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The Relational Progression

A Relational Theology of Discipleship


Discipleship  Study

14              "Do You Love Me?" 

printer-friendly pdf version of entire study







Revelation or Reduction: Our Accountability




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

Chap. 1
Chap. 2
Chap. 3
Chap. 4
Chap. 5
Chap. 6
Chap. 7
Chap. 8
Chap. 9
Chap. 10
Chap. 11
Chap. 12
Chap. 13

Table of Contents


 Scripture Index



"Do You Love Me?"

John 21:16


When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection, he told her to go back to his family and tell them "I am returning to my Father and your Father" (Jn 20:17). His earthly stay was coming to a close, but not before he fully established the relational progression from his Father and for his Father. His relational work in the incarnation also established his followers in the relational progression to the Father to be equalized from enslavement-to-friend-to become his and his family. Discipleship is this redemptive relational process of following Jesus in the relational progression. Yet, has Jesus revealed enough of his person (and thus his Father) in the incarnation to follow, so that we can truly be called his family, and his Father called our Father?

Yes and no. No, in that the relational progression is not completed in its functional fulfillment; its functional completion is the cooperative relational work of his Spirit. Yes, in the fact that Jesus vulnerably operationalized the relational context and process of the progression to his Father for us to be directly and intimately involved; in other words, God's paradigm for his people was fully revealed as was the means to live it.

The transition from his physical departure to the arrival of his Spirit was a crucial time for his first disciples--particularly for Peter. "Yes and no" needed to be grasped if their discipleship was to continue in this relational progression. Jesus instructed them further about the "no" just prior to his ascension (Acts 1:4,8). The "yes" was more deeply examined in the sensitive interaction Jesus had with Peter.

"Do you love me?" From our initial discussion (in Chapter 1) of this interaction, it was identified that Jesus pursued Peter because he was not grasping something. Jesus wasn't asking him for information about his love but only about the relationship and his level of intimate relational involvement. As we revisit their exchange, we further need to connect Jesus' question with his statement ("feed my sheep" or "take care of my sheep"), and both to his imperative ("Follow me").

Since agape love is about "how to be involved relationally" and not about "what to do," this suggests that Jesus' statement ("feed" or "take care of my sheep") was not about what Peter should do as a leader of the church. Rather, it was about how to be involved with the Father as his and with his family. It was characteristic of Peter to initiate independent action as if he were in the lead. Though Peter acted with good intentions, this was not sufficient to follow Jesus. He didn't want Peter's service nor what Peter could do for him, even with phileo. He wanted Peter's whole person and the relational involvement of his person. This required of Peter: (1) to follow Jesus in the relational progression and not to stop at individual relationship with him, and thus (2) to be relationally involved with the Father as his and with his family in intimate interdependent relationships and (3) further function in his reciprocal relational responsibility without distinctions.

Jesus connected love for him (by intimate relational involvement) with taking care of his family ("sheep") by the relational involvement of family love. Yet, Peter needed to grasp that this family love can only be operationalized in the relational context and process of following Jesus in the relational progression. Otherwise, the practice of discipleship is merely individualized and stops short in the relational progression.

Peter's tendency was to define himself by what he did, thus he paid more attention to secondary matter from the outer-in. This made it difficult at various times for Peter even to focus on what was important about Jesus--his person and intimate relationship with him. This happened again in this interaction when Peter was distracted by seeing John and comparing his circumstances. This reflected a mind-set which made distinctions not yet equalized as family. Thus, Jesus emphatically had to refocus Peter on the relational involvement of following him. This is the relational imperative.

Yet, Peter effectively functioned on a more individual basis. Even in his rigorous experience of following Jesus, this suggests his tendency to stop short in the relational progression. Before his departure Jesus wanted Peter to grasp the "yes" of his incarnation, he wanted Peter to be established in God's paradigm for the new life. With the question of "love," the statement of "feed," the imperative of "follow," Jesus integrates spirituality (intimate relational involvement with God) with the corporate process of interdependent intimate relationships as his family in the practice of family love.

The relational message vital for all his followers to understand in "Do you love me?" is: my whole person is very important to him and he wants my deep relational involvement. The relational message in "feed my sheep" is: I am a full member of his family and he wants me to experience new life together as his family. The relational message in "follow me" is: his person is the most important and nothing is more important than ongoing intimate relationship with him. These are the messages he incarnated from the Father, and the "yes" he wants us to grasp, to embrace, to be involved with him.

Authentic discipleship is following Jesus in the relational progression together with his Spirit who brings it to completion. If our practice (individually and corporately) is to be relationship-specific (person to person) and to have relational significance (heart to heart) to God, then our practice needs to function in this redemptive relational process of discipleship as his new kinship family.



Revelation or Reduction: Our Accountability

In the incarnation Jesus revealed more than his character for us to conform to; more importantly, he vulnerably exposed his person for us to be relationally involved with. His life didn't give us a model to follow, but he intimately opened access to the relational context and process for us to be relationally involved in. When discipleship becomes following the model of Christ or conforming to his character, it becomes a reductionist alternative.

Jesus said to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount that what we are and practice ("righteousness") must qualitatively exceed the reductionists (Mt 5:20). Likewise, he said our identity as "the light" and our function as "the salt" cannot be reduced, or they will become ambiguous and shallow (5:13-16). Reductionist influence and alternatives are always in constant conflict with God's desires for his people--whether they are forms of individualism, legalism, institutionalism, rationalism or postmodernism. Jesus continuously leads his followers to the next level of new life in the relational progression, while Satan is constantly promoting reductionist Christian practice.

The writer of Hebrews approached this tension from another angle. Addressing persons who at this stage of their Christian life should have been much more developed, mature, even teaching others, the writer appears frustrated that they continued to live on "milk," not "solid food" (Heb 5:11-14). The writer wanted to address so much more of Christ's purpose and function, so the following challenge was issued: "let us stop going over the basics about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don't need to start all over again with the importance of turning away from evil deeds and placing our faith in God" (Heb 6:1, NLT). This becomes the issue of what is more palatable for popular Christian practice. Reductionism prevents us from the meat of discipleship and keeps us focused on the less substantive practice of milk.

Yet, as John clearly defined at the beginning of his Gospel, the full revelation of God's glory became incarnate with Jesus in the relational progression (Jn 1:14,18). We are accountable for all of his revelation (without reduction) and to be intimately involved in all of the relational progression without stopping and without distinctions (1:10-13)--the popular use of verse 12 notwithstanding.

This study attempts to formulate discipleship based on a whole Christology (including between the manger and the cross) and a full soteriology (what Christ saved us to as well as saved us from). This puts the focus on Jesus in the proper relational context and process of the relational progression, just as Jesus did with Peter. Yet, as Peter demonstrated, how free we are to respond to him depends on our perceptual framework (e.g., quantitative reductionist or qualitative
relational), and whether our perceptions of Christ predispose us to place him in a context different from his revelation--namely, the prevailing context of a popular Christ, more palatable and less threatening.

The influence of a quantitative perceptual framework of reductionism predisposes us, creates biases and forms a mind-set which essentially determine what we pay attention to and what we will ignore. Certainly, the relational perspective formulated by the qualitative perceptual framework also predisposes, biases and develops a mind-set. The crucial difference, however, in these two frameworks is whether the lens (or filter) to view life that each perceptual framework provides either distorts or sharpens reality, clouds or clarifies the truth. Reductionist alternatives distort and cloud, while the relational context and process of the relational progression sharpens and clarifies.

Since Jesus incarnated God's glory and vulnerably revealed his Father to us, we are accountable: like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:25,31), to see his person; like Thomas and Philip (Jn 14:7,9), to know him intimately; like Peter, to be intimately involved with his person in the relational progression.

Discipleship must (dei, by its nature) be perceived and practiced on his terms revealed in the incarnation, for which we are completely accountable--without reduction and without substitution.




When the process of discipleship is contextualized by biblical culture, particularly the narratives of Jesus, it must function in the following contexts:

1. Following Jesus in his revealed context of the relational progression.

2. Involvement in the intimate relational context with him and thus with his Father as his.

3. Sharing life together without distinctions in the corporate relational context of his family.

4. Extending family love in the context of the world.

Identity formation develops for his followers together in this redemptive relational process. It is the only identity that has relational significance to the Father. Thus, Jesus faces each of us--"Do you love me?"





2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.

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