WHAT TO CALL MYSELF

As we finish our study of the gospels in my dual credit Amarillo High School/Amarillo College class I’m wondering what the best designation is for those of us who believe what the record says about Jesus. Not everyone, of course, believes the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; but many do.

In the first two sentences I’ve already suggested one popular designation of what to call myself: believer. Believers believe the accounts of the gospel writers, but more than that, they believe in Jesus in terms of who he was and is and what he said and did.

As good as believer is as a designation, there is another one in the gospels I like better: disciple. In the gospels those who gathered around Jesus as believers were called disciples. But what is a disciple? In my reading the definition of a disciple is usually one of two terms: a follower or a learner. Well, which is it? Both, and that is why disciple is such a good designation.

Those with some familiarity with the gospels may wonder about the term apostle. When talking about those closest to Jesus in the gospels a lot of us use the terms apostle and disciple interchangeably. But Luke 6:12 and 13 reports, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” It looks like all the apostles were disciples, but not all the disciples were apostles.

So far I haven’t mentioned the best known and most used designation: Christian. Where did that come from? Not from the name Jesus, but from his role as Christ (the Greek title for the Hebrew Messiah). It may be surprising to some readers that the word Christian is used only three times in the New Testament.

The first usage of the word Christian is the most instructive. In the book of Acts, the book that tells us about the birth and growth of the early church, tells us in Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” They were called Christians because of their actions, behavior, and speech. I’ve always heard people say that Christian means “of or belonging to Christ.”

The other two usages of the word Christian in the New Testament are also instructive. Acts 26:28 gives the second usage, “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’” The third and final usage in the New Testament is in I Peter 4:16 where the writer encourages readers, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

So what should I call myself? With the exception of apostle, I like all of them for myself. I think they all are descriptive and informative. I still have a long way to go in becoming what I want to be, but I am a believer in Jesus, a disciple of Jesus, a follower of Jesus, a learner of Jesus, and a Christian.

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SECRET DISCIPLES?

In the book JESUS AMONG FRIENDS AND ENEMIES (edited by Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado) there is a chapter in the friends part titled “Secret Disciples.” David M. Allen presents a thoughtful discussion of two interesting characters in the biblical record: the two Jewish leaders Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Allen suggests the night visit of Nicodemus to Jesus (John 3:2) indicates “someone who is potentially sympathetic to Jesus but unwilling to express that publically” (p.158).  Citing John 19:38, Allen suggests Joseph of Arimathea became a “secret disciple, one who wishes to be associated with Jesus, but seemingly not in public.” (p. 167).

When I first saw the chapter title “Secret Disciples,” and still as I think about it now, I’m not sure a person can be a secret disciple. The terms sounds like a contradiction to me. The purpose of this post is not to criticize what Allen has written. His chapter is carefully researched and written, well worth reading. I want to use his essay to challenge and stimulate our thinking.

The New Testament seems to teach that the very nature of being a disciple means one has declared allegiance to Jesus. For example, in Matthew 10:32 Jesus promised, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus used two metaphors to describe His followers that contradict the idea of being a secret disciple. While neither “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) nor “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16) demands a confession as such, it’s not easy to reconcile how a person could be both salt and light as a secret disciple. A Christian’s witness as salt and light does not have to be overt, but both do speak to a disciple’s influence.

One of my favorite New Testament teachings on this subject is in I Peter 3:15b, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The instruction to be prepared to respond when asked about one’s faith suggests the believer’s lifestyle has created interest. Similar to the images of salt and light, living with an obvious hope that others take note of does not have to be overt. But equally important to the instruction of I Peter 3:15b is the manner in which the writer tells us we are to answer. I Peter 3:15c cautions, “But do this with gentleness and respect.” Too often Christians acknowledge Jesus before others and answer questions about their hope and faith without gentleness and respect. With gentleness and respect calls us not to be arrogant, or condescending, or combative, or judgmental.

To be potentially sympathetic to Jesus but unwilling to express that publically, or to wish to be associated with Jesus but not in public, hardly gives a person the opportunity to acknowledge Him, to be the salt of the earth or the light of the world, or to live in such a way that one would be asked the reason for his or her hope.

I have often told the story of a little boy answering the door with his mutt dog when a door to door salesman knocked. Trying to create goodwill, the salesman noted the dog and asked, “What kind of dog is that?” The boy proudly answered, “He’s a police dog.” Puzzled, the salesman remarked, “He doesn’t look like a police dog.” The boy responded, “He’s in the secret service.” There very well may be unique situations when it would be necessary to be a secret disciple; but generally speaking a secret disciple is an oxymoron.

What do you think?

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