by Ron Bennett ( http://www.rbennett.net/ )
All communication is based on shared meanings not shared words. Words are only the container into which meaning is added. For example, the word “agua” is a random arrangement of letters unless you are familiar with Spanish. When Spanish speaking people see the letters “agua”, they share a common meaning. If we are to understand their meaning, we must look at it through the lens of their culture.
Another example of the problem of meaning is found in the biblical term “eternal life”: a very common concept in our religious culture. Jesus told Nicodemus that it is the promised result of believing in Him (John 3:16). But what is it that Jesus was actually offering? I think our popular understanding of eternal life is a place we go after death offering a heavenly condo with no maintenance fees, probably on a lake or golf course, hanging out with our friends, free from pain, sorrow, and people who annoy us…. forever! However, Jesus defined it as having a personal, quality relationship with God not limited by the dimensions of matter, space, or time with a beginning but no end (John 17:3).
In the same way understanding discipleship requires us to go back through 2,000 years of history, 3-4 different languages, as well as different cultural settings. That is a formidable task requiring time and effort, but since discipleship is core to what Jesus did and taught, it would seem prudent to learn what He meant by the word rather than substituting our own.
As a Jewish based Christianity moved into a Greek/Roman world, Hebrew words were translated into Greek/Latin and took on the flavor of those cultures. The Greek word for disciple, MATHES, is translated into English as learner or student. In the Greek culture a person who adhered to the teaching of a particular philosopher would be called a disciple: one who learned and believed what the master taught. Since western education comes primarily out of a Greek context, we normally think of a disciple as a student who learns information, usually by listening to or reading lectures, speeches, or writings.
The problem is that Jesus was not a Greek! He was a Hebrew Rabbi and when He used the term disciple, His meaning was unique and specific to that culture. The Gospel narratives give us abundant material to understand what Jesus meant by the term disciple. This information should prevent us from reading our own cultural meaning into His term. Without this understanding our ability to become and make His disciples becomes distorted. We must be careful to build our picture of discipleship on His use of the term rather than current culture or church history.
Over the years of my ministry with church leaders, I have found four common ideas of discipleship:
- An elite and exceptional kind of believer … more like a “super saint”.
- A serious student of the Bible who knows a lot about biblical doctrine and attends a lot of Bible studies.
- What a believer is when they are having a really good day.
- A person who does anything religious.
A good starting point is to look at when Jesus began to call out disciples of His own. Matthew 4:19 gives an early call to several men who had already been exposed to Jesus (John 1-4). The scene of Matthew 4 is probably a year or more into the 3+ year ministry of Christ. His call to them was more of a summons with authority than an invitation. He said to them, “Follow Me.” The focus was on following the person of Jesus Christ, not simply His teaching or philosophy. Certainly there was a student/learner component, but the focus was on a relational emulation not just an intellectual ascent.
In Luke 6:40, Jesus further defined His term disciple when He said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he has been fully trained will be like his teacher”. With this statement Jesus further clarifies discipleship as a training process to become like Him in every way possible. Jesus presented discipleship as personal, active, holistic, and progressive … certainly not accidental or passive.
I think the English word “apprentice” comes close to capturing the Hebrew meaning of discipleship. The apprentice concept comes to us from the European later Middle Age history. As people moved from the country to the cities, the demand for goods and services became more than a single family shop could provide. So when a shoemaker, for example, could not keep up with the demand for shoes by simply teaching his children the trade, he would train “apprentices” to join the family shoe making business. As an apprentice the person would learn both the concepts and skills necessary to make shoes. They were trained to transform raw leather into useful shoes.
The term apprentice has limited use in our current culture but generally tends to carry the meaning of both knowledge and skill gained from a master craftsman. The need for apprenticeship decreased appreciably with the industrial revolution. Craftsmen and apprentices were replaced by speed, automation, and repetition. Perhaps we have followed a similar pattern with an “assembly line” version of disciplemaking. What if we took seriously not only His meaning of discipleship but also His method of apprenticeship?
Questions for reflection:
1. Compare and contrast a student with an apprentice.
2. How have you developed your picture of discipleship?