Disciples are Followers
What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?
The first thing to understand about discipleship is this simple observation: You cannot be told how to be a good person. In Aristotle’s most important work on ethics, he told his readers that they had to know good manners before reading his book, or else it would not help them much. “Hence anyone who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits” (Nic. Eth. I.4). Goodness is learned by seeing it in action more than just being told about it. Aristotle figured that if you hadn’t learned a little bit of virtue as a child, you were not going to gain much from reading a book about it.
Consequently, the core concept of discipleship is that the disciple (“the learner”) needs a mentor. Being a disciple admits to personal inadequacy and commits oneself to learn by watching another.
A brief scene from Matthew 9 will illustrate this point. Jesus made his disciples by calling them to follow, watch, and learn. “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).
To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, not just make use of him.
Jesus does not offer Matthew anything apart from Jesus himself. Though Jesus is Savior, he does not at the beginning offer him salvation, atonement, justification, or any of our other Christian words for the gift of God’s grace. Jesus offers only the opportunity to follow and learn what can only be learned by watching.
Jesus offered this same opportunity to people of all walks of life. “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (Matthew 9:10). Jesus spent time with people and offered them himself.
To be a disciple is to abide with Jesus, not just acknowledge him.
Others knew who Jesus must be or at least suspected. Nicodemus knew that Jesus was a “teacher come from God” (John 3:2). “Many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it” (John 12:42). But these sinners of ill-repute came to be in the presence of someone who could offer what none other dared—his company and thereby his mentorship.
The Pharisees respond predictably, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11). They saw sinners sitting with Jesus and could only imagine that Jesus was learning to be a sinner. It never occurred to them that a sinner following Jesus could learn something about righteousness.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). This barbed comment cuts both ways. On the one hand, a teacher with a message for sinners would find himself surrounded by them. There are all kinds of sick folk in hospitals after all. It is where they are supposed to be.
On the other hand, this quip from Jesus also summarizes why the Pharisees could not learn anything from Jesus. They did not believe they were sick. They believed they were the physicians.
To be a disciple is to need Jesus, not just associate with him.
When Christianity is convenient, many pragmatists will sign up for the blessings and benefits of association. But the gospel message is not about adding perks to our satisfying life; it is about breathing life into our spiritually-dead bodies. We come to Jesus, not merely for self-improvement, but for survival.
Jesus ends the exchange with these words, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). Eugene Peterson, in The Message, paraphrases that line as, “I’m after mercy, not religion.” I think the word “religion” gets a bad rap, but Peterson’s point is fair in its own way.
Typically, religion is a system of devotion to principles or ideas. It is the search to cure a spiritual disease. But Christ is offering more. He is showing us the person of God. This God is he who spoke from the “mercy seat” above the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:2). This is the God Moses declared: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious” (Exodus 34:6).
Christ is not offering merely a benefit extended through a ritual. He is offering life flowing from a person. Religion can be explained, but mercy-like discipleship-is learned by watching the merciful.
To be a disciple is to know God in Jesus Christ, not just practice a religion about him.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.