Discipleship (1): The Call

The New Testament uses a wide range of terms to describe the relationship between Christ and his followers.  Paul and James frequently use the term “servant” or “slave” (doulos),[1] the most remarkable example being in James 1.1, “James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (NRSV)  James was a half-brother of Jesus, yet, strict monotheist though he was, he sees his relationship to Jesus and his relationship to God as totally symmetrical.  He was equally a servant of both.  Jesus himself spoke of his followers as “witnesses” and sometimes as his “friends”, while the Book of Acts refers to them as “believers” (cf. 1 Timothy 4.12).  But the predominant term is “disciples”, which is used regularly in all four gospels and in Acts. 

One of the interesting details here is that not only did Jesus and the evangelists use this term, but it was also used by those who were hostile, particularly the Pharisees, as in the accusation, “Your disciples are doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:2).  This is clearly the way that even outsiders saw the relationship between Jesus and his followers. 

But equally clearly it was the way that he himself wished to define his followers, as is evident in the Great Commisssion, where the intended outcome of worldwide evangelism is to ‘make disciples’ of all nations (matheteusate). 

As Barth suggests, then, “Discipleship is the great word in which everything that the Lord expects from his followers  is summed up in the gospels.  It is a ‘following in his footsteps’ (1 Pet. 2:21), an imitating of God as beloved children (Eph. 5:1), a perfection corresponding to the perfection of our Father in heaven (Mt. 5:48) and therefore an existence as ‘labourers together with God’ (1 Cor. 3:9).” [2]

The term ‘disciple (Greek mathetes, Latin discipulus) was not, of course, confined to Christianity.  In its basic meaning of student or pupil it was common in the classical world, where philosophers and other charismatic teachers would have their own circle of disciples.  It was also a common concept in Judaism, where aRabbi would gather his students around him and instruct them in the Law (Torah)) and in the oral tradition (Hallakhah); and besides formal instruction he might also invite the student to live with him in order to observe the Master’s life-style, where everything was sacrificed to the study of the Torah. 


Jesus’ lack of formal qualifications

Yet it would be a mistake to construct a general notion of discipleship into which we then try to fit discipleship in the school of Jesus.  There were profound differences between the disciple in classical culture and the disciple in Christianity; and equally profound differences between the disciple in Rabbinical culture and discipleship in Christianity.   Christian discipleship was unique.

One element in this was Jesus’ total lack of formal qualifications.  The typical Rabbi had himself been a disciple to an older Rabbi and hoped one day to equal or even excel his master in knowledge of the Torah.  Jesus had never been a disciple in this sense.  He had been a mere carpenter: hence the sneer, “Is this not the carpenter?” (Mark 6:3).

His method of teaching, too, was different.  The Rabbi was never more than an expositor, seeking to elucidate the meaning of the Torah and the Hallakhah.  Jesus was never a mere expositor, not even of the Old Testament.  He did, of course, invoke its authority, and warmly endorsed it (Matt. 5:17-19, John 10:35), but he never appeals to Rabbinical tradition.  Instead he criticises “the ancients” (Matthew 5:21-48); and even when the law and the prophets are his starting-point, he develops their teaching with striking originality and rigour.

As in the case of the Rabbis, Jesus’ disciples lived in close proximity to him, observing his life-style, hearing his teaching and overhearing his prayers, but what they observed was a “Rabbi” who was simultaneously so great as to be ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27) and yet the friend of tax-collectors and sinners (Matthew11:19); one who taught in unforgettable parables and “pronouncement sayings”, and who in the most intimate moments of prayer addressed God as, “Abba”. 

We today are familiar enough with such an address to deity, but it would have sounded extraordinary to the first disciples (and shocking to the Pharisees) because, as Jeremias points out, “Nowhere in the literature of the prayers of ancient Judaism is this invocation of God as Abba to be found, neither in the liturgical nor in the informal prayers.”[3]          

In his attitude to his students, too, Jesus was utterly different.  The traditional Rabbi was a “Great One” who expected his disciples to perform services for him.  Jesus was among his as the one who serves (Luke 22.27).  Not that they were left in any doubt as to his greatness: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).  But he never made his greatness a pretext for demanding servile attention.  He had come not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45).  He would meet their needs, not they his. 

The climax of this service came when he laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13), but it is also graphically illustrated in the story of his washing the disciples’ feet.  The striking thing here is the introductory link: “Jesus knowing that … he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table” (John 13:3).    At one level the foot-washing underlined the fact that he loved “his own” to the end, but the context suggests that Jesus also saw it as an act which was not only consistent with his own special relationship with God but also as one which pointed to the nature of God himself.   It is as if, seeing the need to do something “matchless, God-like and divine,” he chose this act of humble service, and in doing so he carries the principle of service back into the very heart of deity.: the very same point as St. Paul highlights when he declares that, ‘being in the form of God’ Christ made himself nothing, and took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6).  

This is certainly saying that the self-emptying of the eternal Son was consistent with the form of God.  But it is also saying more, as C. F. D. Moule suggests: not merely that though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, but that because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself: “Jesus saw God-likeness essentially as giving and spending oneself out.”[4]  The ‘mind’ that led to his humbling himself and taking the form of a servant was an expression of the form of God: a window into the heart of deity.


Jesus’ preoccupation with ordinary people

Jesus’ uniqueness as a Rabbi also appears in his preoccupation with ‘the people of the land’ (gam ha-eretz).  Like modern academics, Rabbis characteristically sought the fellowship and courted the admiration of their peers, attending their conferences and returning to impress their small band of students.  They had little to do with ordinary people, and nothing at all to do with women. 

Jesus, by contrast, is habitually accessible to the multitudes and to individuals in need; and he delivers much of his teaching not to an inner circle, but to the crowds.  It is particularly striking that when, immediately after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, he laid down the terms and the consequences of discipleship, he deliberately “called the crowd with his disciples” (Mark 8:34), involving them all in the uncompromising declaration, “If any of you wants to become my disciple, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). 

Nor is he afraid of being seen associating with women, even on a one-to-one basis, as with the Woman of Samaria (John 4:7-30).  What is striking here is that he not only enters into a conversation with her, but engages her in profound theological discussion.  It was she who was privileged to hear him declare, for example, that God is [a] spirit, and that those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).  There is nothing here of the prevailing rabbinical contempt for the female intellect. 

This becomes clear, again, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42).  While Martha was distracted by domestic chores, Mary occupies the characteristic position of a student, sitting at Jesus’ feet drinking in his teaching: and far from being irritated or embarrassed, Jesus defends her when Martha complains of being left to do the cooking by herself: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42). 

It is clear, too, that to the very end Jesus commanded the loyalty of the women who had followed him all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem (Mark 15:41).  It was three of these who were chosen to be the first witnesses to his resurrection (Mark 16:1-8); and in the Johannine account, the first word spoken by the risen Jesus (to Mary Magdalene) was gune, “woman” (John 20:15).   The precise question he put to her has its own enduring poignancy:  “Woman, why are you weeping?”  The women of the world have had much to weep about.


Jesus’ choice of disciples

The uniqueness of Jesus-discipleship also appears in his selection and calling of his followers.  In normal cases, the student chose some famous rabbi, just as a modern student applies to a university of their own choice, and decided he wanted to follow him and belong to his school.  In the case of Jesus, however, the initiative is entirely his, and this appears in all the key accounts. 

We see it, for example, in the calling Simon (Peter) and Andrew.  They didn’t seek out Jesus.  Instead, we read only that, “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’” They responded immediately, abandoning their nets and going off with Jesus  (Mark 1:16-18). 

The same lack of any initiative on the part of the disciples is evident in the calling of James and John, the sons of Zebedee.  Jesus meets them, calls them, and they follow him.  Matthew’s account of his own calling is along the same lines: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax-booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he got up and followed him.”  (Matt. 9:9)

John’s account of the calling of the first disciples is written from a different perspective to the Synoptics, but the same emphasis is still apparent, particularly in the calling of Philip: “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee.  He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 1:43) 

It is John who gives us the theological background to all this: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16)  Clearly, the callings were not as casual as they looked; and from Jesus’ language in John 17:6 it is clear both that the choice went back into eternity and that it involved the Father as well as the Son:  “They were yours and you gave them to me” (John 17:6). 

But John’s account of the calling of Nathanael also suggests that the earthly Jesus had a supernatural awareness of the whereabouts and characters of those he intended to call: “I saw you under the fig-tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:48)  In the highest sense Jesus has been tracking his disciples from the day they were born.


Jesus’ imperious summons

One of the key features of these accounts is the imperious summons, “Come, follow me!”  It is clear-cut and categorical.  It is also powerful and irresistible. It evokes instant compliance.  They forsake all and follow him, without a hint of hesitation or suspicion.  The disciples don’t ask for time to consider; nor do they ask for further information or pose any questions.  They don’t ask, “What is your programme?” or, “What is your vision?” or, “What is your view on such-and-such an issue?”  With absolutely minimal information they are instantly prepared to make a complete break with the past and to ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes.’  Peter and Andrew leave their nets; James and John leave their father and their boats; Matthew instantly leaves his tax-booth.  And the break is as public as it is instant.

What can account for this: mature and successful men suddenly giving up everything to follow an unknown stranger?  Is it force of personality on Jesus’ part? 

It goes much deeper, surely, than that.  The same force is at work as would later open the heart of Lydia as she listened to Paul preaching by the river-side at Philippi; even the same force, indeed, as evoked compliance from the dead Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43)  Each of the accounts illustrates the principle expressed so memorably in Augustine’s  “Give what you command, and command what you will!”[5]  The command itself conveys the grace to obey it.  Each disciple followed Jesus willingly, but none followed him simply because they wanted to.  Their discipleship was born, ultimately, not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12).


A personal bond with Jesus

But the most striking feature of the accounts is the stress on the personal bond with Jesus: “Follow me!”  This was certainly not the normal rabbinical contract.  One became a rabbinical student in order to acquire wisdom, and the way to do so was by study of the Torah.  The disciple hoped to learn all the Master knew and to observe how the Master lived.  But his underlying loyalty was to the Torah, not to the Master. 

In the case of Jesus the relationship was completely different.  The commitment was to him personally; and it was never a case of merely studying the Torah with Jesus.  It was a case of listening to Jesus’ own word, not as an exposition of tradition, but as itself the very word of God: a new and final word, backed by no appeal to external authorities, but resting entirely on an authority of the Master himself.  The disciples followed him literally and physically, but they also followed him spiritually, driven by the belief that he was the Messiah (Mark 8:29, John 1:45, 49), even though their understanding of what that meant was at first both shallow and insecure.  They weren’t called merely to record and collect the Master’s teaching or to continue his movement.  They were to be witnesses to him as the Saviour of the world and the bearer of its sin. 

This is why the cross was so devastating.  It not only took him away from them.  It falsified his claims and exposed the hollowness of his pretensions.  But when the resurrection regenerated their hope (1 Peter 1:3) it instantly re-focused their minds on him.  They loved him.  They believed in him.  They worshipped him.  They obeyed him.  They boasted in him.  They followed him.  They witnessed to him.

That, surely, is the reality behind the cliché, “a personal relationship with Jesus”.  It is more than a vague spirituality, more than adherence to a body of doctrine, more than the practice of daily devotional exercises.  It is loving, obeying, trusting, worshipping and listening to him.  

Yet we must never collapse this into mysticism.  We have no immediate or visionary or sensual access to Jesus.  Indwelt by him, we hear his voice only in his written word as that word is attested to us and illuminated for us by his Spirit.  There can be no bypassing of the scriptures or any critique of those scriptures based on the pretence of a higher vantage-point (for example, appealing to the eternal Word over against the written Word).  In them, and in them alone, as a final and sufficient disclosure, we hear the voice of Jesus say, ‘Come unto me and rest.’ 

Here alone, not in private revelations, not through the voice of an infallible church, not through a modern prophet, Christ speaks.  Here alone the sheep recognise the voice of the Good Shepherd: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16).

But to what kind of people did Jesus address this imperious, life-changing summons?  Here is a man about to launch the greatest movement in history, inaugurating the Kingdom of God and turning the world upside down.  You would expect him to have hand-picked agents and assistants: learned, charismatic, influential men, strong in character, experienced in the ways of the world, and inspiring in leadership. 

But Jesus’ selection process is the reverse of that.  Those with obvious qualifications are overlooked.  The man with the wealth, for example, (Matthew 19:16-22) is overlooked, as is the man with the learning (Matthew 8:19).  Members of the Sanhedrin, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimithea, enter the story briefly and fleetingly, and then are heard of no more.

Instead, the Twelve contain a collaborator, a zealot, a treacherous Judaean, and several others whose names few can remember and who seem to have done nothing with the rest of their lives.  Instead, the inner circle consists of three Galilean fishermen, all of whom would prove to be flawed men.  And as if all this were not compromise enough, his followers included a significant number of women, who by virtue of their very gender were not permitted to study the Torah.

It’s hard to imagine any of these people passing a political selection process or being head-hunted by a multinational business corporation or being the approved candidate for a university chair.

Yet Jesus’ policy was entirely in keeping with what he was himself:  a carpenter with neither social nor educational qualifications.  What a phenomenon this nucleus of the Christian church presents: a movement led by a carpenter with the backing of fishermen! 

But let’s not be carried away and launch a drive to recruit carpenters and fishermen.  It wasn’t by virtue of their trades that these men turned the world upside down.  It was because the Spirit of the Lord came upon them and turned them into a mighty force. And one day God would show, through the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, that being a scholar was no fatal impediment to entering the kingdom. 

At the same time, the path mapped out by Jesus is surely a warning against a policy of top-down evangelism, as if the wise way were first to win over those with influence, power and university degrees (the leaders of the future, in other words) in the hope that one day they will  persuade those below them. 

We have been sent to put the gospel within reach of every human on the planet; and most humans belong to the same social class as the original apostles.  It is to them that we owe the gospel.



[1] As N. T. Wright points out in his Commentary on Romans, this word always carried overtones of social degradation:  “Slaves had no rights, no property and no prospects; they were simply there to do  what they were told.  Modifying this to ‘servant,’ as though Paul were a free agent who happened to have a job as a cleaner or butler, misses the point.”  However, this degradation is modified by the fact that the Christian’s Master is no typical slave-owner: “Slave though he be, however, his master is the King before whom other kings should quail, and he can thus hold up his head not on his own account but on that of ‘king Jesus.”   (N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X  [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002], p. 415.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol.III, Part Four (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 649

[3] Joachim Jeremias, The Central Message of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1965), p.19).

[4] From Moule’s article, “The Manhood of Jesus in the New Testament” in S. W. Sykes and J. P. Clayton (eds.), Christ Faith and History: Cambridge Studies in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 97

[5]  “Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis.” (Augustine, Confessions X.40).