New Testament Discipleship after the Gospels

The final section of chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship.

Catch up here:
3.1 Discipleship in the New Testament
3.2 The call of Jesus: Discipleship as a turn towards something new
3.3 The Sermon on the Mount: A different Way
3.4 Jesus as the embodiment of good news: Discipleship as mission

3.5 Discipleship after the Gospels

The biblical heart of any conversation in regards to following Jesus is naturally to be found in the Gospels. As the reader moves through the New Testament, however, the question becomes what to do with the concept of discipleship when Jesus is no longer physically present on earth.

While this leads into a discussion on the present implications of discipleship, one must be careful not to suggest that everything in the Gospels can be carried over for all early and subsequent would-be followers of Jesus; as Brueggemann suggests, “it is a huge leap from these biblical summonses to our own time, place, and circumstance.”1 This is true even as the New Testament moves from the Gospels into the post-resurrection texts.

From a literary perspective, the four gospels and the book of Acts allude to the ongoing and ever-present call of discipleship in their somewhat ambiguous endings. As Morna D. Hooker argues, the endings of each of these texts convey the message that “the story that has been told is the work of God, and its continuation depends on those to whom it is entrusted.

In their various endings, each of our writers urges us to turn the end into a beginning, and to continue writing the story for ourselves.”2 Ernest Best would argue that it is precisely through the Gospel endings that the Way of discipleship is made possible: “through his cross and resurrection, (Jesus) creates the very possibility of journey for (his disciples); the judgment which should fall on them is taken away and they are freed.”3 In that sense, discipleship can be seen as “a gift, and not simply a call.”4 It is through the cross and resurrection, therefore, that Jesus is able to continually extend the gracious call to discipleship.

Ultimately, as Best points out, the journey of discipleship is open-ended in that “the leader of the Way is alive … the cross is not the end with heaven beyond. The cross is the beginning and always on the way: but the way is at the same time the way of the risen life, of the new possibility of service, and of that here.”5 This comes back to Peterson’s emphasis on the designation of ‘the Way’ for the early followers of Jesus who, freed to embody the teachings and example of the risen and living Jesus, engaged not only in the process of recording the early steps of this movement, but also in constantly wrestling with what it meant to hear and follow the gracious call of Jesus in their particular here and now.

Outside of the Gospels, aforementioned terms used to delineate the concept of discipleship are, in Longenecker’s words, “conspicuously absent”.6 The terms ‘disciples’ and ‘follower’ are replaced by functional substitutes that further highlight a sense of discipleship as the putting into practice of that which had been seen and heard, and that which was now being revealed by Christ through the Spirit. As Longenecker points out, the other New Testament authors offer “statements regarding the nature of Christian existence” and “exhortations urging that the truths of these statements be put into practice.”7 He points out that, often in Paul’s letter, and also in the letters of John, the nature of discipleship is given shape through the use of the term peripatein, which means ‘to walk about’ or ‘to conduct one’s life’; this is tied into the call “for believers to be ‘imitators’ (mimetes, or with the verb mimeomai) and/or to reflect in their lives an example or pattern (typos, hypotyposis).”8 To invoke the language of imitation is to reframe discipleship in terms of active response, one that takes seriously the call to turn from the old to the new and be shaped by the teachings and example of Jesus.

In Philippians, for example, Paul outlines a pattern of discipleship that “is less a matter of belief than of practice, less a matter of orthodoxy than of orthopraxis, less a matter of what one thinks that how one lives.”9 For Paul, therefore, imitation is not to enact a verbatim reproduction of Jesus’ words and actions, but rather to reorient one’s attitudes and actions according to the pattern of living that was introduced by him.

Another way that Paul picks up the nature of discipleship is through his use of holiness language, specifically in 1 Thessalonians. In this text, it is argued that Paul sets out a pattern for following Jesus wherein “the distinguishing sign or boundary marker of authentic Christian existence, what separated believers in Christ from those of the world, is holiness.”10 Much like the call made to Israel at Sinai, and reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus through the Sermon on the Mount, Paul argues, “Holiness was the defining characteristic and desired purpose for Israel, God’s covenant people. It was the attribute by which the people of God were to be distinguished from all other nations.”11 And as a newly formed people of God living in the post-resurrection era, “that they were to observe the boundaries of holiness that the new covenant marked out for them … and the key to living such lives of holiness is the present and ongoing presence of God’s spirit.”12 Paul, therefore, rightly emphasizes that to follow Jesus means to be in tune with the Holy Spirit; to be a disciple is to uphold the reality that Jesus is alive and continues to speak to his people through his Spirit. Paul reminds the reader that the Way of Jesus is the way of the Spirit, and vice versa.

The reality of this is evidenced back in the Gospels, at the point of Jesus’ baptism. Mark 1:10 tells us that the Spirit descended upon Jesus when he was baptized, and this account is given very early in Mark’s Gospel because, according to Hurtado, “baptism is where the life of discipleship begins.”13 In the chapter on baptism in Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argues the following: “what the Synoptics describe as hearing and following the call to discipleship, Paul expresses with the concept of baptism.”14 Those who are baptized “now belong to Jesus Christ. Having been rescued from the rule of this world, they now have become Christ’s own. Baptism thus implies a break … the old has passed away, and the new has come.”15 Therefore, baptism inducts one into a different way of living in the world, according to the teachings and example of Jesus. Camp outlines the implications of this in the following statement:

At the heart of baptism lies an astonishing claim, an astonishing reality: all the division, all the social groupings, all the forms of identity, that serve to categorize, divide, estrange, and alienate one from the other – those are broken down. There is, for those who have been clothed with Christ in baptism, a new identity, an identity that transcends race, economic class, ethnic grouping and citizenship.16

To be baptized is to make visible the decision to throw away the old and embrace something new; it is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables the disciple to travel down the Way of following Jesus, the Way of the risen life. It is to boldly declare that a different way of living has been made possible in accordance with the teachings and example of Jesus.

The twenty-seven New Testament texts, while having been written by several authors on different occasions and for different reasons, clearly articulate that in order to travel down the Way of Jesus, one cannot continue to live in accordance with the status quo; he calls all those that wish to follow him to repent and believe his message of good news, to embrace his teachings, and to participate in his mission of good news to the poor and marginalized.

These texts, however, are simply a record of the beginnings of the new way of living that has been made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a new way that is rooted in the present realities of the world and seeks to embody the teachings and example of Jesus in meaningful ways. The unremitting task, therefore, is to articulate what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century.

1 Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship,” 95.

2 Morna D. Hooker, Endings: Invitations to Discipleship (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 83.

3 Ernest Best, Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981), 246.

4 John B. Webster, “The Imitation of Christ,” Tyndale Bulletin 37 (1986), 100.

5 Ernest Best, Disciples and Discipleship (T. &. T Clark Ltd: Edinburgh, 1986), 15.

6 Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 5.

7 Ibid., 5

8 Ibid., 5.

9 Gerald F. Hawthorne, “The Imitation of Christ: Discipleship in Philippians” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 166.

10 Jeffrey A.D. Weima, “How You Must Walk to Please God: Holiness and Discipleship in 1 Thessalonians,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 99.

11 Ibid., 101.

12 Ibid., 112.

13 Hurtado, “Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark – and Beyond,” 26.

14 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 207.

15 Ibid., 207.

16 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 152.

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