Raise Up Many Disciples!

by Lois Tverberg

Go therefore and make disciples of all the 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. (Matt 28:19)

Jesus’ final words were those of what we call the Great Commission — to make disciples of the whole world. But what is a disciple? The ancient, Hebraic picture Jesus had of raising disciples was unique to his Jewish culture. By learning about this practice, we gain fresh insight into how Jesus intended that we fulfill his command.

Jesus lived in a deeply religious culture that valued biblical understanding more than anything else. To become a great rabbi was the highest goal possible, and just to be a disciple of a famous rabbi was an honor. All boys studied and memorized the scriptures until age twelve, and then learned a trade after that. Only a small minority could keep studying, and only a very few were able to go on to learn with a rabbi.

Rabbis acted as wandering expositors who taught in synagogues and homes, and outdoors when a crowd gathered. They taught general audiences, and also had a small band of disciples who lived with them and followed them everywhere. They traveled from town to town teaching, because no mass-communication was available.

They often practiced a trade of their own, but when traveling they were dependent on the hospitality of the community. Indeed, it was forbidden to charge money to teach, but people were expected to support them and invite them into their homes.

Even to the present day, Judaism retains a tradition of discipleship. When Jewish rabbis are ordained, they are commissioned to “Raise up many disciples.” This is the first verse of Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), from the Mishnah, the Jewish compendium of laws and sayings from around Jesus’ time. Texts like this have much to say about the rabbinic method for raising disciples. Another passage that describes discipleship is this:

Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily. (Avot 1:4)

This text casts light on several stories from Jesus’ ministry in the gospels. Mary, Martha and Lazarus opened their home to Jesus in the tradition of showing hospitality toward rabbis and disciples. Their house would also have served as a place for meetings for him to teach small groups.

We also read that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” to learn from him (Luke 10:39), which may be the sense of the phrase “cover yourself in the dust of their feet.” The phrase may also have meant to walk behind him to listen to him teach, as Jesus’ disciples would have done. On the unpaved roads in Israel, they literally would have been covered in their rabbi’s dust. (1)

What was expected of rabbis and disciples?

Rabbis were expected not only to be greatly knowledgeable about the Bible, but to live exemplary lives to show that they had taken the scriptures to heart. The objective of their teaching was to instill in their disciples both the knowledge and desire to live by God’s word. It was said, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord, they will seek Torah from him. If not, they will not seek Torah from him” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b).

The disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s understanding, and even more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that when the student became mature enough, he would take his rabbi’s teaching out to the community, add his own understanding to it, and raise up disciples of his own.

A disciple was expected to leave family and job behind to join the rabbi in his austere lifestyle. They would live twenty-four hours a day together, walking from town to town, teaching, working, eating, and studying. As they lived together, they would discuss the scriptures and apply them to their lives.

The disciples were supposed to be the rabbi’s servants, submitting to his authority while they assisted him in his tasks. Indeed, the word “rabbi” means “my master,” and was a term of great respect, the same title that a slave would use to address his owner.

This sheds new light on the story of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus was entitled to having them wash his feet, not the other way around! By his actions he was teaching them a critical lesson in humility — that the one most deserving of being served is himself serving, while they were arguing who is the greatest. Jesus was using typical rabbinic technique: he didn’t just lecture, he used his own behavior as an example.

The rabbi-disciple relationship was very intimate. The rabbi was considered to be closer than a father to his disciples, and disciples were sometimes called “sons.” When Peter said “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you,” he was reflecting the deep love and commitment that disciples had for their rabbi (Matt. 26:35).

In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. Jesus’ insistence that his disciples leave everything behind to follow him would not have been considered extreme in that culture. They held up the image of Elisha as a model of a disciple’s commitment, who burned his plow and left everything to become Elijah’s disciple (1 Kings 19). After Elisha had lived with Elijah and served him for many years, he received Elijah’s authority to go out as his successor, as the disciples did from Jesus.

What light does this shed on the Great Commission?

Jesus’ eastern method of discipleship gives us a new picture of what he called us to do. Our Western model focuses mainly on the gospel as information, and our goal is to be a person of correct understanding. We focus mainly on spreading information about Jesus, not on living our life like him and inspiring others to do the same.

While it is important to teach and defend truth, Jesus’ method of discipleship is much more than that. He began his Kingdom by walking and living with disciples, to show them how to be like him. Then they went out and made disciples, doing their best to imitate Jesus and show others by their own example.

Jesus expects his kingdom will be built in this way: as each person grows in maturity, they live their lives transparently before others, counseling them on what they have learned about following Christ. The kingdom is built primarily through these close relationships of learning, living and teaching.

Paul uses the same model of discipleship in his ministry. He said,

…in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4:15-17)

We can hear that Paul’s goal for the Corinthians is that they become disciples, who change their lives to be like Christ, not just learn the correct beliefs. Using rabbinic method, he likens himself as a father to them, and he send his disciple Timothy, who he calls “his son.” He wants them to learn by the example of Timothy about his own way of life, which is a reflection of Jesus’ teaching. Paul is using this “whole person” method of evangelism to transform their lives, not just their minds, to reflect the truth.

Through this model of discipleship, we see that Jesus isn’t just interested in having our minds. He wants our hearts and lives too. Once our lives reflect what our minds believe, then the belief has actually reached our hearts. Then our passion for following him becomes a loud witness that inspires others to do the same.



SittingTo further explore the rabbi/disciple relationship and its implications for Christians today, see chapter 4, “Following the Rabbi” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 51-65.

New Light on the Difficult Words of JesusFor further reading on discipleship in the first century, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006.




(1) Mishnah, Avot 1:4, attributed to Yose ben Yoezer, about 180 BCE. An in-depth discussion of being “covered in the dust of one’s rabbi” can be found at this link.

Photos: Christ Great Commission icon [CC BY-SA 2.0], Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], Ford Madox Brown [Public domain], Wikipedia

Miracle on the Sea of Galilee

The following article is an excerpt from New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin. It can be found at En-Gedi’s bookstore

He [Jesus] got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to push out a little from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Push out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Teacher, we have worked all night and caught nothing! However, if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they enclosed a great school of fish … when Simon Peter saw it, he fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:3–6, 8)

Understanding more about ancient fishing on the Sea of Galilee allows us to paint, in vivid detail, this scene of one of the first miracles of Jesus’ ministry as it occurred, likely during winter on the lake shore at Heptapegon near Capernaum.1

Peter and the other fishermen were using a trammel net to catch musht (Tilapia galilea; “St. Peter’s fish”). They fished at night and stopped their work at dawn because in the light of day the fish could see the netting. Before the fishermen turned in for the day, they carefully washed
their nets and hung them to dry. If the linen nets were not dried promptly after use they would rot in a short time.

From the gospel account we learn that Jesus arrived at the lake shore while the fishermen were still washing their nets, and immediately got into one of the boats and began to teach. If the washing of the trammel nets took place shortly after dawn, then Jesus must have begun teaching very early in the morning.2

Jewish sources support this picture of the diligence and faithfulness of teachers in Israel during this period, and the people’s eagerness to learn Torah. From rabbinic literature one learns that the rabbis taught in every conceivable venue and at any time of the day or night.

Here we have an example of a rabbi teaching in the early morning, perhaps as early as 7:00, from a boat moored offshore. A crowd large enough to cause Jesus to use a boat as a teaching platform had gathered, despite the early hour.

The Tough Work of the Fisherman

Was it just by chance that Jesus chose fishermen as disciples, or had their difficult work especially prepared them for the task for which they were chosen? The Sea of Galilee fishermen were tough. Their bodies were wet much of the time, even in the winter, for it is during the winter when fishing is at its best on the Sea of Galilee — the musht season is in the winter, as is the sardine season. The winter is also the rainy season in Israel, and it often rained on the fishermen during those long winter nights when they were out on the lake.3 (In those days there were no rubberized rain gear like today’s fishermen wear!)

The fisherman’s work was also difficult physically, entailing rowing to and from the fishing sites, hauling in heavy nets and lifting catches of fish. Cast-net fishermen had to dive under the water repeatedly to retrieve their nets. Most fishermen worked all night and slept during the day. We can image that a typical fishing village like Capernaum was quiet until 12:30 or 1:00 p.m., with mothers shushing noisy children or any dog that barked.

Put yourself in Peter’s place, having worked all night in a small boat, in the cold, in the dark, perhaps in the rain. How would you feel if while washing your nets shortly after dawn, dead tired after a long night of fishing, someone climbed into your boat and asked you to row him out into the lake, and then you had to sit in the boat waiting for several hours while that person spoke to an audience?

Before long, your patience would be wearing thin because you would not only be sleepy, you would begin to be very hungry as well. Imagine then being ordered to go back to work, to let down your nets again — after they had already been washed! What chutzpah on the part of Jesus!

Where was Jesus when he said to Peter, “Push out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”? Where was Jesus when Peter fell at his feet in shock and amazement? Our impression of the story in Luke 5:1–11 is sometimes colored by a similar story found in John 21:1–14. We often unconsciously harmonize these accounts even though the story in John takes place after the resurrection.

We picture Jesus standing elegantly on the beach, perhaps with an arm outstretched towards Peter’s boat some distance offshore. We envision Peter jumping out of his boat, swimming ashore, falling on his face on the beach before Jesus, and then climbing back aboard his boat to drag the loaded net ashore. This is due to the influence of John’s account which has Peter, when he heard that it was the Lord, jumping out of his boat which was 200 cubits (about 90 meters) from land and swimming ashore.

However, in Luke’s story, Jesus is in Peter’s boat when he tells Peter to push out into the deep water and begin fishing again. Jesus is also in the boat when Peter falls at his feet immediately after the loaded fish nets are hauled into the boat.

It may seem to us from English translations of this story that Peter alone maneuvered the boat into position for Jesus’ teaching session, that Peter alone took his boat out to deeper water, and that Peter single-handedly let down the nets.

But Jesus’ command — “Push out [plural] into the deep water and let down [plural] your [plural] nets for a catch” — indicates that there was at least one other fisherman from Peter’s crew who got into the boat with Peter and Jesus. Also the statement in verse 7, “they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them,” shows that Peter was not the only fisherman in the boat.

The trammel net boat was normally manned by four fishermen. It is therefore likely that there were two or three other fishermen who got into the boat along with Peter. (The trammel net boat could with some difficulty be operated by a crew of two — one crew member rowing and the other playing out and hauling in the nets.)

If only two people besides Peter and Jesus got into the boat, then perhaps Jesus served as the crew’s fourth member. If three got in then Jesus was in the way, since in a boat of this size — fifteen to eighteen feet long — there was barely room for four fishermen, their nets and other equipment.

This alters the usual picture we have of Jesus’ lakeside teaching session: as the crowd listened to Jesus, they saw him in a boat flanked by two to four fishermen. Furthermore, we have to picture Jesus, as the nets were being hauled into the boat, crowded into a corner of the boat and partially covered with nets and fish — unless he had replaced the fourth crew member and was helping to pull in the nets. Had Jesus himself spent time fishing on the Sea of Galilee?

The Miracle of the Catch

When Peter saw the enormous catch, he fell down in the boat in front of Jesus crying, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” The text adds that Peter and those with him were astonished “at the catch of fish which they had taken.” Did these fishermen react this way because statistically it was unlikely that they would catch fish, not to speak of a near-record catch, after having worked all night and caught nothing?

Yes, this partially accounts for their shock. The unlikelihood of now catching enough fish to be worth their while financially is also indicated by Peter’s initial response. He didn’t immediately do as Jesus said, but first argued a little: “Lord, we have worked all night and caught nothing.”

But there is more to these Galilean fishermen’s reaction of amazement than the catch itself or its size. Until the introduction of transparent nylon nets in the mid-1950s, trammel net fishing was done only at night. In the daytime, the fish could see the nets and avoid them.

The miracle was that the fish swam blindly into the net. In addition, in trammel net fishing the fish had to be scared into the nets after the nets had been put in place. Although possible, it does not seem from Luke’s account that the fishermen made a commotion to frighten the fish.

What was it, then, that caused Peter to fall in fear at Jesus’ feet? Apparently, it was the timing of the miracle. It was amazement at Jesus’ ability to, as we say, “call the shots.” Immediately after he finished preaching, when it was convenient for him, Jesus compensated these fishermen for their inconvenience.

The confidence of Jesus stands out. To teach a crowd of people Jesus apparently did not mind the inconvenience he caused these fishermen, because he planned to reward them for their service and knew that he could do so whenever he wished. We see this same confidence demonstrated by Peter after Pentecost when Peter, knowing in advance what he was going to do and what would be the result, healed a lifelong cripple (Acts 3:6).

Jesus was not unaware of the tiredness of the fishermen and their frustration at not having caught anything after working so hard all night. He knew that they were dead tired and wanted to go home and go to sleep. He also knew of their general need for income and their particular lack of it after this unsuccessful night of fishing.

He removed their frustration at having wasted a night’s work and blessed them with enough fish to compensate them not just for the few hours he took of their time but with as many fish as they would normally have caught in several nights of good fishing. The catch described in Luke 5 was about three-fourths of a ton — as much as a trammel net fishing crew would normally take in two week’s work, allowing for nights like the one that Peter and his crew had just experienced when nothing is caught.


Once again, this article is an excerpt from New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin. It can be found at En-Gedi’s bookstore


1 This chapter is based on the research of Mendel Nun, who spent a lifetime studying the ancient fishing methods used on the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus spent so much time on or near the sea, and his first disciples were Sea of Galilee fishermen, Nun’s work is important in illuminating many gospel stories.

2 Nun has also shown that in the story of the miraculous catch, Peter could only have been using a trammel net or a veranda net, a variation of the trammel net. He could not have been fishing with a seine because it was not used near Heptapegon/Capernaum. The floor of the lake in that area of the coast is so rocky that the seine would have continually gotten hung up on the rocks. And it is unlikely that Peter was using a cast-net because he was fishing with a boat and crew.

3 For more on trammel net fishing on the Sea of Galilee, see “Let Down Your Nets” by Mendel Nun, Jerusalem Perspective 24 (Jan/Feb 1990), pp. 11–13.

“Miracle on the Sea of Galilee” was adapted and abridged from the article, “The Miraculous Catch (Luke 5:1–11): Reflections on the Research of Mendel Nun,” by David Bivin, which is available online at www.JerusalemPerspective.com.

Photos: Kirsten Young on Unsplash, Xavier Smet on Unsplash, Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Dying to Have Life

by Lois Tverberg

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. – John 12:24-26

In this passage in John, Jesus focuses on a seed, as he does in other parables about bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. But here, Jesus doesn’t just advise us to pluck out weeds of distraction that might choke the growth of our faith. He proclaims that the seed itself needs to perish in order to multiply and bear fruit; that we need to die to our basic desires in order to live for Jesus and receive life that endures for eternity.

Fishers of Men
The parable’s logic becomes clearer in light of the expectation of first-century disciples. A disciple was supposed to show utter dedication to his rabbi, acting as his “servant” and following him everywhere he taught. To do this one had to embrace a lifestyle of traveling, lack of comfort and sleep, as well as rigorous study of the Torah and the rabbi’s interpretation of it. Some quotes about it include,

This is the way [to acquire knowledge] of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, sleep on the ground, live a painful existence, and labor [studying] the Torah. (1)

The words of Torah are not retained by one who is lazy regarding them, and not by those who study surrounded by luxuries, food, and drink; but rather by one who ‘kills himself’ over them, denying himself physical indulgences; one who does not allow his eyes to sleep nor his eyelids to slumber. (2)

Other rabbis expected their students to “kill themselves” in their studies in their desire to learn the Bible. How much more should Jesus, our rabbi and Lord, expect that we sacrifice our time and lives to learn his words, and live by them too.

(1) As quoted in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, p 25.

(2) Maimonides, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:12. (Commenting on Shabbos 83b, B. Talmud.)

Photo: Edith OSB