Disciples of Yeshua
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 10 June 2019
Scripture: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Scripture quotations may be taken from different versions. Click here for abbreviations of Bible versions. Quotations marked with the initials "BR" indicate the translation of the author.
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud abbreviations.
Syntax: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981). Explanation of grammatical abbreviations and a pronunciation guide for New Testament Greek may be found here. The numbering system of the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is identified with "SH" (Strong's Hebrew number) and "SG" (Strong's Greek number). Strong's Online.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Throughout the apostolic narratives the followers of Yeshua are known as disciples. The English word "disciple" is defined as a pupil or an adherent of the doctrines of another; or a follower of the doctrines of a teacher or a school of thought. Thus, in simple terms a disciple is person devoted to learning from a teacher. This definition fits those who followed Yeshua, because they wanted to learn from him. Yet, those disciples discovered that Yeshua had great expectations of them and this article will explore those expectations. During the apostolic era disciples were given the name "Christian" (= "Messianic"), a functional synonym of disciple (Acts 11:26). See my web article The First Christians.
In the history of Christianity, and certainly in modern times, the name "Christian" has lost its equivalency to "disciple." According to surveys the majority of Americans consider themselves to be Christian, even people who don't attend church regularly, but survey results would be much different if people were asked "Are you a disciple of Jesus?" The label "disciple" is simply not in vogue as a self-description. Evangelical churches do place emphasis on discipleship and many Christian resources are available on the subject. In churches "discipleship" generally means coaching a new believer in Christian doctrines and basic Christian practices, such as confession, repentance, Bible study, prayer, public worship, participation in the Lord's Supper, and financial giving.
The apostle Paul likened those things normally associated with discipleship as elementary things (Heb 6:1). They don't necessarily produce maturity as a follower of Yeshua. The landmark book Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1937) demonstrated how much such "elementary Christianity" falls short of biblical discipleship. Becoming a disciple is much more than being a believer or a church member. After reviewing the biblical and historical background of the disciple we will consider three aspects of discipleship as represented in the teaching of Yeshua and the lives of his apostles.
● The Call
● The Command
● The Cross
The relevant Bible terms are as follows:
● Grk. akoloutheō (SG-190), verb, to be in motion in sequence behind someone or to be in close association with someone, especially as a disciple. The verb occurs 90 times in the Besekh, all but seven times in the apostolic narratives.
● Grk. mathēteuō (SG-3100), verb, to make a disciple or student of a teacher. The verb occurs 4 times in the Besekh (Matt 13:52; 27:57; 28:19; Acts 14:21).
● Grk. mathētēs (SG-3101), 'mah-thay-tays;' from manthanō, to learn, masc. noun, one who learns through instruction from a teacher. The noun occurs 263 times in the Besekh, all in the apostolic narratives.
● Grk. mathētria (SG-3102), fem. noun, a female disciple. This noun occurs one time (Act 9:36).
● Grk. summathētēs (SG-4827), masc. noun, a fellow disciple. This noun occurs one time (John 11:16).
● Heb. lamad (SH-3925), verb, to teach or to learn. The verb occurs 86 times in the Tanakh.
● Heb. limmud (SH-3928), adj., taught. The adjective occurs six times in the Tanakh, four times in the sense of disciples (Isa 8:16; 50:4, 13).
● Heb. talmid (SH-8527), 'tal-meed,' a scholar or pupil, derived from the verb lamad. In the Tanakh talmid occurs only one time where it refers to Levites being trained in musical duties (1Chr 25:8).
In ancient Greek culture a mathētēs might be a learner of dancing, the pupil of a philosopher or rhetorician, a student of medicine or an apprentice (LSJ). In the LXX mathētēs occurs only in two alternate readings of Jeremiah 13:21; 20:11; 26:9 (DNTT 1:485). The fact that "disciple" occurs only in the apostolic narratives does not mean the concept is absent in the rest of the Besekh. A parallel term is hagioi, "holy ones," occurring 60 times in the Besekh and commonly translated as "saints." Paul addressed all his congregational letters to the "holy ones," a label that reflects discipleship realized. Paul also likely did not want to imply he had any kind of master-disciple relationship as he originally had with Gamaliel.
In the history of the Israelite people recorded in the Tanakh there was no teacher-disciple relationship as found in the apostolic narratives. The learner always remained a part of the chosen people. The priest and the prophet did not teach on their own authority. The attendants of Moses and the prophets were not called pupils, but servants (Ex 24:12; Num 11:28; 1Kgs 19:19-21; 2Kgs 4:12; Jer 32:12-13). In the Tanakh the vocabulary of teacher-pupil is bound up with the concept of covenant. God is the Master and Teacher and He instructed Israel in covenantal life (Deut 4:1-14; 14:23; 17:19; 31:12-13).
Within that context priests and Levites were to teach the men of the nation (Lev 10:8-11; Deut 17:8-10) and in turn the fathers would teach their children (Deut 6:7; cf. Mal 4:6). The concept of teacher-disciple has its roots in certain relationships of leaders and prophets and their servants. Joshua served Moses (Ex 24:12; Num 11:28); Elisha served Elijah (1Kgs 19:19-21); Gehazi served Elisha (2Kgs 4:12) and Baruch served Jeremiah (Jer 32:12-13). There were also schools of prophets (1Sam 10:5; 1Kgs 18:4; 20:35; 2Kgs 2:3-7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1) who learned from the leading prophets of Israel.
The teacher-disciple relationship properly came about in the rise of Phariseeism. In the time of Ezra certain men known as Hasidim ("pious ones") organized and separated themselves from the common people for religious devotion. The first mention of the group is in the books of Maccabees where they are described as "a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, every one who offered himself willingly for the Law" (1Macc 2:42; cf. 1Macc 7:13; 2Macc 14:6). The Pharisees (Heb. P'rushim) are known by that name as an organized group from the 2nd c. BC. The Pharisees of the Great Sanhedrin, 200–20 BC came to be known as Sages, teachers revered for their wisdom. Notable Jewish teachers of following generations also became known as Sages. (See a list of the Jewish Sages here.)
By the first century the talmid was identified as a pupil of a Sage or rabbinical teacher. Since the teacher's knowledge gave him direct access to the Scriptures which facilitates right understanding, he became a kind of mediator between the talmidim and the Torah. To listen to and learn the Scriptures without the guidance of a teacher was something to be avoided (Berachot 47b). The focus of the talmid was not just on the Torah but all the traditions developed by the Sages (Shabbath 31a). These traditions included theology, customs and laws derived from interpretation of Scripture. The Mishnah declares, "Appoint for yourself a teacher" (Avot 1:6) and the only task of a talmid was to acquire knowledge from his teacher (Avot 2:8). Learning was determined by the authority of the teacher and his interpretation of Torah, not by individual and personal study of Scripture.
The teacher of talmidim was called Heb. Rabbi ("rah-bee," lit. "my master"), an honorific title of respect derived from Heb. rab (SH-7227), "great, lord, or master" (BAG). The title was used exclusively for Torah scholars (Stern 68). In The Talmud Rabbi is used only of Sages in the land of Israel and the phrase "our rabbis taught" is used frequently in the Talmud to introduce their important sayings. These Sages considered themselves authorities in their own right, having replaced the prophets (Baba Bathra 12a). Sages of later periods in Babylon are identified by Rab or Rabban. The Rabbans were considered as infallible oracles in religious matters, and eventually in Rabbinic Judaism usurped not only the place of the Torah, but of God Himself.
NOTE: See Daniel Gruber, Rabbi Akiba's Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority, Elijah Publishing 1999; also the article "Rabbinic Judaism" at ElijahNet.net. The title "Rabbi" did not become associated with the leader of a local synagogue until medieval times.
In ancient times a talmid did not enroll as a student with a particular rabbi. When a rabbi could see a promising student as a possible talmid, then the rabbi would himself issue the call (Kasdan 103). Becoming a talmid would radically change a man's life. A talmid had to leave close family, relatives and friends to be with his rabbi. In Pharisaic Judaism the rabbi of talmidim was not itinerate. Rather he operated a school which talmidim attended. The most noted Rabbi-teachers of the first century were Hillel and Shammai. The Judean authorities noted that Yeshua and his disciples had not been students at any recognized academy (John 7:15; 9:29; Acts 4:13). In contrast Paul was educated under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the grandson of Hillel.
In Jewish culture studying Torah and the traditions of the Sages was as important as honoring one's parents, and leaving home to study Torah with a rabbi was even more important. The rabbi became like a father to the talmid. In fact, the rabbi was to be honored above the talmid's own father. The Mishnah indicates that when one is searching for the lost property both of his father and of his teacher, his teacher’s loss takes precedence over that of his father since his father brought him only into the life of this world, whereas his teacher, who taught him wisdom [i.e., Torah], has brought him into the life of the world to come (Baba Metzia 2:13).
A particular hardship of a married talmid was being away from his wife. Young men attending the rabbinic school, which could begin as early as 15 (Avot 5:21), were commonly single, but since marriage took place at a relatively early age (usually by eighteen) many talmidim had a wife and children. If married, a man needed the permission of his wife to leave home for longer than thirty days to study with a rabbinic teacher (Ketubot 5:6). The Mishnah defines the character of a good talmid,
MISHNAH 14. [There are] four types of character in [regard to regular] attendance at the house of study: He who attends but practices not, the reward for attending is in his hand; He who practices but attends not, the reward for practicing is in his hand; He who attends and practices, he is a pious man; He who attends not and practices not: he is a wicked man.
MISHNAH 15. [There are] four types of character among those who sit before the Sages: [they are, severally, typified by] a sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve: A sponge, which absorbs all; a funnel, which lets in at one end and lets out at the other; a strainer, which lets out the wine and retains the lees; a sieve, which lets out the course meal and retains the choice flour." (Avot 5)
"Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men." (Matt 4:19 TLV)
Early in his ministry in accordance with Jewish custom Yeshua called men to be his disciples. He began with extending the invitation to Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael while in Judea (John 1:35-51). The call of Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee (Jacob and John) was later confirmed in Galilee (Matt 4:18-22), which is where Yeshua recruited the rest of the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19). There were times when Yeshua invited other men to be his followers (Matt 8:22; 19:21). Even women became his followers (Mark 15:41; Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). The Twelve and other disciples that consistently followed Yeshua recognized his authority by addressing him as Rabbi (Mark 9:5; 11:21; John 1:38, 49; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8; 13:13; 20:16).
Yeshua operated no school at a fixed site (Luke 9:58). The focus of his teaching was not academic. His disciples were not required to memorize and repeat unchanged all the sayings of the Sages later recorded in the Tractate Avot ("Fathers"). Instead Yeshua engaged his disciples with deep subjects to inspire analytical thinking and spiritual reflection. The sayings of Yeshua were later recorded in the four apostolic narratives of his life with the memory assistance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). See my article Witnesses of the Good News.
Everything Yeshua taught was related to the "Kingdom of God," which occurs 58 times in the apostolic narratives, and its corollary "Kingdom of Heaven," which occurs 32 times, all in Matthew. Yeshua's teaching was a direct challenge to the "Kingdom of the Sages." Proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom revived the hope expressed throughout the Tanakh and intertestamental Jewish literature that God would reign over His people living in peace and unity with all sin and idolatry banished. See my comment on John 3:3.
The call to follow Yeshua had the straight forward meaning of physically going with him as he traversed the land on foot and sometimes by boat. From the beginning of his ministry Yeshua had high expectations of his disciples and thus he named the Twelve as apostles (Luke 6:13), which meant he gave them authority not given to other disciples (cf. Eph 2:20). All the men and women that followed Yeshua understood they were expected to manifest the same commitment as rabbinic talmidim. They left their occupations behind and relied on the charity of others for their daily needs. This forced dependency was their school of preparation for the future.
The close association with Yeshua was necessary to teach the disciples how to be "fishers of men." This metaphor hinted at the future disciple-making of the Great Commission. Viewing ministry as "fishing" meant attracting people to the message of Yeshua, the King of Israel, and bringing them into the "net" of the Kingdom (cf. Matt 13:47). Yeshua sent out the Twelve (Matt 10:5-15) and later the Seventy (Luke 10:1-12) to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God in Yeshua and to do good to the bodies and souls of people. These missions gave the apostles practice in the necessary skills of disciple-making and illustrated that being a disciple meant being a messenger and witness for Yeshua.
When Yeshua said "follow me" he also meant "become like." After all, fulfilling the hope of the Kingdom of God requires that people desire to be like the King. Yeshua clarified the matter for his disciples,
"A disciple is not above the Teacher, nor a servant above his lord. 25 It is enough that the disciple should become as the Teacher, and the servant as his Lord." (Matt 10:24-25 BR)
Paul wrote that God's people were predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29). He did not mean that disciples are clones of Yeshua. Our renewed nature is only similar to that of Yeshua. We may well ask, "What does it mean to be like Yeshua?" The WWJD ("what would Jesus do?") movement in the early 1990s attempted to provide a framework for being like Yeshua. The movement was especially influenced by Charles Sheldon's 1896 classic book In His Steps, in which characters attempt to answer the question in various arenas of life. (See my group Bible study based on this book.)
Actually, Peter provides a succinct answer to Sheldon's question in his first letter.
"21 For you were called to this, because Messiah also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in His footsteps: 22 He committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth. 23 When He was abused, He did not return the abuse. While suffering, He made no threats. Instead, He kept entrusting Himself to the One who judges righteously. 24 He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we, removed from sins, might live for righteousness. By His wounds you were healed. 25 For you like sheep were going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls." (1Pet 2:21-25 TLV)
Peter identifies the first step in being like Yeshua as stop sinning. In fact, Yeshua specifically cautioned two people to "sin no more," first the invalid healed at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:14), and second, the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11). The fact that a disciple may be instructed to cease sinning or to avoid sinning (cf. 1Cor 15:34; Eph 4:26; 1Tim 5:20) contradicts the assumption by some Christians that they must sin in thought, word and deed every day. This faulty assumption is antithetical to being a disciple. (See my commentary on Romans 6:1). Paul's description of the divine goal expresses the gradual change until followers of Yeshua have the family likeness of sons of God. This conformity will only reach its perfection in the resurrection (1Th 3:13; 5:23).
Based on the example of the Twelve and the Seventy being a disciple is more significant that being a believer in Yeshua. Indeed, we may say that while all disciples are believers, not all believers are disciples. When a person is a believer the focus is on the personal relationship with God and Yeshua. The immature believer is concerned primarily with his own needs and the needs of his family. As the believer matures, the call of discipleship motivates the focus to shift to the needs of others, particularly their need of salvation. The personal prayer life becomes less concerned about Self and more intercessory to lift the needs of others to God as well as to appeal for God's intervention in saving grace. Transitioning from believer to disciple especially means the focus is on Yeshua, the one whom we are called to follow and be like.
"18 All authority in heaven and on the earth has been given to me. 19 Having gone, therefore, make disciples of all the nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things whatever I commanded you." (Matt 28:18-20 BR).
"15 Having gone into all the world proclaim the good news to all creation. 16 "The one having trusted and having been immersed will be saved; but the one having disbelieved will be condemned. 17 Moreover, these signs will accompany the ones having trusted: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;" (Mark 16:15-17 BR)
"46 Thus it is written, the Messiah was to suffer and to rise from death the third day, 47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, having begun from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things." (Luke 24:46-48 BR)
"21 Then Yeshua said to them again, "Peace to you; just as the Father has sent me, I also am sending you." 22 And having said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you might forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven for them; if you might hold fast of any, they are held fast." (John 20:21-23 BR)
"8 you will receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you; and you will be witnesses of me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and as far as the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8 BR)
The instruction of Yeshua to his apostles for their future ministry has been dubbed the "Great Commission." The charge is recorded in each of the five apostolic narratives with different wording and different emphases, yet containing a common theme. The apostles were sent by Yeshua as his agents to proclaim the good news of salvation and that mission would take them into distant lands. Of the five forms of the commission, the one in Matthew extends the goal beyond receiving God's forgiveness to manifesting a lifestyle of obedience to God's commandments. Thus, "making disciples" is much more than convincing people to trust in Yeshua.
The Father gave Yeshua all authority to govern the entire population of heaven and earth. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords (Rev 17:14; 19:16). Yeshua's declaration means that he possessed this universal authority before he ascended to heaven, not to be assumed at some point in the future. Indeed he rules from the right hand of the Father all he surveys. All the angels are subject to Yeshua so that he may send them on errands to benefit his people (Heb 1:14). See my web article The Host of Heaven.
All humans and all human institutions are under that authority (Col 2:10). Possessing authority comes with the reasonable expectation of respect and obedience. Yeshua has the right to direct the behavior of every believer. The implications are wide ranging. The believer has important roles at home, at work, in the neighborhood and community and in his congregation. Yeshua does not permit his followers to compartmentalize their lives so as to restrict His authority in any of those spheres. Disciples of Yeshua recognize that in the world He has authority to direct their ethics and morality in every role.
The authority of Yeshua especially functions in his mediatorial role, interceding with the Father on behalf of his followers (1Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6; 9:15). The intercession of Yeshua functions as high priest (Heb 2:17; 7:25), very different than the Holy Spirit. Whereas the Holy Spirit is present with us Yeshua serves in heaven as our Advocate at God's Court if we sin (1Jn 2:1). Our Advocate paid the debt for our sins with his blood and provides perpetual atonement (Heb 7:27). He is ever ready to help us because he sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15).
Yeshua has all authority for governing the conduct of his followers in their relationships and gatherings (cf. Matt 18:16-19; John 17:11, 21-23; 1Cor 14:37), to appoint offices for ministry (1Cor 12:28), and, to bestow spiritual gifts (Rom 12:6-8; 1Cor 12:4-11). He is the head of the body or congregation of Messiah (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18). Viewing the congregation as a body vividly illustrates the extent of Yeshua's authority over his followers. In the anatomical structure of the human body there is no system or function that is not controlled and directed by the brain. To reject Yeshua's authority would be tantamount to rejecting one's membership in that body.
While there were various times and circumstances in which Yeshua commanded his disciples "go" (e.g., Matt 5:24, 41; 10:5-6; 18:15; 21:2), the verb "to go" in the Great Commission is not in the imperative mood as translated in most Bible versions. Instead Yeshua used a participle to convey his assumption that his apostles would take the good news to others.
The verb "make disciples" illustrates the principle that disciples are made, not born. To disciple implies a period of instruction or training in not only biblical knowledge but biblical virtues. Making a disciple fosters spiritual formation. The apostles engaged in a course of study with Yeshua that lasted almost three years. Another example of this training is the year of instruction that Barnabas and Paul gave new believers in Syrian Antioch so that at the end of that time they were true disciples (Acts 11:26). Making disciples is not a matter of commanding behavior from the pulpit; it requires an investment of time. Properly speaking a disciple is made by another disciple (Eph 4:11-12), one who is an example, one who can say "imitate me" (cf. 1Cor 4:16; 11:1; 1Th 1:6; Heb 13:7).
The Great Commission as reported by Matthew and Mark extend the disciple-making to the ends of the earth. Only Luke provides the specific routing plan of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and then the rest of the world. Due to the mention of Jewish locations the apostles interpreted the Great Commission solely in terms of making disciples of traditional (=Pharisaic) Jews. The Good News did not go to the Gentiles until God specifically commanded Peter to go to Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile, and it was such a "big deal" that Peter was called before the elders in Jerusalem to explain himself (Acts 10:28; 11:2-3).
Yeshua also called Paul to be his agent to take the good news to the nations (Acts 9:15), but his commission included all the "sons of Israel." The descendants of Jacob were fractured into many partisan groups: Essenes, Galilean Jews, Hellenistic Jews, Herodians, Judean Jews, Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans and Zealots. The good news of Messiah was intended for all of them. It was Paul who conducted evangelism and discipling among Hellenistic Jews (Acts 14:1; 17:4; 18:4; 19:10; 20:21), as well as Gentiles.
The mention of "new tongues" in Mark's version of the Commission could be idiomatic of a transformed mouth. The new believer's tongue will be transformed from an organ of abuse and disrespect to a tongue engaged in praise of God (Ps 51:14). More significant is that the "new tongues" refer to diverse people groups, previously unknown to the apostles, who would embrace the good news as it says in the Prophets (Isa 45:23; 66:18; Dan 7:14).
In the Pentecost narrative Luke lists sixteen points of origin for the Jews and Gentile proselytes present for Peter's sermon, each place with its own dialect (Acts 2:9-11). Wycliffe Bible Translators has identified over 3,000 people groups in the world and close to 7,000 languages in the world. By the end of the first century many more than sixteen dialects had heard the good news of salvation. At the present time the message of redemption reaches around the world in a multitude of languages, a glorious fulfillment of Yeshua's prophecy.
NOTE: I use the term "immersion" rather than "baptism" because of its biblical source. Christianity recognizes three modes of baptism: immersion, sprinkling and pouring. However, Yeshua and the apostles only practiced immersion.
The necessity of immersion was introduced by Yochanan the Immerser (Mark 1:4-5). Ritual bathing or washing was a common activity in Jewish culture prescribed in Leviticus for a variety of occasions, including (1) restoring the right to join in worship after a period of illness, menstruation or contact with a dead body; and (2) preparing priests and Levites for Temple ceremonies, as well as pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. In the first century there were many pools that surrounded the Temple area for ritual purification.
For Yochanan immersion symbolically represented both repentance and God cleansing a person of sin, a viewpoint well established in the Tanakh (Ps 51:2, 7; Isa 1:16; Jer 4:14; Ezek 36:25). Yochanan's call to repentance was based on the assumption of the imminence of the day of God's wrath and judgment of the nations (Matt 3:2-12; Luke 3:2-16). Yochanan conducted his immersion ministry in the Jordan River rather than the Temple pools (John 1:28; 3:23) for both spiritual and practical reasons. Yochanan had described the Temple leadership as a "brood of vipers" (Matt 3:6), so he did not want to give any impression that he was acting on behalf of the corrupt priesthood. The Jordan was also the most practical place from the standpoint of handling large crowds.
Since Yochanan was the forerunner of the Messiah, Yeshua went to him that he might fulfill all righteousness by immersing himself in the Jordan (Matt 3:13-16). Yeshua then incorporated immersion of new followers into his own ministry (John 3:22; 4:1-2). The obedience of submitting to water immersion begins the master-disciple relationship with Yeshua. Since Yeshua immersed himself then the believer's immersion signifies identification with him and loyalty to him. Immersion also symbolizes sharing in the death and resurrection of Yeshua and committing oneself to the new life in Yeshua (Rom 6:4). Beginning with Peter's appeal on Shavuot (Pentecost) immersion became the expected response after hearing the proclamation of the good news and repenting for forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 8:12; 8:36; 10:47).
The apostles did not treat the requirement for immersion as a sacrament (a means of saving grace), although it was a sacred act testifying to the grace of forgiveness having been received. Immersion was not a ritualistic ceremony as it was later developed in Christianity. Since the apostles were Jewish, immersions were conducted according to Jewish custom, which included three requirements. First, Jewish immersion was (and is) self-immersion. The candidate entered a body of water with sufficient depth to squat in the water covering the head. The apostles did not personally put their hands on the immersion candidates and assist them under the water as occurs in modern Christian ritual.
Second, Jewish immersion was (and is) gender-specific. That is, men were not present when women immersed and vice versa to preserve modesty. A Jewish man would certainly never put his hands on a woman who was not his wife to assist with her immersion. Third, Jewish immersion was (and is) for adults, that is, people who were at least bar/bat mitzvah age, which signifies becoming fully accountable to the Torah. See Ron Moseley, The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism. In my view Christian baptism would greatly benefit from imitating these practices.
The Great Commission asserts a simple expectation. Immersion is the first step of making a disciple. Some would object that immersion is not absolutely necessary because the thief on the cross was not immersed. Immersion itself does not save anyone, even though some people have interpreted Peter's comment on the subject in this way (1Pet 3:21). However, the apostles would not have imagined a situation in which a believer refused immersion. The root issue is obedience. Yeshua wanted his followers to be immersed (John 3:22; Acts 8:36; 10:48; 16:33; 22:16; 1Cor 12:13). To find some excuse for not obeying the wishes of our Lord when one is fully capable is tantamount to rebellion against the Lord.
With the practice of infant baptism in Christianity, it is not uncommon for someone having experienced the new birth to ask whether rebaptism is necessary. The traditional position of Christianity is that "one baptism" (Eph 4:5) means that infant baptism is valid for the adult and need not be repeated. While the Church views this matter as a personal choice, infant baptism does not make someone a believer, much less a disciple. New adult believers should consider the value of following the example of Yeshua and be immersed. There is precedent for rebaptism. When Paul encountered men who had immersed themselves under the ministry of Yochanan the Immerser, they were nevertheless required to undergo immersion to identify with Yeshua the Messiah (Acts 19:1-5).
Into the Name
The mention of the Father, Son and Spirit is not intended to serve as a verbal ritual for the immersion. Indeed, all the immersions recorded in Acts were done in the name of Yeshua (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 16; 10:48; 19:5). In the Jewish context the phrase "in the name of" signifies the authority for carrying out the act of immersing. In addition, the mention of the persons of deity also affirms that the Father, Son and Spirit each have a role in the redemption and transformation of the believer into a true disciple of Yeshua.
The Greek construction of the phrase uses the preposition eis, literally "into," which occurs three other times: first in reference to the immersion of Samaritans (Acts 8:16), later in reference to the rebaptism of disciples of Yochanan (Acts 19:5) and then in reference to the immersion of new believers in Corinth (1Cor 1:13). The use of the preposition eis adds another layer of meaning, of entrance into a personal relationship with the Messiah and citizenship in Messiah's Kingdom.
Teaching to Observe
The verb "teaching" (a present participle) denotes a continuing personal and verbal instruction, whether privately or in a group setting. In Scripture this important verb does not intend communication merely of historical facts, but instruction in how to live (e.g., Deut 11:19; 20:18). The apostles' teaching (Acts 2:42) shared the life and deeds of Yeshua, but more importantly his expectations of disciples.
The subjects of the teaching ("them") are the believers who were immersed. The verb "to observe" (a present infinitive) may refer to the obligation (1) to maintain something in a secure state, to preserve unchanged; or (2) to be in compliance in regard to instruction. In this context the verbal phrase no doubt included both elements. The apostles would preserve the teachings of Yeshua (cf. John 14:26) and from them pass on Yeshua's expectations of his followers.
All I Commanded
The adjective "all" doesn't leave any out, but the instruction obviously would not be taken in a literalistic sense to include parabolic instructions ("cut off your hand," Matt 5:30) or specific directions Yeshua gave his apostles in a variety of situations, such as distributing loaves and fish. Yeshua, instead, means all that he commanded of an ethical or moral nature. Unlike the Pharisees Yeshua was not interested in perpetuating legalistic traditions (cf. Matt 23:2-3). Yeshua restored the paradigm of the Torah where God is the Master-Teacher and Yeshua is His voice.
The Midrash on the Mount (Matt 5—7) and the Midrash on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49) taken together could be called "The Manual of Discipleship." Since the teaching in these portions of Scripture were intended for Yeshua's disciples (Luke 6:20), then it is the disciples that receive the kingdom blessings (Matt 5:3-11). In this teaching containing over 50 commands or entreaties Yeshua set forth the ethical guidelines that govern his kingdom. He not only affirmed the authority of Torah given through Moses to Israel, but also emphasized the intent behind Torah commandments.
Yeshua pointed out that the prohibition of murder implies that anger against a brother invites divine judgment (Matt 5:21-22). God expects the disciple to be devoted to reconciling broken relationships (Matt 5:23-26). Coveting another man's wife is equivalent to actual adultery and God will not ignore unjust divorces to take someone else's wife (Matt 5:27-32). God expects disciples to keep their word without the necessity of making oaths (Matt 5:33-37). A disciple must leave justice to God and seek to fulfill the command to love one's neighbor, even when the neighbor acts like an enemy (Matt 5:38-48).
Disciples of Yeshua are to be the salt and light of the world (Matt 5:12-16), as a testimony of the nature of God and the abundant life He desires to bring to people on the basis of conformity to the Torah (Matt 5:17-19). In order to accomplish this mission the disciple-makers must themselves live by Torah values. Yeshua said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples." (John 8:31 BR). Disciples, as sons of Abraham, are distinguished by their continuing faithfulness in obeying the instructions of Yeshua (cf. Gen 26:5; Gal 3:7; Rev 12:17; 14:12).
Unfortunately, many modern Christians tend to pick and choose which of Yeshua's commandments they will obey and even reject apostolic instructions as being culturally influenced. Some Christians wrongly interpret any teaching about obedience to God's commands as legalism. In truth the obedience of divinely inspired instructions is what separates modern "Christians" from disciples.
"If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and let him take up his cross and follow me." (Matt 16:24 BR) parallel Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23
"Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me is not able to be my disciple." (Luke 14:27 BR) parallel: Matt 10:38
The third principle represents the greatest challenge to discipleship. The word "cross" (Grk. stauros) can mean the complete execution stake used in crucifixion or just the "cross-beam." Crucifixion was a horrific method of capital punishment used by the Romans and Yeshua died by this means as a result of being tried by Pontius Pilate. For a description of crucifixion see my comment on Mark 15:13. Yeshua willingly surrendered his life to be a sacrifice, specifically a sacrifice to atone for sin (John 1:29; 2Cor 5:21; 1Pet 3:18). Yeshua carried only the cross-beam to Golgotha (John 19:17), so this is the imagery Yeshua had in mind when he said to "take up the cross." Carrying the cross-beam to the place of execution anticipated eventual suffering and death.
Luke's version of the command inserts the word "daily" (Luke 9:23) to emphasize that the command does not denote a one time occurrence, but a continual characteristic of discipleship. Paul alluded to this principle when he said "I die daily" (1Cor 15:31). Yeshua's challenge to take up one's cross, i.e., "follow me and die," could have many points of application, but the following issues will be considered.
"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34; parallel Matt 16:24)
"The one loving his soul loses it; and the one hating his soul in this world will keep it into eternal life." (John 12:25 BR)
"I have been crucified with Messiah; and no longer I live, but Messiah lives in me; and that which I now live in the flesh I live in faithfulness, that of the Son of God, the one having loved me and having given up himself up for me." (Gal 2:20 BR)
"Now those of Messiah Yeshua have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Gal 5:24 BR)
"But may it never be for me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Gal 6:14 BR)
The verb "deny" literally means "to say no to." In this context the denial is directed against one's self. The concept of self-denial is often associated with asceticism, which focuses on denial of pleasure to the body, whether food, sex or accumulation of possessions. Some Jewish ascetics promoted vegetarianism and refraining from marriage, which Paul strongly condemned (1Tim 4:3). The most common form of self-denial among Jews was fasting. The root idea behind fasting is to humble oneself before God (cf. Lev 23:26). Fasting was a regular religious practice in Jewish culture with prescribed days on the calendar (Zech 7:3-5; 8:19). The general guidelines for observing a fast may be found in the Talmud Tractate Ta'anith.
Of interest is that although Yeshua fasted (Matt 4:2) he never commanded his disciples to fast. He assumed his apostles would fast (Matt 9:15) and he provided guidance on how to fast (Matt 6:16-18). The apostolic letters contain no instruction about fasting, but fasting was practiced by the apostles and congregations (Acts 9:9-12; 13:2-3; 14:23). Among the early disciples fasting was not done to impress God (Luke 18:12) or to afflict the body (Col 2:23). The denial of food was to make time for more intercessory prayer to accomplish a spiritual goal. See my article Fasting and Prayer.
The self-denial Yeshua had in mind was primarily the surrender of one's own interests for the will of God (Php 2:21; Col 1:10) or for the sake of another (Php 2:4-8). Denial of self is at the heart of the conflict between "flesh" and "Spirit," as Paul sets forth in Romans 8. For Paul the "flesh" is not the sinful nature, but simply self-oriented desire in contrast to the will of God. "Flesh" also represents human nature or human weakness over against God's nature and power. The "flesh" is concerned about safety and security, but sometimes God wants the disciple to risk these things for the good of the Kingdom.
When Yeshua advocated "hating oneself" he was not implying self-abuse. Rather, he meant the verb in the Hebraic sense of loving less. We are to love ourselves less than we love God, so that Yeshua is first in our affections and commitment. Giving God first place also means saying no to the values and expectations of the world (Jas 4:4; 1Jn 2:15). The world vilifies biblical values, pressures believers to accommodate perversion and wickedness, and seeks to remove godly values from the public domain. The disciple stands firm against the tide of opposition and does not allow the world to determine his ethics and morality.
Love of Brothers
"By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you should have love among one another." (John 13:35 BR)
"In this we have known love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives on behalf of our brothers. 17 But whoever might have the resources of the world, and might see his brother having need and might close his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18 Little children, we should not love in word or the tongue, but in action and truth." (1Jn 3:16 BR)
An important area of sacrifice is to give or sell possessions in order to give to the care of the poor and needy (Luke 12:33; Acts 4:32-35), especially widows and orphans of (Acts 6:1-6; Jas 1:27), with priority given to those in the household of faith (Gal 6:10). When John said "brothers" in his letter he meant fellow believing Israelites, but also believing Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas practiced this principle by collecting funds to send to Judean disciples due to crop failure and famine (Acts 11:27-30). Paul also organized other relief efforts for Messianic Jews in Jerusalem and Judea (Rom 15:26; 1Cor 8:1-4; 9:1-5; Acts 24:17).
It is noteworthy that the only recorded "compassionate ministry" carried out by the apostles was for the benefit of Jewish disciples in the land of Israel. Yeshua declared in his Olivet Discourse that when he returns he will judge people on the basis of whether they served the needs of his brethren the Jews (Matt 25:34-41). Discipleship includes a call to bless Messianic Jewish congregations and ministries in Israel that serve the needy.
"34 Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man's enemies will be the members of his household. 37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me." (Matt 10:34-38)
Yeshua's reality check would have been shocking to Jewish ears. In a culture where loyalty to family and clan was paramount, Yeshua makes it clear that God's will must always be a disciple's priority, even if it contradicts the desires of one's family. Yeshua could speak from personal experience (cf. Mark 3:21, 31-34). The parallel passage in Luke calls for "hating" family members (Luke 14:26), but in that context the verb has the Hebraic sense of loving less. For example, Jacob loved Leah less than Rachel (Gen 29:30; cf. Deut 21:15-17).
Yeshua also recognized that choosing to accept him as Messiah and Savior would divide families into believers and unbelievers, which could lead to loss of family unity and even loss of inheritance (cf. Php 3:8; Heb 10:34). On one occasion Yeshua issued his call to follow and the man replied, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father." But Yeshua said to him, "Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God." On another occasion a man responding to Yeshua's invitation 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 9:59-62). These anecdotes illustrate that when Yeshua calls the believer to follow, family loyalty may need to be sacrificed.
"None of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions." (Luke 14:33)
Another area that often separates the disciple from the believer is the wallet. The sacrifice in the area of finances can take two forms. First, God calls the disciple to give sacrificially, beginning with the tithe and then free-will offerings to support Kingdom ministry. Many believers object to tithing, because it is required in the Law of Moses and Yeshua supposedly canceled the Law. (He didn't.) In reality, tithing predated the laws given at Sinai in the example of Abraham who gave a tenth to Melchizedek (Gen 14:20; Heb 7:1-2), who is a type of Yeshua (Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20). If believers in Yeshua are sons of Abraham (Gal 3:7), then they should follow Abraham's example. Moreover, Yeshua affirmed the obligation of tithing (Matt 23:23). Unwillingness to tithe is not only stinginess, but disobedience of God's will.
Second, the willingness to sacrifice possessions demonstrates genuine commitment to Yeshua. A person cannot serve the accumulation of wealth and God at the same time (Matt 6:24; cf. 1Tim 6:10, 17)). The rich young ruler was not willing to surrender his possessions to be a disciple (Matt 19:21-22). The sacrifice may result from the call to vocational ministry. Simon Peter sacrificed his livelihood through fishing to follow Yeshua (Matt 19:27). Many of those in full-time ministry began by leaving the security of their secular job to serve the Lord. Another form of sacrifice is to sell one's possessions or set aside earnings and donate the money to Kingdom work, such as supporting evangelistic work or purchasing of Bibles for distribution.
The disciple recognizes God's ownership of all he possesses and that he has a stewardship responsibility for God's property as depicted in the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30). The parable depicts the Lord conducting an audit when he returns, making us accountable for the measure of wealth and prosperity distributed to us. How does the Lord expect us to use these resources? God has not given the ability to create wealth (Deut 8:18) just to have larger portfolios, build bigger houses, buy more expensive cars or spend on hobbies and entertainments. Investing in spreading the good news of the Kingdom is the most important use of our money and the percentage of our wealth donated to the Kingdom should reflect that priority. How might the Master react if someone failed to invest in his Kingdom work?
Persecution and Martyrdom
"38 You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evildoer. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him also the other. 40 And the one wanting to sue you and to take your shirt, let him also have your coat. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matt 5:43-45 TLV)
"Behold, I am sending to you prophets and wise men and scribes. From them you will kill and you will crucify, and from them you will flog in your synagogues and you will persecute from town to town." (Matt 23:34 BR)
"Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. (Matt 24:9 BR)
"No one has greater love than this, that one should lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13 BR)
"Remember the word that I spoke to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." (John 15:20 BR)
"7 But whatever things were gain to me, these I have considered as loss for the sake of the Messiah. … 10 My aim is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death— 11 if somehow I might arrive at the resurrection from among the dead." (Php 3:7, 10-11 TLV)
"And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they loved not their life even to death." (Rev 12:11 BR)
Perhaps the most difficult area of discipleship is the instruction of Yeshua to forego revenge for mistreatment and respond to hostility with love and prayer. Many believers would insist that God didn't intend for his people to be doormats. Yet, a true disciple knows that living by the principles of Scripture will meet resistance and hostility from the world. Before his murder in 1956 at the hands of Auca Indians, the missionary Jim Elliot wrote in his diary, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose" (Cowles 98).
The Greek verb "love" (Grk. agapaō) means to have such an interest in another that one wishes to contribute to the other's well-being, even if it means making a personal sacrifice to do so. The cross represented to Yeshua the Father's call to provide atonement for God's enemies by an excruciating and sacrificial death (Rom 5:10). Even from the cross Yeshua cried out for the Father to forgive his executioners (Luke 23:34). To take up the cross and follow Yeshua means responding to personal enemies in the same manner. Indeed the disciple is called to pursue peace with all people (Rom 14:19; Heb 12:14; 1Pet 3:11).
Yeshua warned His disciples that the enemy would not stop with his death (John 15:20), so the disciple, considering the Savior's death and atonement to be of greater value than mere temporal life, maintains loyalty to the Savior in the face of trials. This is how the early disciples left their mark on history as thousands were burned, crucified, thrown to wild beasts or endured other atrocities only limited by the cruel imaginations of their persecutors, but remained firm in their faith in and allegiance to Yeshua. So it will be until Yeshua comes.
There is no greater calling than to be a disciple of Yeshua, to learn from him and to imitate him in character and conduct. To be a disciple in a world hostile to living by biblical values requires courage and chutzpah. Unlike most believers a disciple does not hide his identity, but serves as an open witness of Yeshua in word and deed. The disciple takes the Great Commission very seriously and for the sake of the Kingdom of God invests his time, talent and treasure in the great enterprise of making more disciples.
BAG: Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. trans. W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich. The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Cowles: C.S. Cowles, "At Any Cost," Adult Bible Fellowship Leader (WordAction Publishing Company), Vol. 25, No. 1, 98.
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols., ed. Colin Brown. Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.
Kasdan: Barney Kasdan, Matthew Presents Yeshua, King Messiah: A Messianic Commentary. Lederer Books, 2011.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Copyright © 2019 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.