The First Century, Biblical Understanding of Discipleship

“A [biblical] text cannot mean what it never meant to its author or his readers. The true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken.”[1] This most basic rule of exegesis laid out by Gordon and Stuart will be important to remember in this article.
 
This is the third article in our series answering questions, concerns, and critiques about the 4 principles of discipleship that His Words His Ways Fellowship has implemented over the past year. These principles are:
 
  1. The Image of God as the Basis of Discipleship. The ultimate goal of the Gospel is that men bring glory to God by being re-conformed to the image of God that they were originally created to be.[2]

 

  1. The Purpose of Imitating Jesus as His Disciple. The goal of men being re-conformed to the image of God is accomplished by men imitating Jesus (who is the perfect image of God) as His disciple; through the empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.[3]

 

  1. The First Century, Biblical Understanding of Discipleship. Imitating Jesus as His disciple begins (but does not end) with specifically learning and then keeping the words, teachings, commands, and example that He gave during His earthly ministry. It is simply impossible to imitate someone without knowing what they said and did.[4]

 

  1. Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment (Relational Discipleship). Being conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating Him as His disciple is not a passive process, but an active/interactive process that occurs within a relational environment; which was established and demonstrated by Jesus during His earthly ministry.[5]

 

The third principle is perhaps the one that we get the most push-back on because it challenges some strongly held presuppositions. However, this principle is important to establish because this is where the rubber meets the road; this is the “boots on the ground,” real world application of being a disciple of Jesus. When we talk about how these principles are lived out in the both the individual lives of church members and in the life of the church, this is one of the most observable aspects.
 
Being a disciple of Jesus must begin with knowing and keeping the words, teachings, commands, and example that He gave during His earthly ministry. There is simply no way around it. This is why we began with the quote by Gordon and Stuart. This principle requires you to carefully consider what the authors and audience of the New Testament would have originally meant and understood.
 
First, we are not the first ones to argue that discipleship should begin with the words of Jesus. We are simply agreeing with multiple others who have argued this point. Two of the most well-known are Dallas Willard and Dave Earley. We have quoted portions of their arguments with citations in the latter part of an earlier article.
 
Second, we also believe “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
 
We are not arguing against the inspiration and usefulness of all Scripture. We are arguing where you should start in Scripture when making disciples of Jesus (you have to start somewhere). Because we are not making disciples of the Bible, we are making disciples of Jesus. And unfortunately, it is entirely possible to believe in a monotheistic god and in large portions of the Bible; and still not be willing to abandon all to imitate and follow Jesus as His disciple.
 
The Bible is big book with a lot of information. Therefore, it can be cherry-picked to make disciples of all kinds of different things. Where you start at when teaching someone the Bible is often indicative of that of which you intend to make a disciple.
 
The Pharisees actually made disciples using Scripture in relational environments. Lots of cults make disciples using the Bible. Many churches use the Bible to make disciples of their pet theologies, philosophies of ministry, traditions, worship styles, pastors, denominations, or something else. They then cover this up by employing the logical fallacy of semantics/equivocation in order to call the disciples they are making “disciples of Jesus,” even though they are actually disciples of something else.
 
The purpose of this third principle is to ensure that His Words His Ways Fellowship is making nothing but disciples of Jesus. However, we must also demonstrate that Scripture supports this point. This is when we must ask you to lay aside your presuppositions and use honest exegesis to look at what Jesus said about the words that He spoke during His earthly ministry. If you cannot employ honest exegesis, you might not want to read any further because it will most likely upset you.
 
Whenever Christ spoke of the Old Testament (the only existing scriptures at the time), He referred to them as “the Law,” “the Law and the Prophets,” “Moses and the Prophets,” “Moses,” “Scripture,” “the commands of God,” and “the word of God.”
 
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26).
 
 “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).
 
“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. […] If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:29-31).
 
“But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:45-46).
 
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
 
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8).
 
“Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that” (Mark 7:13).
 
The question that needs to be asked, is if Jesus used these terms to refer to Scripture, what was He referring to when He said “My words, My teachings, or My commands?”
 
Would His original audience have understood Him to mean Scripture (the Bible), or would they have understood Him to mean the words, teachings, and commands that He was speaking during His earthly ministry?
 
Which one is more logical?
 
Again, casting aside presuppositions, the most logical answer is that they would have understood Him to mean the words, teachings, and commands that He was speaking during His earthly ministry. Those listening to Him would have not yet understood that He was God in human flesh; and moreover, the most logical way for Him to refer to the words, teachings, and commands that He was speaking during His earthly ministry would have been to refer to them as “My words, My teachings, and My commands.”
 
Furthermore, in the first century context of a Jewish rabbi making disciples, it is also the most logical answer that He was referring to the words, teachings, and commands that He was speaking during His earthly ministry.
 
A disciple of a first century rabbi would have sought to memorize and live out every single word that their master spoke. Every time the word “disciple” is used in the New Testament, that is what the word would have been understood to have meant. Therefore, that is what the words still means.
 
The Greek word translated disciple, μαθητής, was a specific word spoken during a specific time period in which it had a very specific meaning. And again, as Gordon and Stuart wrote, “The true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken.” We do not get to redefine the meaning of μαθητής to advantageously mean what we think it should mean today.
 
We are either a μαθητής who is seeking to imitate our Master by memorizing and keeping the words, teachings, commands and example He gave during His earthly ministry; or we are not. 
 
We are either making μαθηταὶ, “teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded” (Matthew 28:20); or we are not.
 
Moreover, there is no drastic need to make Jesus mean the entirely of Scripture whenever He said, “My words, teachings, or commands.”
 
There are other verses that stipulate that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful” (2 Timothy 3:16), and that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
 
We do not need to change the meaning of what Jesus said about the words that He spoke in order to emphasize the inspiration of the Bible; it is already emphasized by other passages.
 
The only real effect accomplished by changing the meaning of Jesus’ words, teachings, and commands to mean the entirety of Scripture; is to de-emphasize what Jesus said during His earthly ministry; which is the exact opposite of what Jesus was doing!
 
As a rabbi making disciples, and (more importantly) as the perfect image of God providing and example by which His disciples could be re-conformed to the image of God; Jesus emphasized the importance of knowing and keeping the words, teachings, and commands that He gave during His earthly ministry.
 
In order to be re-conformed to the image of God, we must be conformed to the image of Jesus, by imitating Him as His disciple; which only occurs through us knowing and keeping the words, teachings, and commands that He spoke during His earthly ministry.
 
For example, Jesus stated at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (referring back to the words of the Sermon on the Mount) about who would stand and who would fall on Judgement Day (according to the immediate context of vs. 7:21-23):
 
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).
 
When we usually quote this passage, we make it mean the whole Bible. But that takes the passage out of context and is therefore eisegesis, not honest exegesis. Here is another example (brace yourselves):
 
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
 
To the original audience, “my words” would have simply meant the words that Jesus was speaking during His earthly ministry. Yet, we commonly use this verse to refer to the entire Bible. Again, that is eisegesis, not honest exegesis.
 
Here is another passage that takes on a different meaning than what we are accustom to when we understand Jesus to be referring to the words, teachings, and commands that He spoke during His earthly ministry:
 
“If you love me, keep my commands. […] Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. […] Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. […] Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:15-25).
 
Notice that Jesus makes it clear that He is referring to the words, teachings, and commands that He spoke during His earthly ministry. Jesus also made this clear when He stated:
 
“The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63).
 
“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (John 12:47-50).
 
At this point (if you are doing honest exegesis) you might be coming to the conclusion that Jesus constantly emphasized the words, teachings, and commands that He spoke during His earthly ministry. And you would be correct, this is exactly what Jesus did. The Gospels are filled with verses that emphasize the spoken words of Jesus (when they are read through the lens of honest exegesis).[6]
 
Jesus stated:
 
“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:41-42).
 
“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16-17).
 
Imagine that you could go to a conference where all of the Biblical characters and authors were speaking. But, because of time constraints, they would all be speaking in separate meeting halls at the same time. You could only pick one to go and listen to. You could go and listen to Moses explain creation and the book of Genesis. You could go listen to David sing the Psalms. You could go listen to the wisdom of Solomon. You could go and listen to Daniel explain his visions. You could go and listen to Paul explain if he was a Calvinist or an Arminian. You could go listen to John explain his visions in the Revelation. Or, you could go listen to Jesus. Where would you go?
 
I hope you said Jesus, because based on the passages above, I seriously doubt any of those men would dare speak at the same time as the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. They would all be on the front row listening to Jesus.
 
So, why do we not begin with the specific words, teachings, and commands that Jesus spoke when we are making disciples of Jesus?
 
The next way we try to get out of teaching all of the words, teachings, and commands that Jesus spoke during His earthly ministry is that we reduce them all down to “Love God and love others” based on Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-32.
 
However, if you will re-read these passages carefully and again, do honest exegesis, you should notice that in both of these accounts, grammatically, Jesus never commands these two commandments; He simply quotes them as the answer to the question of what is the greatest commandment in the Law.
 
The first question we want to ask would be, but couldn’t we just “Love God” in order to keep Jesus’ commands? John (Jesus’ earthly best friend and one of His earliest disciples) wrote:
 
“We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6).
 
John wrote that “love for God is truly made complete” in the person who obeys Jesus’ words, teachings, and commands. It would be circular reasoning to state that “love for God is truly made complete” in us when we “love God.”
 
Instead, in order to keep the command to “love God,” we must know and keep all of Jesus’ words, teachings, and commands. John goes as far as to state that we are liars if we claim to know Jesus and do not do so.
 
The next obvious question is, couldn’t we just “love others” in order to keep Jesus’ commands? But Jesus’ commands always go beyond the commandments of the Law. Jesus said:
 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
 
The problem with simply, “loving others” without knowing the specific words, teachings, and commands that Jesus gave is that we will decide who those “others” are (and are not). Instead, we must let Jesus instruct us on whom to love and how we are to specifically love them.
 
In fact, if you look at the exchange about the greatest commandments in the Law that precedes the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus specifically uses that parable to demonstrate that someone could claim to “love God and love others” and not actually do so.
 
In all, Jesus gave us a couple of hundred different individual commands about how to specifically “love God” and “love others.” Love for God is made complete in us when we keep all of them. And to be able to keep all of them, we would first need to know all of them. And therefore as churches, we actually need to ensure that we are teaching all of them.
 
This is why Jesus commissioned His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).
 
Keeping this third principle is how we specifically keep the Great Commission! In fact, to fail to keep this principle is to fail to keep the Great Commission as it was commanded in the first century! And Jesus is very serious about us keeping the Great Commission!
 
But what about the rest of the Bible?
 
I’m glad you asked.
 
At least two of Jesus’ commands require us to know and apply the whole Bible. If as His disciples we know and keep all of Jesus’ commands, then we will sooner or later also need to know and apply all of Scripture. Jesus said:

 

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19).
 
“Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).
 
So ultimately, focusing on the words, teachings, and commands of Jesus as His disciple does not diminish the need to know and apply all of Scripture, it actually increases it!
 
I could actually write much more and quote much more Scripture that supports this principle. But this article is already getting too long, and I need to cover how this plays out in the everyday life of His Words His Ways Fellowship and its members.
 
In case you haven’t figure it out by now; as a church and as individuals, we begin the discipleship process by studying, learning, and then keeping the words, teachings, commands, and example that Jesus gave during His earthly ministry. If you are a member of our church, you have made that commitment. And as a church, we will hold you to that commitment. Because, that is the commitment that you would have been making if you chose to follow Jesus as His μαθητής in the first century.
 
We understand that people learn at different rates, and we are very patient; but we demand that all of our members at least be in the process of learning and then keeping the spoken words of Jesus, as found in the Gospels. Because, that is fundamentally what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Again, this is what μαθητής meant in the first century; and therefore, this would also be the demand that Jesus was making of people when He invited them to follow and imitate Him as His disciple in the first century.
 
Moreover, it is simply impossible to imitate Jesus as His disciple without knowing what He did and said. And therefore, it is likewise  impossible to bring glory to God by being re-conformed to the image of God, without imitating Jesus as His disciple. Because ultimately, imitating Jesus as His disciple requires replacing our words and our ways with His words and His ways.
 
 
Here is the next article in this series:
 
 
 
 
 
[1] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids: 1981, 1993, 2003), pg. 30, 74.
 

 

[2] Genesis 1:27, 1 Corinthians 11:7, Matthew 5:48, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 4:22-24, 5:1, Colossians 3:9-10, 2 Peter 1:4.
 
 
[3] Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 15:49, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 2:1-5, 3:7-11, Colossians 1:15, 1:28-29, 2:2-3, 2:9-10, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2 Timothy 3:12,Titus 3:4-6, Hebrews 1:3, 6:1, 12:1-3, James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:1-4, 2-21, 2 Peter 3:18, 1 John 2:6, 3:3, 4:17.
 
 
[4] Matthew 7:24-29, 10:24-25, 11:25-30, 12:41-42, 13:16-17, 13:34-35, 17:5, 24:35; Mark 4:24-25, 4:33-34, 6:34, 8:38, 9:7, 13:31; Luke 6:46-49, 9:35, 10:24, 10:38-42, 11:31-32, 17:10, 19:47-48,  John 3:31-36, 4:25-26, 4:40-42, 5:24, 5:38-39, 5:46-47, 6:28-29, 6:63, 6:66-69, 8:31-32, 8:51, 9:26, 10:27, 12:48, 13:34-35, 14:12, 14:15, 14:23-26, 15:7-17, 15:20-24, 16:6-8.
 
 
[5] Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 14:40, 2 Timothy 2:2.
 
 
[6] Matthew 7:24-29, 10:24-25, 11:25-30, 12:41-42, 13:16-17, 13:34-35, 17:5, 24:35; Mark 4:24-25, 4:33-34, 6:34, 8:38, 9:7, 13:31; Luke 6:46-49, 9:35, 10:24, 10:38-42, 11:31-32, 17:10, 19:47-48,  John 3:31-36, 4:25-26, 4:40-42, 5:24, 5:38-39, 5:46-47, 6:28-29, 6:63, 6:66-69, 8:31-32, 8:51, 9:26, 10:27, 12:48, 13:34-35, 14:12, 14:15, 14:23-26, 15:7-17, 15:20-24, 16:6-8.