Introductory 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. 

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

Text First Published December 2009

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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