Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Didache and the Teacher-Disciple Relationship

As I have often said in my articles here, the modern concept of discipleship is lacking the same quality of the 1st century Jewish concept. It is not that modern Christians ignore the original understanding, but more that they have never really been taught. The early Christians, however, understood the Jewish approach and kept it intact. This is perhaps why we find that the Didache admonishes disciples as follows:

"My child, you shall remember, day and night, him who speaks the word of God to you, and shall honor him as the Lord, for where the Lord's nature is spoken of, He is present." - Didache 4:1

What does it mean to honor the teacher of God's word as the Lord? Does it mean we are to worship the teacher? Pray to him? Or does it mean we show him the same honor, respect and dignity we would show Jesus, because the teacher brings us the knowledge of the gospel?

The teacher-disciple relationship in 1st century Judaism was quite different from what we might expect. A rabbi generally never approached a potential disciple. Instead, the potential disciple would approach the rabbi and ask for his permission to follow him. If the rabbi felt the disciple was worthy of his time and had potential, he would permit him to follow him for a period of time, during which the rabbi would assess the disciple. If, at the end of this period, the rabbi felt the person lacked the necessary intellect, moral uprightness, etc., he would dismiss him from his presence. Rarely did common Jewish men ever get accepted as disciples. Fishermen would certainly have been among those who were commonly rejected (should they dare to even approach a rabbi), as they usually lacked the ongoing Torah education most of the teachers expected. If a man was accepted as a disciple, he would then be expected to conform to the image of his teacher. That is, he would speak as he spoke, teach what he taught, dress as he dressed, eat what he ate, sleep when he slept, etc. Why? Every facet of the teachers life and conduct were considered important to emulate as they were meticulously shaped around the Law. Thus the disciple would be assured of properly living the Torah day to day. And, when the time came, the disciple would become a teacher to others, who would show him the same respect they would have shown his rabbi. 

Jesus did something a bit different. Rather than wait for potential disciples to approach Him, he chose most of His twelve by going to them and telling them to "follow me" (Matthew 4:19). He  even chose those whom the great teachers of the time would have rejected out of hand. There were those who approached Him in the traditional manner, however. We have the story of John the Baptist, accompanied by his disciples, seeing Jesus walking by, declares to them, "Look, the Lamb of God!"

"When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?" 

They said, "Rabbi (which means Teacher), where are you staying?"

"Come," he replied, "and you will see."- John 1:36-39

These men were not simply curious to know what Jesus' house looked like, or to sit on His porch and drink lemonade. What is implied here, given the historical context, is that they were asking to be His disciples.

So how does this connect to the Didache and from there to us? Simple. The Didache is telling us that we are to follow this ancient Jewish custom of the Teacher-Disciple relationship. We should respect these teachers as they are emissaries (Heb. sh'liachim), of Jesus. Recall as well the words of Jesus and how they connect the dots on this issue for us.

"Whoever receives you, receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me."- Matthew 10:40

It is not that we are to worship the teacher of the gospel, but that we are to afford them the same respect we would Jesus, since they are His emissaries. To the extent that their lives and personal conduct reflect His teachings, we should imitate those things. Ultimately, we are all being conformed to the image of Jesus, and all imitating His attitudes and actions.

How much do you respect those who teach you the gospel in both word and deed? Do you show them the respect you would show the Lord, as the Didache admonishes, or do you take them for granted? Do you have a healthy Teacher-Disciple relationship? If not, why? I do not expect anyone to take my word for it on this issue, as it is of vast importance. I do, however, encourage my readers to pray about this issue and research it for yourself. I think you will find it is both the ancient Jewish custom, as well as that of the early church.


  1. Interesting. I have seen the "In the Dust of the Rabbi" series by Vandelaan, so I have a clear idea of what you are talking about. I would love to have one of my students do this. Praise for my insight and how well I teach doesn't do much for me if the person doesn't sit down to learn.

  2. It is much more than praise of the person, but respecting that person as the representative of the Messiah. They bring knowledge of the Messiah, and teach in His place, as it were.