Review: Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Eerdmans, 2014)

[1] In N.T. ‘Tom’ Wright’s Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, one finds the same compelling insights into the Bible that make Wright’s “The Bible for Everyone” series so popular. Rather than biblical commentary, in Following Jesus Wright describes Christian discipleship based on different images of Jesus Christ and a variety of religious themes.

[2] Discipleship proceeds from faith in Jesus Christ: crucified, risen, seated at God’s right hand with authority; all powers, dominions and authorities made subject to him. Discipleship – the commitment to follow Jesus – involves learning; it also involves teaching. The Great Commission is not just about making disciples but also about “teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded us.”

[3] Wright recognizes that discipleship is about more than being taught and teaching others. Discipleship is motivated by the gift of faith imparted through the Word. Faithful discipleship is exemplified in the lives of that great cloud of witnesses reviewed in Hebrews Chapter 11. The very next chapter encourages us to be such faithful disciples: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of [faithful] witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

[4] Disciples contend not only with the world, not merely with flesh and blood, but also with cosmic powers and spiritual forces. Wright notes how Pontius Pilate felt powerless to stop Jesus from being killed, and how we talk about “our hands being tied,” or of “forces beyond our control.” Looking to Jesus, lifted up the way Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness for healing, we see that God has prevailed over the powers and authorities, triumphing over them in a most counter-intuitive way: the cross. Thanksgiving for God’s victory and commitment to advancing God’s kingdom in the world are hallmarks of discipleship.

[5] Wright discusses how the first disciples looked to the Hebrew Scriptures to make sense of the death of Jesus the Messiah. Images such as those from Daniel Chapter 7 helped the persecuted and suffering followers of Jesus understand how what looked like the defeat of God’s divine initiative was actually the inauguration of God’s reign on earth. Such interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures enabled the early church to see the cross as “the decisive royal act… the decisive saving act… the defeat of evil… and the great divine act” (italics in original).

[6] From the perspective of the Gospel of John, Wright sees Jesus’ death on the cross as the culmination of God’s work, echoing his work of creation. Changing water into wine was the first of Jesus’ signs/works. There follow other signs – healing the sick, feeding the crowds, raising Lazarus, and many other such signs, but the cross was the greatest sign; the sign of God’s hallowed Sabbath – “It is finished!” – when God rested from all the (saving) work that he had done. Properly observing this Sabbath as a disciple means dwelling in God’s kingdom of grace and peace.

[7] Jesus is not a tyrant or domineering lord. He demonstrates a different kind of leadership, coming not to be served but as one who serves. Disciples are called to follow in Christ’s example, not projecting their own unexamined anxieties and fears upon others, but projecting their faith, hope and love upon those who are anxious and fearful.

[8] Wright presents the book of Revelation not as the apocalyptic end of the world, as it is so often understood, but as the revealing of a new beginning. Heaven is not a disembodied, ethereal existence ‘up there,’ but new heavens and a new earth right here, where righteousness is at home. God is with us, makes his home among us, and is experienced by people made new. Wright emphasizes that the commonly prevailing idea of heaven as disembodied existence fails to take seriously Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension, his real presence in the Eucharist, and his coming again to make all things new.

[9] The renewal of all things is what Christians have been praying for all these years: that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. On earth we are mortal and we perish, but in the new earth, we will live forever, having put on imperishability. On earth we experience shame and dishonor. In God’s new creation our immortal and imperishable body will be clothed with garments of salvation and glorified. On earth we mourn and grieve. When God makes all things new God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and change our mourning into dancing.

[10] Jesus is the victor over sin, death and the devil. Knowing this, faithful disciples do not hide their light under a bushel basket, but share their understanding and faith with others. “We know ourselves to be Easter people, called to minister to a world full of Calvarys… The hand that dries our tears passes the cloth on to us, and bids us follow him, to go to dry one another’s tears.”

[11] Wright discusses human fear and anxiety and how God’s Word so often addresses us, saying: “Do not be afraid… Fear not!” Uncertainty is as much a part of life as the question of what the future may hold. Events take place that undermine long-held assumptions. Unsuspected events shock, disturb, and unsettle our complacency. Through it all we must be reminded “God is our refuge.” In the midst of uncertainty and chaos we are reassured: “Don’t be afraid. It’s going to be all right.” Or as Julian of Norwich put it: “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.” Discipleship is not about surviving a sudden storm, but tying oneself to the mast of faith and to ministering to those who feel themselves capsized.

[12] Saint Paul urges us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Wright uses Naaman, the Syrian commander who suffered from leprosy, as an example of someone who was transformed by the renewing of his mind. Still, “Naaman is compromised in his new found appreciation of the God of Elisha. He must still bow down in the house of Rimmon, but he asks God to pardon him on this one account (2 Kings 5.18). Did Elisha say to Naaman: ‘You’re a half-hearted compromiser, you want your bread buttered on both sides at once, you’re talking out of both corners of your mouth’? No. He said, ‘Go in peace.’ ” We, too, are compromised in our faithful discipleship. We are still in the flesh; still in the world. Like Naaman, faithful disciples must ask God to pardon us on this account yet go forth in peace.

[13]Wright’s patience and grace with our human weakness are much appreciated. He knows how people grow and that such growth takes time; sometimes requiring 40 years of wandering. Like Naaman who must still return to the house of Rimmon, we are “No longer at ease in the old dispensation,” as Wright quotes from T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. “Our minds are being renewed; we can’t be content with the old patterns any more. We may still have to live with the old world, but woe betide us if we are at ease in it.” Discipleship is patient and compassionate with human weakness.

[14] When Wright discusses temptation he recognizes that one of our temptations is to over-simplify things. We are tempted to make light of complicated situations and find quick solutions to difficult problems. Sometimes discipleship requires us to be content with the sufficiency of God’s grace even though our flesh is compromised by an irritating thorn. It is tempting to despair or cling to false optimism, but discipleship means holding to the cross and remaining confident that God has triumphed over the powers.

[15] Throughout this book, Wright reflects on the Eucharist as that place where Heaven touches Earth, where the new glorious body of Christ is present and comfortable at table with tax collectors and sinners. The Lord’s Supper is a place where faith is strengthened, hearts are healed, and from whence discipleship commences.

[16] I am not comfortable with Wright’s degree of confidence in the agency of free will. Martin Luther informs me that before I take Christ as an example to follow I should first receive him first of all as God’s gift. Luther noted how many people try to imitate the acts of Christ and other witnesses, but pay no or too little attention to the faith that inspired them. St. Paul says “the only thing that counts is faith working [or made effective] through love” (Galatians 5.6b). If something other than faith is inspiring us, if something other than the Spirit of God is at work in us, then however shiny the works may be they don’t count for anything coram Deo.

[17] I disagree with Wright when he says that, “Some, perhaps many, of God’s human creatures do choose, and will choose, to dehumanize themselves completely. [I do not] see anything to make me suppose that God, who gave his human creatures the risky gift of freedom and choice, will not honor that choice.” I do not believe God respects our bad choices. Over and over and over I see God patiently bearing with his wayward people, both Jews and Gentiles, seeking them out and bringing them back, time after time. It is God’s steadfast love and faithfulness that inspire my faith and hope and love, and shapes my understanding of discipleship.

[18] This book would be great for an adult study group. The language is accessible; each of the 12 chapters are easily read during an hour class with time for discussion along the way or after. Pastors will find new insights and challenges on the themes of discipleship, following Jesus.

R. Don Wright

The Rev. R. Don Wright is pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania