Jews prior to Jesus’ time were God’s chosen people, and salvation came to them similarly as it does to us Christians today. They understood that through the seed of Eve one would come and kill the serpent, Satan, and would reconcile all things through himself back to God. His heel would be bruised in the process, but he would ultimately triumph. The Jews who believed in this coming Messiah, and the saving redemption he was to usher in, were indeed saved. As in, eternally with God in heaven forever. Those who solely based their faith system on the works of the law, however, were not. The law simply shows us how inept we are at holiness, and should direct us towards the realization of our need for a savior. But many times it simply makes us feel self righteous, and we can lose sight of true holiness in the relativity of the world of chaos around us. So, although God’s chosen people, it doesn’t make them perfect, it makes them an example. The bearers of God’s light in a dark world. In Deuteronomy 6, God’s command came through his mouthpiece, Moses, and declared:
“”Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV
This is called the Shema (pronounced shuh-ma, more here: http://bradflack.com/2017/07/06/shema/) and comprised the physical manifestation of how to live your life on the outside because of the true hope in the coming messiah. Or in other words, the outward works that express your inner beliefs…not the works that comprised your beliefs. And as such, because God uses the Word to initiate so much love and communication with his people, his very words in the Torah would be treasured like love letters from your high school boy/girlfriend. Their devotion to pour over every sentence, break down each word meant that they were all very biblically literate, even if this was orally and not in actual literacy. Furthermore, there were men who would be blessed with extending the understanding and application of the Torah, our modern day Old Testament. These would become teachers. The term rabbi really means master, and it wasn’t until around Jesus’ time or even after that rabbi came to mean great Torah teacher. In any case, the rabbi’s would travel from synagogue to synagogue, reading the scrolls and teaching their understanding of each passage. Starting at grade school, children began the Mishnah, or repetitive reading and learning of the Torah. By middle school many would have whole chapters and books of the Old Testament memorized. Then some would continue on to the Beth Midrash. This is the equivalent of high school biblical training. Beyond this point, very few trained in earnest. If someone desired to do so, they would approach a rabbi and request permission to become a talmid, or disciple. This request was not always granted as the master had the authority to chose who would follow him and who was not worthy. Once accepted, the talmid would follow the rabbi from 1-3 years, learning every day and gaining great knowledge and application. At the end of this time, the talmid would return home and teach in his hometown synagogue on the sabbath, otherwise working all week. Or, in the rarest of cases, the talmid would become a master himself and gather around him his own talmidim and begin the process all over again with the next generation of young men…and very very rarely, women.
Jesus was called rabbi when he began his public ministry at 30 years old. And we see him with a talmidim around him for 3 years. What we don’t know for sure is did he study under a rabbi prior to this, and did he claim to be a rabbi by his actions or were his teachings enough for people to jump to conclusions that he was a rabbi. With that being said, another huge insight into why Jesus’s talmidim was different was because Jesus qualified the called, he did not simply accept the qualified. This was an almost complete reversal of the rabbinical system. And it holds great importance for us today.
Jesus came to show us the way. His example tells us that even those who didn’t make it in their culture’s tradition to the spiritual height of talmid or rabbi, through Him they would be made worthy to be called. This means that all who identify with Jesus’s death on the cross, and his subsequent rise from the grave and then his ascension into the right hand of the Father means we too have a hope. We may not be the smartest, the most biblical scholars, the strongest, the fastest or the most physically fit. But man looks on the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. And he is seeking those who would worship him in spirit and in truth, and take up their cross and follow Him daily. And to go out and call others into the talmidim so that they too can become like Christ.