Following Jesus

Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay 

Genesis 17:1-16
Psalm 22:22-30 
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow meESV This sentence in Mark is found almost word for word in Matthew 16:24 and Luke 9:23. Here in Mark it follows Peter’s attempt to get Jesus to listen to reason and stop talking nonsense about dying. ‘You are the Messiah, you can’t die.’

All three Synoptics include Peter’s statement that Jesus is the Messiah followed closely by Peter’s plea that Jesus should not die. All three have Jesus answering with, Get behind me Satan.

We tend to give Peter some sympathy, after all, he was just trying to protect his master. Peter has to be thinking, ‘I just said you are the promised Messiah from God. God cannot die.’ This point is the same one we often get hung up on. Jesus; human or God? When we have to say that he is both, our brain cells start snapping and shorting out. It’s like telling someone that tree bark tastes much better than milk chocolate. No…I don’t think so.

But Jesus is both. For 33 years he walked the earth as a human, and he died as a human. In all that time, except for his death, Jesus was in perfect communion with God. He always knew what God wanted him to do and he always did it.

Now, Jesus tells everyone who is thinking about following in his footsteps there is only one way to do it, think only of God.

If anyone wants to come after me, let him say ‘No’ to himself, take up his execution-stake, and keep following meCJB

If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow meNJB

If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, he must give up all right to himself, take up his cross and follow mePhillips

Two thousand years later how are we to take these words? The answer is, take them the same way the disciples did.

We need to understand what it meant in the First Century to be a disciple. The tradition came from ancient Greece. When Socrates was born some five centuries before Jesus, the pattern was already in place. When Socrates was the right age, he became a disciple of Parmenides (probably). For the next few years, he lived with his teacher, cooking, cleaning, and learning by listening to Parmenides. When Socrates was ready, he became a teacher and had Plato as one of his students.

Jewish rabbis copied the pattern. We know from the scriptures that Saul/Paul traveled to Jerusalem to become a disciple of Gamaliel. Generally, that happened at age 13. There were no set age limits, so when a disciple demonstrated his proficiency he could go out on his own. For many that was 8-10 years of schooling. But there was more work to be done. Generally, a rabbi could take on disciples about the age of 30. In between, he could teach students who would come and go as they pleased. That meant the young rabbi had to fend for himself.

It is interesting to consider that Jesus called his disciples when he was about 30. Does that mean he was a disciple before then? There is no hint in the Gospels, but it is certainly possible. The story of him in the Temple at the age of 12 should suggest that any of the great rabbis who heard him would have rushed to get him signed up. I think the old image of Jesus growing up in poverty working as a carpenter is wrong. If nothing else, carpenters earned good money.

All right, what does it mean for Peter, et. al. to follow Jesus? They took turns washing clothes, cooking meals, running errands, but always listening to what Jesus had to say.

The key here is that Peter had no other life. He was married. He had a family. He owned a business. Yet, he spent three years traveling with his master. The same was true of several of the others, if not all. What did the wives think? Most likely, they kept the homes going.

But remember that those three years were the learning years, and it was much shorter than most students had to learn their master’s teachings. It is not likely that any of the Twelve were boys. They were probably twenty and older.

It is in Acts and the letters that we get the true picture of what it means to follow Jesus. There is no time off. Paul is the most complete picture of the life of discipleship. Peter, John, and James give us some more information. We only have legends about the others. If we believe the legends, Thomas is buried in about thirty different towns in India.

Paul worked for a living and preached and taught when he could. It is likely that he taught while he was making tents. He was always on call. He would leave his tents to go to anyone who needed him.

All of them were willing to suffer when it was necessary. James was beheaded. Stephen was stoned. Jesus’ brother James was executed. Peter was crucified. We know those and others died rather than deny Jesus.

Where does that leave us? Most of us will need to spend forty years earning a living, but we should be doing it in a way that God will approve. Any occupation which can cause people harm should be avoided. That may be too vague but that is the standard. Yes, as a teacher, I harmed some students. Hopefully, most were unharmed and even built up. You need to listen to what God says about your own job.

We who live in the USA need to put away money for retirement because on average we can expect to live to age 80. Does that mean we never give money for hurricane relief? No, but it does mean we have to pick and choose who gets our money. There are thousands of charities. Pick the one, two, three that you most want to help.

More importantly, give your time as much as possible; remembering that raising children is a Christ centered duty, so don’t stint on them.

Take care of yourself. Eat and sleep right. Relax as you can. If you take a cruise, don’t forget that the people who pamper you are paid below minimum wage; tip generously.

In other words, figure out what God wants of you.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

I have not been reporting on my theological readings mostly because I don’t read a book straight through very often. I use them to research specific information as it need it.

But this book is an exception. Witherington published it in 2004. He is the Amos Prefessor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, and is on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland. He earned his PhD from Durham University in England.

What sets this commentary apart from the crowd? He has time traveled to the First Century to understand how Greeks thought, wrote, and spoke. To say he knows Greek is misleading; he understands every nuance. He can taste and smell every word. He has read Quintilian, the greatest teacher of oratory in the Greek world and he shows us how well Paul mastered the lessons.

You might wonder why the letter was written in Greek since it was bound for Rome. Even though Paul had Roman citizenship, he grew up in a Greek world and likely did not speak much Latin. But also, Greek was very common among the lower classes in Rome. All the writings of the NT were in Greek. The letter followed that standard. Paul we know dictated his letter for the most part. He paid a scribe to take down his speech knowing it would be read to the congregation and passed around to be read by other congregations.

It is important to keep in mind that the entire letter is a speech, a sermon if you want.

Paul, of course, had never been in Rome when he wrote this letter, but it is clear that he knows of some of their problems. The worst conflict was between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Many have tried to argue that Paul was opposed to the Jews, but that would be a serious misreading of the text. All of the Jews, Christian or not, had been expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius. When Nero replaced Claudius, the Jews were allowed to return. While the Jewish Christians were away, the Gentile Christians had taken all the leadership roles and given up following some of the Jewish ways of doing worship. Paul had to calm both sides and tell them to play nice.

If you could read only one letter by Paul, this is probably the one to go with because it is packed with most of the NT theology. But go ahead and read the others as well.

Mike Lawrence