Discipleship in the Gospels: Assumptions Examined – Discipleship in the Original Jewish Context, Part 3


Read the series.

We have previously looked at how Elijah and Elisha set the tone for the relationship of a rabbi to his disciples. We also noted how the miracles Elijah and Elisha performed perhaps set the tone for Jesus’ miracles. In today’s post, we distinguish between the contemporary usage of “discipleship” and actual discipleship as demonstrated in the Gospels.1

Unlearning the Modern Western Understanding of Discipleship

In the evangelical Christian world, some have suggested that one can be saved (regenerate and heaven-bound) by faith in Christ without becoming one of his disciples. Others propose the opposite extreme: one cannot be saved without completely surrendering his or her life to Jesus Christ as disciples.2 Modern Christians tend to inflate the commitment level of the early church.3 Disciples – whether traveling or not – have always been human.

Such debates frequently detach themselves from the realities of what it meant to be a disciple within first century Judaism. From a theological viewpoint, we might argue that the term “disciple” could be a broader term than “believer”4 – and not the other way around.

In Mark 5:18-20, a formerly demonized man requests permission to accompany Yeshua (I assume he means to travel with Jesus as a disciple), but Jesus instructs him otherwise:

As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, ‘Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Jesus healed many people who did not follow after him in traveling discipleship, but some of these people believed and were transformed. In contrast, many who followed him as disciples later turned away from him.5

Since Christian converts were called talmidim (disciples) before they were ever called “Christians” – as seen in Acts 6:7, for example – we can guess that the very early church built upon the Jewish concept of discipleship.

Traveling Disciples Vs. Disciples Who Followed A Rabbi’s Teaching Without Traveling

Within the Gospels, we see the “Inner Three,” namely Peter, James, and John (e.g., Matthew 17:1), “The Twelve” disciples, the 70,6 perhaps the 120 (Acts 1:15), and large crowds of disciples on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:9). Many people believed in Jesus and tried to follow His teachings (and were thus disciples), but did not necessarily travel with Him through the countryside, as did the 12.

Many of Jesus’ teachings about discipleship seem to target “traveling disciples” who chose to leave their homes and experience intense training from Him for a time. This is quite different from committed lifelong disciples, some of whom may have never left home (obvious examples would be Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). Thus the word “disciple” is used in differing ways, so we need to be alert to the context.

Like many rabbis roaming the countryside with their dedicated groups of disciples, Jesus’ original traveling disciples followed Him to learn more about God and the way zealous Jews should live. Very early in Jesus’ ministry, some of the disciples postulated that Jesus was the Messiah. In John 1:41, Andrew, in his enthusiasm, approaches his brother:

He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ).

Despite Andrew’s exuberance, not all the disciples necessarily held that conviction. Even if all of the twelve did, their faith may have wavered at times. One wonders what Judas originally thought.

Do not forget, however, that Jesus had hundreds of other disciples who were never named as apostles. Some certainly entertained the idea that Jesus could be the Messiah, but we should not presume they all did.

There were and have been – even in modern times – instances where Jewish disciples of a rabbi wondered if their rabbi was perhaps the Messiah. For reasons we will explain later, these rabbis did not generally assert that they were indeed the Messiah – but evidence suggests that some of these individuals considered themselves to be the Messiah.

In modern times, for example, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is thought by some Hasidic Jews to be the awaited Messiah, even though he died in 1994. David Berger explains:

How, then, do some continue to believe that he is the messiah even after his passing? The answer is that they found a few sources legitimating the belief in a messiah who returns after his death to fulfill his mission.7

It might be best to understand Jesus’ early disciples as eager students who were exploring the possibility (with differing degrees of certainty) that Jesus was the Messiah.

What made a disciple a disciple was the desire to study, learn, memorize, obey, and develop friendships with fellow disciples, prioritizing their time and energy to do so. Study (with an emphasis on memorizing) was perhaps the key focus.

When Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33), He didn’t sound all that different from other rabbis. Some of Jesus’ teachings especially resembled those of Hillel.

He [Hillel] would stand at the gate of Jerusalem and meet people going to work. He questioned them, “How much will you make at work today?” One person would answer, “A denarius.” Another replied, “Two denarii.” Then he would ask them, “What will you do with your earnings?” They would reply, “We will buy what we need to live.” Then he challenged them, “Why don’t you come follow me and acquire knowledge of the Torah. Then you will receive life in this world as well as life in the future world?” In this way Hillel lived all his days and was able to bring many people under the wing of heaven.8

In time, the Jewish method of “traveling disciple-making” perhaps gave way to methods best suited for the church age (which, after 75 A.D., became mostly gentile). We might argue that the church is to be a disciple-making institution. Leading disciples were developed based upon the 2 Timothy 2:2 model, but the entire church body was discipled at some level based upon the Acts 2:42 model. It is an on-going, lifelong process, not a specific “basics” curriculum, but a perennial posture as a learner and doer.


1 The same issue arises when we ponder the usage of the terms “church” or “saint.”

2 The Gospel According to Jesus by John F. MacArthur is perhaps the premiere work advocating “Lordship Salvation.”

3 Although we tend to focus upon the heroes within the first century church, we would do well to pay attention to the implications of some of Paul’s statements. Take, for example, Philippians 2:19-21 (ESV), “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”

It seems obvious that the early believers struggled with consistent surrender, as do modern believers.

4 John 6:66 makes the point: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him…”

5 See John 6:66.

6 70 or 72 in some manuscripts (Luke 10:1).

8 Avot R. Nat., vers. B, ch. 26, cited by Brad Young in Meet the Rabbis, p. 192.

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at edvasicek.com. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.


Ed Vasicek wrote: From a theological viewpoint, we might argue that the term “disciple” could be a broader term than “believer”

Ed Vasicek wrote: Jesus healed many people who did not follow after him in traveling discipleship, but some of these people believed and were transformed. In contrast, many who followed him as disciples later turned away from him.

Good points.

It seems that in many churches and ministries we latch on to Bible words but use them in non-biblical ways. We’re still doing biblical things, but being sloppy about what we call them. Arguably, without a traveling rabbi, nothing we do now is quite “discipleship” in the NT sense.

But there is overlap: We’re “following” Jesus to learn, grow, imitate Him… just not following geographically. And in church life we’re doing more: teaching and admonishing one another (Col 3:16, 1 Thess 5:11), worshiping and praying together (Eph 5:19, Ac 2:42), and serving one another through gifts (1 Pet 4.10)… and sharing in sorrows and joys (Rom 12:15). “Discipleship” is too small of a term to cover it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron wrote:

“Discipleship” is too small of a term to cover it.

You are correct. Disciples do these things, but they are the implementation of what they have learned, in a sense. They might be considered part of the “doing” aspect of discipleship. You are correct to say that these things overlap. There are several angles of the Christian life through which everything can be viewed, but they do not exclude one another. We could say that discipleship is part of the broader concept of glorifying God. Or we could say it is part of the broader concept of the 2 great commandments, loving God and others. Or we could say glorifying God is a central focus of discipleship or obeying the two commandments. It is insightful to realize this, IMO. The point is that they all need to be included, even if we move things around under various umbrellas.

"The Midrash Detective"