Discipleship Lessons from the Old Testament

Were there any examples of the kind of relationship that might be identified with NT discipleship in the OT?[i] According to Rengstorf the answer must certainly be no. He notes that the relationship between Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, the prophets and their attendants, and Jeremiah and Baruch were not teacher-disciple relationships as is sometimes thought. Rather, Joshua, Elisha, Baruch, and others who followed the prophets were “servants” of those with whom they had a relationship.[ii] In the end, Rengstorf reasons that the teacher-disciple relationship was absent in the OT because there was only one who was to be revered and whose word was to be followed, the Lord himself.

On the other hand, there are those who argue contrary to Rengstorf ’s conclusion regarding the presence of examples of discipleship in the OT. Martin Hengel was one of the first to affirm the existence of discipleship relationships in the OT. Hengel notes how Josephus describes Elisha as a disciple of Elijah. Josephus actually used the Greek word frequently used for disciple in the NT.[iii] In addition, Hengel sees the Elisha/Elijah call narrative as a clear analogy to Jesus’ own calling of his disciples.[iv] He further notes that Elijah and Elisha “are frequently used among the rabbis to exemplify the teacher-pupil relationship.”[v]

Following Hengel is Richard Calenberg, who believed there were several OT pairs that provided evidence of a pattern of discipleship.[vi] In particular, he viewed the relationship between Elisha and Elijah as the definite master-disciple model in the OT.[vii] This is due in part to the language used to describe Elisha following after Elijah. The Hebrew phrase includes the verb “to walk,” which may be used with reference to following after a teacher (cf. 1 Kgs 19:21).[viii] Michael Wilkins comes to similar conclusions, noting the OT possesses examples of master-disciple relationships among the prophets (e.g., Samuel and Elisha), the scribal guild, and in the wisdom tradition.[ix] His conclusion provides a corrective to Rengstorf, who believes the exclusion or limited occurrences of “disciple” terminology means the concept of discipleship did not exist in the OT.[x]

I tend to agree with the conclusions of Hengel, Calenberg, and Wilkins. Although the presence of what may be identified as discipleship terminology (“disciple,” “teacher,” etc.) may be lacking in the OT, it does not mean that there are not examples of what Christians identify as discipleship according to the NT. While Jesus is the teacher of every Christian (one is only a disciple of Jesus), this does not exclude the fact that God does uses others to disciple believers. As disciples of Jesus Christ, Christians are to come alongside others to help them in their discipleship with Jesus.

We see something of what this should look like in Exodus 18:13–27. Moses, as the leader of the people of Israel, saw it as his responsibility to serve as the judge of any disputes that were found among the people. While it is unlikely that Moses spent everyday resolving the conflicts that may have been among the Israelites, when he did sit in judgment over them he did so “from morning till evening” (18:13). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, saw this and rightly concluded that what Moses was doing was “not good” (18:17). If Moses kept this practice, he was in danger of wearing himself out, allowing the relationship between him and the people to become strained, and making the people solely dependent on him to arbitrate their disagreements according to God’s Word.

So Jethro advises his son-in-law to find others to train in the Word of God, so that they can resolve the disagreements of the people (18:20). The kind of people Moses was to select where “men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain” (18:21). Depending on the competency of the individual, they would be serve as judge over either a group of a thousand, a hundred, fifty, or ten. Only the most difficult cases were to be brought to Moses (18:22). Moses, with the Lord’s approval, followed his father-in-law’s wise advice (18:23–26).

Now some of you reading this will quickly conclude that this passage has everything to do with leadership development and little to do with discipleship. However, it would be a mistake to divorce leadership development from discipleship, since discipleship in the NT is applied to any number of relationships, including an established leader mentoring someone who shows promise as a leader or who is younger and serving in leadership. (For example, see Paul’s relationship with Timothy.)

The following are some principles that might be applied to those engaged in this kind of discipling relationship. First, take the time to recognize people of character who are ready to take more responsibility. Moses was selective about who he would groom to share the responsibility as judge over the people with him. He didn’t necessarily choose the most charismatic or most educated, but looked for men who had a relationship with the Lord and were trustworthy and honorable. It was this group that Moses poured himself and the Lord’s Word into.

Second, take the time to equip people before you give them responsibility. Moses made sure he taught those who were going to serve with him. This would have included the general instruction they received with the rest of the Israelites (18:20), as well as how to perform their duties as judges over the people, knowing what cases they could handle and which would need to be brought to Moses (18:22). The men selected would be responsible for administering God’s Word in the cases brought before them. In order for them to do this they would both have to know God’s Word and be able to apply it to any given situation.

Third, let those you have equipped serve. Some leaders and disciple makers make the mistake of equipping others, but never given them an opportunity to serve or disciple others. Certainly, if someone is not ready, they should not be given greater responsibility. However, if they are ready, if they have been fully trained for a role and have shown the competence to fulfill that role, then they should be released to function in that role. Remember, those who are trained are to “share” the load with you, not to observe from the sidelines (18:22).

Finally, make sure the responsibility is commensurate with the person’s competencies. The responsibility of each judge was not equal, although his role was. Some were entrusted with a thousand, others a hundred, still others fifty, and finally some ten. People have different competencies. While every Christian is called to be a disciple maker, which includes a teaching function, not everyone will teach with the same influence or level of authority. Some will be able to lead a small group Bible study, while others will be able to teach the larger gathered assembly of believers. Know who you have and use them proportionate with their abilities and gifts.

Who among you is ready to be poured into? What are you doing to recognize those who will help you shoulder the load? Are you making a disciple of someone so they in turn can make a disciple of someone else? Are you personally prepared and trained so that you might train others?


[i] The first three paragraphs are adapted from Marriner, Following the Lamb, 28–29.

[ii] Rengstorf, mathētēs, 427–430.

[iii] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 8.354.

[iv] Hengel, The Charismatic Leader, 16–17.

[v] Ibid., 17

[vi] Calenberg, “New Testament Doctrine of Discipleship,” 51–63.

[vii] Ibid., 60.

[viii] Ibid., 50.

[ix] Wilkins, Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel, 90–91.

[x] Ibid., 218.

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