October 28, 2020

What Kind of Person Will Be A Disciple?

“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. Micahel:

    Beautifully put. And if I may be so bold as to add a little riff to this, I think a similar theme can be found when scrutinizing the parable of the prodigal son. It has long been assumed that the Prodigal, although necessitated by his circumstances, at some point arrived at a place of true repentance and thereafter set off humbly to seek the Father’s forgiveness. But did he?

    “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will rise arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your skilled craftsman.”

    When the language of parable is scrutinized from the perspective of love—from God’s perspective—it becomes clear that the Prodigal does not actually set out to go back because he has sinned against heaven and before his father. He returns home because he is hungry and because he believes the best way to eat is if he becomes a servant, not a son, to his father. The premeditated speech he planned to give to his father is similar to and echoes the language of Pharaoh when he, by necessity rather than repentance, says to Moses: “I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you.” The learned audience to whom Jesus would have spoken this parable would have immediately caught the reference. Neither Pharaoh nor the Prodigal was repenting, but were attempting to manipulate their “confessors” into serving their interests. In other words, neither was seeking grace.

    There is a monumental issue at play here that is seldom discussed or considered, and that is the usually selfish reasons for our initial turning to God. It is an issue that many Christians don’t contemplate much, but many non-Christians do—the correct perception that most people who have come to accept Christianity do so at a time in their lives when they have little to loose, when they are at the end of their rope. Non-Christians see this fact as evidence that Christianity is for the weak, the desperate, and the broken. In a sense, a very important sense, they are right. The reason that we Christians tend to downplay this reality is that it reflects poorly on us, back within the standards of the real world where weakness, desperation, and brokenness are states to be pitied, to be avoided at all cost. They are states to be pitied and avoided at all costs. But that’s not the point. The fact that God comes to meet us at the precise moments when we selfishly ask Him to save us from our own demise is a fact that should be relished, shouted from rooftops, because although it reflects poorly on us, it reflects gloriously on the magnificent breadth of God’s love. It is He, not ourselves, that we are trying to glorify, right?

    “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and raced and embraced him and kissed him.”


    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World

  2. You’re probably right about character. People need to be teachable.

    I like the citation of Jesus with Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Nicodemus had been offered a way of understanding these things. It is worth tracing out how he could have understood them given what he was offered. This has implications for how we read Scripture.

    I grew up evangelical, and the anti-institutional side of these texts was always clear to me. I think I might have missed the irony that it was an institution that was teaching me these texts. How could it be otherwise? You are right to bring up the importance of these passages. And our institutions must remember how easy it is to fall into this. They should probably assume that they’re always falling into it. But there are also some wrong turns possible.

    During the Reformation, Martin Luther ran into some of these after the initial break from Rome. His colleague, Andreas Karlstadt, started radical reforms, getting rid of all statues, dressing in peasant garb in his ministerial role, and dropping all titles. (He was, perhaps, the first Brother Andrew. I prefer the Bible smuggler, myself.) Luther saw in Karlstadt a kind of reverse superstition. If the cradle Catholics were believing that they were commended to God by their religious practices, Karlstadt and his followers seemed to believe that an absence of such practices commended them to God. Luther took another course. Preach Law and Gospel, and these other things will find their proper place. Some will be found as helpful aids, some as worthless trifles.

    Some other comments:
    “Seminary and conferences, as valuable as they are, are not the paradigms for discipleship that Jesus had in mind.”

    Agreed. My conclusion from this is that seminary should be more academic, not less. It is a great place to learn the Biblical languages so that we can read the Bible as it was originally given. I often heard two complaints in seminary that cancelled each other out. The first was that seminary wasn’t “pastoral” enough. The second was that you can really only learn pastoral skills in the parish. Yes. The latter truth is why seminary should stick to what it can do. I agree with many on what it cannot do.

    “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.”

    Yes. For the disciples. We are in a little bit different of a spot. Jesus is mediated to us through the Scriptures. We hear his stories, parables, and proclamations in the Scriptures.

    And the pattern we see early on is this, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). If this is what you mean by “Jesus himself,” I’m fine with it. But there have been people in the past who would set “Jesus himself” against these things. For them, “Jesus himself” was something you encountered by turning inward. Some of what I found was an ability to meditate on Scripture and dialog with Scripture. That was good. Much of what I did was more a dialog with my own mind. That was bad, when I took it to be the voice of God. And these two techniques seemed to be smudged together in a way that took some time to distinguish.

  3. I appreciate your points and no one has higher regard for Luther than I do, but Luther left us with a state church and many resulting problems.

    My only point isn’t that institutions are bad. I collect a paycheck at the generosity of several of them. And I am not trying to say there’s no institutional aspects to a legitimate Jesus movement.

    But Jesus did what he did in his ministry with institutional options all around him, and he instead went to fishermen and tax collectors in Galilee.

    Look around evangelicalism today and you see a movement producing Pharisees.

    I don’t think we get anywhere in seeing Jesus clearer if we have to somehow relate him to the legitimacy of our institutions. Our institutions are accountable to him for presenting and representing him.

    peace, MS

  4. Many churches have morphed into mini-institutions, and in fact, purchse their teaching material, programs, and sometimes sermons from institutions. And with debt ridden buildings, expansive staffs, seminary requirements, and other structures they operate like an institution, almost like a for profit institution.

    But until or unless there is a massive rejection of the western lifestyle the spiritual life of the American evangelical community will continue to move downstream with the culture. But we will use political morality, nationalism, results producing evangelism, mass media, professional quality worship, and other conscience salves that provide a mirage that shields us from the truth.

  5. Ryan Cordle says

    I love this… very Bishop Willimon like

    I’m really becoming more fascinated with (and devoted to?) this out of the box, unexpected Jesus.

  6. Rob Rumfelt says

    I love the petty, tribal, selfish apostles! Their very human foibles and the way they’re portrayed in the Gospels testify to the veracity of the accounts we have received.

    They also give me hope.

  7. “Look around evangelicalism today and you see a movement producing Pharisees.

    I don’t think we get anywhere in seeing Jesus clearer if we have to somehow relate him to the legitimacy of our institutions. Our institutions are accountable to him for presenting and representing him.”

    This (and the post) so resonated with me because I’ve spent the last 24 hours or so troubled by a spirit I’m seeing around some familiar blogosphere sites – many of which attest, admittedly, to a warm-hearted love for Christ and truth. Yet there is a built-in suspicion of anything claiming to be supernatural (after all, we have the Bible), a common reduction of spiritual growth to the latest book or book review, and a cool, detached – yes, academic! – approach to all things truth.

    Luke 7 records the story of two people approaching Jesus. One invited him to dinner to discuss and evaluate. The other threw herself at her feet, washed his feet with her tears, and left with a miraculous transformation. I just can’t help but wonder, if we were replaying that very real contrast today, where a lot of us would be.

  8. bob pinto says

    This essay seems to be divided into 2 parts – the intro and the rest. I focus on the intro,here.

    At the deli counter of a small town convenience store, someone posted a sign that read : This is not the life I ordered. At first, I thought it was funny…..

    While lamenting losses and seeing others’ lives cut terribly short by disease or car accidents, I’d think that I’d be willing to trade lives because I’ve seen all I want to see and their lives are sorely needed.

    But I’m here because I’m supposed to be here. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. By the time I get it, I’ll be too sick, tired or dead to do anything.

    I’ve spent years and years at self-purification attempts and stuffing the brain with bible trivia. and I still can’t figure out God.

    Now that I’m turning 50, there are discoveries that over-eating and lament are symptoms of selfishness.
    I’m trying to learn small corny habits that Southerners do by instinct: eye contact with a little smile, a kind word to the cashier, concern over others’ health,waiting patiently, and (gasp!) being the first to say hello when someone walks by.

    Some things won’t change though. I still don’t like others dumping their problems in my lap and then being ignored when the problems go away. Just because I do right doesn’t mean I want to do right.

    What, you ask, does all this have to do with being a disciple?

    First, I’m still not fit to be a disciple despite biblical declarations to the contrary.

    Second, I still don’t how to be a disciple. I just hope my new habits aforementioned will make up the difference.

  9. I like sacrosantgospel’s comment on the intro reference:

    “what I find relatively shocking, is that the guy who penned those words, doesn’t seem to know the Gospel from a whole in the ground. How can this be? How is it that we who claim Christ often seem most pitiful at understanding the colossal need that we have for Him?”

    I think the answer is simple: evangelicals have no need for God anymore.

    You are right, that God chose teachable fisherman and women over unteachable, learned religious men. The Pharisees had no more use for God than modern evangelicals. The Pharisees (before rising to power after the Maccabees) used to be persecuted for being “followers after smooth things”. They were the inventors of the original ten-step program: follow our teachings to have the law-abiding life you always wanted. Their system of rules excluded a need for a Messiah. The arrival of the Messiah messed up everything (“Why hast thou come now to hinder us?” – Grand Inquisitor, from Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”). Inclusion in the Pharisee club immuned one from a need for God; they were already in the “in” religious crowd. Those excluded from the Pharisees’ club still needed a Messiah.

    The similarities with current evangelical trends is staggering.

    So, instead of trying to attract unbelievers with latte bars, water slides, and sex seminars, perhaps Churches could give people…Jesus? How many more Douglas Couplands are out there, who desperately want God – not stuff? Is this odd? Members of liberalism and the intelligentsia are looking for God, while evangelicals are content without Him? It actually sounds no different than New Testament times.

    Maybe everything does have to change. What is it going to take to get back to the Gospel?

  10. I see believers all around me, and hear of believers all around the world, who have this simple love for Jesus, a basic-sometimes-flawed theology, a desire to serve and learn more. They are (mostly) teachable. Then, however, we all start looking to other people to teach us. And others see that, and they fill the need by filling seminaries, pulpits, radio programs, and bookshelves.

    We (the Church!) are supposed to be pointing everyone right to the Head, and following Him, but instead, it seems like those those are teachable keep turning into those who think they know something.

    I think it is usually laziness that leads us to look to other people for the path to follow Jesus, and usually pride that leads us to believe we have the right to get between Jesus and His followers.

  11. We should always remind ourselves that pointing out how Jesus chose teachable people and not Pharisees almost always puts us in the category of teachable people. Or, worse, it puts us in the category of people-who-decide-who-is-teachable… in other words, previously, because Jesus arrived, teachable common-folk could abandon the religious establishment. And now, because “I” have arrived, teachable common-folk can abandon the religious establishment.

  12. I’m not sure if he “coined” the term, but I’ve heard Bishop Will Willimon use it: “functional atheism,” by which is meant that we say that we believe in God and Jesus but live as if that doesn’t matter. The post and several responses brought the term to mind. There are a lot of “them” out there, and we all struggle with “functional atheism.” We do indeed need God!

  13. Great post, and, Raffi, great additional riff.

  14. What a great question!
    I think that the gospel is for the humble and not the proud. I find myself sometimes too sure, to confident in my orthodoxy, no longer teachable, not tender toward the broken because they are “not like me”. The result is that I get tired, worn out, cynical and proud. O God this is the antithesis of the gospel of Christ. Jesus asks that I be humble, sure I cannot make it on my own, teachable. My life in him, then, is trust.
    I wish I stayed there more.

  15. Michael A says

    I think maybe it’s time to define hyper-hyper-Calvinism. That’s the belief that I should not preach the gospel even to myself. After all, if I attempt to work Truth into my heart, aren’t I playing God? If God wants me, he will overcome my complete indifference to His existence.


  16. I think the ‘sola scriptura’ ethic has been so abused that we now think that good theology is all that’s necessary. Too much study and analysis of the Bible blinds us to the simple truths revealed to the child like. I think the best way to read the Bible is to put yourself into the narrative and let theology take it’s proper place – in the background.

  17. ruben,

    i think i agree with you. yet, i am still hesitant to go all the way with that statement. like most things in life, there is probably a balance. i’m really just musing over those thoughts you expressed now. when i read scripture, it can be very powerful, but it really is the acting out of that, the doing, that is the truth of scripture, if that makes sense. i don’t know, its late, i’m babbling, and i’ve been filling myself with sinful things….

    nonetheless, i’ll relate a story that occurred earlier today:

    i met a friend for breakfast, and we ran into another friend, Nick. Nick and i started talking about theological things, and he mentioned this book that presented five different views on sanctification. he said either one had to be right or none were right, and the truth was out there so to speak. i asked if it really matter so much, and he replied that absolutely, the truth matters. my thoughts on that are of course the truth matters, but if five accomplished theologians have five different views on the same theology, then how seriously can you take the argument? i think this is especially true if its something like sanctification, which in my estimation should be something done and not talked about (essentially). love Jesus, grow. its simple. don’t love Jesus, die. also fairly simple.