Learning to follow Jesus is a lifelong quest that we can’t do alone. We need others to teach us how to follow the way of Christ. The disciples had Jesus to teach and model what it looks like to live in a dynamic relationship with God and his kingdom. Jesus was a constant role model and guide. After his ascension he sent the Holy Spirit to fill the disciples and give them a dynamic interaction with God and the kingdom. These disciples taught and modeled kingdom living in their generation. If someone wanted to know what it meant to live the gospel they could look to Peter, James or John.
As Paul travelled he not only taught but modeled this same lifestyle. He invested himself in others so they too could model this way of living for the world to see. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he says “you became imitators of us and the Lord” and later he says that they “have become a model to all the believers” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7). The pattern was to verbally teach and preach the good news and to live the good news so that others could see the lifestyle and learn to live it.
Having a role model in the faith and being a role model are central to the New Testament understanding of how the gospel is to flourish. Somewhere along the line I think we have lost the dynamic of being an apprentice in kingdom living. That is, we don’t seem to look as vigorously to being trained in how to live as a follower of Jesus and participant in the kingdom of God as we do to other parts of life. It seems almost everywhere else in our existence we spend time as an apprentice, or learner before we move into doing the thing by ourselves. Teachers student teach. Doctors have fellowships. The trade unions have detailed apprenticeships. Firefighters spend three years on probation as an apprentice. Almost all jobs have some form of on the job training or preparation whether it is weeks or years before a person is certified to fill the position. All of these require the guidance of others along the way. Why do we expect anything different from following Jesus?
Maybe it is because we forget that following Christ is something that we have to learn, it doesn’t come naturally. After all Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, lose our lives and take up our cross (Mark 8:34-39). Seeing as we are born selfish learning to be unselfish and focus on Christ is going to take some work. In fact it takes the work of God through the Holy Spirit to transform us. This is something we learn and desperately need modeled for us. While we can learn a tremendous amount from reading, there is something so powerful about being around a person we know who is living the lifestyle. If our heart is open and we are humble enough to learn then being around someone who knows Christ better than we do and who is also living more fully in the kingdom is the best thing we can do for our spiritual growth.
While some people might bristle at the notion of others knowing Jesus more doesn’t change the fact that some people do know Jesus more intimately and are living more fully in the kingdom. It doesn’t make these people more “saved” or “loved more”, they just have learned more and living more fully. I don’t think anyone would doubt that Paul knew Jesus better than a new convert. Both were loved equally by God, one just knew God better. Frankly if I am going to learn how to live life with Christ I would rather spend my time with Paul than the new convert. This remains true across the generations.
We all have a responsibility to find someone we can learn from and someone we can teach. Also the church is to be a community of disciples who are living in such a way that it helps draw people more fully into a relationship with Christ and kingdom living. The church can be thought of a school perhaps. The church is to be a school of love, where people are taught how to love God with all their heart, mind and strength and then in turn love their neighbor as themselves. We will never do this without people to teach and guide us in the ways of Christ and kingdom living.