Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: When the Rabbi Says “Come,” Part 2

During Wednesday night’s class with the teachers and in reviewing the comments, it’s clear that we need to pick up a few further thoughts on the lesson.

Question: Does Vander Laan’s lesson lead to becoming a cult? Doesn’t this argue for too much authority in the rabbi?

It’s a really good question. If Jesus is my rabbi — and he is — what is the relationship of my students to me?

In reflecting on this, I recalled something I’d written earlier regarding the marvelous book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

His “disciples” weren’t mere students. They were devoted followers who studied everything about him so they could be just like him — in every way possible. When Jesus told us to go and make “disciples,” he didn’t mean great students or masters of discipline. He meant people who would emulate his teaching and his life. And this is precisely what we see his apostles doing in Acts.

(John 13:15-17)  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

To Western ears, Paul’s declarations sound arrogant –

(1 Cor 11:1)  Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

(Phil 3:17)  Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

But this is how rabbis taught. It’s how we should teach — and if we can’t teach that with a straight face, we need to work on our own discipleship.

And Paul taught the next generation of leaders to do the same –

(1 Tim 4:12-16)  Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

(Titus 2:7-8)  In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness 8 and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

Jesus taught by being an example. The apostles did the same, and they trained leaders to also teach by example. But —

(Mat 23:8-12)  “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

We tend to read this passage as though Jesus were prohibiting certain words. But part of what he is saying, surely, is that I am the rabbi and there is no other rabbi. We are to make disciples — but disciples of Jesus, not of ourselves. Our job as church leaders is to create disciples of Jesus. These lessons on discipleship are only sound if we refuse to make disciples of ourselves.

What is the heart of discipleship?

Look back at the passage quoted above. In discussing being a rabbi, Jesus teaches us servanthood and humility. How does that work?

As pointed out by John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus, pp. 130-131,

[T]here is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament. According to universal tradition, Jesus was not married; yet when the apostle Paul, advocate par excellence of the life “in Christ,” argues at length for celibacy or for a widow’s not remarrying (1 Cor. 7), it never occurs to him to appeal to Jesus’ example, even as one of many arguments. … [T]here have been efforts to imitate his prayer life or his forty days in the desert: but never in the New Testament.

There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds – but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus – and only thus – are we bound by New Testament thought to “be like Jesus.”

(emphasis added.) This is big. And it’s right. Yoder quotes numerous passages each of which urges us to be like Jesus in his suffering and submission.

(Phil. 2:3-14) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. … Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

(1 Cor. 10:33b-11:1) I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

(Matt. 20:25-28 ) Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This answers the cult concern — and more importantly, explains how to teach each other to be disciples of Jesus. According to scripture, the essence of being a disciple of the rabbi is forgiveness, humility, service, and servanthood — and this applies especially to those who would be leaders.

But notice, also, that Paul tells us to do this “so that [others] may be saved.” His evangelism strategy is seeking the good of others.

Notice what “discipleship” does not include in the New Testament witness —

  • Devotion to prayer (of course, we should be devoted to prayer, but that’s not what it means to be a disciple)
  • Devotion to Bible study (of course, we should be devoted to Bible study, but that’s not what it means to be a disciple)
  • Devotion to various indivually performed spiritual disciplines (“discipline” look like “disciple,” but prayer mazes and meditation are not the heart of discipleship)

Rather, discipleship is humbly serving others, especially serving others to make disciples of Jesus. And we can hardly convert others to a life a humilty and service without being all about humilty and service ourselves.

And (of course!) prayer, Bible study, and other disciplines are necessary means to this end. But they are not ends themselves. They are no more “being a disciple” than attending law school or continuing education programs are being a lawyer. At some point, you have to actually realize you’re in a service business, not a studying business. Jesus prayed more than most of us, but he prayed for strength to serve. And he was a far greater Bible student than any of us, but studied as equipping for service.

How do we put this lesson into effect?

This is hardly the only correct answer. But notice —

(Phil 3:17)  Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

Paul said to “note” those who honor his teachings. I just toured a newly built Catholic cathedral in town. There were some obvious differences with a Church of Christ facility! One was the focus on “saints.” No, I’m not going to defend the Catholic doctrine of saints. However, neither can I defend the Protestant predeliction for ignoring the countless examples of great Christian men and women after 100 AD.

A couple of years ago, I went looking for a book on the lives of great missionaries. I couldn’t find one! And are there books on Christians who, in the name of Jesus, worked to end slavery, clean up mental institutions, reform the prisons, and bring medical care to the poor? Can we not honor Paul’s command and honor heroes of the faith as heroes of the faith?

This is from Stanley Hauerwas and Pat WIllimon Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, (which you should immediately buy and read) –

Through the teaching, support, sacrifice, worship, and commitment of the church, utterly ordinary people are enabled to do some extraordinary, even heroic acts, not on the basis of their own gifts or abilities, but rather by having community capable of sustaining Christian virtue. The church enables us to be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices. …

Therefore, we cannot say to the pregnant fifteen-year-old, “Abortion is a sin. It is your problem.” Rather, it is our problem. We ask ourselves what sort of church we would need to be to enable an ordinary person like her to be the sort of person Jesus calls her to be. More important, her presence in our community offers the church the wonderful opportunity to be the church, honestly to examine our own convictions and see whether or not we are living true to those convictions. …

Our ethics do involve individual transformation, not as a subjective, inner, personal experience, but rather as the work of a transformed people who have adopted us, supported us, disciplined us, and enabled us to be transformed.

[I know this is far more than we can cover in a week, but this is important stuff. Should we do a second week on this lesson?]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: When the Rabbi Says “Come,” Part 2

  1. Larry Short says:

    Yes, please continue. "What kind of church do we need to be to enable…" beats finding scriptual number of songs before the prayer.

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