By Chris Suitt
When they were hauled before the Sanhedrin, Peter and John, two of Yeshua’s disciples, gave a very courageous defense to the question, “By what power or what name do you do this?” I love how the leadership responded to Peter’s defense. When they “realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Yeshua.” (Acts 4:13 emphasis added)
I sure wish that was true of Yeshua’s followers today! Peter and John were not rabbinically trained, yet their courageous stand “astonished” the leadership. They couldn’t get over the fact that these men, from their perspective anyway, were not formally trained in the Scriptures;1 and yet, these men answered as if they had been. Where did they get this ability? The leadership had to acknowledge that they were trained through hanging out with Rabbi Yeshua, who, in their opinion, was just as “unschooled” as they were!2 These men had walked with and were a reflection of Yeshua, their teacher.
This reaction is what the unbelieving world should be seeing in today’s disciples of Yeshua. If statistics are any indicators of truth, this is sadly not the reality in American Christianity and places where its influence has been felt. The authors of the book, The unChristian, discovered that 80% of unbelievers are not seeing what the Sanhedrin saw in first century disciples of Yeshua. These people, of whom 80% had gone to church and 84% knew a Christian personally, didn’t see Yeshua in His people or in the Body of Messiah. The lives of those who went to congregation were no different from the person who didn’t go to congregation. It appeared they only hung out with Yeshua at congregation and no where else.
This is exactly how Paul foresaw the “believers” in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 who would one day fill the seats of our services each weekend. They would be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” They looked good on the outside at the service but they looked awful, nothing like Yeshua, everywhere else they went.
I believe a research study done by the Barna Group gives the why to this sad situation. Their study revealed that 9 out of 10 of those who call themselves born-again believers do not live with a biblical worldview, meaning they don’t process each day’s circumstances through Yeshua and His Word.3 In short, Western believers are simply not experiencing the Yeshua of the Bible for themselves, let alone showing Him to the world.
This leads to more eye-opening data from the book, The Bridger Generation. From the Builder Generation (aka WW II) on down to Generation Y, people want less and less to do with the congregation Yeshua started. On any given weekend 65% of the Builders will be in a congregational meeting. Only 35% of the Boomers will be in a service. Generation X will have 15% and Generation Y will fill only 4% of the seats.
There can be many reasons for these results. Yet one thing is for sure: the outside world is not seeing Yeshua in us. Somewhere along the line we have either forgotten to make or how to make disciples of Yeshua. I believe it’s the latter and it’s my goal to help us rediscover the biblical meaning of the term and methodology of making disciples of Yeshua.
What is a Disciple?
Mathetes (Μαθητής), the biblical term for disciple, means to direct your mind to something or someone not merely to gather facts but to learn from and desire a deep fellowship with the person doing the discipling.4 A person is a disciple only when he has a teacher. We see an example of this the very first time the word is used in Matthew 5:1. Yeshua is getting ready to teach on the side of a hill and His disciples come to Him. Yeshua is teaching and they are learning.
Yet the meaning of mathetes isn’t a mere ascent to the teacher’s truths or filling one’s head with the right beliefs. It meant the disciple would actually incorporate those teachings into their daily life leading to a changed life and heart. The disciple had not been discipled unless what they put into their head came out in their behavior.
We discover this aspect in what Yeshua taught His disciples, “If you actually hold to My teachings, you are really My disciples.” (John 8:31-32) This word for “hold” means to practice them throughout each and every day, not just regurgitate the data back on a test or when asked, “What did you get out of the message?” Only after putting into practice what He taught, not before, did He say a disciple would know what Yeshua taught was true.
Normally, we want to “get it,” “understand it” and “know it’s true” before we practice it. This is not what Yeshua taught. He said to practice what He taught and then you’ll know from experience, not from your head, that what He taught was true. How will you know it? Your life will be changed as you experience true freedom. He was asking His disciples to trust Him, even if and/or when they thought His teachings might sound crazy.
This, in fact, did happen as “many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him” because His teachings were quite often difficult to grasp, let alone practice (John 6:25-66). Yeshua’s words “are Spirit and they are life.” Watering them down would have only hurt His disciples. After many disciples had left, Yeshua turned to the Twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” He gave them an open door to stop following Him. Yet they stuck around because He alone had “the words of eternal life.” Their trust in Him was slowly gaining momentum in their hearts and minds.
The term for disciple carries even more weight than having right beliefs and right behaviors. It’s also about being in love relationship with the Teacher. Yeshua tells the Ephesian congregation in Revelation 2:4 that they held the right beliefs and had done the right thing, but they were still falling short of being His disciples. He told them they forgot to be in love with Him. He repeated to this church what He had taught the Twelve, “You don’t obey Me because of tradition or religious beliefs. I didn’t give you a list of behaviors to follow. I gave you Myself. You do what you do now because you love Me.” (John 14:15 paraphrased)
Yeshua’s disciples love and follow Him. It’s not about doing anything for Yeshua, but about doing everything with Yeshua. Yeshua is saying to us, “Do you love Me? Then obey Me. Do you trust Me? Then practice what I’m teaching you.”
He knew they were not always going to understand everything He taught them either, so He asked them to trust Him, which is grounded in their love for Him. Yeshua gave His disciples a simple “formula,” if you will, to live by in John 8:31-32.
- Love Me.
- Trust Me enough to practice what I teach you even though you may not “get it” at the moment you hear it.
- You will know what I taught you is true because your life will be changed! You will know the truth from personal experience, not just head knowledge.
- You will experience freedom from all the negative consequences of your bad choices (aka sin) as your character is replaced with Mine.
This is biblical discipleship. In order to make disciples of Yeshua, people must be connected with Yeshua in a way that moves them to love and follow Him for themselves. This type of relationship will result in a greater love for and a life changed by Yeshua, which will enable the world to see Him.
This was radical stuff in His day. Some stuck with Him while others walked away. Yet Yeshua was simply continuing the theme of the Tanakh – a daily relationship with the living God.
Disciples in the Tanakh
If we follow mathetes back into the Tanakh by using the Septuagint, we find the word used only once in Isaiah 8:16 as a translation for the Hebrew word “limmud”. This occurrence in Isaiah 8:16 reads, “Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples.”
Whose disciples are they, Isaiah’s or God’s? The context of this verse is a conversation between God and Isaiah that starts in 8:11. Many translations start this conversation in verse 12 and end it after verse 15.5
It appears that Isaiah is speaking in verse 17 as it reads, “I will wait for the LORD.” God is not waiting on Himself. Thus, God was telling Isaiah to roll up the scroll that contained His words and give them to His disciples, not Isaiah’s.
This interpretation fits the entire context of the Tanakh. Only God had disciples – no one else. This was the message God sent through various means (directly and indirectly through nature, people and written word), “I want a relationship with My people.” They were to direct their minds to loving and walking with Him for themselves. We see this in the fact that He talked directly to and walked with all the major players from Adam to Moses.6
When the Israelites were suffering under slavery, God sent Moses to bring a message to His people – have a relationship with Me (Exodus 3:7-10). In fact, during Moses’ recruitment the L-RD introduces a new name by which He was to be called. God told Moses to “say to the Israelites, ‘The L-RD, the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.” (Exodus 3:15)
Even the Law with its sacrificial system (Leviticus 17:5) was to put people into relationship with their God (Leviticus 11:44;7 Galatians 2:23-25). Joshua, whom God, not Moses, picked to be the next leader after Moses (Numbers 27:15ff), told the people to “come here and listen to the words of the L-RD your God.” (Joshua 3:9 emphasis added) He didn’t say, “Come listen to my teachings about God.” He said to listen to the Lord your God for yourself.
This truth continued through the time of the judges (Judges 2:20-23) down to the kings and prophets, which included John the Baptist (John 1:19-27), and through the writings.8 The entire Tanakh is about God drawing people to learn from and have a relationship directly with Himself.
The idea of a master-disciple relationship is simply foreign to the Tanakh. It is solely about God interacting with His people both relationally and directly. As the Psalmist wrote, “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on Your statutes … for You Yourself have taught me.” (Psalm 119:99,102)
- It’s possible the Twelve and Jesus received some formal training. In Yeshua’s day there were three educational phases. One was called the Bet Sefer. Boys and girls ages six through twelve could attend synagogue school to learn to read and write using the Torah as their textbook. The second phase, called Bet Midrash, was for only boys ages thirteen to fifteen. They studied the Torah and learned the family trade. This is most likely where Jesus and the Twelve’s training ended (Matt. 13:55; Luke 2:41-48; John 18:15 – John knew or had ties to the high priest). The final phase, Bet Talmud, was for the best of the best of those 15-30, which for the cream meant they could possibly someday become rabbis themselves. Dan Stolebarger, Discipleship vs. Talmidim, Koinonia Institute, www.khouse.org/articles/2005/616.
- John 7:15 – the Jewish leadership didn’t believe Yeshua was properly discipled/studied. This opinion could have been based on the prevalent bias existing in Yeshua’s day against those coming from the Galilee region (Jn. 1:46), which in their minds would have excluded Him from being the Prophet/Messiah (John 7:40-42; 50-52).
- George Barna, “A Biblical Worldview Has a Radical Effect on Person’s Life,” www.barna.org, 2009, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/131-a-biblical-worldview-has-a-radical-effect-on-a-persons-life (accessed May 12, 2010).
- Gerhard Kittle, Editor, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, translator. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1967), μαθητής, 4:416-461.
- Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have quotation marks. Therefore, the context must tell the reader when a conversation begins and ends. It is my belief that the conversation ends after verse 16.
- Adam and Eve – Genesis 1:28; Cain – Genesis 4:6: Noah – Genesis 7:13; Abraham – Genesis 12:1; Isaac – Genesis 26:2; Jacob – Genesis 28:13.
- cf. 1 Peter 1:13 – “prepare your minds for action…be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
- Kings: Deuteronomy 17:19 – the kings wrote and had their own copy of the Law; Prophets: Jeremiah 1:7 – gave the message God gave him; Writings: 1 Chronicles 25:8 – the only time חלמ י ד talmid, scholar /student, which means to trade one’s own will for the will of God, is used is in the context of the singers being trained to speak for God in song.
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