Dr Charles V. Taylor is a well known Australian linguist, Bible teacher, author, and Christian magazine contributor. His doctoral studies researched the Nkore-Kiga language of Uganda in Africa where he served as a missionary.
Can the Ethopian change his skin
or the leopard his spots?
Can the leopard change his spots? This, and the question about the Ethiopian’s skin, is found, surprisingly enough, in Jeremiah 13:23. I used to think it was in Proverbs. The text is appropriate to the subject of discipleship, because the second half of the verse says literally: ‘Can you also do good, you who are discipled to do evil?’ It seems we can be under false discipleship as well as the healthy version.
The English word ‘disciple’ comes from Latin and means a learner. The corresponding Greek New Testament word mathetes comes from manthano, ‘to learn’, so it’s the same idea. In fact, even ‘mathematics’ originally meant something learned, a science.
The Hebrew word for ‘disciple’ is found only six times in the Bible. This word, limmud, is translated in the old King James Bible as ‘taught’, ‘learned’ (twice), ‘accustomed’, fused’, and ‘disciple’. Originally it meant ‘goaded’.
Do you remember how Gideon promised to ‘teach’ the men of Succoth in Judges 8:16? He taught them with thorns and briers. They were goaded into knowledge. In some such way, may not God sometimes goad us into the knowledge of the truth?
Whether you accept that or not, the idea of being a learner is associated with ‘coming into line’, or as we also say, ‘being disciplined’. That’s why the biblical reference translates limmud as ‘accustomed’ or ‘becoming used to’. In Jeremiah 13:23 the leopard can’t change his coat. He’s grown quite used to it. True, he didn’t have to be taught, but he’s marked for life.
A Christian should be marked for life. A Christian should, without being forced, stand out in the world as somebody different. Whether some sort of badge is worn or not, the world should be able to recognize the Christian, and the Christian should attract others, not to him/herself, but to Christ.
When someone is converted to Christ, the first thing should be to say so, as Romans 10:9-10 explains. All churches worthy of the name should also offer baptism of some kind or other, and the Christian can also be distinguished by ‘going to church’, which in this mobile age is unfortunately not so universal as it used to be. The home churches are wonderful, but without cover and discipleship they can give the impression that Christians are all ‘separated by a common faith’, just as many of my linguist friends used to say that Britain and the United States are ‘separated by a common language’, referring to misunderstandings that can occur from the two sorts of English.
The outsider wants to see at least some resemblance to a united front, to submission to the Gospel, to some sort of discipline and discipleship. Isaiah 54:13 says we should all be children taught (discipled) by the Lord. Jesus said that to be converted we had to become like little children.
A process of uniting Christians
So I see discipleship as a process of uniting Christians, while not making them all identical. All leopards don’t have the same spot patterns. When I lived in Ethiopia for two years I found that all Ethiopians were not the same sort of black. And if you (rightly) tell me that ancient Ethiopia is today’s Sudan, well, the same thing holds there too. God isn’t stamping us all with an identical mould. But he does want us to be basically recognizable, and truth is one and indivisible.In Isaiah 50:4 the prophet says God gave the Servant of the Lord the tongue of the learned, that is, of the discipled. With this tongue we can sustain the weary. In Isaiah 8:16 the law must be sealed up among his disciples, which seems to mean that they alone will really know the Lord’s mind.
If this is so, may it not be that it reflects the fact that the true disciple or learner from God is able to understand spiritual things which those outside just can’t understand? Isn’t it true that when a Christian speaks of things that move him/her most, outsiders are just puzzled? That’s a sure sign that a person has been born again through the Holy Spirit. The reason for this is not that the Christian lives in a sealed case, but that, living openly in the world, the Christian is sealed ‘with that Holy Spirit of promise’ (Ephesians 1:13) and so is often a mystery to friends who are not themselves learning from Jesus.
The basic idea of a disciple is one who learns along with others. It was unusual in the ancient world to find single disciples of one leader. What is more, the disciple is not the slave of his leader. He is only a learner, following an example or following some counsel. John 15:8 indicates that discipleship with Jesus is manifested by bearing fruit, by a life modelled on the disciple’s teacher, or at least on his teaching. We bear fruit by staying in the vine.
Now if a teacher has a number of disciples, it is more likely that needs will be met. One of the benefits of preaching is that in a mixed multitude, the listener cannot usually say the speaker is directing the message at him/herself alone. For this reason, a listener, and in the same way a disciple, is more likely to take to heart what is said and imitate what is done.
You might sum up discipleship as loyalty, first to Christ and then to Christian leaders that we learn from. But, as with everything else in life, loyalty must not become inflexible, or it becomes merely a new slavery. To guard against this we should look at Galatians 4:2, where Paul is telling us about tutelage.
We shouldn’t always be learning and never coming to the truth (2 Timothy 3:7). Some people lean on others beyond the stage where they should become distinctive and free in themselves. We can get into bondage to people as well as to rules. So yes, be loyal to those who are over you in the faith, but let your first loyalty be to the unseen Jesus, manifested in the word of God.
As Paul even challenged Peter, who was before him in the faith, let’s all pull together and stand firm in the freedom in which Christ has made us free.
And of course, like-Paul, let’s do everything in love.
(c) 2011, 2nd edition. Reproduction allowed with copyright included in text.
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