Be Like Me: Discipleship's Roots in the Rabbinic Tradition


The last words of Jesus contained the command to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). The implication of this command is multiplication; followers of Jesus are expected to make new disciples. Christians today are descendants of disciples who made disciples. But how many churchgoers have been exposed to an intentional discipleship process? How many church leaders have an actual plan for making disciples? Or do many of us just stumble into it? Is there a model we can follow?


After I made a public confession of faith in Jesus, my youth minister would try to meet for lunch several times a month, go through a book study, and discuss what we learned.

But the thing I remember most was him pushing me toward a closer walk with Jesus. Teaching me how he applied Scripture to his life; how he was attempting to live like Christ.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready for anything deeper at the time; I was too immature. But over time, those lessons caught up to me.

A few years later, one of my pastors and his wife spent significant time with me. I saw them raise their kids and shepherd a church. Some of the lessons I learned previously were being modeled on a deeper level.

During this time I began to sense a calling to ministry, and they helped guide that call. That pastor also gave me my first full-time church position, and I joined his staff in Texas.

Even as a pastor, he continued to disciple me, though I don’t think we ever called it that. We spent time together and I learned how to shepherd people through his example, and by going along with him as he did it.

At this church, I began a friendship with a young man in our college ministry. He was still faithful while many of his friends were away at school or had dropped out of church.

We started working out together in my garage. This went on for several years before I realized it was discipleship.

He would see me interact with my family, talk about church life, talk about his work and his vocational call. I didn’t even see it as discipleship until another staff member asked what material we were working through in our discipleship meetings.

We weren’t working through any material, just sharing our lives. Our meetings expanded to include another young man and soon there were three or four of us. I had the privilege of sharing life with these young men over the last three years I was at the church. These relationships have even extended over ten years and 500 miles. What I discovered is that this informal plan of discipleship is connected to the models we are given in the New Testament.


I recently re-read a little book, The Origins of the Gospel Traditions by Birger Gerhardsson, a distillation of two of his earlier works. He discusses how rabbis would pass down their teachings to their students and how faithful these students were to commit them to memory.

As I was reading, I noticed how the process of discipleship has been passed down from the rabbis through Jesus and Paul; there is much we can learn from this process.

The first five books of the Bible are known as the Torah in Hebrew. Torah means “instruction.” Great importance was given to the study of the laws and commands of the Torah.

To learn the Torah one must go to a teacher. Students would then flock around teachers. Such a group became something of an extended family. The teacher was the spiritual father, the students his spiritual children.

They spent time with him, followed him, and served him. Students would learn much of the tradition by listening—to their teacher and his more advanced students.

They learned by posing questions and making contributions of their own within the bounds prescribed by modesty and etiquette. But they also learned a great deal by simply observing: with attentive eyes, they saw all the teacher did, then proceeded to imitate him. The Torah is above all a holy, authoritative attitude toward life. Students can then learn by simply watching and imitating those who are educated.

The Talmud is the collection of the exposition of the Torah by the great rabbis of Judaism. In the Talmud ,the teachings of the great rabbis were preserved, but so were their actions: “I saw rabbi so-and-so do thus and so.”

The rabbinical tradition preserved examples of how bright and eager students followed their teachers’ actions even in the most private situations, motivated by the belief that “this has to do with Torah, and I want to learn!” This includes a humorous story of students hiding in a rabbi’s bedroom because they wanted to learn the Torah in that “situation.”


Seeking to preserve their teachings on the Torah, the rabbis were not only interested in what Gerhardsson calls the “cramming and mechanical recitation” of their teaching. They were very conscious of the importance of comprehending and personally applying what had been impressed upon one’s mind. For this reason they carried on an energetic struggle against lifeless knowledge.

According to the rabbis, a disciple shouldn’t be a dead receptacle for received tradition. Rather, a student should enter into a discipleship relationship so that he or she understands and is in agreement with it. Only that way can they actually live according to it, be a faithful steward of it, and pass it on to others in an infectious way.

A living bearer of the tradition is to be like a torch that has been lit by an older torch, in order that it might itself light others.

Paul picks up this mantle of rabbinic discipleship, seeing himself as a spiritual father to those who have been won for the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:17; Philemon 10). He encourages his congregations to be imitators of him in all respects, even as he himself is an imitator of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7).

The life of imitation comes into being when obedient disciples receive (and pattern their lives according to) the instruction of their teacher. After his admonishment to “be imitators of me,” Paul follows with this statement:

“For this reason I am sending to you Timothy… He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17).

When Paul speaks of “my ways” he is referring to patterns of his life and teachings. Imitating Paul means receiving and living according to the teaching he proclaimed in all his congregations. Paul isn’t just passing down oral or written teaching, but the very way he lives.

We see this fleshed out even more in Philippians 4:9: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.”

The Philippians were even told to look in their own community for imitators of Paul: “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Philippians 3:17).

Paul is passing down a tradition of rabbinic discipleship. Just as the rabbis gathered students and passed on both instruction in the Torah and a lifestyle that exemplifies the Torah, Paul exhorts his followers to not only hold fast to his teaching, but to imitate his lifestyle as well.


We see that for the rabbis and Paul, discipleship is not a program or a book study to take someone through, but an opportunity to live out their teaching (in Paul’s case, the gospel) in front of students, encouraging them to follow along. It might seem deeply personal and time-consuming, but it is the model we have been given.

While I was sharing life with these young men, I was tempted to feel bad because we didn’t go through organized study material. But we were already involved in Sunday School, corporate worship, and other activities.

Instead, our discipleship was allowing them to observe me applying the lessons of Scripture to my life and to speak into issues in their lives.

If you are walking with someone who is not currently involved in any kind of Bible instruction, by all means, incorporate that. But more importantly, let your people see how you apply those lessons to your life.

Bill Victor works for the Missouri Baptist Convention as a team member of the Making Disciples Group. He helped start Missio Dei, a campus ministry at the University of Missouri. He is currently an adjunct professor of New Testament at Liberty University’s School of Divinity and Regent University. He also has worked in various pastoral roles.