A Filter, A Lens, and A Prism: Three Ways Christ Applies the Law of Moses to New Covenant Disciples

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One of the most challenging aspects of reading the Bible is applying the old covenant law to the new covenant follower of Christ. As the book Five Views on Law and Gospel illustrates, there are multiple ways in which Christians have sought to apply the Old Testament and its legal demands to the church today. And one of the most familiar ways is to differentiate three parts of the law.

Typically divided as moral, civil, and ceremonial, the tripartite approach to the Old Testament argues that some laws are eternal and unchanging (the moral); others are related to the theocracy given to  Israel (the civil); still others are related to the system of priests, sacrifices, and the temple (the ceremonial). In Christ, the civil and ceremonial came to their completion, while the moral law continues unabated.

The trouble with this approach is that the Old Testament never specifies the tripartite division and in many places the moral, civil, and ceremonial overlap. Still, we must make some sense of the way parts of the law continue and others do not. And historically, the tripartite division has a long tradition of helping Christians think carefully about the Bible, the Law, and the Gospel. Still, it is not the only way and there may be better approaches.
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Addressing this subject, I have found help in the way Jonathan Lunde uses three images to describe the way in which Christ fulfills the law. In his book Following Jesus, the Servant Kinghe spends three chapters outlining the way Christ fulfills the law of Moses. Focusing much of his attention on the Sermon on the Mount, he specifies the way Christ functions as filter, lens, and prism. In some ways, Christ brings the laws of Moses to an end (filter); in others, he clarifies what the law already meant (lens); and still in other ways, he heightens the demands of the law (prism).

While these three approaches (filter, lens, prism) are extra-textual and only illustrative, I find them more helpful in getting at what the text says. They make us consider what Jesus does and does not say about the law. And instead of foisting an extra-textual grid on the Bible, like the tripartite division of the law, they make us listen closely to the text itself to see how Jesus mediates between old and new covenants.

Because this approach is explicitly Christ-centered, in a way that the tripartite division of the law is not, I find it to be a surer guide. Likewise, because it does not create a whole system of categorization (which the Bible does not have), it lets the text of Scripture speak. It also permits more freedom to disagree about certain points—as I do below in two ways—and helps us go back to the feet of Jesus to learn how he approaches the old and new covenants. Continue reading

Discipleship 101: What is a Disciple?

discipleWhat is a disciple? The answer may not be as easy as it might first appear.

First, there is a shift in the meaning of the term ‘disciple’ from the Gospels to the book of Acts. For instance, in John 6 many of Jesus’ ‘disciples’ leave him. These are the ones who followed him to hear his teaching and to eat his bread, but when he calls them to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they cannot stomach their teacher any longer.

In this situation, disciples are simply those who followed and learned from Jesus, but were not converted by him. You could use this label to describe Judas. He was a disciple in one sense, but not in another. He followed and learned from Jesus, but because he failed to follow Christ until the end he proved to be a false disciple. Thus, in the Scriptures themselves, there is some ambiguity in the term.

But it is not just in the Bible where our labels fail us. In popular Christianity, there are also various definitions of discipleship. And this difference comes before we begin to discuss discipleship programs and practices. So how do we decide what a disciple is?

Not All Definitions of “Disciple” are Equally Biblical

Two rich studies on discipleship can be found in Michael Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship and Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus The Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship. Gleaning from their observations, I would summarize three different ways “disciple(s)” might be defined. Nota Bene: These definitions are not equally biblical.

1. Disciples are committed believers.

Salvation is one thing, discipleship is another. There are Christians and then there are disciples. This posits a two-tiered system in the Christian life—with the saved in the first category and the sanctified (i.e., disciples) in the next. The problem with this dichotomy is that it rips apart the unified work of salvation, and it does not fit with biblical language. In Acts 4:32, the church is described as a band of believers; but Acts 6:2 describes the church as “the full number of disciples.” Disciples, therefore, are believers; believers are disciple. No tiers!

2. Disciples are ministers.

Like the twelve, disciples are called to a special ministry of service. This results in a view where churches have clergy and laity, disciples and congregants. This separation is often found in special dress for the clergy, or unhealthy veneration of church leaders.

By contrast, the Great Commission calls all people to discipleship and to disciple others. Church work is for everyone. In this way, disciples are ministers, so long as we keep Ephesians 4:11–12 in mind: pastor-teachers are to equip the saints (disciples) for their work of service. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Jesus calls all his disciples to learn his trade and join him in the work.

3. Disciples are Christians. Christians are disciples.

While every follower of Christ is at a different phase in their spiritual pilgrimage, Christianity is not two-tiered. While wisdom cautions against young disciples leading, there is no two-stage approach. Rather, as in any family, there are babes, children, young adults, and mature adults. The same is true in the church. Every member of the church should be considered a disciple of Christ, and every disciple should be passionate about making disciples.

A Definition of Discipleship

In light of these previous observations, here is an provisional definition:

A disciple is a man or woman who is a new creation in Christ that no longer lives for self, but who has (1) believed on Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and (2) lives to learn, follow, and imitate Christ in all areas of life.

To say it another way, if we take our cues from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20): disciples (a) identify themselves with Jesus Christ in baptism; (b) labor to learn and apply all the commands God has given; and (c) serve our Lord with their various gifts in the process of heralding the message of Christ and reproducing disciples. Put simply, this is Great Commission Christianity. And this is what the twelve did, what Paul did (Acts 14:21), and what Paul called his followers to do (2 Tim 2:2).

For followers of Christ, discipleship is not an optional extra for interested Christians. It is certainly not a program churches can add or subtract. It is at the heart of what Christ is doing in the world. And it is at the center of what it means to be a follower of Christ—to be a disciple who makes disciples.

In the weeks ahead, we will consider this topic more. For now, let us pray and ask God to give us a vision for seeing God raise up disciple-making disciples. This after all was God’s good command to his followers.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds