Digging Deep Into The Great Commission: Part 1

What is a disciple?

Posted by David Wyatt on July 27, 2022 · 6 mins read
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

As we begin this in-depth study of the last verses of Matthew that are commonly known as The Great Commission, I think a word study is in order. Jesus tells his disciples to go into all the world and make more disciples. This guiding concept is central to the entire passage. So we have to ask ourselves, “What is a disciple?”

Merriam-Webster gives the primary definition of a disciple as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another.” That provides a basic understanding of the word, but as so many words are now in English, it’s very generic. Many languages are often much more specific. Greek, for instance, has several words for what is coined “love” in English translations; agape, eros, philia, storge, etc. Each of these words has a more specific meaning than “love.” Agape, for instance, is the love of God. Philia is brotherly love or the love among equals. These were the words used by the original writers of the New Testament. They gave the original readers greater insight into the inspired texts than we often have through English translations that have followed.

The Greek word translated disciple in verse 16 is mathétés. Strong’s Greek Dictionary defines this as a learner, pupil, and disciple. But we have to remember that Jesus and His followers were Jews. While they often spoke in the Koine Greek of the period, Jewish traditions, education, and Mosaic law shaped their knowledge base. When Jesus told His disciples to make disciples themselves, whether speaking in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, He may have used the word talmidim. That is the Hebrew word for disciples and is what the 11 that Christ was talking to would have understood Him to mean. And it has a deeper meaning in the rabbinical teaching under which these men learned.

Talmidim is the plural form of the Hebrew word talmid. Talmid is used only once in the Old Testament, and the Strongs’s Hebrew Dictionary defines it as a scholar. But to fully recognize what Jesus expected of His disciples, and by extension, us, we must dive into the roots of Jewish education.

At the time of Christ, there were three levels of Jewish education: Bet Sefer, Bet Midrash, and Bet Tanach. Bet Sefer was for children between the ages of 6 and 12. It was where children learned to read and write. They also studied their Hebrew history and heritage and began memorizing the Torah. Education ended for most Hebrew children after Bet Sefer and culminated in Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

The brightest boys from Bet Sefer were selected to continue to Bet Midrash. From ages 13 to 15, these students studied and memorized the Tanach, the complete Jewish bible. The majority of students went into the family trade after completing Bet Midrash. Only a chosen few moved to the next level of Jewish education, Bet Talmud.

It is in Bet Talmud where we find the talmidim. To get a better understanding of the talmidim, let’s look at this excerpt from “Discipleship vs. Talmidim” by Dr. Dan Stolebarger:

“Of those who finished Bet Midrash, again only the best of the best were able to pursue the final educational leg, which was called Bet Talmud. This was the longest in duration; it went from the age of 15 to 30. To participate, he must be invited by a Rabbi and, if selected, he would begin a process of grooming that would lead to the potential of becoming a Rabbi at age 30. Those who were chosen were referred to as talmidim. They would literally follow in the dust of their rabbi - desiring to emulate him in all of his mannerisms. They would eat the same food in exactly the same way as their rabbi. They would go to sleep and awake the same way as their rabbi and, more importantly, they would learn to study Torah and understand God the exact same way as their rabbi.”

Let’s recap that:

  • The talmidim had to be selected or chosen by the rabbi.
  • The education of the talmidim included a thorough, almost eidetic, knowledge of all Holy scripture.
  • They understood God and scripture exactly as their rabbi did.
  • Their desire was to copy every aspect of the rabbi’s life. The talmidim weren’t just learning from the rabbi. They were, in essence, learning to be the rabbi.

This is a very different picture of disciples than we have today. Based on this standard, how many of us are really in discipleship to Jesus? How many of us are talmidim? It should give us something to strive for but also convict us for falling so short.

Now that we understand what a disciple is in the way that Jesus and His followers did 2,000 years ago, we can move forward in our study of The Great Commission.

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