When you think about it, ‘following’ Jesus is an odd way to speak about being a Christian. In the days before the ascension it made immediate and obvious sense.
You left your job and your family (for extended periods of time, at least) and went on the road with Jesus, on mission tours around Galilee and the surrounding regions, on visits to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festivals, and then finally on that last, fateful journey when he went back to Jerusalem to die. Back then, ‘following’ was more than a metaphor; it had a visible, concrete literalness to it.
In our own time (and, for that matter, in the time of the early Christians in Antioch, Ephesus, Rome and so on) the language of following — and the paradigm of ‘discipleship’ that goes with it — is a bit less obvious. And yet the early church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, insisted on telling and retelling the story of the disciples Jesus called during his earthly ministry, preserving it as a pattern for the life of faith and obedience that they too were called to in the gospel.
So what does it mean to be a disciple, a ‘follower’ of Jesus, in Antioch, Ephesus or Rome, or (equally) in Sydney, Newcastle or Broken Hill? The four gospels shed crucial light on that question, each of them suggesting its own reasons for why its author preserved the story of the first disciples and connected it with the stories of its readers.
John, discipleship and believing
The core response to Jesus that John wrote his gospel to foster is faith: ‘But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). So the story John tells is one that is about how Jesus ‘revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him’ (2:11).
Along the way we learn that ‘faith’ can be fickle and inauthentic (2:23–24), and ‘disciples’ can turn back and stop believing (6:60–71). True discipleship involves ‘remaining’ in Jesus’ love (15:5–11) and demonstrating it by loving his people (13:35). Jesus’ words are hard words, and the kind of believing that he calls people to is no easy thing. But at its heart is still a matter of trust. A true disciple says, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God’ (6:68–70).
Matthew, discipleship and obedience
If John’s gospel highlights faith as the heart of how a disciple responds to Jesus, Matthew’s gospel highlights obedience as its indispensable fruit. So the gospel of Matthew famously ends: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt 28:19–20).
As modern, evangelical Christians we have often been quick to stress the fact that Jesus was more — much more — than just a teacher. But we have sometimes forgotten to stress that the Jesus who is more than a teacher is not less than a teacher. Matthew’s gospel speaks to us with a confronting emphasis on a theme we rarely stress. The wise person whose house is built on rock is the one who ‘hears these words of mine and puts them into practice’ (7:24). The person who enters the kingdom of heaven is the one ‘who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (7:21). Jesus may be more than just a teacher, but his teachings — all that red ink splashed across the pages of Matthew’s gospel — still matter to us. They are given to us that we might learn them, learn to obey them, and teach others to obey them too.
Mark, discipleship and cost
The gospel of Mark is a terse, brief, urgent gospel. The fact that it is shorter than the others does not mean that it is a lightweight gospel. It may not contain as much of Jesus’ teachings as the other gospels do, but that does not mean that the life of discipleship that Mark’s gospel calls its readers to is a passive exercise, something for armchair theorists.
For Mark and his original readers (probably Gentile Christians in Rome, living in the terrifying chaos of Nero’s later years) the call to follow Jesus had implications that were stark and extreme. Unlike John’s gospel, Mark’s tells of only one journey to Jerusalem that Jesus made with his disciples — the journey that took Jesus to his death:
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mk 10:32–34)
What Mark wants his readers to remember about ‘following’ Jesus is the destination Jesus was travelling toward. And for readers facing the possibility of martyrdom if they were public in their allegiance to Jesus, discipleship came at a cost: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (8:34–35).
Luke, discipleship and mission
Of all the four gospels, Luke’s is the only one that comes with a sequel. He is the one who joins the dots for us between the category of ‘disciples’, or ‘followers of the Way’, and the category of ‘Christians’ (Acts 9:22; 11:26). And among the various points of connection that he traces, one crucial line of continuity is the way in which disciples, before and after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, participate in the same unfolding story of the spreading salvation of God: ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’ (Lk 24:46–47).
For Luke, the call to be a disciple includes within it the call to ‘go and proclaim the kingdom of God’ (9:60). Whilst there is a uniqueness to the calling of the twelve as ‘apostles’ (6:13), the strong implication of the rest of Luke’s gospel is that there is also a broader sense in which being a disciple, whoever you are, includes being designated a ‘sent one’.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Us
For us today, then, the four gospels teach crucial lessons about what it means to be authentically a follower of Jesus, and for a ministry to be one that is genuinely focused on ‘discipleship’.
A disciple-making ministry is a Jesus-focused ministry, that tells the story of a glorious saviour, directing people’s attention to him in order that they might believe and go on believing.
A disciple-making ministry is one that takes the words of Jesus seriously; it preaches and teaches and reads and memorises them, and it models a life that is built on Jesus’ words.
A disciple-making ministry is an honest, costly ministry, that sets an example of service and sacrifice, and makes no attempt to hide or minimise the cost of following Jesus.
And a disciple-making ministry is a joyful, missional ministry, enthusiastically taking part in the spreading of the gospel of salvation, in prayerful dependence on the Spirit.