January 16, 2021

iMonk 101: What Kind Of Person Will Be A Disciple?

From April of ’08.

Now – here is my secret:
I tell it to you with an openness of heart
that I doubt I shall ever achieve again,
so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words.
My secret is that I need God
that I am sick and can no longer make it alone.
I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving;
to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness;
to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love”

– Life After God, Douglas Coupland, (p. 359) HT to Tim at Sacrosanct Gospel

Did you ever wonder why Jesus didn’t call anyone from the religious establishment or extant established religious movements to be one of his disciples? I think I’m starting to see it more clearly, both in the gospels and in my own experience.

It’s a shame that so many Bibles insert section headings and subheadings all over the place where they aren’t needed or helpful. Take for example Mark 3. It’s a very important passage, and the insertion of so many divisions breaks up what is clearly a unit with implications as a unit.

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand,”Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. 7 Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea 8 and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. 9 And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, 10 for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. 11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 And he strictly ordered them not to make him known. 13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. 20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

You can find many good expositions of this passage, but I want to quickly note all the things that are going on around Jesus as he chooses the apostles.

1. He breaks the traditions of the Pharisees in the context of the Synagogue.
2. The Pharisees and supporters of Herod begin the plot to kill Jesus.
3. Jesus heals and cast out demons outside of the approved authorities of Judaism.
4. He appointed and authorized a group of unqualified, ragtag disciples to lead and continue his movement. The symbolism representing a symbolic “New Israel” wouldn’t have been missed.
5. His family concludes that he is “out of his mind,” most likely based on everything Jesus has been doing outside of the expected and approved confines of official Judaism.
6. The scribes from Jerusalem, representing the official assessment of Jesus, announce that Jesus’ power and authority are demonic.

The complications don’t end there, as Jesus pronounces blasphemy on this assessment and publicly identifies his movement as his family, both actions that further complicate an already tense and escalating situation between Jesus and the religious status quo.

Aside from his presence in the synagogue and observances at the temple, Jesus seems to do almost everything he can to telegraph to the official religious leaders of his time that they not only weren’t in the game, they were on the wrong team entirely. God was doing an end run around the theological teams of the time, and Jesus was in charge of the operation.

We don’t know a lot about Jesus’ apostles, but all the information we have gives a simple picture. These men were made up of followers of John the Baptist, fishermen, tax collectors and various disciples Jesus picked up along the way. Likely, few were literate.

None of them were part of the Pharisee movement. If the words of John and Jesus are indicative of how these men felt going in, it’s safe to say they weren’t fans of the establishment.

None of them were officially sanctioned rabbis or students of rabbis. I take their suspicion of Saul/Paul as a new apostle to include his identification with the establishment Judaism these men had never applauded or endorsed.

First century Galilee was a hotbed of Zealot resistance to Rome and “mongrel” religious movements. It was the worst possible place to find people to staff a movement that would have wanted any kind of mainstream respect or endorsement.

Now, I think it’s important that, no matter what we think about the “New Perspective” view of Judaism, that we understand something: many of these mainstream Jewish religious leaders were devout. We know that some in the Pharisee movement were interested in Jesus and some became believers. John’s Gospel tell us that a number of the priests “believed” in Jesus. Certainly there is evidence in early Christianity for the presence of those who were part of the religious establishment.

Jesus condemns the religious establishment for a collection of sins in places like Matthew 23, but Jesus also addresses some in the religious establishment with recognition that they are seeking to obey and honor God. Jesus certainly doesn’t divorce himself from Judaism or declare it to be the enemy. He does draw unmistakable lines regarding the Kingdom of God and his own person and mission.

In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Think about that for a moment. Think about what Jesus is saying.

It’s plain to me that Jesus chose the apostles because they were teachable. As stubborn, ignorant, parochial, tribal, petty, selfish and slow to learn as they were, they were still more teachable than the religious establishment. They might not be the valedictorians at Pharisee U, but they could be molded, remade and made useful in the Jesus movement. They could learn about grace, the cross, the resurrection and the Kingdom of God present and at work in Jesus.

The religious leaders concluded that Jesus was demonic. Later, they would demand a “sign” in order to “believe.” When they do “believe,” John says Jesus does not entrust himself to them.

But a broken Peter says “Forgive me….for I am a sinful man.” To Peter, Jesus can say, “When you recover….strengthen your brothers.” To Peter, Jesus can say “Do you love me?…Feed my sheep.”

In other words, despite the tragic-comic characteristics of the disciples, they are still teachable. Thomas will make his speech, but he will kneel before the resurrected Jesus. They would all desert Jesus and head back to Galilee, but when they met the resurrected Lord, they could become bold and fearless world-changers.

These are men who would be slow to accept that the Kingdom of God was offered to the Gentiles, but it is Peter in Acts 10 who says he has learned that God is no respecter of persons.

I bring all of this to mind to say that to the extent that we become like the Pharisees and members of the religious establishment of Jesus day, we probably are not the kind of persons Jesus is going to be able to entrust with the Kingdom.

As I said, the Pharisees and others were often devoid, Biblically knowledgeable persons of strong convictions. They were sometimes prepared to put Jesus into one of their theological categories. They weren’t teachable on the level Jesus wanted his disciples to be teachable.

Following Jesus is not primarily about doctrinal indoctrination. Seminary and conferences, as valuable as they are, are not the paradigms for discipleship that Jesus had in mind.

Jesus’ classroom was the world. His books and lectures were the stories, parables, proclamations and applications that the disciples heard over and over again in various contexts. The center of the curriculum was the experience of Jesus himself, God with us in the world.

Remember that Jesus sent out the apostles to minister the words and works of the Kingdom in Israel before he sent them on their worldwide mission. He wasn’t wasting his time in the villages of Israel. He was training and preparing his apostles. He was working on the project of making them teachable men.

Jesus chose whom he did so that he could begin, not with seminary educations and minds stuffed full of books, but with men who believed, at best, a kind of unsophiisticated folk theology, had a biased cultural background, but who had an openness to Jesus. From that beginning, Jesus would blow up their paradigms and revolutionize their world. He was not preparing them to be the theological faculty of Jesus University or the salesmen at Jesus Incorporated. They were apostles, with a clear mission statement in Mark 3:14-15:

14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons.

We are not in the unique historical roles of the apostles, but we are to be the kind of persons whom, having been with Jesus, our lives are more like him and less like the religious establishment of his day and ours.

Which brings me to the little confession at the beginning of this post. The disciples all came to see they needed God. Not that they HAD HIM, or UNDERSTOOD HIM, but that they needed this wild, unconfined, out-of-the-box God in ways they hadn’t even known they needed him before they met Jesus.

The establishment assessed Jesus on their terms. The disciples came to Jesus all kinds of ways, but in the end, they became the Apostles because they were able to live as men who NEEDED GOD, and the God they needed met them in Jesus.


  1. treebeard says

    iMonk, this is a wonderful post.

    Could you elaborate, however, on the apostle Paul? Surely he would have been the most unteachable person on the planet, yet he becomes the foremost apostle and the writer of most of the New Testament. I’m not contradicting you, just curious about why this one Pharisee was so different than his co-religionists. (Maybe the only answer is the dramatic mercy and power of God.) It definitely seems like the Lord needed one saved Pharisee who could know the difference between the law and grace, having lived them to the uttermost.

  2. treebeard,
    Perhaps you might find a partial answer to your question in these words:
    “This turning point in [Paul’s] life, this transformation of his whole being was not the fruit of a psychological process, of a maturation or intellectual and moral development. Rather it came from the outside: it was not the fruit of his thought but of his encounter with Jesus Christ. In this sense it was not simply a conversion, a development of his “ego”, but rather a death and a resurrection for Paul himself. One existence died and another, new one was born with the Risen Christ.”
    This comes from a talk about Paul’s ‘conversion’ by Pope Benedict XVI which you can find here:

  3. >“They were sometimes prepared to put Jesus into one of their theological categories”

    IMonk – would you say that “categorization” is an attempt to control God – once we fully define the box, we can then “truly” know him and then we are safe? And then instead of Him being in control, then we are in control (and I certainly like being in control)

  4. Amen.

    “One thing I ask of the Lord,
    this is what I seek:
    that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
    to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.”

    “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’
    Your face Lord, I will seek.”

    –Psalm 27:4,8

  5. From O.T. to the N.T., God often appears to be reversing himself. The “New Thing” Jesus is doing always appears as if out of left field. People past and present wanted to leave behind the O.T. as a book about the old, “evil God”. On and on.

    Paul is portrayed as a bad guy prior to his conversion. He looks to me like a guy who was doing all he could to be faithful. Fervent faithfulness is often seriously dangerous to any who challenge it, or simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    I’m convinced that all these reversals by God in the O.T. and Jesus in the New are our reversals and not God’s. The moment we hear the Gospel and receive it, we begin turning it on its head. Then we hear it again and find it sounds like something we’ve never heard before. We are put on our feet again, only to immediately begin tipping. But no matter our orientation, we think ourselves upright and everyone else upside down. We include God in our assessment because we’re on God’s side and know we see aright. Obviously God has gotten confused.

    I don’t mind knocking spiritual leaders over. They may see it as aggressive and sacrilegious. But it’s a favor on my part.

    I could go on,but won’t. Point is, I need to be set straight at every moment. All of us do. I do well to remember that.

  6. Nit: weren’t two of the disciples Zealots? The Zealots were a religious/political movement.

  7. The translation Simon Zealotes is disputed. Usually translated as Simon the Canaanite. In fact, the entire idea that “Zealots” were organized as a group with boundaries is pretty much disputed. Most everyone in Galilee was of a Zealot mindset.

    The idea that Iscariot is Iscarii, a Zealot sect, is also disputed. It can just as easily be a place name.

    I need to send you an ESV Study Bible 🙂

  8. Thanks for this post, im.

    “Out of the box” — isn’t that where we are with God today? The last people to really have “God in a Box” were the Jews of Jesus’s day. He was in the Ark of the Covenant — He was over there — they could point to Him, explaining the why’s and how’s of how He got there.

    But the “God out of the Box” was — and is — Jesus of Nazareth, who they didn’t recognize at all. The sheep who recognized Him — heard His voice — left all to follow Him — were the very people the Jews and Pharisees deemed sinners and useless to God.

    “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” Jesus said.

    In my humble opinion — aging feeble follower of Christ who can’t seem to give up the habit of catching and selling fish for a living that I am — this leaven is the tendency to think I can define God using my intellect to decipher and organize Scripture verses I like. To my mind, this is the “graven image” making strictly proscribed in the First Commandment. Omnipresent He may be — but the one box He will not reside in is the human imagination.

  9. “Aside from his presence in the synagogue and observances at the temple, Jesus seems to do almost everything he can to telegraph to the official religious leaders of his time that they not only weren’t in the game, they were on the wrong team entirely.”

    If we evangelized this message instead of silly things, we’d be healthy. This is the kind of thing that people who’ve walked away from their churches need to hear about Jesus, into Seminary nonsense or agnosticism: not theology or dire warnings.

    We’ve all been brainwashed with pietistical images of Jesus and his disciples; they’re as flat to us as the stained-glass windows we see them on every weekend. We have to be reminded that they were alive, and not just stock-characters for an irrelevant cultural fable about “love”. That’s what a lot of people leave the Church thinking.

    Think of all the revisionist exegesis that’s gone into creating and deconstructing that!

    Maybe just as important in coming to belief in Jesus is becoming able to believe in the Apostles as real, credible, whole people.

  10. When it’s possible, even likely today, that a young person who starts out desperate to be a disciple of Jesus can end up zealous about “the original Greek” and liberal theology, I don’t know who to hold accountable. I feel like -I’ve- failed somehow.

  11. Treebeard,
    As to Paul being chosen from the religious establishment, he is first of all the exception. I think that God re-molded him by his three years in Arabia and another many years in obscurity in Tarsus. He had to be humbled and taught the character of a believer before he could be used by God.

  12. treebeard says

    Walt and RCB, very good points. Thanks.

  13. Treebeard,

    Perhaps Paul was chosen because Jesus seen in him the vessel he needed to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. His vigor in serving the Father was second to none, you could say he was rabid for his God. Beyond that he had the credentials required to get the job done, the education and Roman citizenship that would allow him to move freely in Gentile cultures and open doors and cities that would not be open to illiterate Jewish fishermen. Jesus had to know that if he turned him to himself he would be just as effective for the Gospel as he was in his former endeavors of protecting the Jewish establishment by persecuting his church. I think also that in Paul Jesus saw a man with an honest heart for God. I don’t think in Saul’s case he was doing what he did because he was motivated by the need to preserve his place and and elevate his position in the power structure of the day. He truly was doing what he did because he believed he was doing what was in the best interests of God. As far as being teachable the head on collision he had with Jesus and Spirit, I would think, would be plenty to crack open the most hardened heart and head. Just my take,


  14. Paul was chosen because God chose Paul —

    And that’s about all you can say about it, I think ….

  15. There are people I know who are in dire straights, dealing with addiction and a broken life, but I sometimes doubt they will ever experience Jesus.

    The reason is that these people seem unwilling to learn about Jesus. I have witnessed them experiencing the love of others, hearing the message of God’s grace and receiving copies of scripture and yet they never seem to embrace Him.

    Even among the poor irreligious, there are prideful hearts that are not willing to learn.


    Also, I think the ESV Study Bible is incredible. Highly recommended.

  16. Hi iMonk – I’m not sure that I agree that few of the disciples would have been literate. If the disciples had been raised in the Rabbinic Judaism of the day it’s rather likely that the men would have been able to read. John also seems to have had some connection with the religious establishment as well.

    For folks talking about Zealots among Jesus’ disciples, the “organized” zealots probably only formed in the years after Jesus’ death.

    On the other hand, I certainly agree that Jesus chose disciples who were teachable.

  17. I don’t tend to pontification.
    Your last post was concerning helping each other find church homes.
    This is my church for the time being.
    The message is so right there in my gut.
    The message is so right there in my head.
    One thing that strikes me as ironic is that many of us ex-evangelicals are seeking truth and authenticity in the Orthodox churches.
    Delete this if you want to but internetmonk.com and the electronic friends I have made over the past 2 years or so are invaluable to me.
    My father came close to dying last night from a pulmonary edema. He is in the ICU of a local hospital.
    My mother is in the early stages of dementia/Alzheimer’s. Remarkable because just a few months ago she was so sharp and appeared to be headed to her 90’s in perfect health like many of her family (and mine). She is 72.
    I bring all of this up because tonight in tears and anguish this is where I came for solace and peace.
    There is more but some of it is so fantastic in the classic sense that I hesitate to relay it.
    Thank you imonk family.
    If I have strayed too far off the course then please forgive me.
    But, I don’t think so.
    God has chosen to make this unlikely fellowship a place of refuge.
    He has chosen the not-religious to speak to my heart and pain.
    Thank you Michael and thank you imonk readers, especially Will and Jeoffry.
    At least for this day of tears this is my church and you are my fellowhsip.

  18. Thank you for all the thought you put into your well crafted posts ..they truly bless me.

  19. In the past week I have listened to a lot of podcasts that push the importance of teaching and returning to the gospel and defining discipleship. I just finished reading Dietrich Boenhoffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” and my Sunday night Bible study is all about discipleship. This post has been a wonderful exclamation point for my week. Thank you!

  20. Are we not members of the religious “establishment” simply by our presence and participation on this blog? Just askin’.

  21. Theophilus says

    Maybe Paul wasn’t exactly an exception.

    Act 6:7 The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.

    I had God all figured out and He crushed my box. Now I try to approach Him as beyond my power to understand, but well within the realm of lovable, reachable, concerned, powerful. It’s just a working theory, but I like it.

  22. Imonk: do you have a window into my head or something? I was reading Matthew’s version of this very story this morning. Thank you for giving me something else to chew on.

    “…Caspian knelt and kissed the Lion’s paw.

    ‘Welcome, Prince,’ said Aslan. ‘Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?’

    ‘I – I don’t think I do, Sir,’ said Caspian. ‘I’m only a kid.’

    ‘Good,’ said Aslan. ‘If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.'”

  23. Matt Jamison says

    I think that contemporary evangelicalism too often makes a virtue out of attacking the “religious establishment” as they perceive it within Christianity and this leads to a situation where the Church is attacking herself. An example of this is the “we hate church (as usual) billboards that recently appeared in Tulsa to promote a megachurch that is trying to be as “unchurchy” as possible.

    iMonk makes an important distinction that it was CHRIST doing an “end-run” on the religious establishment of his day, from his perspective as true God and true man. For the rest of us, it may not be as easy to differentiate pharisees from true believers and we should be circumspect about attacking our own.

    I think the respectful, honest dialogue among believers of different denominations and traditions on this website is a good model of how the church should behave.

  24. Joseph, I don’t think so. The ‘religious establishment’ means what on the street or on the internet, exactly? Posting here is a pretty diverse group as it is..

  25. There are too many exceptions to your thesis. Here are three: Paul; John (whose family was associated with the priesthood, and thus had access to the trial of Jesus); Nicodemus.

    Jesus calls who He wants, and regardless of their “bent” before he calls, they will follow.

    Your distaste for those who you view as “religious” has clouded your Biblical theology.

  26. Whoa. This is just so, well… ignorant:
    “but with men who believed, at best, a kind of unsophiisticated folk theology”

    John was fairly sophisticated in his understanding of temple worship and the cultic priesthood. He wrote Revelation, remember? Paul read the ancient Greek poets, and had an education in Roman and Hebrew culture and understanding his writings does not come to any reader immediately. He is hard going and takes effort to understand.

    Why the hatred of intellectualists? Why the bifurcation of the Christian life?

  27. Chris, while I wouldn’t go around tossing “ignorant” on a board (which is often like asking for a flame war to start) – I have to agree with the bulk of your assessment. Colossians 2:17 might also show that Paul was familiar with the writings of Socrates (voicing[?] Plato) – it sounds a whole lot like the cave allegory.

  28. A Reformed Type says


    I get exactly what you mean by this post, and thank you for it. May God grant us a teachable heart all the days of our earthly lives.

  29. Thanks very much for the Luther quote. So important to keep living this one out.
    When you have a chance go to http://www.speakingofpeace.blogspot.com and share your thoughts.

  30. This is one example of a modern day disciple of Jesus:
    I wear blue jeans, tennis shoes and a t-shirt to church, I like christian songs played with electric guitars,I am a Democrat, I go to church in Hollywood. I have faith in Jesus as the Savior, I pray for my enemies, serve when called to serve, and forgive others when they sin against me, and I repent when I sin. I put my trust in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost to help me in this life.I read the Bible and believe and do what it says. I’ve got salvation. That’s my definition of a disciple.

  31. Todd Erickson says

    What is significant about the disciples and Paul was not their level of education, but their willingness to put faithfulness above maintaining their own righteousness, unlike the rest of the religious establishment.

    Jesus blasted the Pharisees repeatedly for making what was meant by God to be freedom for the Jews into slavery.

    Those who are disciples of Christ are willing to leave all of their understanding behind them, every day, to keep learning more of Christ.

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