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Discipleship is an institution specific to the Jewish culture. It was designed by Jews and passed down by Jews. Messianic viewpoint.
Photo by Anton Mislawsky / Unsplash

by Jonathan Daugherty

One of the most well-known passages in our Gospels is about discipleship.  It’s the passage that every missionary organization speaks about and uses to inspire people to action.  In fact, it is these words that our Master left us with before His ascension to the Heavenlies!  It reminds us of Jacob’s last words to his sons before He left to sleep with his fathers.  He wanted to leave them with very important, weighty words that they would take with them throughout their generations.  And here in Matthew, Jesus is doing the same.  This is His last chance to speak into the lives of His disciples in such a tangible way.  What would he say to us?  Would He speak to us of the value and character of love?  Would He give us final eschatological instructions before the rough times come?  No.  Rather He spoke to us of a very Jewish concept—the institution of discipleship.

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in Heaven and Earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Throughout the last 2000 years, we in the Christian Church have extended the message of the Gospel into much of the known world.  We’ve traveled into the farthest reaches of the globe to share a message about Jesus of Nazareth to the various tribes and clans that we know of.  We’ve gone in groups of two or three.  Some of our forefathers even carried the message alone.  We’ve held services in stadiums with tens of thousands of eager ears listening to the words of a preacher.  By the millions people, have heard the message, believed the message and given their hearts to this Jesus, the Messiah.  Often times, in the wake of these events, you’ll hear the cry of lament that we don’t have the resources to properly disciple these many new converts.  These converts have had an internal change, yet they are left to themselves and more often than not, the world’s pressures pull them right back into the same lifestyle that they were formally living.

We feel the need for discipleship.  After all, Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make converts; He told us to make disciples!  But unfortunately, to many of us, making disciples means leading converts through a 12-week course on the elementary principles of our faith.  We look at Jesus’ teachings on love and forgiveness.  We talk about the necessity of reading our Bibles and spending personal time in prayer every day.  We touch on subjects like the life of the Spirit vs. legalism, the fruit of the Spirit vs. the works of the flesh, love of God vs. love of the world, etc.  And these are all important and necessary subjects to talk about with new believers, but is it quite fulfilling Jesus’ intent to make disciples?  I don’t think so.

You see, discipleship is an institution specific to the Jewish culture.  It was designed by Jews and passed down by Jews.  Outside of a Jewish context, it loses most of its sense.  But when we look at Jewish discipleship as it was understood within the context of Jesus’ first century setting, we’ll begin to understand just what Jesus was demanding that we do among the nations.  So let’s do that—let’s look at discipleship from its original Jewish perspective.


From the days of Moses, Israel has held a tendency to stray from God’s ways and turn to the imaginations of their own hearts.  Over and over again, we read in the Scripture about Israel committing idolatry and being oppressed by and enemy for chastisement.  The Prophets were sent to call the people to repentance.  And there were times when Israel responded in heart-felt obedience, but too often that return was short lived.  Eventually this stubbornness on Israel’s behalf gave way to exile among the nations.  The northern tribes, the House of Israel, was exiled under the hand of the Assyrians; the southern 2 tribes, the House of Judah, was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.

The captivity of the House of Judah was not as resolute as the exile of the northern tribes.  Judah’s captivity, according to the prophet Jeremiah, was to last 70 years, in order to give the land time to catch up on its sabbatical years.  Many of our stories are connected to this time of captivity.

  • Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abidnego were among these exiles, living in the King’s court, refusing to eat his food.  It was in Babylon that Daniel interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar concerning the upcoming world powers.  Toward the end of this allotted exile, the Medo-Persian forces conquered Babylon and Daniel befriended the new king.
  • We know Darius, a Median King, as the king who regrettably had to throw Daniel into the lion’s den, and then ran out the next morning to see if he was spared.
  • Cyrus, a king of Persia, gave the decree that Israel could return from Babylon to their ancestral land and rebuild their city.
  • Later on we read the story of Esther, who through God’s providence married yet another King of Persia—Xerxes.

But we also know of Nehemiah, Zechariah, Ezra and Haggai. These men, under the governorship of Zerubabel, lead a zealous remnant to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple on a quest to restore the Divine Presence of God back in the Land and among His people.  The stories from our books of Nehemiah and Ezra are touching accounts of this revival among the remnant of Judah.  Faced with enemies all around, they would build the walls of the Holy City holding trowels in one hand and a sword in the other!  Ezra discovered a copy of the Torah and read it to all the people, who, when they heard it, prostrated themselves and wept.

Among this generation of men grew a leadership that came to be known as the Men of the Great Assembly.  This leadership assembly recognized that the exile of Israel wasn’t a result of a weak military strategy, or faulty foreign policy; but rather, it was a result of forsaking the commandments of God’s Law.  In their newly restored state, they understood that God’s protection would be a result of righteous living, and they sought a means to cultivate that among Israel.  In the Mishnah, an early rabbinical work, we find this statement in the section called the Sayings of the Fathers:

“Moses received the Torah [God’s Law] at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua transmitted it to the elders, and the elders transmitted it to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.  The Men of the Great Assembly used to say three things:  Be diligent in justice, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.” (m. Avot 1:1)

These Shepherds of Israel developed this 3-winged approach to thwart any future exiles.  The first instruction was to “be diligent in justice”.  Injustice is a major concern of Yahweh in the Scriptures.  He speaks about justice all throughout the Torah and the prophets.  This was one of God’s chief complaints against Israel—their judges were taking bribes and making self-serving decisions!  The elders of the Great Assembly instructed that this had to stop!  The judges of Israel should be diligent to investigate matters and judge righteously among the people.

Another instruction was to “make a fence around the Torah”.  Originally, this instruction was given with good intention.  Rather than seeing how close we can get to transgression without stepping over the line, let’s make boundaries that will serve as a buffer so that we don’t break the commandments of God’s Torah.  So when God’s Torah says not to work on the Sabbath, the rabbis developed a list explaining what work was.  When God’s Torah instructed the priesthood in its level of holiness in the Temple, the rabbis began to apply these same standards to all Jewish people.  Eventually, this heaped up an insurmountable weight of extra manmade commandments that made the instructions of the Torah burdensome.  It was these manmade doctrines that Jesus so often criticized in His teachings and berated the Pharisaical leadership for.  But originally, the intent was to stay far away from breaking God’s Laws and hence head off another exile.


According to some traditions, the Men of the Great Assembly, under the leadership of Ezra, designed the synagogue system that we find in the Gospels.  This would explain why we don’t have synagogues in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), but they’re everywhere in the Gospels!  The word synagogue is a Greek word.  In Hebrew, it’s called the Beit Midrash—the House of Study.  It was a place where people could come to hear the Torah read and teachers would explain its meaning.  Back in Ezra’s day, the farmers from outlying areas would travel to the cities to barter and trade.  According to tradition, Ezra designed a Scripture rotation where the Torah was read on Tuesdays, Thursdays and on the Sabbath.  On the Sabbath, Israel would gather in their local Beit Midrash (synagogue) and they would hear the Law and the Prophets read to them.

Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly believed that in order for Israel to live righteously as defined by God’s Law, they would have to know God’s Law.  And if they were to understand God’s Law, they would need teachers.  And in order to raise up teachers, those teachers would first have to be disciples!

So the Sages and rabbis of Israel began to take men under their arms and make them into disciples, or students.  All of the great Sages had disciples.  History tells us that Hillel, one of the most famous Sages of Judaism, was said to have 70 disciples.  Yochanon ben Zachai, one of Hillel’s disciples, had 5 main disciples.  Rabbi Akiva, also had 5 main disciples, but also is described as having thousands who followed him to learn Torah.  As you know, our Rabbi Yeshua HaNatzerim [Jesus of Nazareth] raised up 12 main disciples, but also had thousands (and maybe tens of thousands) that followed Him to hear His teachings on the Torah!

The idea was that a disciple was to become just like his teacher.  In Luke 6:40, Jesus said, “Every disciple, after he has been fully trained, will be like his Teacher.”  This is the essence of Jewish Discipleship.  Discipleship is the art of imitation!!  When the disciple was fully trained, he became the teacher himself.  He then passed on the teaching to disciples of his own, who in turn, when fully trained, became teachers and raised up disciples of their own.  It was far more involved than just learning some elementary principles in the faith.  The Jewish disciple strove to become just like his teacher.  There was no accusation of plagiarism in a disciple toward his Master; in fact, quite the opposite was true.  A true disciple was expected to be able to repeat his Master’s teachings word for word!

Here’s how it worked.  In the days of Jesus, all young boys were taught the Torah and the Prophets beginning at age 5; meaning that at age 5, they began to memorize the Torah and the Prophets!  Every day they would rehearse the Scriptures until it came to them by rote.  At the age of 12, after 7 years of memorizing the Bible, boys were apprenticed to craftsmen.  Some became carpenters, some stone masons and others farmers; but those that were exceptional in their studies of the Scripture were apprenticed to a Sage.  His trade was to become a Rabbi.  He would leave his home and move in with the Sage.  He studied everything about him!  Not just his thoughts on the Scripture, but He studied the Sage’s marriage, his business affairs, the way he judged certain cases—everything!  It’s the belief of the Sage that the Torah affects every aspect of life, so the disciple is learning to imitate his Master’s disciplined life in order to mimic it in every regard!  This is Biblical discipleship.

To a disciple, his Master is more than just a teacher.  In fact, a disciple’s Master was regarded more highly than his own father.  This is because an earthly father brought you into this world in which we live, but the Sage was able to usher you into the World-to-Come, or Paradise.  The Sage became the new Father of the disciple, hence we find in the rabbinic writings references to the “House of Hillel”, or the “House of Shammai”.  The Sage was seen as a Father, and his disciples were his well-trained sons.  It’s not that the disciple’s family was abandoned, but his family loyalties took second place to his Master.  This sentiment is echoed in the words of our Master, Jesus:

If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea even his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (Lk. 14:26)

The language of “hate” employed in this verse is not hatred like we generally think of it.  Jesus is using a Hebraic idiom that demonstrates comparative language.  In other words, the love for the Master must be so great, that all familial love (usually our strongest love) must look like hatred in comparison.  Each and every one of us is called to this radical practice of discipleship!  Excuses we make will often be like: “We can’t be disciples of Jesus because our family has a strong Christian tradition” or “We can’t be disciples of Jesus because of cultural pressures.” The fact is, we can only be a disciple of Jesus if we’re willing to abandon all other affections to second place, setting Jesus the Messiah squarely in the preeminent role of our lives!

The absolute dedication and loyalty that disciples held for their Master is unmirrored in any of our modern institutions of study or in our culture at large.  Imagine if, rather than just hanging out in school and having a good time, you began to emulate your professor.  You memorized his lectures and quoted him at every possible moment.  You followed him to and from his home and often invited yourself to eat with him.  You began to dress and act like him.  You sought to absorb every possible nuance of his behavior.  This may be obsessive, but it’s also discipleship!  The greatest Sages produced carbon copies of themselves!  “Every disciple, fully trained, will be like his Master” (Lk 6:40).[i]

In the book “King of the Jews”, produced by First Fruits of Zion, they mention four main imperatives of a disciple.


The Sages of Jesus’ day didn’t write books like our modern teachers do.  There were no “student manuals” for their disciples to read.  To this ancient world, the only written materials were the Scriptures.  The teachings of the Sages were transmitted orally from generation to generation.  Disciples studied by memorizing their Master’s teachings.  Through constant repetition, disciples memorized their Master’s teaching word for word.  We often think of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount one great time, but it’s far more likely that Jesus taught these same ideas over and over again.  He would teach the subject matter of the Sermon on the Mount in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum, the Decapolis, etc.  Peter, James, John and Matthew would have heard these sermons over and over again!  This is why we may find a particular sermon mentioned in one location in one gospel, and that same subject matter is placed in a different setting in another gospel.  The sermon was given in both locations!  It was this repetition that allowed the disciples to memorize the Rabbi’s message.  Around campfires at night, students would practice rehearsing these teachings to their Master, receiving further instruction and clarification at that time.  This is where we find the Twelve often asking Jesus later, “what did you mean by…?”  This was their private instruction time.

The Gospels that we have weren’t written until the later part of the first century.  This means that the parables and teachings of Jesus weren’t written down for the first several decades of the Messianic Church!  In these early decades, the Apostles would have been sharing the teachings of Jesus with the early believers over and over again.  Since the Gospels and the Book of Acts mostly mention Peter, James and John, we often forget about the other 8 that were also busy teaching in those early days.  These Apostles were busy making disciples of the early believers by teaching them verbally the messages that Jesus had taught them.  Imagine the convenience we would have if we memorized Jesus’ teachings.  Not only would we know them much better, but even if we didn’t have a Bible, we could share His teachings with as many people as possible by rote!


The disciple learned how his Teacher kept the commandments and interpreted the Scriptures.  How does the Teacher was His hands?  Keep the Sabbath?  Fast, pray, give charity, say the blessing over food, etc.?  We find the Apostles covering much of this material in the Gospels.  The disciples transmitted to us our Rabbi’s teaching on prayer, charity, fasting, washings, etc.!  What a wealth we have passed down to us!

The disciple also wanted to know how His Teacher interpreted passages of Scripture.  What meanings did He draw out?  What parables did He use?  How did He explain a certain verse or understand a certain concept?  Details like this were not dismissed as trivial—they were vital to understanding and embodying the Master!

As disciples, we should know what Jesus’ stance was on as many subjects as possible.  And not for trivial sake, but so that we can observe those teachings!  We want to be just like Jesus in His stances on various ideas—to properly represent Him in every area of our lives!


The disciple’s chief aim was to be a perfect reflection of His Teacher.  He wanted to act, to speak and conduct himself the same way in which His Master conducted Himself.  Which sandal did he put on first?  What did He do first in the morning?  What did He eat?  Where did He go?  How did He get there?  This is radical, obsessive discipleship!


A disciple, when fully trained, raised up his own disciples.  He created a new generation of students and transmitted to them the words, traditions, interpretations, teachings, actions and behaviors of His Master.  The goal of discipleship was to pass the torch of Torah from generation to generation.

Though Jesus had many disciples, He only chose 12 core disciples, who would be entrusted with the responsibility to transmit His teachings to future generations.  These twelve were to go and “make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that He had commanded them” (Mt. 28:19-20).


There is one essential difference between our discipleship to Yeshua (Jesus) and the discipleship of the Sages.  We find that in Matthew 23:8-10

“Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.  Do not call anyone on earth your Father; for One is your Father, He Who is in Heaven.  Do not be called Leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Messiah.”

What is Yeshua talking about here?  Is He simply abolishing titles?  Should our leaders not be called “rabbi”, “teacher” or “leader”?  Is it OK to call them “Pastor”, or “Reverend”?  In the context of Jewish discipleship that we’ve been considering, this should ring in our ears now.  Jesus is telling the twelve that they are not, when they become fully trained, to raise up disciples unto themselves.  He didn’t want to see the parting of the ways between the eventual discipleship schools that would emerge.  Peter was not to raise up His disciples and teach them His own ways.  No, Jesus was declaring that they had no need to do such things because they only have one Rabbi, Teacher and Leader—God!  In fact, this division among early believers in Corinth, claiming to be followers of Peter or Paul, Apollos or Jesus (in opposition to the others) was said to be a sign of carnality!  Jesus sent His Apostles out to make more disciples for Himself!!

The disciples of Jesus are never to assume the role of Master, because unlike the Sages, Jesus is still alive!!  Sometimes we think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to walk with Jesus and hear Him teach.  Wouldn’t it be great to have been there and see the miracles and sit around the campfire with Him?”  But He’s not dead!  We Christians tend to be resurrectionists in our theology, but practical agnostics!  We act like Jesus died, was buried, was resurrected and then superglued to the Throne!  Someday, we think, God will cut Him loose and He’ll become active again.  Haha!  But that’s wrong thinking.  He’s alive and well, not just theologically—but practically!  Look at what Jesus says in Revelation 3:20-22

Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with Him, and he with Me.  The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with Me on My Throne, as I also conquered and sat down with My Father on His Throne.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches!!”

Jesus is knocking on the door of believers” hearts!!  Jesus’ call to discipleship is still going forward!  He wasn’t done when He called the Twelve—He’s calling you!  Two-thousand years removed from the time and culture of the Great Commission hasn’t changed the mission at all!  We are still to become rabid, obsessive disciples of Jesus the Messiah!  We are still expected to learn His teachings and traditions, to imitate His actions and raise up more disciples for Him!

One of the greatest needs in our day is for teachers who will not be afraid to unearth the practices of our Master and then do them!  Our modern teachers talk a good game, but they often try to teach before they do.  This is not imitating the Master.  Jesus didn’t just talk about the Commandments, He kept them.  He didn’t just speak of forgiveness—He forgave!  He didn’t just condemn gossip—He only spoke righteously.  We must do the same.

If, in our study of the Scripture, we find things that are uncomfortable for us, will we justify our existing actions, or will we submit to the will of our King and imitate Him?  If His Word flies in the face of our theology and doctrine, which will we serve?  Will we allow Him the freedom and right to shake in our lives what can be shaken?  Or will we be like the rich, young ruler who turns away sorrowful because He couldn’t let go?

Jesus still calls you to discipleship first and foremost.  Not just to a 10-week course in Bible 101, or to a Wednesday night class.  He doesn’t even just call you to a church or denomination.  He calls you to Himself!  “Follow Me”, He says.  Take the yoke of His Kingdom, submit to His will—obey Him.  That’s the call of discipleship being presented to you.

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.  For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’.  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?  And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.  So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (Lk. 14:26-33)

These are pretty tough words, but they fit right into Jewish discipleship.  The prospective disciple must be willing to leave all that he has and begin a new life following his Rabbi.  Here, our Rabbi Jesus does not lay out before us all the possible scenarios of our lives and ask us to peruse over them and make a decision.  No!  The decision being presented is to decide to follow Him regardless of all the possible scenarios of life!  The decision is hard.  There are Christians that have been in church their whole lives that have never become disciples.  But what a life they are missing!  The excitement of following the resurrected Rabbi that expects everything from us, but promises us more!  The more we submit to Him, the more He trusts us with.  There is no limit to His reign within and around us!  There is no better life in all of eternity!  We only have to be willing.

[i] This paragraph, though not copied verbatim, was taken from the book King of the Jews, produced by First Fruits of Zion.

© 2013 Jonathan N. Daugherty
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