By Chris Suitt
Yeshua Defines His Disciples in the Gospels
From the end of the Tanakh – possibly from the destruction of the 1st Temple – to Yeshua’s day, the rabbinic model with its talmidim/mathetes arose (see Paul’s life in Acts 22:3; cf. Acts 5:34). Though it might have started off with the best of intentions, by the time Yeshua arrives on the scene the ideal of being a learner who committed himself to the study of Scripture in order to live it out in daily life was corrupted.
“In ancient Jewish culture, a disciple’s greatest desire was to be covered in the dust of his Rabbi. The disciple followed so close to his Rabbi that he began to take on not only the beliefs of the Rabbi, but also his personality, mannerisms, habits, thoughts, and speech. The purpose was for the disciple to be a duplicate of the Rabbi so that he could then train up the next generation of disciples to mimic him. That’s the way that the religious beliefs and the lineage of Rabbis were perpetuated.”1
Besides the emphasis on following a rabbi rather than God directly, here’s a challenge to this thinking. Even with the best of intentions, the student was a copy of a copy, who was a copy of the copy, etc. As the copy gets further and further away from the original, the pictures and words of the original begin to fade. The further the distance from the original the copy gets, the greater and greater the distortion becomes. God taught in the Tanakh that His people were to copy Him, the original, not to be copies of copies.
He still wants His disciples to learn directly from Him today. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” (Hebrews 1:1 emphasis added) They were to be in direct fellowship and connection with Yeshua, their one and only Rabbi.
The rabbinical model had other serious flaws. First, somehow the teachings of the rabbi along with religious traditions were included in the student’s education. It wasn’t just what the Tanakh said that counted, but the rabbi’s interpretation of the Tanakh as well.
A second flaw was that the learners/talmidim could only be men. Didn’t God care to have a relationship with women who were also created in His image? And finally, the rabbi became an indispensable part of the learning equation. The student was to have the same allegiance to his Rabbi as a slave would have had to his master. This eventually led to rabbinical schools, which takes us back to Acts 4:13. Yeshua’s disciples were not trained in a rabbinical school, but the school of life by being in direct fellowship and connection with the one and only Master, Yeshua Himself.
Yeshua attempted to correct these flaws in one fell swoop when He said, “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)
All believers (men and women, Jew and non-Jew) can and should be plugged into Yeshua Himself, not a teacher, not a rabbi, not a pastor (1 Peter 5:1-4 – pastors have a Chief Shepherd – Yeshua), as He is our Rabbi. He is our Master as we are His slaves (Romans 6:22 – slave/doulos of Christ), not men’s (1 Corinthians 7:23).
Yeshua is also to be our interpreter of Scripture. “You have heard it said … But I tell you…” (Matthew 5:21-48 emphasis added) Yeshua stood on what He said alone, which caught the ears of His listeners. Matthew recorded the people’s reaction to Yeshua’s teaching, “The crowds were amazed at His teaching, because He taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the Torah.” (Matthew 7:28-29 emphasis added) They were surprised that He wasn’t quoting what anyone said, but was firm in what He said. He was telling His listeners, as well as believers today, we are to listen to and learn directly from Him. We are not to be dependent on what our favorite teacher, pastor or Rabbi has to say, but on what He says to do for ourselves.
Yeshua wasn’t done though. He told His disciples not only to listen to Him, but to be like Him (John 13:15). This included women as well!2 Talk about blowing a false paradigm to pieces! His disciples, both men and women, were to listen to and copy only Him, which is what God wanted from the beginning of creation.
Yeshua modeled this kind of biblical discipleship as He stayed in constant fellowship and connection with His Father throughout His time on earth. In John 5:19 Yeshua says, “The Son can do nothing by Himself; He can only do what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” Yeshua expands on this in John 8:28-29, “I do nothing on My own but speak just what the Father has taught Me.”
Most interesting about these two statements is what they don’t say. He didn’t quote chapter and verse of the Tanakh. He didn’t say I do what the Bible says, though He knew and used the Word of God (Matthew 4:1-10). He said He did what He saw and heard from His Father. He was modeling for us what He wanted done when He gave us the command to “go make disciples.” Biblical discipleship is about committing yourself to be in constant relationship with and living daily in the presence of your Master. It started with a walk in the Garden, continued with God living inside the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35), moved on to when God Himself became tabernacled (John 1:14), which eventually resulted in God living inside the believer’s tabernacle today (2 Corinthians 6:16-18).
Yeshua was creating disciples of Himself, not creating successors. Acts 1:15 shows us that the Apostles were included in the 120 disciples in the upper room. Yes they had a special role to play (Matthew 19:28; Ephesians 2:20), but they were no more important than the other 109 in that room. It was about being a follower or a disciple of Yeshua.
Male and female disciples are to listen to, follow and copy the original – Yeshua Messiah. This form of discipleship, however, was not without its costs. Yeshua said, “If anyone would come after Me (literally walk side by side with), he must deny himself (thinking and living your own way) and take up his cross (let the old ways die) and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) This kind of living could mean the loss of family and friends (Matthew 10:32-42). Why? People will see Yeshua in you and some will not like what they see. Yeshua told His disciples they would be persecuted, put to death and hated by all nations “because of Me.” Paul reiterates this when he writes to Timothy, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Messiah Yeshua will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12 emphasis added) If we look like Yeshua, we might be mistreated just as Yeshua was mistreated.
What about the Disciples of John and Paul?
If Yeshua got people back to God’s original design of discipleship, why does the Bible talk about John (Matthew 11:2) and Paul (Acts 9:25) having disciples? At first glance it appears the above definition is shattered. Let’s take a closer look, however, to discover whether or not this is the case.
John was given the task by God from birth to prepare “the way of the Lord.” He gave the same message all the Tanakh prophets had given before him – get right with God. He warned that it wasn’t about who they were, but about living consistently with the One in whom they said they believed, especially the One who was coming (Matthew 3:1-12).
After one such message, Yeshua showed up and John pointed his listeners to the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’” (John 1:19-31) A few days later, some of John’s disciples followed Yeshua.
John knew his role. He was the best man, not the bridegroom (John 3:22ff). It wasn’t about making his disciples, but followers of the one who was coming after him, Yeshua. It was John who said, “He must become greater; I must become less.” His life was about getting people into a relationship with Yeshua, not himself, his memory or his legacy. He wasn’t creating followers of John, but followers of God.
We see the transition from John to Yeshua when both John’s and the Pharisee’s disciples came to Yeshua with a question about fasting. He answered their immediate question by telling them that a time would come for His disciples to fast, but it wasn’t the time while He was present. Then Yeshua took them deeper into the issue of discipleship when He talked about a new garment and new wine (Matthew 9:14ff). You don’t put new wine into old wineskins. If you do, the wineskins will burst and both the wine and skins will be wasted. It was a new day with new wineskins. Yeshua was telling them in part that discipleship was not going to be done in the same way it was done before.
What was that new way? Stay plugged into and experience Yeshua for yourself. He is your Rabbi. He is your teacher. He is your pastor. Become like Him and be with Him throughout your day.
This is exactly what I believe Paul was doing, if he had any disciples in the first place. The only possibility the Scripture gives of Paul having disciples is found in Acts 9:25 where some translators write “his followers” while others wrote “the disciples.” Without getting too technical, the original Greek language of the New Covenant supports “the disciples.” The reference clearly indicates these were not Paul’s disciples at all, but the disciples of Yeshua.
The closest Paul gets to having his own disciples is found in 1 Corinthians 11:1 where he states, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Messiah.” Yes the word “example” means to mimic or imitate. Don’t stop there. Paul qualifies his statement. He said to follow him only as long as he followed the Messiah. If he was not imitating Messiah, they weren’t obliged to follow him. Therefore, the person still needed to know Messiah for themselves so they would know if what Paul was teaching (Acts 17:11) or living (Philippians 4:8-9) lined up with the truth of God’s Word, Yeshua.
Being a Disciple of Yeshua Today
Being a believer in and disciple of Yeshua is about following Him where He is your teacher, the Rabbi. He is your pastor, the Shepherd. He is your Master, the Lord. We are in connection with the Father through Yeshua. He is the Priest, who gives us access to the Holy of Holies, God’s presence 24/7 (Hebrews 10:19-22). We are to be plugged into Yeshua in such a way that we will think, act and become more like Him with each passing day.
A.W. Tozer wrote in the Pursuit of God, “There is today no lack of Bible teachers to set forth correctly the principles of the doctrines of Messiah, but too many of these seem satisfied to teach the fundamentals of the faith year after year, strangely unaware that there is in their ministry no manifest Presence, nor anything unusual in their personal lives. They minister constantly to believers who feel within their breasts a longing which their teaching simply does not satisfy.”
Yeshua is God, the one we’re to have a personal encounter with on a daily basis, not merely know facts about. He modeled how this was to be done as He was having a personal encounter with His Father. He wants us to have first-hand knowledge and experience of Him, a witness (Acts 1:8), which is one crucial difference between a disciple and a student/talmid. A disciple was one who actually experienced what they were learning, not just putting good Bible facts into their heads. Yeshua’s disciples were to pass on what they personally witnessed (1 John 1:1-3) so others could personally experience Him as well.
From the Tanakh to the Brit Hadashah (New Covenant) discipleship has been about pointing people to and having a loving relationship with the L-RD God Almighty. We’re to learn directly from Yeshua who is inviting us to hang out with and become more like Him all day long.
Our Involvement in Making Disciples of Yeshua
So what did Yeshua mean when He said to “go make disciples” so others can see that “we’ve been with Him?” I believe our part in making healthy disciples is about giving people the biblical tools so they can listen to and be in relationship with Yeshua for themselves, and then follow Him throughout their day, not just when they gather for public worship.
Biblical discipleship in the 21st century must stop focusing on just giving out right beliefs and expecting right behaviors. We must start helping people learn how to stay focused on and living in the presence of Yeshua all day long, 365 days a year, by filtering life through those right beliefs. We often say, “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” Yet outside observers would greatly disagree with us. They’re not seeing Yeshua in us or in our gatherings.
Yeshua didn’t come to add Himself or new behaviors to us. He came to exchange us with Himself. In the book, Faith like Potatoes, Angus Buchan put it this way, “For the believer, faith should not be a ‘one-off’ event. We must walk by faith every day in every area of our lives. When someone asks us what God has done for us, we shouldn’t be recounting something that happened 20 years ago. Faith is a day-to-day lifestyle and experience of Yeshua.”
Yeshua never said get the truths and then practice them. He said to practice what He taught and then we’ll know the truth from experience, and live an exchanged life. This life only comes after we love and trust Him enough to do what He says even when it doesn’t make sense to us. This is relationship. This is discipleship.
I believe the Word of God and the Spirit of God working through the people of God can get the job done. Yeshua doesn’t want us to do things for Him, but with Him. He doesn’t want us to know facts about Him; but to know Him. He said, “I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me.” (John 10:14) As His sheep we’re to know and respond to His voice. Therefore, are we giving His disciples the tools to do this or are we making them dependent upon us – the discipler, the pastor, the teacher?
Each believer, no matter their age, gender, level of maturity or biblical knowledge, can be involved in passing along the tools that will set themselves and others free to love Yeshua more while simultaneously obeying His command to make disciples wherever they go. If we’re not doing this, we must ask ourselves, “Are we truly following or being a disciple of Messiah?”3
We must stop going to congregation and start being the Body of Messiah everywhere we go. It’s not about the Sabbath, but the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:7). We are to be involved in making disciples of Yeshua, which means giving people the tools to plug into Him for themselves so when people around them see their life they will say what the first century Jewish leadership said, “They have been with Yeshua!”
- Luke 8:1-3; Acts 1:13-15; 9:36; Gal. 3:26-29.
- If you’re wondering whether you are or need help in making disciples that can stay close to Yeshua for themselves whether you are around or not, I’d like to offer a resource, More Than a Sunday Faith. This book is designed to give each believer the tools they need to use each day to help them stay close to Yeshua wherever they go, not just when they gather for corporate worship. The 12 easy-to-use tools covered in the book will help each believer filter out the voices and messages they hear each day so they can hear directly from Yeshua, and then do what He says throughout their day.
More Than a Sunday Faith teaches believers in Yeshua how to move beyond mere knowledge of biblical truth to understand how to use those truths in everyday life (i.e. understanding and wisdom). As they experience Yeshua for themselves, they will be exchanged with Yeshua (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), and their love for Yeshua will grow, which only increases their ability to trust Him the next time He asks them to apply another truth to their daily life.
More Than a Sunday Faith ends with a practical method of passing these tools on to others called “Bible Impact Groups” (BIG). The book, BIG cards and other resources can be found at morethanasundayfaith.com.