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The Relational Progression

A Relational Theology of Discipleship


Discipleship  Study

3             Following the Uncommon

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Grasping the Common
Common Relational Consequences
A Critique of Hope
A People Without Critique
The Illusions of Wisdom, Wealth, Power
Does It Still Apply Today?
Grasping the Uncommon
Living a Contradiction
Living the Distinction
The Alternative Culture
Culture of Distinction
Uncommon Discipleship


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

Chap. 1
Chap. 2
Chap. 4
Chap. 5
Chap. 6
Chap. 7
Chap. 8
Chap. 9
Chap. 10
Chap. 11
Chap. 12
Chap. 13
Chap. 14

Table of Contents

Scripture Index




"Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?

No, I tell you, but division."

              Luke 12:51

There is so much of God to experience, and there is so much he wants us to experience of himself and life together, both with him and his people. Yet, what Jesus presented of himself for us to follow goes well beyond what we're familiar with and deeper than our conventional ways. Discipleship of his person and the quality of our response to God are not completely natural to us. That is, even though God made us in his image as persons of heart and created us for intimate relationships, this relational context and its relational process are relatively foreign to us.

As we've discussed, we can't engage relationship with God (specifically in his incarnation in Christ) on our terms. Nevertheless, in another sense we definitely can't engage ongoingly the relationship on his terms either; we can't, that is, without our redemption and transformation also ongoingly taking place.

This represents the tension, struggle, conflict between our person as the old apart from Christ and now as the new in Christ. It's this distinction which needs to be defined comprehensively in order for us to address very basic issues in discipleship. These issues have to do with who and what God is and who and what we are.


Grasping the Common

When God revealed himself intimately in the incarnation, the effect Jesus had resulted in either a positive relational outcome or a negative relational consequence. The romanticized Jesus is comfortably perceived as about peace and unity; the biblical Jesus is a hard reality of conflict and division (Lk 12:51ff). In this more complete picture Jesus gives his disciples the opportunity to follow the uncomfortable, if you will. Yet, the discomfort is not about his disciples' lifestyle. The conflict is about incompatibilities while the division is about truly irreconcilable differences (not the fiction in divorce courts).

As much as it may make us uncomfortable, this conflict should not be lost for us.  When Jesus vulnerably presents himself to us to follow him, this immediately becomes a clash between choices (as discussed earlier), a clash of wills, including the collective will of culture, a clash essentially between the old and the new.

When Jesus presented God to us, he brought not only the loving God but also the holy and eternal God to us. This God person came vulnerably with that holiness which will forever remain a mystery of God's love. Yet, we need to understand our God as more than pure and sinless. The word for "holy" (Gk. hagios) further means to be separated from ordinary or common usage--that which is not common. It is crucial for us to embrace the fact and truth: Jesus brought that which was uncommon and, therefore, was in constant tension and conflict with that which is common.

Whether Christians are aware of it, the "uncommon" is an ongoing issue we have with Jesus' life and words. It is an illusion to think that relational involvement with the holy God is only a spiritual and moral matter, leaving the other areas of our life partitioned from the relationship. Satan would encourage us to think this way because that would leave those other areas (e.g., our common, everyday social context which we tend to take for granted or readily accept) more vulnerable to his counter-relational work and influence. These distinctions of the uncommon have become blurred in many Christian perceptions.

Since none of our commitments and practices in the Christian life take place in a vacuum, we need to seriously grasp that the common in life--the dominant views, the majority ways, the popular, the conventional--influences how Christians think, feel, perceive things, develop mind-sets, even form worldviews. That which is common in our daily life is the most problematic issue affecting intimate relationship with the holy God and growing as his disciples. This is compounded for us by Satan who simply emphasizes, encourages and promotes the common, the temporal--that is, that which distances us from our heart and interferes in our ongoing relationship with God.

If we don't deal with the common, we will not be following the Uncommon. It is vital for us to realize in particular--as our theology of the holy defines in general--that the uncommon and common are incompatible for relationship. Intimacy is not possible between these two conditions.

Certainly, ever since Adam and Eve fundamentally altered the original relational context and process, we have been predisposed to the common, even controlled by it.  Relationship with God requires a change from this condition which means the need for redemption. Theologically, redemption is defined as being set free from enslavement by payment of a ransom (Christ's death). The ultimate redemption necessary to be involved with God is spiritual. But there are other areas of life in which we need to experience being set free--common, everyday areas which make up the total person individually and take in human life collectively. These other areas all influence our involvement with God and, for example, can make intimate relationship difficult. So, we have to factor them into the relational equation underlying all spiritual growth. That means Christians need to realize that functionally not everything in spiritual growth and spiritual formation is spiritual. Redemptive changes are needed ongoingly in all areas of our life.


Common Relational Consequences

The prevalence of how we see things and how we do things (particularly relationships) makes them seem so innocuous that the common usually doesn't raise any spiritual red flags nor ruffle any moral feathers. Its effects and consequences, however, are significant--especially because of their relational consequences.

It is valuable for us to see the effects of the common and ordinary in the dynamics of some interactions Jesus had. When Jesus returned to his hometown, Nazareth, we can see the tension and conflict between the common and the uncommon (read
Mk 6:1-6). At first many were amazed at his teaching (v.2). But they went from being amazed to being offended by him (considered a stumbling block, v.3). How did this happen so quickly?

Examine their line of thought as they wondered where Jesus got these amazing teachings and how he even did miracles. The questions which follow reveal the reason for their quick turnaround. "Isn't this the carpenter?" defined Jesus as a common worker; and seeing Jesus by what he did made him no better than they. This biased their perception of him against being able to be wise and powerful. "Isn't this Mary's son?" defined Jesus by his social standing in the community; he was not anyone special, just ordinary. This further biased them to reconsider their opinion. There was no way for someone with his low social standing to be given esteemed status in their midst. Since Nazareth was looked down upon in general, it's understandable to think this way. Even Nathaniel said when told about Jesus: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (Jn 1:46).

Despite what they had heard with their ears and seen with their eyes, in their minds it was not possible for this to be valid. That's how stereotypes and other biases predispose us from reality (seeing it as it really is) and the truth. Even Jesus "was amazed at their lack of faith" (Mk 6:6) because there was no reason to distrust him, except for their biases. How does this happen for us?  Think about limits we place on seeing Jesus' person and hearing his words, or barriers we have to more intimacy with God because of our perceptions.

What Jesus presented of himself in the incarnation certainly clashed with nearly all who were exposed to him, even his mother and his disciples. But the tension and conflict had less to do with theological differences over truth than the issue of how he was perceived--perceptions which reflect predispositions and biases. Jesus was rarely taken at face value because the facts of God are invariably observed with some kind of bias. Processing the incarnation then can't be predominantly intellectual but must be primarily a relational process.

Jesus' miraculous deeds and objective information about him are only secondarily related to the whole issue of understanding the person Jesus and the importance of knowing Christ; these were not the primary and direct areas which resulted in this understanding and intimate knowledge (not information). Raising secondary issues functions like red herrings and gets us away from the heart of the matter. That's why Jesus was always engaged in relational work in order to establish the relational context necessary for us to make relational connection through trust and intimacy. Biases prevent that connection. These are the effects of the common and ordinary.

Before you dismiss such interactions as involving essentially the likes of, for example, closed-minded, hardened-hearted Jews, we need also to examine Jesus' interactions with his disciples. Their biases also limited their connections, for example, to only a working relationship. Even an open mind, but without heart, will not yield the depth of relational connection necessary to understand and know Christ.

After feeding the 4000 and denying the Pharisees' request for a follow-up miraculous sign, Jesus continued this particular discussion with his disciples (read Mk 8:14-21). Just earlier Jesus had fed the 5000 (Mk 6:30ff), walked on water (Mk 6:45ff) and healed numerous persons--all before the disciples' eyes. As he continued, Jesus warned them of a vital issue (Mk 8:15). Since the disciples had forgotten to bring enough food, they thought (notice, only to themselves) Jesus focused on the situation of not having bread to eat (8:14,16). Given all the miraculous events which the disciples had witnessed in recent days, what was the implication of their discussion about no bread? What do you think their perceptions of Jesus were at this point?

Not surprisingly, what Jesus warned them about (8:15) was the very thing they were doing here. In warning them (using Greek indicative mood), Jesus asserted the fact of an existing reality in life about which his disciples need to take ongoing action (Greek imperfect tense). "Be careful" (Gk. horao) means to perceive with the eyes, implying not the mere act of seeing but also the actual perception of some object. "Watch out" (Gk. blepo) involves the activity of the eyes and denotes fundamentally exercising our capacity of sight. Horao ("be careful") is broader in scope than blepo ("watch out"); it involves locking in on something in our perception--not just look at it--and, consequently, to recognize the significance of something, to experience something and thus to encounter the true nature of a thing. The perception from horao, therefore, stands in contrast to misperception and misconception. To lock in and achieve this result may require contemplation, deep reflection or scrutiny.

As a related note, it is also helpful for us to understand the cultural world of biblical times. In that Mediterranean culture, the connection of the eyes to the heart is very significant because they were both considered to have similar function. So, they were used interchangeably. Malina describes the eye-heart as the zone for emotion-focused thought.[1]

Jesus was not merely engaging his disciples in a mental exercise. His warning cuts to the depths of all his disciples' hearts because it involves important aspects of relational work. What, then, is this existing reality in life about which Jesus said to horao ("be careful") and blepo ("watch out")?  Ostensibly it's the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod, whose behaviors and character few of us would intentionally practice. We've learned from Jesus that hypocrisy is the yeast of the Pharisees (Lk 12:1); that is, presenting a different or false identity of self than is true. The self-serving Herod was involved in political power and concerned about only his own gain and security. But, functionally this yeast focuses on appearances (e.g., how we present ourselves) and, therefore, emphasizes secondary matters (e.g., what we're doing), which Jesus just earlier explained and exposed (see Mk 7:1-23).

Now how did this yeast relate to the disciples in this situation? Did this yeast permeate their perceptions? When Jesus earlier had explained the importance of the heart and our total person, he also exposed the relational consequences of the yeast
(Mk 7:6-13). To answer these questions about the disciples we have to look to their heart and how their relationship with Jesus was.

Let's look at how Jesus described them. In the previous discussion he said they were "dull" (Gk. asynetos, without insight, inability to "get it") and didn't "see" (Gk. noeo, comprehend, grasp mentally; Mk 7:18). In this discussion they still didn't "see" (noeo) or "understand" (Gk. syniemi, to perceive; Mk 8:17). Syniemi denotes putting together various individual features of an object into a whole, like putting together pieces of a puzzle. Jesus also said their hearts were "hardened" (Gk. poroo, to make hard like stone, make callous, insensitive to the touch) making it difficult for them to see and hear correctly (Mk. 8:17,18, also Mk. 6:52).

Was he putting his disciples in the same category as the Pharisees and others who rejected him? No, but Jesus is showing all of his disciples how we may function in a similar way that will have relational consequences on what we will experience in relationship with him. They didn't see Jesus' person and weren't making intimate relational connection with him. So, despite direct, firsthand experience with Jesus' miracles, barriers prevented them from really knowing him at this stage in their relationship. This is vital for us to understand because we may still experience similar consequences as the early disciples--in spite of the benefit of hindsight we enjoy.

What prevented the disciples from the ability "to get it" and put the pieces together? What was a major barrier that prevented more intimate knowledge of Jesus? It would be too simplistic to explain the cause merely as sin; that would also be an insufficient explanation given our usually limited perspectives of sin. We cannot doubt the commitment these disciples had to follow Jesus. Yet, their lives (past and present) and commitment didn't take place in a vacuum; we need to account for the broader context of any individual in order to understand its influence on one's focus and perceptions. This is the context of the common and ordinary.

*                     *                     *

The influences of this broader context from culture, society, family or other experiences develop predispositions in us which form our biases. We all have biases--good and bad, valid or invalid. Even our Christian experiences, for example, in church, help form biases. Let's briefly expand on this process.

Whatever the source of our biases and however they developed, biases provide a highly selective screen (or shield) between us and the rest of the world outside of us.  This screen acts like a filter to the real world, helping us to decide how to deal with it. Similar to the lens of the eye, such a filter either sharpens or distorts, clarifies or colors our perceptions and the extent to which we'll see something. In other words, biases tell us what we should pay attention to and what we should ignore (note this for the disciples and the Pharisees). Without this screening process to help us deal with our real world, we can easily be threatened or overwhelmed. Do you see this happening for either the Pharisees or the disciples?

As these biases become established in our thinking, they unify into our mind-sets in which we construct "our own little world" of reality, again whether valid or invalid. It is important for us to understand that this screening function also provides structure for our lives and strongly influences how we perceive things. This is how we put God "in a box." In further development, mind-sets formalize into worldviews which then dominate or control our perceptions and thinking. Thomas Kuhn showed how these form paradigms to shape our perceptions; and this influence is exerted upon everyone, even on those who formulate scientific theories and models.[2] That's why thinking relationally may require a paradigm shift for many Christians.

The Pharisees certainly exercised a worldview in their interactions with Jesus. But they weren't honest about the predispositions underlying their biases, so Jesus refused to engage with them in futile discussion. I don't know if the disciples expressed a worldview but they definitely exercised a certain mind-set which filtered how they saw Jesus, what they paid attention to and ignored about him. But, since they were willing to be open to Jesus, even in their limited ways, he had the opportunity to work with them relationally for redemptive change.

The effect of these predispositions--which includes lies promoted by Satan--is to get us further and further from the substance (not necessarily the forms) of life and the truths (not necessarily the theology) of God revealed in the person and words of Jesus. This effect is most evident in the distance created from our heart--in its de-emphasis or even denial. To put this screen on our heart (which is created in his image) and filter his eternity-substance implanted in it results in daily practice which actually hardens (makes callous, insensitive to the touch) our hearts, as Jesus discussed with his disciples
(Mk 6: 52; 8:17).

*                     *                     *

After carefully walking them back through their experiences with the miraculous feeding of first the 5000, then the 4000, Jesus said "Do you still not understand?"
(Mk 8:19-21). Jesus was engaging them in relational work, but the disciples' biases and callousness or insensitivity at this point had a twofold effect on their relationship. First, their biases prevented them from the simple function of seeing what exists (blepo). They didn't process the two miraculous feedings, not to mention walking on water, and other miracles of healing. They didn't see these events objectively for what they were and, therefore, couldn't connect it to their situation of not having any bread. They didn't see clearly to be able to add them up together (syniemi).

But, more importantly, they did not "be careful" (horao), that is, recognize the significance of those miracles and understand who it was doing them. This led to the second effect on their relationship: the callousness or insensitivity formed in their heart (or distance or detachment from heart) prevented them from locking in (making deeper relational connection) on Jesus and thus experiencing what was happening and who made it happen. The sad result for now was a relational consequence in which the opportunity to encounter the true nature of Jesus--that is, have an intimate connection with God--was lost or squandered. Therefore, they didn't understand what was happening and, most of all, they didn't truly know Jesus.

Obviously, the disciples were not free from the influences which affected their perceptions--the impact from that which is common. Like the disciples, we need to understand the influences on our own perceptions because similar influences exist for us today. Despite our benefit of hindsight to view the events in Jesus' life, our perceptions of other areas of Jesus' person and words could just as easily screen out our ability "to get it" and put the pieces together, as well as filter away the experience of intimate connection with him. So, we need to learn for our life, as the disciples did for theirs, that these reflect and indicate the redemptive changes needed for relationship with God. For these Jesus came to save us from in order to save us to. In the tradition of the OT prophets, Jesus' person and words exposed the old in us to free us so that the new could be raised up.


A Critique of Hope

An urgent question for every Christian is "what determines our perceptions and how we see things?" The answer to this important question tells us how we will understand and assess events, experiences and other phenomena in our everyday life and most importantly in our Christian journey. Here we must expand our perspective beyond the individual to include the collective life of which each individual is a part. For all social beings, without exception, the most dominant influence on our perceptions is our culture (defined in the broadest sense as our established ways). If we take Jesus' warning (Mk 8:15) to heart to "be careful" (horao) and "watch out" (blepo), we need to critique our cultures and subcultures more comprehensively.

In any time period or context we can expect competing cultures to provide a highly selective screen between us and the rest of our world. As we discussed this filtering process earlier, culture tells us then what we should pay attention to and what we should ignore. On the individual level, our perceptions are further conditioned by our personal experiences. In particular, that means the experiences from our relationships--especially our family relationships and those with significant others, all of whom have been influenced by some culture also.

As social beings how do we deal with the influence of culture? The implication here, of course, is that this influence is often not good. Whether it is or not depends on its assessment by the common or the uncommon. The Bible is not a support system for every common culture, or for that matter arguably for any common culture, though historically it certainly has been used to justify, validate or anoint particular ones. Yet, culture is not a neutral institution or a system without sin; culture is also vested with a specific ideology which may not be compatible with biblical beliefs and values. In fact, Jesus guaranteed this tension and conflict when he brought the uncommon and established the new.

The common only becomes an issue in the presence of the uncommon. Likewise, something new is never anticipated nor embraced (despite our consumptive and indulgent lifestyles) without some awareness of the presence of something old. That is, we need some awareness of what exists now, an understanding of the old in order to anticipate or pursue the new. That usually involves some kind of dissatisfaction with the old.  Without this feeling or perspective about the old (or common) we normally don't want or anticipate something new. This essentially is the purpose of the law
(Gal 3:24)--a function in practice which Christians who define themselves by what they do have yet to truly experience.

This was also the vital task for the OT prophets. They were the human agents used by God to help generate the awareness and understanding of the old necessary in order to anticipate the new. The significance of their message was not just the fact of their predictions--God-given revelations about the future--but that they exposed the common present things for what they really were. They declared "Thus says the Lord" about the "here and now" as well as about the future. In fact, they disclosed the future in order to illuminate what was involved in the present.

Understandably, then, this makes the prophets hard reading. They do not speak pleasantries which catch the fancy of the people or make them comfortable. Rather they speak of harsh realities which disturb the people--disturb them because they speak of realities close to home, not abstract, distant matters. They speak to the heart of the issue--our hearts. In terms of everyday life, the prophets glossed over nothing; and the repercussions for speaking the truth about matters directly involving the people's lives were accepted as part of the territory.  But, they declared the word of the Lord not as prophets of doom or gloom. On the contrary, they shared confronting truths with compassion in order to open the way for the anticipation of something new. To speak merely of the new without giving perspective to the old would have yielded little impact and, thus, provoked no response. Their critique of common life indeed was always a critique of hope.

What has been said about the prophets can also be said about John the Baptist. As the forerunner of Jesus Christ, he set the tone for the entrance of the new order of life by exhorting repentance from the old. And like the prophets, he was not speaking of repentance in abstract terms but rather dealt with the common areas of life in its everyday forms. Here again, John, like the prophets, speaks to the heart of the issue--our hearts.


A People Without Critique

It is important for discipleship to embrace this function in the prophets and the Baptist in order to understand what we're following. There was, in their time, a general acceptance of the social and religious orders of their period, though political tensions were ongoing. Whether it was given serious assessment or not, the people of their time embraced these old orders as basically good, or at least resigned themselves to assimilate into them. Without critique people participated in the lifestyles, institutions, processes, and structures of their day. This was an extremely serious matter for God's people. Because of having become so embedded in the old order of religious and social life, there was no vital anticipation of the fulfillment of God's promise of redemption and of his reconciling plan for history. Though there was some presence of a political messianic hope, their participation in the old order resulted, even worse, in resistance and even opposition to the will of the Lord God.

If there were to be any shift from the people's position, if there were to be any anticipation of the new order of life, then it would have to be predicated on having a clear understanding and uncompromising response to the conditions of the old religious and social orders currently in effect--to that which was common. The prophets indeed exemplify this understanding.  (See the Lord's description in Jeremiah 6:27.) Their total life response to their socio-cultural context was to counter it. They condemned its practices and assumptions while indicting its complacency and infidelity. They spoke so harshly, decisively and inflexibly because they were declaring God's perspective on the matter, not the normative, majority viewpoint. The normative perspective would like to think that all was not bad; with God there was no cause to feel good about the old order. For the culture the people embraced and practiced was not the culture of God's people, as he defines it. As another writer put it:

We and the prophet have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent. To us life is often serene, in the prophet's eye the world reels in confusion. The prophet makes no concession to man's capacity. Exhibiting little understanding for human weakness, he seems unable to extenuate the culpability of man.[3]

As the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist carried on in similar fashion to the prophets before him. We, however, would tend to look at his call to repentance merely on individual and spiritual grounds, thinking that he did not address himself to the socio-cultural problems and unrighteous social structures and processes of his day. We would probably like to limit his perspective of repentance to the spiritual requisite involved in any conversion. In essence, we look upon the ministry of John the Baptist as being in a vacuum, devoid of any social context and unrelated to most of the dimensions of our everyday life.  But, those who constrain the message of the Baptist forget his exhortation (Lk 3:8-14) about the correlating fruits of repentance:

-- to the multitudes: "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same" (v.11); is this not an indictment on the system of inequality which existed in his day and the need to act with and for equity?

-- to the tax-collectors: "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to" (v.13); does this not expose the structural inequities of his time and the systemic injustices which particularly impacted the poorer people the most?

-- to the soldiers: "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely and be content with your wages" (v.14); the abuse of power is a historical trademark, but does he not confront the main institution of power, implying that power has an institutional dimension as well as an individual accountability?

All of these show that John was not calling people to repentance from merely a spiritual perspective about the future. He indicted the social processes of his day, the old order in which the people were deeply involved and, then, he demanded a new way. Repentance was not a limited response to some abstract spiritual system; it was the rigorous response to the God who was now among them (Emmanuel) inaugurating a new order of religious and social life. We cannot escape these implications of John's discourse on the fruits of repentance.

To realize the fullness of the prophets' and the Baptist's message is to see and to hear that they did not deal only with the spiritual aspect of the individual as if in a vacuum. They dealt with a people and their culture, with society and with the course of history for all of humanity. These were not only spiritual issues of the heart or those issues involving merely the individual.  They included the everyday life issues of classes of people, the operations of a nation and even international relations. (Israel was not isolated from other nations.) By the fact that the Lord God dealt with the total life of his people, he had his prophets confront them also on moral issues involving sociology, economics and politics. Sin did not restrict itself from certain areas of life. Fallen humanity did not remain solely within the individual. There were institutional, systemic and structural factors to sin which went well beyond the influence and control of the individual.  Along with the person and words of Jesus, a more complete view of God and a stronger view of sin form the biblical basis for this perspective.


The Illusions of Wisdom, Wealth, Power

This understanding of the old order was a necessary process if the people were to turn from their involvement in it and, then, to anticipate and receive the new order of life in Jesus Christ. Consequently, these servants of God and partners in his redemptive plan imposed, without apology, God's perspective on the here and now of life and indicted the people for the way they lived in all its aspects.

This is illustrated further by examining some of their encounters. In antiquity three major resources were treasured above all else by society: wisdom, wealth and power. The use and abuse of these had become normative in the society. Yet, to the prophets, this passion for wisdom, wealth and power was absurd--a false hope to establish oneself--as well as idolatrous.

The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped.  Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have? (Jeremiah 8:9)

Ephraim boasts, 'I am very rich, I have become wealthy.  With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin' (Hosea 12:8).

But you have planted wickedness, you have reaped evil, you have eaten the fruit of deception. Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors, the roar of battle will arise against your people, so that all your fortresses will be devastated (Hosea 10:13,14).

The people experienced a sense of security, a transient period of satisfaction and success with these resources. And this process involving wisdom, wealth and power dictated their lifestyles, structured their society and generated their religious and social systems. The illusion of these conventional pursuits was complete when they used it to gain justification before God: "with all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin."

What would it take to destroy this delusion?  What was needed to put that which was common into the proper perspective? Certainly nothing less than "the word of the Lord" declared by the prophets bringing down rigorous indictment on the present order of life, while making clear what the new order involves, would be sufficient.

This is the word of the Lord, "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit," says the Lord almighty (Zechariah 4:6).

This is what the Lord says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast of this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the Lord (Jeremiah 9:23,24).


Does It Still Apply Today?

With the incarnation does the message of the prophets and John the Baptist still have vital significance for today as it did then? Their response indeed was counter to the common context and setting in which they lived. Jesus didn't change this with his life and words but built on their effort and brought it into fullness. The Uncommon had arrived, the new was at hand. Now the common, the old stood distinctly in contrast--in uncomfortable tension and inevitable conflict.

Yet, the contrast of the common with the Uncommon gets very ambiguous in Christian perspectives today. The tension and conflict with the old seem to be more the exception than the rule in current Christian practice.

If we are to genuinely receive (Jn 1:12, Gk. lambano, take in hand, embrace, listen to, trust and follow as a teacher) the Jesus of the incarnation and participate with him intimately in the new life, then we need the kind of complete critique of the prophets and the Baptist to help us make these distinctions. In a context like the United States where traditional American culture, a national spirit and civil religion are nearly inseparable from Christian values, from no other source can we obtain the penetrating critique necessary to expose any subtle roots of God's people having become embedded in the common base. The working presence of their message represents the difference between the radical uncommon "Thus says the Lord" and the popular common voices of modern Christianity, individualized, privatized or homogenized in identity.

There is much in our current social and religious contexts which aligns to those contexts during the period of the prophets.  Though the setup of our society is dissimilar to the ancient society, the processes serve a similar function and produce almost identical consequences, particularly for relationships, for example, inequitable relations. Consider those treasured resources of wisdom, wealth and power. Don't these characterize the American way of life? Are these not the goals under which most of our activities would be classified? Implicit in this mind-set is the pursuit of the so-called American Dream which, while remains elusive to many, still captures the hearts of most Christians.

Of course, today we have more acceptable variations of these treasured resources.  Wisdom translates into the pursuit of education, knowledge and information. Wealth is defined less narrowly and now also includes the ability to live a lifestyle of unmitigated consumption. And power is exercised less and less in terms of physical force and more in terms of economic, political and social controls, or influence to have one's way.

Don't we revere education and knowledge, and the accumulation of information, to the point of idolatry? Don't we defer to wealth and ascribe to it a quality of great significance? Doesn't the pursuit of these resources arouse survival and competitive reactions which eventually can develop into systems of inequality, a stratified context, the continued discrimination of the less fortunate? Aren't power relations (aside from physical force) at the heart of most human interaction today?  Don't the institutions, structures, systems and processes of society often support these operations and, thus, have the effect of creating more inequity--intended or unintended--among its people? Internationally, isn't this the consequence which generates the hesitance, doubt and fear of globalization? Yet, don't we find legitimation, direct or indirect, for the pursuit of these resources (and thus whatever inequities result) within the so-called Christian perspectives normative to most Christians today?

I would think that the operation of these negative practices was much more obvious within the ancient society of the prophets. In the complex nature of a modern technological society merging with the global community, where knowledge and information are so significant and where consumption is a necessary by-product, the interrelated action of wisdom, wealth and power makes it much more difficult to identify their operation in our daily lives. Sadly, like many other major influences in our lives, their most insidious effect is upon our relationships.

This makes the message of God's prophets that much more important to us today. Though we may not be able to identify the full actions of these negative practices, or always understand their exact nature, we can certainly see the negative consequences produced by them--especially by examining our relationships. As disciples of Christ, of course, our most significant relationship is with him, thus needing to develop this relationship of following the Uncommon.


Grasping the Uncommon

When the Lord revealed of himself through Isaiah that "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," that "as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts"
(Is 55:8,9), we tend to think of God
's quantity more than his quality. While this quantitative distinction is true, it is an inadequate distinction to focus on, which also conveniently allows us to stay away from the deeper issue.

God's thoughts and ways are not only greater (more) from a quantitative yardstick but they are different using a qualitative standard. We not only have to learn to accept the quantitative gap of his thoughts and ways, more importantly we have to deal with his qualitative difference. This difference, his primary difference, is in conflict with the common.

It is this qualitative difference which is revealed fundamentally in the incarnation, not the quantitative aspects of God. As much of an enigma as it is to understand how the quantity of God can be contained in a human package, even more so is the paradox of his quality being vulnerably present in the human context. It is the deeper issue of Christ's qualitative difference which his followers can no longer circumvent.

When Jesus declared in the opening verse of this chapter (Lk 12:51), he didn't go around causing division as his goal; that wasn't his end purpose. But division is just as much an inevitable relational consequence as reconciliation is a relational outcome for those who receive him.

Jesus didn't present himself in a vacuum, as a display for any who wanted to come and view him. He didn't showcase his relationship with the Father nor exhibit the heart level and intimate ways of God for any and all to observe in a process of neutrality or value-free contact. To the contrary, the incarnation of God emerged conspicuously and perspicuously in the context and culture of the common in order to engage us in relationship. The incarnation is totally the relational act of the relational God engaged in relational work.

In vulnerably presenting God's qualitative difference, this relational act was a confrontation, an invasion, if you wish, but by no means was the incarnation merely a visit by God--absolutely not a peaceful visitation. The image of the babe in the manger doesn't capture the relational significance of the incarnation. In this sense, neither does some passive image or object on a cross.

In relational engagement, Jesus was initiating, ongoingly active and always extending the uncommon to the common. Nothing he did nor happened to him was by default. He never compromised the qualitative difference of the Uncommon to the common. His person and words were always an expression of God exercising his relational work. Yet, the division in Luke 12:51 (much less the sword in Mt 10:34) isn't compatible with Christians' conventional script about God's love. It doesn't have the fictional outcomes of many of our predispositions, nor the classical theme of "common love" reflected in our biases--not to mention talk of peace.

At the socio-cultural level, Christ's engagement didn't assimilate into a prevailing culture and become a part of it. He maintained his distinct qualitative difference (Jn 8:23). He also didn't merely coexist with competing cultures with a relative sense of tolerance nor with a shallow perception of multiculturalism--both of which are currently prescribed by the common (Jn 15:18,19; 17:14,16,19). By his active qualitatively different presence, Jesus caused confrontation of competing cultures and, therefore, conflict and division. That's the nature of uncommon in the context of common and contact with it.

The totality of the incarnation (which includes in particular the basic life and fundamental words of Jesus between the manger and the cross) is vital, as John
said (Jn 1:14), for us to "see" (Gk. theaomai), meaning to behold, view attentively, to contemplate with acute interest in order to perceive it correctly and in detail. The incarnation is not only a source of tension, conflict and division but it is a critique of hope. Without the function today of the complete incarnation, the common has no competition and those (which includes all Christians) within the common know of nothing more. Without it the old looks good enough.

Jesus Christ (his person, life and words) established the basis for the culture of the uncommon in our midst -- a true counterculture, as it were.  This was not a historical fiction shaped by tradition, nor the romanticized images of recent history.  The 1960s - 70s were considered years of a countercultural revolution.  But since its efforts were essentially lacking any basis for truth (not truth of existing situations but ideological truth), this movement had no infrastructure to guide it, develop it, contain it.  Rather than a true counterculture, it was really more of a reactionary-culture because it depended on traditional culture to react to in order to formulate or emerge in ways different from the conventional.

This is not a problem for the uncommon. It neither depends on the common to define itself, nor does it have a need to react to the common to motivate its action. The fact bears repeating: by ontological definition and as a relational reality, the common is incompatible for relationship with the uncommon. Indeed, either is a contradiction to the other.


Living a Contradiction

The incarnation of God is not only a paradox, it is a necessary contradiction for us to embrace and live. The vulnerable presence of the holy God is a contradiction which we have the opportunity to be involved with and participate in. But, in a real sense, here is where the conceptual mystery ends and the hard reality begins.

Christ's life and words (including all his teachings) are not only a perspective and position in the minority but a worldview in conflict with all other worldviews. This makes following Jesus and the practice of the Christian life, by its nature in whatever context except the holy and eternal, essentially a contradiction of whatever else exists around it. Therefore, an authentic Christian lives a contradiction in the eyes of others--just as Christ did (cf. Jn 15:18; 7:7b).

The opportunity to be involved with and participate in God's life as presented intimately by Jesus instigates an involuntary clash between choices, wills, cultures, that is, categorical conflict between old and new. At the heart of every Christian's personal decision to be involved with and participate in God's life is the ongoing relational work of exercising choice. These choices, however, are not merely between Christ and Caesar
(Mt 22:21), between God and money (Mt 6:24), nor even between freedom and some form of social bondage (though between slave and son/daughter is critical, as discussed earlier). The most significant juncture of our ongoing choices each of us faces is between the uncommon and the common, the holy and the secular.

Living this contradiction is relational work because it has more to do with living a relationship than a particular way of life. That is, it involves living in intimate relationship with the Uncommon, the person of the contradiction, not merely living an uncommon, contradictory life.

Jesus revealed the fundamental aspect of eternal life as relationship with God--intimately knowing him and the Father (Jn 17:3). Since Jesus shared himself vulnerably and intimately with us, the incarnation revealed the Father, who, what and how he is. Yet, this relational process is not just his relational work of sharing himself with us so we can know him and the Father. His relational work ongoingly provides the opportunity for us to be intimately involved with and personally participate in God's life. In the reciprocal relational process we also have to actively share in his life in order to know him. This relationship, its process and this outcome, however, are only experienced on his terms, in his context. For us, that necessitates embracing the uncommon and entering the eternal now (i.e., focused beyond the temporal). This is the only relational context in which we can truly know him and the only process by which we can genuinely experience the holy and eternal God.

The necessity of this relational context is clearly established by Jesus in his farewell prayer for all his disciples. Within the context of the common and secular, he establishes the identity of his disciples as the same as his: "not of the world" (Jn 17:14,16). Yet, this was not mere doctrine, not merely propositional truth; this is relational fact (Jn 15:19). If this intimate relationship together is to be an experiential reality, his disciples will have to be undergoing change from the common and secular, specifically transformation, sanctification. When Jesus asks the Father to sanctify his disciples (17:17), the word for "sanctify" (Gk. hagiazo) means to cause to be holy, make holy; the fundamental idea of this word is separation from common or ordinary usage.

Following the Uncommon and living this contradiction today necessitates transformation beyond only the spiritual to include much more than spiritual things, encompassing all areas of life along with spiritual issues. The total person of God came in the incarnation and requires our total person for relationship. Christians need to apply the truth functionally that intimacy in our relationship with God is not possible between the uncommon and the common. There is no flexibility in this truth, no room for negotiation nor compromise. Furthermore, merely having truth in hand does not guarantee this transformation and relational outcome; and his word can't be selectively utilized, nor inconsistently emphasized, applied and practiced.  The truth is the Father's word (Jn 17:17)--all his words in its entirety--relationally communicated directly with us (17:6,14a), intimately shared as his own person (the Truth, Jn 14:6) and vulnerably present without substitute (the Word, Jn. 1:14). Transformation, sanctification, is the relational process of receiving (lambano, take hold of, embrace and follow) the Word and working with him, not his truths, and letting him free (redeem) us from the common and secular and change us to the uncommon and eternal. This is the relational process Jesus established as the only means to be authentically changed to the uncommon (Jn 17:19) and to live together as a contradiction in the world (17:21-23).


Living the Distinction

We need to recognize that changing to the uncommon is an ongoing tension and conflict we have with God.  If we aren't selective in applying his word nor putting God in a box, then this is the most problematic issue affecting intimacy with the holy God and the growth and development of our relationship.

While change is not often welcomed into our life, change is exactly what the holy God person Jesus came for--to redeem us from the old and to transform us to the new. When we try to avoid these personal issues, then we essentially distance ourselves from his holy person and words and, in effect, don't welcome Jesus into our life. This can be done even while having activities with him and listening to his teachings (Lk 13:26), or while presenting a righteous or spiritual identity (Mk 8:15).

If we are going to "be careful" (horao, Mk 8:15), as opposed to living with our misperceptions and misconceptions, then we will need to honestly address with him the areas in our life to change in order to be freed from our current predispositions. That release may be experienced also by his comfort of a past relationship, his healing from a bad experience as well as his forgiveness and cleansing for sin. This is the relational work in which we need to be more rigorous.

But we also have to address more deeply and comprehensively the relational consequences of our perceptions in everyday life today, particularly in how we define ourselves and how we do relationships--issues which are basic to discipleship. Since none of us live in a vacuum--and Jesus doesn't want us to be separatists from the world (Jn 17:15,18)--we need to account for the broader contexts of our life in order to understand its influence, entanglement or control on our focus and perceptions, not only on life in general but in particular on our Christian life.

This influence develops our predispositions, which form our biases, mind-sets, worldviews. This affects our identity in how we define ourselves, how we see our place and function in the world and how we will do relationships with others, both in the world and in the church. For example, the filtering function this serves for us determines how we will see a person (like Jesus, or a race, ethnicity, class, gender, age or ability of a person), what we will hear from that person and how we will be involved with them.

If we assimilate into the common, what distinguishes us as Christ's followers? We should not be confused on this issue by Paul's example to "become all to all" (1 Cor 9:22).  Paul seemed to have blended into cultures but he didn't become a part of those cultures--that didn't define him. His cultural involvement was a methodology in order to make connection with persons for the sake of mission (1 Cor 9:19,23; cf. Acts
17:16-34). While Paul didn't assimilate as his way of life, he was neither a separatist nor an exilist. His identity was distinctly rooted in Christ and thus intimately involved with others. This is the good news of the incarnation, yet its contradiction as well.

Assimilation into a common culture is an issue even with a democratic society like the United States. Despite general tendencies to assume the Christian character of American culture, even to anoint it with God's blessings, we should not have illusions about its membership in anything other than the common. Therefore, if we assimilate into anything other than the uncommon, what distinguishes us as anything other than common Christians, civil Christians, American Christians, Christian Americans? The hard reality is that if our identity can't significantly be distinguished from other identities in the common, then we are no longer functionally following the Uncommon.

Any common qualifiers to our Christian identity are lethal to the identity as his disciples. If at the heart level we aren't open to and involved with the Uncommon, we only want to follow a Christ of popular appearance, a Jesus shaped by the common. Whatever "Jesus" we may be acknowledging and doing things for, even living in his name, it is not the Jesus of the incarnation. Homogenized identities do not distinguish his authentic followers. Just as a chemist would never mix a pure compound with an impure one and still expect to maintain its purity, it is absurd to assume we can combine elements of the uncommon and common, the holy and secular, the new and old, and still expect wholeness in our person and integrity in our practice.

Furthermore, coexistence is not the alternative. This requires the tolerance of relativity in the absence of truth or the detachment of a closed heart in the absence of love. Jesus had neither because he lacked neither. As he declared and demonstrated about the uncommon, there is no such thing as benign coexistence.

We need to understand what's happening in all aspects of our life. Consequently, it is necessary for all discipleship as the new creation to grasp what living in the old means. Likewise, it is not sufficient for us to be practicing Christians without rigorously, comprehensively and deeply dealing with what's involved in being and living in the world (common) while not becoming of the world, as Jesus urgently discussed with the Father
(Jn 17).

Secularism, for example, has been increasingly a concern among Christians, and rightly so; but the concern should not be limited to secularism's philosophical underpinnings nor should it be filtered by cultural biases, no matter how widespread within the Christian community. I think the urgent issue with secularism today is not so much keeping it out of the church and the Christian life. We can't assume that our beliefs and practices have the integrity of holy, separated from the common and ordinary. We are accountable to urgently distinguish secularism already present in and influencing our Christian life and our churches.

The line of distinction between the sacred and secular is much more ambiguous today because Christian culture (our beliefs and practices) is less distinguishable from the competing cultures surrounding it. While our basic doctrinal beliefs may remain intact and distinct, what we actually value and practice are often indistinguishable from the surrounding context. Return again to the resources of wisdom (education), wealth (lifestyle) and power (ability and influence to have our terms). The pursuit of these resources has little distinction, if any, from those around us. How they influence our identity and determine how we define ourselves more from the outside-in by what we do and have are not distinctions of the uncommon, and how the Uncommon sees and defines us.  How these processes subtly distance us from our heart and influence how we relate to others (thus redefining the primacy of relationships and restructuring our involvement in relationships to less than intimate) are not the distinctions of the Uncommon, both in the relations within the Godhead (the persons of the Trinity) and in God's created design and purpose for life. Essentially, in all this it can be said that churches have been silent, supportive of or co-opted by the common cultural context in which it often functions as merely another social institution or voluntary association without much further distinction. 

To authentically follow the Uncommon and live its contradiction with distinction amidst competing cultures, we need the alternative culture to provide us with the context and the process counter to the common. We need more than merely a system of beliefs to establish us, individually and corporately, as the disciples of Jesus Christ and the children of God. This alternative (counter) culture, I suggest, is what Jesus formulates and what emerges from his narratives (including Acts 10 and Rev 2 and 3) and the rest of Scripture.


The Alternative Culture

In establishing the culture of the uncommon, Christ distinguished his followers from all others--not only as disciples but as persons and as a people. (Our study of discipleship is essentially defining this basic culture.)

I don't think the first disciples could have known what they were getting themselves into, could have realized exactly what they were following when Jesus called them. Yet, there was something about him, something convincing about him that evoked their response. Certainly, he was unique (e.g., teachers didn't usually initiate calling their disciples), but on the surface he didn't appear as radical as John the Baptist. So, what was that something about him?

This something seemed to have little to do with his quantitative difference. Though Jesus quantified the transcendent God, his miraculous deeds, for example, were not the greatest impact he had--impressive certainly but not often convincing. It wasn't the quantitative difference of God presented in the incarnation that makes Jesus the unique contradiction for us to embrace. That something about Jesus was his qualitative difference; this is what struck a chord in his first disciples and brought out their desire for more--a desire which, we will see, is a direct result of eternity implanted in our hearts.

When we accept Jesus as different yet still try to combine elements of our common with the Uncommon, we are only acknowledging his quantitative difference, not his qualitative difference. In addition, God is not only holy but transcendent. If we want the transcendent God, we have to go beyond the temporal. That is, not on some mystical journey of nebulous spirituality but to a level beyond what we can come up with in the common in order to be relationally involved with the Uncommon and transcendent, who has already presented himself to us objectively in the incarnation.

Eternal is also what transcendent is about. Eternal means lasting, never ending.  We know God is eternal (Gen 21:33; Jer 10:10). The eternal God takes us beyond the temporal, gives us more than the common. He has a big picture plan which, the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us in those popular words, "God has made everything beautiful in its time" (Eccl 3:11). In the same breath he declares that "God has planted eternity in the human heart" (v.11, NLT). Eternity is the very substance of God which he transplanted in us.

In God's big picture plan, all the parts of it are wonderfully put together into this perfect whole. Though humans can't fully take in or imagine this whole, we can experience and enjoy the beauty of some of its parts because God has created us with the substance of this whole in us; he implanted his eternity-substance in our heart. Though our mind can't comprehend or imagine his big picture, our heart has definite understanding of it.

This understanding in our heart can be a burden or a blessing. It's a burden when it just brings out dissatisfaction and frustration with our life, as it did for the writer of Ecclesiastes. But such honest reflections on our life are also a blessing when it helps us realize there is more in life to experience and enjoy. This is beyond merely an awareness; it is the deep desire of our heart for more. This more that our heart desires is the working of his eternity-substance in us. This is the more the first disciples desired. This "eternity stuff" is basic to our heart's needs and desires. And we experience wholeness when we become involved in and a part of his perfect whole.

The common can only perceive the temporal--particularly in terms of time, space and quantity.  The big picture of God, which includes the deeper dimensions of the incarnation, can't be acknowledged in the temporal. Yet, we tend to want Christ and the Christian life in this mode. This puts God in a box and redefines faith to what we do as opposed to a relational response to the grace of the Uncommon.

Relationship with the uncommon and eternal God can only function in the context of the uncommon and the mode of the eternal. Following the Uncommon involves living on this actual journey not only to eternity but also in eternity. This is a journey with the eternal God in intimate relationship together in which he keeps expanding us in his life now as we journey to his life.  The present part of our journey in which we are able to partake increasingly in God's life now and to experience this intimate relationship with him is what the eternal God currently keeps expanding us in more and more until it "reaches eternity." Functionally, then, if we don't live in this journey in eternity, our life doesn't keep expanding in breadth and depth.

Contrary to the subtle influences in our perceptions, the eternal God and his life vulnerably extended to us in the person Jesus is not about "time and quantity" but about "boundless depth and quality." Anything that limits this depth and quality constrains who God is and essentially puts him in a box--which our assumptions, notions and lies accomplish. The depth and quality from eternity are what Jesus came to objectively present on our finite terms. But he also goes beyond our finite terms to take us to the next level of his eternal terms to connect us experientially with the intimate presence of the eternal God.

We may find ourselves in a similar position as the first disciples upon their engagement in discipleship. When we include the heart and add relational perspective, then we can start to better grasp "depth and quality" and act to embrace more and more of its relational significance. As we listen with our heart to Jesus tell us about eternal life (e.g., Mk 10:17-27), it increasingly comes into the present. As we embrace in our heart what he revealed about eternal life (Jn. 17:3), we are brought "face-to-face" with God in the present as a lasting and satisfying experience of intimate relationship together. As Jesus goes on to define in his closing prayer for all his disciples, knowing the Father and him are not a matter of information and a system of beliefs but the ongoing deep intimate relationship of love, just as the Father and Jesus experience together
(Jn 17:26).

The qualitative difference in the incarnation is totally relational. It was from the heart of the Father, about the intimately relational Father, revealed to us by his Son as an expression of their intimate and loving relationship, the substance of which is extended to us to have and experience together in his family--the relational progression. This qualitative difference is about the importance of heart and the primacy of intimate relationships. It is rooted in, objectively presented, vulnerably expressed and freely extended in the incarnation as love (agape primarily but also including phileo, affectionate love). That's the difference unmatched by any other teacher, by any other worldview. That's the fully satisfying, never-ending difference which is unequaled by any other alternative. Anything less co-opts the incarnation for the common.

Why is the qualitative difference of love the distinction of only Jesus' disciples, as he said (Jn 13:35)? Could love not distinguish other leaders or groups?  Certainly, charity is an expression found throughout humanity; and love, in one form or another, is not limited to the Christian community.  There is, however, a distinct quality of relationship that is unique to and characteristic of God--which is revealed and demonstrated in the relationships within the Godhead (between Father, Son and Spirit)--who created us with the design and purpose for intimate relationships, just as within the Godhead. The nature, depth and quality of these relationships identify none other than God and the God person Jesus openly revealed in objective flesh.

Since Christ not only taught but vulnerably lived this qualitative difference in functional terms (not only in his relationship with his Father but also with others), we can now operationalize this difference in our daily living. This necessitates formulating and making operational the culture of the uncommon (biblical culture) in our midst.


Culture of Distinction

Many would question or debate whether a biblical culture is indicated in Scripture. I can understand the concerns which may be related to such objection. The primary issue in this matter, however, is not a culture which separates us relationally from other people nor creates an elitist distinction with others. The issue of importance here is the culture which distinguishes us as God's people, as Christ's disciples, as his church. This is primarily about what we are in relation to God, and only secondarily in relation to others.

The Christian identity today is an odd mixture of practices and variations of belief. This lack of clarity is reflected by churches which are not distinguished in the church's unique identity but in their similarity to the surrounding context. This forms an ambiguous or shallow identity.

To be authentic followers of Christ and his authentic church is to be distinct and different--distinct in the truth and different in its culture. Historically, one has usually been emphasized over the other; among evangelicals today the former is emphasized more than the latter. But "distinct in the truth" and "different in its culture" are inseparable, not only in the incarnation but throughout the OT as witnessed in the prophets. Both define our identity by the holy God revealed in Jesus Christ.

We can't rely on propositional truth and doctrinal purity to distinguish us. This is not what Christ said distinguishes those who are his (Jn 13:35); to the contrary, he was unimpressed with the church in Ephesus--which was very active in church work, maintained the doctrinal purity of the church and suffered repercussions for Christ's name--because they failed to exercise (more so, had abandoned, "forsaken" Gk. aphiemi) the qualitative difference distinguishing his disciples (Rev 2:2-4).

Paul appears to focus primarily on truth and maintaining doctrinal purity in many of his letters. But we have to understand the situations he was addressing (competing belief systems) and not overlook his total context and the priority of relational work he emphasized. He never separates truth from practice and what truth leads to (Titus 1:1).  In his emphatic charge to Timothy, who was at the church in Ephesus helping to contend with false teachers in that situation, Paul gives balance to the task of doctrinal purity (see 1 Tim 6:11ff). "Take hold of eternal life" (v.12) uses the Greek word (epilambanomai) that slightly intensifies the word "to receive" (lambano Jesus in Jn 1:12). It means to take serious interest in, with concern and become involved in, that is, to experience it (intimate relationship with the Father and Christ) and not merely possess it (eternal life). When Paul included "Fight the good fight of faith" (v.12), he used the same word (agonizomai) Jesus used to "make every effort" (Lk. 13:24). Paul wasn't limiting his charge to Timothy to the situation at Ephesus and about spiritual warfare. As Jesus made imperative earlier, Paul primarily emphasized here the intense relational work necessary for the relationship of eternal life and the reciprocal relational response of faith. Paul charged Timothy not to compromise this relationship and its qualitative difference in his practice.

Given Christ's indictment later of the church at Ephesus, we have to wonder if they didn't learn completely from Timothy or if Timothy didn't learn fully from Paul. Doctrinal purity and propositional truth are never sufficient to distinguish the qualitative difference of God in his people. It's our relational practice, formulated and expressed as our culture, which distinguishes our identity. This culture must be rigorously addressed with the truth.

The identity revealed in the incarnation is often co-opted by the common culture prevailing around us that dilutes, distorts or effectively displaces the uncommon culture of God and his people. If we are to have a distinct and, therefore, significant presence in the world, then it has to be a holy presence. Without this holy, without the uncommon, we are functionally only common.

Scripture (especially the narratives of Jesus' person and words) provides the alternative by defining its own culture; this is the core which provides the basis for the uncommon, the new in Christ--what he saved us to. Without this core of beliefs, values and practices, followers of Christ would have little understanding of what being a new creation functionally translates into for their daily lives and that also distinguishes them from their surrounding context. Without this culture we would not have an alternative to a prevailing culture, nor be able to deal with its influences on our lives.

Biblical culture, however, does not mean all Christians worship and pray in the same way, or practice the same things in all areas of life (particularly in secondary matters), nor that all Christians even agree on every minor issue. Biblical culture can be multicultural in form or expression; as we will discuss later, its make-up needs to be multicultural. At the same time, this biblical culture is monocultural in its basic core of beliefs, values and practices.

Identifying and exercising this cultural core is the task of discipleship. As I hope we will experience, this task involves theological work and even more relational work. As mentioned earlier, Scripture is not a support system for every culture. Culture is neither a neutral institution nor a system without sin; culture is also vested with a specific ideology which may not be compatible with biblical truths and practice. The integrity of our identity in "distinct truth" and "difference in practice" is fundamental to living out a biblical culture.

At the heart of biblical culture is the heart of God, who made us in his image as persons of heart; the importance of the total person from the inside first is no greater than in biblical culture. Revealed in the heart of God is his intimately relational nature. Whenever the presence of this God of heart is made vulnerable to us (as in the incarnation), the opportunity for intimate relational connection is available to us. When that unique connection is made--unique because of the contradiction of his initiative--we are touched by his qualitative difference and thus distinguished by having been with him.

When Moses expressed his complaint to God (Ex 33:12ff), he was feeling somewhat alone in the major task God called him to do.  God responded to Moses' objection with the promise "My presence will go with you" (v.14). The relationship was the important matter for Moses and being together (vv.15,16). Amazingly, Moses also asked God the rhetorical question "What else will distinguish me if you aren't with me?" (v.16). Unlike common culture today, what defined Moses is not what he did, as great as it was. He was defined by who he was in his being with God, not his doing. Like Moses, what distinguishes all of us is God's presence--the intimate relationship between God and his people being together, openly sharing together. This is foundational for biblical culture, what it emphasizes and cultivates.

In the workings of the early church what distinguished Peter and John was not the prevailing characteristics of education and training.  What distinguished them to the learned leaders of their day was that they "had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13).  It is this relationship which is at the heart of biblical culture and which is the most significant distinction reflecting the qualitative difference of God.

Christians need to understand, for example, whether it's our faith (focused on what we do or have) that distinguishes us, or the relational object of our faith, that is, God's intimate presence, being with Jesus. Making this relational distinction is the tension and issue involved in living in the world but not of the world. Our authentic identity as Christ's disciples and followers of the Uncommon is vitally dependent on biblical culture for both individual and corporate identity formation. Without this culture of distinction Christians and churches are highly susceptible to the subtle influences diminishing their qualitative difference and are severely hampered in their capacity to expose any masquerades (Gk. metaschematizo, changes in outward form or appearance but not in substance, cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15) substituting for this qualitative difference.

As Jesus told Peter, the gates of hell will not prevail against his church (Mt 16:18) in terms of its conflict with evil and with those against God. But Christians and churches are not immune from the prevailing influences of their surrounding context, as Peter demonstrated in the very next moment by his common bias in not permitting Jesus to die on the cross (Mt 16:21-23). As Peter learned (not without struggle) and grew (not without failure) relationally, the church today needs to grow relationally to be distinguished substantively and to be significant deeply. In terms of relationships, in a sense churches may not be in conflict with evil but in complicity with it. And here is where we need to get back to the heart of God, the intimate relational nature of life with him and together as his church--that is, to our first love--for us to be significant to him, and distinguished in the world.

Biblical culture comprehensively involves the function of relationships--the function of relationships uncommon to that which surrounds us. To practice this distinct culture and to live in its difference in the world will cause conflict, or at least tension, with other prevailing cultures of our time and context. If this is genuinely undertaken, then the Christian church very likely will become a threat to that which prevails and to the status quo, not a function of them--no matter how morally correct they may appear. This is a constant tension observed during the earthly ministry of Jesus and the early church. And I think it would be accurate to say that when this tension is not present the distinctions of this biblical culture and its qualitative difference are not apparent either.


Uncommon Discipleship

Discipleship involves following the uncommon because the holy is what and who God is. Discipleship, by necessity then, has to be uncommon because the common is what we are; and discipleship is about God, not about us.

The contradiction of the Uncommon is its incompatibility with the common, and thus for any relationship with it, yet its vulnerable presence in the common context and our access for intimate relationship together. This relationship intimately together, however, is only on his terms; it's impossible to experience any other way. The ongoing experiential reality of this relationship develops only in following the Uncommon. In this relational process Christians constitute their identity in what and who they truly are as the new creation.

Following the Uncommon is distinctly more and qualitatively different from anything we are used to. Undertaking this life and engaging its process is a function only of relationship--the involvement of which ongoingly necessitates our redemption from the old and our transformation (sanctification) to the new. Consequently, any biblical theology of discipleship, along with redemption and sanctification, must include the complete critique of hope and the culture of distinction, both of which respectively are revealed in the incarnation in what Jesus saved us from and he saved us to.

From this foundation the following functional definition of discipleship can be operationalized.


The relational process of following Jesus
in ongoing intimate relationship with him in the relational progression,
the involvement of which is only on his terms,
only within the uncommon context
and the eternal mode of God our Father,
as defined by biblical culture,
and the relationship of which, along with its intense reciprocal relational work,
and with the cooperative help of the Spirit,
is intimately experienced together corporately as his family--
family qualitatively distinguished from the world
while distinctly shared in love with others in the world.



The source of our perceptions of discipleship and its practice can be misleading if our beliefs and doctrine have biblical foundation. Yet, even foundationalism in evangelical theology has reduced the theological task and tended to separate it from a functional framework that formulates practice with relational significance to God and experiential significance for his people. Given the tension, conflicts and struggle in the pursuit of what is indeed authentic and truly significant, God simply presents his self (without substitute and nothing less) to us for relationship.

What is the difference between merely maintaining doctrinal purity and practicing biblical culture?

How does the incarnation get co-opted in the process of Christian practice, even with our best intentions?

Extremism today has negative connotations by which Christians would not want to be defined. To what extent do we need to take up the culture of the uncommon, and how rigorous do we need to be in its practice?



[1] See John J. Pilch and Bruce Malina, Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publ., 1993), 63-67.

[2] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970).

[3] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper, 1962), 9.




2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.


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