The young adults in the group we lead asked us what it means to follow Jesus in 2018. The study and discussion took us in some interesting directions.
This is what we learnt together.
Following Jesus in the first century
In twentieth century evangelism (and often still today), we call on people to believe in Jesus. But the gospels show Jesus making different calls on people.
Jesus many times called on people to believe his words, and to believe in him, especially if they were seeking healing. But his strongest calls were for people to follow him.
Rabbis and disciples
The scriptures, especially the Torah (the Law), had great authority in first century Judaism, but required interpretation in how they should be applied in life. And so rabbis (teachers) debated practical topics such as when divorce was permissible, or what constituted work on the Sabbath, or how to keep ritually pure. These teachings became collected in oral and written law that amplified the Torah teachings.
Those who aspired to be a student of the scriptures could seek out a rabbi to teach them, or else a rabbi might seek out a promising young man. If, after testing him out and observing him, the rabbi decided the would-be student was worthy of the honour and likely to be a successful student and interpreter of the scriptures, he would invite the young man to “follow him”.
This meant that the student committed himself to be a disciple, a learner, who accepted his rabbi’s authority to teach and train him. In most circumstances, the rabbi was to have greater authority than family.
Training was apparently not primarily in a lecture format as we might have in Bible colleges today, but occurred as the disciple spent significant time with his teacher and observed him (often travelling with him, for many rabbis were itinerant), and as the rabbi taught through parable, life examples, searching questions and debate.
Jesus and his disciples
We can see all this in the gospels. Jesus called on people to follow him (e.g. Mark 1:14-18, Matthew 8:22, 9:9) and they left their families and their previous lives (for a time at least) and travelled with him, learning from him on the road through his parables (e.g. Matthew 13:1-52), through discussion and as he questioned them (e.g. Luke 9:18-26).
It is clear that Jesus expected a high degree of loyalty and commitment, just like the other rabbis did, and his teaching about taking up their cross (Matthew 16:24) is quite understandable in that context.
And the killer teaching is this – Jesus wanted his disciples to make new disciples and teach them the same things he had taught them (Matthew 28:18-20). That command leads right down the ages to us!
Taking up our cross in the twenty-first century
So it is clear that Jesus calls us, today, to a highly committed discipleship. In fact in one place (Luke 14:33) he says: “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
This is a strong teaching. How are we to interpret it?
1. Jesus often used hyperbole
We see it again, and again. Moving mountains (Matthew 17:20), gouging out our own eyes (Matthew 5:29), camels going through needles’ eyes (Mark 10:25 and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24), uprooting trees (Luke 17:6), planks in eyes (Luke 6:42), hating parents (Luke 14:26) and not worrying about life, food and clothing (Luke 14:26).
Some of these cannot be taken literally, as we moderns understand literal, and I doubt any of them should be.
2. But he didn’t mean nothing
Jesus may not have meant these sayings to be taken literally, but he surely meant them to be taken seriously. He surely used hyperbole for a purpose.
He said many times that following him was serious business that would cost his followers control over their own lives (Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:57-62, Mark 10:17-31).
3. A balanced attitude to money?
Jesus spoke out against the potential for wealth to lead people away from God (Matthew 6:19-24, Luke 12:15). Nevertheless, he accepted support from rich people to fund his itinerant ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
4. He was about more than money
The sacrifices he requires will go deeper than material wealth, but will affect how we treat other people, especially the poor and disadvantaged (Matthew 25:31-46). He calls us to love God and our fellow human beings wholeheartedly (Mark 12:30-31), to do God’s will (Matthew 7:21) and not allow other things to become more important than Jesus (Luke 9:57-62).
So how do we know what to do?
We tend to want quick, definite and easy answers, but God doesn’t always work that way. It seems that there is no substitute for praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit (James 1:5, John 16:13), and seeking to do what he leads us to (Ephesians 2:10). This will lead to what will be beneficial to others and glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:24, 31).
To achieve these high aims, we may need to meet regularly with others who share the same ideals, to reinforce our mutual commitment, to pray each day for the Spirit to lead us to people we can love and serve, and make career, education and lifestyle choices that free us and enable us to pursue the kingdom of God.
Thick and thin faith
Theologian Miroslav Volf grew up in Croatia and Serbia, and observed the appalling atrocities committed by Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, supposedly in the name of their religion. He contrasts the “thin faith” of many of the so-called christian combatants, that allowed them to behave so badly, with the “thick faith” that is required to truly follow Jesus’ non-violent teachings of forgiveness and love for enemies.
Perhaps we can see thin faith as faith without works (James 2:15-17) or works without faith (Matthew 7:22-24). The western evangelical church has often been taught a thin faith of “get saved and hang on to your ticket to heaven”. But Jesus calls us to thick faith, characterised by:
- Wanting to see the kingdom of God coming on earth (Matthew 6:9-10).
- Salvation is just the start (John 14:15).
- We are servants (Luke 17:7-10) who are willing to pay the cost of following Jesus (Luke 9:57-62) because Jesus’ love compels us (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
- We recognise that God is interested seeing people (individuals and society) being made whole (Luke 4:18-21).
- Recognition that people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 9:6) and called to manage or steward God’s world. We humans have tarnished God’s image and not managed the world well, and so Jesus, who carried God’s image perfectly (Colossians 1:16), came to “save” us, renew God’s image in us (Colossians 1:16) and so renew our management of the world.
- We generally see sin as a personal thing, but in Jewish thought it was relational. Thick faith seeks to restore people and relationships to wholeness (Luke 17:3-4, Matthew 5:23-24, 1 Peter 4:8).
“Mind the gap”
One of my memories of visiting London is the recorded voice at the tube stations reminding those boarding or alighting from the train to “mind the gap”.
There is a gap between Jesus’ teachings and how christians actually live. For some christians and some churches, the gap is so large that they seem to have forgotten Jesus’ teachings and follow a cardboard cutout Jesus largely of their own making. Others of us know the teaching, but we still fall well short of it.
But people notice. Gandhi famously said:
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
When christians think about falling short of God’s standards, we think about personal morality, relating to sex, drunkenness, greed, anger, jealousy, etc (see e.g. Colossians 3:1-17).
But it seems Paul is just giving the basic lessons here, for when we look at Jesus’ teachings, we find him saying a lot about how we behave towards others as an expression of our love for God (e.g. Matthew 25:31-46, and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to 7).
One reason, I believe, for the church losing so much ground in western countries, is that we have looked first to our own comfort, and when we look outwards at all, it tends to be to evangelise and bring people into the church, but not to serve them and love them. As Tim Keller said once, most people see this as no more than “recruitment”.
I believe if we followed the New Testament teachings to love our neighbours and serve the poor, when we did get to sharing faith in words, they would carry some weight.
So that’s some of what I think it mean to follow Jesus in 2018.
Photo: Missional Church Network