On the webpage for this book, Concordia Publishing House has this to say: “The phrase ‘follower of Jesus’ like the term ‘Christian’ has become so generic that it means nearly anything and sometimes almost nothing.” Perhaps this is stronger than Martin Franzmann might have said it, but it captures well Franzmann’s appreciation for the terms disciple and discipleship. In the preface to Follow Me: Discipleship According to Saint Matthew, Franzmann points out that the term “‘Christian,’ as good as it is and indispensable as it has become, is, historically considered, an accretion to the community gathered in the name of the risen Lord. ‘Disciple’ is native to it” (v).
The book’s goal, then, is to give you an appreciation for how St. Matthew presents the concept of discipleship in his Gospel. To be sure, the other Gospels show us discipleship, but Franzmann contends, “The Gospel according to St. Matthew … spells out most incisively the meaning of discipleship and gives the clearest and completest record of the impact which the divine revelation given in Jesus made on the men who were the first recipients and became the vehicles of that revelation” (v).
Commentators point out that St. Matthew’s Gospel records five major discourses of Jesus, each ending with the phrase, “When Jesus had finished saying these things…” (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, and 26:1). These discourses shape the outline of Follow Me. Chapters two through six of the book each covers one of Jesus’ five discourses. Chapter one engages with the material leading up to Jesus’s first discourse. Chapter seven uses the material after Jesus’s last discourse, namely, his passion and resurrection.
The title of each chapter clues the reader to how the following content relates to discipleship (e.g., chapter 3 and “The Disciple as Missionary and Martyr” [8:1-11:1]). Because Franzmann is making use of Matthew’s own outline, he sticks closely to the biblical text. He uses the inspired text to formulate his own writing, but he does not do so in a verse-by-verse fashion. Within each chapter, he adeptly forms subtopics by (re)arranging material from the immediate context of that particular part of the Gospel, from the larger context of the Gospel, and from other books of the Bible as well.
For instance, in the first chapter (“The Calling of the Disciple” [4:18; 1:1-4:16]), Franzmann begins with Jesus’s calling of the disciples. He then doubles back to illustrate how the Old Testament (especially the prophecies cited by Matthew) and how the first four chapters of Matthew set the stage for the calling of the disciples and the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
Though each chapter covers unique aspects of discipleship because the biblical text does, Franzmann keeps coming back to common themes of discipleship. Discipleship as molding makes several appearances, such as molding the will (65) or “melt[ing] down the stubborn stuff of our heroic manhood and remold[ing] us into men of God” (226). Possessive phrases often pop up, describing how Jesus is “confiscating man for himself” (33) and “laying claim to men in Messianic authority and with Messianic grace” (34). But, in what might be a nod to Martin Luther’s last written words, Franzmann’s seemingly favorite theme for discipleship is the “beggary” of believers who know they have nothing to offer God but know they will receive graciously everything from him.
As noted above, Franzmann posits that if you want to do a study of discipleship, Matthew is the best Gospel to examine. I don’t feel qualified to challenge or affirm that claim. What I do feel confident to say is that Franzmann most certainly has proved this point: “The whole Gospel of Matthew is simply the record of the process of progressive Messianic confiscation, the record of how Jesus shaped men in the mold of repentance, of how the Christ created men in his image, Christian men” (33). And Franzmann does this in a creative, insightful, and engaging manner throughout the book.
Franzmann shows his creativity in the way he assigns his own titles to Jesus’s discourses, as viewed through the lens of discipleship. The reader sees additional ingenuity (and even more courage) in the way that Franzmann divides the discourses into subsections, often rearranging content from the discourse, the Gospel at large, or Scripture in general so that he can elaborate on a point about discipleship. Franzmann’s chapter titles and subheadings read a bit like titles and emphases from a sermon or worship series. Yet, his arrangement is not arbitrary or verbose, and his creativity is still grounded in the overall flow.
His writing style itself is also creative. His vocabulary is expansive and his style is elevated, but he doesn’t come across as a try-hard. That’s probably because his style still reads as written for the ear, and he clearly lets the inspired text inform his word choice.
Franzmann’s insightfulness does not consist so much in linguistic comments about the Greek (these are few and far between) or in frequent excursions into commentary about the issues his day (these are also rare). His insightfulness comes in the way he effortlessly shows how Matthew foreshadows future parts of his Gospel, how Matthew (sometimes subtly) returns to themes he’s already introduced, and how other parts of Scripture can interpret this part of Scripture. As Franzmann does this, the reader cannot help but get the sense that Franzmann has read this Gospel countless times, has chunks of it committed to memory, and allows it to live and breathe inside him.
As far as the book’s engaging manner, that can be attributed to the fact that Franzmann sought not to turn the book into “a study of the pedagogy of Jesus” but to let it remain “a study of the Christ” (vi). Franzmann is very successful in this. He lets the works and words of Jesus shine as they engage the apostles, the other disciples, and Jesus’s enemies. Thus, Franzmann lets the works and words of Jesus engage the modern reader, too. Then, when Franzmann has a personal point to make about his modern world (e.g., on the topic of the inerrancy of the Bible), his comments carry all the more weight.
In the end, Follow Me is a unique book. It lives at the intersection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, William Lauterbach’s The Crucial Hours, and your favorite exegetical commentary on Matthew. It is not a philosophical treatise (ala Cost of Discipleship), but it gives us much to consider on the topic of biblical discipleship—both what it is and what it does. It is not a devotional book per se, but it is replete with paragraphs that will build your faith; it almost feels like one of those memory-making seminary class periods where the professor is half lecturing, half proclaiming. It is not an exegetical commentary, but it’s clear the writer is a faithful exegete. He helped me see guideposts in the Gospel that I missed, and he pulled out fine details I might never have seen for myself.
I absolutely recommend this book for three reasons, two practical and one personal. First, if you want to improve as a writer, Franzmann is an excellent person to learn from. Upon his death, one person eulogized him as “the singer of the Missouri Synod.” Just as we benefit from his hymnody, there’s a good chance that your sermon-writing will benefit as he demonstrates how one can write in an elevated style and yet still sound good for the ear and down to earth.
Second, as we make our way through Matthew in Year A, your sermon preparation will benefit from Franzmann’s comments. If you have just a few minutes to compare the week’s assigned Gospel reading to the corresponding pages in Follow Me, the topical and scriptural indexes in the back are helpful. So, too, are the subheadings in each section for quick reference. But my encouragement is to read Franzmann’s whole chapters because of the way he insightfully explains the context.
Those are the practical recommendations. Here is the personal one. Franzmann will help you know better the Gospel of Matthew and its main character—Jesus Christ. He shows you Christ. He lets you hear Christ. Therefore, “the Christ who called Matthew can be our Christ, to shape and mold our wills with his whole gift and his whole claim of grace” (225). Franzmann’s writing really is proclamation that helps assure you that you and the people you serve will “be church, real church, [Christ’s] church” and that you and the people you serve “shall rise from [your] grave and break through the gates of death when he shall come and cry once more, ‘Follow me!’” (226).