By Dr. Barry Thornton
One of Leonardo da Vinci’s works now hangs, in all its brilliance, in the National Gallery in London, England. The “Virgin of the Rocks” had undergone 18 months of specialized treatment to bring out the brilliance of the painting and restore it to near original condition. Centuries of overlays of varnish and dust had yellowed and cracked the painting, hiding its original luster.
We might say something similar has happened to the church. After centuries of cultural and sentimental varnish and dust, many of the concepts and teachings in the New Testament have been marginalized. This has led, in several cases, to the creation of a one-dimensional understanding of critical concepts for Christian living.
Becoming a disciple of Christ is often reduced to a list of terms to be learned and behaviors to be imitated. Worse, discipleship has often been reduced to a cliché.
Jesus commanded his followers to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20). And yet, what does making disciples mean? Simply saying an individual needs to become a learner misses the importance and depth of Jesus’ command. Ask believers around the world what discipleship is and you’ll often hear a response framed to fit cultural norms and personal abilities. Digging deeper, one must understand the cultural setting and expectations upon which Jesus based his call to
Jesus Christ, raised in a Hebrew family, would have started the process of discipleship from an early age. He would have followed a pattern for learning that included parental instruction and rabbinical teaching in the synagogue. The process called for strict attention, unwavering purpose, and a development of self based in tradition and teaching from the Old Testament.
Hebrew children were taught to revere the Word of God. The first passage children were taught to memorize was Deuteronomy 6:4, which speaks of God’s holiness and unique nature over other gods. Is it any wonder Jesus quoted from the book of Deuteronomy more than any other book from the first five books of the Old Testament?
As a Hebrew child progressed in his education, he would have memorized as much of the first five books of the Old Testament as possible. Parents were exhorted to impress their children with biblical truth when they awoke and before they slept, with other reminders placed on their hands and foreheads, doorframes, and gates (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
Hebrew children followed a stringent regimen of learning. Later, Hebrew boys were called to become disciples under a rabbi—not just to acquire information, but to experience life transformation as the young disciple imitated every word and action of his teacher.
The Mishnah, a compilation of rabbinic traditions surrounding the time of Christ, references a popular phrase used by rabbis to encourage their disciples: “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.” This concept, contemporary to Jesus, was an indication of how closely disciples literally followed their rabbis, imitating them in speech and action.
This practice is illustrated in the life of Jesus. He stated in Matthew 16:24, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (King James Version). The Greek word for “coming after” means to get behind an individual. Jesus actually called his disciples not only to follow his teachings, but to follow him! This is important in that someone may believe the teachings of Jesus and still not be following Jesus through imitation and action. Disciples were expected to know the words of their rabbi by heart.
The mission of the rabbi was to provide a living example of what it means to apply God’s Word to one’s life. In essence, discipleship involved not only acquiring a master’s knowledge, but acquiring his character, internalizing God’s law in the head and the heart, bringing a three-dimensional perspective to biblical truth.
Jesus knew what it meant not only to be a disciple, but to be a teacher with followers, all based in a culture that commonly modeled discipleship as a way of life. Jesus’ command to make disciples was cast first in Hebrew culture, rooted in Hebrew teaching, and based upon obedience. In fulfillment of Jesus’ commission, three words stand out as the metaphoric basis for making disciples.
Sanctification, the act being set apart for holy purposes, describes the positional and propositional stature of a disciple. Positionally, a disciple is set apart by the blood of Christ as a clean vessel. He is free from the penalty and guilt of sin—not by his own efforts, but by the work accomplished by Christ on the cross.
A second aspect of sanctification points to the propositional nature of the disciple’s calling, that is, to do good works. Ephesians 2:8-10 shows that we are saved “to do good works,” a way to “work out our own salvation” (Philippians 2:12).
Understanding that we have not only a position in Christ but also a purpose is the starting point to understanding our mandate for being obedient disciples. As the apostle Paul says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” A disciple lays down his old identity and begins to live out a new identity in Christ (see Romans 12:1, 2; Colossians 3:1-4; Romans 6; and Galatians 3:26-28). The first principle of discipleship is this: We are set apart for the purpose of doing whatever Christ commands.
Jesus pointed to the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep as a way to help disciples understand their responsibilities. Following the voice and leading of the shepherd is a central theme in this metaphor. Jesus called himself “the Good Shepherd.” He wanted his followers to understand that obedient sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice and obey it on command. In Palestine, flocks of sheep might intermingle while grazing the hills and valleys; but when their shepherd spoke, the flock responded immediately to his voice.
The church today must make sure Jesus’ disciples are taught to obey his voice through his Word. The Hebrew language contains about 8,000 words, and Hebrew verbs almost always carry an expectation of responsive action. Sheep are not taught simply to inhabit a pen. They must learn to respond to the shepherd’s voice. This is what Jesus meant in the Great Commission when he commanded his followers to “teach them to obey whatsoever I have commanded you.”
There is a difference between getting sheep into a pen and teaching them to respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd! Discipleship that lacks obedience is little more than the sharing of information. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Sheep that are simply conditioned to inhabit a pen are easily lost. Sheep that have learned to hear and obey the voice of the shepherd never lack sustenance and direction.
The term slave is used throughout the Old and New Testaments to identify followers of God. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews repeatedly failed to realize that God rescued them from foreign slavery so they could become his slaves. The New Testament continues this theme. The Greek word doulos, translated “slave,” is used to describe the relationship we have with Christ. Some translations render doulos as “servant,” but the word always has reference to being a slave. The distinction between the two words is critical. Servants are “hired” but slaves are “bought!” (Slave, by John MacArthur, Thomas Nelson, 2010). It is the very reason the apostle Paul says, “You were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 7:23) and “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”(Galatians 2:20). As a disciple, I should constantly be learning the fine art of being a slave.
Peeling back the sentimental and cultural varnish is the key to understanding discipleship today. Only then can we see the brilliance of the painting Jesus wants us to see in discipleship!
Dr. Barry Thornton is the director of development, an instructor, and a church consultant with Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.
The Lost Art of Disciple Making
by LeRoy Eims
Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples
by Francis Chan, with Mark Beuving
(David C. Cook, 2012)
The Cost of Discipleship
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
by J. Oswald Sanders
(Moody Publishers, 1994)
Starting Well: A Discipleship Journal Guide to Helping Others Grow in Christ
by Adam R. Holz
by Jonathan K. Dodson
(Crossway Books & Bibles, 2012)
Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time
by Greg Ogden
(InterVarsity Press, 2003)
The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ
by Bill Hull
For Further Reading
Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus
By Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg
Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus
By Lois Tverberg
By John MacArthur
(Thomas Nelson, 2012)
What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer
by Jack Cottrell
(Wipf & Stock, 2001)
The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content
by Bruce M. Metzger
(James Clark Company, 2001)
Jewish Culture and Custom: A Sampler of Jewish Life
By Steve Herzig
(Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1997)