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The Relational Progression
A Relational Theology of Discipleship

 

 

   Discipleship  Study

 


 

 

T. Dave Matsuo

 

2013 TDM All rights reserved

No part of this manuscript may be reprinted without permission from the author

Contact: tdavematsuo@4X12.org

 

Preface

Paul describes how God touches our hearts with the light of his intimate presence "in the face of Christ"  (2 Cor 4:6). The purpose of this study is to clearly perceive the face of Jesus to be able to be relationally involved with him as his followers for the experiential reality Paul describes. This necessitates more deeply understanding God's revelation of himself in Christ, specifically in the relational significance of its context and process. I pray our discussion will serve this purpose, and that your own efforts beyond just reading will further develop this relational outcome.

If we adequately perceive the face of Jesus, discipleship should create as much unrest and conflict in Christians today as it undoubtedly did during Jesus' earthly life. Yet, we seem to be quite comfortable about discipleship--either by how we define it or by tending to ignore it. Apparently, our perceptions of Jesus are increasingly more palatable and less threatening.

For this reason, as well as a number of important other ones, I realize that many aspects of the discussion in this study on discipleship may be difficult to accept in general or to embrace personally. I am also aware that there is a tendency for the broad Christian community to promote too much milk in our spiritual diet and seldom move on to, chew on and digest the meatier substance of the Christian life and practice. Hopefully, this study will serve toward more than formulating a theology of discipleship but also to enrich our diet and help to develop the infrastructure to make whole followers of Christ, both individually and corporately.

For this purpose, I will not apologize for the difficulty you may experience in any of this discussion--and I warn you now that it may be progressively so. I apologize only for my errors and any failure to adequately fulfill his purpose.

I encourage you to engage this study in sequence because the chapters are progressive and thus the discussion is cumulative. This effort may be time-consuming and may not immediately address your specialized interest. Yet, I hope and pray that what may seem secondary to you in that moment will be of general benefit to better inform you of the larger context into which your specific concern will undoubtedly need to be put. Engaging this relational process will more than inform you but provide opportunity to know God more deeply.

Too much Christian practice has been reduced to substitutes for the face of Christ, or to settling for less than God's intimate presence. Authentic Christian spirituality, however, functions in a process of discipleship. As we will discuss in this study, the discipleship process cannot be defined with a truncated soteriology focused only on what Christ saved us from without addressing what he saved us to. Discipleship involves a total Christology integrated with a distinct ecclesiology in God's eschatological plan. All these various aspects will converge in the relational progression and become functional for our practice in the relational process--without reduction or substitution. Such coherence is necessary for any theology of discipleship, as well as to formulate the gospel with the full meaning and substance revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

I pray he will reveal his face to us.

 

1                       "Follow Me"


Subsections:

 

Restoring the Call
Restoring the Identity
Understanding the Word
Restoring the Relationship
Restoring the Terms
Character of the Relationship
Preliminary Working Definition
Consider

 

Study Note: Please engage each chapter in sequence because this study is cumulative.

printer-friendly pdf version of entire study

Chap. 2
Chap. 3
Chap. 4
Chap. 5
Chap. 6
Chap. 7
Chap. 8

Chap. 9

Chap. 10
Chap. 11
Chap. 12
Chap. 13
Chap. 14

Table of Contents

 

Scripture Index

 

Bibliography

 

"You don't call yourself one of his disciples, do you?"

"No, I don't."

"Don't you hang out with him a lot?"

"I don't really know him."

"Hey, don't you identify yourself as one of his radicals?"

"Damn, no way! Where did ya get that idea?"

These scenarios sadly depict what being a disciple has come to mean today for many Christians. They reflect how we often approach following Jesus. As reproductions of Peter's experience, this was the result of Peter "following Jesus" (Jn 18:15)[1] on that night of passion. Is this how we are seen "following Jesus" today and also, in effect, how we relate to him at a distance as we put our own twist or spin on our relationship with Christ?

"Follow me!" are the most prominent words consistently shared by Jesus. Whether directly spoken or implied in what he said, these words are conspicuous throughout his earthly life. Any examination of the person and words of Jesus will always be faced with his words "Follow me." Their dominance in Christ's teachings is understandable, when we realize how fundamental they are in formulating the identity of any and all who are involved with him.

We can't see and hear Jesus and get away from these words. Yet, is it possible that among Christians "Follow me" has become the most avoided words of Christ, intentionally or inadvertently? If this is the situation today, how ironic that what is really the most basic concept determining relationship with Christ is what is ignored (or redefined) the most. Peter learned this through painful experience.

Certainly, there can be a lot of ambivalence about these two words--perhaps more than any two. On the one hand, there is the privilege to follow God and the opportunities it opens up, plus the prestige to be called one of his disciples. On the other, we have the uncertainty, anxiety, the responsibility of having him as Lord and having to fulfill our part. No two words create more confusion, illusion and submission than Jesus' call to "Follow me."

 

Restoring the Call
 

Let's turn the focus on the person of Jesus and the context of those words. In the process, we will have to address two critical interrelated issues: one, how we define ourselves and, as a result, two, how we do relationships.

The word "to follow" (Gk. akoloutheo) means to accompany, go with,[2] and occurs almost exclusively in the Gospels. Like today, following Jesus back then didn't always involve being a disciple (Mt 4:25; 8:1; Mk 10:32); it was merely an association for those people.  Many persons also followed him for the wrong reasons, pursuing their self-interests (Jn 6:14-27). The Greek word involves relational significance when it refers to individuals. To follow Christ involves ongoing fellowship (intimate relational connection) with him, not occasional and temporary following.  It is more than selective involvement and beyond sharing situations and activities together but engages an intimate relationship. As Jesus demonstrated, he didn't wait for persons to volunteer to follow him. He initiated this call--a call always to uncompromising and intimate discipleship, though not just for the sake of learning as students from their teacher.

Being "with Christ" is a closer connection than following with relational distance; it involves a deeper relational connection than we're used to.  Jesus defined a new relationship from what was also the norm of his time. As we will discuss in the next chapter: the relational process of this fellowship with Jesus is characterized by intimate trust, not by deeds (his or ours), and by sharing together in intimate relationship, not in activities (however frequent, sincere or with good intentions). This is the fundamental way Jesus calls us to relate to him and the working paradigm by which to be involved with him.

I think all of us have some type of predisposition, or even bias, of some type about discipleship and being a disciple. For the most part these would fall into one of three categories, or a variation or combination of them:

1. Being a disciple is all about service.

2. Being a disciple is all about sacrifice.

3. Being a disciple is only for a select group.

While each of these may partially describe an aspect of following Jesus, they are not valid to define the identity of his disciples nor to identify the character of discipleship. Each of these positions corresponds respectively to the opening scenarios in our discussion. They tell us nothing about true discipleship but offer some reasons why persons (especially Christians today) keep a relational distance from Jesus, ignore or even deny being his disciple.

Service is a defining term for many Christians. But its importance to them only secondarily involves their active relationship with Christ, if at all; service takes on prime importance when we define ourselves by what we do, by the roles we fulfill, by the spiritual gifts we exercise. If being a disciple is all about service, then there is a lot a disciple has to measure up to.

But Jesus says "whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant 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. The word "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 master and servant. Note this distinction. Jesus is telling us, in other words, 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. Service is not what being a disciple is all about. While service results from it, being a disciple does not mean service first.

It is necessary, and more important, to be involved in the ongoing deep relational process of discipleship, that is, the intimate relationship of being with him. Being a disciple is this relationship first and foremost, and that means to be intimately involved not for service but for love first (Jn 13:35). This relationship is the true vocation of his disciple. (We will discuss this more later.)

Sacrifice is also a defining term for some Christians. After all, isn't that what Jesus modeled for us? And didn't he say we have to give up everything in order to be his disciple and follow him (Lk 14:33; Mk 10:21)? The words seem to indicate sacrifice but the context tells us much more, as we will discuss later. When Jesus instructed about the Sabbath, he restated from the OT "I desire mercy [compassion], not sacrifice" (Mt 12:7). When he was challenged for associating with sinners, he repeated the same words and instructed us to learn what they mean (Mt 9:13). The context here emphasized relational involvement (agape love) which the full quote from Hosea expands on: "I desire mercy . . . and knowledge of God rather than . . . " (Hosea 6:6). That is, God wants love (Heb. hesed) and knowledge of him gained from intimate involvement over anything else done for him. Sacrifice and service never supersede relationships.

In the situations in Matthew, as well as the OT situations, Jesus sharply brings our focus back to the importance of the total person and the primacy of relationships-- foremost the person of God and our relationship with him--not about doing the "right thing." If we think sacrifice is what a disciple is all about, we still have to go back and learn what those words in Hosea mean. This underlies God's law, his commands, his design and purpose for our life and how Jesus lived.

Exclusive is another perception some Christians have of disciples, whether it's about being qualified to have that status to begin with or related to being able to fulfill a disciple's function. It's an "exclusive club." The fact is, as our discussion ahead on the biblical narratives will show, Jesus called all kinds of persons along the social spectrum to follow him; and he allowed and affirmed anyone to be his disciple, no matter their position on the socio-cultural ladder. As far as performance and being able to measure up are concerned, certainly his first disciples didn't demonstrate a high standard of success while he was physically with them. To the contrary, there was nothing exclusive about this group based on their ability, resourcefulness or performance; they were a select group only because Jesus called them--a call not based on what they had or could do but on the initiative of God's grace.

Essentially, Jesus can be described as an "equal opportunity employer" who doesn't discriminate against race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, disability. While he doesn't discriminate against who could be his disciple, he is certainly uncompromising about who actually becomes one. And though his disciples have different functions (e.g., some also served as apostles), they are all equal in relationship to him. Furthermore, the early church described all new converts as being disciples (Acts 14:21). That was the identity of the early church.

Any response to his call is voluntary but it is critical for us to understand that his call is not optional. It's not something as Christians we can contemplate among various alternatives; his call to "Follow me" is basic to become a Christian to begin with. There is no distinction biblically between a disciple and a Christian, though we have made this false distinction in much of our Christian practice. Therefore, it's imperative for Christians and churches to restore this call as fundamental to our faith and having a relationship with Christ.

As we let go of our misconceptions and become freed from such predispositions and transformed from any biases, we can better hear Christ's call to all Christians to "Follow me" and embrace being his disciple. Then we can get down to the practice of discipleship in our true vocation (calling), no matter what the context of our occupation (what we do) is. It's our only vocation--the relationship of following Jesus intimately.

This is true for our theology and the theological task. If our theological reflections don't serve this purpose and advance this end by helping to develop this practice, then our theological endeavors become ends in themselves and serve only to occupy library shelves. In his reassessment of evangelical theology, Stan Grenz argues not only for a theology oriented for discipleship but also that theology must flow from discipleship.[3] I hope this study serves toward formulating theology for his disciples and the fundamental practice of discipleship for his church. It's our only vocation, the identity of which is also lacking today.

 

Restoring the Identity

During Christ's earthly life the identity of his disciples was distinct (cf. Lk 5:33) and discomforting (both for his disciples as well as for others), if not disturbing (certainly for others but sometimes even for his disciples). Today that distinct identity is elusive, if not lost. Being a disciple of Christ has come to mean different things to different persons. It has taken on a garden variety identity whenever discipleship is mentioned at all. This is characteristic of individualism which dominates Western cultures today; it also reflects the so-called freedom Christians exercise in determining their faith. Jesus didn't give us this latitude.

In many respects the concept of disciple has become an anachronism for many Christians. It's one of those ideas relegated to the history of Jesus Christ with no imperative application beyond that period. There is some truth to this view with respect to the Greek word for disciple (mathetes) itself, since it occurs exclusively in the Gospels and Acts. Yet, it would be a critical error to conclude on this basis that the remaining epistles didn't build on and extend the discipleship Jesus established.

Before Christians were ever called Christians, they were disciples. Not until the disciples gathered at Antioch during the time of Barnabas and Saul were they called Christians. That was a label probably used more by outsiders as an identifying marker to disrespect the followers of Christ. It doesn't appear that the early church and disciples used that term to refer to themselves; it is only referred to twice more in the NT (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16).  Their primary identity remained as followers, disciples of Jesus.

The term disciple (Gk. mathetes) is a follower who studies under the instruction of a teacher, master (Gk. didaskolos). It is used in the NT, however, to mean much more than a mere student or learner; its usage indicates total attachment to someone in discipleship. A disciple denotes an adherent who embraces the instruction given to him/her and makes it his/her way to live.[4] The specific terms for adherence are determined solely by the teacher.  And while the Jewish rabbi-pupil relationship model may seem to be related here, Jesus instituted a completely new character for the relationship of his disciples. These terms for adherence are vital for us to understand because they define the extent and nature of the relationship underlying all involvement with Christ. Despite the fact the word mathetes is only used in the Gospels and Acts, we can't ignore it nor define discipleship apart from the more rigorous words of Jesus and the intensity of his person. Indeed, the person and words of Jesus defined those terms for us and we have to get back to his terms for our relationship. Our true identity depends on it.

This study is about our identity and identity formation as much as it is about anything else. It's about what it means to be a Christian, to have faith, to have a relationship with Christ, to be involved with Christ, to be a new person (transformed) in Christ, to be his church. All of this goes into the formation of our identity as Christians, as the people of God.

A personal identity (based on what I do or achieve, have or accumulate) and a group identity (fashioned from joint activities, participation in common mission, occupying solemn space together or any other association) both conceive the Christian identity from an outer-to-inner approach, from the outer parts of us to the inner by focusing on secondary areas. The identity of Jesus' followers, in strong contrast, is always relationship-specific--specific only to the relationship he defines on his terms. This makes the relationship primary and distinguishes the importance of the total person (particularly the heart), thus forming identity from the inside first.  Our true identity, then, is rooted in our relationship with him, in our connection to him relationally (not organizationally, nor doctrinally), in our involvement with him (directly and intimately, not indirectly through activities, deeds or beliefs). As such, the validity of our identity is directly dependent on being his disciples and the process of discipleship Jesus established in the incarnation of his person and words.

 

Understanding the Word

This gets us back to God's revelation of himself. The focus of discipleship in this study is biblical discipleship. That is, the authority of Scripture as God's revelation of himself particularly in Jesus Christ remains the primary source of identity for disciples of Jesus. Therefore the biblical narratives of Jesus' person and words (especially between the manger and the cross) and the early church will be the main focus of our study on discipleship in order to understand what it means to be his disciple, and how that identity remains significant and imperative for Christian practice today.

Having said this about Scripture, it's important to understand briefly two things about it: one, how we look at Scripture and, two, how we use it. We must be aware that the objective words recorded in Scripture are not the total sum and substance of God's communication to us, so merely examining those specific words is not sufficient to know his Word. Inspired by the Holy Spirit as the biblical writers were, human words and language still have limits; and we have to be aware of the human contexts within which they recorded those words. Our God is certainly beyond those limits and freely shares his heart relationally with us--as he extended himself relationally to us in the incarnation. Yet, Jesus' words must also be put into their relational context in order to fully understand what God is saying to us. The Spirit helps us make this relational connection so we can properly understand the Word. To look at Scripture apart from the relational context keeps us in the box of rationalism and dependent on the limits of the human mind. This is not to open the door to subjectivism, nor to suggest that God's special revelation of himself extends apart from Scripture. What I am suggesting is that to merely examine the objective words of Scripture without the relational context will result in overlooking Jesus' person and not understanding the deeper meaning of his words for our relationship. Likewise, J. I. Packer defined the process of knowing God as a relationship with emotional involvement, and he challenged the invalid assumption of engaging in the theological task with relational detachment.[5]

Even with his physical presence, the first disciples (especially Peter) struggled with discipleship. Their struggle was not because of its demands, nor because of its expectations. They struggled because the process of discipleship was relational. Given how they defined themselves, they struggled with relationship. The relational connection with Jesus was often lacking, so they missed his person and didn't understand his words. As much as he vulnerably and intimately shared himself (his person and heart) with them, even after three years, for example, Thomas and Philip didn't really know him (read Jn 14:4-9). How could they not know him? Because they looked merely at the objective details about Jesus (see Jn 14:5,8) from a conventional epistemology dependent on the mind. The incarnation of God was beyond their grasp even after all they did together because they didn't know Jesus based on the experience of intimate relationship with him--the deeper epistemology Jesus pointed to in this interaction (Jn 14:6,9) which involves the heart and the mind. They certainly were informed about Jesus but they didn't truly know him.

How we look at Scripture and the person and words of Jesus is significant for our understanding of God's revelations of himself and his communication with us. Perhaps our limited understanding and/or application of discipleship rests in our dependence on conventional epistemology (with the primacy of the mind and the inadvertent dominance of reason) and a cognitive search of Scripture for propositional truths, principles or standards, rather than exercise the deeper epistemology Jesus brought which engages the intimate relational process and also involves primarily the heart.

If Thomas and Philip had engaged the incarnation of the Word in the relational context, they wouldn't have focused merely on information and objective data--the facts of God. Likewise, whenever we engage the Word in the relational context, we are in face-to-face interaction, thus we must also take into account the relational messages included in his words which God also communicates to us. These relational messages are relational in character and by nature involve the heart and the mind, that is, our total person. In the relational process the relational messages in any interaction basically are about one or all of the following (made verbally or nonverbally, directly or indirectly, usually implied in the message):

1.  What the other person is communicating about you, how they see you or feel about you.

2.  What the other person is saying about their relationship with you, how they see it or feel about it.

3.  What that person is saying about their own self.

These relational messages become vitally important for our deeper understanding of Jesus' person and words and for our experience in our relationship with God. To help you become familiar with them, go back to our scenarios reproducing Peter's experience. What were the relational messages he was indirectly communicating to Jesus? When we identify these messages, we can understand why this was a painful experience for Jesus also. Then, go back to John 12:26 and our earlier discussion. In Jesus' words, what are the relational messages he is specifically communicating to you?

How we use Scripture is also important for us to understand. We have a tendency, maybe even an affection, for using the Bible as an encyclopedia or a dictionary. When we want an answer to some part of life, we go to our "spiritual encyclopedia." When we need to define some aspect for ourselves, we use our "spiritual dictionary." Rather than approaching his Word as an integrated whole and as narrative truth for all life in general and specifically for our identity (individual and corporate), we use it only topically as needed or selectively as desired. Even systematic theology can be topical, without coherence.

God didn't really speak to us about topics. The relevance of God's revelation of himself and his words is that he shares his self, his true being, not things about him nor parts of him--not the facts of God but the face of God. He vulnerably shares his full self; this is the importance of the incarnation, especially between the manger and the cross. These revelations weren't announcements.  The significance of his words is that he relationally shares his words with us, his self with our self, that is, not with a part of my self but with all of me. His revelations are direct relational communications of his whole self with our whole self, all within the relational context and containing important relational messages.

This is how we need to see Scripture and use (hear) it. We can't dissect it intellectually into mere elements, nor reduce his being and person while inadvertently minimizing the relational nature and character of life the Father shares with us in his Son. We can't reduce his Word to topics. We cannot compartmentalize it to various subjects of faith. And we have to stop restricting his words to propositional truths, principles of ethics, standards for conduct and systems of theology, regardless of their biblical reliability. Such reliability does not ensure relational validity.  A valid grasp of God's revelation of his Self always has relational significance because the word of God is seen and heard within the relational context and received into one's relationship with Christ (Lk 10:21-24).

Authentic discipleship rises or falls with our understanding of the person and words of Jesus. The identity of his disciples depends on it. Rediscovering the roots of this identity is essential for every Christian because it is fundamental to all Christian practice.  Additionally, and of strategic importance, restoring the identity of Jesus' disciples is vital not only for our Christian life and practice today. It is also urgent in our drastically changing times for us to demonstrate to the world the relationally significant substance of our faith as well as to provide for others the relational experience (individual and corporate) so basic (yet often lacking) to relationship with Christ.

This substance and experience would be distinctly captivating to a postmodern world (especially those seeking intimacy); these would also be discomforting to our established ways influenced by modernism (particularly how we define ourselves and do relationships); they would be disturbing to all the old in our world needing redemption and requiring transformation. This is what the God person Jesus stirred up and generated with his earthly presence, the impact he made by his vulnerable person and words. Those who believe in Christ--which means those who follow Jesus--need to embrace this Truth in his relational substance and to experience the relational reality of being with Christ, not just the belief of being in Christ.

I don't think I overstate the critical juncture biblical Christians face either to restore the relational substance of being Jesus' disciples (individually and corporately), or to continue in our current mind-set (heavily influenced by a modernist worldview) and mode of Christian practice which is often ambiguous, if not contradictory, in relational significance and usually strains for genuine relational experience.
 

Restoring the Relationship

This identity makes it inadequate to define or to limit discipleship to following the model set forth by Jesus and imitating (conforming to) his character in our lives. Being Christ's disciple is about relationship, the extent and nature of which is what our study essentially involves. This study of discipleship is not for informational purposes but for our practice (both individual and corporate) in this relationship. In fact, our reading of the biblical text with only information in mind predisposes us to limit, or even prevent, our understanding of Jesus' person and words.

If the incarnation is merely an objective, historical fact (which it easily tends to remain in our minds), then this piece of information (important as is it) has little relational significance for us. It may function in our belief systems but it really has no functional impact on our daily living. Jesus didn't bring us a set of divine data which could be catalogued for truths. When we get into such reductionism, Christ is depersoned and the relational quality of God no longer has any significance. What we are left with are propositions, principles, standards and systems.

When Jesus came to openly show God's glory to the original witnesses (Jn 1), they could not just passively "see" and "receive" him. That is, they were not able to actually see God's glory and connect with him if they were passive observers of Jesus and distant relationally. When John said "we have seen his glory" (v.14), he wasn't referring to just anyone or everyone who laid eyes on Jesus. The word he used for "seen" (Gk. theaomai) means to behold, view attentively, to contemplate something which has a sense of wonderment (which is different from the word "seen" in v.18 that could be passive). This word involves a contemplative focus which carefully and deliberately observes an object in order to perceive it correctly and in detail. Theaomai would involve more than merely seeing something; it also includes noticing, recognizing and taking note of something with deeper reflection and acute interest.

Likewise, those who "received" the Word weren't those who merely believed the fact of the incarnation or received its information. The word John uses in this popular verse (v.12) for "receive" (Gk. lambano) means to take in hand, embrace, listen to, trust, and follow as a teacher. To receive is a relational act which can't be accomplished at a relational distance. So, John was referring only to those persons actually exercising theaomai and lambano. Now, when we put these acts into the relational context of Jesus' person and words, we're not merely talking about a mental process here--a process for more information.  More importantly we are describing a relational process involving: the relational connection of the heart of the person seeing with the heart of the person seen which engages intimate relationship for deeper spirituality and spiritual formation in the practice of God's people.[6] Discipleship is rooted in this intimate relational process and we have to get back to this relationship.

The arrival of Jesus on the human scene didn't just objectively quantify God in the incarnation. Jesus didn't just show up in the flesh and bring us some nebulous idea of the glory of God. He came to reveal the Father to us (Jn 17:6). Yet, he revealed more than information about the Father but also the Father's experiential presence because they were intimately united as one (Jn 10:38; 14:20; 17:21-22). Bonded together (relationally as well as ontologically) such that: if we see Jesus, we see the Father (Jn 14:9), if you know one you know the other (Lk 10:22). This is what Thomas and Philip didn't see and know yet in John 14.

Because Jesus openly revealed to us his relational bond with his Father, we can know what that relationship is and how it functions. Yet, he didn't come only to reveal the Father and their relationship.  He also connected us relationally to the Father so we can truly know him; this is what eternal life is all about (Jn 17:3). But Jesus goes on to define knowing the Father and him as the ongoing deep intimate relationship of love (Jn. 17:26), not as a matter of information and intellectual beliefs. Furthermore, that same relational bond experienced on the heart level between the Father and Jesus is also ours to have and experience: relationally bonded to each other (Jn 14:20; 17:21); their intimate love relationship extended to those who obediently involve themselves with Jesus (Jn 14:21); loved by the Father just as he loves (agape) Jesus (Jn 17:23,26), which also includes being loved affectionately (phileo, Jn 16:27), the same as the Son (Jn 5:20). This is the relational significance and the qualitative substance of the relational progression.

So, in the incarnation Jesus didn't come to give us a model to follow, principles to live by, ethics to practice, character to emulate or a mission to fulfill. He came to bring a relationship to embrace, to give us a relationship to experience, to share relationship together in God's family--intimate relationship to have so that our joy may be full, to experience deeply together as he does, to share with each other as well as with others.

The genius of the incarnation is that Jesus is all about relationship. The mystery of the incarnation is about God's love, so Jesus revealed God's heart in a totally relational way, in a distinct relational context, for the ultimate relational purpose. The brilliance of the incarnation is not just the light shining in the darkness for us to see but the Light is for relationship. The incarnation is not truth objectively available to us to constrain in propositions but the Truth is for relationship. This relationship is what Thomas and Philip didn't experience yet, despite all that time with Jesus.

This also means for us today that if we aren't experiencing the Father then we are not relationally connecting with Christ--maybe circumstantially or situationally, but not relationally. This is an important distinction to make because as Jesus said: if you've really seen him, you've seen the Father (Jn14:9), if you truly know him, you know the Father (Lk 10:22).  Jesus is all about the Father and all about relationship. This relationship is the purpose of following him, being involved with him and obeying him. All else is predicated on this relationship, contingent on the relationship (cf. Jn 12:26). Any practice apart from this relationship is secondary or a substitute for it. Discipleship is following Jesus in the relational progression to the Father.

Discipleship today is often described as Christian living in general, following the specific example or model of Christ, and reflecting his character. But all of these are inadequate or incomplete to describe what Jesus himself practiced.  He didn't tell persons: "Come along with me so you'll learn something." Jesus always called persons to himself ("Follow me"), always focused them on his person, not what he did. Throughout Jesus' earthly function to reveal the Father, he focused on establishing followers of his person--not mere pupils who learned from him. These disciples were adherents of Jesus the person, not just to his divine teachings. Discipleship during Jesus' earthly presence meant being directly involved with and committed to him, even if not always physically present with him.

In contrast to today, the term for disciple (mathetes) was common in Greek at the time of Jesus. This difference in contexts can either strain our perceptions of the meaning of disciple or disconnect us from Jesus' original intent for all those who follow him. The term mathetes itself does not determine the type of discipleship; that was determined by the teacher or leader. But the common understanding of a disciple was an "adherent" to that teacher; the emphasis was not on learning or being a pupil but on adherence, the terms of which were determined by the teacher. While Jesus' gathering of disciples around him paralleled the rabbis of Judaism, he went well beyond the recognized boundaries of a rabbi, redefining the common practices and creating a distinctly new teacher-disciple relationship. The terms for adherence Jesus practiced are fundamental for us to understand in our relationship with him.

In his study of the term disciple (mathetes), Wilkins makes a case for calling Matthew's Gospel a manual on discipleship.[7] Yet the same can be said for all the narratives of Jesus. Throughout his earthly life Jesus taught, demonstrated but most of all intimately interacted with his disciples to help them to see, to understand and to experience how he wanted their adherence to him to be. And contrary to the relationship we commonly perceive with Christ, he did not establish a learning relationship. The concept of disciple that Jesus practiced was about relationship. It wasn't an instructional model, an institutional model, nor even a servant model.  His model disciple is one who experiences intimate relationship with him. The adherence was not to teachings, principles, beliefs or his character but first and foremost to his person, to relationship with him and its relational process. Discipleship and being a disciple are a function of this relationship and not about anything else.

Discipleship is this intimate relational process which Jesus defined by his person and words, and which his Spirit helps us live and experience to its fullness. When we see the incarnation (especially between the manger and the cross, as John helps us do in his first chapter), we can never get away from Jesus' words to "Follow me." Likewise, along with his person we can never get away from relationship. Relationship is intrinsic to Jesus Christ, it is God's nature.

Since the goal of discipleship is not attaining information, nor simply learning, this can open our perceptions to the real purpose of experiencing this relationship and enjoying intimate fellowship together (as revealed between the persons of the Godhead). In the incarnation, Jesus' person vulnerably emerges to pursue us in order to intimately connect with him, so that we can be taken to his Father and be intimately involved with him in their family together. Jesus' focus and effort during the incarnation coincide with the Father's plan and desires (as defined in Rom 8:29) for us to be relationally like his Son in function as his daughters and sons, and he as our Father, and all of us as his family. This focus by the Son and the Father, and now extended by the Spirit, is on the person and the relationship between persons. This is God's desire, this is his design and purpose, this is what he wants us to have and to experience.

The relational significance of this process of intimate relationship is not readily apparent in the pursuit of discipleship if we are predisposed to define ourselves by what we do and to do our relationship based on this "outside-in" approach. As Jesus vulnerably opened his heart and made himself relationally accessible, he called persons to be intimately involved with him and their lives will be changed. But such transformation doesn't take place apart from the relationship. Peter struggled with transformation as a disciple because he did relationship with Jesus primarily from an "outside-in" approach. In his last recorded words to Peter prior to his ascension, Jesus had a crucial interaction with him. Without completely reviewing that well-known "Do you love me?" interaction (Jn 21:15-22), Jesus closes by emphatically stating to Peter (and to reemphasize his first imperative in v.19): "You must follow me" (v.22). Why was it necessary to tell Peter this--as if he weren't a disciple?

Essentially, the first (Mt 4:19) and last earthly words Peter heard Jesus say to him were "Follow me." Was Peter not grasping something? Indeed he wasn't. In the last exchange Peter wasn't making relational connection with Jesus such that he really heard and saw Jesus' person in the three "Do you love me?" questions and answers.  In all three responses, Peter focused on Jesus "knowing" (Gk. oida) and his ability to know intimately, not by learning (vv.15, 16, 17). While Jesus certainly has this ability and knowledge, he was not seeking information here from Peter. If not information, what was Jesus seeking?

In spite of the painful relational consequences of his recent denials (which were past and forgiven), Peter still didn't seem to focus on Jesus' person and their relationship. Yes, Jesus knew (oida) that Peter loved him at least with phileo love. But this wasn't about information; it never is about information as far as God is concerned.  It's only and always about the relationship and our intimate relational involvement. This relational response is what Jesus was seeking from Peter because Peter's love didn't translate into the relational process and transmit in their relationship. So, Jesus once again had to refocus Peter on what's important: "Follow me" (v.19), that is, concentrate on being with me and devote your person to our relationship.

Did this put Peter in the right perspective and in the proper relational context? It should have if Peter hadn't been so predisposed by his "outside-in" approach. Right after Jesus said "Follow me," Peter noticed John behind them (v.20) and inquired "Lord, what about him" (v.21). Where do you think Peter was focused in this moment? His seemingly innocent question demonstrates that Peter was still not focused on Jesus' person but on secondary, situational things. This problem is common in how we do relationships when the total person (significantly the heart) is given a lower priority than what we do. The relational consequence is that we easily overlook each other, functioning in the relationship with substitutes, as Peter continues to experience here.

Jesus was not only dissatisfied with their connection here, he was displeased. Peter tried his loving patience.  His response to Peter's question, "what is that to you?" (v.22), expressed rebuke from Jesus which Peter needed; in our vernacular the words might be "That is none of your business." This is why Jesus, then, emphatically made it imperative to Peter: "You must follow me"--the only imperative that Peter needed to hear and focus on. This relationship was the primary issue throughout the struggles in Peter's life; their relationship was the primary focus for Jesus here and throughout their time together, in which he was always pursuing Peter. This is expanded in the last chapter.

Nothing was more important to God than this intimate relationship. Peter was into doing something more than the relationship. But his last exchange with Jesus was not about serving--only about their relationship. That's what being a disciple is all about, which the early disciples struggled to grasp. Discipleship is a function only of this relationship.

What does this tell us about what's important to God? What does this tell us about his priorities? It's vital for us to grasp his relational messages here (just as we need to grasp in Jn 12:26). In God's design and purpose, it's the person (from the "inner-out") who is always more important than the work/service (from the "outside-in"). Our primary work is always relational work. That is, the relationship always takes primacy over anything else; all else is secondary (not necessarily unimportant) to our relationship with him. There is no substitute for it. Therefore, this relationship needs to be restored for discipleship to be of significance because the imperative from Christ to "Follow me" is the relational imperative.

Thankfully, the intimate relational process of discipleship continued to develop for Peter and the others after Jesus' ascension and the Spirit's arrival. This was not lost on even the opposing leaders of Judaism in their day. During their conflicts with the ministry of the early church, they confronted Peter and John (Acts 4:1ff). After interrogating them before the Sanhedrin, those leaders were astonished with Peter and John (v.13). They understood that Peter and John didn't attend any rabbinic schools nor had any religious credentials; yet, these disciples confidently and boldly articulated their beliefs and expressed their convictions. The leaders fully comprehended that the only thing which distinguished Peter and John was "they had been with Jesus."  "With (Gk. syn) Jesus"--that is, those who had a close connection and involvement with Jesus, not that they were merely in his company, nor only occupied the same space. The religious establishment realized that a whole new disciple and discipleship were on the scene which threatened their system of how they defined themselves, how they did relationships and how they did religion.

Following Jesus indeed threatens how we define ourselves from the outside in, how we then do relationships based on this, and how all this influences (even controls) how we do church today. These three critical issues and their interrelations will be a constant tension throughout our study which have to be addressed.

The relational imperative of being a disciple is extended when Jesus gave all his disciples the further imperative in the Great Commission to "make disciples" (Mt 2 8:19). With these words Jesus brings closure to his earthly ministry and physical presence. There has been a progression to his incarnation--the relational progression. It is a notable progression for us to grasp with our heart and embrace relationally. It begins, as John said, when Jesus objectified the glory of God--presenting God's heart, his intimate relational nature and his vulnerable presence--not merely as truthful information but openly functioning in his person and words. This God person relationally extended himself to us, pursued us and made his self accessible for us: to receive him, to follow and be involved with him, to be intimate friends, to take us to his Father as his very own children and to become family together. Then, he asks us to share his love, this family love, with others and help build his family. The whole story of Jesus reads as love story--the story of family love--the relational progression of which continues through his Spirit.

This relational progression cannot take place without relational connection; and it cannot continue without ongoing intimate relational involvement. Being a disciple is only a function of this relationship. Discipleship is the process of this relational progression.

Nothing else distinguishes a disciple but this specific relationship. When Jesus told us, his disciples, to "make disciples," he used the Greek verb matheteuo. This verb is significantly distinguished from another similar verb matheo, which simply means to learn without any attachment to the teacher. A learner is not what Jesus means by disciple. Yet, is matheo the dominant practice in our churches, is such learning the primary emphasis in our seminaries?

Matheteuo signifies the kind of disciple Jesus wants. When the early church preached the good news and "won a large number of disciples" (Acts 14:21), the NIV rendering here can be confusing. The verb used for "won" is matheteuo. This was not the practice of "winning" souls and gaining decisions for Christ, which have become our common indicators of evangelism. We should not assume that being a disciple and discipleship underlie or are implied in our Christian practice, what we do in church, nor in our theology. Discipleship may not be involved in or related to any of these unless it is specifically defined as such according to the person and words of Jesus.

A disciple is an adherent and, therefore, has attachment to his/her teacher. For Jesus, this can only take place within the relational context, as he demonstrated, practiced and defined during his incarnation. The extent of this relationship involves deeper and deeper connection, which obviously then goes beyond the mind and necessitates the heart. This implies the intimate relationship between the vulnerable heart of Jesus (teacher, didaskolos) and the open heart of his disciple (mathetes). Note that the relational process of this outcome is two-way.

Adherence involves relational commitment while attachment entails relational involvement. In this sense Jesus also exercised adherence and attachment to his disciples. It wasn't sufficient for God to merely come in the flesh in order for us to be able to be a disciple as described above. It was also necessary for Jesus to open his heart and make it vulnerable to us in order for us to be deeply touched, affected and therefore changed as his true disciples. Jesus is also vulnerably committed to and involved with his disciples, so they can intimately connect with his person, be involved with his heart and experientially know him. Relationship with Christ always involves the efforts of both of us.  And this relational work requires the person and heart of both to ongoingly engage the relational process in order to grow in intimate relationship. Jesus doesn't settle for anything less and we can't afford to settle for less either.

This raises a very important issue for us to examine honestly. It is quite possible that we don't take seriously Jesus' call to "Follow me" because we aren't looking for a deep relationship or don't want one. This even begs the question: could the reason we inadvertently stay away from Jesus' words be that we really don't want this kind of relationship?

When the rich young man pursued Jesus for eternal life, he called Jesus "Good teacher" (didaskolos, Mk 10:17). But, this successful young guy wasn't looking for a relationship.  He only wanted to know what he must do to qualify for more. He only wanted more (longevity) of what he had and did (which by most standards was a lot) because that's how he defined himself. That's also how he defined Jesus, as only a good 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). Since this young guy defined himself from the "outside in," Jesus lovingly responded to redefine him from the inner first; he pointed him to the relational work ("follow me") which was more important, as he tried to free him from his enslavement to define himself by what he did and had (Mk 10:21). But the young guy was unwilling to change.

Maybe this successful guy also had on his agenda benefiting from this good teacher, so that he could eventually go out to be a teacher himself--that is, in the rabbinic tradition of Judaism (disciples went on to become teachers), instead of the relationally unique discipleship Jesus offered. This raises a related issue of even greater importance to all Christians: pursuing relationship with Jesus on our terms.

It is very probable that we, in effect, only give lip service to "Follow me"--no matter what our track record in service or church participation may be--because we want, need or only will have the relationship on our terms.

 

Restoring the Terms

When we formulate discipleship, the Jesus whom we have in our perceptions to follow often tends to be contextualized by a prevailing culture (including Christian subculture). That is, we often perceive of a popular Jesus, not the Jesus of the incarnation. A popular Jesus effectively becomes a Jesus we want to follow on our
terms--one who may be more palatable or less threatening. This is why in our practice we tend to perceive of Jesus going from the manger straight to the cross. The complete narratives of Jesus not only define who, what, how he is but also the terms of relationship with him.

If discipleship involves having "faith in Christ" (which will be discussed in the next chapter) or being "with Jesus," then what does being with him involve?

From the dynamics of relationships we understand that a relationship requires at least cooperation between persons for that relationship to work, for it to function. The first disciples followed Jesus around, shared the same space, spent a lot of time together and participated jointly in numerous activities. Does this constitute being "with Jesus"? How we answer this will be strongly influenced by how we practice being with anyone, which is determined by how we define ourselves more than anything else. The issue is basically whether we approach the person from the outer-to-inner order of importance or from the inner-outward priority. The tension and conflict between these approaches directly relate to determining the terms of our relationship with Christ.

Let's look at this in the context of Jesus' person and words. Even though it was understood in those days that a disciple (mathetes) was an adherent, it was only the teacher (didaskolos) who determined the specific terms of adherence. A disciple was not in a position to negotiate the terms of their relationship; it was common even to pay rabbis to be their disciple. Jesus certainly revolutionized the nature of mathetes and transformed what it means to be a disciple of his. One incident in particular illustrates these changes.

On this occasion Jesus was questioned about the difference between his disciples and those of the Pharisees and John (Lk 5:33ff). The latter groups of disciples frequently fasted while his disciples enjoyed freely eating. In this interaction Jesus makes two vital distinctions for all his disciples which are fundamental to how God sees us, to our relationship with him and our identity:

1.  The religious leaders indicated what was important from an outer-to-inner self-definition based on what they do. Jesus focused on the reason for celebrating as more important than what we do (v.34). His response indicates, in effect, that the person from inner-out is what's necessary for his disciples because that's how God sees us and defines us.
 

2.  Jesus also tells us that the relationship is always primary and more important than what we do. And what we do is never an end in itself (even if it serves our self-interest) but must have relational significance. What is the purpose of fasting?After Jesus was no longer physically present, then his disciples fasted (v.35)--because the purpose of fasting is always this relational connection. For Jesus and his disciples, nothing else subordinates this relationship nor substitutes for this relational involvement.

Despite the disciples' experience above, they struggled in their relationship with Jesus. It takes more than cooperation to be truly with Christ. A relationship also requires willfully open persons to advance from only doing something between them to actually making relational connection together, especially with their hearts. Our willful openness obviously involves cooperation but the nature and extent of this openness is determined only by Jesus.

While cooperation may be enough for a working relationship, a learning relationship and a casual relationship, it is not sufficient by itself to be with Jesus--no matter how diligent and sincere. There are two ways cooperation is exercised in a relationship. One is cooperation as submission, which will be discussed in the next chapter. The second is to use cooperation as negotiation--or process of exchange to get something you want--which essentially involves the terms of the relationship. This assumes that the terms are negotiable and mutual agreement with those terms is possible. Whether such negotiations are conducted directly in the open or indirectly by hidden agendas, intentionally or unintentionally, these assumptions are critical errors of understanding and judgment. God doesn't negotiate the terms of the relationship, and agreement with his terms is totally our decision.

Openness in our relationship with Christ implies the inner-outward approach of the person. If we use the outward-inner approach, then that implies our control of our inner person (whether to hide or protect) and how far we will be vulnerable with our true person. God sees us from the inside first; our heart is always what he looks at. And that's how he defines us. Obviously, then, God sees our true inner person in all its humanity, so what good would trying to embellish it with secondary outer things accomplish? How else do we think we can present ourselves to him without being deceiving of the truth about us? The consequence of these attempts and the outward-in approach is always some measure of relational distance. That's why his is the only way he does relationships.  These terms are nonnegotiable.

The terms of the relationship of a disciple are clearly illustrated in contrasting situations where persons are faced with the opportunity to follow Jesus. Let's examine three of these contrasts to better understand Jesus' terms for relationship.

The first contrast.  When Matthew, a tax (toll) collector, was called by Jesus "Follow me," he was at work (Mt 9:9). Being employed by a chief tax collector (like Zacchaeus in Lk 19:2) who was contracted by the Roman government involved a system of collecting fees on the goods and services passing through. The system commonly lent itself to abuse and often employed unethical workers without loyalties who engaged in a loose, ritually unclean lifestyle. Consequently, tax collectors were identified as the "enemy" by some segments of the Jewish community and were despised by practicing religious people. Despite this background, Matthew responded immediately (Luke says he left everything, Lk 5:28) and followed Jesus. Obviously, Jesus crossed social, cultural and religious boundaries here; but it should be clear also that Matthew crossed these boundaries as well. Aside from the conviction of the Spirit, how could Matthew undertake such a drastic, 180 identity change? He certainly couldn't have responded to Jesus if he continued an outer-in approach to his person. Matthew had to change how he saw himself (given how most everyone else saw him by what he did) and how he defined himself in order to follow Christ and be involved with him. There was no other way he would even consider such a response.

This is the only way Jesus would even extend his call. That's why in contrast to Matthew we return to the successful young guy discussed earlier (Mk 10:17ff). When Jesus told him the primary matter of importance was to "Follow me" (v.21), he wouldn't let go of how he saw himself and how he defined himself by what he had and did. How could he undertake such significant relational involvement without changing how he defined himself and, thus, did relationships?

The second contrast.  The fishermen (the brothers Simon and Andrew, James and John) were also at work when Jesus called them (Mk 1:16-20). They immediately left job, family, everything to follow him (vv.18,20; Mk 10:28). This wasn't merely a career change--although, in my bias, I think fishermen would welcome a career move-- but a totally new life. What does this tell us about their response?  They certainly didn't know the details of this new life. And as they struggled with specific aspects of this life, especially Peter, they might have considered turning back at times. Their ongoing response to follow Jesus tells us where and what their commitment was.

These disciples stand in contrast to some other would-be disciples. The latter exercised definite initiative and displayed strong interest in following Jesus but were only would-be disciples (Lk 9:57-62). One of them replied to his call "first let me go and bury my father" (v.59). A legitimate request but Jesus responded essentially that there are two realities here (v.60): (1) the social reality of the world which includes the family of those who are spiritually dead; while a definite reality in which we all participate, he is telling us not to be controlled by it nor let it define us; (2) in contrast, he brings forth the reality of the kingdom of God, that is, the family of those who are alive, new in Christ, free from the control and definition of lies which dominate the social reality of the world; this new reality needs to be "proclaimed" to others because people need this family of the living and God wants all to be in his family. Following him is about more than interest, however strong, but about attachment and priority.

A second guy declared his plans to follow Jesus but first wanted to "go back and say good-bye to my family"  (v.61). Seems reasonable, but this was really an excuse because saying good-bye (Gk. apotasso) in their cultural context connotes a lengthy process (maybe many years) and a number of duties to perform before leaving.  This guy may have had a stronger interest to follow Jesus than he had in his family. But he obviously had a stronger attachment to his family; attachments (which are of the heart) would always exert greater influence than interests (which work in the mind), no matter how strong. As a result of his attachment, his first priority was still with his family over Christ.

Christ demands that in terms of our interests, attachments and priorities, everything else must be subordinated to him. When Jesus talked about the need to "give up" (same Greek word as good-bye, apotasso) everything to be his disciple (Lk 14:33), this is not about relinquishing all else and detaching ourselves from them, particularly the relationships he described earlier (Lk 14:26). This is about relational priority and what/who will determine our lives. That's why Jesus emphasized to the second guy above (Lk 9:62) that anything less is a compromise, that it's not "fit for service" (Gk. euthetos, usable, suitable), that is, it's not relationally meaningful in God's family.

The third contrast.  The last contrast examines the issue of focusing on what we do or on how we make relational connection. It involves two definite disciples whom Jesus loved--the sisters Martha and Mary. Their involvement with Christ helps us to understand how relational consequences (distance) or outcomes (connection) happen.

One of their interactions with Jesus was the well-known scene which took place in their home (Lk 10:38-42). Martha worked on all the preparations (Gk. diakonia, service, ministry involving compassionate labor benefiting others) necessary for hospitality--work (diakoneo) which, on the one had, was culturally hers to do while, on the other, was an opportunity 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 women (sit at the feet of a rabbi as a disciple). The key here is where their focus was. Martha was engaged in important service; though her good intentions were to fulfill this service, Martha "was distracted" (v.40) by the work. From our earlier discussion of Jesus' words about serving (diakoneo) in John 12:26, diakoneo emphasizes the work to be done, not the relationship. Jesus gives priority to the relationship of being with him. Martha did something for Christ and occupied the same space with him but it was Mary who was truly with Jesus. Mary didn't participate with Martha in serving because she chose the relationship first, focusing on how to make connection.  Jesus fully affirmed Mary and told Martha "but only one thing is needed" (v.42). The word for "need" (Gk. 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: to focus on being with Christ and be ongoingly involved in the relationship.

Such relational work takes serious full-time effort. Two other interactions the sisters had with Jesus demonstrate this effort. Immediately after their brother Lazarus died, Jesus was on his way to visit them (Jn 11:17ff). When Martha heard he was coming, she took the initiative to go meet him (v.20)--a good relational effort by Martha. But in their interaction she didn't seem to extend that effort to make deeper connection with Jesus. Whether due to culture, personality, or both, she seemed reserved or constrained, resulting in a pleasant but somewhat merely mind-level exchange. I don't think Martha expressed what was on her heart. Mary repeated the exact same initial words as Martha upon seeing Jesus (vv.21,32) but she let all her feelings out also. Because Mary opened her heart to him, Jesus was touched and moved in his heart (vv.33b, 35, 38). In those moments, Mary connected with her Teacher (didaskolos) and experienced him more deeply and, as a result, came to know him as never before. This is the kind of effort involved in relational work.

In their next interaction Mary went to the next level of their relationship. 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); hopefully, she learned more about discipleship from the earlier dinner. Mary let her heart be expressed to new heights. Whether she followed the lead of the prostitute (see 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 norms and practice to literally let her hair down to intimately connect with Jesus and humbly in love attend to his needs. Mary was engaged in the deepest relational work of a disciple; in Jesus' own words he describes this as "a beautiful [Gk. kalos, in quality and character] thing [Gk. ergon, work of her vocation] to me" (Mt 26:10).

This was an ultimate expression of diakoneo in which Mary both served Jesus while intimately enjoying his person more than ever before. She grew and experienced more of this relational outcome of discipleship because she seized with unrestrained heart the opportunity to be with Jesus' intimate presence (v.8). Love acts this way, it always makes the person and the relationship most important. That's how Jesus involves himself with us and how he wants us to follow him.

These relational outcomes don't happen unintentionally--that is, without serious relational effort. This great effort (Gk. agonizomai), which Jesus (Lk 13:24) and Paul
(1 Tim 6:12) both said is imperative, involves only the relational process of developing intimate relationship with God.  Discipleship is only about this relational imperative. Anything other than this is a substitute or settling for less, and only pursuing relationship with Jesus on our terms.

 

Character of the Relationship

From our scriptural understanding of God in how he is with us along with how he is with himself (by the interaction between the persons of the Trinity), we can certainly conclude that God is a relational being of heart. Furthermore, as Jesus revealed of God's glory, God's nature is intimately relational. Jesus' person and words bring us the intimately relational God of heart, vulnerably present for us to have relationship with--relationship only on his terms, not ours. The holy and eternal God can't do relationships any other way.

Given what and how God is, there are two characteristics for all Christian practices which are unavoidably necessary:

1.  First, Christian practice has to be relationship-specific (person to person), that is, from my person to God's person (and/or other persons).

2.  Secondly, it has to have relational significance (heart to heart), that is, develop toward and grow in intimate relational connection; intimacy is hearts open to each other and coming together in the relationship.

If who, what and how we are in our Christian practice does not have this relational context, does not include relational substance and does not make relational connection, then our practice has no relational significance to God and, therefore, is useless to him (e.g., our worship, Mt 15:8,9a). The Christian life and discipleship are only a function of relationship. This is how God is and does relationship, his created design and purpose for life, and the distinctive way we need to live.

It is of further importance for us to understand that the relationship is always a reciprocal process. Consequently, God doesn't do all the work in the relationship nor do we. Yet, this means we have to get actively involved in the relational process of discipleship and engage in serious relational work. The absence of our part has relational consequences but our relational effort will always have a relational outcome.

Jesus discussed this relational outcome in the metaphor of the vine and the branches. We tend to view this metaphor in a static way, like structural importance. Actually, Jesus is providing understanding of a very dynamic process--the dynamic reciprocal relational process. Each time he identifies our part in the relationship with the word "remain" (Gk. meno, abide, dwell) a relational outcome is also identified (Jn 15:4-11). This relational outcome reflects the fact of being his disciples (v.8). But this fact is not a title or status, a role or identity, but a relational process.

Previously, Jesus discussed a more dramatic relational outcome in a familiar verse that Christians don't usually look at relationally: "you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:32). But this verse is contingent on the previous verse, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples" (v.31). The word "hold" is the same as "remain" (meno), the relational act of abiding, dwelling. "Teaching" (Gk. logos) involves the essence of the person, not merely principles, ways or propositions.  "If you abide, dwell in my person, you are my authentic disciples" describes an intimate relational process. The outcome is that you will know "the truth," that is, you will intimately experience and come to know my person, the Truth (Jn 14:6), whom Thomas didn't know yet. The result of this relational experience "will set you free" (redemption), so that you can be his Father's son/daughter and  "belong" (meno) in his family permanently (8:35)--the ultimate relational outcome for his disciples ongoingly engaged in the reciprocal relational process of discipleship in the relational progression.

What our reciprocal responsibilities in the relationship are underlies all we will discuss in this study. What the quality of our response is to "Follow me" will be discussed in the next chapter.

 

Preliminary Working Definition

"Disciple" is not a label for those associated with Jesus, nor is it a role for those following him. A disciple responds to the call to follow the person of Jesus in the unique relationship defined by him. It is this relational context and process which determine who a disciple is. The identity of Jesus' followers is always relationship-specific--specific only to the relationship he defines on his terms. Being his disciple is about relationship, the terms of which make involvement in the relationship primary and necessitate the importance of the total person (particularly the heart) to engage him in relationship. Identity formation is a function of this relationship only and not based on what his followers do. Our authentic identity is rooted in our relationship with Jesus, in our direct connection to him relationally, in our intimate involvement with him, not indirectly through activities, deeds or beliefs.

This identity makes it inadequate to define or limit discipleship to following the model demonstrated by Jesus and conforming to his character in our lives. Discipleship is only about his relational imperative to "Follow me" and is rooted in this intimate relational process. Its practice needs to be relationship-specific (person to person) and to have relational significance (heart to heart), that is, develop toward and grow in intimate relational involvement in the relational progression. Anything other than this is a substitute, and only pursuing relationship with Jesus on our terms.
 

 

Consider:

How does this definition of discipleship compare to or contrast with discipleship as you have
known it?

What changes are necessary to formulate (or reformulate) discipleship in this relational framework?

 

 

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[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Scripture are taken from the NIV.

[2] Greek and Hebrew word studies used in this study are taken from the following sources: Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975); R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce Waitke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980); Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974); W.E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1981); Spiros Zodhiates, ed., Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (Chattanooga: AMG Publ., 1996).

[3] Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1993).

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

[5] As noted by Alister E. McGrath, "Evangelical Theological Method" in Evangelical Futures, ed. John G. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 23.

[6] I expand the discussion on the intimate relationship of spirituality in the Spirituality Study, Following Jesus, Knowing Christ: Engaging the Intimate Relational Process, also on this website.

[7] Wilkins, 126-172.

 

 

2004 T. Dave Matsuo

 

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