Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Monday, April 11, 2011

Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship

In Following Jesus, Jonathan Lunde provides a much-needed theological exploration of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him in covenant relationship. This second volume in Zondervan’s new Biblical Theology for Life series (of which Lunde is the editor) is a fine follow-up to Chris Wright’s The Mission of God’s People. These two works leave me with high hopes for the rest of the series!
Essentially, Lunde sets out to tackle the tension between the unprecedented grace and the uncompromising demand of Jesus. He resolves the tension by placing Jesus in his biblical-covenantal context. Here’s the short answer to the apparent paradox: Jesus the Servant gives us all the grace and enablement we need to faithfully follow him as our King. Lunde unpacks this thesis by answering three questions in three consecutive parts of the book.
The “Why” Question: Why should I try to perfectly follow Jesus’ high demands if I’m saved by grace? The answer turns on covenantal patterns, which develop throughout OT covenants and continue in our New Covenant (N.C.) relationship with God.
1) All biblical covenants are initiated by God and grounded in his prior grace. The N.C. culminates this pattern: Jesus is the ultimate expression of grace that earlier covenants pointed toward and promised. (e.g., a second Adam, final Passover lamb, atoning sacrifice, promised king of peace and Spirit-anointed Servant).
2) The gracious grounding of the covenants never diminishes God’s demand for wholehearted obedience. Abraham is called to walk faithfully and be blameless, Israel to be holy, and David to reign righteously. N.C. texts anticipate a restored people living in absolute fidelity to their king.
3) Life in covenant with God is lived by faith. Faith is the only proper response to God’s gracious acts and promises and the only means of enjoying God’s blessings. When we attempt to reconcile Paul’s gospel of grace with Jesus’ demanding discipleship, we must recognize two things. 1) They each emphasize different aspects of the covenantal relationship. 2) Biblical faith is always expressed in obedience, even as obedience assumes faith.
Therefore, the superlative grace of the N.C. does not permit us to soften Jesus’ radical demands. Rather, it calls us to unprecedented faithfulness in obeying them! Why follow Jesus? Because obedience is always at the core of covenant relationship with a gracious God.
The “What” Question: What does Jesus call me to do as a disciple? In short, he calls me to submit to his reign, obey the Law as he mediates it and carry out his mission in the world. First, Jesus’ prophetic call to wholehearted devotion to God is actually a royal call for exclusive allegiance to him. He is the promised Davidic king who embodies God’s will (which is why following him equals following God) and the new Moses who freshly articulates the Law for the New Covenant community. Jesus’ mediation of the Law involves three functions. As “filter,” he blocks some parts of the law (e.g., sacrifices and circumcision) because he has fulfilled their purpose, even as he upholds their ethical aims (e.g., repentance and circumcision of the heart). As “lens,” Jesus clarifies the Law’s intent that Jewish traditions had obscured; he recovers the primacy of love for God and neighbor, mercy, compassion, truthfulness and the purpose of Sabbath. I might add justice, righteousness, humility and exclusive worship to the commands that Jesus recovers, though Lunde does not include these. As “prism,” Jesus refracts OT laws to a higher level of demand suited for a Spirit-enabled N.C. community. This community fulfills OT hopes for a restored people, ruled by a righteous Messiah, who reflect God’s character and extend his blessing to the world. Jesus’ disciples, therefore, carry out Israel’s mission. But, just as Israel’s covenantal calling was contingent on ethics, so the church’s mission depends on disciples’ emulation of their master’s preaching, serving and suffering. What are we to do? Live like Jesus.
The “How” Question: How do we follow such a high demand? Why is there such a contradiction between the incalculable grace we receive from Jesus and our faltering and failure to follow his commands. This “discipleship dissonance” corresponds to the already-but-not-yet reality of the Kingdom: despite Jesus’ sacrifice and the Spirit’s enablement, we still live in the flesh. Therefore we must engage in the same empowering rhythms that were built into the Mosaic covenant: regular remembrance and reception of God’s grace enables an obedient response. Lunde rightfully points to the necessity of the Spirit in this transformation process.
The balance of this section leads us into the heart of Jesus’ ministry to discover the Servant’s enabling grace. This was the most enjoyable and stimulating part of the book for me. Lunde explores Jesus against the backdrop of Isaiah’s prophecies of the Servant of Yahweh; he highlights their initial fulfillment in the post-exilic community and their consummated fulfillment in the life of Jesus. First, Jesus is the representative. He identifies with a sinful people in his baptism and temptation, achieves the righteousness they never could and makes that righteousness possible for his followers. Second, Jesus is the redeemer. His suffering, atoning death and resurrection fulfills the vicarious suffering experienced by the Israel’s faithful remnant on behalf of the nation and the “resurrection” of that remnant after Israel’s “death” in exile. Third, Jesus is the restorer. He reconstitutes Israel around himself by calling unworthy disciples. He invites outsiders in by sharing meals with sinners and calling them to repent. He announces the end of exile and the in-breaking kingdom by healing the sick, while, ironically, the blind and deaf nation rejects him. He demonstrates God’s presence and power to defeat the devil by delivering the demonized. Finally, the suffering of the Servant and the reign of the King meet on the cross and in the empty tomb. The Messiah abandoned on the cross is vindicated in the resurrection, which opens the way for all nations to submit to his royal reign.
In each of Jesus’ roles as Servant, his work provides both grace for disciples to receive and a pattern for disciples to follow. Accordingly, each chapter ends with “Empowerment for Discipleship,” reflecting on how we might remember, receive and respond to Jesus’ enabling grace. The bottom line is this: “Grace foils legalism. But grace fuels righteousness” (274).
Lunde’s final chapter, “Following the Servant-King Today,” draws out some practical implications of covenantal discipleship. Here are a few highlights: a contrast between covenantal discipleship and the “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” prevalent in American churches (Christian Smith, with Melinda Lindquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford: OUP, 2005]); a call to spread the good news not just of a Gracious savior, but of a glorious King who deserves and demands complete devotion; a challenge to develop disciples who can articulate the meaning of Jesus and his kingdom; a rebuke of teaching that ignores Jesus’ commands or makes radical, sacrificial obedience an optional an optional extra for the super-committed. No. Grace-enabled obedience is the essential calling of all who follow Jesus!
Following Jesus is a welcome addition the growing body of non-technical studies in biblical theology. This reader would only have asked for a simpler structure on the “why” question in order to streamline that discussion and reduce repetition. More editing to simplify and clarify the prose would have increased readability. (The latter critique applies to me too, so it is entirely sympathetic!) Nitpicking aside, I heartily commend Lunde for giving us a thoughtful and accessible presentation of Jesus as the culmination of the OT covenants and the completion of the OT story. He shows how Jesus person and work continues the trajectory of crucial biblical themes. His approach draws out overlooked implications from often-ignored narratives such as the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism and temptation of Jesus. The “Relevant Questions” that conclude each chapter provide for reflection and discussion, an added bonus to a terrific text for college courses on Jesus and Christian discipleship. I will return to this book often as I teach on Jesus and Biblical Ethics. Perhaps most importantly, Lunde’s timely work gives theological foundations to an emerging generation of believers who are fed up with the domesticated Jesuses on offer today and who want to reclaim his radical demands. Jonathan Lunde offers us the gracious covenant context we need to avoid the pitfalls of legalism and compromise and to humbly and wholeheartedly follow Jesus, the Servant King.

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