Discipleship Isn’t What You Think It Is

by Michael Spencer

I’m fascinated by the parts of the Bible that leave us to wonder what happened when the story is over. For example, how did the formerly demon-possessed man live after he moved out of the cemetery, gave up his chains, and returned to family and community? How did Lazarus live once he’d removed the wrappings? What was Zaccheus’s life like after he started giving the money back to those he’d robbed? And how did that prodigal son and his snarky older brother work out their future in their father’s house?

We can all speculate on what happened next because we know that something happened next, because we know something important about Jesus: he makes disciples. Christian faith and experience take on a form in the world. That form, which we call Christian discipleship, is the next chapter, the next act, the next destination in the ongoing experience of belonging to the living Christ.

Jesus didn’t invent the concept of being a disciple. The rabbis of Jesus’ time undertook students and followers in a “follow, listen, imitate” relationship as a typical form of rabbinic training. John the Baptist had disciples. The graduate seminar was replaced with meals together, weeks on mission, and hundreds of hours of conversation. Disciples in Judaism were not learning three hours a week. It was a life-consuming, life-transforming vocation.

What Is Discipleship According to Jesus?

Christian discipleship grows from that historical soil, but it is distinctively shaped by Jesus. It’s clear in the Gospels that many of the disciples experienced a dynamic call from Jesus to “drop their nets” and “come follow me.” Discipleship with Jesus was crucially focused around coming to understand Jesus himself. The midterm exam was not “tell me what you’ve learned about the kingdom,” but “who do you say that I am?” This reflects the primary course material in Jesus’ brand of discipleship: Have you come to grips with what it means that God has come to you?

Promptly upon getting the answer to that question, the Gospels tell us that Jesus refocused his personal journey toward the cross and began to teach his disciples with new intensity the complete course of discipleship…

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Discipleship Isn’t What You Think It Is