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 6: 39)

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.


Originally published January 2010.