HEAR A LOT OF TALK THESE DAYS ABOUT discipleship. It seems to be the latest buzzword in our ecclesiastical vocabulary. But what does it really mean? And how can I become a disciple 2,000 years after the Master has gone away? Is this just a fad? Or is it an important biblical theme? What are the implications of becoming Christ?s disciple?
My dictionary defines a disciple as ?one who embraces and assists in spreading the teachings of another.? Jesus began His earthly ministry by inviting people to ?follow? Him (Matt. 4:19). He concluded His task by commissioning His followers to ?go and make disciples of all nations? (Matt. 28:19). And just what did He mean? Disciple making involves ?teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you? (verse 20). That?s a taller order than many of us may fully recognize.
Few of us today grasp how truly radical Jesus? teachings are. Somewhere along the line they?ve been robbed of their startling character. They?ve been downgraded to a level just above anemic. In this diminished form, Christ?s teachings neither grip our imaginations nor make life-altering demands. That needs to change.
Aristotle said that those who would find the right answer must first ask the right question. And those questions come in a hierarchy of increasing significance. At the basic level, we ask questions. That?s good. At the next level, we question the answers. That?s even better. At the most productive level, we question the question. Jesus operated at all three levels. But, as a true radical, He specialized in getting to the root of the matter. He was the master of questioning the question. And His conclusions shattered nearly every norm of His day--and ours.
Repeatedly Jesus took established wisdom and turned it on its head. His teaching was, to use a popular expression, counterintuitive--it went against what our reason, our senses, our training, our heritage tell us is the way things should be done. Jesus advocated what some have called ?reverse living.? He maintained that being other-directed rather than self-centered actually works to one?s advantage--even in the here and now. He argued that a heavenly focus brings earthly fulfillment. He advocated passivity when aggression would seem more effective. He called for forgiveness in situations that seem ripe for retribution. He held out greater hope for the spiritually broken than for those who epitomized spiritual success.
In Jesus? day there was definitely an ?in crowd? and an ?out crowd.? Every devout Jewish male began his day with a prayer in which he thanked God that he hadn?t been born a slave, a Gentile, or a woman. The only thing worse than these three categories of outcasts were the ?designated sinner? classes--tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and others beset by adversity. Yet Jesus went out of His way to interact with such social-spiritual rejects, declaring that many of them would get into God?s kingdom before the spiritually smug (Matt. 21:32).
When the angels announced the birth of the Messiah, they said they were bringing ?good news of great joy that will be for all the people? (Luke 2:10). None were left out. Not on the basis of sex. Not on the basis of ethnic origin. Not material possessions. Not social standing. Jesus? message and mission were for all humans.
Years later Jesus set the tone for His redemptive mission by standing up in the synagogue in Nazareth and reading from the scroll of Isaiah: ??The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord?s favor?? (Luke 4:18, 19). His mission definitely was great news for the downtrodden, but it didn?t mesh with the vision most of Christ?s hearers cherished concerning a coming Messiah who would be a conquering king and an avenging warrior.
Not only did Jesus announce His mission by citing an unexpected and startling spiritual mandate; so did one of His biographers. In establishing Jesus? bona fides, Matthew--himself called by Jesus to be a disciple despite his tax-collector, spiritual-reject status--provides the traditional genealogy. Ah, but Matthew?s list (Matt. 1:2-6) includes a twist. Instead of listing only the names of the male forebears, as custom called for, Matthew includes the names of four women. But more startling still, the four he chooses to feature were each associated with a scandal of major proportions.
The Canaanite Tamar (a Gentile) seduced her father-in-law, Judah. The Canaanite Rahab (a Gentile) was a prostitute. The Moabite Ruth (a Gentile) was a descendant of Lot?s incestuous relationship with one of his daughters. And Bathsheba (who was married to a Gentile and may well have been a Gentile herself) became illicitly involved with King David, culminating in her husband?s murder. So why did Matthew include these sinful Gentile women? Because he wanted to make the point immediately and emphatically that, because of Jesus, it?s no longer business as usual. The old norms are shattered. New paradigms have taken their place. Doors once closed have been flung wide open.
Jesus didn?t come to join Jerusalem?s spiritual self-congratulation society. He came to help those in dire need: ?For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost? (Luke 19:10). ?It is not the healthy who need a doctor,? He said, ?but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners? (Mark 2:17). And He assured His listeners that He really meant it when He extended His invitation for salvation, stating that ?whoever comes to me, I will never drive away? (John 6:37). None were excluded by Jesus, and none can be excluded by any true disciple of Jesus.
Actions and Thoughts
If we?re to be disciples of Jesus, emulating His example, we must understand that our moral obligation goes far beyond mere actions. It includes our thoughts, our motives. Repeatedly people contrast the seeming harshness of the Old Testament with the grace of the New Testament. And certainly both the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul emphasize grace. How-ever, Christ?s sermon on the mount is anything but a license to sin. He put teeth into moral expectation such as His listeners had never before encountered. By comparison to what He called for, the demands of the Old Testament were mere child?s play.
Repeatedly Christ said, ?You have heard that it was said . . . ,? referring to some command given through Moses. And repeatedly He went on to say, ?But I tell you . . .? He would move the command from an observable, overt behavior to something going on in the mind and heart. It?s not good enough simply not to commit murder. If you harbor hatred, you?re still guilty of breaking the no-murder commandment. It?s not good enough simply not to commit adultery. If you entertain the thought of how enjoyable adultery might be, you?re already a lawbreaker.
Moses had been directed by God to make numerous rules about revenge. Seen from today?s perspective, they seem harsh: ?If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth? (Lev. 24:19, 20). In reality, Moses reined in revenge. He limited it to simple parity. No longer was death inflicted as payment for mere injury. If Moses? rules seem harsh from our perspective, Jesus? rules seem naïve, impractical, over the top, maybe even absurd--but definitely demanding!
?You have heard that it was said, ?Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,?? Jesus said to His listeners. ?But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles? (Matt. 5:38-41).
Was Jesus engaging in hyperbole? Or was He expecting to be taken seriously? Granted, His response to those who later crucified Him--?Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing? (Luke 23:34)--it seems He really meant what He said. And if He did, true discipleship calls for a similar response. The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most radical social-spiritual treatise ever recorded, yet it provides the marching orders for all who accept the challenge to be a disciple of Jesus. Agreeing to follow Jesus is a step that shouldn?t be taken without a clear understanding of the far-reaching implications.
One of the biggest risks facing any collection of humanity--governments, churches, corporations--is that they?ll lose sight of the fact that they exist to meet the needs of people. Invariably the system eventually overshadows the real reason for the organization?s existence. When that happens, people are victimized by the system rather than aided by it. Jesus was clearly for the little guy, the underdog, the down-and-outer, the individual.
The most violent act recorded about Jesus was when He walked into the temple courtyard and saw the powerful taking advantage of the powerless for their own gain. The Bible says (John 2:15, 16): ?He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ?Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father?s house into a market!?? Jesus openly cast His lot with those in need.
When a woman caught in the very act of adultery was unceremoniously dragged before Him, Jesus could have sided with the rules and regulations of the system. He didn?t. From His perspective, people were what counted. And even the most guilt-ridden could sense where His loyalties lay. When Jesus told the adulterous woman to go and ?leave [her] life of sin? (John 8:11), she had no question about His attitude toward adultery. But His earlier words--?neither do I condemn you?--left no question about His love, His concern, and His willingness and ability to forgive.
Jesus recognized the benefit of rules. They definitely have a role to play. But He understood that rules can become cold and impersonal. When rules begin to make life less fulfilling, they need to be reevaluated. When, for example, the rules about the Sabbath led people to believe that healing of grievous maladies during the sacred hours was unacceptable, Jesus refused to go along. ?The Sabbath was made for man,? He said, ?not man for the Sabbath? (Mark 2:27). And being a true disciple of Christ means that we too must have a similarly broad perspective of what really counts.
Gospel of Grace
People came to Jesus with heavy burdens of guilt. Justly deserved guilt. Yet He gave them hope. Jesus understood the gospel of grace. He didn?t say that God loved the world so much that all who could get their act together would be saved. No, He said that ?God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life? (John 3:16). He went on to say that ?God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? (verse 17).
While in the minds of many the apostle Paul?s name is most frequently associated with the concept of grace, Jesus was its designer. Paul understood this clearly, for he said: ?This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel? (2 Tim. 1:9, 10). When the works-oriented crowds asked Jesus, ?What must we do to do the works God requires?? He answered, ?The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent? (John 6:28, 29).
Jesus understood that salvation isn?t based on performance. It?s a gift of God, appropriated by faith. ?I tell you the truth,? He said, ?whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life? (John 5:24). To a repentant thief on the verge of death He could give unqualified assurance: ?I tell you the truth,? He said, ?today you will be with me in paradise? (Luke 23:43).
Scratching the Surface
Disciples of Jesus must seek to think and act as radically as He did. They must reach out to all people. They must understand that moral expectations go far deeper than mere actions. They must recognize that people--not systems--are what count. They must acknowledge deep within their souls that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and that salvation is always a gift--never earned (Rom. 3:23, 24). But accepting all this still doesn?t scratch the surface of what Jesus was, what He taught, and what He did. As one of His biographers states: ?Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written? (John 21:25).
In a conversation (prayer) between Jesus and God about those who accept the challenge to be His disciples, Jesus said, ?As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world? (John 17:18). How was Jesus sent? ?The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us? (John 1:14). In Christ?s case, divinity had to be merged with humanity through a divinely overseen birth so that the world might understand the true character of God. And what does Christ?s sending of us entail? We too must allow the Word to become flesh. We too must be transformed in a manner so radical that it can only be described as being ?born again? (John 3:3). In our case, humanity has to be merged with divinity through a divinely overseen rebirth so that the world around us might understand the true nature and power of God.
That?s what discipleship is all about.
James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods church in Longwood, Florida, and director of Global Mission?s Center for Secular/Postmodern Mission.