by Jeremiah Campbell,
As missionary educators in Latin America, we consistently invest in disciples who make disciples. We pour ourselves into nationals and other missionaries to better equip the Church with the necessary nutrition that fosters growth in biblical, theological, and ministerial areas. We toil in the Great Commission and in the spirit of Melvin Hodges’ Indigenous Church of self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating ministries (1953). However, in our zeal we often overextend ourselves with a sort of shot-gun approach to reach many disciples. Unfortunately, such methods often result in teaching many students, but truly discipling few ministers. This article challenges us to revisit first century Jewish discipleship and glean from the network of relationships Jesus leveraged to make lasting and committed disciples.
First Century Discipleship:
In the Greek educational system, disciples would solicit tutoring from a great scholar, pay their patron a fee, leave their family, and live with their new master for mentorship and training (Wilkins 1992, 59). This Greek culture eventually developed into professional educational fields of study, forming the roots of much of today’s university system.
First-century Judaism followed a similar model. Cathy Wilson notes how young Jewish boys would pass through a three-tiered education system (2016). In the first tier, six-year-olds would enter Beit Sefer, where they would memorize the Torah until they were ten. Next, if they passed, they could continue to Beit Talmud, where they would memorize the rest of Hebrew Scripture (our Old Testament) until they were around fourteen years old. The most advanced students continued to Beit Midrash and applied to a Rabbi to become a disciple. If the Rabbi accepted, the Jewish teen would leave his family to follow and live with his Rabbi as his disciple until the student was thirty years old.
Jesus’ Silent Years?
The Apocrypha’s Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the enigmatic Urantia Book (124:5-6) both infer that Jesus was discipled in his youth. However, these questionable sources only provide speculative and likely fictitious evidence of Jesus’ teenage years. Nevertheless, the fact that multiple sources reference the possibility that Jesus may have spent some of his teenage years being discipled by other Rabbis would be too provocative to ignore.
Although there is no biblical evidence of Jesus’ youth, the Bible gives evidence that Jesus spent significant time in the Temple by the time he was twelve years old (Lk. 2:41-52). In the next chapter, Luke jumps some eighteen years to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry where John baptizes him and “Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry” (3:23a). During this period of Jesus’ ministry, he was known as a Rabbi or teacher, which logically connects to Hebrew culture since priests were not allowed to begin official service until the age of thirty (Nm. 4:3). Therefore, Jesus would have at least been familiar with the disciple-Rabbi relationship of his day.
Jesus’ Relationship to the Disciples:
Jesus’ innovative rabbinical practices demonstrate that the Jewish status quo of discipleship was not sufficient to establish the Church or carry out the Great Commission. As a young Rabbi, rather than wait for disciples to follow him as Jewish etiquette would require, Jesus unconventionally chased after his young, unschooled disciples (Ac. 4:13). Furthermore, rather than chose whomever he could get, or obtain a large following, Jesus operated within a small and closed network of relationships with his disciples. Jesus’ model of discipleship differentiated from the Greek and Jewish cultural influences. The Jewish scholar, C. G. Montefiore supports this view stating,
Discipleship such as Jesus demanded and inspired (a following, not for study but for service—to help the Master in his mission, to carry out his instructions and so on) was apparently a new thing, at all events, something that did not fit in, or was not on all-fours, with usual Rabbinic customs or with customary Rabbinic phenomena (Montefiore 1939, 218).
Jesus’ relationship with the original twelve disciples has much to teach educators today who make disciples that make disciples. This section gives an overview of who Jesus discipled and what he looked for when calling them.
Jesus chose the first four disciples in two pairs of brothers: Simon and Andrew, and James and John. Interestingly Jesus chose family as some of his first disciples. James and John were the sons of Zebedee (Mt. 4:21; Mk. 1:20; Lk. 5:10). Zebedee was married to Salome, the probable sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Mt. 20:20; 27:56; Mk. 15:40). This would make James and John, Jesus’ first cousins. Mary also had a cousin named Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother (Lk. 1:36). Therefore, Jesus and John the Baptist were third cousins. John the Baptist also had two disciples who were brothers, Simon and Andrew (Jn. 1:35-42).
Therefore, if Salome were Jesus’ aunt, Jesus not only chose his first cousins as his disciples, but he also chose the disciples of his third cousin, John the Baptist. Apart from the connection they had to Jesus, these two pairs of brothers were also fishing partners who worked for James and John’s father, Zebedee (Lk. 5:10; Mk. 1:20). Jesus also chose three of these disciples—Peter, James, and John to be among his closest disciples and included them in the transfiguration (Lk. 9:28), the revival of Jarius’ daughter from the dead (Mk. 5:37; Lk. 8:51), and his most intimate prayer time in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:37; Mk. 14:33).
The Gospel of John states that the very next day, Jesus called Philip who, like Simon and Andrew, also came from the small town of Bethsaida, likely creating a connection (1:43-51). When Phillip realized Jesus’ true identity, he left to tell his friend Nathanael (possibly Bartholomew from the Synoptic Gospels), and they both followed Jesus. Jesus continued his choice of disciples using connections through his family.
Later, Jesus chose a third pair of brothers. Matthew (Levi), the traditional author of the Gospel according to Matthew, and his brother James the Younger. They were the sons of Alphaeus, also known as Clopas, and Mary, the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother (Mt. 10:3; Mk. 2:14; 15:40; 16:1; Jn. 19:25). Therefore, Matthew and James the Younger were possibly another set of Jesus’ cousins that he called to be disciples.
Few biblical passages discuss the disciple Thaddaeus (Lebbaeus in the KJV). However, Luke may refer to him as Judas (Lk. 6:16; Ac. 1:13). Due to Luke’s variation, it is possible that if Thaddaeus and Judas were the same person, he was actually Jesus’ half-brother and the author of the book of Jude as I. H. Marshall attests in his Greek commentary of Luke (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3; Jd. 1) (1978, 240). However, Thaddeus could alternatively be a different Judas, the younger brother of James and Matthew, the sons of Alphaeus since his name is often listed right after James’ (Mt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18), and Jude refers to himself as James’ brother (Jd. 1). Either way, Judas-Thaddaeus is likely a relative of Jesus who expressed a devotion as a disciple who encouraged his readers to persevere in their faith (Jd. 17-23).
Although Jesus appeared to call networks of family and friends to be his disciples, he did not rely on only those relationships. Thomas was a twin, yet Jesus did not call his brother (Jn. 11:16; 20:24; 21:2). Though Church history has focused on his doubt (Jn. 20:24-29), Thomas proved to be a pillar among the disciples as an example of one who was willing to follow Jesus even to death (Jn. 11:16). While other disciples confessed Jesus as being the Messiah, the Christ, or the King of Israel, Thomas uniquely confessed Jesus’ divinity calling him “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28).
Simon the Zealot (Lk. 6:15; Ac. 1:13) was an obscure member of the twelve disciples. His name appears in all of the lists of the disciples, but he appears after Simon Peter, and often with the title Zealot. John Nolland notes that “Καναναῖος (‘Cananean’) transliterates the Aramaic qanʾān (āʾ), meaning ‘zealous one’” (2005, 412). Simon’s name could also denote his origin, Cananeus (Καναναῖος), referring to Cana (Mt. 10:4; Mk. 3:18). The latter view likely influences the Eastern Orthodox Church’s tradition that Jesus’ first miracle of changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana was Simon’s wedding (Jn. 2:1-11). The Orthodox Church maintains that Simon was a Zealot because he left his wedding to zealously follow Jesus (Greek Orthodox Archdioceses of America). The Catholic Church takes this view a step further that this Simon is the same Simon listed as one of Jesus’ four brothers (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3) (New Catholic Encyclopedia). This could explain why Jesus’ mother was at the wedding in Cana, why she was concerned about there not being enough wine, and why she coerced Jesus to do something about it (Jn. 2:1-5).
In contrast to most of the other disciples, Scripture never infers any type of prior connection between Judas Iscariot and Jesus. Furthermore, Judas exemplifies a Disciple of Christ who does not follow Jesus whole-heartedly, but rather tries to simultaneously follow his own desires. His greedy theft led him away into temptation and sin. Judas worked as the treasurer of the disciples’ finances and betrayed Jesus for money (Jn. 12:6; Mt. 26:14-16). Judas’ greed likely pushed him to follow Jesus in the first place—hoping that, like the teacher of the law who saw Jesus heal people (Mt. 8:18-20), or the unnamed individual from the Samaritan village (Lk. 9:57-58), they wanted to follow Jesus because they hoped that riches would come from being a disciple of a great master.
Jesus strategically chose small numbers of disciples in which to invest the greatest amount of his time. The Gospels reveal that multitudes followed Jesus. Luke recounts there were 120 disciples in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:15). Luke also records that Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples to share the Good News. However, Jesus spent the majority of his time and energy focused on his twelve disciples. Yet, among those twelve, Jesus shared a special relationship with three of his first disciples Peter, James, and John. Rather than develop a shot-gun approach to discipleship by investing in the masses and hoping some disciples would excel, Jesus focused his investment on small, fixed numbers. He developed deep, significant, and strategic relationships with a set number of students.
The development of a family tree for Christ is neither the purpose, nor within the scope of this article; however, an overview of Jesus’ method to leverage relationships and networks when choosing his twelve disciples demonstrates that he was related to, or closely acquainted with, many of them at the time they were called. Jesus carefully chose his disciples. He chose people with a willingness to leave everything behind to follow him in full commitment. “When Jesus called people to follow Him, He was not seeking companions to be His sidekicks or admirers whom He could entertain with miracles. He was calling people to yield completely and unreservedly to His lordship.” (McArthur 2008, 25).
Missionary educators invest in many students and often feel pressure to disciple all of them. However, if we are to truly further the Great Commission by making disciples, we must choose carefully for the long-term of the ministry. The time, and investment merit the care. We benefit from Jesus’ example when we choose carefully to network with nationals and other missionaries who come from established relationships instead of attempting to disciple large numbers of students at a superficial level and hope for the best. To do this We must foster deep, significant, and strategic relationships with smaller numbers of students.
Pioneer of the multi-site church model, and mega-church pastor Larry Osborne evokes this concept in his book Sticky Church. Osborne reveals that the success to maintaining authentic relationships as ministries grow numerically relies on small groups of relationships. He likens this psycho-emotional need to Lego blocks. Osborne states “I think of people as being like Legos. We all have a limited number of connectors. Introverts have a few. Some extroverts have dozens. But either way, once they’re full, they’re full. And when that happens, we tend to be friendly but to not connect” (2008, 79). If, as missionary educators, we recognize we have a limited number of connectors, or relationships we can healthily and strategically foster discipleship relationships. We can no longer let unspoken and unrealistic expectations to reach the masses stretch us to unhealthy and superficial discipleship relationships.
Missionary educators in the Latin America Caribbean region maintain an impressive reputation for their work-load. We plant churches, travel across the region, invest in local ministries where we live, preach everywhere we travel, run missions teams, and still continue to carry full class loads. Such a continual schedule risks burnout, ministerial fatigue, or at least the danger of doing so much that none of it is done well. Jesus’ principles on discipleship imply a less-is-more perspective. If we were to scale back our schedules to allow time to invest in a small number of younger national ministers or missionaries, we may find, that by doing less, our ministries accomplish more as the Holy Spirit uses us through others. While the traditional classroom setting may be the accepted medium to transmit information, it would seem that the biblical pattern requires us to move beyond its four walls, inviting younger minsters into our homes or on ministry events or trips with the strategic intent to invest in those ministers, fostering their spiritual formation and development in ministry.
By no means do I consider myself an expert in this area, but as I strive to intentionally invest in younger ministers, I increasingly focus on a small group of individuals, whom I know, and in whom I see great character and potential. Over nearly a decade, I have invited them into my home, taken them with me on ministry trips throughout Bolivia and internationally. As a result, my ministerial influence has grown exponentially beyond what I feel I would have accomplished by merely continuing with the stated requirements of a teaching ministry. As missionary educators whose stated goal is to make disciples who make disciples, perhaps we would be better served by putting into practice the principles of the Master Discipler, understanding that the success of our students is our success and, ultimately, that of the Kingdom of God.
Anonymous. 1952. The Urantia Book. Chicago, IL: Urantia Foundation.
Hodges, Melvin. 1953. The Indigenous Church. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House.
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Simon the Zealot & Apostle. http://www.goarch.org/chapel/saints_view?contentid=48 (accessed February 11, 2019).
MacArthur, John. 2008. The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Marshall, I. H. 1978. The Gospel of Luke; A Commentary of the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Montefiore, C. G. 1939. Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings. London: MacMillan.
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, The Brethren of the Lord. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02767a.htm (accessed February 11, 2019).
Nolland, John. 2005. The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans.
Osborne, Larry. 2008. Sticky Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Wilkins, Michael. 1992. Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Wilson, Cathy. “Discipleship in Jesus’ Day,” Jewish Roots of Christianity, 2007, http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.org/LESSONS/pdfs/discipleship-in-jesus-day.pdf (accessed February 11, 2019).