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

Scythopolis is filled with arena, theater, and gymnasia (universities), but Jesus chose no disciples here. But nearby is Bethsaida, a fishing village in Galilee, a town of 600 or so, with just 8 or 10 families. Hardly the place to find disciples to change the world.

Families lived in insulae, similar to apartments.  Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Philip all came from this village.

For some reason, the practice of making “disciples” originated in Galilee. In God’s providence, he’d prepared this area for young men to be ready to follow a rabbi.

Korazin is 3 miles was of Bethsaida, and a city of 2,000 or so. Another, simple village. Vander Laan takes his group there to show them the ruins of a First Century synagogue.

Building blocks of discipleship


Extended families, as many as 100, lived together in an insula, small apartments build wall to wall, surrounding a courtyard. Therefore, people saw community as more important than individualism. And rabbis and disciples lived as a community.


Korazin preserved the ruins of a synagogue. The “Moses seat” is a chair from which the Torah was read. The scrolls of the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh (Old Testament) were kept in the “ark.” When the scroll of the Torah was opened, it was displayed, text outward, to those in attendance, who would touch the words and press their fingers to their lips: “May the word of the Lord taste sweet!” The synagogue was all about the word of God.


Every synagogue has a school. Boys and girls attended through age 12 or 13, and most children would have memorized much of the Torah. Most children were finished with school at this age.

Girls became wives and homemakers. Boys would go to learn their family’s trade. But a few attended the beth midrash, a high school to learn under the rabbi to master a deeper meaning of the Torah and to begin to memorize much of the rest of the Tanakh.

Of these, a very few became talmid or, in plural, talmidim: disciples. Jesus had as many as 500, and of these, he sent out 70. But 12 were especially close, and these were most truly disciples in the sense of “talmid.” The talmidim wanted not just to learn from the rabbi but to be just like him.

(The Greek word for “disciple” mathetes is broader, and includes not only what the Jews would call talmidim but mere students who’d not yet committed to the rabbi. This explains the apparently inconsistent use of the term in the Gospels.)

They therefore lived with the rabbi 24 hours a day. They studied everything about him.

Christians tend to use “disciple” as something less. But the Biblical sense is that we are consumed with being just like our rabbi Jesus. It must be our driving passion. It’s not just learning his teachings or obeying his commands. It must be a burning passion.

Selection of talmidim

A rabbi was very selective in choosing talmidim. He insisted that they know the text, have the ability, and “follow me,” meaning “be like me.” He would expect his talmidim to memorize the entire Old Testament. It was an unbelievable level of commitment.

But after a few years of walking with the rabbi, some graduated to make their own disciples.

Notice that normally someone asked, “May I follow you?” But Jesus said, “Come follow me!” Jesus was a different kind of rabbi.

When Jesus asked Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Philip to follow him, they were working in the family business. They hadn’t made it into beth midrash. But even so, Jesus chose them!

As a result, these young men knew that they could do it.  Most disciples of most rabbis didn’t make it, but this rabbi chose them. Jesus said, “Remember, you did not choose me. I chose you!”

Now, it’s obvious from reading the New Testament that the apostles struggled to be like Jesus. But they were with him all the time. They traveled with him and slept under the stars with him. Jesus took these young men all over Judea and even to Phoenecia. They asked him questions and he (often) answered.

And over time, through hearing his words (which they would have memorized), and being with him continually, they became like him.


How will we know Jesus well enough if we’re not immersed in the text?

A student is not above his teacher. It is enough for a student to be like his teacher.

How badly do we want to be like Jesus?

Additional questions:

How do we use “disciple” in church today?

[Some speak of a “discipling” church which is nearly cultlike. The “disciples” are told what to do in everything.]

[Some speak of a true disciple as a Christian committed to certain personal, private spiritual disciplines.]

[Some speak of a true disciple as someone who obeys God’s moral commands.]

[Some speak of a true disciple as a great student of theology.]

[Some speak of a disciple as being someone who is regular in church attendance and has the right doctrinal positions.]

What does it mean to be a true disciple in the New Testament sense?

This was an age when family was everything. Most people were born, grew up, lived, and died in the same insula with grandparents and grandchildren and all in between. Some never traveled more than a mile or two, other than to Jerusalem.

Imagine what it was like to leave family for years to walk with the rabbi.

They gave up vocational training. They gave up being with the girl chosen for their marriage. They gave up everything to be with the rabbi.

What sacrifices does Jesus ask of us today?

How does our image of discipleship differ from what Jesus expected?

Is it fair to compare contemporary discipleship with what Jesus’ followers went through? Aren’t things radically different now?

How would we know a disciple today if we saw one?

How does contemporary culture undermine the First Century idea of discipleship?

[We are all about the individual, not family. And we are all about individual autonomy, not the community. A modern American would consider “hero worship” or wanting to be just like someone else to be childlike — something to grow out of. We want to “find ourselves” rather than imitating someone we admire.]

How would our view of church change if we elevated community about the individual?

Can you imagine becoming a disciple of a human rabbi? What would be a comparable arrangement today?

How do we become disciples of Jesus in this sense?

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.
This entry was posted in Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: When the Rabbi Says “Come”

  1. David Himes says:

    I believe one of the central struggles of Christians in the American culture is their lack of assurance of salvation. Not the Text is unclear, but that the assurance provided by the Text does not provide the "black and white" clarity that many Christians in America seek.

    It's interesting to me that, for most Christian groups, "disciple" is not the preferred label, because it does not carry the compliant connotation that Christian carries.

    Some groups, such as the International Churches of Christ, have taken this infrequent use of disciple and redefined the term into their own very narrow image.

    And the modern definition — as measured by a review of several dictionaries — has clearly taken on a religious connotation. But in the time the NT was written, disciple, just like ekklesia, was a much more common word, with much less narrow connotations.

    To me, disciple connotes a devoted student of another. Devotion to a level of something akin to apprenticeship.

    In contrast to that, our culture often wants to create a checklist, which can be reviewed and when all the boxes are checked off, we've met all the criteria and can lay claim to whatever label we're seeking — kind of like a college diploma.

    The dilemma for us is the recognition that being a disciple of Jesus means we never perfectly reach the goal. We never become a true copy of the Master; we remain the apprentice.

    But that does not mean we cannot be assured of our relationship with the Master. And, as you so frequently point out, Jay, we have that assurance only because of the Master's grace towards us.

  2. Kyle says:

    Pappa G,

    I think the timing of this writing is interesting in the reading I’m doing for our Bible study. I just read through the passages early on in mark that discuss the crowds following Jesus and then how Jesus selects the twelve.

    It got me thinking the difference between being a follower and being a disciple is in the purposes of the group in question. Followers in the crowds wanted something from Jesus whereas the twelve were giving something to Jesus.

    Not to say that one is inherently better than the other… they’re just different. Different faith journies. The problem comes when we come to Jesus but only stay as people seeking to recieve from Jesus. Disciple’s are servants.

    We should also remember that Judaism (at least in the 1st century) has a high focus not on what was believed but on what was done and how the Law was lived out. In this since disciples are students of how to live out Jesus’ commands in this day and age and not simply thinkers about it.

  3. Larry Short says:

    Today we do multi teacher discipleships, and these are called schools. It could be a college, preaching school, etc. However we lose the live with feature, except with fellow students.
    Memorize the OT? Even if it is smaller in Hebrew, still its larger than any translation of the NT. Our standards for each other are low. Many of our congregation know more about a reality show, NFL or a celebrity than the 4 gospels. What’s most important?
    Disciples? We pay people for that.

  4. This is a great series so far – my LIFE Group has viewed the first two video installments of “In the Dust of the Rabbi.”

    I had something like Larry’s reaction above. If I had gone into my college freshman Bible class and one of the course requirements was to memorize the New Testament by end of semester, I’d have been on the dorm pay phone that night begging my parents to let me withdraw and go to another school. My memory just wouldn’t have cut it!

  5. xray342 says:

    As a former member of the ICOC, I've lived out some of what Vander Lann is describing. I did a lot of life's activities with the discipling partners that were over me, including eating, living (unmarried members usually lived with other members as roommates), small groups (Bible Talks), and evangelizing together. The church did become my family. However, since the discipling system was (arguably "is still") hierarchical, authoritarian, and mandatory (to become a Christian and to keep ones salvation), it caused more harm than good in the long run. The key is that the imperfect apostles imitated the perfect Jesus (while missing the mark almost constantly) while I was imitating sinners and sinners were imitating me. And it was all under the crushing pressure of legalism and perfectionism. This dynamic applies to other shepherding/discipling groups as well (Maranatha, The Way, etc.) when the role and authority of the Holy Spirit is superseded by the role of the shepherd/discipler. I've come to discover that a balance between the relational dynamics between the believer and the Holy Spirit and the believer and other believers in their life is the only way for healthy discipling to work.

    I've heard one time that the Church is supposed to be the "backup family". One is born into it and they're supposed to receive the things (love, patience, discipline, insight, support) their original family didn't or couldn't give them. As long as there are enough healthy, growing Christians in a local church, there should be enough role models people can look to that model Christ. This, combined with every member being rooted in the Word and guided by the Spirit, should be sufficient to live the Master's mission.

  6. Larry Short says:

    Fess up Keith, was it acid, angel dust, maryjane or coke? Just kidding. (I went to college in the last sixties.)
    It is amazing the feats of the past. It is sad our low expectations of each other.

Comments are closed.