Jesus called out to them, "Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!" And they left their nets at once and followed him.  

I have a seminary professor friend who shared with me a couple years ago something that has become a bit of a focus for me in my ministry. He observed that the word Christian is only used 3 times in the entire New Testament. The very word, that so many millions of people use to identify their faith each and every day, is almost non- existent in the very text that defines the concept, the New Testament.

On the other hand, again according to my friend, the word Disciple is used 270 times in the New Testament. Now I must admit, I have been accused of making a mountain out of molehill at times, but doesn’t it seem like there is something in that little numerical comparison that we ought to notice?

Could it be that there was some preference on the part of those who put together our New Testament writings toward the concept of Disciple versus Christian? Let’s look a little closer at the issue. The word Disciple is directly related to the word following, and to follow, in the Biblical sense of a disciple, was an ancient practice of following a rabbi.

Rob Bell, a pastor from Grand Rapids, MI has done some research and tells us what following as a disciple was like during Jesus’ time.* It was related to school and education; however we must understand that the concept of school was a very different thing than we are accustomed to today.

There were no public schools in Jesus’ time. In fact very few children even went to school.  Some of you, who are school age and reading this, are thinking; “How cool is that?” And your parents are thinking, “Oh No!”

Understand that life in Jesus’ day, for Jewish people at least, was all about following the Torah, God’s law. That’s basically what Jewish people call the first five books of the Old Testament. Going to school was totally about learning Torah. People thought, unlike in our separation of church and state age where religion is an educational taboo, that faith and Torah is what people needed most to know. And more importantly, if Torah was lost in the young people of their villages they were in big trouble.

So at around six years old, children would begin going to school to learn Torah. It was probably located at the local synagogue and would have been taught by the rabbi. This school was called Bet Sefer, or house of the book in Hebrew; because it focused on teaching the books of Torah.

At this point in a six-year old child’s education, students were required to begin memorizing scripture and continued to memorize the books of Torah until they had them. All of them; word for word; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; word for word. By the age of ten most children would have these first books down and would be ready to move on.

How many of you have even read the first five books of the Old Testament once?  

Have you ever wondered why, when we read in the Bible of Jesus talking to people about Torah, they all seem to know it? Jesus says about scripture, “You have heard it said...” This is why they memorized it as children. Also, people in the ancient world didn’t have their own copy of the Bible. They memorized it so they could have it for themselves.

At age ten, something began to happen. Students began to sort themselves out. The best of the best were pulled aside by the rabbi, and sent on to the next level of education; Bet Talmud or house of learning. Only the best of the best could go on. The rest of the students, the less than the best, went home to start working the fields with their families or take up the family business. If you were a fisherman, you learned fishing. If you were a carpenter, you learned carpentry etc. For these children, school was over.

Meanwhile, the best of the best continued on in school, memorizing the rest of the Old Testament; all of it: Genesis through Malachi, 39 books, all by memory.

But the rabbi wanted to know more. Not only did the students have to memorize, but the rabbi would begin to ask them if they knew what the verses meant. No longer could they just quote scripture; now they had to process the information. Remember the story of Jesus in the temple as a boy? He was about twelve years old, and the Bible tells us he was in the temple being asked what the scriptures meant. Clearly Jesus was part of this process as a child.

By about fourteen or fifteen, the age when our students are just getting warmed up, especially if they are going on to college, only a very few in Jesus world were still studying; only the absolute best of the best. Just about everyone else had returned to their families. They were farming and fishing or whatever.

This final stage of learning was called Bet Midrash, or house of study. Even the best of the best students had to apply. To move on, you had to get a rabbi to allow you become a talmidim, or a disciple. Here’s where it gets interesting.

To be a disciple meant you did everything exactly as your rabbi would do. You dressed like your rabbi, you walked behind your rabbi just like he walked, and you talked just like your rabbi talked. In essence you became your rabbi’s twin brother and it was brother and not sister at this time. There was a lot on the line here.

If the disciple couldn’t cut it, it was an embarrassment to the rabbi. Rabbis wanted to be sure that their disciples could actually handle being like them. They were extremely tough on who they allowed to become their disciples since it was such a clear reflection on them. They would grill the potential disciples for weeks, maybe even months, to ensure they could actually do all the rabbi needed them to do.

When the Rabbi thought the person could do it, they were satisfied that this person was the absolute best of the best. No other was better than this student to become their disciple; then and only then they would say, “Ok, come follow me!”

From that day on, the disciple would do everything his rabbi would do.

Think about the stories we read in the gospels about Jesus calling His disciples. Here comes Jesus strolling down the beach. Jesus is a rabbi; he has gone through this whole best of the best process. Sometimes people think Jesus was a carpenter, because Joseph was. But people called him rabbi, which you now know meant he never learned the family trade. He was a talmidim, he went through Bet Sefer, Bet Talmud, and Bet Midrash. He became a rabbi.

In the gospels we read how Jesus walks up to these common, ordinary fishermen and says to them one of the most outrageous things a rabbi could ever say to a regular guy.  He says, “Come, Follow Me!” And now that you know all about the schooling of Jewish children, you also know what that must have meant.

These fisherman which, by definition, were not the best of the best, were sent home from school long ago to learn the family business. Why on earth would Jesus make these men his disciples? According to society they didn’t cut it. They didn’t have what it takes to be followers of the rabbi, Jesus.

Maybe that’s not what Jesus is looking for. Maybe he sees something in these men that others couldn’t. He calls them by name and says “Follow Me” and I will make you fishers of men. Literally, “I will teach you to do what I do”, and you will become my disciples and you will be like me. Do you see what a crazy move that was for Jesus’ day and age? He calls ordinary people to be his followers... to do what he does and walk in his path.

I don’t think things have changed all that much today. Our society just like at the time of Jesus tells people you have to be the best of the best to be important. You have to have better grades than everyone else, if you want to get into a good college. You have to play football harder, workout in the weight room more, attend practice early and stay late. Sometimes you hear it said, “You need to be a pastor, or at least an elder to be really into the church. If you want to make it as the best. That’s what society tells us we need to do to be successful, and good and happy.

But Jesus says something different to us. Jesus doesn’t care if you are the best of the best. Jesus wants you as you are. Jesus says, “You can do what I do, not because you are the best of the best, but because I am, and because you are following me.” In a world where everyone is constantly trying to be better than everyone else, Jesus says, I want you to be my disciple no matter who you are or where you are from”.

That’s what being a disciple means. It simply means to follow Jesus, with emphasis on the following part, to do what he does and go where he goes. Being a disciple is about taking our lead from Jesus our Lord! The voice of Jesus replaces our voice.

Now back to the difference between Disciple and Christian. Being a Christian, as opposed to a disciple, has a slightly different connotation. I think being a Christian is about being part of an institution of the church. It could include being a follower at times, but doesn’t seem to hold the same mandate about following that being a disciple does.

In fact, for many today, being a Christian has evolved into more about being a leader and an example than a follower. There are certainly times when being a disciple requires that we set an example and witness to a different way of doing things. But even then, we are following the example of our rabbi in our witness and not just doing our own thing.

Most of this book so far, has been about the leadership voices in the church. We have talked about Father, Son and Holy Spirit as our basis. We have talked about the calling of pastors, elders and deacons which are all leadership positions in our polity system. In rediscovering our voice, it has been my suggestion that we reclaim our polity and renew our ideas about who is leading the church and with what voice.

But what if you aren’t a leader in the church? Most people reading this book will not be a pastor, or an elder or a deacon. What does rediscovering our voice as a Presbyterian Church mean for lay people? Now we make a shift. Being a disciple is not really about leading at all, it is about following.

This is what I mean. To follow someone, in the literal sense, is about 98% just showing up. You can’t physically follow someone unless you are there, can you? Once you show up, you need only do what you are led to do. But first of all one has to show up. You notice that Jesus doesn’t say to his disciples, “Meet me next week for coffee and I’ll lay it out for you.” He doesn’t say, “Here’s my card give me a call and we’ll get together.” Jesus says to these common, wonderfully ordinary men, “Follow Me!”

What’s the greatest problem with discipleship in the church today? There are probably lots of answers. Some might say it is apathy, others might claim it’s the lack of commitment. There are probably others who would complain that the church is too big, too tolerant, and has too much money for people to feel very inspired to be a part of it.

For me it comes down to one word, independence. Plain and simple, I believe the greatest problem we face with most of those in our churches who want to be disciples is independence. Most people don’t really want to be followers, even if it’s Jesus they are following.

To be a follower, in the sense of discipleship, means you have to do everything your rabbi or your lord calls you to do. You don’t get to pick and choose only the things you are interested in. It’s not a menu for you to select the programs and interests you have.

Following Jesus with the voice of a disciple means you show up. You attend worship even if you don’t feel like it. Sunday school, or at least a Bible study of some sort is part of following Jesus too. How can you know what Jesus is asking you to do as his disciple, when you only bother to listen a couple times a month? There is so much more we could mention, fellowship times, church service projects, mission trips, food drives.

You have to participate in the church. The model for church participation should be following, showing up, and not maintaining our independence. We are not the leaders in our churches, in fact not even the pastor, or the elders, or the deacons are THE leader. We are all following one person, Jesus!

How many of us see our discipleship in that way? Is that what we thought we were getting into when we signed up? I think for many people, that’s not the understanding they had when they joined a church. “You mean I am supposed to come whenever the church needs something from me?” “What do you think I am, the fire department?”

Some of you at this point may be wondering what the big deal with all this is anyway? Maybe you want to say to me, “Aren’t you just another pastor who wants to claim big numbers and then justify the church as relevant because there are lots of people there?”

Maybe that’s part of it. But there is more to it for you as a disciple. Have you ever been invited to a party or a sporting event with someone and you turned it down because it just didn’t sound like something you wanted to do? Then the next time you saw the person who invited you, you discover that something amazing happened in your absence. 

What if you missed the closest game of the season because you thought it was just another ordinary game or maybe your closest friends decided to get engaged at the party you didn’t feel like attending.

Following Jesus means you are there whenever Jesus needs you. Sometimes it might be something you can give or it might be something Jesus has to give to you. If you aren’t there, how are you going to receive it?

Our church, in the last twenty to thirty years, has become “program” oriented. Many church planners came up with the idea that a community of faith must have lots of different “entry points” for people. There must be small groups of people with similar interests who can get together in the name of Christ. These are all good things. They meet the needs of the people of God.

However, I fear that in the process of creating this system we have communicated a very different message than we intended. We have said to the disciples of Jesus, “Above all, make sure the church is offering what you need”. Instead of just following Jesus as disciples, I wonder if we have made it so that the church must follow the expectations of the disciples rather than the disciples following the expectations of Jesus?

We are supposed to be a community of disciples following Jesus, showing up to see what Jesus has in store for us. But instead, we have taken our American ideal of independence over all other things, and made it what the church is about also.

Independence from an oppressor, like King George or an abusive parent is one thing. But independence from Jesus is not only un-Biblical, it’s just a really bad idea.

Let’s go back to the story of the disciples from scripture again. What if the disciples decided to maintain a little of their independence in response to Jesus’ amazing call on their lives? What if Peter responded with, “Okay Lord, I’ll follow you, but my job is really kind of difficult for me right now. Plus I’ve got all this stress at home with the kids. What if I work in this discipleship stuff a couple times a month on sort of a trial basis? If it becomes something I enjoy doing, if it meets all my needs, then perhaps I can increase my involvement.” 

How would that be for a response to the call of Jesus? 

Before you answer, try putting your name or the name of someone you know in place of Peter and see if it sounds at all familiar?

One more thing we need to notice in finding our discipleship voice. If we are disciples who are supposed to meet the expectations of the one we follow, then it might help us to know what those expectations are. If we look at the call story of Jesus and the disciples again, we notice, quite simply, that there aren’t any. You see that’s the really great part. Remember, how following is 98% just showing up? Jesus doesn’t look for the best of the best. Jesus wants you as you, and the only expectation is that you follow Him, and through Him discover your real voice. Maybe that’s enough of a challenge for all of us for right now.

If we are going to rediscover our voice as a Presbyterian Church, then we are going to have to look at the whole system. A system has leaders and followers. We are in need of both.  Disciples, we are a community of men and women, boys and girls, who follow Jesus. May you understand your voice of discipleship as a call to follow Jesus!

Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis, Repainting the Christian Faith. Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI c. 2005

(How to ensure you and others are behind the leader of the church, Jesus)
        1.                                   Disciples read the sale pages of the newspaper for information, and the church bulletin for upcoming events. Not the other way around... 

3.           Humility is a dished served best with other disciples. 

4.           If you want to know who you are really following in life, read 

your checkbook. 

5.          The three hardest words in the American English language are “Whatever you say!” 

6.         Independence Day is July 4th, not every other day of the year. 

7.          “Let me pray about that, and get back to you?” should be something we say to telemarketers more often than we say to Jesus. 

8.         The word community has both You and I in it. 

9.         Answering the call to a discipleship voice is like answering the door to the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes prize van. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing or what you are doing at the time, only that you answer the door. 

10.  If you want to lead, walk your dog. If you want to follow, walk with Jesus. 


Popular Posts