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. (Pirke 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.

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 served his needs. 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 great 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.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, 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.

 

 

 

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

What Does it Mean To Hallow God’s Name?

When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name….’” (Luke 11:2)

The Lord’s Prayer is loaded with meaning that we don’t fully appreciate because of cultural differences.1 In particular, the phrase “hallowed be your name” sounds foreign to us. This phrase is very rich in its original context and has an important lesson for our calling as Christians.

God’s Name as His Reputation

In ancient thinking, a person’s name was connected with his identity, authority and reputation. You might not think that God’s reputation would be an issue, but the idea of his reputation growing greater and greater throughout the world is a central theme of the biblical story.

At first, God taught only one nation, the Jews, how to live and he told them to be a “kingdom of priests” and a “light to the nations” so that the world may know about the true God of Israel (Ex. 19:6).2 Then, in the coming of Christ, God made his identity more clear, and sent his people to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).

The overall idea is that God’s reputation would expand over the earth as people come to know who he is. This is the means by which salvation is being brought to the world as people hear good things about God, and accept Christ as their Savior. We can see that God’s reputation, or God’s “name” is of critical importance for his plan of salvation.

In the Lord’s prayer, the phrases “hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” and “your will be done on earth” are related to each other in meaning. All of them are expressing the desire that God’s reputation grow on earth, that people accept God’s reign and desire to do his will.

This is probably the main intent of Jesus’ use of “hallowed be your name,” but an excellent lesson for how it is accomplished comes from the Jewish understanding of the idea of “hallowing (sanctifying) the name,” Kiddush HaShem. The opposite is Hillul HaShem — to profane the name.3 These two phrases are rich with significance in Jewish tradition and are still used today.

Why is Keeping God’s Name Holy So Important?

The rabbis of Jesus’ time closely studied the scriptures and made an interesting observation. Out of all of the ten commandments, only one carried with it a grave threat of punishment. Surprisingly it is not the prohibition against theft or murder, but rather against taking the name of the Lord in vain! The scriptures say “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Ex. 20:7 NASB).

Does it seem strange that this commandment, which we interpret as a prohibition against swearing, is the only one that God promises to punish? Aren’t other sins equally or more serious?

The rabbis believed that this commandment may also have a much greater meaning.4 They pointed out that the command literally says, “You shall not lift up the name (reputation) of the Lord for an ’empty thing,'” and they interpreted that to mean, to do something evil in the name of God which would give God a bad reputation.

In Lev. 19:12, this is called “profaning the name of God”, and is referred to as Hillul HaShem in Hebrew. It is to do something evil and associate the name of God with it, which is a sin against God himself who suffers from having his reputation defamed.

Profaning the Name of God

Some examples of this clarify why “profaning the name of God” is considered an extremely serious sin. When a terrorist shouts out “Allah Akbar” (God is great) before carrying out acts of murder, the response of the world is to say, “What wicked God do you serve who commands you do such terrible things?”

CrusadesThis not only occurs in other religions, but unfortunately in Christianity as well. When televangelists commit fraud, it hardens non-believers to the message of Christ. Or, consider the Crusades, which happened almost a thousand years ago. They are still remembered with hatred because Christians murdered Jews and Muslims in the name of Christ. God’s reputation in the world has been slandered, and evangelism is seriously hindered because of the evil actions of those who bear his name.

Even in the lives of average people, this can happen. How many stories have we heard of people who were treated unfairly by church members, and have never returned to the church? They have said in their hearts, “I don’t want anything to do with you or your God.” When a church-goer is dishonest in business, rude to his neighbors, or regularly uses profanity and dirty jokes, it is a witness against Christ to the world around us. Each of us is easily capable of profaning God’s name, a very serious sin indeed.

To Sanctify the Name

Just as evil actions can damage the reputation of God in the world, good actions can bring honor to God, and this is called “sanctifying God’s name,” Kiddush HaShem. This means to live in such a way as to bring God glory — as when Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

The rabbis described it as one of three things: to live a life of integrity, carefully observing the biblical commands; or to do some heroic deed, like risking one’s life to save another; or even to be martyred to honor God. We think of spreading the gospel through information, but they point out that the world is watching our lives too. When we think of sanctifying God’s name, these stories speak volumes:

  • Many En-Gedi supporters contributed money toward the installation of some water units for villages in Uganda. When the site preparation team was visiting these sites, they were welcomed enthusiastically by each village with a ceremony of thanks. Our local coordinator, Rev. Titus Baraka, made a point to explain that these water systems were brought in the name of Jesus Christ, who brings living water to the world. He also explained that this water is not only for Anglicans or Protestants, or Catholics or Muslims, but for everyone in the community.
    One local water committee member stood up to make the following remark: “I represent the Muslim community here. When I see that you have come here at great expense… when I see the way you do your work… when I see that you want to show love to people you don’t even know, I realize that you serve a greater God than I do. It makes me want to “cross over” to become a Christian.”

  • Jonathan Miles is a Christian who has a ministry of bringing Palestinian and Iraqi children to Israeli hospitals for heart surgery.5 His work has a powerful impact on the Muslims and Jews who see him and his staff regularly risk their lives, in the name of Christ, to serve others.
    One time, while he was waiting to pick up an infant in Gaza, he was verbally assaulted by a Hamas member for several minutes. When the man finally asked him why he was there, he explained that he was trying to locate a certain infant who needed medical care. When the man heard what his mission was, he was like a balloon quickly deflated!
    He immediately asked how he could help and took Jonathan all around town searching for the infant. They actually became friends over time! Jonathan said that the man is now even considering becoming a Christian. What a profound change came over this man from Jonathan’s actions to serve God.

Hallowing God’s Name with our Lives

We have all heard of heroic Christians like Corrie Ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who by their actions make people ask the question, “Who is this Christ, that you would sacrifice so much to serve him?”

The ultimate example of sanctifying God’s name, however, is Jesus himself. As God incarnate, his death on the cross has proclaimed to all the world that the God of Israel is a merciful, self-sacrificial God. No one who believes that Jesus is God himself can claim that God is cruel or uncaring because Jesus has proven otherwise through his own actions. Because of his great sacrifice, God’s reputation has expanded to the ends of the world.

As Jesus’ followers, we are commanded to be like him, as a “nation of priests” and a light to the world. We need to be always aware that the world is watching, so that our actions always reflect the holiness and love of the God that we serve.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).

We are under constant scrutiny whether we are aware of it or not. Let us always try to be a favorable witness to the Holy Name whose image we bear.

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1 A series of articles on the Lord’s Prayer in its Jewish context by Dr. Brad Young can be found at www.jerusalemperspective.com. (Premium Content subscription required.)

2 See the En-Gedi article Letting Our Tassels Show for more about the idea of being a “kingdom of priests.”

3 H. H. Ben-Sasson, Kiddush Ha-Shem and Hillul HaShem, Encyclopedia Judaica CD-ROM, Version 1.0, 1997

4 J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, p 197. Copyright 2000, Bell Tower. ISBN 0-609-60330-2. (This is an outstanding book on ethics for living. Available at Barnes & Noble or online.)

5 Jonathan Miles’ ministry is called Shevet Achim.

Photos: Yoav Dothan [Public domain]; Jenaer Kodex [Public domain]; Painting “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” by Ford Maddox Brown)

Say Little, Do Much

What wisdom can we learn from Abraham, the man whom God chose to make a covenant to bless the world? The rabbis were delightfully sensitive to little details in each biblical story, and their favorite stories were those of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — who they considered superheroes of faith. Certainly, they thought, we can learn from them how to live.

Bosom of AbrahamListen to what they found in the story of Abraham and his heavenly visitors in Genesis 18. When three strangers came to Abraham’s door he said, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant” (vs. 4-5).

Instead, he told Sarah to kneed three seahs (about 50 pounds!) of their finest flour into bread. He next ran out to his herd and chose one of his best calves, choice and tender, and found a servant to prepare it. Then he brought some curds and fresh milk too. It would have taken most of a day to prepare this luscious feast. The bread would need to rise, and the calf would need to roast for hours. I think there would have been enough food for fifty people or more.

Abraham had no idea who these strangers were who came to his door, and all he promised them was a little water and just a bite to eat to tide them over for their trip, but instead, he rolled out the red carpet and prepared a luxurious feast for them. Wow.

The great rabbi Shammai (who lived about fifty years before Jesus) shared an excellent comment on how to live by Abraham’s example: “Say little, do much.”1 A later rabbi added, “What does this mean? It teaches that the righteous say little and do much, whereas the wicked say much and do not even a little.”2

Jesus said a similar thing when he told the parable about the two sons in Matthew 21:

What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? (Mt 21:28-3)

Vineyard

One son had the shocking chutzpah to say “no” to his father, something a son didn’t do in those days! Yet he then he went and did what he was told. The other respectfully said, “Yes, sir!” And then he didn’t actually do what he was supposed to.

I’ve been feeling convicted about this in my own life recently, because I’ve said that I’d do things and then backed out of them. Or I’ve forgotten my words in the midst of the other things that became important later. Or I’ve simply changed my mind! If I have a good reason, I apologize and usually people forgive me. If I forget, it just doesn’t get done, and in my mind I think, “Well it must not have been too important — maybe the other person won’t mind.”

Then I remembered one friend who made some exciting plans with me. I was very enthusiastic about what we’d do together, but then he canceled out later. Then he had the gall to do it more than once! I admit that I was irritated at him for years. It wasn’t until that I saw myself in him that I got over my anger. In his mind he genuinely wanted to do the thing he promised when he made the promise, just like I did. We were both a bundle of good intentions! Good intentions, however, aren’t the same as follow-through.

As much as I see this lack-of-follow-through in myself, it seems to be a common trait among us nowadays. I wonder if it isn’t part of our easy-going American culture. I remember reading a booklet for newly-arriving international students that warned, “When Americans tell you, ‘We will have you over to our house for supper some time,’ don’t be disappointed if they don’t invite you the next week. They may not ever invite you, but this is just their way of voicing their general intentions of welcome.”

Ouch. I imagine that this advice came out of the experience of many an international student who felt crushed and angry when their phone didn’t ring. I may have even issued some of those “mock invitations” myself.

As it says in Proverbs 25:14, “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.”

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1 Pirke Avot 1:15

2 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 13:3

Photos: Herrad von Landsberg; Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Eager to Please

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Matthew 5:6

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is lovely, but you have to admit that it’s also a challenge. He tells us to “turn the other cheek” and tightens up many laws, pointing out that anger is as bad as murder, and that lust is as bad as adultery. Why does he do this?

Some have thought that Jesus’ goal was to show that God’s standards are impossibly high, so we should give up on trying to do the right thing and instead trust in God’s forgiveness in Christ.

There is another possibility though. Jesus may have been preaching on the Jewish idea of hasidut – (hah-see-DOOT), a later rabbinic term which is often translated “piety.” It means to walk intimately with God and live entirely to serve him. It means to eagerly obey God out of love, asking the question, “What more can I do to please you?”

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, which describe what it is like to be a true hasid (hah-SEED), a “pious one.” They are hungry and thirsty to do God’s will, and greatly desire to see God use them to accomplish his mission on earth. They are peace-makers, meek and merciful, and they are pure in heart, earnestly avoiding sin.

Part of the idea of hasidut was that a hasid would go far out of his way to avoid sin, for fear of grieving God’s spirit and breaking the communion he has with God. As a result, the person tightened his own standards and lived beyond the minimum, to make sure he is within God’s will.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us to ask what is the maximum we can do to please God, not what is the minimum required by the Law. So great should our love for God be that we’d tear out our eyes rather than be led away from him by sin. We should be persons of such honesty that we never need to take a vow—our yes is always yes, and our no, always no. We don’t just love our friends, we love even those who are hateful. This should be our goal, even if we aren’t that way right now.

A modern orthodox Jewish commentary describes hasidut this way:

The hasid is one who goes beyond the letter of the law in his service of G-d. He does not do only what he is told, but he looks for ways to fulfill G-d’s will. This requires intelligence and planning; one must anticipate just what G-d wants of him and how he can best use his own talents in service of his Creator. As we also saw, this was in direct contrast to the mock-piety—fasting, wailing, rolling in the snow, etc…. G-d has no interest in senseless service—that we do things just because they’re hard (and get us a lot of notice). Piety is not doing things which hurt. It is careful, planned and responsible service of G-d. We are not to sacrifice ourselves for G-d with self-destructive acts of devotion; we are to live for Him—as responsible, thinking beings who make intelligent choices in our religious service. We are to maximize our potential—and to use that potential in service of our Creator.1

Jesus’ words are a description of what our goal is to become as followers of him. As we grow closer, our desire is to have nothing come between us. And the first thing that we pursue is God’s will, not our own.


1Adapted from http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-10and11c.html. (The reason that some Jews spell the word “God” with a hyphen is out of reverence, to not lightly use the holy name of God. This itself is an example of piety*—*hasidut.) See Bivin, *New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus*, pp.55-58, (En-Gedi, 2005).

The idea of *hasidut* is explained in more depth in an excellent talk called, “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer” by David Pileggi, as part of the *Insights into Jesus of Nazareth DVD Series*. See also page 174 of *Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus*, in the chapter called “Jesus and the Torah.”