It may be the most classic recurrent gag in screen history. One character asks another for directions. The second character helpfully responds, “Walk this way,” and starts leading. The first character obligingly mimics his guide’s weird manner of walking.
Imitation is at the core of discipleship. If we are disciples of Yeshua, then we should copy him. Our Master himself said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Paul told the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
As everyone ought to know, Yeshua was an observant Jew. Like other observant Jews at the time, he would have followed the Torah’s dietary laws, such as those found in Leviticus 11. He would have refrained from work on the Sabbath. Tzitzit would have adorned his four-cornered cloak, and he certainly would not have worn the combination of wool and linen.
Yeshua’s original disciples were also Jews. But when Gentile disciples entered the picture, the apostles considered the possibility that they would need to become Torah-observant Jews as well:
Some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. (Acts 15:5-6)
The apostles would already have understood that some commandments apply to all humanity. For example, God instructed Noah that societies must hold murderers accountable (Genesis 9:6). But should Gentile followers of Yeshua keep special laws given to the Jewish people, such as wearing tzitzit?
The apostles concluded that Gentiles do not need to become like Jews. Rather, when Gentiles turn to God as members of their own nation and tribe, it fulfills messianic prophecy. They issued a clear ruling that imposed only a minimal set of additional rules on Gentile disciples:
It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29)
The apostles’ ruling creates a conundrum, however. How can Gentile disciples imitate their Jewish Master without living as a Jew? To answer this, we must realize what it means to walk as he walked.
Paul was already an observant Jew before he was called into discipleship. He kept kosher and observed the Sabbath. His clothes bore tzitzit and were not made of combined wool and linen. If he did these things before knowing Yeshua, in what ways did he imitate his Master? What about his life changed due to his encounter with the risen Messiah?
Acts 5:14 speaks of the many Jewish women who became disciples. Even though Yeshua is male, surely they did not begin to observe the Torah as if they were men like him. How did these women apply their responsibility to imitate their Master?
Acts 6:7 tells us that many priests also became disciples. The Torah lays several obligations on descendants of Aaron that do not apply to others. Surely they did not begin neglecting their priestly duties in imitation of Yeshua. What then did discipleship add to their lives?
Yeshua’s obligation to the Torah is based on the circumstances of his birth. As an adult male who is Jewish but not a Levite or descendant of Aaron, he shares his set of Torah obligations with everyone else in that demographic. To mechanically adopt those responsibilities as a Jewish male would be missing the point of what it means to imitate him. It would be like limping because someone told you to “walk this way.”
Imitating Yeshua, as a disciple, means evaluating the principles that guided his choices. It means discovering and applying his values, his priorities, his goals, and his purposes. As disciples, we are to focus on the issues he spoke about and the message that impassioned him, rather than the incidental circumstances he was in. Like every person, he was handed a certain set of obligations—but what did he do with those obligations?
For example, we know that he was fully observant of dietary laws in a manner that was normative for observant Jews in his society. On the other hand, we have no evidence that he had strong opinions about the details of dietary law. On topics ancillary to dietary law, such as ritual purity and tithing, he expressed the firm opinion that one must not use those external observances as a pretext for hatred or a diversion from our duty to love. This is a principle for all disciples to apply.
Yeshua observed the commandments in the Torah. He also issued commandments to his disciples; that’s what makes him our Master. He commanded us to give without seeking repayment, pray persistently, and lay down our lives for one another. Yeshua’s “word”—an idiomatic term meaning his message to the world—was that all should repent in anticipation of the coming kingdom. Commandments such as these are what John meant when he wrote:
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:4-6)