Some notes on discipleship

I have the opportunity to do some teaching on discipleship later in the week at a Christian Associates staff conference in Scotland. This rather lengthy piece is part of my preparation. I have tried to outline how I see discipleship functioning in scripture, with particular attention given to the relation between discipleship and narrative. No one will be surprised by that. Interestingly, the word “disciple” is confined almost entirely to the Gospels and Acts. It occurs once in Isaiah (in the ESV), however, which turns out to be quite a good place to start. 

Isaiah’s disciples

Isaiah is speaking in chapter 8 about the coming Assyrian invasion, which will overwhelm the northern kingdom and threaten Jerusalem. His “testimony” to the people is that YHWH will become a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a “trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem”; many will fall and be broken (Is. 8:13-15). This testimony is to be bound up; the “teaching” (or “law”) is to be sealed among Isaiah’s “disciples”. He then says, “I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him” (Is. 8:16-17).

At a time of national crisis Isaiah entrusts his prophetic message to a group of “disciples” (limmid), and then battens down the hatches to wait out the storm. But the verb lmd is used generally in the Old Testament with the sense of “learn” or “be taught”, particularly with regard to learning the ways, statutes, and moral standards of God. For example:

I have taught (limmad) you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it (Deut 4:5);

…learn (limdu) to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause (Is. 1:17).

Two models of discipleship

So we have, in effect, two different models of discipleship illustrated here. First, there is the general requirement that the people of God learn to live according to his ways, which means in the first place according to the Law. All the people of Israel fall into this category: it is part of the covenant agreement brokered by Moses that Israel would learn to live rightly, do good. Secondly, we have the particular model whereby a group of students or apprentices is attached to a prominent figure such as a prophet in order to learn from him and share in his vocation and mission.

The first is a social model: the people of God are taught how to live well, in right relationship with God, with one another, with neighbours, and with the earth in microcosm. We might even call it a “social-justice” model. The narrative framework is the broad creational one: the family of Abraham is called always to embody God’s new creation in the midst of, and for the sake of, the nations.

The second is a missional model: a group is called to fulfil a particular task, under difficult circumstances, and has to learn how to do it faithfully and effectively. The narrative framework in this case is eschatological: the group must respond to a foreseen crisis in the political life of the family of Abraham. The missional-eschatological model typically comes into play when the social-creational model breaks down, which brings us to the New Testament….

Discipleship in the Gospels

What happens in the New Testament is that the family of Abraham comes under pressure to shift from the first model of discipleship to the second. When a disciple says that he must first fulfil his obligations to the Law regarding his father before he can follow Jesus, he is told to “leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22). The rich young ruler has learned the ways and statutes of God, but he approaches the “Teacher” (didaskale) Jesus in order to learn what he must do to inherit the life of the age to come (Mk. 10:17-22). Both men find it difficult to respond to the impending crisis by switching from a social model of discipleship to a missional model of discipleship. They cannot bring themselves to leave good, established patterns of social existence to follow Jesus down a narrow and painful path leading to life.

Like Isaiah Jesus is a prophet who warns Israel of impending disaster. In fact, he is himself the stumbling stone that will cause many in Israel to fall and be broken (Lk. 20:17-18). Like Isaiah he has a group of disciples who learn from him, who are entrusted with his prophetic message, and who share in his vocation and mission. The story goes something like this:

  • they leave behind their old lives and livelihoods;
  • they learn a new way of being God’s people under conditions of weakness and persecution; but they will receive the kingdom and inherit the earth (Matt. 5:1-12);
  • they are given authority to do what Jesus did: to cast out demons, heal the sick, proclaim the coming kingdom of God (Matt. 10:1);
  • they become the nucleus of a new Israel, representative of the twelve tribes, defined by a common mission to proclaim the good news of the coming kingdom to Israel and the nations, by baptism and the shared life of the Spirit, by the new covenant meal, and by loyalty to the one Lord;
  • they are called to be a faithful, resilient community, taking up the cross for the sake of the Son of Man, who must suffer and be glorified (Mk. 8:31-9:1);
  • finally, they will be assigned a kingdom, and having endured the same trials as Jesus, they will “sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk. 22:28-30).

Discipleship in the Gospels is not just a matter of learning to be good Christians. It presupposes the eschatological narrative of a final judgment on national Israel. The story spills over into the early chapters of Acts. To use our previous categories, Pentecost is not so much a cultural event as a missional event. It is not the Spirit of a new covenant that is poured out—not as Peter interprets it, at least. It is the Spirit that empowers the prophetic mission of the disciples, who have been entrusted with the “testimony” and “law” of Jesus. The Spirit equips the whole community of disciples to prophesy to the rulers and people of Jerusalem, as Jesus had done while alive, that Israel faces a great and dreadful “day of the Lord”, a day of judgment, from which only those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:17-21).

Discipleship in the churches

Believers are called “disciples” throughout Acts—Paul, for example, warns the Ephesian elders that “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). But there are no “disciples” in the Letters. Why?

I think the reason is that for these communities missional discipleship has become a way of life. The two models have merged.

The whole life and practice of the churches has to be adapted to the background eschatological narrative. The point can be simply illustrated from Ephesians 5:15-16:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

The reference to the days being evil is an eschatological note—remember, the Letter climaxes with Paul’s exhortation to the churches to put on the whole armour of God in order to stand firm against persecution.

I would venture to say that the practical teaching and exhortation in the New Testament epistles and Revelation always presupposes an eschatological narrative of judgment and renewal, suffering and vindication, within a realistic historical time frame. The churches have to negotiate a long, but not open-ended, period of upheaval, of “tribulation”—the birth pains of a very different age to come—until they arrive at the climactic moment when Jesus is confessed by the nations and persecution brought to an end. Once we get beyond the Gospel narrative, discipleship is the rigorous and crucial re-shaping of communal life in light of the coming judgment and the anticipated justification of the churches.

1 Peter again

The first letter of Peter is a good example, as I have argued before. The Jewish-Christian communities in Asia Minor to which Peter writes have been “ransomed from the futile ways” of Israel, “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus”; for a little while they will have to endure “various trials”, persecution, a period of exile; but there will eventually come a day of salvation, when Jesus will be revealed, when God will judge their persecutors. If they remain faithful, on this day, when the “chief shepherd appears”, they will receive the “unfading crown of glory”. They will not have to wait indefinitely: Peter believes that the “end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 1:3-7, 13, 17-18; 4:5, 12-13; 5:4, 10).

That gives us the eschatological narrative, and Peter teaches them to live accordingly. They have reason to rejoice in their sufferings (1:6). They should prepare their minds for action and being sober-minded should set their hope on the grace that they will receive when Jesus is revealed to the world (2:13). Because God will judge their world impartially, they should be holy in all their conduct (1:14-17). Because they have been “born again”, they should “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1:22-23). They are to be a priestly community, a temple built on the stumbling stone of the Christ whom Israel rejected (2:4-10).

They should “abstain from the passions of the flesh” and behave honourably amongst the Gentiles so that they might be a benchmark of righteousness when God “visits” to judge the pagan world (2:11-12). They should face opposition and injustice in the way that Christ faced opposition and injustice (2:21-23; 4:1-2, 12-19). Because the “end of all things is at hand”, they should be self-controlled, sober-minded; they should love one another earnestly, show hospitality to one another without grumbling (4:7-9). The elders should shepherd the flock with integrity, believing that the chief Shepherd will soon appear (5:1-4). They should all humble themselves so that “at the proper time he may exalt you” (5:6).

Discipleship today

The churches of the New Testament were, by their very nature, communities of eschatological transformation and had to be formed, trained, taught, discipled, to that end. Only communities built out of non-flammable materials would survive the coming day of fire. I suggest that this is equally true for churches today.

To do discipleship well we need to ask, first, what our current background narrative is. The over-arching vocation to be a new creation people remains in force, naturally, and we are always under obligation, no less than Old Testament Israel was, to learn the ways of God, how to live well—wisely, justly, compassionately. Churches need to be trained in righteousness—actively trained, not passively trained.

But the creational narrative, in the West at least, is clearly overlaid with a narrative of marginalization and long term decline—that is, an eschatological narrative. This will mean different things in different contexts, but my view is that communities—not just individuals—need to be discipled with this state of affairs firmly in mind.

On the one hand, therefore, the prophetic “testimony” and “law” needs to be heard, embodied in communities of “disciples”. On the other, leaders and teachers need to consider how to build communities—what sort of foundations? what sort of materials? what sort of vision? what sort of mindset? what sort of practices?—that will survive the coming crisis of irrelevance.

How do we do that? I hope to find out in Scotland.

Daniel | Tue, 10/09/2012 - 19:31 | Permalink

Good post.

The NT itself brings together Isaiah’s situation and the situation of the first-century disciples in Hebrews 2:13, which quotes Isaiah 8:17 in reference to Jesus.

Well noted. The writer to the Hebrews, however, appears to have assumed that the “children” of Isaiah 8:18 are the “disciples” of Isaiah 8:16, whereas Isaiah appears to be speaking of his two sons.

It doesn’t seem clear to me that Hebrews is assuming that. It doesn’t even quote the bit about “disciples.”

Perhaps in Isaiah’s case, his disciples were one thing while his two sons (and he himself) were specifically “signs and portents in Israel,” and the two are differentiated in Isaiah 8. But in the case of Jesus, his disciples are his “children” (cf. Isaiah 53:10) and also signs to Israel. The two roles are combined in the same group of people.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 10/10/2012 - 09:50 | Permalink

On a slightly tangential but not disconnected note: if I were invited to the party, I’d set up an alternative stall along the lines of this post from the dim and distant past. But that might be regarded as inflammatory.