A Comment from Doug: In this article I tried to take a passage from the Bible and show what an amazing message it has for all of us today regardless of your faith, especially when we truly understand the message based upon the context and culture of first century Judaism. Since I wrote it originally I have edited it to better reflect where I now find myself spiritually.
I Choose You!
John 15:15-17 “No longer do I call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, because all that I have heard from the Father I have made known to you. It is not you who chose me, but it is I who chose you and appointed you that you might go and be fruitful and that your fruit might remain; so that whatever petition you present to the Father in my name He may give you. Thus I command you to love one another.”
The Set Up
From the days He walked the earth until now there has been great debate over who Jesus was. Setting aside the many facets of that debate for the moment, in this article I would like to focus on the fact that He was a first century Jewish rabbi/teacher who taught universal truths within the context of the first century Jewish world. Join me as we journey back 2000 years in history to discover an amazing truth that is just as relevant today as it was back then. Once we understand the context and culture that pertains to this passage, the universal truth within it will open up for us in a wonderful way.
The Context and Culture
Sea of Galilee
Imagine that you were born to Jewish parents in a small town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee early in the first century. When you reached the age of about 5 or 6, it was time for your formal education to begin. Today we send young children to kindergarten or even junior kindergarten in elementary schools to begin their formal education. Prior to heading off to school, Dr. Seuss, Thomas the Tank Engine, Sesame Street, Dora, Wiggles, Backyardians, Veggie Tales and many, many more books, TV shows, DVDs etc. contribute to a child’s early educational experiences. We do have a slight problem with all of this back on the shores of Galilee in the first century. We haven’t got books as we know them today so heading to our local bookstore isn’t going to do us much good. In addition, since we have no electricity available, our TVs, DVDs etc. are collecting dust. So how are we educating our children in Nazareth or Capernaum?
Instead of attending “JK” or watching some video or reading a book, our children are heading to Bet Sefer for their education. Bet Sefer means House of the Book. It seems that our kids are going to a local synagogue or perhaps the home of a teacher/rabbi to be taught. For the most part, their textbook will be the Bible, the Old Testament then, and particularly, the Torah, which is made up of the first five books of the Bible.
Here are a couple of descriptions that will help us understand Bet Sefer. The descriptions of Bet Sefer, Bet Midrash and Bet Talmud all came from http://www.khouse.org/ .
The importance of Bet Sefer in the Jewish world today came from the following web site: http://www.tbiredding.org/BetSefer.htm
Bet Sefer “For Jews living in Jesus’ day, there were three separate educational venues. The first was called Bet Sefer. At the ages of six through twelve, Jewish children began their formal education. Both boys and girls attended synagogue school and learned to read and write. The textbook was the Torah and the goal was not just to read but to memorize the sacred text. Can you imagine what this would look like? As a child of six you would go to the synagogue and the most respected man in the city would greet you with a slate and he would put a dollop of honey on the slate and then he would remove the ancient scroll of the Torah. As you sat speechless and in awe, the rabbi would have you taste the honey on your slate and tell you that the Torah is sweeter than the honeycomb (see Psalm 19:10).”
Can you imagine the impact this would have on a young child? You can bet that whenever that child tasted honey he was always reminded of the Torah! Now at the conclusion of this, a bar mitzvah for the boy welcomed him into the community as a full-fledged male member. Following this sacred milestone, usually the boy began to learn the family trade. Only the best of the best continued on in their education.”
Now here is the quote describing why participation in the Bet Sefer is viewed to be so important today for Jewish families.
“By participating in Bet Sefer we will have the opportunity to help your child develop a positive Jewish identity. Children will be part of a caring, supportive community and given the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat, holidays and life cycle events together. We will explore our connection to God and Torah and their relevance to our lives. The meaning of tikkum olam (repairing the world) will be made relevant through the observance of mitzvot. Jewish qualities will be emphasized as reflected in Torah study, including courtesy, honesty, integrity, truthfulness, inner beauty, a feeling of wholeness, courage, kindness, patience, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility. Children will become familiar with prayers and rituals and be given the opportunity to participate in services. They will also become culturally literate through the study of Jewish music, dance, art, cooking and history, including the role of Judaism in world history.” (end of quote)
Today when children reach the age of 13 or so, they leave elementary school and head to high school. Unlike today when both girls and boys move on to higher education, in first century Judaism higher education was for the boys alone. However, it wasn’t for all boys. Only the boys who showed a flair for scriptural study would continue their formal education. The huge majority of boys would now focus on learning the family trade from their father.
Bet Midrash “For the best of the best, the next educational opportunity was called Bet Midrash. Boys - from age 13 to 15 - who were deemed worthy to continue their educational pursuits went on to study (and memorize) the entire Tanach (Old Testament), as well as learning the family trade. (It is noteworthy that few, if any, of Jesus’ disciples made it this far in their educational training.) Very few were selected for this pursuit.”
Just as some of our young people go on to college and university, there was one more level for the first century Jewish young men as well. It is this level that we really want to focus on.
Bet Talmud “Of those who finished Bet Midrash, again only the best of the best were able to pursue the final educational leg, which was called Bet Talmud. This was the longest in duration; it went from the age of 15 to 30. To participate, he must be invited by a Rabbi and, if selected, he would begin a process of grooming that would lead to the potential of becoming a Rabbi at age 30. Those who were chosen were referred to as talmidim. They would literally follow in the dust of their rabbi - desiring to emulate him in all of his mannerisms. They would eat the same food in exactly the same way as their rabbi. They would go to sleep and awake the same way as their rabbi and, more importantly, they would learn to study Torah and understand God the exact same way as their rabbi.”
It is important to note that to participate at this level of study one had to be invited by a Rabbi and if one was chosen, he was called a talmid (plural is talmadim). You may not be familiar with that term but are familiar with its English equivalent, disciple. Being a disciple is a whole lot more than agreeing to a certain set of beliefs or doctrine. It is a way of life.
Imagine you are 15 years old living in Galilee. You have shown potential and you want to continue your studies with the hopes of becoming a rabbi. Perhaps you even approach a rabbi or two to see if they are interested in you. It is very much like students today sending off applications to various colleges and universities, hoping that one or more will accept them.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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.” Matthew 11:28-30
If a rabbi was interested in you becoming one of his disciples, there is a phrase or idiom that would become very important to you. If you were to become his disciple, you would be agreeing to take upon yourself the “yoke” of the rabbi. The “yoke” would be his teachings, lifestyle, etc. We think of a yoke as being burdensome but it does not have to be. Jesus makes it clear that his yoke is not difficult or heavy according to Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus was telling all those who would consider being one of his disciples that his teachings and his ways were not a burden or onerous but instead following his lifestyle and teachings made life easy and light.
To make his decision, a rabbi would question you. He would seek to determine your scriptural knowledge. He would question you regarding the sages and the prophets and dig into your interpretation of the Scriptures and various laws. Ultimately the rabbi would be seeking to answer just one question. That is....
Can this potential disciple, really become just like me, or putting it another way, can this potential talmid become a mirror image of me?
Breaking that down, the rabbi was trying to determine if you could a) learn all of his teachings b) learn to think and act as he acted and c) could you then spread his “yoke” to others.
If after his questioning, the rabbi felt that you didn’t have what it would take to be one of his disciples, he would encourage you to go home and continue to learn the family trade or business. A rabbi wasn’t going to spend his valuable time training someone that he didn’t think could be successful. If however, he felt that you did possess the potential to become one of his disciples, he would say to you “Come and follow me,” a phrase that we see Jesus use in the gospels.
With that context, consider the following. Peter, Andrew, James and John are fishing when Jesus called them to “come and follow Him.” We aren’t told the occupations of all twelve disciples but there is nothing to suggest that these were the top students from the graduating class of Jerusalem Theological Seminary. Matthew, for example, was a tax collector. In calling the twelve, Jesus was calling those who apparently weren’t viewed as rabbinical candidates and instead were back working in the business and economic world. Bluntly, it would appear that Jesus was settling for the rejects, those that the other rabbis had already turned down and that raised the question --- Whose assessment was accurate or is it possible that both assessments were correct.
If you were a rabbi looking for men to become part of the current religious system of that time, these men were definitely not your first choices. If you were looking through human eyes and considering natural abilities, they didn’t measure up. But Jesus wasn’t making His choice based on natural human reasoning. He wasn’t making his decision based upon the natural abilities of any of those men. His choices were made using much different criteria. He saw the potential that exists within all humanity. He knew that what was inside Him was inside those men as well. Jesus knew that God, the Source and Father/Mother of All dwelt not only in Him but in those men as well. They just needed to discover it. He knew that within all of mankind lurks the ability to tap into God, into the universal Spirit that permeates the universe and when that occurs, all things are possible. Jesus also knew that He wasn’t looking for men to be part of the religious system of that time. God, through Jesus, was looking for men to rise up and challenge the religious and political system of that day. Perhaps, we ought to consider the possibility that nothing has changed.
Today we often hear people talking about a gospel in which people need to accept Jesus, a statement that I would suggest is totally opposite to the truth. I would suggest to you that the real gospel is the good news that God totally accepts you, just as you are. The gospel is that God truly does love all of humanity unconditionally and wants every single person to prosper in body, soul and spirit. The gospel that needs to be shared with the world is that we are one with God and one with each other. It is definitely a message of reconciliation between God and humanity but the problem throughout the centuries has never been from God’s perspective but from our individual and collective perspectives. Consider once again the words of Jesus in John 15 that He said were straight from the Father.
John 15:16 “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.”
Take the time to truly meditate on those words and see them spoken by God through Jesus. Paraphrasing it, I believe God is saying to all of humanity...
“You are here because I wanted you here. I have chosen that you be here and it is my desire for you to live a life of abundance and fruitfulness. I want you to live a life that impacts this entire universe eternally. If you will seek from Me the things that Jesus taught and live as He did, I will give to you whatever you ask without question!”
(God speaking to me and you.)
Two chapters later in John 17, Jesus tells all of us that the oneness that He experienced with God is also to be our experience. In fact, not only are we to experience that oneness with God but with each other as well. It is not that we are not now one but we do not know it yet. For most of us, the experience of oneness with God and each other is a truth that is is not yet a reality experienced in our lives but with every day that passes this experience will be true for more and more of humanity.
In Jesus, God is telling all of mankind that He has chosen each and every one of us to be his “talmidim,” i.e His disciples. The problem is --- most of us don’t know it or we don’t believe it or we have been taught such a warped view of God by our religious leaders that we end up being a curse more than a blessing. In far too many cases, religion has been a yoke of bondage and burden, weighing people down instead of setting them free. In the guise of religion and God throughout most of our history, we have oppressed and even murdered people who don’t embrace our version of God.
Jesus was bold enough to say “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus wasn’t promoting any particular religion. Instead He was living out a dynamic relationship with God. He was promoting a lifestyle that produced love, joy and peace in each and every individual who embraced his teachings. In other words, if you want to know how God would think and act as a human being, look at me. As amazing as that statement may be, I find it even more amazing that He says the same thing about his disciples and in fact he is saying that within every human being is the potential for the words “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” to be true.
God, through Jesus, was telling us that He was absolutely confident that we could become His image and He was also confident that we could go out and change the world, helping people achieve the same state of awareness and consciousness that He experienced. Ultimately this will be a reality for mankind collectively because God is the source for all of mankind and if we come from Him, we will end up like Him because like begets like. It may take awhile and it may not look like we are progressing but we are. Humanity may be crawling along like a caterpillar or sleeping away in some unconscious state in a cocoon but eventually the butterfly is going to emerge.
I would like to quote Rob Bell, pastor or Mars Hill Church in Michigan. The quote is in no way intended to imply that Rob Bell would agree with this article or anything on this web site. In Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, we read the following.
The entire rabbinical system was based upon the rabbi having faith in his disciples.
Let’s spend some time here because the implications of this truth are astounding. A rabbi would only pick a disciple who he thought could actually do what he was doing. Notice how many places in the accounts of Jesus’ life that he gets frustrated with his disciples. Because they are incapable? No, because of how capable they are. He sees what they could be and could do, and when they fall short, it provokes him to no end. It isn’t their failure that is the problem; it is their greatness. They don’t realize what they are capable of.
So at the end of his time with his disciples, Jesus has some final words for them. He tells them to go to the ends of the earth and make more disciples. And then he leaves. He promises to send His Spirit to guide them and give them power, but Jesus himself leaves the future of the movement in their hands. And he doesn’t stick around to make sure they don’t screw it up.
He’s gone. He trusts that they can actually do it.
God has an incredibly high view of people.
God believes that people are capable of amazing things.
I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus, which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me.
I have been told that I need to have faith in God, which is a good thing.
But what I am learning is that God has faith in me.
The Rabbi thinks that we can be like him.!
Isn’t that an amazing thing because according to Jesus, to be like Him, is to be like God? When I look in the mirror some days, it is hard to believe that this could be true. The key for me is to remember that disciples don’t choose their rabbi, the rabbi chooses the disciple. The ultimate rabbi is God and He chose every human being to be here. The apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 1:6 that when God begins a good work, He will bring it to pass. In Ephesians, Paul says we are the workmanship of God. Putting it another way that is very familiar to many, God is the potter and we are the clay. As Eckhart Tolle put it, God is the dancer and we are the dance.
We are not here by accident. We are not here by chance. God, the source of all that is in this universe, chose us to be here. From out of God’s infinite self, we have manifested into existence and He is now in the business of bringing us to the awareness of who we are. Truly all of creation is waiting for the manifestation of the sons and daughters of God. Although we are not God in His infiniteness and totality, we are definitely a part of God so when the sons and daughters of God appear, they will be able to say as Jesus said....
“If you have seen me, you have seen God!”
Blessings, shalom, namaste