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Following Christ’s Example: A Biblical View of Discipleship

Second, Hunter says that this theory does violence to the close connection between miracles and faith. Jesus doesn’t do his mighty works simply to produce faith (“evidences”). They demand faith. Third, “Worst of all, it portrays Jesus as a sort of ‘heavenly bell man’. …”35 To this I would add that the “realized” part of the eschatological kingdom demands such miracles. Jesus’ signs are much more than evidences. They are a real assault on Satan and his demons, delivering people from their power and the debilitating effects which they have over their lives.

These miracles are the necessary and substantial events of the kingdom which is “at hand” (Mk. 1:15) and “in your midst” (Lk. 17:21). The King is here. Satan’s kingdom is now being assaulted and his authority broken (Mat. 12:25-28; Lk. 11:17-20). This is the triumphant shout of the New Testament and this is the message and ministry which Jesus entrusted to his disciples and through them, to his Church.

Regardless of whether we regard Jesus as a Rabbi,36 or a prophet,37 or a charismatic leader (the Messiah),38 or all of the above and more, as he really is, the eternal Son of God, it is clear from the Gospels (and the existence of the Church) that he not only bore the message and ministry of the kingdom, he also called the Twelve and other disciples to bear the same message and ministry on his behalf. In order to accomplish this, like any good teacher in antiquity, he called his followers into an intimate relationship with himself (Mk. 3:14), taught them the message of the kingdom orally (Mk. 4:11), showed them the ministry of the kingdom, disciples learned from Jesus in his exorcisms and healings (including his techniques of commanding demons, commanding and touching the sick, etc.)39 and then sent them with his authority and power to do the same. Mark 3:14-15 tells us, “And he appointed twelve, that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to cast out the demons.”

By his Spirit he pours his life into his Church and continues his ministry through those who obey his command to preach the kingdom, cast out demons and heal the sick.

Lest we suppose that this ministry was limited to the Twelve, we must remember that Jesus appointed seventy others, commanding them to heal the sick in the cities they entered and say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk. 10:9). Later they report with joy, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (Lk. 10:13). Jeremias comments, “Authority over the spirits recurs constantly in the mission sayings and is virtually a characteristic of them (Mk. 6:7 par.; Mat. 10:7; Lk. 10:19….).”40 In other words, Jesus reproduced his kingdom ministry in his disciples and through them (and, at Pentecost, through the power of the Spirit as the risen Lord) reproduced his kingdom ministry in the Church. Jeremias notes:

They [the Twelve] are to announce the dawn of the time of salvation and to make incursions into the realm of Satan by driving out the demons. That means that they have to make the same announcement as Jesus himself, and they have to do so in the same way as him: in word and action. With them, too, both belong together. The word alone is an empty shell; action alone can be the work of the devil. The reign of God is manifested only in word and action together.41

In the context of all that we have seen about teaching and learning in antiquity, Jeremias adds, “… in the person of the messengers, Jesus himself comes. The nature of being a messenger is to represent Jesus.”42 And to represent Jesus, the Messiah, the bearer of the kingdom, the herald of the End, is to bear his ministry. Hengel writes:

In what he did, Jesus’ aim was not to form tradition or to nurture exegetical or apocalyptic scholarship but to proclaim the nearness of God in word and deed, to call to repentance, and to proclaim the will of God understood radically in the light of the imminent rule of God, which indeed was already dawning in his activity; similarly, ‘following after’ him and ‘discipleship’ were oriented to this one great aim.43

While for Hengel Jesus’ disciples can be called pupils in a derivative sense, Jesus breaks all the molds with his “unheard of self-confidence [manifested in his messianic self-consciousness, healings, exorcisms, eating with tax gathers and sinners, and actualizing the presence of the kingdom] which cuts across all the analogies in the field of Religionsgeschichte (the history of religion) which are known to us from contemporary Judaism.”44

The one mold which is not broken, however, is Jesus training his disciples to be like himself in a way similar to other teachers in the ancient world. As he says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master” (Mat. 10:24-25a). Dr. Cyril H. Powell has said of the disciples’ training, “In all this, Acts witnesses to the emergence of power in ways comparable to those recounted in the Gospels concerning Jesus. Jesus had said (in Lk only 6:40) ‘Every disciple when he is fully equipped (katērtismenos) shall be as his master.’”45

The radical difference in Jesus’ discipling is not the form46 but the content: the presence and power of the kingdom overcoming the works of the devil (I Jn. 3:8). Thus Hengel concludes that Jesus’ call to discipleship was a call to participate in his mission and authority “in the eschatological event which taking its beginning in him was moving powerfully towards the complete dawn of the rule of God en dunamei [in power] (Mk. 9:1, cf. 13:26 par.). … But this would mean that following Jesus would be comprehensible only as service to the cause of the approaching kingdom of God.”47 Following after him also meant participation in his sufferings,48 for his kingdom ministry of power climaxed in the scandal of the Son of Man crucified in weakness (Mk. 8:31, par.). On the cross, in humiliation and abandonment, Jesus bore our sins, lifted the curse of the Law, died our death, and defeated the devil. Here, in this final act of sacrifice (and in his glorious resurrection to follow), the enemies of the kingdom are overcome. Here too, in the cross, after Pentecost, the kingdom power of God through his Spirit is now released (Galatians Gal. 3:1-5).

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2007

About the Author: Donald M. Williams, Ph.D. (Columbia University), M.Div. (Princeton Seminary), retired in 2002 from the pastorate of Coast Vineyard in La Jolla, California that he planted in 1988. Previous pastoral experience included serving as College Pastor at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for ten years and Mt. Soledad Presbyterian Church in La Jolla, CA. He has held teaching posts at Claremont MacKenna College and at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of thirteen books, including 12 Steps with Jesus (Regal/Chosen, 2004), Start Here: Kingdom Essentials for Christians (Regal/Chosen, 2006), and The Communicator's Commentary for Psalms 1-72 (Word, 1986) and Psalms 73-150 (Word, 1989).

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