The real meaning of discipleship


What did Jesus mean when he talked about discipleship?  That was a question the "discipleship movement" of the 1970s sought to answer. In general, the body of Christ, at least on the North American continent, moved on without listening much. But in the New Testament, the word "disciple" is used about 250 times, and mostly in connection with following Jesus, so it's obviously a very important concept. My suggestion is we can't really understand what it means to follow Jesus without understanding more about discipleship than we often do. It was a common practice for educated and well-connected Jewish men to become disciples of leading Rabbis, which in turn would lead to them assuming the same role toward others. They would take in his teaching and pass it on to others. Such a position would be financially and socially rewarding. So when Jesus appeared on the scene, the most natural way people had of understanding him was as a Rabbi, and those following him would become his disciples.

But from the beginning, Jesus changed the entire meaning of discipleship. A fundamental characteristic of New Testament discipleship is that Jesus called the disciples to himself, whereas in Judaism a disciple decided which teacher he was going to follow. Neither were there any particular qualifications (social or educational) needed, other than the willingness to follow Jesus. That is why Jesus called tax gatherers and sinners to be his disciples, and scandalized the religious establishment in the process. And as to earthly benefits, there were certainly few of them involved in following Jesus! The commitment of his followers was to the person of Jesus, whereas in Judaism it was to the teaching of the Rabbi. With Jesus, a person follows his teaching only because he has encountered his person.

People tried to understand Jesus' teaching, but without understanding  who he was or being willing to follow him. That's why even learned teachers could not get what Jesus was saying -- look at the Pharisees or even Nicodemus. In Christian discipleship, the Word of God becomes powerful in someone's life only to the extent that they are willing to follow Jesus in personal commitment. If you try to follow Jesus' teaching without knowing him personally, you will wind up either in utter failure or in legalistic hypocrisy. In Judaism, the relationship of disciple to teacher was determined by the teaching, so that someone would follow a particular Rabbi in order to get his teaching or interpretation of the Bible more than a heart knowledge of God. But without a heart knowledge of God, even the most learned theologian will never understand the Bible or the God who inspired it. And this led directly to the Pharisaical legalism that nailed Jesus to the cross. But the people who followed Jesus did so simply because they were committed to him as a person and to whom they understood him to be.

Discipleship is not about knowledge of doctrine, but about faith in a person. Doctrine (a right understanding of the Bible) is important, but it is birthed in an encounter with Jesus and a revelation from God as to who Jesus is. In Judaism, a disciple's obedience was limited to agreement with the Rabbi's teaching. By contrast, Jesus' disciples are called to obey him in every part of their lives. There is nothing in the life of a disciple independent of Jesus. Everything we have and are is drawn into fellowship with him. But the way of Jesus leads to the cross, and so we also are drawn into the path of sacrifice and suffering with him. Maybe that's why the discipleship movement didn't gain many converts!

The bottom line is this: the reason we often fail to reproduce New Testament Christianity in our culture has something to do with the fact we equally fail to understand the meaning of New Testament discipleship. It's a thought to ponder.