Here continues chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship
3.4 Jesus as the embodiment of good news: Discipleship as mission
The focal point of discovering what it means to follow after Jesus is found in his mission. Upon discovering that the beginning point of discipleship is a call to repent and believe, and then examining the essence of Jesus’ teaching, one can begin to examine the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ earthly ministry in order to uncover what it means to be a disciple in practice.
Mark begins his gospel with the following introduction: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Larry Hurtado asserts that this introduction by Mark infers that “Jesus’ ministry is the ‘beginning’ of the message and the mission to which all future disciples are summoned – the source, ground, first cause or foundation from which the mission and preaching of the Christian church proceeds and by which all its activities are to be measured.”1
Discipleship, therefore, is to learn from the example of Jesus and participate in the ongoing story of the kingdom that he himself inaugurated in his earthly ministry; his ministry was but a beginning point, a glimpse into the transformative power of the kingdom of God now present in the world and to be embodied by all those that wish to follow him.
The fundamental nature of being a disciple as described in the New Testament, therefore, “was to take part in Jesus’ mission.”2 In doing so, Jesus’ disciples become “the middle link in a chain of tree parts: Father/Son – disciples – world.”3 Through Jesus, “God has drawn near to usher in a new reality that is to be enacted and effected by human missioners who act boldly on the basis of the proclamation that they themselves accept as true and as the basis for an alternative life in the world.”4 That alternative life is a return to the way that things are meant to be in God’s good creation; for the disciple, it involves being called out of commonly accepted modes of living according to the dominant social, cultural and political powers of the day and to participate in the redemptive work of God in the midst of the daily realities of life. The essence of that redemptive work lies in proclaiming and enacting good news for the poor and marginalized, the breaking down of common social boundaries and, finally, the great commandment to love the neighbour.
It is clear that Jesus’ understanding of his vocation and mission involved delivering good news to the poor and marginalized. Evidence for this can be found in Luke 4:17-21, where Jesus reads aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah declaring the good news that was to be brought forth through him, and in Matthew 11:5, when Jesus tells John’s disciples to relay a message back to John in regards to all that was happening, actions which included the delivery of this kind of good news. Frank Thielman contends that “just as Jesus comes to fulfill Isaiah 61:1-2a by bringing good news to the poor, freedom to the captives recovery of sight to the blind and liberty to the oppressed, so his disciples must follow this example and accept the physically and economically vulnerable.”5 The brand of good news that Jesus was proclaiming involved action, and discipleship, therefore, entails the meeting of needs.
In fact, as Camp argues, “the path of discipleship calls us to a life of consistently practicing a giving and sharing that seeks to meet, however we can, the needs of the weak and impoverished, ever remembering that in serving the poor we are serving Christ.”6 Practical examples of this are seen throughout the books of Acts, specifically in 2:45 where we read of early followers of Jesus selling their possessions in order to meet the needs of the poor. If discipleship involves participating in the ongoing mission of Jesus, then to be a disciple of Jesus means to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized.
A second aspect of Jesus’ mission was to include and embrace those who were seen as being outside of the bounds of God’s promises to his faithful people, the ‘sinner’ and the Gentile, for example. Jesus “came to call precisely those whom the most religious of his fellow Jews rejected as having put themselves outside the scope of God’s covenant provision.”7 Luke 5:29 provides an example of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, and examples of this table-fellowship can also be seen in Matthew 11:19 and Mark 2:16. There are also three parables in Luke’s gospel which demonstrate Jesus’ desire in terms of the attitude of his disciples towards sinners, those on the ‘outside’ – they are to “extend acceptance to sinners just as Jesus accepted tax collectors and sinners.”8
Jesus’ disciples must, like Jesus himself, embrace all people; his disciples “should extend salvation to the poor, the sinner and the ethnically other.”9 And “as the followers of Jesus imitate the inclusive work of their Lord, God will use them to accomplish his purposes of bringing salvation to the disenfranchised.”10 This is not a salvation that looks only to heaven, but rather is rooted in the present realities of life wherein all must know that they are welcome in God’s kingdom.
Perhaps the greatest example Jesus gives in relation to this embrace is in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein he essentially redefines and reframes any popular notions of neighbourliness – all are to be shown mercy, all are to be shown the embodied love of Christ, regardless of their social, political, religious or economic background. This parable demonstrates the reality that disciples of Jesus are not to be absorbed by these external factors, but are called to break them down so that all may know that they are welcome in God’s kingdom. This sense of inclusion flows out of the core distinguishing mark of discipleship: the love of one’s neighbour.
I. Howard Marshall asserts the following point: “the clearest common motif in many of the (New Testament) sources, especially in Jesus, Paul and John, is undoubtedly the love command. Its centrality in the behavior of disciples is obvious in all three cases.”11 The command to love one’s neighbour is repeated in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27); John emphasizes the importance of love within the community of disciples (John 13:34-35); and Paul picks up on the centrality of love in Romans 12.12
What makes the love command so crucial is that it is not merely some sort of detached doctrine to be adhered to internally, nor is it to be reserved for God alone, but rather it forms a mode of living that must be embodied in order to show the world what God is like and what he cares about. In the words of Craig Koester, “Jesus was sent to communicate God’s love to a world alienated from its Creator, and the Gospel(s) assume that discipleship means continuing to engage the world in this way.”13
Furthermore, “the command to love one another means that Christians bring to the world not only a doctrine about love but an alternative society, a counterculture in which the message of Jesus takes lived form. The love that is shared within in it is a form of witness to those outside it, so that the world may know that the love of God is real (John 17:23).”14
The command to love, therefore, encapsulates the essential elements of discipleship – being called out of the old to the new in order to engage in the present realities of the world according to the teachings and example of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are to be defined by their capacity to love the other, and it is this relentless love of the other that sets the kingdom of God apart from any other way the world can know.
1 Larry W. Hurtado, “Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark – and Beyond,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 27.
2 Dunn, Christianity in the Making, 558.
3 Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 209.
4 Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 99.
5 Thielman, Theology of the New Testament, 136.
6 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 200.
7 Dunn, Jesus’ Call To Discipleship, 71.
8 Thielman Theology of the New Testament, 137.
9 Ibid., 138.
10 Ibid., 138.
11 I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 724.
12 Ibid., 724
13 Craig Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 188