I always thought the word disciple meant follower. Of course, following is a huge part of discipleship, see Matt 4, when Jesus calls the disciples, saying, “follow me.” Their reaction perhaps should have given me a clue that “following” in the Bible is not just clicking like and occasionally glancing at a feed when I’m bored, late at night. In our culture, you can follow as many people as you like, in fact the more, the better. Clearly in Matt 4, this was not the case as “immediately [James and John] left the boat and their father and followed him.” Matt 4:22. They literally ‘unfollowed’ everything to exclusively follow Jesus. Why?
Well, the heart of it lies in the meaning of the word disciple. It means learner. That is evidently true by a quick perusal of Matthew’s gospel – the first thing the disciples do is follow Jesus up a mountain and sit and listen to him reveal the Kingdom of God to them (sound familiar, God up a mountain revealing his good laws to his people?! See Ex 19.) Throughout the gospel we see him teaching, teaching, teaching, and the disciples asking endless questions.
Why do I struggle with that word, “learner”? Because I hated school. I chose my A Levels buy picking the subjects I hatred the least and used the same process of elimination to decide my degree. I watch my kids counting down the days until they finish school and are finally free. School is a huge blessing, education is inherently good but to be honest at 14 it is boring, something to be endured! And that ruins the word learner for many of us.
In fact Jesus couldn’t be more unlike a secondary school teacher, for a start, he claims the exclusive right to be their only teacher: “Do not be called Rabbi; for only One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters.” Matt 23:8. Further than that, Matthew concludes his gospel with Jesus’ commanding us to go and “make disciples…teaching them to follow all that I commanded you.” 28:20. What’s going on with the obsessively exclusive teaching thing?
The answer is in Matthew 11, and no, I’m not going to our favourite verse, but the one that comes just before and provides the context: “Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Matt 11:25-27
All other teachers teach us what they see and know of this world and how it works. Jesus comes from above this world. He has come to reveal the Father. So that we can know the One who made everything and loves us enough to reveal himself to us so we can be in relationship with him through his Son.
Throughout history this verse has been of fundamental significance. (Ironically I went back to school, to study Theology recently, so apologies that church history is going to make more of an appearance. Actually no apologies, church history is awesomely interesting! Turns out school is way more fun when you’ve chosen to be there). In the second century, a form of teaching known as Gnosticism was popular, which sought to explain from what humans observed how God could possibly exist alongside this evil world full of suffering. The Church’s answer (through a Christian teacher called Irenaeus, explaining Matt 11:27) was that you cannot understand what God is like from your own reasoning, the only way to understand the Father is to allow Jesus to reveal him. This happened again in the fourth century, the Arians did a similar thing, seeking to understand God by reasoning from what they could see. A Christian teacher called Athanasius challenged their reasoning, writing from Matt 11:27: “it is more godly and true to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name him God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.” Athanasius against the Arians, 335 AD. The only way to know God is through his Son revealing the Father to us. This is profoundly important. We cannot know God any other way, only by coming to Jesus. By learning this, we are joining the world’s greatest learning community – stretching back through history!
And the coolest thing is it is nothing to do with being wise or learned – see that in Matt 11. Jesus REVEALS the Father. The reason the “ordinary, unschooled” fishermen gave up their career and family to follow a man they hardly knew is because God was revealing himself to them through his Son.
Great news for those who hate school!
And this gave Jesus great joy, when he saw those like ‘little children’ coming to know God. The truth is that we learn by being like a little child, simply coming to Jesus and receiving from him the revelation of the Father. What do we immediately learn? That he came not to weary and burden us but to lift the burden of sin from our weary, heavily laden shoulders and give us life forever with him (Matt 11:28-30). We could never have worked that out for ourselves, never have dreamed that our God would be like that – gentle and humble in heart, giving rest to our souls. Wow. No surprise the disciples left everything.
This makes sense of so much of Christianity – why would we pass on the invite of a leisurely Sunday roast at the local Carvery, preferring to sit in a church and listen for thirty minutes to someone teaching? Because through the Word, the Father is revealed to us. Wow! The one who lifts burdens, who made everything, who commands us to give our lives to follow him. It explains why we give up a week of our summer to go on camp with a bunch of smelly, annoying teenagers who keep us awake at night by drinking far too much Red Bull and stringing their sheets together to escape out of the dormitory window. Because we want them to learn about the Father through the Son! It explains why when everyone else spends their money on a week by the sea, we go to a field and congregate in a tent to hear God’s word explained. Because Jesus tells us about the Father who made us, loves us and commands our worship. So rejoice in this weirdness, reminded afresh as to why!
And let’s make learning a lifelong thing. The best way to learn – I have discovered by going back to school – is to ask questions. In an article in the 1950s, Life magazine ran an article entitled ‘Death of a Genius,’ in which Einstein is recorded as saying “The important thing is not to stop questioning.’ This would be a great summary of Jesus’ disciples – see 13:10 “Why do You speak to them in parables?” 13:36 His disciples came to Him and said, “Explain to us…”17:13 His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 18:1, 19:23-5, 24:3, 26:8. Never stop questioning.
We get so used to walking into church and leaving our brain at the door. Don’t! Take your Bible and notebook, check what’s being said, ask questions, read further, ask the Lord about it, talk to others and above all, allow what you learn to change you. Jesus says in Matt 7:24 “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Suffice to say you don’t want to listen and then walk away unchanged, didn’t end well for the dude with the sand-castle). Throughout history, God has given us church and preachers who spend all week studying so they can explain what Jesus reveals of the Father to us, with the help of the Spirit who opens our hearts to receive. Make the most of that each Sunday and spend the week remembering it, sharing it with others and living it out.
It seems ironic that having spent years of our life trying to grow up and leave school, Jesus essentially says sit like a little child and let me teach you! But this is like no school you’ve ever known – Jesus teaches what we could never learn anywhere else, from anyone else. Why would we follow anyone else?