As I sit in my hotel room in southern Jerusalem overlooking the city of Bethlehem, I cannot help but wonder if the Church, in its various forms of Christianity, is anything like Jesus intended. After His resurrection, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20).
What does it mean to be a disciple (a student) of Jesus the Messiah? To the first century Jew, was becoming a disciple more than making a decision to follow Jesus? Was becoming a disciple more than joining a church? I believe so. David Pileggi (i.e. Rector of Christ Church, Jerusalem) says that first-century discipleship involved loving the Torah (i.e. the books of the “Law” comprising the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), loving study, and imitating the one whom you were following. Discipleship involved entering into a relationship with someone who taught you and modeled for you the life of God. Let’s look at Discipleship a little more closely.
- Loving the Torah: The Hebrew word for Torah means direction, instruction, and guidance. If one wants guidance or instruction about anything in life, you go to the Scripture. If one wants life, he or she goes to the Scripture: “You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD." (Leviticus 18:4-5). The Old Testament mindset was that if you want God’s Presence to be with you, you will keep (or obey) His Word.
Jesus illuminates this obedience for His followers when He says that if a person obeys His Word, God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) will be with him: “Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.’" (John 14:15-16).
- Loving Study. For the Jews of the first-century and in many ways today, study was considered the highest form of worship. For the serious study of Scripture allows one to obey the Lord (you cannot obey what you do not know). Why? It humbles you. It helps you realize the awesomeness of God and the serious deficiency one has in following the Lord. Study enables us to understand the Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus. The Apostle John said: “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." (1 John 2:4-6). How do we know His Word? How do walk as Jesus did? Study. Jesus said: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). But what did he say just before this well-known verse? Listen to the whole saying: “. . .if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32).
- Imitation. Discipleship is not just intellectual. It is not just loving the Scriptures and loving study or going through a 10-week course. For the first-century Jew discipleship involved life-investment. A person would actually follow a person and he would see how the person applied what he was teaching in his life, in his relationships, in his business, in his personal disciplines, and in his family. The one teacher allowed the disciple to see how the truth lived in his life. That way, the disciple could imitate his holiness of life. The apostle Paul said it this way: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” (I Corinthians 4:15-17). Paul is saying that as he follows Jesus, imitate how he does it.
These are three basic understandings that first-century followers of Jesus would have understood about what being a disciple means. As you and I seek to be disciples and make disciples for Jesus, let us be people who love the Scripture, study the Scripture, and imitate Jesus Christ and the life he lived. Let us not be about just making more religious people, but people who are disciples of Jesus.
Dr. Foley Beach is the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America (Canada, US, and Mexico).