October/November 2013 - Vol. 70
From time-to-time the Lord puts a certain subject relating to the Christian life on my mind, often with an accompanying desire to learn more about it. For the past several months now, the subject of discipleship has occupied my mind and made itself quite at home with my daily thought life.
Education of Jewish
In biblical times in Jerusalem this school was typically located in
the temple building precint. Only the “high honors” students were given
the privilege of seeking out an esteemed rabbi under which to study, often
leaving home to travel with him for an indeterminate period of time, frequently
under harsh conditions. These students were called talmid(s) or talmidim
in Hebrew, which is translated disciple.
There are some significant differences between a talmid and what we call a modern day student. What often motivates a student today is his or her desire to complete the course, earn a specific degree, or please a particular teacher for whom he or she has great respect. A talmid, on the other hand, is motivated by his desire to be like the teacher, that is, to become what or who the teacher is. The talmid is passionately devoted to the rabbi, forming his thoughts by the teacher’s words, learning to see things through his eyes and paying close attention to everything he says and does; he imitates the rabbi even in the very simple and insignificant tasks of living everyday life so as to become like him as much as possible. The relationship between the rabbi and the talmid, or disciple, is necessarily a very close one, intensely personal, and often more intimate than that of the disciple with his own father. The rabbi would be seen as “the teacher”, not just one among many; a teacher whose understanding of the Scriptures would be considered paramount. For the Jewish talmid the commitment to following a particular rabbi required much sacrifice of time, other interests, even his other close relationships. It was a life-altering commitment. For him, this was no half-hearted endeavor, but rather a sobering decision to radically change the course of his life. If he was earnestly seeking to become like his rabbi, nothing less than his undivided attention and total dedication would do.
Devoted to the
Jesus’ first disciples entered into an intensive study program that would last three years. This type of training involved learning what the master was teaching them, observing his actions, listening to his words, giving themselves to understanding what they were being taught. They were becoming like their teacher. Like an apprentice who learns a trade from a master craftsman, they were learning to be like Christ. We, likewise, are also called to learn from the Lord Jesus and to imitate him. While not many of us will be called to leave our current occupations to devote three or more years to an accelerated, concentrated training program, we are, nonetheless, continually seeking to follow Christ and allow him to train us day-by-day as his disciples. The Lord gives us many opportunities to learn from him – during our daily time of prayer, scripture study, spiritual reading, and attendance at church services. Approaching our commitments to our families, churches and communities with a high degree of seriousness and serving where God has asked us to serve with the people he’s called us to be with helps to focus us as disciples.
I read a story about the owner of a company who interviewed a former student of a professor friend. When asked about the young man being interviewed the professor replied, “He may have attended my classes but he was certainly not one of my students.” In a similar way, we can choose to put in time required for attending the classes, but never become a true learner or disciple. If we’re not diligent and intentional in our approach it can become quite possible to spend years attending classes, but look back and be able to see little measurable growth.
Following Jesus with the devotion of a disciple, learning from him, imitating him, studying his words, and listening to his Spirit speak into our lives is a lifetime process – we should never think we have learned enough and can stop learning. To become comfortable with what we presently know of God and to be content with the growth we’ve already attained is to lose sight of the fact that he transcends all earthly knowledge and that he is limitless in what he would give of himself…if we would be determined to keep pursuing him.
Conformed to His
The writer of Psalm 119 is not only passionately devoted to the word of God, but he desires that his will be conformed to the will of God. His love for God’s laws and his commands are at the very core of his being. In the psalmhe pours out his great affection for the Lord’s words and his deep desire to obey God’s commands by using phrases such as these:
Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart;The words statutes, decrees, laws, commands and precepts all translate in a similar way. They relate to the covenant and translate: covenant directives, regulations, requirements and stipulations. This psalmist is a disciple who is wholly occupied with a desire to obey God’s will for his life by conforming it to the covenant directives asrevealed by God to his people. Night and day he is seeking to know and better understand what God requires of him and how to fulfill his part of the covenant.
We too live by a covenant. Whether we consider the covenant which God made with his people on Mount Sinai in the giving of the Ten Commandments, the New Covenant teaching which Jesus gave to his disciples on how to love one and serve another, or the particular way of life we believe the Lord is showing us in our Christian communities, we need to see Jesus as “the” teacher, patterning ourselves after him, seeking to know and understand how he wants us to live out the covenant which he is calling us to embrace.
The disciples heard the Father on the mount of Transfiguration say, “This is my beloved Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” “Listen”as it is used in this context means “to learn by hearing; to gain understanding”. So here we have the Father himself telling Jesus’ disciples to be serious about discipleship. He is saying, “Learn from my Son who is your teacher. Listen carefully to his words and devote yourself to his teaching. Gain understanding so that you may know what it is I require of you.” In the King James Version the verse ends with an exclamation point adding emphasis to the Father’s directive. He wants us to stop daydreaming in class and to sit up and pay attention!
Philippians 2:13 tells us that “it is God who works in you both to will and to act according to His good purposes.”He inspires and gives grace and then we respond to him. It is a balance; a combination of our effort and God’s grace working together.Sitting in a room while the professor is teaching will not guarantee that valuable information will actually be absorbed.So too, discipleship is not a passive activity. It requires pro-active participation in the process and doesn’t happen simply by association. Discipleship is an association with a purpose, that of becoming who the teacher is. We have to respond to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. And it isn’t a one-time decision. Too many things can easily crowd our lives and push Jesus further into the background; we would be prudent to reassess and reaffirm our commitment to be disciples from time-to-time.
A group of Apollo astronauts in the US were interviewed recently on a talk show, the host assuming they spent a great deal of time on leisure activities as they travelled to the moon. She was surprised to find that the astronauts were required to make course corrections every ten minutes from the time the spaceship launched, until they reached their destination.I think we would be wise to do something similar with our spiritual lives. Occasional course corrections can keep us from drifting far from our original goal, that of being disciples whose vision and focus should be solely on becoming who our rabbi is. And as we practice being who the teacher is, allowing the Holy Spirit to work those changes in us, we will incrementally look and become more like Jesus, our Rabbi, being transformed more and more into His image and likeness.
Love and discipleship
Jesus identified two distinctive characteristics by which people would recognize his disciples and by which his kingdom would grow. The first is that we have love for one another. Jesus told his disciples,“By this all men will know that you are my disciples – that you love one another.” John 13: 35.
There is something so radically different about the love we are to have for one another as disciples of Jesus that people observing us should instantly recognize it as a godly, supernatural love. It is more than what the world shows or defines as love. Love and discipleship cannot be separated from one another. Our love is the proof of our discipleship. It is one of the unmistakable marks of a disciple of Jesus Christ. He says, “…they will know that you are my disciples…” Not John the Baptist’s, not some other rabbi, not some other teacher, but His, by the love we have for one another.There are many things that should markthe life of a disciple: study, prayer and service, to name a few. But Jesus tells us that loving one another is the primary wayhis disciples should be recognized over all the others.
We often hear it said that living in Christian covenant community involved a radical choice and way of life. Our community gatherings, our pastoral care system, our approach to worship and music, the exercise of the charismatic gifts, the way we live our daily lives and raise our children…all of these things may make our life appear radical to other people, especially as our secular culture drifts further and further away from a Judeo-Christian ethic. Jesus never said, “By the way you run your Summer Camp program, then people will know that you are my disciples” or “By the quality of your teaching programs people will know that you are my disciples.” But, he did say that it would be the way we love one another that would grab the attention of onlookers and make our life together point to the power of the resurrected Lord Jesus who enables us to live a “radical” call and way of life that is different from the world.
I know a man named Jake. Jake is a disciple, disguised as a retail sales person at an outlet store near my home. I was there to buy a treadmill. As Jake and I walked back to the sports equipment area he seemed to be in a significant amount of pain from some sort of foot injury. Later, as I was at his checkout counter he noticed a cross necklace I often wear whichlead to a conversation about spiritual things, including the condition and care of his wife who is dealing with Multiple Sclerosis. His foot injury turned out to be a tear in his Achilles heel from lifting her in and out of her wheelchair.In the course of our conversation he told me that he has many good people in his church family who come to his home daily to help his wife so that he can continue to work and provide for his family.He then said, “You’d be amazed how many people (in the world) ask me, “Why are you still with her?”I was stunned and stared at him in disbelief, not knowing what to say. He went on, “I made a promise to my wife 18 years ago, before God, not knowing what he had in store for me or her or our family. I had no crystal ball to foretell the future. I’m in this for better or for worse. I promised her that I would be here until the end. Should I walk away now because it’s hard?” I asked if I could pray with him and at the end of my prayer he came from behind the counter and gave me a hug. As he pulled away I could see tears in his eyes. I saw in this man a brother disciple who was sticking it out through the tough times, faithful to his wife, his family, and his God. He loves his wife in a way that makes other people stop and question the nature of that sort of love. It is counter-cultural, it is supernatural; it is the radical love of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Over the years some of us, maybe many of us have asked ourselves or had other people ask us that same questionwith regard to our marriages, our churches, or our involvement in community. Why are you still here? Why are you still with these people?Why are you still doing this?” People can be hard to love. It can be difficult to love selflessly, unfailingly, unconditionally, like our teacher. At times we might be tempted to walk away, to turn inward, or to back away in a cocoon of self-protection. We may find it easier to just show up in class or to skip class altogether than to follow the master, to love the difficult ones all the way to the cross, which is inevitably where discipleship takes us.
Most of us have heard the word “agape”. It is the Greek translation for the word “love” that the apostle Paul uses inthe very familiar “love chapter” of1Corinthians 13. The footnote in my Bible defines it this way: The Greek for this word indicates a selfless concern for the welfare of others that is not called forth by any quality of lovableness in the person loved, but is the product of a will to love in obedience to God’s command. It is like Christ’s love manifested on the cross.
We can look at all we do to serve the wider Body of Christ and especially the way we live our life in communityas radical expressions of living the Christian life. But Paul tells us that if we do not learn to love one another in the midst of it then all of our efforts are useless, pointless and meaningless. We become a source of noise and irritation to the people around us.
How we feel about our brothers and sisters is irrelevant. Whether we think they deserve to be loved is irrelevant. Whether we even like them is irrelevant. We are called to love. We are commanded to love. It is not an option for those who would call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. “I give you a new commandment: love one another even as I have loved you!”When we confess our sins, our failures to love should be at the top of the list because it is from that failure that all other sin originates. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matt.22:37, 39b-40.As Christian disciples our whole life is based on living these two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor.
Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all men, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Matt28:19a, 20a. In other words, “Teach them everything you’ve learned from being with me these past three years.” We can’t teach someone else to become something we ourselves are not. A nurse cannot teach someone how to be a dancer if she hasn’t been trained in the art of dance. A master musician most likely would not be hired to teach biochemistry. If we are to make disciples, if we are to reproduce other disciples for the Lord, then we need to be disciples ourselves. And we make disciples by “teaching” them to obey all that Jesus has commanded us. “Teaching” as it is used here, means to “enroll them as a scholar”. Here again we are patterning ourselves after our master rabbi who has enrolled each of us as scholars in the school of discipleship. A scholar is not necessarily someone with extraordinary intelligence although that’s the way we often interpret it. Webster’s defines a scholar as a learned person, someone who possesses knowledge by having given themselves to study, as opposed to just showing up in class. It has little to do with actual intelligence. It has more to do with posturing yourself with a desire to learn and giving yourself to that.
We read in the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel that it is only by staying attached to the vine that thebranches are able to produce fruit. Jesus told his disciples, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…for apart from me you can do nothing.”John 15:4b, 5c.To “abide” in the Greek means to stay in a given place, relationship or state of expectancy; to continue to dwell in, endure, be present to; remain, stand, and tarry long. “Abiding” is not just doing out of a sense of duty what we’ve been taught. It’s about staying in or dwelling in a certain place, being in a certain kind of relationship with the Lord and the people He’s called us to be in covenant with. It’s an enduring kind of posture, tarrying long in the presence of God and with this people, having an expectation of Him and the relationship that doesn’t grow weary or give up when the road is hard. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” A branch out of contact with the vine or one which has been uprooted is lifeless. A disciple who has drifted or disconnected from the rabbi, one who has ceased to remain in that certain place or moved on because the waiting is long will not be able to reproduce or make other disciples.Sometimes we are tempted to “disentangle” ourselves from other parts of the vine. If we attempt to do so we risk breaking the branches; we risk our own brokenness. We need to endure in discipleship, tarrying long with the Lord in this place he has called us to. We need to “abide” in the Lord so we are able to produce fruit.
Jesus is looking for disciples who understand that the cost is
high, often inconvenient, and will requiretaking up the cross and carrying
it daily. He wants students, scholars in the school of discipleship, who
not only come to class but want to learn, who want to become who the teacher
is by loving as he loves and producing fruit for him, proving themselvesto
be his disciples. He is looking for those individuals who are committed
to “becoming who the Rabbi is” and are willing to say, “My food is to do
the will of the Father and to finish the work he sent me to do.”
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