In order to understand the New Testament, it is vital for us to understand the cultural and religious background of Jesus and His disciples. With this in mind, it is helpful for us to understand the common discipleship method of the Jewish rabbis during Jesus’ day, so we can gain a greater appreciation of His radical approach based on His claim of lordship.
On the surface there appears to be no essential difference between the discipleship methods of Jesus and that of the rabbis of His time. For example, both Jesus and the rabbis of His time had disciples or students that would attach themselves to them.
However, a closer examination shows there are fundamental differences between these two approaches. The following shows these contrasts.
1. The talmidim (rabbis’ disciples) chose their own teacher. Jesus chose His own disciples (John 15:16; Luke 9:57-62). Mark 5:18-19 shows how Jesus even rejected some who wanted to follow Him!
2 The talmidim chose a rabbi based on his knowledge of the Torah (the Old Testament Scriptures) because the law was the center of Judaism. A rabbi only had authority commensurate to his knowledge of the Torah; the authority belonged to the Torah, not any individual rabbi.
In contrast, Jesus expected His disciples to renounce everything, not for the sake of the Torah but for His sake alone (Matthew 10:38). In the New Covenant, Jesus is the center of the universe, not the Torah (or the Bible). Read Colossians 1:17; John 5:39-40. (Of course, the Scriptures bear witness of Christ if read with an unveiled heart; read 2 Corinthians 3:15-18.)
3. In Judaism, being a disciple was only transitional--a means to an end--with the goal of becoming a rabbi. For the disciples of Jesus discipleship was not a step towards a promising career; the following of Jesus was in itself the fulfillment of destiny (Romans 8:29-30).
There is no graduation or official degree that completes our discipleship process. It is an ongoing process that continues until our last breath in this life and beyond (Philippians 3:7-14; 2 Peter 3:18).
4. Disciples of rabbis were only their students, nothing more. The disciples of Jesus were also His servants who committed themselves to obeying Him and suffering for His sake (Matthew 16:24-25; John 12:26).
5. The disciples of rabbis merely passed on their teachings. The disciples of Jesus were called to be with Him (Mark 3:14) and be His witnesses (Acts 1:8).
6. The disciples of rabbis were attempting to bring back the former glory of the nation of Israel. The disciples of Jesus were (and still are) the vanguard of the coming kingdom and await the second bodily return of King Jesus.
7. For the disciples of rabbinic Judaism, following the letter of the 613 laws and rabbinic interpretations of the Torah was of prime importance. But for Jesus, rules and regulations were not as important as caring for the human soul. Read Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6.
8. The Jewish rabbis stressed separation from non-Jews and those that were unclean. Jesus taught that loving our neighbors is equal to loving God--irrespective of whether or not a person is a Jew or not. Read Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 10:30-37.