Biblical Reflections on Discipleship
by N.T. Wright
It has been a marvelously refreshing experience to read Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship by N. T. Wright (Eerdmans, 1995) This 2012 edition, which has a new preface by the author, is a book that is wholly focused on the wonder of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ. And, yes, this is a book about discipleship, because as Wright points out, “The longer you look at Jesus the more you will want to serve him in his world. That is, of course, if it’s the real Jesus you are looking at.” In Following Jesus Wright helps the reader to separate the “invented” idea of Jesus, a “character who makes few real demands” on his followers, from the actual person of Jesus, who, as Wright tells us, had the disturbing practice of addressing very sticky situations of his day, and who invites his followers to do likewise today.
Following Jesus is a collection of twelve short sermons centered on the themes, “Who is Christ?” and “Why should we follow him?” The purpose for the book is to answer the question that, in Wright’s experience, comes from those who have recently learned about who the true Jesus is; that question is, “so what?” “The New Testament writers were extremely interested in this question,” says Wright. “In fact, the Gospels themselves, which set out to tell their readers about Jesus himself…say to their readers: the ball is now in your court; the true Jesus is summoning you to follow him to a life of discipleship.”
To address the question, “Why should I follow Jesus?,” Wright selected books of the New Testament – Hebrews, Colossians, Matthew, John, Mark and Revelation – all of which “draw particular attention to the way in which the writer points his readers to Jesus, as the focus of their devotion and the inspiration for discipleship. Each writer talks about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in order to encourage his readers to follow this Jesus wherever he leads.” Wright explains, “I have tried to think through what this might mean in terms of the present day.” This sounds like a typical approach used by many evangelists who are sharing the gospel of Jesus – but N.T. Wright is not a typical thinker, writer or evangelist. Wright has a startling ability to see the big picture in the stories of the Bible. His familiarity with the Old Testament and its application in the life of Jesus and the first century community adds a very helpful perspective, also. Plus, Wright’s skill in connecting the dots to produce a new picture of Jesus means that many ideas presented in Following Jesus take us by surprise and help us to re-evaluate what we think we know about Christ.
For instance, in the first chapter of Following Jesus, called, “The Final Sacrifice,” the book of the Bible that Wright links to Jesus and discipleship is Hebrews. To me, Hebrews would be a far reach for the purposes of this book, as even Wright seems to admit: “The letter to the Hebrews is undoubtedly the work of a learned and brilliant writer, and a Christian of deep faith and devotion. But what on earth is it all about?”
Giving the reader a “bird’s eye view” of the entire book as he begins, Wright follows with his astute yet approachable explanation of the book of Hebrews, and suggests why it is a good place to learn discipleship. What seems most important to Wright is that Hebrews provides a “compelling portrait of Jesus.”
In one fascinating section of this lesson Wright demonstrates how Jesus has given the Jewish nation a new reading of the Old Testament. Wright says that the Old Testament is like an unfinished story, or an incomplete road. “[According] to Hebrews,…the final section [of road] that gets you to your destination is Jesus himself — especially the sacrifice with which he brings into being the new covenant.” Wright says that Hebrews showcases Jesus as the long awaited Jewish Messiah, and the savior of all people. “Jesus, the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves…” This captivating teaching about Jesus’ love for us is what inspires our discipleship, says Wright.
In a lesson titled “The Mind Renewed,” Wright asks what our reaction would be to a news headline that ran like this:” ‘SYRIAN GENERAL HEALED BY ISRAELI HOLY MAN.’ Unthinkable? Yes: that’s how it was regarded then as well.” says Wright. “Syria and Israel have been slugging it out on and off for three thousand years.” The story is, of course, from 2 Kings 5, and is about the great Syrian general, Naaman, and his healing from leprosy through the prophet Elisha. Wright presents the idea that Naaman, after his body is healed and renewed, realizes that his mind now needs renewing. “First he straightens out his view of God: second, his view of himself.”
Although Naaman has met the true God, he knows when he returns to Syria the King will expect him to attend the sacrifices made at the temple of the false god, Rimmon. Wright says this about Naaman: “He is caught between the vision of a living, loving and healing God, and the reality of his compromised and muddled life…Paradoxically, when you start to get your thinking about God straightened out, you are bound to run into some muddles…Those who have met with the living Jesus, and are trying to follow him, are going to run into just this sort of question.”
As far as Naaman goes, he realizes the compromise he will face when he gets back to Syria, and requests Elisha to ask the Lord to forgive him in this matter. Wright explains Elisha’s response to this request pointing out that Elisha does not berate Naaman for his petition. Rather, Elisha said to Naaman, ‘Go in peace.’ ” And, Wright tells us, “That is the word of God to those that are starting to bring their thinking about God and the world into the straight line that flows from the revelation of the saving love of God in Christ. It is the word of God to those who are starting to follow Jesus, and want to do so more and more…”
Every sermon in Following Jesus is chock-full of valuable, applicable and profitable insights; all of the sermons can be read in less than thirty minutes, and are certainly worth the time. But Wright says in the Preface, “All the chapters…should be treated as invitations to do some homework. They grew out of my reading of the Bible, and are intended to encourage hearers and readers to read it afresh for themselves.”
Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections of Discipleship by N.T. Wright is filled with encouragement, wisdom and grace, both for those who are new in their walk with Jesus, and for those who have been on the Way for a while longer. Here is a closing thought from Following Jesus: “As we ourselves open our lives to the warmth of [Jesus’] love, we begin to lose our fear; and as we begin to lose our fear, we begin to become people through whom the power of that love can flow out into the world around that so badly needs it. That is an essential part of what it means to follow Jesus.”