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A Theological & Functional Study of the Whole of Jesus
Chapter 1 The Person Presented
Subsections:With His Glory, Nothing Less and No Substitutes
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The presentation of one’s self in everyday life can be understood as a composite process shaping the person presented as the result of two influences from (1) the person’s surrounding context and (2) how that person desires to be seen by others in those contexts. There is likely tension between these two until a person establishes an identity compatible to the surrounding context. The person Jesus presented certainly was not immune to those influences and that tension. Yet how much these two sources of influence shaped the Self in the presentation of Jesus remains for many a christological problem. I will not directly address that problem but will attempt to exegete the biblical narratives for the person Jesus presents in his life and practice.
In this chapter the primary issue of how his person is to be defined emerges to help us address the fundamental issue of what defines our person. This critical issue of the ontology of the person underlies the first of three major issues for all practice:
These are issues of importance throughout this study.
Revisiting Jesus as a boy at the temple (see Lk 2:41-52, and our earlier discussion on synesis), we get our initial glimpse of his self and what shaped the person he presented. Just prior to entering adulthood (beginning at thirteen in Jewish culture), this boy of twelve emerged in an improbable manner as a person distinct from his sociocultural, religious, kinship group, household and parental contexts. This is not to say that Jesus’ identity formation was independent of those influences but to establish that his person was not defined by them.
When Jesus’ parents finally realized he was missing from their caravan returning home from Jerusalem, they went back to find him at the temple. This boy was AWOL (absent without leave/permission), and his parents clearly let him know what was custom and legitimately expected of him (v.48). Yet, while respecting them and affirming his involvement in their surrounding context (v.51), Jesus simply asked them the questions (maybe in rabbinic tradition as a method for further knowledge and understanding): “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (v.49). Hearing “had to be in my Father’s house” probably was shocking to them—especially for Joseph in a normative patriarchal family. Thus it would be reasonable that “they did not understand…” (syniemi, v.50)—after all, at this stage they had insufficient pieces to put together to grasp the person Jesus presented (cf. Jn 2:1-5, to be discussed shortly). And apparently Jesus was patiently accommodating of them since he didn’t press the issue, at least at this stage (cf. v.51 and later in Jn 2:6-8).
What they could not learn and understand of Jesus’ person, however, we can grasp and be accountable for. When Jesus said “I had to be in my Father’s house,” he was not identifying being in a certain place (like church today) nor merely defining certain things to do (like serving has become). These easily become reductionist substitutes (cf. Mt 21:12-16, to be discussed later). This interaction reveals that even before adulthood Jesus asserted his person and declared who and what he is. How so?
“I had to be in my Father’s house” reveals the significance of the person presented and discloses in part how Jesus defined himself. By declaring “I had to” (dei, must, necessary by the nature of things) we can understand the necessity of his action because of the nature of who and what he is. Dei is to be distinguished from opheilo which merely denotes a debt of obligation or acting under compulsion. Opheilo may have prescribed for Jesus his identity shaped by his surrounding context but dei reflected his whole person based on who and what he is. Thus the nature of who and what he is by necessity defined for Jesus how to be distinct from primary determination by human contexts. With his declaration “I had to be” (eimi, to be, verb of existence and a copula connecting subject and predicate) we have a clear sense of this emerging person—a person who had to be his true self regardless of other contextualizing influences and pressures. And if the use of eimi as a verb of existence also has the sense of ginomai (to be, begin to be, enter into a state of being), this provides us with the ontology of the person Jesus presented and personhood he practiced.
Further, “to be” (eimi as a copula) also connects Jesus’ person to the context which did define him: “to be in my Father’s house.” The temple (or church) is not a mere place but represents where God dwells intimately for relationship together (Jn 14:23, 1 Cor 3:16, Eph 2:21-22). In this disclosure Jesus addresses two critical issues about the presentation of his person: (1) how that person is defined, and also (2) what defines that person. How his whole person was defined was not primarily by human contextualization (though secondary influence remained) but by a further and deeper context: “to be in” identifies the trinitarian relational context of family. It is in this context that the main significance of the person presented is found—making secondary the influence of all human contexts. And what defined the person Jesus presented from this context was not about what he did (or the role he served) but rather who he was in being in relationship with his Father: “to be in my Father is who I am and by that nature how I must be,” to paraphrase Jesus.
In spite of all the things Jesus did—by which we usually define him—it was this relationship that defined him (Jn 10:38b; 14:20a; 17:21). As Jesus presented, “who his person is” was not Joseph and Mary’s son but the Son of his Father together in the Trinity; and “what his person is” was not defined by human contexts nor by what he did in those contexts. To be defined primarily by human contexts and what one does in those contexts would be the result of reductionism. Even before adulthood, in the midst of tension with reductionist influence, the whole of Jesus’ person emerged.
Though his parents didn’t understand the person presented vulnerably
before them, we are accountable to syniemi. And the further
implication of his person for the ontology of our person and our
practice of personhood is the functional need to address the
critical issues of how we are being defined and what
is defining us. In the incarnation, the person presented is inherent
to who, what and how God is and thus fundamental to the ongoing
functional purpose of Jesus’ sanctified life and practice—a person
of nothing less and no substitutes. Yet reductionism ongoingly
challenged the person Jesus presented, which we need to understand
clearly before continuing.
First of all, it should be understood that reductionism is always positioned against wholeness, the whole. It has no significance without the presence of the whole. Reductionism thus challenges the ontology of the whole person, seeking to redefine the person based on secondary aspects (parts) from quantitative outer-in functions such as what the person does and has—without the qualitative significance of the heart signifying the whole person. This reduced person then functions in ontological simulation of the whole person and thus interacts with others (particularly God) apart from the qualitative significance of the relationships necessary together to be whole (with the triune God). In reductionism, the underlying assumptions of the person and of their relationships affected in this process are based on incomplete or false understanding, which in effect are lies serving as epistemological illusions (specifically of the Truth of God). The origin of such lies, and thus of reductionism, is understood clearly in three pivotal interactions with “the presence of the whole” following his baptism.
While in the desert fasting for forty days, Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit…led by the Spirit” (Lk 4:1, signifying the trinitarian relational context and process), is hungry (Mt 4:2) and encounters Satan. In these three interrelated interactions (temptations, tests), the importance of heart function for the whole person and its significance in relationship with the whole of God definitively emerge in what are basic relational tests. Matthew’s Gospel (4:1-11) has a different order than Luke’s (4:1-13) but we will examine Luke’s order for its progression in this relational process.
Since the tendency is to look at Jesus’ response apart from its context, the usual interpretation of his words is merely to prioritize the spiritual aspect of life over the physical (material), thus inadvertently substituting dualism (e.g., from Plato) for the whole person. That would be too simplistic and inadequate to meet the challenge of Satan’s test. Jesus was neither reducing the whole of life nor the person into different aspects (parts) with the spiritual at the top of the priority list. By his use of reductionism, however, that is exactly how Satan was trying to get Jesus to see his person and function accordingly—which included the reduction of turning stone to bread as only a mere quantitative miracle without the qualitative significance of the person it points to (the purpose of miraculous signs). Satan was trying to reduce the whole of Jesus’ person to only a part of himself because he knew the relational consequence this would have.
Satan cultivates this reductionism with the influential lie, which prevails as the human norm today: the need and importance to see ourselves and therefore to define the person by what we do and have, as well as to define our life and practice by situations and circumstances. This perceptual-interpretive framework gives priority to the parts (or aspects) of the person and relationships which functionally make up ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. The consequence of this process becomes a life and practice with reductionist substitutes focused on secondary matter, not the primacy of the whole person and the relationships necessary to be whole.
When we define our person according to this lie, we also define others (including Jesus, to be discussed shortly) in the same way. Furthermore, the truth of God is nullified by this lie because in our life and practice we function as if God also sees us and defines us in the same way—which will be seen shortly in relation to the Truth. As our whole person gets reduced, our life and practice gets reduced to situations and circumstances. When we focus on situations and circumstances, Satan effectively takes our focus away from the primacy of relationships. Then we function in all of our relationships (particularly with God) based on these secondary criteria instead of the importance of the whole person and the primacy of intimate relationships.
* * *
This makes explicit the two major goals of Satan (seen initially in the creation narrative, cf. Gen 3:1-7):
Satan initiated reductionism for life and practice based on lies (e.g., false assumptions, inadequate methodologies, incomplete practices), which he generates (as the author of lies, Jn 8:44) for this twofold purpose. In Satan’s challenge of God’s whole, he uses the process of reductionism therefore to effectively formulate two influential competing substitutes to accomplish his goals: one, an ontological simulation of the whole of God but without the qualitative significance of the heart, and, two, an epistemological illusion of the truth of God but without really knowing the triune God in intimate relationship. Consequently, Satan is ongoingly involved both in the work of reductionism as well as in counter-relational work.
* * *
We need to understand Satan’s main challenge to our life and practice. Yet, we will not grasp the influence of his presence without qualitative awareness of and relational focus on “the presence of the whole.”
Jesus connects us to the whole—for which there is no substitute—by the latter half of his response to Satan’s first challenge: “…but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (recorded only in Mt 4:4). Rather than focus on situations and circumstances to define a person’s life and limit that person, Jesus demonstrates the need to focus relationally by sharing these words from Deuteronomy 8:3. The original OT words were given “to teach” (yada, to understand personally, to know intimately) the Israelites in their hearts (8:2,4) that reductionist life focuses on situations and circumstances (parts like food in the desert), whereas, in contrast, wholeness in life involves the relational meaning of “on every word….” These words cannot be reduced to mere truths, propositions or beliefs, nor limited to the “spiritual” realm; that is, these words cannot be disembodied. They are “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3). “Mouth” (peh, also used as an idiom signifying direct communication with Moses “face to face,” Num 12:8) signifies direct communication from God—a communicative act which is in a relational context involving a relational process of intimate connection in the same way that the incarnate Word vulnerably discloses (phaneroo, not apokalypto) his whole person for his followers to experience as a relational reality.
Thus the person Jesus presents to Satan in this relational test is unequivocally making evident in his sanctified life and practice “the presence of the whole.” And as Jesus clearly defines by these words, the whole of God constituted in the Trinity determines (top-down causation) the whole person and the relationships in life necessary to be whole.
What is overtly presented to Jesus, however, is rarely presented as explicitly to us. If this compromise and relational consequence underlying this pursuit of reductionist substitutes are more obscure for us today, it reflects how Satan tweaks some truths with another major lie: to have any of these resources will make me a better person, or at least enable me to accomplish more—even with the intention, for example, to better serve God and others. While there is some truth that such resources can be helpful toward this purpose, in this process of reductionism we see the genius of Satan to blur the distinction between truth and lie. His influence is not accounted for when we give priority to defining the person by secondary aspects of what one does and has over the whole person—and consequently do not distinguish between the importance of the qualitative and the secondary significance of the quantitative, both in our person and our relationships.
In this second relational test, Jesus counters Satan’s challenge with “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (4:8). We tend to hear his words merely as a rule of faith, which we either perceive with only quantitative significance (e.g., in the activity of what we do) or often take for granted with their familiarity (e.g., as an obvious expectation or given obligation). Certainly we would worship God over Satan and serving Satan is not an option, that is, as long as these choices are always straightforward in our situations and circumstances, as it was for Jesus in this second test. We need to grasp the significance of Jesus’ second response when he declared “worship” and “serve” in this response. Because Jesus is again connecting us to the whole, he wants us to focus relationally on the context and ongoing process these terms provide. “Worship” and “serve” are not about “doing something” before and for God but about the qualitative relational significance of being involved with God in intimate relationship. His response is not about a mere rule of faith but about the relational imperative necessary for relationship together. Jesus is defining as well as exercising the relational work necessary to be whole in order to negate Satan’s counter-relational work that reduces both the whole person from the heart and the intimate relationship necessary to be with the whole of God.
Satan does not necessarily displace all the forms of worshipping and serving God, he only substitutes their practice with ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. He has no need to contend with these practices if they have no qualitative and relational significance. When the qualitative whole of God (namely, God’s heart and intimately relational nature) becomes secondary in our practice, we shift to the practice of reductionist substitutes for the whole. While this shift may not change our activity level related to God—but could even increase the activity—reductionist practices invariably create a shift in the relationship by displacing the functional centrality of God (not in doctrine or as the object of worship and servicing) with the relationship now functionally focused on us, that is, where the parts have priority over the whole. This becomes increasingly an inadvertent process of practicing relationship with God on our terms, which by implication is bottom-up causation. This is the major issue which emerges in Jesus’ third relational test.
The dramatics of this scene at the highest point of the Jerusalem temple should not detract from the important relational work going on here. Satan quotes from the Scriptures, yet not in the convention of reductionist proof-texting (4:10,11). He uses this quote (from Ps 91) to challenge Jesus to claim a promise from the Father—a proposal suggested commonly by many in church practice. His challenge, however, is not about building trust and taking God at his word. We have to focus deeply on relationship with God and what Satan is trying to do to the relationship.
Jesus counters Satan with the response: “do not put the Lord your God to the test” (ekpeirazo, test to the limits, see how far it can go, 4:12). How does this work? Sometimes the dynamics in relationships get complicated or confusing, and Satan uses reductionism to compound the relational process. God certainly wants to fulfills his promises to us; yet, we must go deeper than the typical perception of this process which puts it in a quantitative box of reductionism, thus imposing a shift on the relationship apart from the whole of God—and the functional centrality of God. We always need the whole (and the context of God’s big picture beyond ourself) to keep in focus that God fulfills his promises only on God’s terms (for the big picture). If Jesus tried to evoke his Father’s promise in the manner Satan suggested, then he would be determining the relationship on his own terms (with the focus shifted to him). This is the real nature of this subtle relational test Jesus refused to do and the ongoing underlying temptation Satan presents to all of us: to test the limits of God and how much we can determine or even control (directly or indirectly) the relationship on our terms, even unintentionally. The false assumption here, of course, is the crucial lie, which functionally (not theologically) pervades our life and practice: that the relationship is negotiable and that God accepts terms for it other than his own.
These relational tests continue for Jesus in one form or another as
the person he vulnerably discloses is now further presented to
others. Yet this person Jesus presents is always whole and only for
relationship, that is, on his terms. Consequently, reductionism and
its subtle influence and substitutes will also persist to challenge
Jesus, even to follow him in would-be disciples and in the early
disciples themselves. Nevertheless, “the presence of the whole”
always exposes Satan’s counter-relational work intrinsic to
reductionism; and Jesus’ sanctified life and practice will clearly
make evident for our life and practice how to partake of and
participate in the whole of God. Sanctified Christology formulates
the relational context and process Jesus makes imperative as his
life and practice extends out.
After his interaction in the temple at age twelve, Jesus does not reappear in the biblical narratives until well into adulthood at around age thirty. This may suggest that he was isolated prior to that; perhaps this is true in terms of certain roles and functions he performed in his public ministry. Yet we do have indication that during this period he continued to extend his involvement in relationships, both with God and with others (see Lk 2:52). One thing for certain is the incarnated life of this person of the Trinity was not in a vacuum. The person Jesus presented was always vulnerably practiced in human contexts, in direct human interaction, in public (in contrast to isolated in private). His sanctified life and practice demonstrates the nature and extent of his involvement.
As we go back to Jesus’ baptism, this may raise more curious thought about his needing to be sanctified—thoughts raised at the very beginning of this study. Yet his was not the same baptism that John the Baptist called for (Mt 3:1-2, Lk 3:3), because he had not sinned and did not need to repent. By his action Jesus fully identifies with those who have repented and are prepared to receive the kingdom of God. And his baptism makes evident to them that the person he presents is whole, complete and thus can be counted on to be who, what and how he is (Mt 3:15)—that is, the Messiah, the Son of God.
Jesus therefore presents to them publicly in his baptism the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 12:28)—more specifically, the family of God, as the Trinity converges openly in function in this moment of experiential truth (Mt 3:16-17). In the full significance of his baptism, Jesus discloses the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love (“my Son whom I love”), as well as demonstrates the redemptive nature of the relational progression necessary for his followers to the whole of God. Jesus’ sanctified life and practice is only for this purpose “so that they too may be truly sanctified” in life and practice.
Jesus’ response demonstrates the practice of his person, revealing how his whole person (who, what and how he is) functioned in human contexts, in human interaction, in public. This disclosure is made less so in what Jesus did (a miracle) and more in how he was. Focusing on the miracle tends to define Jesus by what he did, and this reductionist definition would be insufficient to grasp his whole person.
In this human context, Jesus is involved in three areas: (1) relationship with Mary, (2) the sociocultural situation, and (3) relationship with his Father. These areas of involvement are not to be separated because they converge in an interaction effect on how Jesus functions in this context. Knowing how these three areas interact is crucial for understanding how the person Jesus functioned in his practice.
Jesus’ response to Mary is no longer filial when he addresses Mary simply as “woman” (gyne, general term for woman, married or not). This redefines the nature of Jesus’ involvement with Mary from the human context to the trinitarian relational context of family. Thus, though Jesus’ response is no longer filial, it is nevertheless distinctly familial; and this distinction is specific to the relational context which defined his person. As witnessed also in the boyhood episode, this interaction reflects the tension between the contexts defining Mary and Jesus respectively. This tension is heard in his question “why do you involve me?” (Jn 2:4), which is rendered more clearly “what is that to you and to me?” Assuming Mary was still defined primarily by the human context, she gave priority to this gathering and acted in obligation to communal responsibility in support of the wedding hosts. We can say that Mary merely acted in who and what she is defined by that context. And this significance was not lost to Jesus in “what is that to you.” He clearly wanted Mary to know, however, what his priorities were and what and who defined him: “my time has not yet come”—his Father determines that (Jn 8:28,29; 14:31). Consequently, “what is that to me” cannot be defined by “what is that to you.” As most of his interactions reveal—which would include involving Jesus in what we ask for in many of our prayers—the person Jesus presented is continuously being challenged to redefine himself. In response, Jesus continues to address the two critical issues about the presentation of his person: how his person is defined and what defines his person.
Yet, Jesus never removed himself from the human context (not to mean every situation), nor avoided the tension this created. This was not only the nature of his sanctified life and practice but for his particular purpose for his followers also to function in sanctified life and practice. Thus he was involved in his relationship with Mary and neither distanced his person from the sociocultural context represented in the wedding situation nor dismissed the cultural means used to define persons (in this situation, the honor of the wedding hosts who would have incurred shame without the wine). The significance of Jesus’ involvement, however, is directly a relational outcome of the nature of who, what and how he is—his whole person which is never defined by what he does (miracles) nor by what he had (e.g., the means to do miracles). Jesus then could respond to Mary and accommodate the sociocultural situation as long as his person was not reduced and his function not diminished or minimalized.
This helps us know how the above three areas of his involvement interacted, which is crucial for our understanding of how the person Jesus functioned in his practice: while Jesus responded to (1) his relationship with Mary and lived vulnerably in (2) the sociocultural situation, neither (1) nor (2) defined for him (3) his relationship with his Father. Rather as his relational response of love (Jn 14:31), (3) always defined Jesus’ person and determined for him how to function in relationships like (1) and contexts like (2). This tells us the person Jesus presented not only involved who, what and how he is but also whose he is. Theologically, this is the ontology of the whole person. Functionally, this is the practice of personhood engaged in ongoing relational involvement in the trinitarian relational context of family and trinitarian relational process of family love. To function apart from this is to shift into reductionism of the person, which Jesus would not allow to happen to the person he presented, despite all the influences and pressures he faced to shape him in some reduced sense.
How does his miracle fit this sociocultural situation? Did Jesus merely misuse his power in a rather insignificant situation with no apparent purpose? Or did Jesus diminish his purpose by this miracle? Taken out of context, either explanation can be made. Yet, given our discussion of the person Jesus presented, how is this miracle in this situation (about wine at a prolonged wedding reception—commonly up to seven days—perhaps in overindulgent celebration since they ran out of wine) significant for who, what and how Jesus is?
In terms of the wine this really had nothing to do with the person Jesus presented; essentially, the situation was about “old wine” while Jesus was “new wine” (cf. Lk 5:37-39). The miracle itself also had nothing to do with the whole of Jesus’ person, that is, defining his person by what he did. Biblical miracles are not an end in themselves, used as a reductionist substitute for self-definition, though that is a prevailing perception and practice, even in Jesus’ time (cf. Jn 2:23-25, to be discussed shortly). Miracles are “miraculous signs” (semeion) with a spiritual end and purpose, which lead to something out of and beyond themselves; that is, they are indicators, “fingermarks” of God. Thus, a miracle is not valuable so much for itself as for the person it reflects, just as Jesus described and practiced (see Jn 10:38).
Since this biblical narrative is the first recorded miraculous sign of Jesus (Jn 2:11), this happened early in his public ministry and in the disciples’ involvement with him. I suggest Jesus used this situation to take the opportunity to build further and deeper relationship with his disciples. Given that Jesus did not define his person by what he did, the miracle was not to draw attention to himself nor for the benefit of the general public (cf. Jn 2:9)—as if apokalypto were his purpose. This semeion was a disclosure of his whole person presented to the disciples for relationship together—as phaneroo indicates in “He thus revealed his glory” (v.11). While it may be clear how disclosing “his glory” could have helped the disciples theologically, what is the functional significance of “his glory” which would take them further and deeper into relationship together?
Glory, Nothing Less and No Substitutes:
The answer to the above questions involves the “glory” that is “seen.” If “his glory” is merely perceived as the abstract attribute of the transcendent God, we may have some theological significance in knowing something about God but no functional significance to take us further and deeper in relationship to truly know and experience God. Yet, glory is one of those words in our Christian vocabulary (faith and grace are others) whose significance gets lost in familiarity. The word for glory in Hebrew (kabod) comes from the word “to be heavy,” for example, with wealth or worthiness. A person’s glory certainly then is shaped and seen on the basis of the perceptual-interpretive framework used for how a person is defined and what defines that person. “His glory” brings us further than an abstract attribute of the transcendent God and takes us deeper than a person defined by what he does and has. In the OT, kabod is used poetically to refer to the whole person (Ps 16:9; 57:8; 108:1).
The concept of “the glory of God” denotes the revelation of God’s being, nature and presence to us. In the incarnation the vulnerable disclosures of Jesus’ whole person engaged us with God’s glory—that is, God’s being, nature, and presence with us: the who (being), the what (nature) and the how (presence) of God. Who, what and how Jesus is vulnerably discloses who, what and how God is—that is, phaneroo God’s glory for relationship. Thus, the who, what and how of Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the ontology of the glory of God (cf. 2 Cor 4:6). And the who, what and how of the person presented in Jesus’ sanctified life and practice discloses the functional involvement of God’s being, nature and presence with us. Briefly (more to be discussed later) the person of Jesus presented openly disclosed:
All of God’s being, nature and presence function for relationship together.
That which is God’s glory is “his glory.” Who, what and how God is is who, what and how Jesus is (Jn 10:38b; 12:45; 14:9). Yet this is not about the mere exhibit (apokalypto) by Jesus of the ontology of God; and any Christology which is embedded only in this for foundational purpose is insufficient and incomplete. The person Jesus presents (phaneroo) is the vulnerable incarnation of the functional whole of God in relationship. Disclosing the whole of God in relationship is the incarnation principle of “nothing less and no substitutes”; a complete Christology must also be “nothing less and no substitutes.” This is who, what and how Jesus is and “his glory” disclosed to his disciples functionally for further and deeper relationship. Because Jesus vulnerably extended (the how) his whole person with heart (the who)—“nothing less and no substitutes”—to them for intimate relationship (the what), the narrative of the wedding concludes with “his disciples put their faith in him” (Jn 2:11). That is, “his disciples could respond back and open themselves to him in further trust and deeper involvement”—not based on what Jesus did (a miracle) but based on his whole person whom Jesus vulnerably presented to them.
It is vital to grasp from this interaction in this particular context at the wedding in Cana, that the presentation of “his glory” was contingent on this incarnation principle of “nothing less and no substitutes.” In other words, the person Jesus presented—whether with Mary, in the sociocultural situation, or with the Father—was the function only of his whole person because Jesus maintained in sanctified life and practice the integrity of who, what and how he is—“nothing less and no substitutes,” i.e., without reduction or redefinition. This functionally involves both:
As Jesus experienced, the pressure to be redefined by reductionist influences is ongoing. Consequently, Jesus was vulnerably responsive to someone for relationship only on his terms, though he was vulnerably involved with anyone. Later in Jerusalem, many persons believed in him because of the miracles he was doing. Despite their response to him, “Jesus would not entrust himself to them” (see Jn 2:23-25). Their response was not to his whole person (“his glory”) and for relationship on his terms. For Jesus to respond back to them would have necessitated redefining himself by their reductionist terms, which would not have involved relationship further and deeper with the whole of God. Jesus never compromised who, what and how he is for the sake of gaining followers (cf. Jn 6:25-66, to be discussed later in this chapter). These were not the kind of followers he came to call.
Jesus’ sanctified life and practice addresses the issue of being
able to distinguish a person’s source of validation, confirmation
and affirmation. What is our primary source of these and thus where
do we functionally entrust the ontology of our person and the
personhood we practice: the human or Divine? Moreover, Jesus’
unwillingness to respond back to these so-called followers is a
vital distinction of leadership in contrast to those who build a
following on reductionist terms, albeit with good intentions. This
further helps us understand in our life and practice the difference
between what I call “discipleshipisms” (the reductionist
alternatives prevailing in church practice today) and what is the
authentic discipleship of Jesus’ call to “Follow me.”
The function of Jesus’ sanctified life and practice established the greater context of his whole person—a specific relational context beyond any human context in which Jesus seeks to involve his followers, define his disciples and help them function. The person Jesus presented from this greater relational context is made vulnerable in human contexts as his whole person is extended to others to “Follow me.” Yet his whole person, this relational context and the relational process involved are not explicit in the biblical narratives of each disciple responding to his call. They are more explicit in the narratives of those who refused his call (e.g., see Jn 6:22-66, Mk 10:17-22, Lk 9:59-62, to be discussed later in this chapter), which may suggest the reason for their refusal. How then do we understand the early disciples’ apparent immediate reception of and response to Jesus’ call?
The initial introduction to Jesus came from John the Baptist to two of his disciples, who then followed Jesus (Jn 1:35-39). While this was an introduction and not a call, Jesus engaged them and responded to their rather indirect question “where are you staying?” “Come and you will see” was not about seeing a place but about fellowship together and “seeing” the person Jesus presented; they spent that day with him, which was likely the rest of the evening since it was 4 pm. Whatever impression this made on Andrew (one of the two with John the son of Zebedee possibly the other), he introduced Simon (Peter) to Jesus the Messiah (Jn 1:40-42). Their interest was about messianic hope and desires to have the promise of Messiah fulfilled. It was not until after this period of introduction (however long it was) that the call from Jesus to “Follow me” began (see Jn 1:43-50, Mt 4:18-22, Lk 5:1-11,27-28), and continued, essentially being his last words said directly to Peter (Jn 21:19-22, to be discussed later).
Whatever events can be included in this introductory period is unclear due to the uncertain length of this period and the chronology of some events. Yet it would be a fair assumption that at the very least the person these soon-to-be disciples witnessed was unconventional from cultural and rabbinic tradition. This of course led some others to reject Jesus, which may also have raised some red flags about the early disciples’ messianic expectations. Besides the limited things they witnessed Jesus doing and saying, there is no other narrative information from the biblical text to understand the early disciples’ response to Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” That is, unless we claim that they didn’t really understand Jesus’ call. There is some truth to their lack of understanding the full significance of Jesus’ call (to be discussed later) yet this is hardly sufficient basis to suggest for making a radical change for their life.
For a better understanding of the disciples’ reception and response to Jesus’ call, I suggest we need to explore not only the content aspect of Jesus’ communication with them but also its relationship aspect. Understanding this relational aspect of Jesus’ communication is important because it qualifies his content. The relational aspect, which was discussed earlier in “The Basis of This Study” of the Introduction (p.7), are relational messages (usually implied) from a person conveying: (1) something about one’s self, (2) something about one’s view of the other person, and/or (3) something about their relationship together. Jesus’ communication included these relational messages shared not only with the early disciples but with all his followers. Taking into account all that transpired in context, the relational messages in each interaction could be identified.
To the first two he said “Come and you will see (Jn 1:39)—again, not about seeing a place but his person. The suggested relational messages, corresponding to the above list: (1) “I am here to be vulnerable and make myself accessible to you” because (2) “you are important to me” and (3) “I hope we can build relationship together—not a mere kingdom but the family of God.”
When Andrew brought Simon to the Messiah, “Jesus looked at him” (emblepo, to look closely, directly at, Jn 1:42). Given such direct and close eye contact by the Messiah must have made Simon somewhat uncomfortable, but there was an important message in this non-verbal communication; and then for Simon to hear “You are…you will be….” Suggested relational messages: (1) “Despite what my foreknowledge may tell you, I myself am personally and openly involved to engage with you,” even though (2) “I know you more than you know yourself, I don’t define you by what you do or have; your whole person is special to me,” and possibly including (3) “I look forward to relationship together.”
The next day Jesus begins to initiate the call, which in itself was unconventional for a rabbi to do; in that tradition students usually chose their teachers. The first person recorded to receive Jesus’ call was Philip, whom Jesus simply found and extended “Follow me” (Jn 1:43). The word for “follow” (akoloutheo) means to accompany, go with, and occurs almost exclusively in the Gospels. As commonly seen in today’s practice, following Jesus in his day often did not involve being a disciple (cf. Mt 4:25; 8:1, Mk 10:32); it was merely an association for those persons, albeit with the Messiah, but for the wrong reasons (cf. Jn 6:14-27). The Greek word involves relational significance when it refers to individuals. And this is the significance Jesus conveys to Philip, though Philip struggled to function in it (see Jn 14:8-11). Suggested relational messages, taking into account what Philip told Nathanael (v.45): (1) “I am indeed the Messiah but I am not defined by my role or by what I do; there is much more of me to know and experience,” and (2) “I am calling you not for messianic duty, nor because of anything special you’ve done or anything special you have but only because you are important to me,” and (3) “I want to take you further and deeper in relationship with the whole of God.”
Then Philip told Nathanael about his encounter with Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:43-51). Nathanael didn’t hesitate to share honestly his skepticism, displaying his bias of a prevailing stereotype disparaging Nazareth, which Jesus could have rebuked but instead affirmed Nathanael’s person (v.47). In the interaction that followed, the content of Jesus’ communication convinced Nathanael to acknowledge Jesus within the limits of his current interpretive framework (v.49). Jesus told Nathanael “you will understand much more about me than that” (v.50), and that all of them will see the activity of God (v.51). Assuming Nathanael became one of the twelve apostles, he would be listed by the name Bartholomew in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (Mt10:2-4, Mk 3:16-19, Lk 6:14-16, Acts 1:13). Suggested relational messages: (1) “I am who you say I am, but I am much more to confess in your faith, and more importantly to experience in relationship” and (2) “I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to engage me further,” therefore (3) “Don’t stop here, Nathanael, but let’s go deeper in relationship together in order to understand the whole of my person—and along with the others, to experience in relational progression together the whole of God.”
Later, Jesus extends the formal call to Simon and Andrew, James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Mt 4:18-22, Mk 1:16-20). By this time they had limited opportunity to observe Jesus, yet the information they had about him seems insufficient to make a radical change to their lives. One experience they had, however, helps us to better understand their reception and response to Jesus’ call, though the chronology of this moment is not certain (see Lk 5:1-11).
After some initial time with Jesus, Peter and Andrew returned to their vocation of fishing. When Jesus saw them fishing, he called them specifically to follow after his person (Mt 4:18-20, Mk 1:16-18). With such response of commitment, Jesus said “I will make you fishers of men.” The relational response to Jesus is the imperative here and must not be subordinated nor preceded by the mission, service or related role, that is, what they did, just as Jesus’ sanctified life and practice defined (cf. Jn 12:26, to be discussed later). Suggested relational messages: (1) I am not defined by my role nor what I do, so don’t reduce my person to Messiah, Teacher, Savior, nor to my miracles, my behavioral examples, or even to merely my teachings,” and (2) “I don’t define you by your service, sacrifice, role, or anything your do or have. I call you because you are important to me—your person, not what you can do for me or give to me,” therefore (3) “With the heart of my whole person I am vulnerable and accountable to you for relationship, intimate relationship together, and I want you to be vulnerable and accountable to me with your whole heart for this relationship.”
Moreover, Jesus’ declaration “I will make you…” is important to understand in the above relational context and process. “Make” (poieo) means to make with the underlying sense of “bringing about” a change in the state of a person; poieo here in the Greek indicative mood likely is used to express this condition. Jesus’ declaration cannot be reduced to a mere change of vocation. The implications of this are better understood with the relational messages, taking into account their experience with Jesus and the catch of fish (Lk 5:4-11, whether parallel with above or separate): (1) “I, myself, am the incarnation of God, nothing less and no substitutes, yet my whole person is vulnerably disclosed not to judge and separate but to redeem for relationship—a person not to be afraid of, redefined or reduced,” and (2) “You are rightly awed yet unnecessarily afraid of the difference between you and me, be assured I don’t define you in human terms. A major part of your problem is how you are defined and what defines you. This has become who, what and how you are and this needs to change—transformed from the inside out for your whole person. Nothing less than your whole person and no substitutes for your whole person,” so (3) “Don’t focus on doing “fishers of men” but on the primary issue of our relationship. Stop trying to redefine my purpose, me and our relationship because I, myself, don’t do relationship with you except of my terms. To follow me is to accept my irreducible and nonnegotiable terms and to function in relationship together with nothing less and no substitutes.”
When Jesus declared “I will make you fishers of men,” this was not only about his followers’ mission. There is a more important purpose and priority involved to which the early disciples responded—even without full understanding yet with a sufficient sense that receiving and responding to Jesus’ call was both important and necessary for their lives. Since Jesus neither defined them by nor pursued them for what they could do, this was not about switching from fish to men but about the further and deeper issue of who, what and how they were as a function of their whole person. This is about the person not defined primarily by human contexts, thus diminished or minimalized by reductionism. That is, this is about wholeness, and Jesus’ call is “the call to follow me in relational progression to the whole of God.” Thus Jesus’ call is “the call to be whole”—both for the person to be whole and for the relationships necessary to be whole, both of which are necessary together to be whole in likeness of the whole of God, the Trinity. And when mission (“fishers of men”) is understood in this trinitarian relational context and process (cf. Jn 17:18, to be discussed later), missiology is deepened and mission practice is made whole.
Jesus’ call to “Follow me” constitutes the call to be whole. And the
call to be whole involves the call to be redefined and transformed.
“Follow me” implies this call, which the relational messages in
Jesus’ communication help us understand. This is not to suggest that
the early disciples understood the full significance of his
relational messages. This does suggest that their reception and
response to his call signifies being stirred or touched by some
aspect (relational more likely than content) of Jesus’
communication. It was significant enough to bring out their need or
desire to make this radical change in their lives: Simon and Andrew
“left their nets and followed him” (Mt 4:20), James and John “left
their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed
him” (Mk 1:30), and after the catch of fish, the four together
“pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him”
The “catch of fish” experience unnerved Simon face to face with Jesus, not so much about the quantitative difference (in what he did) of the person Jesus presented (which would be expected) but more so the sense of the qualitative difference (the significance of who and what he was) of this person (Lk 5:8,9). While at first this person’s presence was difficult to receive, Jesus’ relational messages (as discussed above) had to have touched them in some sense to evoke their vulnerable response (Lk 5:10,11). It seems highly unlikely that the mere content of his message “from now on you will catch men” could have assured them to be vulnerable with this person presented, much less evoked their radical response.
This call to be redefined, transformed and made whole is even more
dramatic in Jesus’ call to Levi (Mt 9:9-13, Mk 2:13-17, Lk 5:27-32).
Levi was a lower-level tax (toll) collector employed by a chief tax
collector (like Zaccheus in Lk 19:2, to be discussed in Chapter 3)
who was contracted by the Roman government in 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. To
what extent this describes Levi is unknown; nevertheless tax
collectors were identified as the “enemy” by some segments of the
Jewish community and were despised by practicing religious people,
not to mention considered socially lower
How do we understand both Jesus’ behavior and Levi’s response? Jesus’ rebuttal to the Pharisees moments later, about compassion and who needs a doctor (Mt 9:12-13), gives us partial answer. But this tends to focus only on what Jesus did, and his example and words here often are interpreted apart from his person. Yet the whole person Jesus presented is more dramatically made evident in this interaction than in his earlier calls involving foreknowledge and the catch of fish. While Jesus never played to the audience (or crowd in this context, Mk 2:13), his person presented is a resounding statement for all (including us) to grasp. This statement reverberated of his whole person: “who, what and how I am is not defined by the human context, and therefore is neither determined nor controlled by any human situation.”
Jesus’ sanctified life and practice always addressed the issue of how the person presented is defined and what defines that person. And the person presented must be congruent with the nature of who, what and how the person is. For this congruence to be the significance of the person presented (the first issue for all practice) involves the two further issues of practice: (2) the quality of the person’s communication, and (3) the depth of relationship the person engages.
The significance of the person Jesus presented, the quality of his communication and the depth of relationship he engages all emerge dramatically in his call to Levi. Given the background of this surrounding context, Jesus crosses social, cultural and religious boundaries to connect with Levi. It should be understood also that Levi crosses these boundaries (barriers for him) as well by receiving and responding to Jesus. What do they see in each other that warrants such a call and such a response?
Jesus’ sanctified life and practice functioned with a perceptual-interpretive framework congruent with who, what and how his person is, thus determining what he would see. With this lens, Jesus doesn’t pay attention to the Levi defined by the surrounding context. Jesus sees Levi deeper than from the outer in of a reductionist quantitative framework; therefore he sees a person from the inside out experiencing reductionism who needs to be redefined, transformed and made whole. The person Jesus presented pays attention to this Levi; and the significance of Jesus’ person is not lost to Levi, who is used to being treated with contempt. He well knows that for this Rabbi (and miracle worker at that) to engage him is radical, counter-cultural, and simply contrary to life as he knew it. Yet, Jesus wasn’t making a sociocultural, political or philosophical statement. He is making a statement of his person only for relationship: “Follow me.”
Along with the significance of Jesus’ person engaging him, what can Levi grasp of the quality of his communication? The content of Jesus’ message, linked also to his action to engage Levi in this surrounding context, is qualified by these implied relational messages: (1) “I am not defined by reductionism nor is my action determined by it; who, what and how I am is whole in the relationships necessary to be whole, for which I make my person vulnerable to you,” and (2) “In spite of how others see you and you may feel about yourself, nevertheless I see you in your whole person, and you are still important to me and I want you; here is your opportunity to be redefined, transformed and made whole,” so that (3) “we can have intimate relationship together and you can experience belonging in the relationships necessary to be whole as a full member of the family of God.” The significance of Jesus’ person discloses the quality of his communication, the content of which is qualified by these relational messages. And the third relational message defines the depth of relationship Jesus vulnerably engages with Levi, which Jesus practices in loving involvement with Levi over table fellowship with his friends (“tax collectors and sinners,” Mk 2:15) after Levi’s response to the call—an important situation to be further discussed in Chapter 3.
Aside from the conviction of the Spirit in the call to all these early disciples, what does Levi see in Jesus to warrant a radical response for such a drastic identity change? For Jesus’ person to be vulnerable to him and openly be exposed to social sanction and ridicule certainly must have spoken volumes to Levi. And to hear this person say (with both content and relational aspects of his communication) that he wants me, my whole person, for relationship together undoubtedly disarmed Levi and touched him at his core—the significance of his heart, most likely guarded from others in the surrounding context. This person Jesus presented was too significant, qualitatively different and relationally intimate for Levi to dismiss or resist.
Yet, for him to cross those social, cultural and religious barriers, Levi would openly have to let go of his old life and reject reductionism—its perceptual-interpretive framework and its substitutes for the whole of persons and relationships, both prevailing in the surrounding context. This is a risk Levi is able to take because he is entrusting his person to relationship with the vulnerable person he can count on to be truly who and what he is, nothing less and no substitutes. He can count on this person Jesus in this relationship because he personally sees how Jesus is in practice—the significance of his person presented, the qualitative difference of his communication, the intimate depth of relationship he engages—is congruent with who and what he is, thus confirming for Levi that Jesus’ whole person is for relationship. This is what Levi must have seen (not merely blepo, to see, but more like horao, to recognize the significance of, encounter the true nature of, to experience) in Jesus to support making such a drastic change.
Levi’s story is about the gospel. This gospel, however, is not a prevailing popular gospel with an incomplete Christology (tending, e.g., to embody Jesus only in the manger and then on the Cross while focused on disembodied teachings for formulating beliefs and propositional truths) and a truncated soteriology (jumping from Cross to propositions which are focused on “saved from” without the function of “saved to”). An incomplete Christology is disembodied (apart from the function of the person) from the whole person Jesus presented throughout his life and practice, thus its Jesus (without the function of the person) is essentially dysfunctional for experiential relationship. Accordingly then, a truncated soteriology is disengaged from the relational process with the whole person Jesus and no longer in relational progression with him. Thus its salvation is nonfunctional in the trinitarian relational context of God’s family, notwithstanding doctrine; furthermore its salvation is without the function of experiential truth in the significant relationships necessary to be whole together in the whole of God’s family.
Levi encountered a “complete” Christology of the whole person Jesus presented to him—not teachings and propositions but the whole person for relationship; and the significance of Jesus’ whole person engaged him in a full soteriology—not only to be redeemed from the old but more functionally important to be transformed to the new and made whole. Jesus’ call to Levi provides us with a clear understanding of the gospel, the one that is theologically and functionally necessary for our life and practice. This is the gospel in action—acting in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. Functioning with anything less or with any substitutes is not the gospel of the whole person Jesus, the Christ, and thus renders such function to the epistemological illusions and ontological simulations of reductionism.
It is difficult to suggest that Levi would have made a radical change for a popular gospel. Likewise, for the other disciples, their radical response to Jesus’ call is difficult to explain (not to diminish the Spirit’s work) without some understanding of Jesus’ relational messages qualifying “Follow me” (which certainly would involve the Spirit’s work). Without this understanding of Jesus’ communication, we are left to consider that the disciples just somewhat blindly or irrationally changed the course of their life to follow Jesus. Without suggesting they understood well his relational messages, and knowing they had ongoing difficulty grasping the trinitarian relational context and process while following him after the call (to be discussed later), nevertheless in their call they still received the person, not a proposition about the person; and they still responded to this person for relationship together, not to follow a teaching, a model or a missional goal. They had the incarnation of the Son of God before them—nothing less and no substitutes. The truth of God and God’s self-revelation were embodied in the whole person Jesus. And it was this person vulnerably presented to them, relationally pursuing and extending his whole person to them, intimately involved with them first and foremost for relationship together.
The disciples’ response to this person was not irrational and at the same time was not the outcome of mere rationality. No amount of socio-historical, philosophical or even theological inquiry can account for the presence of God in the person Jesus. That is, God’s self-revelation and the truth of God in the person of Jesus are communicative acts not for mere exhibition but for relationship (cf. Jn 1:11,12,18). As communicative acts, God’s revelation and truth cannot be understood merely by observation (scientific, critical or casual). They are understood only as it is received in the relational context and process in which God is disclosed by the person Jesus; this understanding is the outcome in the relational process of experiential truth discussed in the Introduction. Such a relational response is characterized with great joy by Jesus as the vulnerable engagement and trusting involvement of a child (a whole person, Lk 10:21, also discussed earlier in the Introduction). Jesus strongly contrasted this involvement to the disengaged observer or the quantitative engagement of any inquirer using a reductionist interpretive framework. The disciples reflect “the child-person” rather than “the wise and learned,” thus their further (though far from complete) understanding of the person Jesus presented.
“Follow me” involves nothing less and no substitutes than the whole person and the relationships in relational progression necessary to be whole. For this purpose Jesus functionally sanctified himself in ongoing life and practice in order to make evident the greater context of his whole person, so that our life and practice is contextualized (not merely embedded but relationally belonging) in it: the specific trinitarian relational context beyond any human context in which Jesus seeks to involve each of his followers, define all of his disciples and help them together function in its compatible relational process, the trinitarian relational process.
Jesus’ relational messages not only qualify his call to “Follow me,” they also constitute the full significance of the person behind the “me” and the underlying meaning of the process to “Follow.” In other words, “Follow me” cannot be reduced from Jesus’ whole person nor substituted for by practice separated from direct relational involvement with his whole person—which are what an incomplete Christology and truncated soteriology result in doing. This directly involves the practice of discipleship. Any theology of discipleship must (dei) by its nature be conjoined with “Follow me” and further be predicated on the full significance of “me” and the underlying meaning of “Follow.” This is of immeasurable importance for our life and practice (individually and together as church), which has become a prevailing issue of growing proportion.
While many notions of discipleship may be embedded in Jesus’ teachings or examples, they are not embodied (a function of the person) in his whole person to follow for relationship. The person Jesus presents is a function of the whole person; and his whole person is a function of relationship. If the person Jesus vulnerably presented and disclosed is truly for relationship, then we cannot disembody (separate out in function) his teachings from this person, nor can we merely look at his examples detached from this person, nor examine his words disconnected from his person. This is an issue for both the epistemic process of those wanting to know Jesus (as discussed in the Introduction) as well as for the practice of discipleship of those professing to know Jesus as his followers.
To follow any of the above practices disembodied from the whole person Jesus vulnerably presented for relationship is not discipleship on God’s terms but discipleshipisms on our terms. Discipleshipism is based on what Jesus did (examples, miracles) and/or on what he said (teachings, commands) or has (title, role, power) but not based on his whole person (nothing less and no substitutes) first and foremost for relationship together. Thus discipleshipism is reductionist and tends to be overly christocentric, often rendered merely to epistemological illusion of the Truth and ontological simulation of the Life that Jesus incarnated.
In contrast to discipleshipism and in theological conflict with it, discipleship on God’s terms is: rooted in who, what and how Jesus is, and thus inherently predicated on “Follow me” in the full significance of the whole person behind “me” and the underlying qualitative relational meaning of the process to “Follow”; therefore discipleship must (dei) by its nature involve following his whole person for vulnerable relationship, intimately functioning in the trinitarian relational context and relational process together in relational progression to the whole of God as family.
In discipleship, a person who responds to Jesus’ call to become his
follower enters the relational progression not merely as a believer
but is now his disciple (mathetes). What further does this
relationship as his disciple involve? This will be an ongoing
discussion, which continues next with Jesus’ sanctified life and
practice focused on his popularity with would-be disciples and the
shape of their call.
As we continue to examine the person Jesus presented in human contexts, in human interaction and in public, one major issue he frequently addressed was others’ positive perceptions of him. These perceptions, however, were not the process of theaomai (to contemplate carefully in order to perceive correctly) by those who “have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14), and thus responded to his whole person. His popularity was often based on an image of his person which he revised or corrected, chastened or confronted, even with his own disciples. This was necessary in part for valid theology but mainly for reliable function in relationship.
While it is true that each disciple has his/her own particular perception of this relationship and responds in one’s uniqueness, this only allows for meaningful variation in the relationship but never makes the relationship relative to a disciple. The relationship is never relative because Jesus remains who, what and how he is, incorrigible to human shaping, and because this nothing-less-and-no-substitutes person only does relationship on his terms—nonnegotiable and irreducible terms. This relational condition and process of discipleship not only conflict with all our attempts or substitutes on our terms but are incompatible with discipleshipism in much church practice. And this involves the issue of our positive perceptions of him versus the whole person Jesus presented.
When we formulate discipleship, the Jesus whom we have in our perceptions to follow often tends to be contextualized by a prevailing culture (e.g., Western) as well as Christian subculture (e.g., evangelical) in our surrounding context. The positive perceptions of that Jesus become “a popular Jesus,” who, while becoming normative in our life and practice, often takes on a life of its own distinct from the incarnate Jesus—even inadvertently and with good intentions. The theological differences or nuances may not be apparent. In function, however, a popular Jesus becomes a Jesus we want to follow on our terms—one who may be more palatable or less threatening, whom we can determine or even control. Underlying a popular Jesus is an incomplete Christology by which our practice perceives of an embodied Jesus going from the manger straight to the cross, though his disembodied teachings and examples are sustained.
Yet, the complete narratives of Jesus defining who, what and how his whole person is also reveal him counteracting a popular Jesus as well as clearly defining the terms of relationship with him. The skewed perceptions of a popular Jesus are directly addressed in both would-be disciples and his early disciples. Our discussion returns to these narrative accounts in the biblical text.
Intentions: Knowing What’s Important
Since they defined Jesus by what he did, they no doubt also defined themselves by what they did. This is indicated by their response to Jesus’ critique: “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (v.28). While Judaism emphasized righteous works, Jesus answered with the singular “work of God” to address the deeper issue here (v.29). The significance of “work” over “works” is crucial to grasp not only because it identifies how the person is defined but also for how that in turn determines how relationships are done. How we define ourselves strongly determines how we do relationships—both of which in turn greatly influence how we practice church, to be discussed later.
When Jesus defined “the work of God” as believing in him, he was not describing two things: (1) “believe” as merely confessing a belief system, and (2) his person as a mere object of belief. “To believe” is the ongoing relational act of trust vulnerably engaged in relationship with the whole person God sent and Jesus presented. God’s self-revelation and Truth are disclosed (phaneroo), even as miraculous signs, only for relationship. The “work” of God then is totally relational work involving further and deeper relationship with Jesus’ whole person in relational progression to the whole of God, which Jesus continued to disclose to them (vv.32-58).
In response to their quantitative focus on miracles and bread (vv.30-31), Jesus expands this limited human context to the qualitative relational context of his Father (thus the Trinity, v.32). At the same time, Jesus shifts the focus from quantitative bread (past and present) to the qualitative bread signifying his whole person (vv.33,35). Yet the significant difference of the qualitative bread from the quantitative bread continues to be the source of tension and conflict for these would-be disciples throughout this interaction. Jesus both discloses his person and exposes their persons when he shares “eats of this bread…this bread is my flesh” (v.51), “eats my flesh and drinks my blood” (v.54). Every time Jesus said this about the bread as his flesh, they only thought in quantitative terms, suggesting possible thoughts of human sacrifice and cannibalism (vv.52,60). The person Jesus disclosed, however, was not merely what he did in the flesh but, more significantly, who, what and how he is embodied in his whole person. And the whole person Jesus presented and disclosed (phaneroo) is only for redeemed relationship together on his terms (nothing less and no substitutes). This Jesus, then, of complete Christology and full soteriology, involves his redemptive work in the flesh and more completely his relational work of the whole. Therefore, as should be understood in the Lord’s Supper and practiced in the Eucharist, Jesus invites them (us) to partake of nothing less than his whole person (not only what he did), and to participate intimately in his whole life without substitutes in the ongoing function of relationship with the whole of God (vv.56-58). His followers are at the height of who and what they are as they partake and participate together at the table as whose they are in the whole of God.
Unfortunately, their ongoing responses (or reactions) reflected how they defined the person only by what one did or had (vv.30-31,41-42,52,60). It was on this basis from a quantitative framework that they perceived Jesus and were following him. Yet as intently as they followed Jesus, their involvement reflected reductionism (in their perceptual framework and practice) and thus seeking relationship with Jesus only on their terms. This tension became increasingly problematic (vv.41,42b,52,60), resulting in the predictable relational consequence that many of his would-be disciples “turned back and no longer followed him” (v.66).
After their departure, Jesus asked the Twelve if they wanted to leave also (v.67). Simon Peter’s answer could be interpreted as either a traditional confession of faith or a discipleship response to the embodied words of Jesus’ whole person for relationship together (v.68). Confession alone is insufficient to “Follow me,” though it was likely part of Peter’s answer attached to his response to follow the whole of Jesus (cf. Mt 16:15-16). Yet, as we will understand later, Peter still struggled with Jesus’ whole person and negotiating the relationship on his terms. The substantive difference between Peter and the would-be disciples was his openness to pursue the whole person Jesus presented for relationship only on Jesus’ terms. To believe genuinely (dynamic faith) and to follow authentically (discipleship) are always relationally specific to Jesus’ whole person (nothing less), and thus they only have relational significance in the direct intimate involvement of relationship with him (no substitutes).
Errors for Relationship
The encounter begins as he imposes himself on Jesus with the greeting “Good teacher.” Given the Jewish conception of God’s goodness and who, what and how Jesus is, this seems to be appropriate address to the person Jesus presented to this man. Yet, Jesus’ response—“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (v.18)—appears to indicate the rich ruler is not addressing his whole person as God, possibly suggesting at least his faux pas. His address as “teacher,” however, seems appropriate regardless of his perceptions of Jesus, that is, appropriate if he only implies a title not a function. The meaning of “teacher” (didaskolos) involved a much more significant relationship with those who called someone teacher back then, than it does today in Western culture. To have someone as your teacher meant that you were more than a student or learner. It meant you were their disciple (mathetes), an adherent, which involved a deeper attachment to the teacher. And the specific terms for adherence were determined solely by the teacher. The rich ruler does not pursue Jesus to function in this kind of relationship, despite his humble posture (“fell on his knees”) and seemingly significant address. Their interaction will confirm this person’s level of interest and engagement.
By asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (v.17), he indicates his perceptual framework and the limits of his focus—just as the earlier would-be disciples asking “what must we do” (Jn 6:28). Since he defined himself by what he did (keeping the commandments, v.20) as well as by what he had (great wealth, v.22), he reduced his person to these quantitative aspects. Moreover, with the lens of this reductionist framework, this is how he perceives Jesus: as a teacher only for information, as useful or profitable to advance his life. In other words, he only sees Jesus for what he does and has—nothing more. He does not engage Jesus’ person further nor involve himself deeper with the Teacher for relationship together. This was a critical error he made, the first of two critical errors of relationship.
Yet, this was no casual “seeker.” Despite all he did in life (accomplished socially and religiously) and all he had (acquired status, accumulated wealth), this serious, devoted, successful person wanted more in his life—“eternal life.” This is not about the longevity of quantitative bios but the qualitative zoe which is of God. Jesus doesn’t dismiss him nor diminish the desire of his pursuit. Quite the contrary, Jesus looks at (emblepo, look at directly, closely, cf. to Simon, Jn 1:42) him and loves (agape, indicating the deep level of involvement) him (v.21).
The relational messages implied in this interaction are valuable to identify from both persons. Suggested relational messages from the rich ruler: (1) “I define myself by what I do (and have), so I can do it, or at least I need to do it as best I can. Just tell me what I have to do,” and likewise (2) “You (God) define me by what I do also. That’s how God is,” therefore (3) “Relationship is based on what we do, so I have to fulfill doing this to participate in God’s life.” Suggested relational messages from Jesus: “I don’t define myself by a role as teacher or savior and by my knowledge. Don’t look at me in the same way you look at yourself. I am a whole person vulnerable to you to partake of and participate in,” and likewise (2) “I don’t define you by what you do and have either, so stop reducing yourself. Your person without those reductionist substitutes is important to me and valuable just for you,” therefore (3) “I want you for relationship together—person to person, heart to heart, nothing less and no substitutes—so don’t let reductionist substitutes prevent us from coming together.”
In the content of those familiar words which came out of Jesus’ mouth (v.21), he lovingly tries to help the man to redefine his person and to free him from what reduced his whole person and prevented the relationship necessary to be whole. This would require a shift in his perceptual-interpretive framework from quantitative to qualitative—which is what he really sought in zoe. Sadly, the rich ruler separated himself from the whole person Jesus vulnerably presented to him, thus clearly demonstrating his continued condition of enslavement to reductionism, that is, defining himself by what he did and had (v.22). This enslavement exposes his second critical error of relationship.
The rich ruler pursued the Teacher only to learn what to do (his first critical error) “to inherit eternal life.” “To inherit” (kleronomeo, to be an heir) something was not an end result any individual can make happen by one’s effort, which the rich ruler appeared to assume. “To be an heir” required a specific relational context involving a process which can have the relational conclusion of an inheritance. In those days, the specific relational context of an heir was the family of which one was a full member (either biologically or by adoption); a family slave, for example, would not qualify for an inheritance, only a son would. Since the rich ruler was not free from his reductionist framework and practice of defining his person and doing relationships, he clearly pursued this inheritance of God’s life functionally while in enslavement, that is, in effect from a position of a slave. This was his second critical error of relationship. Regardless of his best efforts, a slave could not qualify for an inheritance, only a son would qualify as an heir to partake and participate in the Father’s life, thus belong permanently in his family (cf. Jn 8:31-36). And functional enslavement prevents even Christians from experiencing this intimate belonging of relationship together, beliefs notwithstanding.
In Jesus’ sanctified life and practice, he distinctly makes evident that the whole person he vulnerably presents and discloses is only for relationship in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. Discipleship of “Follow me” by this nature can only be ongoing intimate involvement in relationship together with Jesus in relational progression to the whole of God. As the rich ruler’s two critical errors of relationship demonstrate unequivocally, anything less and any substitutes are not sufficient, acceptable or relationally significant to Jesus—no matter the sincerity or good intentions.
for His Whole Person:
The first person is identified as “a teacher of the law” (scribe) who asserts to Jesus “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (Mt 8:19). Since he was schooled in the rabbinic tradition, he knew what it meant to be a disciple (mathetes). That would suggest an advantage in his favor as he now offers (or responds, if Jesus called) to become a disciple of Jesus. Whether he merely wants to learn a “fresh” interpretation of the law or he is expressing a deeper commitment to Jesus—likely the latter, given his “wherever you go” is in the Greek middle voice, subjunctive mood—Jesus responds in a curious way: “…the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). This is commonly interpreted as Jesus identifying the rigorous sacrificial life of discipleship; an alternative reading I propose is about sojourning. Thus I suggest Jesus is making a deeper response to this teacher of the law—not about what his disciples do but of who, what and how they are and whose they are.
Since “no place to lay” is in the Greek subjunctive mood, Jesus is not describing an existing reality. Rather the subjunctive only expresses a potential possibility and only marks contingency. While using the contrast to the reality of the animal world (foxes and birds having a place), Jesus then is not pointing to current reality of discipleship or even future discipleship in the world—though he is pointing to a distinct process of discipleship in this context. Part of this process involves being a sojourner in the world: unlike the animals of the world, “no place to lay.” Yet, the reality of sojourning in this world can only emerge from the further and deeper process of discipleship inherent in “Follow me.” While a sojourner in this world is subject to the pressures and influences of the world, that person cannot be defined and determined by the surrounding and prevailing human contexts. This is the deeper issue Jesus addresses in his response.
As a teacher of the law, this person is not merely deeply knowledgeable about the law, he is also embedded in the Judaic religious and sociocultural context. Thus, he is bringing this particular perceptual-interpretive framework with him in his assertion to Jesus, which influences how he sees Jesus as well as himself. Without specifying what his framework is, Jesus implies in his response: that as a sojourner he himself is not defined by the human contexts of the world; that who, what and how the Son of Man is can only be defined and determined by the further and deeper relational context of his Father; and that together his whole person is of this trinitarian relational context as family, in which the person he vulnerably presents is compatible in function only with the trinitarian relational process of family love. What Jesus implies in all this for this person to understand about his own self is: that his framework needs to shift from a reductionist quantitative framework to a qualitative relational framework; that he needs to change how he is defined and what defines him; that discipleship is ongoing vulnerable involvement with Jesus’ whole person in the primacy of relationship together only in the trinitarian relational context and process of the whole of God—nothing less and no substitutes. And that no matter how good his intentions, the de facto state (functional reality) of who and what he is will always implicitly shape how he functions as his disciple.
Jesus clarified that discipleship is this call to be redefined, transformed and made whole. Whatever this teacher of the law heard in Jesus’ response and however he perceived Jesus after this, we are given no further indication in the narrative about his response back to Jesus. I suspect that following Jesus was more to be accountable for than he expected, even with his previous experience as a disciple—radically more deep. This interaction, however, provides the broader context for the following two would-be disciples, which suggests looking at these three interactions as a set rather than separately (see Lk 9:57-62). These three would-be disciples exercised strong initiative and displayed considerable interest in following Jesus, yet something happened to each of them. While these appear to be describing the sacrifice and service of discipleship, the underlying accountability for Jesus’ self-disclosures exposes the deeper issue.
Prior to undertaking his discipleship, the next person requests “first let me go and bury my father” (Lk 9:59). It was an important responsibility in the ancient community for a son to bury his father, particularly the eldest son. Certainly, as Son himself, Jesus understands the importance of honoring one’s father. Given the role of a son, this man makes a legitimate request of Jesus to adjust to his special circumstance. Yet, Jesus appears to deny the request, counter the religious values and change the man’s role (9:60). If we look only at the man’s circumstance, Jesus’ response would definitely imply all of this. If, however, we look at his circumstance in larger context, beyond the human context to Jesus’ relational context, a deeper picture emerges. In saying “let the dead…” and “…proclaim the kingdom,” Jesus is juxtaposing two different realities here: (1) the prevailing social reality of the world, which includes the family of those whose essential function is spiritually dead (“let the dead bury their own dead”); while this social reality is a basic one in which we all participate, Jesus is clarifying for this would-be disciple not to let this reality define him nor determine who, what and how he is; in contrast, thus functionally in conflict, (2) Jesus brings forth the reality of the kingdom of God—not a conceptual idea (reign) or a future condition (realm) of the kingdom of God—that is, the family of those who truly are alive, a new creation in Christ, who are redeemed from reductionist definition, determination and control which dominate the social reality of the world; those belonging to this new reality also need to share it directly with others in family love, just as Jesus discloses it, for relationship in God’s family, because every person needs the experiential reality of this family of the living.
When Jesus told him “but you go and proclaim,” he neither denied him his role as a son nor denounced the religious value of honoring his father. He did clarify for him, however, the ontology of his person as a disciple. Who, what and how this person is by its nature then subordinates all other determination and function. Discipleship is not a hybrid of the two realities, in which the whole of one’s person and function become reduced to something less and some substitute. Moreover, Jesus is not changing his role to a missionary (“go”) or evangelist (“proclaim”). “Proclaim” (diangello) means not merely declaring the kingdom (family) of God but to declare fully, completely. By this, Jesus means “go and proclaim” not in a quantitative sense (as many view the Great Commission and evangelism) but in its qualitative significance. The former does indeed make it about a role and what he should do. This emphasis reduces the whole person and functionally deemphasizes the relationships necessary to be whole constituting the family of God, thus a truncated soteriology with a gospel suffering from a lack of relational significance. Such a proclamation would not be full, complete, that is, whole.
And Jesus clarifies for this would-be disciple that discipleship is the call to be whole. Thus what is imperative is not to fulfill his role to bury his father. That may be necessary along with other matters in the social reality of the world but only as a function of his wholeness as Jesus’ disciple. This is the imperative Jesus presents to him—the relational imperative of the whole of God.
Following Jesus is about more than interest, however strong. The adherence of a disciple to Jesus involves deep attachment and distinct priority for the experience of belonging as one of his true disciples. The third would-be disciple in this grouping declared his plans to follow Jesus but first wanted to “go back and say good-bye to my family” (9:61). Seems reasonable, except saying good-bye (apotasso) in their cultural context connotes a lengthy process (maybe many years) and a number of duties to perform before leaving. His use of apotasso in the Greek aorist form also indicates an open-ended period of time. While this person may have had a stronger interest to follow Jesus than he had in his family, he demonstrates a stronger attachment to his family. Attachments reflect where the heart is embedded and thus would always exert greater influence than interests (which only reflect the focus of the mind), no matter how strong the interest. As a consequence of his attachment, his primary priority was still with his biological family over Jesus.
The differences of interest, attachments and priorities disclose where the person is. Jesus ongoingly clarifies this for persons, particularly his disciples (would-be and real). When he talked later about the need to “give up everything” (apotasso, same word as good-bye) 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 (see Lk 14:26). In that context and in these current contexts, this is about how the person is defined, who/what determines their lives, and thus how relationships are practiced. For this purpose, Jesus is emphatic with this third would-be disciple that anything less or any substitutes in discipleship are a reductionist compromise, which is not “fit for service” (euthetos, usable, suitable, 9:62); that is, it’s not relationally meaningful, thus neither significant relationally to God nor acceptable for relational function in God’s family.
Jesus held these would-be disciples accountable for his whole person
presented and disclosed vulnerably by the trinitarian relational
context of family and relational process of family love. Thus, his
call continues to be clarified as the call to be redefined,
transformed and made whole—to follow him for relationship together
in relational progression to the whole of God, the Trinity qua
family. Anything less than and any substitutes for this are
reductionism of the incarnate Jesus and the whole of God’s
self-revelation, which renders our life and practice both
theologically and functionally to epistemological illusions and
ontological simulations. Consequently, all who confess this Jesus
are accountable—from the scholar in the academy to the teacher
behind the pulpit to every person in the pew.
Since we are all accountable for the entirety of God’s self-revelations in the whole person of Jesus’ life and practice, there are interrelated issues we (individually and together as church) need to address and account for in our life and practice. What we pay attention to and tend to ignore (if not theologically, at least in function) about Jesus is a reliable indicator of what we pay attention to and ignore about each other in the practice of church. For example, if we pay attention to what Jesus did but ignore his whole person, we will pay attention to what persons do—relate to, talk about, pray for, work with—while overlooking their whole person, thus basing relationship on the amount of what we do together rather than on how deeply we are involved with each other.
How we practice church is an ongoing issue and priority in this study. Yet, we cannot adequately address this issue without the interrelated, and generally antecedent, issue of how we functionally (not in theory or rhetoric) practice relationships—to be discussed more in the next chapter. Moreover, this relational issue cannot be adequately addressed without the interrelated, and generally antecedent, issue of how we define ourselves and what defines our person. The issue of what defines us also involves our basic perceptual-interpretive framework: the functional lens used in our primary culture (and subcultures) which determines essentially what we pay attention to or ignore in ourselves, others (including Jesus), our relationships and church life and practice. These three basic interrelated issues (what defines us, how we practice relationship and thus practice church) interact upon each other to further reinforce and more deeply embed us in practices of which we have to give account.
Is the Jesus presented at church and is the Jesus represented in our practice the whole person Jesus vulnerably presented and disclosed for relationship? The theological implications of an incomplete Christology directly affect our life and practice and the Jesus they are based on. An incomplete Christology indicates we don’t really understand the person Jesus much less intimately know him. Without “the presence of the whole” in sanctified life and practice, we are susceptible to the substitutes of reductionism, to ontological simulation and epistemological illusion.
We all have to take seriously and make explicit the presence of reductionism—each scholar, every teacher/pastor, all persons in the church. The incarnation is not a mere historical event, not only a basic foundation for faith. The incarnation is the embodiment of the whole of God and the fulfillment of God’s thematic relational work since creation—the significance of which is deeply known in the experiential truth of relationship, that is, when not reduced. It is this counter-relational work of reductionism in our midst which ongoingly challenges the whole of God’s relational work.
Moreover, we need to acknowledge the reality that reductionism tends not to be the blatant activity often associated with Satan but rather is usually an obscure process having the appearance of being reasonable, normative and even righteous (cf. 2 Cor 11:14,15, most likely engaged in church contexts). This means any shift to reductionist substitutes for the whole may not be apparent because the overt forms may remain while the underlying or deeper significance is absent. For example, this shift may not involve a shift in basic theology and doctrine but what they are based on (e.g., a scientific paradigm and foundationalism, not the whole of God), or it may not be a shift in basic types of Christian practice but how Christians function (e.g., without the significance of heart), not a change in outward behavior but without the relational significance of intimate involvement. The latter is notable in the routinization of worship (cf. Mt 15:8-9), particularly in the ritualization of the Eucharist without partaking of Jesus’ whole person (not only what he did) and, even more significantly, without participating together intimately in relationship with him in the function of the trinitarian relational context of God’s family and the trinitarian relational process of God’s family love.
In its teaching and practice, the church is clearly accountable for a complete Christology and a full soteriology. The incarnation principle of nothing less and no substitutes is not only paradigmatic for all of our life and practice, more importantly it is imperative for each person and the church together—the relational imperative of the whole of God. This principle needs to be ongoingly examined and accounted for in the three major areas for all practice: (1) the significance of our person presented, (2) the quality of our communication (both content and relational aspects), and (3) the depth level of relationship we engage.
As Jesus functioned ongoingly throughout the incarnation, sanctified life and practice must (dei) always address the issues of how the person presented is defined and what defines the person presented. And the person presented must be congruent with the nature of who, what and how the person is, just as Jesus consistently was. For the person presented to be congruent with who they are and to be compatible with whose they are, furthermore, involves the other major areas of the quality of communication and the depth level of relationship engaged—discussed further in the next chapter.
In all of this, Jesus unequivocally disclosed that anything less or any substitutes of his person and ours are insufficient for relationship on his terms. This brings us to the crucial issue of discipleship and the critical question: what are our churches filled with? Discipleship is a crucial issue because our prevailing notions of discipleship appear inadequate to distinguish Jesus’ disciples, thus incapable of defining the make-up of a church as his followers. This goes back to what we pay attention to and tend to ignore. Apart from what Jesus said to the rich ruler, for example, in terms of what this person accomplished and had attained and accumulated in his life, he (and persons who function like him) would be considered a model Christian and sought after by most churches for membership.
We cannot ignore, however, what Jesus clearly shared with would-be disciples without engaging in reductionism of his person. We cannot ignore what is insufficient and unacceptable to Jesus to be his follower without redefining this with reductionist substitutes. Church teaching and practice of discipleship in particular make evident on whose terms relationship with God is engaged.
The incarnation establishes the larger context beyond any human context in which Jesus vulnerably discloses the whole of God for relationship. This is the only person Jesus presented. If we are to receive and respond to God’s self-revelations and thus be distinguished as the people of the Book, then first and foremost we have to become persons of the Word. And if we are to be indeed persons of the Word embodied (including all his embodied words and practice), then we must by its nature function together in the full relational significance of Jesus’ whole person.
The function of his sanctified life and practice in the trinitarian relational context and process seeks to define us, involve us and help us function in a sanctified life and practice of nothing less and no substitutes. This is neither optional nor negotiable, only the relational imperative. And the vital relational message in this imperative call to be redefined, transformed and made whole is God’s deep desire for us to partake of and participate intimately in the whole of God’s life in relationship together as family. Yet, this call to be whole does not preclude the ongoing challenge of an alternative practice of reductionism and defining ourselves, doing relationships and practicing church on our terms.
Sanctified Christology theologically and functionally allows for nothing less and no substitutes.
 For a classic social psychological study to help understand the latter part of this process, see Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959).
 For more background on tax collection and collectors, see Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 82-83, 387-388.
 For an in-depth study of mathetes, see Michael J. Wilkens, Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995).
©2008 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.