Discipleship in the Gospel of John: A Paradigm

In a previous post on discipleship we looked at how one might define it. In this post I want to look at what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.

In John 1:35–51 Jesus makes contact with his first disciples. Several scholars have noted the importance of this text in John as it relates to the topic of discipleship. Some have gone so far as to refer to this text as a “paradigm” for discipleship (Collins, These Things Have Been Written: Studies on the Fourth Gospel, 50; Gloer, “Come and See: Disciples and Discipleship in the Fourth Gospel,” 279–280; Chennattu, Johannine Discipleship as a Covenant Relationship, 72). Assuming this is the case, it may prove helpful to see what John 1:35-51 has to teach us concerning discipleship.

The scene opens with John the Baptizer and two of his disciples. As Jesus comes passing by, the Baptizer draws the attention of his disciples to Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (1:36, cf. 1:29) Hearing how the Baptizer identified Jesus, they leave John and follow Jesus (1:37). Here we have the first characteristic of discipleship, following after Jesus. The verb “follow” is used throughout John’s Gospel to denote discipleship (cf. 1:43; 8:12; 10:4–5, 15, 27; 12:26; 21:19, 22). Those who follow Jesus do not merely physically follow him, but they follow his manner of life and his teaching.

Seeing these two disciples following him, Jesus turns to them and asks them what they want (1:38). They reply that they wish to see where he is staying. Jesus in turn tells them to come and they will see. So the disciples go with Jesus and remain with him for the duration of the day (1:39). This is the next characteristic of discipleship, abiding with Jesus. The term “remain” or “abide” is used in the call narrative of physically staying with Jesus. Throughout the course of the Gospel though the term will come to mean more than just being in Jesus’ physical proximity. It will come to be used for permanently communing with Jesus and being in vital union with him (cf. 6:56; 15:1–17). The same term will also be used with reference to keeping Jesus’ teaching and commands (8:31).

Next, John, the author of the Gospel, identifies one of the disciples who followed Jesus, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter (1:40). The first thing Andrew did was find his brother and tell them that in Jesus they had found the Messiah. He then brought Simon to Jesus (1:41). This is the third characteristic of discipleship, bearing witness to Jesus. We’ll see this take place again in 1:45–46. Jesus’ disciples are those who publicly testify to his person and work regardless of the consequences (4:7–45; 15:27; 17:20–21). Jesus then looks at Simon and announces that he will from now on be called Peter, which speaks to his changing role and status as one of Jesus’ chief disciples.

The next day we find Jesus heading to Galilee where he confronts Philip and issues a call to follow him (1:43). This is the fourth characteristic of Jesus’ discipleship, God’s initiative in calling disciples. This is something that we see elsewhere in this Gospel (cf. 6:70 where Jesus calls the Twelve). The call to become one of Jesus’ disciples begins first and foremost with God drawing such persons to himself through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Philip then goes out to find Nathanael and witness to him about Jesus (1:45–46). Nathanael is at first skeptical that Philip and the others had actually found the Messiah. However, after meeting Jesus and hearing how he supernaturally saw him before meeting him, he becomes convinced that Jesus is “the Son of God” and “the king of Israel” (1:49). Jesus recognizes his newfound understanding of his person as indicative of Nathanael’s belief in him (1:50). Here then is the fifth identifier of discipleship, belief in Jesus. “Belief” in Jesus as God’s Son and Messiah is necessary for salvation, which in John’s Gospel is at times referred to as “eternal life” (3:16–17; 20:31).

The narrative closes with Jesus telling these four disciples that they will be witnesses to even “greater things” than his disclosure to Nathanael. These “greater things” refer to seeing the greatness of the Son of Man (1:51). This is the final characteristic of discipleship mentioned in 1:35–51, spiritual growth. As the disciples progress through the narrative of the Gospel though, they are fraught with misunderstanding about Jesus, in particular the necessity of his death and resurrection with regards to his mission. However, there are clues scattered throughout the Gospel that the disciples would understand these things, after Jesus was raised from the dead (cf. 20:8–9). So there understanding of Jesus’ person and work grew over time. In other places, we get to witness the seemingly immediate spiritual growth of those Jesus interacted with. In the end, whether we look to the Twelve or individual characters Jesus interacted with, we come to realize that disciples of Jesus are those who grow in they understanding of his person and work over time, through their relationship with him. This is what I mean by spiritual growth. We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

While more has been said regarding what John 1:35–51 teaches about discipleship, I think this is a pretty good place to start. In future post, I plan to take this paradigm of discipleship and apply it to several other characters in John’s Gospel, starting with Nicodemus. By this I hope that we can expand our understanding of what it means to authentically follow Christ today.

Paradigm of Discipleship

  1. Follow Jesus
  2. Abide with Jesus
  3. Bear witness to Jesus
  4. Called of God
  5. Believe in Jesus/Place faith in Jesus
  6. Spiritual Growth

What other characteristics of discipleship do you find in John 1:35-51?

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