Discipleship is a funny word. For what it conjures up as a definition in our minds has become so far removed from the meaning we find in the pages of the New Testament that it has become difficult to see the real union between the two. We have, in this modern-day, all-inclusive church, supplanted the meaning of disciple with that of believer. Just because you believe, doesn’t make you a disciple. In fact, we should define a clear difference between the two, especially when you look at what is written in the pages of the New Testament.
Yesterday, whilst helping a master craftsman, in the shape of a friend who is a carpenter, I realised the difference between believer and disciple. As I watched carefully, this skilled carpenter made a perfectly straight section of work surface fit a wall that bowed, first one way, and then the other. I realised that he wasn’t guessing (as I would have done) when he cut the surface; that he had done this many times before; that he had been taught by another master craftsman, until he was as proficient as his teacher. It was then I realised that the closest example of what discipleship is (or rather should be) won’t be found in churches or bible colleges, but in the relationship between a highly skilled tradesman and his apprentice. The work surface, which now fitted the wall perfectly and snugly all along its length, is a testament that this carpenter had once been an apprentice himself. And now, he is (on the odd occasions when I actually pay attention), in turn, teaching me.
Of late, I have come to realise that this is how God is teaching me – that He has enrolled me in His apprenticeship course so that I can learn everything there is to know about being His disciple. And when I have learned enough, then (and only then), will I be in a position to make disciples for Him.
I have a feeling that this particular subject may take up a great deal of pages, so I am entitling this ‘Part One’. I may get what I want to say into a single part, but I suspect that there is so much to get through that it will take several instalments. I want to go through this slowly. I want to try and explain (if I can) my own experience that is happening right now. After almost thirty years of calling myself His disciple, I am only just starting to vaguely understand what that might mean. I can only tell you that it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.
Over the course of this series we will take a look at what the notion of discipleship meant in practice to the Hebrew people of the 1st century AD. We will look at the role of bible colleges as places of discipleship. And will take a look at what the church calls discipleship. I hope you will be surprised at what my research has thrown up so far.
I think the first thing that needs to be said is that whatever discipleship has come to mean today is not what it meant back in the time when Yeshua walked the earth. We have a tendency, naturally, to look at the things of the Scriptures and the New Testament wholly from our own perspective. However, my own experience has taught me that if you take a fresh look at all of it from what it would have been like to be a young Hebrew man or woman in the early part of the first century AD, you will learn a great deal more. I mean this not only because of the cultural references, which will honestly amaze you, but also because when you stand in a place from which you view the world from a Hebrew perspective, you see things differently, and gain understanding of the original context of what God said through His prophets, as well as the words and actions of Yeshua, whom He sent to save the world.
I have written elsewhere about what life as a disciple would have been like under the teaching of a first century Rabbi, but I think this series warrants taking a fresh look at not only what I have previously learnt, but what I am learning now. If you can, I want you to forget the modern notion of what the term Rabbi means today. The modern rabbi is far removed from the rabbi of Yeshua’s day. I also want you to try to forget what today’s church has been teaching about discipleship, because it clearly isn’t what God intended it to be. For if it was, the world would be full of Peters, Pauls, Johns, and Timothys, all able to allow God’s Holy Spirit to work through them with the same kind of signs and wonders to act as confirmation of His gospel being preached. I think it is safe to say that the lack of signs and wonders is directly connected to the lack of preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven, and that, in turn, is connected to the lack of true disciples ready to serve in God’s kingdom. How can anyone preach about a kingdom to which they haven’t already subjected themselves? Of course, the church will make up other excuses for why we aren’t seeing signs and wonders – highly technical reasons to justify their own inertia. These are just theories – manmade theology. I want to try to deal with facts rather than speculation. Whatever the reason you happen to believe lays behind the lack of the kinds of signs and wonders which we find written down in the book of Acts, the fact is we simply don’t see them anymore. For the record, I am not including the cheap conjuring tricks performed by some preachers as being of God.
I want you to imagine life in the early first century Isra’el. You are a Hebrew, from either the tribe of Judah or Benjamin (the other ten tribes are still lost in exile). You are living in the north of Isra’el, in one of the numerous fishing villages around the only source of fresh water in the entire country – the Lake of Galilee. Your village compromises of perhaps ten or twelve extended families. Your own family comprises of four generations, of which you are a the oldest of the youngest generation. You are not yet twenty years old. You work in your father’s profession, perhaps as a boat hand on the fishing boat which belongs to the entire family. Maybe your father, or uncle, is an artisan – skilled in stone carving or carpentry.
You live with your entire family in a series of stone and wood houses which are shared by both people and animals. The houses are built all around a central courtyard, which acts as the village or town square. It is a place where the people of the entire village come together. Everything happens here – produce is traded; food is eaten; children play; adults theorize.
In the square there is a building big enough to hold almost the entire village – perhaps 200 people, all standing. This building, called the Synagogue, acts as a school, a place of worship and teaching, a place where births are dedicated, and marriages performed. Today, we might call it a community or village hall. It would have been used every day.
The village governs itself. Of course, the Romans have enforced their laws upon the villagers, just as the Greeks, and the Persians, and the Babylonians, and the Egyptians have done before them. But the village has its own rules, based entirely upon the Torah (the first five books of our modern Bibles), the Writings (the Psalms and the Prophets) and the Mishnah – the oral traditions and interpretations of Torah. There isn’t any separation between religious and civil law, as we see today – there is only one law.
Judgement on matters that breach the law are dealt with by the elders of the village. These are usually the most senior men from each family. Traditionally, in bigger towns and cities, they would have sat in the gatehouse of the city and decided upon the issues of the day, but here in the smaller villages around the lake, they would have sat in the square. Between them, they would have presided over both civil and religious matters according to Torah and their local traditions. One of these elders may have been called Rabbi. The word Rabbi is one of those words that doesn’t get translated but is, instead, transliterated. That is to say that it sounds the same when spoken in Hebrew and English despite being spelled with two different sets of letters.
The word itself, Rabbi, is from the root Hebrew words of rab (meaning master) and rabab (meaning to shoot an arrow). This notion of shooting an arrow is inextricably linked to Torah (which means instruction) because the term to sin, which is the act of failing to observe Torah correctly, is from a word that means to fail to hit the target with an arrow. In simpler terms, the term Rabbi was only given to those whose understanding and practice of Torah hit the target which Moses had prescribed – that of being set apart from the rest. Perhaps the cultural meaning of the day would have been respected teacher.
In a small fishing village, such as Capernaum, a Rabbi would have either been elected from their own number or, if he was of great repute, he may have been employed by the village from elsewhere in the region.
In a village, such as the one you find yourself in, the role of the Rabbi was multi-layered. Not only did he oversee the running of services on Shabbat at the Synagogue, but also he would have been present as a witness to engagement covenants; performed wedding ceremonies; circumcised the males babies; performed dedication ceremonies on children, livestock, crops, and buildings, but he would have also have been the teacher to the children of the village, and the deciding voice in any dispute of interpretation of Torah. In other words, the entire village would have hung upon his every word and conceded any point to his wisdom.
The region of Galilee itself was settled by the true faithful after their return from exile in Babylon. These families were determined not to go the ways which their forefathers had when they turned their backs upon Yehovah and His ways in favour of their own ways. They planned to keep faithful to God by keeping their traditions and attempting to live as God had prescribed they should, both in the wilderness and when they first entered the Promised Land.
They settled in Galilee because Judea (the best land) was already largely settled. And besides that, the kind of religion which was being practiced in Judea at the time of their return from exile, was largely ceremonial and connected entirely with the temple. Judaism in Judea had become secularised over the years of, firstly, Greek, and then, Roman occupation. The people who settled in Galilee were far more devoted to God and His Torah, in genuine terms, than those in the south, whose faithfulness to Yehovah was almost entirely superficial.
So, when they settled in Galilee, they brought with them the customs which they had practiced in Babylonian. Unable to get to Jerusalem to the temple, they had built and attended synagogues. They observed Torah, and the rest of the writings – the Psalms, and the Prophets. Those in Judea were really only interested in Torah. Away from their homeland, the need to preserve their way of life, these Hebrews devoted themselves to God’s writings. A good example of how they lived in Babylon can be seen in the lives of Daniel and his friends, who chose to maintain their old ways rather than allowing the pagan rituals and practices to pollute them.
Naturally, such devotion to God’s word would have produced people who were well versed in the Scriptures. These people were able to teach others – both young and old, about God’s ways, and about how to maintain a right relationship with Him. It was these people who became known as Rabbis.
Some of the Rabbis achieved excellence in all things from Scripture and they were able to offer the people their own interpretations of what God meant in certain passages. These particular Rabbis had more respect amongst the people than some of the others and were deemed to have s’mikah, which means authority. That is to say, that they taught from the Scriptures with real authority. So, even then, back in Babylon, there was a clear order amongst rabbis. Some were merely teachers of the Law – in the New Testament there are denoted by being called Scribes or Teachers of the Law. And others were far more respected because of the authority with which they taught. These s’mikah rabbis were the ones whose names are still well know, especially amongst Hasidic Hebrews today. Their names are the stuff of legends, but not only because of what they taught or they way in which they taught it, but also because of the authority they had over certain sickness, diseases, and evil spirits. Today, these s’mikah are often referred to as the Sages.
So, let us return to our fishing village scene in Galilee. The Rabbi is well respected. He may be a rabbi of authority, but equally, he may be merely a teacher of Torah. He will know all of the other rabbis in the entire region, and they will know him. If he speaks with authority, it will probably be the authority of another rabbi, one with his own s’mikah. The documented evidence of the Hebrews of Galilee suggests that they were all Pharisees. Now, don’t get alarmed. The term Pharisee is used today in a derogatory way (it is easy to judge those we think are doing it wrong!). However, back then, amongst the people of the Galilee, it described them all – those who had chosen to adhere to the entirety of God’s word and not live in the superficial manner as the Sadducees of Judea did.
Of course, after time, people become full of their own self-importance – particularly when they are convinced that they are doing what God actually wants. You can just imagine what it would have been like when Yeshua turned up and started preaching something different to their own teaching. It would be like me going to the local megachurch and telling them that what they were doing on a Sunday isn’t what God meant for them to do – they would close ranks and reject what I am saying and try to discredit me. Just as the Pharisees did with Yeshua.
But, for hundreds of years leading up to Yeshua’s appearance in Galilee, the Pharisees had been the dominant influence in that entire region. They believed that their traditions were what God wanted. The people believed it too, even if some of the traditions and rituals made righteousness beyond the reach of most. In the absence of a prophet (Isra’el had seen no prophet for almost 400 years), they had no choice but to carry on doing what they believed to be right.
And the rabbis of the Pharisee tradition were the ones who decided what happened in villages. It was their advice that everyone sought. It was their favour that everyone sought. The Rabbi taught their children (we will come onto the unique education system in the next part); healed (some) of the sicknesses and diseases; chased out certain demons; and even raised the dead (providing that they had only been dead for up to three days). We will look at all of these things in greater detail in the next part. But for now, I want to leave you thinking about the influence your Rabbi would have had in your little village. Think about how the people would have wanted to please him. Think about the honour of the Rabbi eating at your table. Think about the wisdom he would bring when asked about a certain difficult passage of the Scriptures. Think about the fact that there would be only one person in your village whom you would call Rabbi.
In the next part we will look specifically at the role of the rabbi and what his duties included. This will add so much light to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that you will wonder at how you hadn’t seen it before. Well, we will also answer that point later in another part. For now, keep thinking about what life in a 1st century fishing village on the banks of Lake Galilee would be like. Do some research. Get into character.
Until next time,