Over the years I have tried to pass on age appropriate wisdom to our children such as:
- In elementary school: Never tie your shoes in a revolving door
- In high school: It is not illegal to be stupid but it is expensive
- In college: Truth flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana
- In marriage: Words are stupid things, it’s meaning that counts
A friend of mine was explaining to his five year old son Charlie that in the summer the family was going to take a road trip to California, stopping along the way to see the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam.
“Do you know what a dam does?” he asked Charlie.
“Sure dad”, he replied, “it holds back water!”
“That’s right but did you know that a dam also makes electricity?”
Without hesitation Charlie responded, “Then praise God for beavers!”
Same word, different mental pictures. We have the same confusion when it comes to the concept of discipleship. The question we need to answer is, when Jesus used the word “disciple”, is the concept (picture) in His mind the same that is in ours?
For a moment I want to invite you to take the mental picture of discipleship that hangs in the gallery of your cognitive unconscious mind and bring it into the workshop of your conscious mind. Now examine it in light of the following explanation.
Disciple is a word/concept that is uncommon in our current culture. To understand it we usually go back to the Greek word (MATHTES) which means student, pupil, or learner. The problem is that, although our New Testament was written in Greek, it came from a Hebrew or Aramaic speaking people. Eventually it was translated into English. The result is the word has not only passed through three different languages but a myriad of cultures as well. If we are to understand the picture of discipleship that Jesus had in His mind, we need to go back to His culture and see how it was used.
“Disciple” is not an insignificant word in the New Testament. It is used 264 times in the four Gospels and Acts. However, it is never used in the Epistles. It is safe to assume that since it was a word/concept critical to Jesus ministry and commission, the concept would carry on even if the word drops from the biblical vocabulary.
The Hebrew word for disciple is talmid (pronounced: tal-meed). In first century Palestine, the word disciple was used primarily for the relationship between a rabbi and his followers. A rabbi was different from a teacher of the law (scribe). A teacher of the law could interpret the books of the Law (first 5 books in our Old Testament), but a rabbi could interpret the entire Hebrew Scripture.
A disciple of a rabbi was not only committed to learn what the rabbi knew but to emulate his life in every way possible. Rabbinical disciples followed their master 24/7 in order to learn how to live life as he lived it. That is why Jesus said in Luke 6:40, “A pupil (disciple) is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.” From this statement we see that in the culture of Jesus’ day, a disciple was trained (not simply taught) and that it was a holistic approach, affecting every area of life.
The term apprentice creates a word picture that can help us capture the meaning of Jesus’s discipleship. Even though it is not as commonly used as it was in past European days, it still carries the idea of learning skills or a trade.
In the Middle Ages commerce was done primarily through the family business. As population and travel increased, a shoemaker and his family, for example, often found they could not meet the demand for shoes. This led to hiring an apprentice to join him and learn the family business. The apprentice learned not only about leather, dyes, and feet, but he was actually trained and equipped to make the shoes and run the family business.
There are several elements of historical apprenticeship that fit the New Testament concept of disciple:
- It required information and skills
- It required a skilled practitioner (model, coach, teacher)
- It involved a demonstration of acquired skills
- The training was over an extended period of time
- The training or equipping was done by on the job training
Our culturally academic view of discipleship is based more on the Greek model rather than the Hebrew one. Jesus’ “family business” was doing the will of His Father. He recruited disciples/apprentices to take on not only His character but His kingdom mission. This is what He meant by “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19).
In view of the historical context of first century discipleship, consider the following definition.
A Disciple is an intentional apprentice of Jesus and His kingdom (Luke 6:40; Matt 6:33).
Shifting from a cultural picture of discipleship to a New Testament one requires we move from discipleship as:
- A destination to a direction
- Programs to a lifelong process
- Passive to active (pursuit)
- Informational to transformational
- “What’s in it for me?” to “How do I live for His kingdom?”
I suspect that as we gain a clearer picture of the discipleship Jesus had in mind, we will find it looks surprisingly more like Hoover Dam than a beaver dam.
*In the next blog I will explore a description of discipleship on the resurrection side of the cross that can help us both be and make His disciples.
**See Blogs 1-4 for additional discussion on the term “disciple”.
Questions for reflection
- How do you respond to the statement: “NT discipleship is more like a verb than a noun”
- What skills are needed to apprentice the King and carry out our Father’s business?