How do we apply the Word of God to a life of discipleship? What about applying the Torah? How did the Jewish sages reimagine Jewish life apart from the Temple? How was messianic faith reimagined apart from the Temple and Jerusalem?
We begin to consider these questions, as we dig deeper into applying the Bible to life, by faith in Messiah Yeshua/Jesus.
Cross-country was not my sport of choice. Just days before the start of my junior high career, a friend and I showed up for tryouts to join the team. Neither of us were runners, so we expected to be quickly sent packing.
We made the team. Well, cross-country is one of those sports in most schools where, if you show up with a functioning heart, you’re in.
Running became a passion. Largely due to the influence of the senior team members, the older kids, the high school guys. One in particular made a lasting impression.
Coach would use him, and others, to take groups of us out for long training runs around town – two of those loops took me past the Messiah Congregation building.
On these runs, Dave – not his actual name – who was a natural athlete, would set the pace for us. Explaining, based on specific body type and experience, how to approach the terrain, and adjust our pace and posture.
He would effortlessly go out ahead of us, causing us to pursue, let us pass, get well ahead of him, only to catch us, and ease in at that quicker pace to help us breathe, maintain, endure, and ultimately finish the race.
He was our pacesetter.
The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
This “cloud of witnesses” has been greatly misunderstood; often imagined as people sitting in the gallery watching a play. This is not the case at all, as Hebrews 11 confirms, they were people pursuing God in faith, running the race. They are not on the course now, but they know it well, and have pointed the way.
They are pacesetters in faith. Those who came before us, as examples of how to run the race set before us. Not perfect in themselves, or their lives, they looked for the finish line, that city built by the Lord. They had their struggles, faults, missteps and stumbles, but they kept the Lord always before them.
This cloud of witnesses are not only historic, a relic of antiquity; we have pacesetters with us even now. Those who have been running in faith a little longer, have had more time in the texts, prayer, and worship. They have made it over more hills and through more valleys.
They are there, around us, helping us to see what is ahead, helping us to adjust our stride, our breath, and our posture. They are not perfect, but they are in the race, helping us all to mature in Messiah (Eph. 4:12-14).
Remember, the coach, the Holy Spirit, may send them out on the run to help us learn the subtleties of faith to endure to the end. They are not there as a rebuke, but as brethren training for and running the race.
Discipleship is easy to define. From both Hebrew and Greek it simply means to learn. In Matthew 28:19, Yeshua/Jesus directs His disciples, soon to be apostles (sent ones), to go out and “make disciples from all nations.” His instruction is telling, the apostles are to make or fashion people into learners of Him (Matt. 11:29-30). This is a relational construct, a putting their hands to the clay motif.
Yeshua defines discipleship simply, yet it is a definition that is often overlooked. In John 14:15 we read, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (cf. 14:21, 23; 15:10; I Jn. 2:3; 5:3). This simple definition is a conditional statement: if this, then this. If we love Him, we will obey Him. In the Bible, conditional statements by the Lord are followed by the promise of blessing. In keeping with that pattern, the blessing for obedience in love to Messiah is the sending of the Helper, or the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16-18; 15:26-27; 16:7-15). The Holy Spirit will teach (Jn. 14:26) those who love Him. Too often people interpret this to mean that disciples are not to learn from others, as in a teacher/student relationship. This is simply not the case, evidence of this in the Apostolic Scriptures is ample. The Holy Spirit will impart wisdom to both teacher and student: wisdom to teach, wisdom to learn, and wisdom for mutual submission.
Not another program.
Discipleship in our era has become a class, or program with a multistep pattern to follow ensuring that whatever anticipated, or desired goal is reached. Discipleship is the life of faith itself, not a class. It is living the confession of faith in community. Discipleship can be understood as this: sometimes you learn from me, and sometimes I learn from you, as we continue to learn from Him. Discipleship recognises that some have been along the way a little longer, and the wisdom of those miles.
What if people do not, cannot, or will not attend a discipleship class? Are they not discipled? Discipleship, from a Jewish perspective, is relationship to a teacher; in the messianic faith, that teacher is Messiah. Relationship, not enrollment. Ideally, discipleship encompasses life. Unfortunately, with our modern sensibilities this is not a desirable approach.
To the shepherd: it’s how we teach.
Is your message: topical? does it connect? is it meaningful? did it have factoids? This is all too often what is hoped for, and considered “a good word.”
Every message taught to a congregation should disciple them. A message should feed the flock, as the field feeds the sheep. We find extremes today. One extreme focuses on life application of specific verses, laying aside context. The other extreme exposits verse by verse, fact for fact, with little practical application. There is a balanced approach. Faithfulness to the text is of paramount importance, but the power of the Word must also be evident. We, then, go to the Word not only to learn, but also for its power – the record of the word spoken by the covenant Lord into creation, and flowing through our lives.
Discipleship from a podium sets both the facts and the power before the learner. Discipleship applied lives the Word by its power through the Holy Spirit.
Discipleship teaches those who have been born-again to apply the Word of God to life circumstances: faith-er, Word, life. This formulation is both theological and ethical. Theology is not just an academic discipline. Theology is the application of the Word of God to every aspect of life. Biblical ethics, as a discipline apart from philosophical ethics, tells us what theology applied looks like. Theology defines the ethical norms found in God’s revelation; those norms define the rightness or wrongness of a person, attitude or action in relation to God’s command. Simply: our theology informs our ethic, and our ethic reveals our theology.
The Body of Messiah must learn to think theologically and ethically – this dyad is the basis of discipleship. Theology tells us the who and why. Ethics tells us the how and when.
Paul instructs us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you were called – with complete humility and gentleness, with patience, putting up with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).
He continues regarding our former lifestyle (Eph. 4:17-19), “However, you did not learn Messiah in this way – if indeed you have heard Him and were taught in Him, as the truth is in Yeshua. With respect to your former lifestyle, you are to lay aside the old self corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self – created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:20-24).
Finally, “Therefore be imitators of God, as dearly loved children; and walk in love, just as Messiah also loved us and gave Himself up for us as an offering and sacrifice to God for a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1-2).
To walk worthy, as Paul expresses it, is to walk ethically in the Spirit – according to, and informed by the commands of the Lord. While Paul is a fashioner of disciples, he is also a disciple calling us to follow him as he follows Messiah (I Cor. 11:1), instructing us to lay aside our former way to embrace the new, and walk in godliness. This we learn from Messiah, and from our teachers.
Paul’s pattern is clear: he is a disciple discipling. How does he disciple?
“Make every effort to present yourself before God as tried and true, as an unashamed worker cutting a straight path with the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).
“All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, reproof, for restoration, and for training in righteousness, so that the person belonging to God may be capable, fully equipped for every good deed” (II Tim. 3:16-17).
The straight path is the righteous way (Ps. 23:3). One walks along the way, shepherded by the Holy Spirit, according to the Word of God. Paul then describes discipleship according to the Word: “teaching, reproof, for restoration, and for training in righteousness, so that the person belonging to God may be capable, fully equipped for every good deed.” And what are these good deeds? “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from yourselves – it is the gift of God. It is not based on deeds, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship – created in Messiah Yeshua for good deeds, which God prepared beforehand so we might walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). The Word equips us to walk in the deeds that the Father prepared for us beforehand. The Lord pre-tended to our walk before we knew of our need for salvation. Now, through discipleship, we tend to the walk set before us in faith accord to His Word, not our feelings, by the Spirit.
Discipleship is painful, the life of the apostles reveals this. Discipleship is to teach us to approach the world we are stationed in theologically – our lives under the presence, power and control of the Sovereign Lord; and ethically, living according to His Word. The pain is the separation of our desire from our will; as our will submits to His will, and our desires align with His – easily written…
Historically, the disciple suffered great loss to follow their teacher. Loss of family, position, esteem. They often lived and traveled with their teacher without certainty of provision for food or shelter. The Apostolic Scriptures and the Talmud record these hardships.
As disciples of Messiah we will face hardships, and challenges to our faith, our preferences, and our sensibilities. We learn that we are not guaranteed tomorrow as we appreciate it, but we are guaranteed eternity as He provides it. Discipleship is not a scheduled and convenient class on a Tuesday evening. It is the way of life in faith with Messiah.
As we learn from Him, and walk according to His revelation, the power of heaven will go before us – not as a witness to our greatness, heaven forbid!, but a witness to His faithfulness (Mk. 16:20).