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 Following Jesus Knowing Christ

Engaging the Intimate Relational Process

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  Chapter 6      The Relationship of Following




Clarifying the Terms

Clarifying What We Follow

Contingencies and Conflicts

Disciple to Friend to Family

Serving Is Not Our Vocation

How Relational Consequences and Outcomes Happen

Relational Responsibilities, Not Contingencies


Study guide for chap. 6










Study Guide & Growth Plan


Table of Contents

Chapter Summaries

Scripture Index


Whoever serves me must follow me

John 12:26


Too bad we don't have the narratives for the rest of Peter's transformation. Peter's epistles reflect the transformation as one in whom grace prevailed (1 Pet 1:3; 5:5b-7; 2 Pet 1:9) and from whom love emerged (1 Pet 1:22; 4:8-10; 2 Pet 1:5-8). God certainly fulfilled his desires for Peter's life; and Peter served and glorified God. He must have "made every effort" in the relational work facing him. We can be encouraged that Peter, the main representative of the first disciples, had so much difficulty in his relationship with Christ and with transformation as we do. But more than that, we have to learn from Peter's difficulties in order to more intimately follow Christ. The imperative Jesus gave to him, "Follow me" (Jn 21:19,22), is for all of us--concentrate on being with him and devote our total person to our relationship.

In any examination of the person and words of Jesus, we will always be faced with his words "Follow me." "To follow" (Gk. akoloutheo) means to accompany, go with. To follow Christ involves ongoing fellowship (intimate connection) with him, not occasional and temporary following. It is more than selective involvement and beyond situational but engages an intimate relationship, not just for the sake of learning as a student from his teacher--e.g., as the successful young guy did (Mk 10:17ff). The relational process of this fellowship is characterized by intimate trust, not by deeds, by sharing together in intimate relationship, not in activities. This is the fundamental way Jesus wants us to relate to him and the working paradigm by which to be involved with him.

These are words from Jesus that tend to make us uncomfortable.

Being his disciple was not for a select few. It is the top priority for all of us in relationship with Christ. Discipleship, in its rigorous process, is what our earthly life is about. These are words from Jesus that tend to make us uncomfortable--whether we correctly perceive them or not. Whenever his words do, we often interpret them on our terms or selectively ignore them. That's why it's vital for us to address these words now; the further development and quality of our relationship with Christ depend on it.

Obviously, Peter learned that God didn't define him by what he did or had. We should be thankful God doesn't define any of us in those terms either. If he did, who but those in the top tier, if anyone, would measure up. It's not that God doesn't consider what we do or have, particularly in our response to him; but that's not his priority in how he sees us, that's not what's important to him. The psalmist described God as one whose pleasure is not in what we have, nor whose delight is in what we can do (Ps 147:10). God's strong attraction is not for something but for someone, that is, relationally for me. The Lord is pleased with, takes pleasure and delight in those who intimately trust him and who live by his grace (v.11). We have to embrace this truth in our heart and ongoingly counter any lies which creep into our practice. A Christian occupational hazard is to look at our response to God from the perspective of our deeds, the roles we serve and titles or spiritual gifts we have. That is, we conceive our Christian identity from the outer parts of us to the inner, rather than from the inside first.



Clarifying the Terms

This outer-to-inner approach also impedes the progress of our transformation. By focusing on secondary areas, the primary areas may not get attended to. For example, we may work on changes in how we present ourselves or in what we're doing, and not work on areas in our heart as more important. A further relational consequence of this approach is defining "Follow me" on our terms rather than Jesus'. Christians have various ideas of the meaning of following Christ. Even when discipleship is the objective today, its focus is often unclear and would receive mixed reviews by Jesus.

We already discussed one type of follower (in Jn 6:14-27). When these "followers" inquired how they could essentially be worthy of the more (v.28), Jesus told them that only one thing is important to God: the relational work of intimate trust (v.29). Later, he told them that his flesh was the bread of life and they had to eat it and drink his blood to be his disciple (vv.48-58). After hearing this, many of his disciples no longer followed him (vv.60,66). What was their point of conflict with Jesus, what was the issue? It certainly wasn't cannibalism, which they seemed to imply (v.52). The metaphor of bread involves intimate relational connection with God--a connection modeled from the relationship between the Father and Son (v.57). The reason that his flesh and blood were tough words to swallow (v.60) was because to "eat" them meant transformation. They might have been willing to make outer changes to follow Jesus but changing from the inside out was another issue. They wanted the more on their terms. Jesus confronted them in their comfort zone and stipulated the need for transformation in order to follow him. To be his follower is a relationship and necessitates involvement in this relational process on his terms. Much of transformation has to do with this relational work. This is what Peter had difficulty with in following Jesus, in spite of his deep profession of faith at this time (vv.68-69).

If we did church today the way Jesus did things, how many would be in church?

What these followers wanted was less than what Jesus wanted to give them. What they wanted didn't attend to the needs of their total person and created distance in relationships by focusing on secondary matters. Essentially, they wanted things on their terms, to control the relationship with God. Jesus didn't try to please them or give them what they wanted--important issues for Christian leaders. If we did church today the way Jesus did things, how many would be in church? If we demanded that every churchgoer change and be a disciple of Christ, how many would remain? Yet, does Jesus give us any option? He does ask each of us on the heart level the same relational question as his first disciples: "You do not want to leave too, do you?" (Jn 6:37).

We are usually guilty of oversimplifying what's involved in being a Christian. I doubt if it's ever been more comfortable and convenient to be a Christian in the U.S. than today. Our efforts in evangelism have made it easier to profess faith in Christ. For example, we use a verse like John 1:12 as a simple formula for conversion. Yet, to "receive" (Gk. lambano) Christ involves to take in hand, embrace, listen to, trust and follow as a teacher. Therefore, this word means to be a disciple.

A disciple (Gk. mathetes) is a follower, an adherent who studies under the instruction of a teacher, a master (Gk. didaskolos). Since the term is only used in the Gospels and Acts, this may make it easier for us to ignore it or to define discipleship apart from the more rigorous words of Jesus and the intensity of his person. But a disciple in the NT meant more than a student or a learner. It denotes an adherent who embraces the instruction given to him/her and makes it his/her way to live. The specific terms for adherence are determined solely by the teacher. The person and words of Jesus defined those terms for us and we have to get back to his terms for our relationship.

We've gotten away from his words in the Great Commission (Mt 28:19). The only imperative he gave us here is to "make disciples" (Gk. matheteuo). This verb describes a deeper action than merely the intellectual sharing of information. To make a disciple involves more than, for example, simply instructing a student in a particular study area or helping a student develop a certain occupational skill. Beyond this, in religious contexts--and certainly exercised by Jesus--the word implies the deep development of the person and the cultivation of a mindset, worldview, way of life through the process of intimate relationship between disciple (mathetes) and the teacher (didaskolos). As this interaction deepens and the teacher's person influences the disciples, they are able to participate, share in the teacher's life. By willfully allowing their lives to be vulnerable to the influence of their teacher, disciples have the opportunity to know (Gk. epignosis) firsthand, experience directly and even partake of the life of their master. Making disciples (matheteuo), therefore, must be distinguished from the verb "to learn" (matheo) which simply means to learn without any attachment to the teacher. Remember, the rich young guy only wanted matheo (Mk 10:17ff). This is how we often do Bible study. And we have to wonder if our seminaries have stopped here and become merely conduits of information.

Discipleship is only a function of this relationship.


All of the above about disciples can only take place within the relational context of which Jesus determines the extent and nature. Discipleship is only a function of this relationship. The extent of the relationship involves deeper and deeper connection which goes beyond the mind and necessitates the heart, the total person. But, the outcome from discipleship is a relational outcome involving the willful cooperation and vulnerability of both parties. The nature of this intimate relationship involves the vulnerable heart of Jesus (didaskolos) and the open heart of disciple (mathetes). It wasn't sufficient for God to just come in the flesh in order for me to be able to be a disciple as described above. It was also necessary for Jesus to open his heart further and make it vulnerable to me in order for me to be touched by him, affected and therefore changed as his true disciple. Jesus never maintained relational distance from his true followers. He didn't keep relational distance, for example, on intellectual terms as most teachers do, but openly shared his deepest feelings with them, even at the cost of their rejection. He didn't maintain a distance above them as their superior but instead washed their feet. Reflect on and take in all these relational messages Jesus shares specifically only with those who follow him and become his disciples.



Clarifying What We Follow

This intimate relationship of following Jesus as his disciple is available for us to experience today despite his bodily absence. Maybe you've thought about how much easier it would be to follow Christ if he were here. In some ways it might be, but don't rely on it. The first disciples showed that just following Jesus didn't mean they really knew him. I think many today follow Christ without really knowing him from relational experience. Information about him may be there, but not the intimate relational connection to partake in his life and truly know him. This is exclusively a relational outcome, and we've gotten away from this relational process. I've wondered if part of the reason is that we've replaced "following him" and "being his disciple" with the concept of "conforming to his likeness" (Rom 8:29), "transformed to his likeness" (2 Cor 3:18) and being like Christ in the future (1 Cor 15:49; Phil 3:21; 1 Jn 3:2). If we have, this was not Paul's intent, even with Christ's bodily absence.

Christ's likeness has come to have a variety of definitions. . .

Focusing on his likeness has less relational meaning and function. It usually involves emulating a model, pattern or form more than engaging a person in a relational process. Peter, himself, talks about following Christ's example but qualifies it with "in his steps" (1 Pet 2:21). This is more specific to Jesus' person and makes a relational connection which is often absent if it's just emulating a model. A focus on his likeness puts less emphasis on Jesus' person and words and more on the image of what he did in general. That means we would rely more on our perceptions of him than his actual person and objective life. In turn, that makes Jesus subject to our predispositions. That is, as it is for ourselves, it's easier to define Jesus merely by what he did and, thus, have the relationship on our terms. Consequently, Christ's likeness has come to have a variety of definitions--usually selective, sometimes distorted but almost always more comfortable or convenient for the practitioner.

At the same time, maybe we don't focus acutely on following Jesus, being his disciple and discipleship also because of our misconceptions of his demands and expectations. Wouldn't Christian living be a lot easier if all we had to do was work on our relationship with God? Well, in God's design and purpose for life, relational work is the sum and substance of how he wants us to live and what he wants us to do. That's the basis of his covenant, the purpose for his law, the reason the person Jesus came and the meaning of his words, plus the purpose of the Holy Spirit. We're the ones who make it more complex, or distort it, with our substitutes and lies.

Discipleship is not trying to do what Christ did as much as we possibly can.

We need to keep clearly in focus that the Christian's goal is not to follow the model of Christ, to be more Christ-like (e.g., compassionate) and to act out his teachings or values. Discipleship is not trying to do what Christ did as much as we possibly can. The Father's plan and desires (Rom 8:29) all along have been for us to conform (together with in substance or function) to the likeness (how Christ is and lives) of his Son. This is not a symbolic replication of Christ nor an ontological duplication of him (which would be impossible). God is heart and relational; Jesus is heart and relational. This is distinguished in his involvement with his Father. It is this relational way Jesus was, lived and functioned that the Father wants us to live out also: relationally to be his son or daughter, relationally as Christ's "brother" or "sister," relationally to be his family.

These relational functions go well beyond merely the outer-to-inner approach, replicating ways which are "Christ-like." It's relationally being involved with the person of Christ, relationally being involved with the Father in the way Jesus is, relationally being involved with each other as his family--which includes extending his family love also to the world. This goes beyond living in Christ's likeness. It's all a function of real, live, dynamic relationships in which we need to grow.

This is all about whom we follow in relationship, not what we follow.



Contingencies and Conflicts

But in the words of Christ's commands, demands and expectations, aren't there contingencies he wants us to fulfill beyond just relational work? That depends on how we look at it or what our perceptions are. The devoted, successful young guy seeking more
(Mk 10:17ff) certainly thought Jesus was asking too much. Some of us think at times that God asks too much of us. Yet, Jesus lovingly asked the guy for relational work to follow him, not for more deeds. What, then, do we say about giving up everything to follow Christ? This guy wanted the more of eternity but pursued it based on what he did and had. Jesus informed him that eternal life is a relationship, not something to possess or do. More specifically, this relational work involves the intimate relationship between disciple (mathetes) and teacher (didaskolos).

Following Jesus denotes only this deep relational process of discipleship. It is a process which initially "receives" (take hold of, embrace, follow as a teacher, Jn 1:12) Christ with intimate trust. This deep fellowship of sharing intimately together goes beyond being only a disciple to sharing everything together as friends (Jn 15:15). This intimate relationship extends further by the transmission of the Father's family love to his Son and from Son to his followers (Jn 17:23,26), which has the relational outcome of being adopted into his family as his sons and daughters. All this is already a spiritual fact of relationship with Christ but not necessarily an experiential reality of the relationship. This is the ultimate relational outcome of the relational process of discipleship. Following Jesus is the relational work that results in this present experience of the more of eternity. Jesus connected being a disciple with eternity-substance and promised his disciples the experience of this more now (Mk 10:30).

The successful young guy wasn't looking for a relationship. He only wanted to know what he must do to qualify for more (Mk 10:17). He only wanted more of what he had and did because that's how he defined himself. That's also how he defined Jesus, as only a teacher to give him information. He was only there as a student simply to learn (matheo); he didn't want the intimate relationship of a disciple (mathetes). He had successfully practiced the letter of God's law (v.20), which reinforced what he depended on to establish his worth. He didn't seem to understand the importance of the spirit of the law and its deeper purpose involving the heart and connecting persons in relationships of love. He didn't seem to account for his total person (except the desire for more), only his outer behavior. What he did was his focus and priority. When that happens, relationships are no longer primary, and suffer in the limited connection experienced. As devoted as he was in his religious practice, he lacked relational connection with God and the experience and enjoyment of intimate involvement together--as disciple, as friend, as son. No wonder he wanted the more of eternity. In spite of his accomplishments, he still didn't belong to God and his family (Jn 8:35). He was relationally distant because he wasn't free. With all his success in what he did and had, he functioned in effect as a slave, not as God's son. As long as he stayed in that position, he couldn't inherit anything. That was the relational consequence of how he lived. Jesus' loving response redefined him and pointed him to the relational work which was more important, as he tried to free him from his enslavement (Mk 10:21). But he was unwilling to change.

It is difficult for any Christian to be intimately relational when we define ourselves by what we do or have.

It is hard not only for the rich to enter into this type of relationship with God (Mk 10:23). It is difficult for any Christian to be intimately relational when we define ourselves by what we do or have, and then do relationships accordingly. There is a direct correlation between how we define ourselves and how we do relationships. That influence extends further to how we do church. We have to take more seriously how we unknowingly let the influences on our daily practice control us, thus putting us into the functional category of slaves. We must grasp the functional distinction between a slave and a son/daughter--not theologically in our beliefs, but in our practice--because if we don't, we labor under limits on our relationship with God and what we can experience with him. Satan relishes our failure to distinguish the position from which we function with God.

As long as we don't think anything enslaves us, we don't recognize the need to be freed. Change is not necessary. Unlike the successful guy who seemed unwilling to change, we would be like other believers who didn't see a need to change (Jn 8:33). In this latter interaction, Jesus laid out the process of discipleship and its relational outcome (Jn 8:31ff). From our previous discussion of this passage (chap. 4), the process here clearly involves an ongoing intimate relational involvement ("hold") with the essence of Jesus ("teachings") and his person. A disciple in this relational process increasingly experiences truly knowing Jesus as well as being liberated. It is important for us to understand the relational outcome of this process because the end result doesn't stop at the intimacy of knowing Jesus and liberation.



Disciple to Friend to Family

The progression of following Jesus involves the process of intimate relationship which develops from being a disciple to friend to family member. As the disciples' intimacy with Jesus grows, a change takes place in the status of the relationship. It becomes a relationship between friends (Jn 15:15). Obviously, there are different types of friends. In the world of biblical times, the main ideals of friendship included: (1) loyalty, (2) equality, (3) mutual sharing of all possessions, (4) an intimacy in which a friend could share everything in confidence. What kind of friend is Jesus? He fulfills the first ideal (Jn 15:13), the third (Jn 15:9,11; 16:14-15) and the fourth (Jn 15:15; 16:12-13). Why does he call his disciples friends instead of servants (Gk. doulos, indentured servant, slave)? A servant might be loyal (1) but would never experience intimate sharing (4).

In the process of discipleship, the functional change from servant to friend is not automatic. The experiential transition to friend is not easy, though it is straightforward. Jesus does his part of the relational work necessary to be friend. He vulnerably shared his person and extended his heart; he did all of the above except equality (2)--yet defined a deeper meaning to inequality. Jesus gives us every opportunity to know him and be changed. Now we need to address our part of the relational work.

What does it mean to be a friend in today's world? Using the above ideals, a friend tends to mean either (1) or (2); if it's a good friend, then both. It would be a truly fortunate friendship to have (3); but it's rare today to have (4). Modern perspectives devalue (4) and magnify (1) and (2). So, it's very difficult to be a friend today according to these ideals. Yet, Christ gives us (1), (3) and (4). We can give him (1) or maybe (1) and (3) as a servant. We could also give him (1) and (3) as a limited friend. But we need to give (1), (3) and (4) to be a true and complete friend.

Intimacy doesn't grow unless we're sharing more and more of our true selves.

What are the implications of not practicing (4) with Christ? Intimacy doesn't grow unless we're sharing more and more of our true selves. Such sharing can't avoid or mask our humanity: our weaknesses, inadequacies, mistakes, sins. To keep this from him prevents the intimate connection of experiencing each other, knowing him and being healed, liberated and changed. If we try subtly or unintentionally to impose (2) onto him, then we can never experience being friends because we are trying to redefine our relationship with him on our terms. Those terms would not readily allow for our humanity, therefore we would never give (4) in the relationship. But the relational consequences don't stop here.

In the process of discipleship the ultimate relational outcome emerges from friend to full family member as son/daughter. This is the greatest difference and change in status from slave/servant that could only result from redemption (Jn 8:34-36). To experience the reality of this position in the relationship--its spiritual fact already exists--is the outcome of liberation through intimate involvement with Christ (Jn.8:32). Without this liberation, we function only in the position of an indentured servant. This ongoing development of intimate relationship with Christ is a vital indicator to distinguish a family member (son/daughter) from a servant/slave. Consequently, any practice--for example, casual, intellectual or selective involvement, following his teachings without his person, defining relationship on our terms--which keeps us from a fuller, deeper involvement with Christ will limit our experience of knowing him, which in turn will put constraints on being freed, that is, changed into the new person and enjoying our place with him in his family as his child.

This experiential difference from servant to friend to family member is a qualitative and quantitative relational outcome. The difference in quantity may not always be apparent to us in what we experience serving him as a servant; that's because what we do takes on so much importance that our heart subtly becomes more distant. But there is a distinct difference between having satisfaction in what we do from being satisfied by what we are being together with Christ. This is the experience of the blessed (makarios) who are sharing in the life of God. The deep satisfaction of the core of our being (heart, soul) from intimate involvement with God's ongoing presence is unmistakable and unequaled--increasing unimaginably in the quantity of the eternal and the quality of the uncommon. As Peter discovered, this experience is reserved for those disciples who function as his family members.



Serving Is Not Our Vocation

Developing intimacy with Christ in the ongoing fellowship of following him also helps us make a further important distinction in the process of discipleship. This distinction involves the actual practice of serving and helps us understand how to carry out this function in the Christian life. Jesus said, "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant [diakonos] also will be" (Jn 12:26). In these words he said a necessary condition to serve him is to follow him and be where he is. "To serve" (Gk. diakoneo) comes from the word for minister, deacon, servant (diakonos) and has the emphasis on the work to be done, not on the relationship between a lord and servant. In other words Jesus is telling us that in order to serve him it's not sufficient for Christians to focus "on the work to be done," or on situations, circumstances, no matter how dedicated we are or how good our intentions. It is also necessary to be involved in the ongoing deep relational process of discipleship, that is, the intimate relationship of being with him. This is the true vocation of his disciple.

"Whoever serves me" includes any Christian work or worker. Any service for God distanced from this relational context and process becomes merely the work (diakoneo) of an indentured servant. As Jesus said (Jn 8:31,32), such a person is not freed from their bias, condition and position in life, no matter how good their intentions. They will not experience the reality of belonging to God's own family (8:35) and will not be transformed from their condition (8:34) until they truly follow his person in the process of discipleship.

This consistently brings us back to how we define ourselves and do relationships. To relate to Christ indirectly through the work, situations and circumstances keeps us in a mind-to-mind interaction mode in contrast to direct relational interaction person-to-person, heart-to-heart. This shows us in practice what we think is important and who we think is important.

. . . he redefines . . . what is more important to him, who is more important and how to do relationships.

But when Christ said "Whoever serves me must follow me," he redefines these for us, telling us what is more important to him, who is more important and how to do relationships. That is, Jesus shows us that he gives greater priority to our person over what we're doing, that our relationship is more important than the work. Contemplate these relational messages. We must (dei) fully receive (lambano, embrace, hold to) his relational messages to us in order to hold (meno, abide, dwell) to his person (logos, essence) and to truly know him and experience his intimate feelings of love for us.

This distinction, along with the earlier one between slave and son/daughter, is vital for the practice of those who take serving Christ seriously. We really have to resist the notion that discipleship is about doing something for God. A disciple is engaged foremost in relational work of developing intimate relationship with Christ which increasingly results in the experiential reality of becoming friends and being family members, all the while experiencing more and more of his person and the love he shares. It is being with him like this where he is--on his terms within the context of eternity on the level of the Uncommon--that defines what following Jesus is all about.

This is one of the important areas we can learn about from Peter's difficulties. He saw himself as a disciple and presumably as a servant. But he had obvious difficulty with the intimate experience of friend and son because of the relational work and liberation needed in his life. This difficulty may be even more acute today. One of the reasons could be the use of the traditional "servant model." When Christ suffered for our atonement, was he "the Suffering Servant" or "the Son of God who suffered in serving" (Is 53)? When he took on the nature of a slave (Phil 2:7), did he become a slave and stop being God? Jesus served, but he was Son first and foremost. In whatever he did he was always in the relational position and function as Son (Jn 12:49-50; 14:31). This is what Jesus incarnated: the persons of God and their relationship together. This is whom Jesus takes us to: the Father and intimate relationship with him like they have. This is how Jesus wants us to follow him: as he is with his Father. This is the Father's desire for us to conform to: Jesus as Son--relationally, not ontologically.

For these reasons I think we seriously need to reconsider, even dispute, the servant model. It definitely has some useful perspectives to guide our actions; and it certainly sounds spiritual and seems righteous. Yet, I seriously question how well it functions in relationship with God, especially if it reinforces relational distance. This relationship is the end reason to serve; it's our only vocation. Too many Christians practice serving in the capacity as a servant without being son/daughter relationally with him. This has relational consequences for which we need to "make every effort."



How Relational Consequences and Outcomes Happen

Another significant example of involvement with Christ that helps us understand how such relational consequences or outcomes happen is really a set of interactions Jesus had with two persons he was close to: the sisters, Martha and Mary.

The first interaction was the well-known scene which took place in their home (Lk 10:38-42). Since we can assume the disciples were present also, there was a relatively large group to prepare for, not just the three of them. As was customary in those settings, disciples usually sat at the feet of their teacher to listen to his words--a place traditionally reserved for males. The rest of the scene plays out with Martha concentrating on the preparations and Mary taking a place among the disciples. Nothing is mentioned about their brother Lazarus.

Consider first, what was Martha doing and what was Mary doing? Martha worked on all the preparations (Gk. diakonia, service, ministry involving compassionate labor benefiting others) necessary for hospitality--work (diakoneo) which, on the one hand, was culturally hers to do while, on the other, was an opportunity for her to serve Jesus (v.40). Mary seemed to ignore the work (diakoneo) which was also culturally hers to do and chose instead to engage with Jesus in a manner not customarily available to her. For the moment, let's focus on what they were doing about serving (diakoneo). What do we know about diakoneo from our recent discussion (regarding Jn 12:26)? Martha was engaged in important service--even ministry if you wish--but where was her focus? Mary didn't participate in serving (diakoneo), so where was her focus? Martha had the opportunity to serve Jesus but what happened? Mary had the same opportunity but what did she choose instead?

Diakoneo emphasizes the work to be done, not the relationship. Though her good intentions were to fulfill this service, Martha "was distracted" (Lk 10:40) by it. The use of the Greek passive voice indicates that Martha brought this on herself, not that she was a "victim" in this situation. Her complaint about being left alone to do the work (diakoneo) reveals that her focus is not on Jesus, his desires and their relationship, but on herself and what she had to do. Martha was so locked into serving that she lost focus of the purpose for serving. Doing something called serving became an end in itself; relational connection with Jesus was absent. She was alone in her diakoneo because she didn't practice relationship with Jesus by involving herself with him in the relational process. She was left alone to serve because she engaged the work, not the person and the relationship. And she wanted Mary to function as she did. Martha indeed brought this upon herself, not because of Mary's choice. Diakoneo can do this to us when what we do becomes the main focus, predisposing us to overlook the person and relationships.

No work of service is ever more important than the person of Jesus. . . .

In strong contrast to Martha we have Mary's focus and choice. Mary didn't participate with Martha in serving. Was this a convenient way for her to get around the cultural roles and traditional functions assigned to her gender? Her choice was not an easy or simple one to make, it was only better (v.42) in Jesus' assessment. No work of service is ever more important than the person of Jesus, our relationship with him and being with him. Mary grasped this. Even before Jesus said it, she was acting on the importance of John 12:26. But the potential repercussions from culture and tradition made it a difficult decision to involve herself with Jesus as his disciple. I wonder what the other disciples thought when she sat next to them. Nevertheless, Mary wanted more and was willing to risk ridicule and rejection by going beyond any cultural constraints in order to pursue the person Jesus. She didn't do what was convenient and comfortable but what was important and necessary. Did this reflect a difference in personality from Martha, or contrasting perspectives? Maybe a little about personality, but mainly perspective.

The fact that Jesus openly received her is a statement against the constraints of culture and tradition which prevent any of us from deeper involvement with God. Even more important is his statement about the vocation of the Christian life. With all the various matters in Christian living, or life in general, which concern us, Jesus says "but only one thing is needed" (v.42). The Greek word for "need" (chreia) means act of using, employment, that in which one is employed. Jesus seems to tell us that only one life activity or vocation is really important. And Mary had "chosen" it (Gk. eklegomai, choose for oneself what is desired and thus expressing favor to object chosen). Mary chose "what is better" (Gk. agathos, profitable, useful, underscoring the beneficial properties of an object and its being advantageous to chooser, promoting their welfare); that is, she chose to be involved with Jesus and follow him as his disciple. Her choice also was in contrast to the successful young guy, who only saw Jesus as useful (agathos) for information, not relationship as his disciple (Mk 10:21).

The life activity and vocation of being his disciple in the ongoing relational process of discipleship subordinates all other life activities and occupations. We may do different occupations, but we have only one vocation in life. This is the only one that really matters, that's really important; all else is secondary. This is the calling of every Christian. The relational outcome of that choice for Mary, as it will for any of us, would "not be taken away for her" because it is intimately connected to the person of Christ, bonded in the unfailing love of the Uncommon for eternity.

A second interaction between Jesus and these sisters took place at the time of Lazarus' death (Jn 11). Jesus clearly loved (both phileo and agape) this family (vv.3,5) but purposely stayed away upon hearing Lazarus was sick until after he died (v.6). When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she took the initiative to meet him on the road (v.20)--a good relational step for her. Her first words (v.21) were the exact words Mary said when she saw Jesus moments later (v.32). We're not sure how Martha said it, but she immediately followed it with a curious statement (v.22). What do you think her intent was in the last statement? Whatever she seemed to be asking or hoping for, she was probably acting true to cultural form and not sharing her feelings by asking Jesus (Master, Teacher) for a favor directly. Her indirectness evoked from Jesus a simple yet personal statement of fact about what will happen (v.23). Since he had already taught about the future resurrection from the dead (Jn 5:28,29; 6:39,40), Martha must have heard about that before and seems to make reference to it here (v.24). When we look at her words in this verse, I get the sense that there was a "but. . ." at the end which she never expressed. Martha was reluctant or constrained to express what was really in her heart. On the surface Jesus then seemed to take her on a short theological exercise, yet he really tried to make relational connection with her (vv.25-26). Martha responded with a beautiful confession of faith (v.27). We have to wonder, though, how much of this was an expression of her heart because there wasn't any sense of her heart expressed in this interaction up to then. Her confession was later tested (vv.39-40), similarly to Peter's confession and subsequent experience (Mt 16:13-23).

What more would you have wanted to experience. . . ?

If you were Martha, would you have been satisfied with your time with Jesus prior to Lazarus being raised? If not, what more would you have wanted to experience and how do you think you could have experienced it?

When Jesus asked for Mary, she quickly went to meet him (vv.28-29). Mary said the same first words as Martha (vv.32,21). These were her only spoken words, but not all that she shared (v.33a). How did she express herself? How did this affect Jesus? Because Mary opened her heart to him, Jesus was touched and moved in his heart (vv.33b,35,38). In those moments, she experienced her Teacher (didaskolos) more deeply and came to know him as never before. Their intimate connection was distinct from the connection between Martha and Jesus. What do you think was significant in order to experience this relational outcome?

The last interaction was during a dinner at their house soon before Jesus' triumphal entry (Jn 12:1-8). Martha served (diakoneo) again but didn't complain (v.2). How would you interpret this? Did she learn from the earlier dinner? Has she changed? Assuming she did the work herself, she must have learned more about diakoneo. How much she changed is debatable. Obviously, at some point somebody had to serve, and Lazarus took his traditional place among the men (v.2b). We have to credit Martha for her willingness to serve, though we don't know if she also practiced what was more important.

Mary distinctly stepped up to the next level in her relationship with Jesus. Whether she followed the lead of the prostitute (Lk 7:36ff) or acted spontaneously from her own creative heart, Mary made another costly choice (v.3). With the cost of the perfume (a year's wages, v.5) also added to this decision, she once again went against cultural form and practice to literally let her hair down to intimately connect with Jesus and humbly with love attend to his needs. Mary was engaged in the deepest relational work of a disciple; see Jesus' words (Mt 26:10) describing this as "a beautiful (Gk. kalos, in quality and character) thing (Gk. ergon, work of her vocation) to me." This was an ultimate expression of diakoneo in which she served Jesus while intimately enjoying his person more than ever before. Mary grew and experienced more of this relational outcome because she seized with unrestrained heart the opportunity of Jesus' intimate presence (v.8). Love acts this way, it always makes the person and the relationship most important. That's how Jesus is with us and how he wants us to follow him. What would you like to be experiencing in your relationship with Christ?

Some additional observations are worth noting. Mary and Martha differed not only in perspective and how they practiced relationship with Christ. Mary was significantly freer to express her heart. Martha seemed constrained and remained within the boundaries of her comfort zone. She played it safe with what was familiar to her. If not content to do so, she was unwilling to step out and open her heart to experience more with Jesus. Personality differences notwithstanding, Martha needed to be liberated further in her heart.

To show our love to someone by doing something for them is not only indirect relationally but ambiguous in the message it communicates.

We learn from these interactions that it is important to be free in order to love. We know that it's necessary to experience being loved before we can truly love. But being loved does not automatically guarantee one will express love also. It's also necessary to be freed, which includes being cleansed, comforted, healed. This is indicated in our sisters. Since Jesus loved them (Jn 11:3,5), we know they were loved. I think there's no question that Martha loved Jesus. Yet, she didn't appear free to express her love to Jesus. We can argue that she did it with her diakoneo. But love is relational, it is not doing something. That's why Jesus wants us to "Follow me." To show our love to someone by doing something for them is not only indirect relationally but ambiguous in the message it communicates. We have to assume for Martha that she felt love for Jesus and acted in love. For Mary, we can clearly see how she freely shared her heart and expressed love to him.

The issue of being free involves both affectionate love (phileo) and sacrificial love (agape). If we have phileo, we need to be free to express it relationally. This was important for Martha and, as you recall, for Peter. If it's agape, we need to be freed from our self (in its interests, concerns, absorption) in order to love sacrificially for the sake of another's well-being. Martha didn't have agape, or she wouldn't have been so constrained. Peter wasn't at the agape level yet during that post-resurrection interaction (Jn 21:15ff). Mary seemed to express phileo as well as agape--agape for certain. The prostitute also expressed both (Lk 7:36ff). Because she was forgiven (Gk. aphiemi, to send away, let go from oneself, dismiss, pardon), she was loved (v.47). Since her sins were dismissed, it's important to understand that this prostitute also was able to let go of them in defining herself. Her difficult act of agape and beautiful act of phileo reflected her new self-definition and, more importantly, the freedom to love Jesus and to experience intimacy with him as never before.

These relational outcomes don't happen unintentionally. They are the relational experiences which result from intimately engaging him in the relational process. Missing out on more in our relationship with God is one thing if we don't want more or don't want to change to get it. Missing out on greater intimacy with God and experiencing less even when we want more is a totally unnecessary relational condition. Again this is basic to the truth of the incarnation and to our predispositions and perceptions of Jesus, his person and his words. I know that though they don't articulate it, some Christians tend to feel that Jesus constrains their lives or burdens them with great expectations. The successful young guy certainly felt this way. Yet, as is clear from Jesus' pursuit of Peter, he only cultivated relational work. His imperative was only relational. His person and his words vulnerably and intimately revealed the Father's awesome desire for us: to know him fully, to experience him wholly, to enjoy him endlessly. Mary was a clear example of a person who did relational work: to know him more fully (Lk 10:39), to experience him more wholly (Jn 11:32ff), to enjoy him more and more
(Jn 12:3).



Relational Responsibility, Not Contingencies

Though relational work is not easy, it is straightforward, except when we complicate it with our substitutes and lies. But do some thoughts still linger about whether Jesus has contingencies for us to fulfill beyond just relational work? After all, didn't Jesus say that we have to obey him to experience his love (Jn 15:10) and to be his friend (Jn 15:14)? Aren't these conditional statements; isn't his love contingent on our doing what he wants? It would be easy to take these statements that way, particularly if that's been a major experience in human relationships. Yet, in a crucial way these really aren't conditional statements but relational statements. That is, if you look at what comes first, you'll see it's his love, not our obedience (Jn 15:9).

God's love is purely relational, something that only takes place in the relational context. Love is not some substance he gives us and thus we possess it; love is what we experience from him in how he involves himself with us and treats us. Love is not a feeling; it is what we relationally experience in our heart that increasingly permeates it and conducts it. Love is not something we do; it is what we ongoingly share together in intimate relationship. And God delights in those who intimately count on him and always put on him the expectation to love them without failing and without limits (Ps 147:11).

Love comes with a relational responsibility to respond back as one can. . . .

Unless we want a unilateral relationship with God without any responsibility, we can't expect to only receive, receive, receive all the time. Love comes with a relational responsibility to respond back as one can, to give as well as receive (not necessarily in equal quantity), that is, to share love also. One distinct way to share love is to please the other person in their legitimate desires (see Christ's words, Jn 14:15). Obedience is that sincere response of love back to God which also extends the relationship and deepens the experience of love between him and us, as Jesus has been saying. So, he holds us to that relational responsibility because he so intensely wants us to experience the eternal depth of God's love and the same uncommon bond he has with the Father (read his complete prayer in Jn 17). The relational acts of obedience and love will be more fully examined in the next chapter.

Such accountability does not make his love conditional but further reflects the intimately relational nature of God's heart so vulnerably revealed by Jesus' person and ongoingly present in his Spirit. When we stop to define the relational messages in these relational statements, we understand him and know him even more. Reflect on these messages:

(1) What is he saying about me?

That I'm important to him and I am able to love also.


(2) What is he saying about our relationship?

Relationship is two-way. He expects love because my response is important to him. He values my love back.


(3) What is he saying about himself?

He is relational; and as the God of heart, he has desires also which he wants us to be considerate of. So, for example, he too wants to be appreciated. Thank offerings in the OT reflected that appreciation (cf. Ps 50:14). How can we express that appreciation today? How can we be considerate of his other desires?


Let the person and words of Jesus touch you deeply in your heart.


1. See Michael J. Wilkens, Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew's Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995) for a more in-depth study of mathetes.



2003 T. Dave Matsuo


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Study Guide & Growth Plan


Chap. 6        The Relationship of Following


We come to a critical juncture in our study that takes us to the next level of relationship with Christ. Authentic spirituality cannot be adequately discussed and fully undertaken without dealing with discipleship. The development of spirituality and spiritual formation depend on discipleship and its coherence with God's desires for his followers, both individually and corporately.


At the same time we cannot address discipleship apart from spirituality, that is, intimate relationship with God where hearts are open to each other and increasingly coming together. Yet, the moment the subject of discipleship comes up, our focus usually concentrates on doing something, especially about serving. This all needs to be put into biblical perspective. (An expanded and more developed discussion on discipleship is available in an overlapping study entitled The Relational Progression: A Relational Theology of Discipleship.)






What are the main perceptions of discipleship in your Christian context?


What do you think would happen in your context if following the model of Christ or becoming more Christ-like were distinguished from what discipleship really means?


How does serving become in conflict with our true vocation as his disciple?


In John 12:26, how does Jesus redefine what's important?






What are the relational messages to you in John 12:26?


How do you look at the "servant model" and how would you reconsider it for yourself?


Further consider what's involved in being a friend in biblical times, and how Jesus lived and engaged his disciples. What part of this relational work do you need to work on?


Are there ways you define yourself or let yourself be defined that you need to let go of in order to be freer to be loved by God and to love him/others?






We have to distinguish between something we have to do because God expects it and that which he says is necessary for optimal function in our relationship with him. Doing the former tends to result in, even with good intentions, duties and obligations involving misplaced priorities with relational consequences. Practicing the latter is responsive to God's person and desires in what is important to him, thus bringing relational outcomes of deeper involvement with each other, particularly in the experience of love.


Obedience can be associated with either approach but John 12:26 puts this into relational perspective for us. Discuss obedience from both approaches and the relational consequences and outcomes emerging from them, respectively.


As you take to heart the relational messages at the very end of this chapter, how does this affect your relationship with God?


What changes in you do these messages encourage?





Explain the direct correlation between how we define ourselves and how we do relationships.


How does this influence how we do church?


At this point in your deliberations, can you initially start to articulate how "discipleship as following the person of Jesus in the relational progression coheres with God's overall desires and thus brings coherence to our beliefs--that is, as parts of his whole?




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