Note: This article is excerpted from Untamed.
The most foundational thing we can say about missional discipleship is that it must be based squarely on the founder of the Christian faith—Jesus the Messiah. And while this might seem obvious, one can easily be excused for not being able to recognize anything approximating Jesus in some of the people who claim his name. This discontinuity between Jesus and the religion that claims his name, what Jacques Ellul calls the "subversion of Christianity," has led countless people to say with political humorist Bill Maher, "I don't know anyone less Jesus-like than most Christians." It also prompted researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons to write a book called unChristian, which is based on what most non-Christian 20-somethings said about so-called Christians.
Know Jesus to Know God
Jesus is the key not only because Christian discipleship is about becoming more like Jesus but also because it is only in and through Jesus that we can get the proper, truly Christ-ian understanding of God. In other words, Jesus gets defining rights in relation to life, discipleship, theology, and everything in between. Not only is he the mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5), he is the prism though which we can and must understand God (Colossians 1:9-21, Hebrews 1:1-3). New Testament scholar Albert Nolan is quite right when he states:
By his words and practices, Jesus himself changed the content of the word "God." If we do not allow him to change our image of God, we will not be able to say that he is our Lord and our God. To choose him as our God is to make him the source of our information about divinity and to refuse to superimpose upon him our own ideas of divinity.
This is the meaning of the traditional assertion that Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus reveals God to us; God does not reveal Jesus to us …. We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must deduce everything about God from what we do know about Jesus …. To say that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus; it changes our understanding of divinity.
Reclaiming the centrality of Jesus will help us avoid the perennial mistake of superimposing upon the life and personality of Jesus our preconceived ideas of what God is supposed to be like. N. T. Wright affirms this when he says:
My proposal is not that we know what the word "god" means, and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew, possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross—and we somehow allow our meaning for the word "god" to be re-centered around that point.
Jesus is, and must be, the central reference point for the Christian because God looks like Jesus and Jesus does what God wants to do! (See John 10:38, 12:49-50.) We love Greg Boyd's wonderful description of this:
Jesus spent his ministry freeing people from evil and misery. This is what God seeks to do. Jesus wars against spiritual forces that oppress people and resist God's good purposes. This is what God does. Jesus loved people others rejected—even people who rejected him. This is how God loves. Jesus had nothing but compassion for people who were afflicted by sin, disease, and tragedy. This is how God feels. And Jesus died on the cross of Calvary, suffering in the place of sinful humanity, defeating sin and the devil, because he passionately loves people and wants to reconcile them to God. This is how God saves.
It is true that Jesus is like God, but the greater truth, one closer to the revelation of God that Jesus ushers in, is that God is like Jesus! As Michael Ramsey, the former Anglican archbishop, noted, "God is Christlike and in him is no unChristlikeness at all." Or as Jesus says when asked to show his credentials, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" and "I and the Father are one" (John 14:9; 10:30).
Resetting Our Discipleship Focus
Focusing our discipleship on Jesus forces us to take seriously the implications of following him, of becoming like him … like God. The spiritual agenda for discipleship is thus set: Jesus is our primary model, teacher, guide, savior, and Lord. He is the standard by which we assess discipleship and spirituality. And we must become living versions of him—little Jesuses.
So if we want to know what God is like, we need to look no further than the person of Jesus Christ.