Review of Following Jesus, The Servant King
A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship
Written by Jonathan Lunde and published by Zondervan 2010
Many of you know that I have been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I want to know what that would look like in my life. After all, if I teach this stuff I had better live it.
So when this book became available for review I snatched it up. The title made sense to me except the bit about “covenantal discipleship”. What was that? Discipleship by covenant? Discipleship appropriate to the New Covenant? Some other covenant? I guess I would just have to read it. And read it I did.
Lunde begins by wondering what Jesus meant by his words “follow me”. How we answer this question defines how we will live as Christians. And, how we live as Christians, heavily influences how the world sees Jesus.
So what did Jesus mean by asking those first disciples to follow him? Lunde points out that the Gospels clearly state that “when Jesus calls people to follow him, he summons them to a life of radical commitment to himself and his commands”. (pg.26) He could do this because he was king. By putting himself in this position, Jesus was declaring that he himself was Israel’s king, the divine messiah. And as such he had every right to demand such commitment.
But Jesus was also a servant. As servant, Jesus suffered and died for us. Jesus combines the role of king and servant in himself. So on one side Jesus as king demands total commitment and obedience, and on the other side Jesus dies to satisfy all our requirements before our forgiving Father.
So which is it? King or suffering servant? How can we relate to both roles of Jesus at the same time? In order to answer this question, Lunde asks three more questions (pg. 28-30):
1. Why should I be concerned to obey all of Jesus’ commands if I have been saved by grace?
2. What is it that Jesus demands of his disciples?
3. How can the disciple obey Jesus’ high demand, while experiencing his “yoke” as “light” and “easy”?
It seems evident from these questions, that Lunde deals with compromised or disaffected evangelicals on a regular basis. I would not have asked these questions from a why, what, and how paradigm. And because of this, for the first part of the book I felt that he was speaking carefully to someone next to me who had issues with Jesus’ lordship and subsequent obedience. Not that I don’t have questions about such issues or that my obedience has been perfected, it is simply that I have answered these questions for myself, and now I have other questions. So I listened to how he answered these questions in order to gain some insight in relating to those same questioning evangelicals. And there was insight aplenty.
Lunde feels that in order to answer the first question we “need to explore the relationship between grace and demand”. (pg.29) In their efforts to not be seen as legalistic, too many evangelicals have lowered Jesus’ demands for discipleship to a “realistic” level and then count on God’s grace to cover them for the rest. After all, we are saved by grace. So this kind of discipleship makes few if no demands upon them. They have compromised with the world and are false witnesses of God. From their life people cannot see God as holy – but as a Santa that threatens to bring a lump of coal as a gift but never does.
The answer to this dilemma is to understand what it means to be in covenant with God. Lunde writes that “the fundamental contention of this book is that discipleship to Jesus is best understood in this covenantal context”. So he takes us through each covenant and demonstrates to us what being in covenant with God means and does not mean. For instance, being in covenant with God does not mean and has never meant that we can forsake God and God will keep on forgiving and overlook our sin. Even in covenant with God our relationship with God must be consistent with the nature of God. This is the God who demonstrated on the cross not only how much he loves us but also how much he hates sin.
As helpful as it was to see how our relation to God is defined by our covenant with God, I am not so sure that this is the best way to solve the problem of lukewarm ‘disciples’. Knowledge has its place as a motivator, but true belief trumps all. The covenantal context for discussing the issues surrounding the making of disciples is important, and very helpful, but there are many fine disciples of Jesus who haven’t a clue regarding their covenant with God. They simply love Jesus and follow him because he is God and they know his love by the power of the Holy Spirit. They pray and Jesus answers. They fear and the Holy Spirit gives them peace. God works in their life because they not only believe in Jesus, but they believe Jesus. The problem of weak discipleship is to my way of thinking not a crisis of faulty knowledge, but of a lack of belief in the love and power of the Holy Spirit.
I know that Lunde is basically in agreement with this statement. He says the something similar when he writes about Adam and Eve that “(t)heir obedience is grounded in their trust of God, and their failure is the result of their mistrust – their unbelief”. (pg.45) He makes clear that in every covenant our need to act towards God in faith and obedience is expected. God will not condone sin regardless of the covenant. But in Lunde’s view our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit is one of enablement for character development, the fruit of the Spirit, rather than faith development through knowing the power of the Holy Spirit. My view is not an either/or, but a both/and.
Lunde answers the first question of why we should be concerned about acting righteously by pointing out that the new covenant is continuous with and fulfills all earlier covenants. Reformed theology anyone? “This realization, then, helps us to avoid one common mistake right away – that of appealing to the gracious nature of the New Covenant to set it off from the prior covenants and seeking by this to excuse a negligence regarding righteousness.” (pg.111) Lunde really wants us to know that the new covenant not only does not absolve us of acting righteously, but that it also provides the way for us to be obedient . This is through the changed heart and endowment of the Holy Spirit that provides a “deeper enablement for righteousness”. (pg.113) Yet he also says that “it should also be clear by now that there is a sharp dissonance between what Jeremiah and the other prophets depict in their discussion of the New Covenant people and what is presently visible among the followers of Jesus”. (pg.113)That this is the case leads us eventually to his last question, the how of it all. Yet first he wants us to see what it is that is expected of us as disciples of Jesus.
What Jesus expects is very simple, really. Total commitment. “As David’s great heir who reigns faithfully as Yahweh’s Anointed King, then, Jesus appropriately summons us to an absolute discipleship.” (pg.123) And as king “his realm displays the contours of his nature”. (pg.123) It is, after all, the kingdom of God.
In Lunde’s view there are three ways in which the righteous demands of the previous covenants are fulfilled in Jesus and the present kingdom of God. First, Jesus acts as a filter, then a lens, and then a prism. Since the law is to be written on our hearts, what does that look like? We don’t go killing sheep anymore in our worship services. At least we are not supposed to. Jesus filters out such stuff from the law because he has fulfilled in himself the intent and goal of those ordinances. Jesus acts as a filter for us in that what the law says only comes to us through Jesus and not in a direct manner. Our obedience to the law is through obeying Jesus’ commands and teachings. “The result is not a lowering of the law’s demand for righteousness. In fact, the opposite is true.” (pg.140) He is saving the how until later.
As a lens, Jesus focuses our attention onto the intent of the law. Its essence is distilled in Jesus’ teachings. “Jesus teaches that heart of the law’s intention is the expression of love to God and one’s neighbor.” (pg.142)
As a prism, Jesus elevates some commands of the law. One example is the prohibition of murder. Jesus sees the heart of the issue as anger and hatred and commands us to avoid this. It would be simpler just to avoid killing someone, but Jesus goes for the heart.
Jesus summons us to obey the heart of the law. He also calls us to fulfill the intent of the covenant given to Abraham. This mission to bless the nations will not be fulfilled with simple proclamation. How we as followers of Jesus behave ethically mediates this blessing to the nations. (pg.168-169) ”Jesus also instructs his disciples to go beyond mere proclamation. Since God’s kingdom was arriving in fulfillment of his historical actions of deliverance, Jesus’ disciples were to demonstrate its presence in tangible ways that image its presence. Proclamation and demonstration – these dimensions belong inextricably together. Without either of them present, God’s mission is only partially realized.” (pg.176)
A big part of demonstrating the kingdom is vulnerability. Since Jesus our king was vulnerable, so must we be. Lunde’s interpretation of Matthew 25 where the nations are judged on how they treated the least of Jesus’ brethren was excellent. Lunde sees the brethren of Jesus here as those Christian disciples who are sent into the world. This was the highlight of the book for me. I’ll let you read it for yourself to see how he maintains this view. I’ll say this: it is simple and elegant.
“Those who have submitted to Jesus’ reign are therefore commanded to participate in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise to bless all nations by proclaiming and demonstrating the presence of his kingdom.” (pg.183) This is what we are to do in response to the call to be a follower of Jesus. This is preaching the gospel of the kingdom and living under Jesus’ authority. The question remains, how are we to do this?
This question, how are we to do this, is the “crux of our dilemma”. (pg.185) Lunde reminds us “that we have seen that the all-encompassing demand of righteous fidelity to God was always to be encountered in the repeated remembrance and reception of God’s gracious deliverance and provisions.” (pg.208) And “In and through all of this, the New Covenant gift of the Spirit will be actively making Jesus’ grace present to us.” (pg.209) in the end, the gift of the Holy Spirit as God’s gracious presence in our lives makes it all doable.
For the Holy Spirit will remind us that Jesus has already fulfilled all our personal requirements of fidelity before God for us. Indeed, the Holy Spirit will show us that Jesus is our representative before God. This renews our faith. Additionally, the Holy Spirit will show us that Jesus is also our redeemer and restorer. He will also show us that Jesus is Lord. Our involvement with the Holy Spirit is what makes the difference. It is the presence of God in our lives through faith in Jesus that molds us into disciples.
I enjoyed how Lunde placed discipleship into a covenantal context. I also enjoyed how he wound up his discussion with the Holy Spirit. In my view righteousness is love. Love is developed in us through the believing Jesus and living in harmony with God’s Spirit. A loving person who is following Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit is a disciple. May we learn to be disciples of the one and only true God who has revealed himself in Jesus and come to live in us forever by His Holy Spirit.