Practicing the Way
Practicing the Way—
Apprentice to Jesus
Imagine this: Your name is Simon. You’re a first-century Hebrew, likely in your late teens or early twenties. You run a fishing business in the Galilee, a string of villages in the north of Israel. Your life is pretty much mapped out for you. You do what your father did, and his father before him. Living under Roman occupation, there aren’t a lot of options. Keep your head down, be quiet, pay your taxes.
One day you’re waist deep in water, casting your net alongside your brother, Andrew, when you notice a man walking toward you on the beach. You instantly recognize his face. It’s him: Jesus, from Nazareth, just a few miles away. Everyone is talking about this man—he is saying and doing things no rabbi has said or done. Ever.
Here he is, walking straight toward you. You make eye contact. His eyes sparkle like stars, like there’s a cosmos behind them. He radiates joy, but there’s no small talk:
Come, follow me . . . and I will send you out to fish for people.
You’re absolutely stunned.
It can’t be.
You immediately drop your nets, drag Andrew out of the boat (though he doesn’t need any coaxing), leave everything behind, and fall in step behind Jesus, elated to be in his company. Or in the words of the biographer Mark, “At once they left their nets and followed him.”
Now, if you’re familiar with this story, it’s easy to miss how bizarre it is. What would make Simon literally walk away from a profitable business and leave behind his family and friends, with zero planning, all to follow a man with no income stream, no organization, and no official position into an unknown future? Is this drinking the Kool-Aid before there was Kool-Aid?
Or are we missing something?
Jesus was a rabbi
If you were Simon, and Jesus were to visit your synagogue one fine Sabbath morning to preach, the category you likely would have put him in was that of a rabbi, or teacher.
The title rabbi literally means “master.” Rabbis were the spiritual masters of Israel. Not only were they expert teachers of the Torah (the Scriptures of their day); they were also magnetic examples of life with God—those special few who shine with an inner luminescence.
Every rabbi had his “yoke”—a Hebrew idiom for his set of teachings, his way of reading Scripture, his take on how to thrive as a human being in God’s good world. How you, too, could taste a little of what they’d tasted . . .
Rabbis came from a broad cross section of society. They could have been farmers or blacksmiths or even carpenters. Most trained under another rabbi for many years, then began to teach and call their own disciples around the age of thirty. But there was no formal certification like in our modern educational system. Authority worked differently. Your life and teaching were your credentials.
Rabbis were itinerant, and most were unpaid. (Some worked their farms or ran businesses for seasons of the year, then traveled in the off-season.) They walked from town to town to teach in whatever synagogue would have them, relying on the hospitality of people of peace. They often spoke in parables and riddles. Normally, they traveled with a small band of disciples, teaching not in a classroom but in the open air and along the road—not from a textbook or curriculum but from the Torah and the school of life.
Over and over again in the four Gospels, Jesus is addressed as “rabbi.”
But he was no ordinary rabbi.
Everywhere he went, the crowds were “astonished” and “overwhelmed with wonder.” The biographer Luke wrote, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” Mark said, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” They gave feedback like “Where did this man get this wisdom . . . ?” and even “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”
Of course, saying that Jesus was a rabbi is about as insightful as saying that he was Jewish (although that’s another truth copious numbers of people forget). But sadly, very few people—including many Christians—take Jesus seriously as a spiritual teacher.
To some, he’s a wraithlike apparition, there to inspire later generations to a fuzzy kind of goodwill. To others, he is a social revolutionary—resist!—fist up to the Roman Empire then and all empires now. To a large number of Western Christians, he is a delivery mechanism for a particular theory of atonement, as if the only reason he came was to die, not to live.
As a result, many Christians don’t consider Jesus all that smart. Holy, sure. Kind, yes. Even divine. But intelligent? Not really.
An increasing number of Christians don’t agree with him on crucial matters of human flourishing. They would rather trust a politician, celebrity, or pastor gone rogue than Jesus the teacher and the disciples who studied directly under him. They would never even think to consult Jesus on the pressing matters of our time: politics, racial justice, sexuality, gender, mental health, and so on. As Dallas Willard said, “What lies at the heart of the astonishing disregard of Jesus found in the moment-to-moment existence of multitudes of professing Christians is a simple lack of respect for him.”
This is vital, because if to “follow” Jesus is to trust him to lead you to the life you desire, it’s very hard (if not impossible) to entrust your life to someone you don’t respect.
But what if Jesus was more intelligent than any other teacher in history? More than Stephen Hawking or Karl Marx or even the Buddha? What if he was a brilliant sage with insight into the human condition that is still, two millennia later, without parallel? What if he simply has no equal or peer?
Now, that could be someone to put your trust in.
Of course, to call Jesus a brilliant rabbi is not to say he was just a brilliant rabbi. The sign hanging above Jesus’ head when he was crucified said King of the Jews, not Guru. It tells you a lot about Jesus that his enemies perceived him as a political threat.
This would have made perfect sense in Jesus’ culture. Moses, the great historical luminary of the Jewish people, was called Moshe Rabbenu (“Moses Our Rabbi”) and Israel’s Great Teacher. First-century Israelites were waiting for a new Moses to appear and lead a new exodus out of the Roman Empire—a figure they began to call the Messiah. Some expected the long-awaited Messiah to appear as a warrior or military leader, but many expected him to come as a great teacher. As two scholars put it, “The Jewish people believed that becoming a great scholar of the Scriptures represented life’s supreme achievement. In such a culture, it made sense that the Messiah should be the greatest of teachers. No wonder Jesus became a Jewish rabbi.”
But we Christians believe he was even more than the Messiah. Jesus made claims that no Jewish king would ever dare utter—claims that got him accused of blasphemy, a capital offense in his world. As one of his critics put it, “We are not stoning you for any good work . . . but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
But to say Jesus was more than just a rabbi or even the Messiah is not to say he was anything less than a brilliant, provocative, wise, spiritual master of how to live and thrive in this our Father’s world.
He was a rabbi. And like most rabbis of his day, Jesus had disciples . . .
Three goals of an apprentice
Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not invent discipleship. Rabbis with a small coterie of disciples were regularly seen walking around Galilee. Just a few years before Jesus, Rabbi Hillel called eighty disciples. Rabbi Akiva—a famous teacher a few decades after Jesus—had only five, but thousands were said to “follow” him around Israel. In the New Testament itself, John the Baptizer had disciples, as did the Pharisees; the apostle Paul was formerly a disciple of a nationally known rabbi named Gamaliel. Discipleship (or, as I’m about to relabel it, apprenticeship) was the pinnacle of the first-century Jewish educational system, much like a PhD or graduate program is in our system today.
That means to understand discipleship, we first must understand the Jewish educational system. (Don’t worry; I promise to keep this short.)
Jewish kids started school around five years old at the local bet sefer (“the house of the book”), which was the equivalent of elementary school. Normally the bet sefer was built onto the side of the synagogue and run by a full-time scribe or teacher. The curriculum was the Torah, and in an oral culture, by the age twelve or thirteen, most kids would have the entire Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—memorized. At that point, the vast majority of students went home. They would apprentice in the family business or help run the farm.
But the best and brightest would go on to a second level of education, called bet midrash (“the house of learning”), where they would continue their studies. By the age of seventeen, they would have memorized—wait for it—the entire Old Testament.