About 20-25 years ago I discontinued the use of the word “Christian” as a descriptor, choosing the term “Christ-follower” instead. In western and particularly American dialogue, the noun Christian has been relegated to use primarily as an adjective (i.e., Christian music, Christian books, Christian t-shirts, Christian schools). The noun Christian lost its meaning. A Christian is a person who follows (verb) Jesus. Nouns and verbs go together, thus Christ-follower.
But, what does it mean to be a Christ-follower, especially in the 21st century? How does it play out in our day-to-day living? Key to the answers to these questions is an understanding of what “following” implies…
When the first-century disciples heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” they understood exactly what he was asking of them. When we look back in history, we look through the lens of what we know to be true today – Jesus was God’s Son, God in the flesh, the messiah, the savior, the resurrected one. Not to those first ones he called. To them, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi.
Jesus entered a religiously driven culture and education system. In first-century Palestine, the boys (sorry girls) started school at about six years old. For the next 3-4 years they memorized the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Memorized. The whole Tora! By the time they were ten! (Have you ever wondered why Jesus spoke to the people as though they had a good knowledge of the scriptures? It’s because they did!).
By age ten, those with natural abilities to memorize and understand the scriptures began to distance themselves from others. They were invited to continue on with their education. The others? They were invited to go back home and learn the trade of their fathers’. Yes, they were cut. Sounds a bit like sports in America.
Those that continued with their formal education spent the next four years memorizing the rest of the Hebrew scriptures – the Old Testament, as we know it. Thirty-nine books. Have you ever looked at how thick the Old Testament is? Memorized! During this time, the students also began learning the questions that surrounded the scriptures. Questions, not answers. We wouldn’t do so well with that in our culture, would we? It also might explain why Jesus was more of a question-asker than an answer-giver.
As you can imagine, by age 14-15, only the best of the best students remained. The rest were home learning their fathers’ trades. Those remaining would then apply to a well-known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s disciples. The goal of the student wasn’t just to learn from the rabbi but to actually become like him. The student in effect, said, “I want to follow you – follow so close that I am actually covered by the dust you kick up as we walk together” (cf. Dust)
The rabbi would interview the student applicants to weed out the best of the best and end up with the “best of the best of the best.” The rabbi wanted someone that not only could learn academically but that was actually willing to become like him. Those weeded out would go home to learn the trade of their fathers. To the ones he chose, he would say, “Follow me” and the disciple knew exactly what was being asked of him. When the rabbi said, “follow me” he is implying to the disciple that he believed the disciple had what it took to learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission
As is evident in the Gospel accounts, Jesus was viewed as a rabbi. The rabbi Jesus lived around the lake Galilee region, probably in Capernaum. He had likely lived in this fishing village for a few years. It was a small town so it would be safe to say he knew and was known by a majority of its residents. I suspect the locals were fully aware that their resident rabbi wasn’t like any other rabbi they knew, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on why he was different.
Peter and Andrew fished that lake for a living. They probably learned from their father, which meant they didn’t make one of the cuts in the education system. James and John also fished the lake with their father. Maybe they were 15-16 years old. And they all paid taxes to Levi who probably set up his tax booth near the shores of the lake so he could witness their haul; so he could charge enough taxes to satisfy Rome, King Herod, and insure his personal wealth.
To all five of these guys Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” They knew exactly what he was saying to them. Exactly! There were invited to be with him, learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission – become fishers of people. Can you imagine the sting of being cut, of being told that you didn’t have what it took, that you weren’t good enough for God? And then to hear this unique, renegade rabbi that seemed to speak differently about God say, “Follow me” – how cool is that?
Why wouldn’t they follow Him? Why wouldn’t any of us follow Him? And why would we settle for an adjective instead of a verb?