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Unfollowers

It’s never a good day when you realize you have quite a bit in common with the villains of the Bible. It’s even worse when you’ve made this discovery while in seminary.

I always used to identify with the heroes in the Bible. Who wants to be the villain? If ten out of twelve spies didn’t want to invade Canaan, I’d surely be one of the two who trusted God to lead the way. If the entire nation of Israel turned to Baal worship, I’d be hiding in a cave with Elijah’s 7,000 faithful Israelites. If nine of ten healed lepers failed to follow Jesus, I’d be the one who returned to say thank you.

It never occurred to me that I could have anything in common with the crowds who yawned at or mocked Jesus’ message. Even worse than that, how could I have any similarities with the opponents of Jesus?

The more I considered what kind of Messiah I expected to find in the Bible, the more I saw the ways I’d misconstrued Jesus and remade him into my image. I didn’t have all that much in common with Jesus. In fact, I had way more in common with the Pharisees. The Pharisees had very set beliefs about who God is, what God does, and God’s plans for the future. They knew the Bible way better than I ever will. If anyone could be described as eager for God to show up, they’ve certainly got me beat since I don’t live under a brutal Roman military occupation. Every time I found the Pharisees, I tried to stick myself in their shoes—or sandals if you will. Each time, their sandals felt eerily familiar and comfortable.

After reading the Bible from their perspective, I began to understand them, though of course I didn’t have a “pro-Pharisee” reading of the Bible. I didn’t make a WWPD bracelet. They certainly weren’t misunderstood heroes by any means. Rather, I could see their airtight theology, how they expected the Messiah to be just like themselves, and how Jesus completely defied their expectations. I understood what they expected God to do, and how Jesus just couldn’t work as the Messiah in light of that. When they stood on the sidelines criticizing the miracles and compassion of Jesus, I saw people who applied the Bible a little too rigorously. The more I observed their behavior, the more I saw myself.

The Pharisees expected a Messiah who looked like themselves and fit the job description they’d created over time. Such a description mostly came from the Old Testament laws, though their unwritten traditions were just as important to them as the Bible. When Jesus challenged their conception of what a Messiah is and does—even overturning their dearly held practices and beliefs—they refused to follow someone who didn’t affirm themselves or their beliefs. Just as I’d created a winking and smiling Jesus giving me a thumbs up, the Pharisees imagined the Messiah would give them a pat on the back. When the Messiah didn’t look like them, they dismissed him. In that moment of revelation in seminary, I had to decide whether I wanted to follow the Jesus in the Gospels who healed, challenged, and blessed or settle for a Messiah who is nothing more than a slightly better caricature of myself.

Of course, I determined to follow the Jesus presented in the Gospels. At the same time, we have much to learn from those in the Gospels who did not follow Jesus, but who preferred to pursue a caricature of themselves. These people — men and women who were not that different from you and me — chose not to follow Jesus for a variety of reasons. Some refused to do so as a result of bad theology, desire for wealth or power, fear, etc. All of this is within each of us, and it valuable to think about how these things get in the way of our discipleship. Toward that end, Ed Cyzewski and I, authors of the book Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus, have written a new book called Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from Those Who Doubted Jesus.

The book traces the lives of many individuals in the Gospels who had the opportunity to follow Jesus but refused to. We have written this book in a user-friendly format that can be used in house churches, Bible studies, youth groups, and for personal devotional study. Ed and I learned a lot about discipleship through the research and writing of this book, and we pray that you, too, may find it beneficial to your spiritual formation and study.

About the Author

Derek Cooper

Dr. Derek Cooper

Dr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of world Christian history and director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Biblical. He is the author of several books. For those interested in learning more about the Puritans in general or about how Martin Luther interpreted the book of James, check out Dr. Cooper's book Thomas Manton: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Pastor. His faculty page can be found by clicking here.

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