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Jesus is frequently described in the Gospels as "rabbi"-a
term ranging in meanings from respect ("Sir") to a more formal
term of "teacher/role model." It is clear, however, from a variety
of statements that the relationship of Jesus to his disciples
rested upon the latter notion. For example, in Lk 6:40 Jesus
affirms the traditional rabbinic notion that "a pupil
[talmid?] is not above his teacher [rabbi?], but
everyone [each, in every case, without exception], after he has
been fully trained [katertismenos], will be like his
teacher" [emphasis mine]. The expression "not above," in view
of the contrasting parallel in the second part of the verse, here
suggests that the pupil normatively does not deviate from
anything the teacher does. In the Gospel of John this
pattern of rigidity in replicating Jesus' life is repeated in
13:34; 17:18,23; and 20:21, using the conceptual formula, "As I .
. . so you." In 13:15 Jesus states, "For I gave you an
example that you also should do as [kathos]
I did" [italics mine]. The continuation and replication of
Jesus' mission in his disciples is explicit in Jn 20:21, "As
[kathos] the Father has sent me, I also send you." The
English translation, "as," for kathos, implies a sense of
rough equivalence, expressing similarity, but necessarily
not being the same, as in its synonym, "like." By
contrast, the Greek, kathos is a word that carries the
stronger sense of "exactly as," or, "to the exact same degree and
Hence, in both these verses, the specific, exact duplication of
Jesus' mission is intended. The significance of all this is that,
in Palestinian Jewish tradition contemporary with Jesus, as well
as in the NT itself, no detail of a teacher's life is to be
either ignored or left unreplicated.
One could argue, however, that the disciples'
relationship with Jesus was unique and not to be replicated in
further generations of Christians. Indeed, this is explicit in
the cessationist tradition when it comes to replicating Jesus'
ministry of signs and wonders. If we put aside the miracle aspect
of discipleship, however, it is generally understood in
Christendom that the Gospels and Acts seem to present the
disciples of Jesus as surrogates for the reader. In fact this is
explicit throughout the New Testament: subsequent generations of
Christians are normatively to be disciples of the disciples even
as Christians are followers of Christ.
When we move into the epistles, the
discipleship theme is every bit as strong as in the Gospels and
Acts: only the vocabulary has changed. Outside the narrative
documents it appears that the terms "disciple" and "follower" are
replaced with specific exhortations to live out the Christian
life: to "walk" in the "way" of Christ, or "put on" or be "in
Christ" in some sense. There is a consciousness of the presence
of the promised Spirit, who is virtually equated with the
presence of Jesus, e.g., 2 Cor 3:17, cf. Jn 14:17-18, 28;
16:16. In this, discipleship is advanced toward an even more
intimate awareness of the rabbi, Jesus, who will empower them and
guide them into all truth.
Discipleship, however, moves to a third, fourth
and even a fifth generation in the NT. Paul can require of his
readers, for example, "Imitate me even as [kathos-to the
same degree and extent that] I imitate Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Four
other times he exhorts churches to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; Phil
3:17; 2 Th 3:7,9, cf. Gal 4:12 and Phil 4:9).
In 1 Cor 4:15-17 Paul says that he became the
Corinthians' "'father' through the Gospel." This obviously means
something more than progenitor, or "father" of a new religion,
but rather retains the more technical meaning of "rabbi/teacher."
Proof of this is the remainder of the verse: "I exhort you to
become imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you
Timothy, who is my son [talmid] whom I love [an
echo of Jesus' baptism?] . . . who will remind you of
my ways [hodous=derakim]." The term
"ways" is a Semitism that refers to the whole characteristic
pattern of life. Here, then, we implicitly have three
generations of imitators described: Jesus, Paul, Timothy/the
Similarly, 1 Th 1:5-6 displays the pattern of
imitation, not only to the third generation, but also to the
fourth! Not only could the believers observe the type of people
Paul and his companions were as they presented the Gospel, but
the Thessalonians "became imitators of us and of the Lord . . .
so as (hoste-"for this reason") to become a pattern to all
those in Macedonia and in Achaia." In other words the explicit
reason the Thessalonians became imitators of Paul, was that they,
themselves, become exemplars for others to imitate in exactly the
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