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Called to Discipleship by Jesus

Today we focus on being called by Jesus Christ. A few key elements will receive special attention.

Called by Jesus.

The call to Christian discipleship is not simply a call from someone who has hit upon a good idea and invites other people to learn about that idea, and who then decides to help promote it. When Jesus calls people to be his disciples, the call deals primarily with attachment to his person. Of course, a personal bond usually characterizes the attachment of any follower to any teacher. This is how we usually define being a disciple. For that reason, the Latin word discipulus, with its composite meaning of learner, adherent, and imitator, has become a key word in the Christian vocabulary. It became the translation for the Greek word mathetes (literally, learner; used 264 times in the New Testament) used to designate Jesus’ close followers. Being called by Jesus has a more dramatic impact on people and has more far-reaching—temporal and eternal—consequences than any other kind of call from any other teacher can possibly have.

The call may be part of a process.

Several times, the Gospel stories about the calling of The Twelve mention the word immediately when reporting the response. Mark, in particular, has a predilection for the word euthus (immediately), which he uses more than forty times. However, above all, its usage may be Mark’s way of providing a measure of speed to his narrative. So maybe we should not overly stress the immediacy of the response, as if Christ appears as an unknown but utterly impressive kind of guru, to whom people react within seconds with unconditional willingess to follow.

The calling of the twelve may not have been as sudden as many people tend to suppose. The account in Luke 5 tells us that the calling of Simon, James, and John took place in the context of a public sermon by Jesus. The actual call was preceded by the miraculous catch of fish, after Jesus had challenged Simon Peter to go fishing where it was deeper, although fishing the previous night had been totally unsuccessful. In John 1, we see a clear connection between John the Baptist’s ministry and the early ministry of Jesus.

The call marks a dramatic change.

This takes nothing away from the dramatic and drastic nature of Christ’s call. The fishermen abruptly leave their boats and nets. The sons of Zebedee leave their father and his employees. Matthew hands in his notice to the authorities. We are not informed about all the details. At least several of the disciples were married and had families (see 1 Cor. 9:5), but we are left in the dark as to what their acceptance meant for their family life. However, the stories successfully convey the radical nature of following Jesus Christ. In his famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the response in the following magistral words:

The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead. He is called out and has to forsake his old life in order that he may “exist” in the strictest sense of the word. The old life is left behind and is completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of the relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous, out of the realm of the finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality).1

Being called does not presuppose sinlessness.

Christ is not allergic to sinners. This is a key thought in the passages we are asked to study this week. Peter is afraid he cannot be with Jesus: “I am too much of a sinner to be around you,” he says (Luke 5:8). These words are a vivid reminder of our own fundamental unworthiness to be associates with the Lord, as is the fact that Jesus called Matthew, a member of the much-hated guild of tax collectors.

The Twelve were far from perfect people, qualified by nature to be leaders and role models for others. They “were distinguished by their ordinariness, not by their talent, power, or position.”2

The calling to discipleship presupposes honesty.

Although discipleship does not begin with any degree of sinlessness that human beings might bring, it does presuppose honesty. This is the main emphasis in the short account of the Nathanael’s calling (John 1:46–49). Nathanael was not very impressed when Philip told him he had found the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s gut reaction was very direct. “From Nazareth! How in the world can anything good come from there?” This was no reason for Jesus to put Nathanael on probation, as we may do with people we find outspoken. Jesus appreciated openness and honesty.

Honesty is a key requirement for true discipleship. One cannot be a true disciple if one is not completely honest with oneself. Likewise, discipleship cannot succeed if disciples lack honesty among themselves. They will not be able to follow their Lord with one mind and one soul if they cannot be transparent to one another. And, of course, we cannot be true disciples of the Lord unless we are totally honest with him, realizing that he knows us even better than we know ourselves. He knows exactly under which fig tree we are sitting (John 1:46).

The call to discipleship presupposes willingness to learn.

The new Dutch Bible translation, which I have come to enjoy, no longer uses the word disciple, but consistently suggests the word learner as the most faithful rendering of the Greek term that most versions translate as disciple. This is not to say that discipleship is first of all an intellectual process. Discipleship primarily involves learning a new way of being, about learning to live the new life that Christ offers. Is it about learning about our real self and about life as it was intended to be lived. It is about learning to lead the life of faith.

However, there is also definitely an intellectual component. After all, we are expected to love the Lord with all our mind (Mark 12:30). Followers of Christ are also people who think, or, to state it more precisely, people who think Christianly. Os Guinness pointedly reminds us that “thinking Christianly” is not simply thinking “by Christians.” It also differs from thinking about Christian topics, or having a “Christian” line on every issue. It requires the miracle of a “new mind” to think under the lordship of Christ, and thus to think about everything in a consistently Christian way.3 That is what real disciples must learn.

Finally, true discipleship implies a disposition to serve.

Jesus asked the Galilean fishermen to abandon their fishing trade and become fishers of men. They would not lead a quiet life of prayer and meditation (although that most assuredly is also part of the learning process for anyone willing to accept the call to discipleship), but would be active in the kingdom of their Lord. It is no accident that the story of how Andrew and Philip found fellow disciples has been recorded. Discipleship is not a privilege to be kept for oneself. Ultimately, that is why the church was established: to start the process of disciples making disciples (Matt. 28:18). This implies evangelism and the ministry of teaching. More than anything else, it requires a life of discipleship that will inspire others to become disciples.

Notes and References

1. The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 62, 63.

2. Benjamin C. Maxson, The Missing Connection: Where Life Meets Lordship (Silver Spring, Md.: Stewardship Department, General Conference, 2005).

3. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1994), 135, 136.

Reinder Bruisma recently retired from the presidency of the Netherlands Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

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