We Must Exercise Care with the Labels We Use for Our Spiritual Leaders
Rabbi is a title I expected to find scattered throughout the Old Testament. It seems like a very Old Testament word. It’s not. It’s a New Testament word. Rabbi only appears in the Gospels and then just three of them: Matthew, Mark, and John.
Most of these sixteen occurrences are a title of respect used to address Jesus.
John notes that Rabbi means teacher (John 1:38). But that’s about all we can learn about this word from the biblical text.
In one of the passages that mentions Rabbi (twice), Jesus teaches the people. He talks about hypocrisy, specifically the inappropriate actions of the Pharisees and religious teachers.
As Jesus talks about their errors, he condemns them for loving the way people fawn over them with greetings of respect and addressing them as Rabbi.
Then he tells them plainly, “You shouldn’t be called Rabbi. You are all brothers and have one teacher” (Matthew 23:1-8). From this we learn to use care in addressing our spiritual teachers, especially when they expect us to demonstrate respect.
How about just using their name instead and not feed into their pride?
A third verse that uses the word Rabbi, doesn’t address Jesus but John the Baptist (John 3:26). The other thirteen times Rabbi appears in the Bible are to address Jesus. The Bible records Peter, Judas, Nathaniel, Nicodemus, a blind man, two of John’s disciples, and Jesus’s disciples addressing him as Rabbi.
Jesus Is Our Worthy Rabbi
Even though Jesus criticizes the religious elite for wanting people to address them as Rabbi and telling them not to allow it, Jesus doesn’t correct anyone who calls him Rabbi. He accepts the respect they give him—or in Judas’s case, the respect he pretends to give—and responds to their question or request.
Jesus, of course, is worthy of our respect if we call him Rabbi or teacher. He alone is our Rabbi. We can also use other labels such as Savior, Redeemer, and Healer. We can even call him friend, because that’s how he views us (John 15:15).
Jesus is our Rabbi—and our friend.
Read more in Peter’s new book, Living Water: 40 Reflections on Jesus’s Life and Love from the Gospel of John, available everywhere in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.