I see two immediate implications from the Old Testament and inter-biblical Judaism for our consideration of discipleship. The first of these is the lay emphasis that emerged in Judaism during the inter-biblical period. This emphasis was based in the synagogue, was primarily lay-led, had a strong emphasis on Scripture, and espoused a piety that tended toward Pharisaism.
The emergence of the synagogue during the Hellenistic period with its Greek name and its Diaspora setting illustrates a culture under attack. The devastation wrecked on Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews by the Assyrians and the Babylonians stripped Judaism of its essential core. The land, the family, the Temple, the monarchy, and the priesthood all suffered; and the roles of these institutions in maintaining the core identity of the People of God also suffered. Those scattered and dispersed among pagan populations had to adjust to their new settings and to the challenges of maintaining faith in the Lord, who seemed to have abandoned the Chosen People.
The synagogue became an enclave for the Jews in the midst of foreign peoples, but even in Palestine it had its place for a people under the control of the descendants of Alexander the Great and ultimately of the Romans. Powerless in the face of heathen governments and overwhelmed by the influx first of the Greek language and culture and then by Roman power and institutions, Judaism was under the constant constraint of its political powerlessness and the persistent threat of syncretistic influences from pagan religions and the irreligiousness of many of their dominators.
Maintaining fidelity to Israel’s core values (covenant, family, Scripture, piety, worship) became the mandate of the synagogues. Only ten adult males were required for a synagogue to form; and these small, close-knit, insular communities became the core of Judaism, especially in locales far from the Temple in Jerusalem. In a sense, the synagogues became the schools where Judaism was practiced and perpetuated. In many ways, the children of the synagogue members were discipled by their parents and other lay leaders in the synagogue. They were taught the Hebrew Scriptures, the commands of the covenant, the laws of the Torah, the prayers and rituals of worship—all in the context of their long history as the people of God.
Much of what we call “church” today follows the pattern of the synagogue. We sense our increasingly pagan culture, and we see its devastating influence on our children and grandchildren. Our tendency is to make the church an enclave, a fortress, a rampart that protects us from the corroding influences around us and protects our values. If this is the discipleship we adopt intentionally or by default, we will fall far short of what Jesus initiated and what he intended for his followers.