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Jon Ruthven

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Jon Ruthven is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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Articles > Charismatic Theology > The "Imitation of Christ" in Christian Tradition

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Part II

The mimesis ("imitation") theme is extraordinarily large in the New Testament. While Louw-Nida lists only 5 words in this immediate family, some 42 words or word groups appear in the semantic field, "Guide, Discipline, Follow," 26 expressions for "teach" or "instruct" and comprising a sizeable number of references to such activities as repeating, following, obeying, instructing.[17] Moreover, the extensive field of "knowing" words contains a strong Semitic overtone of "knowing by interaction with someone" as opposed to knowing by detached observation or deriving knowledge from abstract principles.

    It is impossible to survey the multitude of variations in the above fields to make our point that Jesus expressed the clear intention that his mission was to be replicated exactly by his followers, irrespective of their place in succeeding generations. This intention can be shown by an examination of Jesus' cultural and religious background, particularly the terms, "rabbi," "disciple" and "follow[er]," his explicit statements about the nature of his ministry's continuity in his followers, as well as the disciples' expectations of those who would follow them.

    While an examination of Jesus' historical and cultural background with respect to the teacher-disciple relationship represents no necessary proof as to the nature of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, it is nonetheless instructive to note that in general in the Greek world, the teacher-student relationship "is predominantly characterized by the concept of mimesis. Teachers and students are bound together by a certain teaching and practice of life, and the student is recognizable in his imitation of the teachings and life of the teacher" [italics mine].[18]

    Closer to Jesus' experience, Josephus offers a similar goal for all young Jews: "[The Law] orders that they shall be taught to read and shall learn both the laws and the deeds of their forefathers, in order that they may imitate the latter, and being grounded in the former, may neither transgress nor have any excuse for being ignorant of them."[19]

    Even more relevantly, the Palestinian rabbi-student relationship reflects a similar pattern.[20] Ben Sirach (d. ca. 175 BC) cites the goal of a rabbi is to train his student to such an extent that "When his father [teacher] dies, it is as though he is not dead. For he leaves behind him one like himself."[21] To a humorous extreme, Rabbi Akiva (d. 135), followed his mentor, R. Joshua into the privy, during which time Akiva claimed to have "learned three good habits." He defended his action: "I considered everything a part of the Torah and I needed to learn."[22]

    In the Gospels and Acts the followers of Jesus are called "disciples" (mathetai) some 67 times in Matthew, 44 in Mark, 34 in Luke and 73 times in John. This does not include numerous references to disciples of others, such as John the Baptist or the Pharisees. In Acts the term, including one feminine form applied to Tabitha (9:36), appears 29 times, generally to believers in Jesus. The verb form (matheteuo-"to become a disciple") appears three times in Matthew and once in Acts.

    The word, "follow" in its noun and verb forms appear some 14 times as disciples of Jesus in the Gospels, and once as a participle in Rev 14:4 of the 144,000 "who follow the Lamb wherever he goes." It is interesting, here that these terms, "disciple" and "follow" apply both to the disciples of the earthly Jesus, and also to Christians in general.

    In the Gospels, Jesus clearly stakes out a claim for his status as "teacher/rabbi" in the face of potential competing claims among his own followers. For example, in the context of rabbinic pride and intellectualism run amok (Mt 23), Jesus makes a triptych of demands, focusing on his authority as rabbi:

But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ (vss. 8-10).

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