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Jon Ruthven

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

The "Imitation of Christ" in Christian Tradition: Its Missing Charismatic Emphasis

Jon Ruthven, PhD


While traditional theology and piety has long promoted an "imitation of Christ" motif among the faithful, the "imitation" seems restricted to piety and ethics. Interest in the imitation of Christ's miracles appears as a threat to traditional Christology, since Christ was understood to perform miracles as an expression or proof of his deity. The recent trend toward a more biblical "Spirit Christology" facilitates our thesis that a central NT theme in Jesus' ministry was that he presented himself not only as a unique sacrifice for sin and as an example of piety and ethics, but, quite centrally, as a normative exemplar of charismatic ministry for others to replicate. After Part I, a survey of traditional theology and developments in this area, Part II of this paper examines the NT and its contemporary traditions of mimesis and its semantic field, while Part III shows that the NT content of mimesis requires a remarkably detailed replication of Jesus' life and ministry, specifically including his ministry of "signs and wonders."

Part I

    Popular American culture, with its increasing focus on the spiritual,[1] has generated a minor fad among teenagers: a "WWJD?" ("What would Jesus Do?") bracelet, which, while bouncing on the wrists of video game players and entangling the TV remote, clicking in the Spice Girls on MTV, seeks to draw its wearers toward an "imitation of Christ."

The WWJD bracelet expresses this more or less continuous tradition throughout church history to replicate the life of Christ, the impulse having deep but somewhat selectively attended roots in the New Testament itself. The devotional classics ranging from St. Thomas à Kempis' Imitatio Christi to Charles Sheldon's In His Steps easily spring to mind as examples. But this notion of "following Jesus," "discipleship," or "spirituality" calls up a historically conditioned set of restrictions on how far that "imitation" may be applied. Traditionally, aside from minor movements in the radical reformation or from certain restorationist groups, we understand that a replication of Jesus' life is properly restricted to piety and ethics.

    Progress in biblical scholarship over two millennia has produced little movement on this front. A recent academic collection of essays, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament[2] continues this tradition without any serious consideration of extending "discipleship" to any other areas of emulating Jesus, particularly to the miraculous. "Discipleship remains limited to "piety and ethics," very much as is our present notion of "spiritual formation."

    Because, in traditional theology, Jesus' uniqueness as divine was accredited by miracles, few Christians seriously attempted to replicate that performance in Jesus' ministry. Within this framework, to attempt to perform miracles would represent an attempt to promote oneself as divine-an effort virtually as blasphemous as to claim one's own suffering and death to be redemptive for sin.

    This paper attempts to show that the elimination of miraculous works from the purview of the imitatio Christi simply does not derive from scripture and is not, therefore, normative. Against the traditional, restricted view of "imitation," the NT contains a strong parenesis for replicating the life and activities of Jesus in all areas, including the ministry of the miraculous.

    The recent trend toward a more biblical "Spirit Christology" facilitates our thesis that a central NT theme in Jesus' ministry was that he is presented not only as a unique sacrifice for sin, but as a normative exemplar of charismatic ministry for others to replicate. Hence, in this paper, after Part I, a survey of traditional theology and developments in this area, Part II examines the NT and its contemporary expressions of mimesis (imitation/ replication) and its semantic field, while Part III shows that the NT content of mimesis requires a remarkably detailed replication of each stage of Jesus' life and ministry, specifically including his ministry of "signs and wonders." This paper represents an exploratory survey of this issue. It is necessarily brief and incomplete, both in its scope and supporting evidence.

    Early on, the doctrine of Christology found much of its shape in Greek philosophical apologetics. Since it was no difficult matter to prove that Jesus was a man, the overwhelming apologetic emphasis focused on establishing His divinity, the importance of this being that only God could redeem from sin.[3]  In Christian tradition, then, Jesus came to be seen principally as the divine savior from sin, whose nature and mission was utterly and transcendently unique. To protect this image of Christ, the apologetic impulse tended to recast the New Testament portrayal of his ministry, particularly his miracles, into proofs for divinity, a move that had the effect of distancing the life and actions of Jesus from those of his mortal followers. Of course Christian tradition is far from uniform on this, or even on most issues, but for example, St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) expresses some flavor of this discontinuity when he insisted:

If any man shall say that the one Lord Jesus Christ was glorified by the Holy Ghost so that he used through him a power not his own and from him received power against unclean spirits and power to work miracles before men and shall not rather confess that it was his own spirit through which he worked these divine signs let him be an anathema.[4]

An anonymous commentator on this passage clarifies Cyril's distinction between Christ and the apostles with respect to miracles and the anointing of the Spirit.

The apostles worked miracles through the Holy Ghost but as by a power external to themselves but not so Christ. When Christ worked wonders through the Holy Ghost he was working by a power was his own via the Third person of the Holy Trinity, from whom he never was and never could be separated, ever abiding with him and the eternal Father as the divine unity.[5]

    Obviously, while it is granted here that the Apostles could and did perform miracles through the power of the Spirit, it is clear that Jesus' experience with the Spirit is unique and cannot be replicated precisely, even by his apostles. In fact, Ambrosiastor (d. 384), somewhat earlier, suggested that the experience of the Spirit involves a kind of spiritual entropy, moving from Christ to the Apostles, who, in Jn 14:12 were promised they alone would perform "greater works." A second, lower level of spiritual power is described in Jn 20:22, which denotes an impartation of the Spirit conferring ecclesiastical power enabling the successive transfer of the Spirit throughout history via the imposition of hands. Finally, a third level appears in Acts 2 in which the Spirit was bestowed on the laity "whence arises the preaching of the church."[6]  The specifics of this spiritual power are murky both in terms of the exegesis as well as the specific manifestations of the Spirit intended at the lower levels. He does seem to intend, however, that spiritual power, over time, diminishes in stages: that the layman of today could never aspire to the level of charismatic power of Jesus or even his apostles. Calvin echoes this principle: "How plainly is his deity shown in miracles! Even though I confess that both the prophets and the apostles performed miracles equal to and similar to his, yet in this respect there is the greatest of differences: they distributed the gifts of God by their ministry, but he showed forth his own power."[7]

This impulse to protect the uniqueness of Christ, and by extension, his apostles, nourished the doctrine of cessationism, which held that miracles and certain spiritual gifts appeared only to point to the deity of Christ and the significance of his work. These miracles, perforce, ceased when the core of Christian doctrine was established.[8]

    In this mode, Luther sets the agenda for subsequent Protestantism with respect to our "imitation" of Christ. He suggests that while Christ's role involves serving as an example, his chief mission, "the cardinal doctrine and the most precious one of the Gospel" [italics mine], is to redeem us from sin through his work on the cross. "When we possess Christ through faith as a free gift we should go on and do as he has done for us, and imitate him in our entire life and suffering."[9]   From other passages, we know that Luther limited the imitation of Christ to traditional acts of piety, suffering and ministry, but drew the line at miraculous spiritual gifts.[10]   Subsequently, scholastic Protestantism and the deistic Enlightenment overwhelmingly expressed Christian praxis as a matter of ethics. Hence, with the restriction of the miraculous to the first century on the one hand, and the emphasis on Christianity-as-morality that developed later, the profile of traditional Christian discipleship was set.

    Prominent Evangelical scholars follow this traditional Protestant line even today. For example, Colin Brown claims that the programmatic charismatic ministry of Jesus in, say, Luke 4:18 cannot apply beyond Jesus himself; "no one else may claim this anointing and this role." Similarly, Hebrews 2:4[11] "refers to the ministry of Jesus and the founding of the church. The passage is not talking about what happens when the gospel is proclaimed in each and every age."[12] D. A. Carson applies the principle a step further: "The apostles and other writers of the New Testament must be viewed as something other than proto-Christians, models of what other Christians should enjoy and experience."[13]

    Such modern Evangelical sentiment is threatened somewhat by an emerging emphasis these days on Spirit Christology,[14] which can be construed in many cases as an expression of the "anthropocentric turn" widely diffused in theology since the Enlightenment and generally denying the divine nature of Jesus. This category of Spirit Christology can nonetheless also be understood as a turn toward a scriptural emphasis, as Del Colle argues.[15] It is possible to affirm the central creedal statements about Jesus while at the same time retaining biblical emphases with respect to his Spirit anointing. A variant of this line of Christology may also be described as "paradigm Christology," reflecting an emphasis upon human response and replication of Jesus' life and ministry.[16]

    Arguably, any discussion of Spirit Christology engages the most attended, developed and dauntingly complex areas of theology-many areas from which we must prescind in this paper. However, this theological complexity has not dissuaded countless numbers of Pentecostal preachers from expressing their intuitive (or perhaps simply, Biblical) insight that "everything Jesus did we should do, because he was empowered by the same Holy Ghost we have"-in other words, a Christology of mimesis. Indeed, we would argue, something like this expression can be demonstrated as a key NT theme.

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).

    Jesus is frequently described in the Gospels as "rabbi"-a term ranging in meanings from respect ("Sir") to a more formal term of "teacher/role model."[23] It is clear, however, from a variety of statements that the relationship of Jesus to his disciples rested upon the latter notion. For example, in Lk 6:40 Jesus affirms the traditional rabbinic notion that "a pupil [talmid?] is not above his teacher [rabbi?], but everyone [each, in every case, without exception], after he has been fully trained [katertismenos], will be like his teacher" [emphasis mine]. The expression "not above," in view of the contrasting parallel in the second part of the verse, here suggests that the pupil normatively does not deviate from anything the teacher does. In the Gospel of John this pattern of rigidity in replicating Jesus' life is repeated in 13:34; 17:18,23; and 20:21, using the conceptual formula, "As I . . . so you." In 13:15 Jesus states, "For I gave you an example that you also should do as [kathos] I did" [italics mine]. The continuation and replication of Jesus' mission in his disciples is explicit in Jn 20:21, "As [kathos] the Father has sent me, I also send you." The English translation, "as," for kathos, implies a sense of rough equivalence, expressing similarity, but necessarily not being the same, as in its synonym, "like." By contrast, the Greek, kathos is a word that carries the stronger sense of "exactly as," or, "to the exact same degree and extent."[24]   Hence, in both these verses, the specific, exact duplication of Jesus' mission is intended. The significance of all this is that, in Palestinian Jewish tradition contemporary with Jesus, as well as in the NT itself, no detail of a teacher's life is to be either ignored or left unreplicated.

    One could argue, however, that the disciples' relationship with Jesus was unique and not to be replicated in further generations of Christians. Indeed, this is explicit in the cessationist tradition when it comes to replicating Jesus' ministry of signs and wonders. If we put aside the miracle aspect of discipleship, however, it is generally understood in Christendom that the Gospels and Acts seem to present the disciples of Jesus as surrogates for the reader.[25]   In fact this is explicit throughout the New Testament: subsequent generations of Christians are normatively to be disciples of the disciples even as Christians are followers of Christ.

    When we move into the epistles, the discipleship theme is every bit as strong as in the Gospels and Acts: only the vocabulary has changed. Outside the narrative documents it appears that the terms "disciple" and "follower" are replaced with specific exhortations to live out the Christian life: to "walk" in the "way" of Christ, or "put on" or be "in Christ" in some sense. There is a consciousness of the presence of the promised Spirit, who is virtually equated with the presence of Jesus, e.g., 2 Cor 3:17, cf. Jn 14:17-18, 28; 16:16. In this, discipleship is advanced toward an even more intimate awareness of the rabbi, Jesus, who will empower them and guide them into all truth.

    Discipleship, however, moves to a third, fourth and even a fifth generation in the NT. Paul can require of his readers, for example, "Imitate me even as [kathos-to the same degree and extent that] I imitate Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Four other times he exhorts churches to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 2 Th 3:7,9, cf. Gal 4:12 and Phil 4:9).

    In 1 Cor 4:15-17 Paul says that he became the Corinthians' "'father' through the Gospel." This obviously means something more than progenitor, or "father" of a new religion, but rather retains the more technical meaning of "rabbi/teacher." Proof of this is the remainder of the verse: "I exhort you to become imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my son [talmid] whom I love [an echo of Jesus' baptism?] . . . who will remind you of my ways [hodous=derakim]." The term "ways" is a Semitism that refers to the whole characteristic pattern of life.[26]   Here, then, we implicitly have three generations of imitators described: Jesus, Paul, Timothy/the Corinthians.

    Similarly, 1 Th 1:5-6 displays the pattern of imitation, not only to the third generation, but also to the fourth! Not only could the believers observe the type of people Paul and his companions were as they presented the Gospel, but the Thessalonians "became imitators of us and of the Lord . . . so as (hoste-"for this reason") to become a pattern to all those in Macedonia and in Achaia." In other words the explicit reason the Thessalonians became imitators of Paul, was that they, themselves, become exemplars for others to imitate in exactly the same way.

    A further pattern evolves in 2 Tm 2:1-2 where Paul addresses Timothy as "my son" and encourages him to perpetuate the process of replication to the fifth generation! "And the things which you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others also." It is important to note that while the "teaching" here is verbal, it is directed toward spiritual empowerment and action, as is suggested from the previous verse and as we shall see in the next section.

    Part II has just reviewed the nature of discipleship as mimesis in the NT setting, let us now in Part III briefly examine its content of discipleship:[27] What does the NT emphasize that a disciple was expected to do when he imitated the life of his teacher/rabbi?

Part III

    Let us step back for a moment and view the big picture of the content of NT discipleship by asking five simple questions: 1) What is it that the NT says that Jesus came to do? 2) When ministering, what does he actually spend his time doing? 3) What does Jesus tell his disciples to do? 4) What is it that they actually spend their time doing? Finally, 5) what is the reader of the NT (the "disciple of the disciples") expected to do?

    1) Frequently, when the New Testament writers condense his ministry into a sentence or two they show Jesus in opposition to the reign of the devil which appeared as demonic possession, sickness, the disruption of nature, or sin: it was "for this purpose that Jesus appeared, to destroy the works of the Devil" (1 Jn 3:8). Peter spelled out the result of Jesus' baptism and gave a summary of Jesus' mission on earth: "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, . . . he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:38). Both of these verses confirm the programmatic statement about Jesus mission in Lk 4:18.

    2) Summary statements about Jesus' mission abound throughout the text of the Gospels with references to healing and exorcisms:

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. . . . Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons . . . (Mk. 1:34//Mt. 8:16//Lk. 4:40-41).
. . . he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him (Mk. 3:10//Mt. 4:15//Lk. 6:19).
The news about him spread . . . so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses (Lk. 4:15).
At that time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sickness and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind (Lk. 7:21).
I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal (Lk. 13:33).
He welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing (Lk. 9:11//Mt. 14:14).
Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel (Mt. 15:30-31).
Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there (Mt. 19:2).
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them (Mt. 21:14).

    The preceding passages illustrate the sizable emphasis the Gospel writers place upon the role of healing in Jesus' ministry. Of course, Jesus did many other things besides healing and exorcisms. But the point is, if NT discipleship depends upon replicating the life of the exemplar, then miracles represent a significant part of "imitating Christ." Indeed, if the amount of space a writer devotes to a subject is any index to its importance, then the healings, exorcisms and other "extraordinary" charismata must be extremely important. As a percentage of the text describing the public ministry of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels, the space devoted to the accounts of miracles amounts to: 44% of Matthew, 65% of Mark, 29% of Luke and 30% of John.[28]   This percentage is continued in the ministry of the early Church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, if not actually expanded: of the total text of Acts, over 27% of the space is devoted to "extra-ordinary" charismata. That represents more text than that of all the speeches of Acts combined.

    To conclude, Jesus' public ministry in inaugurating the Kingdom of God consisted to a sizeable degree in healings, exorcisms and miracles, not as a way of "proving" the Kingdom, but of expressing it.

    3) The next question is, what does Jesus tell his disciples to do? At the outset, it is important to note the explicit reason Mark gives for Jesus selecting disciples in the first place: "He appointed twelve-designating them apostles-that they might be with him and that he might send them out to announce[29] [the Kingdom?] and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mk 3:14-15). It is only natural, then, in view of our previous discussion, that after being "with" him, Jesus would then send them out to replicate his own mission: "He sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits" (Mk 6:7). Both Matthew (10:1,7,8) and Luke (9:1,2,6) echo this commission in some detail. Luke includes a similar commission to 72 others: "Heal the sick [wherever you visit] and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you" (Lk 10:9). The numbers 12 and 72 could represent the "new Israel" the church, which is here proleptically commissioned to perform the same works.[30]   The "Great Commission" similarly commands the disciples' continuation of the miraculous, though some would wish to deny this.[31] This pattern is not limited to the Synoptics. The command to do "greater works" than Jesus is understood as a command to replicate Jesus' ministry in miraculous signs.[32]

    4) The fourth question is, what did the disciples actually do? The only extensive historical account of the disciples' activities after the ascension of Jesus is the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. This work records, we assume, with an appropriate emphasis, the results of Jesus' training of the disciples: in short, what does Acts emphasize about discipleship? True, the disciples exhibited the virtues of the traditional notion of Christian discipleship: morality and piety. But Acts devotes no less than 27.2% of its space to miracle stories! This is more space than to all of the speeches or sermons of Acts combined, at 22.5%.[33]

    Moreover, this high percentage of miracle accounts does not occur without a consciousness on the part of the author. Several studies[34] have noted the deliberate parallel composition of the Lukan miracle stories in the careers of Jesus, Peter and Paul and have drawn various conclusions as to the reasons these parallels were framed. Susan Praeder[35] points out that there are a variety of unreliable criteria, e.g., coincidental events or language, which indicate only spurious "parallels," hence, her caution that mere similarities do not demand an author's conscious motive to draw comparisons of the persons or points described. Nevertheless she notes that for Luke, parallel composition is the "surest evidence" that the miracle working activity of Jesus, Peter and Paul was intended to be understood as sharing parallel roles, that is, as preachers, healers and exorcists. Some of the parallels Praeder examined appear in the following chart.

 Acts 5:1-11Acts 13:6-12
Luke 5:17-263:1-1014:8-18
8:26-39 16:16-24
6:17-195:12-16; 8:4-819:8-12

    Even without the clearest similarities in content, verbal composition and position in relation to the surrounding pericopes, the charismatic mission activities of Jesus' followers in Acts, at least in broad scope, closely replicate those in the ministry of Jesus and those resulting from the first commission of the twelve and seventy-two.[36]

    Certainly, when St. Paul summarizes his mission he does so with a substantial charismatic/miraculous component (Acts 15:12; 1 Th 1:5; 2 Cor 12:12; Rom 15:19). In this he is simply replicating the same emphasis on the power of the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus, while at the same time, if we are to understand "mimesis" and its related NT concepts correctly, demanding of his own followers that they reproduce this same pattern of emphasis. This brings us to our final point.

    5) The last question is, what is the reader of the NT (the "disciple of the disciples") expected to do? Let us assume as before that the NT instructions to the disciples or apostles, in general, are instructions also to the reader.[37]

    The NT frequently commands to the reader/disciple to replicate the charismatic ministry of the apostles, e.g., to "seek," "desire earnestly," "rekindle" and "employ" certain "miraculous" charismata (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1, 4, 5, and 39; 2 Tm 1:6; 1 Pt 4: 10, cf. Jn 14:12-14; 15:7; l6:23-24--ask for "anything" in the context of the Spirit's descent to the disciples; Jn 3:21-22) and implies that their appearance can be suppressed by simple neglect to imitate faithfully the NT exemplars (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 14:39; 1 Th 5:19-20; 1 Tm 4:14; 2 Tm 1:6).[38]

    Particularly interesting is the very verses which command a replication of Paul's ministry are verses which are somewhat explicit about the charismatic content of that replication. For example, 1 Th 1:5 is a summary of Paul's pattern of presenting the Gospel "not in word only [as in classical Protestantism], but with power [en dunamei-the most frequent word for "miracle/mighty work" in the NT] and in the Holy Spirit [en pneumati hagio-carrying a strong overtone of prophetic anointing], that is, in strong confirmation." The Thessalonians are reminded that they came to know by experience and interaction [oidate] what sort of [messengers] that Paul and the others proved to be. This is not primarily a reference to character or ethics! At this point, Paul notes that the Thessalonians then "became imitators of us and of the Lord!" The context demands that the Thessalonians were both imitating and modeling for others (vs. 7), Paul's miraculous/charismatic gospel presentation, mentioning specifically, inter alia, their faith in God-a charismatic gift of the Spirit (vs. 8)!

    A second example of the "imitation" pattern being integrally bound up with charismatic expression is 1 Cor 1:4-8, which shows Paul's presentation of the miraculous/charismatic gospel to the Corinthians, who then replicated the pattern "kathos ["exactly as"] the testimony of Christ was confirmed among you, with the result that you do not lack any spiritual gift." This replication is to continue among believers until the parousia.[39]

    A third example derives from another main "imitation" passage, above: 2 Tm 2:1-2, "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." Traditional Protestantism might understand this as an exhortation to "be encouraged to receive the mercy of Christ for forgiveness of sin and for promoting sanctification." A more Pauline understanding would include this, but with a much stronger emphasis to avail oneself of the miraculous/charismatic power of the Messiah, as indicated in endunamou and in en chariti,[40]  who bears the Spirit of prophecy in this, the end of the Age ("endunamou en chariti en Christo Iesou"), cf. 1:6. This exhortation, then, is the normative content of the "teaching" that flows from generation to generation of Christian disciples.


    This paper should not be construed as an attempt to deny that normative NT discipleship contains none of the elements traditionally associated with the term today. Certainly, piety, meditation, self-sacrifice and moral behavior are legitimate expressions of an imitatio Christi. Nevertheless, the foregoing should indicate that a thorough review of the NT will demonstrate that our somewhat docetic traditional Christology as well as our unbiblical, evidentialist view of miracles, has contributed to an understanding of Christian discipleship that is shorn of its intended spiritual depth and power. Nothing is more crucial for the outcome of the Church than our understanding of the mission of Christ Jesus and our relation to it. Our view of the goals of discipleship has immediate implications for the direction in Christian development that we take ourselves, for our parishioners and for those in ministerial training.


[1] In an August 1997 Gallup survey, "two thirds (66%) of survey respondents said they think religion can answer all or most of contemporary problems, the highest figure recorded since the measurement was started 40 years ago in 1957. Only 20% said religion is old-fashioned and out-of-date." Emerging Trends (September, 1997):

[2] Edited by R. N. Longenecker. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

[3] See the surveys by F. W. Norris, "Christ, Christology," Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Ed. E. Ferguson (New York: Garland, 1990), 197-206. M. Simonetti, "Christology," Encyclopedia of the Early Church. Ed. A. DiBerardino (New York: Oxford, 1992), I:163-65. W. Pannenberg, "ChristologieII, Dogmengeschichtlich," RGG3I:1763-77.

[4] Anathema IX: Against Nestorius, PNF 2nd ser., XIV:540.

[5] Ibid., 541.

[6] PL 35, cols. 2289-91.

[7] Institutes(Trans. Battles) I.XII.13.

[8] Or, alternatively, miracles served as scaffolding for the church: that when the church was established, the scaffolding (accrediting miracles) we no longer required, and so were removed. J. Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Post-Biblical Miracles (Sheffield: Sheffield U. Pr., 1993), 24-33.

[9] "On Christ Crucified," Luthers Werke, Weimar ed. 12:372. "Christ is [secondarily] an example and pattern which we are to follow."

[10] For a popular summary on miracles see E. M. Plass (ed.), What Luther Says: An Anthology (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), II: 953-57.

[11] [God] "bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed by His own will."

[12] C. Brown, "The Other Half of the Gospel," CT 33 (April 21, 1989), 27. L. Smedes (ed.), Ministry and the Miraculous: A Case Study at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1987), passim.

[13] "The Purpose of Signs and Wonders in the New Testament," Power Religion, ed. M. S. Horton (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 102.

[14] J. D. G. Dunn, "The Spirit of Christ," in Christology in the Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980), 136-49. C. Pinnock, "Spirit and Christology" [Ch. 3], in his Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1996), 79-111. M. E. O'Keeffe, "Contemporary Spirit Christologies: An Examination of G. W. H. Lampe, Walter Kasper, and Piet Schoonenberg," PhD dissertation, Notre Dame University, 1994.

[15] "[We have] concluded that a dogmatic Spirit-christology may be developed from New Testament sources in a manner that maintains and affirms hypostatic differentiation in God." R. Del Colle, Christ and the Spirit: Spirit-Christology in Trinitarian Perspective (New York: Oxford, 1994), 184.

[16] B. Ramm, An Evangelical Christology (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 179-81.

[17] Louw, Johannes P. and Nida, Eugene A., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988, 1989), sections 27, 33, 36, and 41:44-41:49.

[18] H. Weder, "Disciple, Discipleship," ABD II:209.

[19] Contra Apion II.204.

[20] For examples see: y Ber. I.8.3d; III.5.6d, cf. y Ber. 24a-b; Shab. 12b and 41a. N. Drazin, History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE (New York: Arno Pr., 1979), 12.

[21] Wisdom of Ben-Sira, 30:4.

[22] B Ber. 62a and y Ber. 9.8, 14c. Typically, a rabbi's disciple was so intent on mastering the "rules of proper behavior that he followed every action of his teachers with the closest scrutiny and recorded their slightest habits." L. Finkelstein, Akiba (New York: Covici, Friede, 1936), 181. So also, B. Gerhardsson Memory and Manuscript (Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1961), 182-83.

[23] E. Lohse, "rabbi," TDNT, VI:964-65. H. Lapin, "Rabbi," ABD, V:600-02. Some German scholars, e.g.., R. Bultmann in his Theology of the New Testament (New York: Scribners, 1951), 3 and M. Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 50-57, attempt to distance Jesus' rabbinic pattern of mimesis from that of his Jewish contemporaries. Bultmann does so on the dubious premise that any characteristic of rabbinicism would necessarily be an inauthentic tradition about Jesus. Hengel slides into a logical pitfall when he says, "it is singular what a small part basically is played in the Gospels by the 'example' or 'imitation' of Jesus: he seems to have directed his disciples' gaze not towards his everyday behaviour but towards the dawning basileia [kingdom] and the realization of the will of God in its particular and specific requirements" (p. 53), that is, not to "follow" Jesus in the sense of carrying on a tradition, but "to prepare for the service of the approaching rule of God." The nonsense of this observation lies in the fact that Jesus' "everyday behaviour" were acts inaugurating the kingdom of God-the very mission for which Hengel sees the disciples preparing! Hengel confuses Jesus' duplication of the rabbinic pedagogical method with a duplication of rabbinic religious content. B. Viviano, Study as Worship in Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity, v. 26 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), 159. C. Blendinger, "akoloutheo," NIDNTT, I:482.

[24] See BAG, ad loc., 391.

[25] E.g., Longenecker, "Introduction," Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 5-6. L. Hurtado, "Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark-and Beyond," ibid., 13, 15, 22, 28, 37. T. L. Donaldson, "Guiding Readers-Making Disciples: Discipleship in Matthew's Narrative Strategy," ibid., 40, 42, 44, esp. 470-48, et al. On discipleship in Luke-Acts, Longenecker affirms that all the lessons for the disciples "Luke meant to teach his readers, whether of his day or ours" in "Taking up the Cross Daily: Luke-Acts," ibid., 75. Similarly in John: M. R. Hillmer: "at all times and in all places . . . . to be a disciple of Jesus . . . is to do what Jesus calls his followers to do" ibid., 93. Wm. Kurz, Following Jesus: A Disciple's Guide to Luke-Acts (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1984), 'Chapter Four: Sharing Jesus' Power for Service,' 57-67.

[26] H. Wolf, "derek," TWOT (Harris, Archer, Waltke), I:197. E. Merrill, "derek," NIDOTE (VanGemeren), I:989-93. W. Michaelis, "hodos," TDNT (One vol. ed.), 670.

[27] Certainly, one could show that the NT exhorts its readers to view every aspect of Jesus life as a pattern for the believer: spiritual birth, deliverance from bondage, baptism (with water and spirit), temptation, moral purity, prayer, ministry, rejection, suffering, trial before judges, death, resurrection, exaltation and rule.

[28] See, for example, Richardson's figures on Mark (Miracle Stories of the Gospels, 36-37). He counts the number of verses dealing with miracle stories to arrive at a relatively lower, though still significantly large, 47 percent of the Gospel, excluding the passion narrative. But this procedure may result in deceptively lower ratios of miracles to the total book. The present approach is to measure the complete miracle pericope, usually a paragraph unit, which dealt specifically and clearly with a miracle. Summaries of miracle activity in Jesus' public ministry were also included. Although Jesus performed miracles while alone with his disciples, e.g., the stilling of the storms, the resurrection appearances, the ascension, etc., these cases were eliminated from the count, since they were not part of Jesus' public proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

[29] The rendering, "preach" in most English translations is unfortunate, since the Gk., kerussein in the NT is closer to prophecy than to the formal process of preaching we see in churches today.

[30] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT, 54.

[31] D. A. Carson and M. Horton (eds.), Power Religion, 103. C. Brown, "Other Half of the Gospel," 28. For a rebuttal: G. Greig, "Matthew 28:18-20-The Great Commission and Jesus' Commands to Preach and Heal," Appendix 3 in The Kingdom and the Power (Ventura, Ca: Regel, 1993), 399-403.

[32] G. Greig, "John 14:12-The Commission to All Believers to Do the Miraculous Works of Jesus," in The Kingdom and the Power, 393-397. J. Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata, 109, 121, 154.

[33] C. Hemer, in his important new commentary notes that the total text of its speeches comprise about 22.5 percent of the Book of Acts. Appendix 1: "Speeches and Miracles in Acts" in his The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Ed. C. Gemph (Tbingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck] 1989), 415-43.

[34] E.g., see the review of proposed parallels in C. Talbert, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, and the Genre of Luke-Acts, SBL Monograph Series 20 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974), 55-65. W. Radl, Paulus und Jesus im lukanischen Doppelwerk: Untersuchungen zu Parallelmotiven im Lukasevangelium und in der Apostelgeschichte, Europisch Hochschulschriften 23/49 (Frankfurt: Lang, 1975), 346-51 and F. Neirynck, "The Miracle Stories in the Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction," Les Actes des Apôtres: Traditions, rédaction, théologie, ed., J. Kremer, B.E.T.L. 48 (Gembloux: Duculot, 1979), 169-73. See especially the extended parallels between the miracles of Jesus and those of the Church in Acts in G.W.H. Lampe, "The Holy Spirit in the Writings of St. Luke," Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R.H. Lightfoot, D. Nineham, ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1955), 194-96. In view of scholarly emphasis on the miracles of Jesus (see the bibliographies in Loos, Miracles of Jesus, 707-26 and L. Sabourin, The Divine Miracles Discussed and Defended [Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1977], 237-71), the dearth of scholarship on what is truly a huge emphasis in Acts, i.e., 27 percent of the text dealing with miracle accounts, is astonishing. Besides the above and scattered references in the commentaries: J. Fenton, "The Order of Miracles Performed by Peter and Paul in Acts," The Expository Times 77 (1966): 381-83; J. Ferguson, "Thoughts on Acts," CongQ 35 (1957): 117-33; J. Hardon, "The Miracle Narratives in the Acts of the Apostles," CBQ 16 (1954): 303-18; Th. Crafer, The Healing Miracles in the Book of Acts (London: SPCK, 1939). On the charismata generally, see James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 146-196.

[35] Susan Marie Praeder, Miracle Worker and Missionary: Paul in theActs of the Apostles, S.B.L. Seminar Paper, No. 22 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1983), 115-16. The chart (modified) is from p. 115.

[36] See the numerous references in Acts, above. "The fact that the same Spirit which worked in Jesus is now given by him as the exalted Messiah to his followers renders the subsequent history of his Church and its mission parallel, in certain respects, to that of his own life and work . . . . The ministry of the apostles and of other disciples resembles that of Jesus at many points." G.W.H. Lampe, "The Holy Spirit in the Writings of St. Luke," 194; Minear, To Heal and Reveal, 122-47.

[37] See note 25, above.

[38] On the latter verse, J.N.D. Kelly affirms that "the idea that this grace operates automatically is excluded." The Pastoral Epistles, Harper's New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 159. He compares this passage with the "quenching" of the Spirit of prophecy in 1 Th 5:19.

[39] On this passage, see Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata, 126-31. G. Fee, God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 84-90.

[40] On the charismatic emphasis in the NT on "grace" (charis) see J. Noland, "Grace as Power," NovTest 28 (Oct. 1986), 31, "a tangible [charismatic] power in the believer." So also, J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 202-05. G. Wetter, Charis: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des altesten Christentums (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1913).

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