Defining a Disciple using 1st-Century Lenses

It wasn’t until I heard someone speak of the events of one of my favorite Bible stories in a 1st-century perspective that I realized the true impact of what it meant and still means to be a disciple. The more I thought about it and read over it, the more I realized the true impact of being a disciple and what it meant when Jesus walked on water. Not only that, but what that story and these implications can mean to us now.

After the events described in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel (the birth of Jesus and other early events), Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Nazareth. Nazareth was the home city of Mary and Joseph and would have been the location of the Annunciation (the name for Mary’s visit by the angel Gabriel). The small town (historians believed to be a town of around 400) was located in Galilee, which would be located in the northern region of modern-day Israel. The people of Galilee (as it was mainly a Jewish community) believed that the Torah (consisting of the first five books of the Bible {commonly known in Christian respects as the Pentateuch – which in Greek means five books or five scrolls}, the Ten Commandments and other written and oral teachings) were given to Moses by God. The Jewish people regarded (and still regard) Moses to be the greatest prophet to have ever lived. They used the lessons, culture, and practices derived from the Torah to not only influenced their laws, but their life’s obligations. The Torah became the foundation of their everyday lives and the focus of their education system.

Like us, most Jewish girls and boys around 6 years of age would go to school for the first time; but they did not learn shapes and colors in a school. Jewish girls and boys learned the Torah at their local synagogue. It would be taught by a local Torah teacher (a rabbi). The first level of education lasted until they were around 10 years old and this was called beit sefer. Beit Sefer is translated to English with Beit meaning ‘house’ and Sefer meaning ‘school’; and since the Torah is ‘housed’ on a special table or chair for the students to study from, Beit Sefer is translated as ‘house of the book’. In Beit Sefer, the young Jews would memorize the Torah by heart. Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy would be memorized. Thousands of words. Hundreds of stories.

By the end of Beit Sefer, most kids would no longer be going to school. They would go back home to apprentice or learn the family business or trade. The girls would gain experience in how to manage a household and the boys would apprentice their father’s business. But the best…the best would continue in their studies. They would continue into the next level of education called Beit Talmud which is an in-depth study into the religious laws (called the halakha), Jewish theology, and the written collection of the oral traditions of the Jewish people. In Beit Talmud, they would memorize the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, laws and other written works. At that point, they would have the books of Genesis through the book of Malachi memorized. But only some would continue from there. Only the best of the best would continue to what is called Beit Midrash. At that point, they would go to a rabbi and apply to be that rabbi’s disciple.

Now most of us hear the word disciple, you think of Jesus’s disciples, but the word typically meant ‘student’ or ‘follower’. But to truly get what being a disciple was, you need to remember that a disciple meant that you want to know what the rabbi knows. You want to do what the rabbi does. After the best of the best continues into Beit Midrash, they chose the rabbi that they wanted to follow because each rabbi interprets the Torah differently. Each rabbi’s interpretation of the scriptures and set of beliefs is called his yoke. When you went to apply to be a rabbi’s disciple, you wanted to take his yoke upon you and learn what the rabbi knows to do what the rabbi does to be like the rabbi. The disciples of a rabbi memorized his words and adopted his interpretations of the Scriptures. They were to multiply his teaching in their own disciples. To test if a potential disciple is worthy, he would ask them a series of questions to test their knowledge of the Torah, the prophets and the oral traditions. The rabbi needed to know that they were worthy of being his disciple. If he did not find you worthy, then he would dismiss you and you would be told to go and learn your family trade. Those whom the rabbi did find to be the best of the best of the best, he would say, “Come. Follow me.”

So you’re a 15-year-old kid that leaves his family, friends, synagogue, and village to devote your entire life to be like your rabbi. You yearn to know what your rabbi knows to do what your rabbi does. You walk behind him when you enter a town. You are doing everything you can to keep up with your rabbi and learn from him. By the end of the day, you after walking behind your rabbi all-day on the hot, dusty roads…you will literally have whatever your rabbi stepped in all over the front of you. A saying even developed among the wise men at the time that goes, ‘may you be covered in the dust of your rabbi’. People would know exactly what it meant to be covered in the dust of your rabbi.

All of this has huge implications for how we see Jesus and understand the disciples. Most rabbis began their teaching around the age of 30 and in the Bible, we find Jesus, around the age of 30, walks down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and He comes across these two fishermen: Peter and Andrew. Jesus calls to them, “Come. Follow me.” So if these men of Galilee are fishermen and Jesus calls them to be his disciples, that they weren’t the best of the best of the best. They went back to learn about their family trade. The Bible continues to say that they immediately dropped their nets and followed Him. Which to us is strange, but to be asked to be someone’s disciple was an honor. Rabbis were the most honored, respected, revered people in the Jewish community. If you think about it, you had to be the #1 of the best of the best of the best to be a rabbi. So imagine that you are a fisherman and have a rabbi come to you and say, “Come. Follow me.” You would drop your nets too because he is basically saying, ‘you can be like me’ and ‘you can do what I do’.

The Bible continues to say that Jesus came across James and John fishing with their father Zebadee. So you have two boys fishing with their father learning their family trade. That means that they are old enough to be out of school young enough to be still be apprenticing with their father. So Jesus also calls them to be His disciples. James and John weren’t disciples of some other rabbi, they were apprenticing with their father in the family business…so that means that they too are not the best of the best of the best. Also, what does this mean about the ages of James and John? How old were they at this point? 15? Maybe 18? They were young enough to still be apprenticing but old enough to be a disciple. The bible doesn’t give exact ages of Jesus’s disciples but scripture teaches us that Jesus was 30 when he starts His ministry (Luke 3:23) and in Jewish culture, disciples were generally younger than their teacher…so the disciples were at least under 30. They weren’t old men. Jesus didn’t try to look for the best of the best of the best in the eyes of the Jewish tradition, He and His movement is for everyone. To be his disciple meant that you didn’t have to be well educated or rich. Acts 4:13 even says that someone describes the disciples as ‘unschooled fishermen’. So the Savior of the World…the Son of God…the King of Kings called a bunch of not-good-enoughs to be his disciples.

Back to the story of Jesus walking on water. Jesus walked on water after the miracle of feeding the five thousand (the one where Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed at least five thousand people). The miracle was a confirmation of a prophesy written in the book of Deuteronomy where it is prophecized that the Messiah will heal the sick and feed the multitude. Jesus fed the 5,000 after they gathered to hear him speak following the death of John the Baptist. So the story starts by saying that Jesus had instructed the disciples to go back to the western side of the Sea of Galilee while he remained behind to pray. Night fell and they were in a boat rowing against an increasingly violent wind for most of the night. As they were going across the sea, the wind turned from bad to violent. The disciples, already afraid of the being in the storm, saw Jesus walking to them on the water. So here you have this boat full of normal, young guys in choppy water with blowing winds and then all of a sudden you see a man walking on the water. They are frozen with fear. They think they are seeing a ghost. Peter calls out to him and says, ‘Well, if it’s You, tell me to come to you’. Why is this his response to seeing Jesus on the water? It’s because he is embodying what it means to be a disciple. He has oriented his entire life to be like his rabbi. To do as his rabbi does. So Peter crawls out of the boat and begins to walk towards Jesus. He begins to do as his rabbi does but then he looks down and begins to sink. He screams for Jesus to come to save him and Jesus reaches down and takes his hand. Jesus looks at him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Now, I always thought that this was Peter doubting that Jesus is who he says he is; but Jesus isn’t the one who is sinking. Peter is doubting himself. He loses faith that he can be like his rabbi. Jesus wouldn’t have allowed him to take that risk if he didn’t think that he could be like him. Nor would he have called him to be his rabbi if he didn’t think that he could do as he does. The rabbi doesn’t choose you unless he believes that you can be like him.

To be a Christian means that you have to believe in Jesus and who he is. To have faith. Faith in Jesus is important but what do you think about Jesus’s faith in us? Jesus must have had faith in us because he left it all in the hands of his disciples. That’s what we are. The last thing that he told his disciples was to, “go and make more disciples”. He believes that these common men (and women) could go out into the world as rabbis. They were the #1 of the best of the best of the best. That’s the beauty of Christianity. Jesus believed in them…but what if God actually believes that we can be what we were meant to be? To be the kinds of people who do for others. To be the people that make the sacrifice. To throw down the nets and as Matthew 11:28-3 says “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I don’t think Jesus was referring to strapping the wooden beam from an ox and pulling a load; but rather to join with him in believing as he does. To do as he does.

I pray that we not only believe in Jesus but we know that Jesus believes in us. I pray that we can remember to have faith in Jesus but to also remember that Jesus has faith in us. May we remember that if you go far enough back, we are the disciples of THE disciples, so I pray that we as disciples may be covered in the dust of our Rabbi…Jesus.


Jesus walking on the Water in the Cathedrale Saint-Louis by François Boucher – Unknown, Public Domain,

Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) by Gerard van Honthorst – Google Art Project, Public Domain,

Moses with the Ten Commandments by Philippe de Champaigne – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Title page of Midrash Tehillim, Public Domain,

Talmudysci by Adolf Behrman (1876 – 1942) – Zbiory ŻIH (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny), Public Domain,

Christ Walking on the Sea by Amédée Varin – (Gravures et eaux fortes), Public Domain,

The Beach of the Sea of Galilee in Israel by Chmee2 – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s