What is discipleship in the Bible? It’s a thread throughout both Old and New Testaments where teachers pass along their life and teachings to their disciples. The disciples are then meant to replicate the process in their own lives. From the parent-child relationship to the Moses-Joshua relationship to the Jesus-disciples relationship, discipleship is a theme throughout the Bible, and it ought to be a defining theme in our own lives as well.
The average Christian is not aware that disciples and their masters/teachers are not a New Testament invention. So many of Yeshua’s (Jesus’) teachings find their origin in clear Old Testament texts. I will use two examples:
#1 – Fishers of Men
First, take Matthew 4:19, where Jesus told Peter, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” There is an allusion on the same theme in Matthew 13:47, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.”
At the end of Genesis, Jacob was on his death bed with his son Joseph and grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh beside him. There, Jacob began to tell Joseph a bit of history of his family. In the context of blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob said, “The angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (Gen. 48:16).
In Hebrew, this latter phrase literally says, “Let them fish much through out the whole Earth.” From here, Yeshua gets the concept and the commission to spread Good News through out the whole world.
In Hebrew, this latter phrase literally says, “Let them fish much through out the whole Earth.”
#2 – Turn the other cheek
Second, take Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).
Compare Jesus’ statement with Lamentations 3:30: “Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes and let [the one who strikes] him be filled with insults.” The context of this verse is the writer of Lamentation instructing the people of Jerusalem on how to react to the great tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem. He tells the people that the Lord will be good to those people who wait upon the Lord and continue to seek the Lord. The way to wait upon the Lord is quietly waiting for His salvation.
“Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes and let [the one who strikes] him be filled with insults.”
In other words, don’t try to save yourselves from this disaster. Accept the verdict of God’s judgment with calm trusting upon the Lord.
Not only did many of Jesus’ teachings originate in the Old Testament, but so did his pattern of making disciples.
Discipleship in the Bible: Moses
One of the greatest masters/shepherds of the nation of Israel was Moses. When we look at the story of Moses in light of the master-disciple relationship, we see that Joshua Ben-Nun was the prime disciple of Moses. He did not start as a full-fledged disciple, but as the “assistant [servant] of Moses” (Ex. 24:13).
Discipleship in the Bible: “Joshua Ben-Nun was the prime disciple of Moses.”
How did Joshua Ben Nun become the assistant of Moses? He was given a task by Moses and he performed his task with excellence.
“And Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses said to him and fought with Amalek. And Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. So Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven’” (Ex. 17:9-14).
We see here the principle that a leader chose his disciples.
Not everyone who wants to be a disciple is equipped to be a follower and an assistant. I have had in my 50+ years of experience many men, and even family members, whom I spent years discipling, and yet nothing beneficial to the Kingdom of God resulted. I did not know then what I know now and am trying to teach you in this article: It is better to have a few capable and faithful disciples who will be your assistants and take the task of building the Kingdom of God forward than to have thousands of disciples who are not really your disciples.
Discipleship in the Bible: “It is better to have a few capable and faithful disciples who will be your assistants and take the task of building the Kingdom of God forward than to have thousands of disciples who are not really your disciples.”
A disciple is someone who has acquired the very DNA of your ministry, goals, vision, and will take these DNA qualities up to the next stage. This is what Yeshua was looking for among his 12 disciples.
It was no simple matter for people like Peter and John and the others who came from a fishing village in the north side of the Sea of Galilee to leave their business and families and walk about the land of Israel behind a young Galilean Rabbi. I am sure that their wives and their family had some words with these men and some objections. I am sure that there was concern of how the family would live and how the fishing business would sustain itself without these men who left to follow Yeshua. There is no such thing as a disciple who is not willing to sacrifice, time and money, and at times receive mistreatment on behalf of his master.
From Moses, we learn many valuable lessons in discipleship. For example, we learn that the master himself receives criticism and even rejection from some of his disciples. We learn that one man can’t do everything necessary to lead a group of people (a lesson Moses gleaned from his father-in-law). We learn that a trusted disciple who performs his tasks well can finish the work his master is unable to (as Joshua did when he brought the children of Israel into the Promised Land).
“A trusted disciple who performs his tasks well can finish the work his master is unable to.”
Discipleship in the Bible: David
Another leader of Israel who had disciples is King David. David had disciples long before he was king. David is an interesting leader. Before he was the King of Israel, he was a fugitive leader of a group of men that are described in I Samuel 22:1-2:
“David therefore departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. So, when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him. So, he became captain over them. And there were about four hundred men with him.”
This group of 400 men that joined David when he was running away from King Saul were not exactly the cream of society in Judea. They are described in the text above as men in distress, men who had debts with the implication that they were not planning to pay these debts or could not pay their debts, and men who were discontented. What would you, the evangelist, do if these were the people who were willing to follow you and hear you and stand by you and become your disciples?
“What would you do if these were the people who were willing to follow you and hear you and stand by you and become your disciples?”
This question is not a theoretical question. It is a question that even I experienced in the early years of my ministry in Israel. In our own congregation today, there is a spirit of discontent that we don’t have enough “established men of respectable position in the Israeli society.” However, every man of God, prophet, or God-led leader like Moses, Gideon, David, and Elisha, had disciples who were not exactly the best and most successful and high-society educated.
The great leaders dug deep into the bottom of society and took the discontented and the distressed and the unsuccessful and made them heroes and leaders. This is the task of every leader: to take the men who are willing to follow and be discipled (trained). The people who are willing to follow a person who is “strange” and not on the top of the hit-parade—like any of the true men of God—are the people who have nothing to lose.
Discipleship in the Bible: “These are the people who have nothing to lose.”
In the camp of the Pharisees the picture is different. The Pharisees themselves come from the camp of the wealthy and popular parts of society. The reason that people joined the Pharisee camp was that the Pharisees and their leaders were wealthy and powerful and many of their leaders were actually not born in Israel or in Jerusalem; they were educated and close to the Hellenistic culture.
If I had to characterize the great leaders in the Bible and the great leaders of history, the one characteristic that most of them had was that they knew how to accept and develop and form the people who were willing to follow them. The task of the master is to take the raw diamond and polish it into a beautiful top-quality jewel fit for the king’s crown.
This is what King David did. After going through nearly 20 years of boot camp with David, the rabble became a band of heroes, fighters, generals, and men of character. They became willing to sacrifice their own lives just to please their leader.
Discipleship in the Bible: “After going through nearly 20 years of boot camp with David, the rabble became a band of heroes, fighters, generals, and men of character.”
According to 2 Samuel 23:13-17, David with nothing less than Hutzpah wishes to drink water from the same well of water he used to drink from as a child in Bethlehem. Normally this would not be a problem, but at that time it was a big problem. The Philistines, Israel’s arch enemy, had occupied Bethlehem and in order to satisfy David’s old age wish, they would have to go behind enemy lines and endanger themselves just to please their not-yet king, leader David.
Note that David does not ask any of his thirty mighty men to go and get the water from the well in Bethlehem. But three of David’s mighty men take it upon themselves to endanger themselves of falling captured in the hands of the Philistines or even getting killed in the process of this commando raid to bring a bottle of water from the well in Bethlehem.
The motivation of these mighty military leaders of men was only one, to please David’s whim. These serious men actually said, “David, your wish is our command!” They don’t ask permission from David. They do not inform him that they are going that night behind enemy lines to bring him water. They just take it upon themselves as a secret mission: water for David.
“They take it upon themselves as a secret mission: water for David.”
As David wakes, there are those three men with the water bottle in their hands. David’s reaction is surprise and humility: “I don’t deserve the dedication and the sacrifice of these, my disciples, that I have trained and discipled to become great leaders of men, generals in my army.” He understands that the only appropriate response to this kind of dedication and willingness to serve him is to sacrifice this water as a pour offering to the LORD God of Israel. For only God deserves such dedication, such faith, such desire to serve and follow.
The Basis for the Demand of Discipleship
The dedication of the leader to his disciples is a prerequisite for a true rabbi, leader, teacher, or pastor. In order to be a leader worth following, the disciple maker must be dedicated to his disciples. This is the reason that good leaders and teachers make such strong demands on their disciples as Yeshua himself did on his disciples.
Discipleship in the Bible: “Dedication from the leader is the ground on which the demand for the dedication of the disciple can be made.”
Dedication from the leader is the ground on which the demand for the dedication of the disciple can be made. Yeshua said,
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26 NKJV).
This kind of sacrificial relationship that Yeshua demanded of his disciples was not one-sided. Yeshua was willing to sacrifice his life for his sheep, as he eventually did. Yeshua said: “As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15).
In the same way, those who want to make true disciples must also be willing to sacrifice for their disciples.
(For more of Joseph Shulam’s teachings, visit www.netivyah.org. Used with permission.)