The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew by Luca Giordano (1632–1705)
Discipleship to Rabbi Jesus TodayJesus’ call to follow him in the first century put himself in tension with the whole of Jewish tradition and practice. Surely a rabbi of the first century was an extremely respected teacher of the law. Jesus usurped the authority the Jewish rabbis had at that time. He does not want his disciples or anyone else to be called rabbi, because there is only one Teacher (Matt 23:8-10), implying himself. After his resurrection, when he commands his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, he confirms that he is that one Rabbi (Matt 28:18-20). Jesus removed all authority from the Jewish religious leaders of his day and rightly put it on himself. Jesus, above all others, is the “Teacher,” whose authority continues even after his death.1
It is here that his call to follow him can become confusing for us today. Jesus came to earth to die, but also to teach his way of righteousness and call all to it. Jesus chose the rabbi-disciple relationship to train his disciples to go and take his message to the world.
But his desire for all of humanity to come and follow him did not end there. Jesus did not abandon the discipleship system when he died. It continues today, and all who today are Christians, whether they understand it or not, are by default in this rabbi-disciple relationship with Jesus (see In the Dust of the Rabbi).
Even though he is no longer walking on the earth today, the rabbi-disciple relationship and system is still in place between Jesus and his followers. Jesus would not have told his disciples to make disciples of all nations if this weren’t so. Consider that he spoke this command after he had died, so he said it knowing he wasn’t going to be physically on the earth. The difference is that now discipleship to Jesus is in a spiritualized context.
Discipleship to Rabbi Jesus is no longer about a physical itinerant following of Jesus around Galilee and the surrounding areas. He does not call anyone today to say good-by to his family and sell all his possessions in order to come follow him all around that region, as this is no longer a contextual physical possibility. Instead, he calls all to follow him spiritually.
Thus, some of his discipleship teachings (such as leaving all to follow him literally around Galilee) as recorded in the gospels are no longer applicable today. The context has changed; the principles, however, are still applicable. This is important to glean as it is the heart that matters when considering any teachings that do not make applicable sense for us today.
When Jesus said to his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he was not telling them to go and take disciples after themselves, or create their own schools of discipleship. They were to go and make disciples to follow Jesus and him only. This is why Paul says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Paul was not interested in founding the House of Paul or having his own rabbinical authority. Jesus turned the entire Jewish discipleship system on its head and, in fact, brought it to an end for all who believe in the Messiah.
Now, all who follow him as his disciple do so not physically, but spiritually. No more following men who claim an authority as a Teacher. Jesus opened up a new understanding of discipleship by commanding and inviting all to become his disciples, even though he is no longer on the earth. His promise as the rabbi who leads his disciples continues through his promise that he will be with them always to the end of the age (Matt 28:20).
It is impossible to divorce Jesus’ function as a rabbi within first-century Israel from what his call to discipleship means for all who hear of his message throughout all ages. It doesn’t matter if this message is preached in the second or 21st century, it is the same: Jesus calls all people, great and small, to come after him as his disciple, to strive to learn everything he has to teach, to gain his knowledge, and to learn to put his teachings into practice, thus also gaining his character, ever growing in sanctification. It is the job of a disciple to commit himself to learning from his master.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20 seal forever his desire that the life God wants everyone to live is not just about mere head belief. The life Jesus calls all to is the same as what he called his first-century hearers to—discipleship to him. Discipleship to Jesus is the call to put him and his teachings first. There is no other way to understand Jesus and his function as a Rabbi, of which he still holds.
Modern day Christianity has mostly forgotten, ignored, or is simply unaware of what it means that Jesus is a rabbi, as well as the discipleship system he reinvented. Many churches today have conversion models that focus on converting the lost to the correct belief in Jesus as the Son of God, but lack in converting them into the rabbi-disciple relationship that Jesus commanded.
Conversion for a first-century Jew was not simply about getting saved, but about living in a right relationship with God, more so, with the Lord Jesus, as his disciple.2 May the church today recognize Jesus as its Rabbi and call all converts to come after him with all the thirst and zeal of a first-century disciple.