In the Gospels they called him “Rabbi.” He said to them, “Follow me,” and they literally dropped what they were doing and immediately left to follow him wherever he went. James and John were on the job with their dad, and when Jesus called them to be his disciples, they just walked away from their dad and their livelihood and left with Jesus. Levi, too, left everything, got up, and followed him. Why would they do that?
It seems a bit strange to us, but in Jewish life there was a whole culture and practice of being someone’s disciple, and it’s massively important for us to understand it if we’re to know how to relate to Jesus. See, rabbis, or teachers, were not the same as Jewish rabbis today. And they weren’t just teachers with students who came to classes now and then. Rabbis were more like masters with apprentices, and the goal of a disciple was to become just like the rabbi in every way.
Jewish children would spend their youth memorizing the Hebrew scriptures, so by the time they were teenagers they absolutely knew what those scriptures said. But the highly selective, highly prestigious training relationship with a rabbi as a young adult involved a total submission to the rabbi’s authority concerning what those scriptures meant and how they were to be lived out. The real kicker, though, is that this was not optional. A disciple didn’t hear what a rabbi taught and then choose what he wanted to do about it. Once the rabbi gave an interpretation on an issue, that interpretation was authoritative and mandatory on the disciple’s life - for the rest of his life.
Needless to say, the discipleship relationship was one that was NOT entered into lightly, and it was by no means a half-in, half-out kind of relationship. In becoming a disciple, a person fully surrendered his entire life to the rabbi’s interpretation of the Scripture. Discipleship meant total submission.
Not only that, a disciple lived all of life with the rabbi and watched his every move, aiming to emulate him in every way. This also meant the disciple’s life was lived fully in front of the rabbi, and the disciple would always and continually expect the rabbi to ask questions like, “Why did you do that?” Nothing was hidden from the rabbi, and nothing was off limits. This was a good thing, though, because the disciple’s aim was to become like the rabbi. Discipleship was not for the faint of heart, and it was only offered by the rabbi to a select few - those who had the passion and dedication to fully enter into this kind of relationship.
So what about Jesus? Lest we see him as expecting any less from his disciples, let’s take a look at some of the things he said to those who wanted to follow him. In Luke 14, Jesus was talking to great crowds of people that were gathering around him, and what did he say to them? If you’re not willing to give up everything you hold dear, everything you have, even your very life in order to follow me, you cannot be my disciples. Jesus was reminding them what it meant to really be a disciple. He said, “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him.” Jesus goes on: “Therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
There are a lot of people today who think, “I believe in Jesus and the cross, so my sins are forgiven and I’m going to heaven, which means I’m a disciple of Jesus.” But Jesus himself repeatedly and very clearly said that it’s not actually that easy. In these crowds there were many who thought he was a great teacher and wanted to be his disciples. But he reminded them that being a disciple required everything of a person.
To Jesus, following him was done with a person’s whole life, whole self, whole being, and whole heart. It was not about praying a prayer and getting “in.” Take for example the lawyer who came to Jesus, as recounted in Luke 10, and asked how to get eternal life. It might surprise us to remember that Jesus didn’t say, “Believe in me, mentally assent to these things, and then you’ll have eternal life.” He told him to love God with all that was in him and to love people. This guy, like so many today, wanted a specific thing to do to get eternal life, to get “in” without having to necessarily submit his whole life, but Jesus told him it didn’t work that way. Again, following Jesus was done with a person’s whole life and self. Love God with everything, and love people. “Do this. And you will live,” Jesus said.
Now in case this seems scary or overbearing in some way, let’s not forget that Jesus is God, the one who came to set humanity free. He’s the one who came to give us life and who gave up more for us than we can ever give him. Let’s remember that following and submitting to Jesus actually gives us life in return, life more abundant than we could ever imagine apart from him. It’s like Peter said: “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be just one of those people in the masses around Jesus. I want to be his disciple.