How to Be a Disciple

Since Jesus tells us to make disciples out of all nations (and be disciples ourselves), we will be enriched to understand what exactly was expected of a disciple.

The Elijah/Elisha relationship served as a model during Jesus’ time of what was expected of the rabbi/disciple relationship. God told Elijah to chose Elisha to succeed him as prophet, and when Elisha was called, Elisha left everything to live with and serve Elijah. Let’s look at Elijah and Elisha’s relationship:

So he (Elijah) departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, while he was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth. And Elijah passed over to Elisha and threw his mantle on him. He left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” So he returned from following him, and took the pair of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the implements of the oxen, and gave it to the people and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah and became his attendant. (1 Kings 19:19 – 21)

When Elisha asks to say good-bye to his family, Elijah’s responds angrily,  because Elisha was delaying his answer to the calling that God had given him. Elisha responded by burning his plow to show his total commitment to following Elijah, even over supporting his own family. Compare this with a scene from when Jesus was speaking to a would-be disciple:

Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9: 61-62)

There are interesting parallels here. A potential disciple asks to delay his commitment to following Jesus for the sake of family, and Jesus informs him that he needed to abandon everything to be a part of the kingdom of God. By alluding to the plow, he is recalling the scene when Elisha makes the same request of Elijah.

Utter Devotion

A disciple was supposed to be utterly devoted to his rabbi, to love him like his own father. The relationship wasn’t about academic learning, like a student taking notes from a teacher. A disciple was supposed to serve his rabbi and emulate him in his way of life, like an apprentice serving a master. We see this in Elisha when it says he became Elijah’s attendant, his mesharet (1 Kings 19:21), who humbly served his needs.

We also learn about how devoted and loyal Elisha was to Elijah. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah ordered Elisha to stay behind when he knew God was about to take him. Nothing Elijah said could make Elisha turn away. Elisha even called Elijah “father” when he saw him go up in a heavenly chariot.

If we see this as a model for disciples of Jesus, it casts light on scenes in the gospels. Peter’s declaration, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” would have been a reasonable thing for a disciple to say to his beloved master, the rabbi. In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. When Peter denies Jesus he would have felt terrible, because a disciple would never betray or abandon his master.

We also see this dynamic when Jesus teaches them about service by washing their feet. As his disciples, it was their job to serve him, not the other way around. He was teaching them a great lesson in humility, that the one most deserving of being served is serving himself, while they were busy arguing who is the greatest.

Another thing we learn from Elijah and Elisha was that Elisha’s goal was to be like Elijah, and he asked for the same prophetic spirit Elijah had to be poured out on him (2 Kings 2:9). A disciple didn’t want to just know what his master knows, he wanted to have the same abilities and passion to serve God, too. Elisha served Elijah to see how Elijah lived, and to learn to have the same wisdom in each situation. Ultimately, Elisha became Elijah’s spiritual successor.

This is another parallel between Elijah/Elisha and Jesus/disciples stories. After Elijah is taken up into heaven, his mantle falls on Elisha, and Elisha receives the ability through the Spirit to do miracles as Elijah did. In the New Testament, a few weeks after the disciples see Jesus ascend to heaven, they receive the Spirit and become able to do miracles themselves as well. We as Jesus’ disciples receive spiritual gifts that allow us to continue serving as the first church did.

Through the lens of the relationship between Elijah and Elisha, we see many applications for our own lives as Jesus’ disciples. We are supposed to be utterly devoted to serving and following Jesus, to love him more than our own families and our livelihood. Our goal cannot just be to learn all about him, or treat him as an academic teacher, but to become like him ourselves.


SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 4, “Following the Rabbi” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 51-65.

Photos: Dru Kelly on UnsplashPeter Mackriell [CC BY 2.0]

Elijah, God’s Strong Man

by Bruce Okkema

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.  – 1 Kings 18:36-37

Approximately 60 years after the death of King Solomon, Ahab was reigning king of the northern kingdom. Solomon’s sons, Rehoboam and Jeroboam, had split the kingdom in two. In the interest of forming a political alliance with the Canaanites of his area, Ahab married Jezebel, daughter of the king of Phoenicia. Jezebel was a priestess of the god of Baal and his cohort, Asherah. When she came to live in the palace, she brought with her 450 prophets of Baal and 400 of Asherah and, through Ahab, she established her religion as the national religion of Israel. She tried to kill all of the prophets of the Lord. The scripture says:

There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. (I Kings 21:25)  (Please read the entire account in 1 Kings 16-19 to get a sense for the contrasting experiences pictured above.)

The scene is Mt. Carmel, the highest place of Baal worship. Baal was the god of the storm, thunder, lighting, and rain; Baal and Asherah together were considered the gods of fertility. For Elijah to proclaim the withholding of dew and rain was to declare Baal impotent and powerless. This infuriated Ahab and Jezebel to the extent that Elijah had to go into hiding for his own preservation. When the Lord called Elijah again to confront Ahab, he chose to give the prophets of Baal every advantage – the site being Baal’s own place of worship and the method being his own “fire from heaven.”

After a whole day of chanting, self-mutilation, and Satanic ritual, it was time for the prophets of Baal to turn the stage over to Elijah. He prayed to the Lord, and in a word, the true God of Israel, delivered lightning and thunder, he destroyed the prophets of Baal and Asherah, and then he sent rain on the land.

We are surprised to read next that we find Elijah running for his life and he wants to die. He said, “Lord, I have had enough … take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (I Kings 19:4-5). How could this be? He had been miraculously fed by ravens, provided an unending supply of oil and flour in Zarephath, raised a boy from the dead, and now had seen the awesome display of God’s power in the defeat of Baal. Yet he says,

“I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:14)

The people of Israel needed to see the lightning bolts, but Elijah needed encouragement. He thought he was serving the Lord all by himself. God met him where he was and sent his angel to comfort him. He then took Elijah to Mt. Sinai to remember his covenant and teach him more about himself. Elijah, we know, eventually passed on his great spirit to Elisha and the Lord took Elijah to himself without passing through death.

Where ever you are serving the Lord, at times you will become discouraged. We naturally expect that our obedience to him will lead to things going well in our lives. Sometimes they will, but more often than not, they will not. The Enemy will always be trying to thwart the purposes of the Lord and to discourage us in the process. The constant battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of God is always around us and we are involved. It is important to share our troubles with the community of believers so we can know each other’s needs and how to pray together for strength and direction. The Lord never allows all of us to be under attack at the same time. When we do share, we find that we don’t have to face our problems alone and there is light at the end of the tunnel that we were unable to see.

Maybe you are in a situation where you are under attack. People are trying to destroy your family, the economy is destroying your business, your money is gone, loneliness is turning your thoughts inward, or maybe people are even trying to kill you for your faithfulness. Hold onto the story of Elijah. God never abandons us. He is always watching over us; when we cry out to him, he hears. He rarely works things out the way we expect him to, but he always does, and when our work on earth is finished, he will take us to himself.


The steep cliffs of Mt. Carmel overlook the Jezreel valley and the plains of Megido.