Most Christians associate the word "disciples" with the twelve men Jesus selected [invited] to follow him during his earthly ministry. Too many Christians today associate the word "disciple" only with those Jesus called to be his followers. Jesus did not create the concept of a teacher and his disciples. Nor did this concept begin in Israelite history/culture. The disciple method/concept of education originated centuries before Jesus' birth in non-Jewish cultures.
The concept signified the pupils of a teacher. It existed hundreds of years before Jesus had learners following him. For example, notable Greek philosophers had disciples. Just as we are familiar with school buildings that house teachers and students, the ancient world was familiar with the teacher/disciple method of education.
The American culture is dedicated to educating all its citizens. Education's goal is to equip everyone in our society with the ability to read, write, and function responsibly. For numerous reasons we conclude this is essential in a literate society. We cannot imagine population areas without school buildings and school activities. Perhaps many Americans think all the world's countries and cultures of past centuries educated their populations. This was not true in the ancient world. It is not true now in many areas of today's world.
In a world that did not have printing presses, in a world where likely above 90% of the people could not read and write, in a world where most people's priority concern was their struggle to survive, education was a luxury available primarily to the wealthy elite. There were no public schools dedicated to educating the masses, or compulsory education for children and young people. All [including the young] had to work to survive. Survival did not depend on reading, writing, and math skills. For the majority [the peasants], survival depended on producing food.
If a person had the time and could afford the financial demands required to be a learner/pupil/disciple, he did not become part of a university community, follow a particular curriculum, and begin a career [as we commonly do today]. He associated himself with a teacher. He became a disciple. He learned from that teacher.
Having disciples was not unique to Jesus even in his Jewish society. Both John and the Pharisees had disciples (Mark 2:18). Devout Jews considered themselves Moses' disciples (John 9:28). It was not the role Jesus assumed in his teacher/disciple relation that was rejected by the elite of Jewish society (the relgious/political leaders). It was the right Jesus had to be a teacher with disciples. John had the right to serve as a teacher with disciples because a wide segment of Jewish society correctly recognized John to be God's spokesman, God's prophet. His entire life fit the mold of God's prophet. The majority saw the obvious in considering him a prophet (see Luke 1:8-17; 3:1-14; and 20:1-8 with awareness focused on verse 6). The leaders of the Pharisees had the right to be teachers with disciples because they were the elite who were educated in Moses' teachings.
What about Jesus? He did not fit the mold of an Israelite prophet. He was criticized because he did not meet common expectations associated with prophets or rabbis (see Matthew 9:10; 9:14; 11:19; 12:2). Jesus claimed no priestly lineage. Jesus was not appropriately educated to be a recognized Jewish rabbi (teacher of the law). What right did Jesus have to establish teacher/disiciple relationships? Was he motivated by religious/political ambitions?
What was Jesus' objective? Did he aspire to political power? Not in the way common to the thinking of his world. Did he aspire to significant religious prestige? Not in the way common to the thinking of his day. Did he have material aspirations? No. Did he have wealth aspirations? No. If his objectives were not driven [in a physical sense] by political, religious, material (pleasure/comfort centered), or wealth considerations, what was his objective?
Read the text (Matthew 28:16-20) carefully. The resurrected Jesus gave these instructions to the eleven living disciples he invited to follow him. These instructions were given to the eleven at a designated meeting site in Galilee (see Matthew 26:32; 28:7,10). Some disciples were doubtful. Acts 1:6-10 indicates elements of confusion continued in their thinking even when Jesus ascended. In Acts 2 the confusion ceased after the Holy Spirit came upon them.
Give careful attention to Jesus' commission to the eleven. (1) Jesus declared he had the authority to give this commission. Previously [prior to his resurrection] he directed them to teach only Israelites (see Matthew 10:2-6). Now [after his resurrection], he directed them to teach all people. (2) The objective of their commission: make disciples of anyone anywhere. (3) Those who wished to be Jesus' disciples should be baptized and live by Jesus' teachings.
Too often Christians are diverted from Jesus' emphasis. We too readily emphasize what we feel needs emphasis. For example, our concerns can be so focused on baptism that we forget about developing a faith in Jesus which produces the desire to be a disciple. The call to follow Jesus involves more than the responsibility to be baptized. Believers are baptized because they want to be Jesus' disciple. Too many are baptized with no desire to be a disciple. The willingness to submit to baptism is insufficient to fulfill the resurrected Jesus' primary objective in human life. That objective can be nothing less than a desire to be Jesus' disciple.
As this study begins, keep in your awareness two understandings. Understanding one: the word "disciples" in the gospels [when denoting Jesus' followers] at times referred to more than the twelve men Jesus selected [of whom eleven became apostles]. Read Luke 6:12-16 and 10:1. Understanding two: the objective of the eleven [later again the twelve; Acts 1:15-26] was to call people to be Jesus' disciples. Jesus' commission to the eleven at Matthew's closing was to call people to be Jesus' disciples. It was not to call people to be the apostles' disciples. Peter [one of the eleven] declared this understanding to Cornelius in Acts 10:25, 26. Peter came to inform Cornelius about Jesus, not about himself.
Discussion question: Since Israel was a religious nation/people who followed the living God, why did Jesus need to make disciples?
Link to Teacher's Guide Lesson 1
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