of scrip­ture and lis­ten­ing to inter­pre­ta­tions by teach­ers. Then, if they wished, they might approach a rab­bi request­ing him to take them as their dis­ci­ple. If accept­ed, there would fol­low a lengthy peri­od of close asso­ci­a­tion with their rab­bi — hear­ing, observ­ing and imi­tat­ing. They were sim­ply with their rab­bi, serv­ing him and becom­ing like him in thought, char­ac­ter, and abil­i­ties. Jesus’ obser­va­tion that a dis­ci­ple does not rise above his teacher; but every­one after he has been ful­ly trained will reach his teacher’s lev­el” (Luke 6:40), was both a com­mon­place obser­va­tion about the nature of the rabbi/​disciple rela­tion and — as the con­text makes clear — a warn­ing about the lim­i­ta­tions and dan­gers of that arrange­ment. (“Can a blind per­son guide a blind per­son? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 639

Jesus and His Disciples

How­ev­er, Jesus did not sim­ply fit him­self into the more or less stan­dard mod­el of the rab­bi. He had no for­mal” edu­ca­tion beyond the syn­a­gogue schools and did not become a dis­ci­ple of a rab­bi. He did receive a (very unortho­dox) stamp of approval from John the Bap­tiz­er, but not as his dis­ci­ple. He was known to the peo­ple around him as une­d­u­cat­ed. Amazed at the depth and pow­er of his words they exclaimed: How does this man have such learn­ing, when he has nev­er been taught?” (John 7:15) Also, Jesus did not accept dis­ci­ples upon appli­ca­tion, test­ing them to see if they were wor­thy.” He per­son­al­ly select­ed — though not from the best and the bright­est” in his com­mu­ni­ty — those he would espe­cial­ly train. There was a larg­er out­er cir­cle of peo­ple who seem to have just showed up in his pres­ence and received train­ing of var­i­ous degrees (the oth­er sev­en­ty” of Luke 10:1, for exam­ple, and the group in the upper room” of Acts 1:13). Often would-be dis­ci­ples were sub­ject­ed to severe dis­cour­age­ment by him (Matt. 8:18 – 22, Luke 9:57 – 62 and 14:26 – 33). He also lev­eled scald­ing crit­i­cisms at the proud prac­ti­tion­ers of the law in his day (Matt. 23:13 – 33, Luke 11:39 – 52) and pro­hib­it­ed his fol­low­ers from being called rab­bi” and using oth­er respect­ful greet­ings” exchanged among those who took them­selves to be high­ly qual­i­fied as teach­ers (Matt. 23:1 – 12). He was not one of the boys,” nor were his dis­ci­ples to be.

Nev­er­the­less, the basic nature of the rabbi/​disciple rela­tion­ship of his day was retained by Jesus and his dis­ci­ples and, arguably, remains nor­ma­tive to this day. That rela­tion­ship is very sim­ple in descrip­tion. His dis­ci­ples were with him, learn­ing to be like him. With him” meant in that day that they were lit­er­al­ly where he was and were pro­gres­sive­ly engaged in doing what he was doing. Jesus moved about the Jew­ish vil­lages and towns, pri­mar­i­ly around the Sea of Galilee, with occa­sion­al for­ays beyond that and espe­cial­ly to Jerusalem. His main dis­ci­ples (“apos­tles”) were with him in all of this, and no doubt at con­sid­er­able hard­ship to them­selves and their fam­i­lies. Peter on one occa­sion plain­tive­ly remarks: We have left every­thing to fol­low you” (Matt. 19:27). It was no doubt a thought that often occurred to his disciples. 

As they trav­eled about he did three things in the syn­a­gogues, homes and pub­lic areas: He announced the avail­abil­i­ty of life in the king­dom of God, he taught about how things were done in the king­dom of God, and he man­i­fest­ed the present pow­er of the king­dom by amaz­ing deeds (Matt. 4:23, 9:35, Luke 4:18 – 44). Then, after a peri­od of train­ing, he set his dis­ci­ples to doing the things they had heard and seen in him — con­tin­u­ing all the while to eval­u­ate their work and to teach them as they pro­gressed. This con­tin­ued through his tri­al and death, and dur­ing his post-res­ur­rec­tion pres­ence with them when he trained them in how he would be with them after his ascen­sion, with­out vis­i­ble pres­ence. His instruc­tion as he left was for his dis­ci­ples to make dis­ci­ples of all nations” — of all types of peo­ple — and his promise was that he would be with them always until the end of the age (Matt. 28:19 – 20).

The Method of Being With” Passed on Through Disciples 

While the charge was to make dis­ci­ples of Jesus and not of the dis­ci­ples, the basic method — teach­ing, exam­ple, and imi­ta­tion — remained the same as his imme­di­ate fol­low­ers pro­ceed­ed to do what he had told them to do. The method was: to gath­er a group of peo­ple by telling the sto­ry of Jesus, fea­tur­ing his res­ur­rec­tion and pend­ing return, to show by exam­ple what it meant to live with him now, already beyond death, and to lead oth­ers into such a life of being with Jesus, learn­ing to be like him.” No New Tes­ta­ment text bet­ter fills out what this life of learn­ing was than Colos­sians 3:1 – 17

The role of exam­ple and imi­ta­tion in the learn­ing com­mu­ni­ty of dis­ci­ples is often stressed in the New Tes­ta­ment. Numer­ous state­ments from the Apos­tle Paul con­cise­ly state the strat­e­gy of being and mak­ing dis­ci­ples. In one of his ear­li­est let­ters to groups of dis­ci­ples he reminds the read­ers of how Our gospel [procla­ma­tion] did not come to you in word only, but also in pow­er and in the Holy Spir­it and with full con­vic­tion; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imi­ta­tors of us and of the Lord, hav­ing received the word in much tribu­la­tion with the Joy of the Holy Spir­it, so that you became an exam­ple to all believ­ers in Mace­do­nia and in Acha­ia.” (1 Thess. 1:5 – 7

Paul pro­ceeds in this let­ter to spell out how he and his fel­low work­ers lived pure, upright, and blame­less” in their con­duct toward the believ­ers, and to encour­age them to lead a life wor­thy of God, who calls you into his own king­dom and glo­ry.” (2:10 – 12) In 1 Corinthi­ans he exhorts the believ­ers to imi­tate him, to be remind­ed of my ways which are in Christ” (4:16 – 17), and to be imi­ta­tors of me, just as I also am of Christ.” (11:1) In 2 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans he indi­cates that the read­ers know how you ought to imi­tate us.” He reminds them of how he led a dis­ci­plined life and worked hard to sup­port him­self, not because we do not have that right [to sup­port from them], but in order to offer our­selves as a mod­el for you that you might imi­tate us.” (3:7 – 9) To the Philip­pi­ans he said: Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (4:9) He else­where reminds Tim­o­thy that he had observed my teach­ing, my con­duct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my stead­fast­ness, my per­se­cu­tions and suf­fer­ing the things that hap­pened to me in Anti­och, Ico­ni­um, and Lystra.” (2 Tim. 3:10 – 11) And in an ear­li­er let­ter he direct­ed him to show him­self an exam­ple to those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:12) The writer of the let­ter to the Hebrews coun­sels his read­ers not to be slug­gish, but imi­ta­tors of those who through faith and patience inher­it the promis­es.” (6:17) They should “[r]emember your lead­ers, those who spoke the word of God to you; con­sid­er the out­come of their way of life, and imi­tate their faith.” (13:7) As it was for your lead­ers,” the writer assures them, it will also be for you, and that is because Jesus Christ is the same, yes­ter­day and today and for­ev­er.” (vss. 8 – 9) The point of this much mis­ap­plied verse is, as the con­text makes clear, that the nature of dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus and its out­comes does not change. 

Trans­for­ma­tion Through This Kind of Discipleship 

Now this prac­tice of dis­ci­ple­ship in the com­mu­ni­ties of Christ fol­low­ers — being with Christ learn­ing to be like him, in part by being with those who are fur­ther along on that same path — is what lends real­ism and hope to the glow­ing pic­tures of his peo­ple that stand out from the pages of the New Tes­ta­ment. Such pas­sages as Matthew chap­ters 5 – 7, John chap­ters 14 – 17, Romans 12, 1 Corinthi­ans 13, Eph­esians chap­ters 4 – 5, and Colos­sians 3 read­i­ly come to mind. These are not just pas­sages stat­ing required behav­iors, as laws might do — Turn the oth­er cheek” and so forth — not a new and stern­er legal­ism. Rather, as express­ing what lies beyond the right­eous­ness of the scribes and Phar­isees” (Matt. 5:20), they are indi­ca­tions of what life becomes for those who are devot­ed dis­ci­ples of Jesus Christ with­in the fel­low­ship of dis­ci­ples and under the admin­is­tra­tion of the Word and of the Holy Spir­it. A life of this qual­i­ty is the out­put” of dis­ci­ples of Jesus who make dis­ci­ples wher­ev­er they go, gath­er them in Trini­tar­i­an real­i­ty, and teach them in such a way that they come to do all that Jesus told us to do out of trans­formed per­son­al­i­ties. What is now gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as nor­mal Chris­tian­i­ty” drops away with the clean­ing of the inside of the cup” (Matt. 23:25 – 26). Dis­ci­ple­ship is the sta­tus or posi­tion with­in which spir­i­tu­al (trans)formation occurs. 

Post-WW II evan­gel­i­cal­ism does not nat­u­ral­ly con­duct its con­verts and adher­ents into a life of dis­ci­ple­ship, nor into per­va­sive Christ­like­ness of char­ac­ter — with the rou­tine, easy obe­di­ence that it entails. What this most recent ver­sion of evan­gel­i­cal­ism lacks is a the­ol­o­gy of dis­ci­ple­ship. Specif­i­cal­ly, it lacks a clear teach­ing on how what hap­pens at con­ver­sion con­tin­ues on with­out break into an ever fuller life in the King­dom of God. How, to cite Paul’s lan­guage, does the grace of God that brings sal­va­tion” dis­ci­pline us, train us, in such a way that we turn from ungod­li­ness and world­ly lust” to live lives that are sen­si­ble, right­eous, and god­ly in the present world”? (Titus 2:11 – 14; cp. Phil. 2:12 – 15) How is it, exact­ly, that he who gave him­self for us also redeems us from all iniq­ui­ty and puri­fies for him­self a peo­ple of his own who are zeal­ous for good deeds”? (vs. 14; cp. Eph. 2:10) To such ques­tions con­tem­po­rary evan­gel­i­cal­ism has no answer. Its doc­trine of grace and sal­va­tion pre­vents it from devel­op­ing an under­stand­ing of dis­ci­ple­ship that makes dis­ci­ple­ship (“being with Jesus learn­ing to be like him”) a nat­ur­al part of sal­va­tion. The basic genius of evan­gel­i­cal­ism as such, how­ev­er, is nev­er con­tent to leave the mat­ter there. 

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Orig­i­nal­ly excerpt­ed from Dis­ci­ple­ship” on Dal­las Willard’s web­site and used here with our grat­i­tude and their permission.

[1] See the care­ful study of the his­to­ry of the dis­ci­ple” in the world of the New Tes­ta­ment pro­vid­ed by Michael J. Wilkins, The Con­cept of Dis­ci­ple in Matthew’s Gospel, as Reflect­ed in the Use of the Term Μαθητής, Lei­den: E. J. Brill, 1988

[2] John M’Clintock and James Strong, edd., Cyclopae­dia of Bib­li­cal, The­o­log­i­cal, and Eccle­si­as­ti­cal Lit­er­a­ture, Vol. VIII, New York: Harp­er and Broth­ers, 1894, p. 870


Originally published December 2009