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Following Christ’s Example: A Biblical View of Discipleship

Along with the spoken word and an acute memory, the student needed an intimate relationship with his teacher because learning for life demanded the power of a good example. He must observe his teacher and imitate his behavior. As we have seen, according to Ben Sirach, the pupil is to “attach” himself to his teacher (6:34) and virtually live in his house (6:36).9 He is to learn not only what to say but when to say it: “A proverb on the lips of a fool will be refused,/ For he will not utter it at the proper time” (20:20). Such timing is only mastered by following the teacher’s example.

For the Rabbis, Torah is not an academic task. This is why Rabbi Shammai says, “Make thy Torah a fixed duty. Say little and do much” (Aboth I.15). Their disciples saw “living Torah” in their teacher’s life.10 Finkelstein gives this example:

So anxious was [Rabbi] Akiba … to master … the rules of proper behavior that he followed every action of his teachers with the closest scrutiny and recorded their slightest habits, … on one occasion he actually followed Joshua into a privy. “And I learned from him three good habits,” he said many years afterward. “How could you be so disrespectful to your teacher?” asked Ben Azzai. “I considered everything part of the Torah and I needed to learn.”11

This pedagogical ideal is given a moral application by Josephus, the first century Jewish historian. He writes,

The Law … enjoins sobriety in … [the children’s] upbringing from the very first. It orders that they shall be taught to read and shall learn both the laws and the deeds of their forefathers, in order that they may imitate the latter, and being grounded in the former, may neither transgress nor have any excuse for being ignorant of them. (Against Apion II. 204)

Here is education by word and deed. For the Rabbis, even God himself was to be imitated. In Sotah 14a walking after the Shekinah means clothing the naked as God did, and visiting the sick as God did.12

The goal of this intimate education is to reproduce the teacher’s life in his pupil. This is true for both Greeks and Jews. Marrou writes of classical education, “For the Greeks, education—paideia—meant … a profound and intimate relationship, a personal union between a young man and an elder who was at once his model, his guide and his initiator. … Education remained not so much a form of teaching … as an expenditure of loving effort.”13 This ideal continued to operate in Jesus’ time. The first century Stoic philosopher Seneca tells Lucilius:

Of course … the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of the action, first because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns. Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared his life, saw into his hidden purposes and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. … It was not the classroom of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus.14

Israel shares a similar ideal. Ben Sirach wants to reproduce his life in his pupil. He writes of a student trained in wisdom:

When his father [teacher] dies,

It is as though he were not dead.

For he leaves behind him

One like himself. (30:4)

Paul carries this same ideal to his ministry. As a father he brings his converts to Christ. His life is the example which they are to imitate. He also disciples Timothy as his son in the faith and reproduces his life and ministry in him. Timothy learns his teaching, follows his ways and is able to communicate them in his absence. As Paul writes to the Corinthians: “… I became your father through the gospel. I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (I Cor. 4:15b-17).

Jesus’ message and ministry are one.

In the ancient world then teaching and learning took place in intimate relationship, father to son, mother to child, teacher to pupil. The teacher’s spoken word was learned and his example was imitated. The goal was to reproduce the teacher’s life in the life of his student, so that, in the words of Ben Sirach, he would leave behind him “one like himself” (30:4). And this was exactly what Jesus did in discipling his followers who, in turn, discipled the Church.


Jesus and Discipleship

Jesus came bearing the authority of the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit. The kingdom (the in-breaking of God’s dynamic rule) was the center of his message. Mark tells us, “… Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mk. 1:14b-15). The kingdom was also the center of his ministry. In Luke Jesus says, “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk. 11:20). As Grasser notes, this kingdom “is not something growing within history but is the miracle which is independent of all human history.”15 A. M. Hunter adds, “It is a divine act. …”16

Jesus’ message and ministry are one. The presence of the kingdom dawning in him is an event which immediately effects the spiritual and social environment around him. The kingdom cannot be locked into some “upper story” Platonic ideal or neo-orthodox abstraction.17 While some, like John MacArthur, assert that for “Jesus, preaching the Word was more important than performing signs and wonders,”18 R. H. Fuller sees the unity of his message and ministry. He writes, “… the miracles of Jesus are part and parcel of his kerygmatic activity. In fact, the miracles are part of the proclamation itself, quite as much as the spoken words of Jesus.”19

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2007

About the Author: Donald M. Williams, Ph.D. (Columbia University), M.Div. (Princeton Seminary), retired in 2002 from the pastorate of Coast Vineyard in La Jolla, California that he planted in 1988. Previous pastoral experience included serving as College Pastor at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for ten years and Mt. Soledad Presbyterian Church in La Jolla, CA. He has held teaching posts at Claremont MacKenna College and at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of thirteen books, including 12 Steps with Jesus (Regal/Chosen, 2004), Start Here: Kingdom Essentials for Christians (Regal/Chosen, 2006), and The Communicator's Commentary for Psalms 1-72 (Word, 1986) and Psalms 73-150 (Word, 1989).

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