JESUS: Who on Earth! Chapter 4 FOLLOWING JESUS

PREFACE

This online book (published on-line through web site bibleden.com) is a compilation of messages about Jesus Christ given by the author over a period of some years at a variety of different churches and chapels. In the chapters that follow this introduction, the original sermon notes have been adapted to create a readable script that is intended to allow you, the reader, to engage with the ideas presented without struggling through a morass of bullet points, complex arguments and baffling terminology.

Despite aiming for simplicity rather than bewilderment, the content is scripturally based and deliberately challenging, by which I mean that assumptions are carefully examined, difficulties acknowledged and alternatives presented transparently. Most of the Bible texts are taken from the NLT (New Living Translation) and also from the NIVUK or other translations (as stated).

Readers who hope for academically grounded arguments and carefully designed theological structures will be disappointed; I leave such matters to those with far deeper knowledge and expertise. Rather, the following pages will appeal to anyone who is sincerely interested in the life, work and witness of this extraordinary man, Jesus of Nazareth (as he was commonly known) and wish to draw closer to the one who, among his various other titles, is referred to as ‘the man of Calvary’ where he offered his life as a ransom for the sins of the world.

Please note: The use of the term ‘religion, when applied to Christianity, is merely a shorthand reference term and not indicating that the Christian faith is bound by a rigid set of rules and regulations, as is commonplace among other world faiths. Christianity is founded on faith in Jesus Christ and his teaching, not on religious adherence that does not lead to godliness. As the Apostle Paul warned in his second letter to his protégé, Timothy: ‘They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!’ (Chapter 3 verse 5)

John 6: 53-69 (New Living Translation)

53 So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. 54 But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57 I live because of the living Father who sent me; in the same way, anyone who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 I am the true bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will not die as your ancestors did (even though they ate the manna) but will live forever.”

59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

60 Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?”

61 Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what will you think if you see the Son of Man ascend to heaven again? 63 The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) 65 Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.”

66 At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. 67 Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”

68 Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. 69 We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.”

Luke 5: 27-28

Later, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector named Levi [Matthew in the Greek] sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. 28 So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.


INTRODUCTION

Feeling lost without any idea of the right way to go or which way to turn can be unnerving and frightening. As children, the fear of being separated from parents is a powerful emotion and usually ensures close contact is maintained. All parents have experienced the momentary panic when losing sight of their offspring and the wave of relief when they are found. When driving, it is not always straightforward to find the way in an unfamiliar environment, even with technological aids: stories are told of following satellite-navigated instructions and ending up along a narrow country lane, in a field or up a dead end! Despite the availability of sophisticated navigational systems, ships’ captains may still utilise information from old charts or the position of the Moon to set a course or the beams from a lighthouse to avoid dangerous waters. Whether walking or driving, taking a wrong turn or going on a mistaken path can result in considerable inconvenience and stress. Steering in the wrong direction or failing to spot warning signs when navigating the ocean or piloting an aeroplane can and sometimes has serious and calamitous consequences.

On a grander scale, the need to find the right direction in our lives is a fundamental issue that occupies every person, as we all want to know the best decisions to make and where to place our efforts, though circumstances, such as social norms (‘this is the way it is done these days’), parental expectations (e.g. ‘we had always hoped that you would be a doctor, not a freelance artist’) and financial constraints (e.g. a paucity of funds for enrolment on a training course, coupled with the urgent need to earn money) sometimes has the effect of restricting choice significantly or creating the need to take a direction in life from which it is difficult to deviate. For instance, commitment to mortgage repayments, responsibility for a child or accumulated debt will often oblige someone to pursue a pragmatic (practical, predictable) but secure route in life and relegate aspirations and creative ideas to the back shelf. For many people, mediocrity is the inevitable consequence of unfavourable circumstances; unexpected events; or personal issues that block certain avenues and steer towards other (less desirable) ones. Some people prefer to pursue an uncomplicated, ultra-cautious direction in life to avoid the need for perseverance, deep commitment or challenging situations. The writer of Proverbs (an Old Testament wisdom book) stresses the importance of keeping to the right way in life: ‘Mark out a straight path for your feet; stay on the safe path. Don’t get side tracked. Keep your feet from following evil’ (Proverbs 4 verses 26-7).

Are followers of Jesus Christ subject to the same constraints, limitations and uncertainties, as described above? The answer is ‘yes and no’! Christians are not immune from the vagaries of life that afflict everyone who has ever lived or will ever live. There isn’t a person reaching adulthood who hasn’t experienced joys and sorrows in life, ranging from the short lived pain of disappointment at one extreme (e.g. failing to be appointed to a sort-after job or falling short of achieving an academic goal) to the intense and enduring pain of searing loss and physical affliction at the other extreme (notably life-threatening illnesses and bereavement). Nevertheless, followers of Jesus Christ are impelled by the sure and certain knowledge of his undying love and their eternal security in him. The Apostle Paul powerfully summarised the position in his letter to the church in Rome: ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, either the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans Chapter 8 verses 38 & 39, NIVUK).

Christians look towards and follow the Light of the world, which is one of the numerous titles given to Jesus Christ (John’s Gospel Chapter 1 verse 9 and Chapter 8 verse 12). It is instructive and challenging that Jesus not only spoke of himself as being the light but also referred to his followers using precisely the same expression. Thus, in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden’ (Chapter 5 verse 14). There are many ‘lights’ in the world, some of which are dimmer than others and some that turn out to be artificial or illuminate a path that leads to disappointment and despair. Only Jesus Christ provides the light of life that provides freedom and eternal security from sin.

Feeding from the Son

When Jesus told his followers that they needed to feed from his flesh and drink his blood in order to find eternal life (John’s Gospel Chapter 6), it is unsurprising that they were shocked and in some cases, dismayed to the point of withdrawing their support for him. After all, human sacrifices were associated with pagan practices that were strictly forbidden by God, who spoke through the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, to express His condemnation: ‘They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin’ (Chapter 32 verse 35). Consequently, Jesus’s reference to feeding and drinking did not sit easily with Jews who were committed to serving the one God (whom they referred to as Jehovah) and abhorring idol worship (such as Baal). Jesus was, of course, speaking figuratively about his body and blood; nevertheless, identifying his flesh with bread and his blood with wine personalised the issue in a startling way for his listeners. It is worth noting the import of Jesus’s words such that we feed on Him and not merely from Him. Jesus does not throw us scraps. We need to be close to Him to feed on Him, which can only be achieved through an intimate relationship.

Equally unsettling for committed Jews was the way in which Jesus unfavourably contrasted the provision of manna in the wilderness with the ‘bread’ that he was offering. In common with everyone who has ever lived, all the people who ate manna died eventually, yet Jesus claimed that those who accepted his ‘bread from heaven’ would never die and inherit eternal life. What could Jesus possibly mean by using such evocative language?

First, it is important to acknowledge that bread and wine were extremely important to the Jews, not least because they were an arable farming nation that grew crops such as grain, grapes and olives. Bread had a significance far exceeding its nutritional value: its use is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament and is particularly important in relation to the provision of manna (see above) and also in commemorating the time that the angel of death ‘passed over’ the enslaved Jews who had put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts as a sign that they were Israelite homes. As a result of following God’s command to use blood as a covering to save them from judgement, the angel did not strike the Israelite homes, while death was visited upon the firstborn in all the other (Egyptian) homes (see Exodus Chapter 12). Subsequently, the Pharaoh released the Jews after more than 400 years of captivity (verse 40 specifies 430 years). Understandably then, Jesus’s words about himself as the Bread of Life had a dramatic impact on practising Jews, who celebrated the Feast of the Passover every Spring with unleavened bread (without yeast) as a joyful commemoration of their ancestors’ salvation and escape from slavery in Egypt.

It is noteworthy that later in Jesus’s ministry, while celebrating the Passover with his disciples shortly before going to the Cross of Calvary to give his life for the sins of the world, the Gospel writer Mark noted that: ‘Jesus took bread, and blessed and brake it and gave to them and said: Take, eat: this is my body’ (Chapter 14 verse 22, KJV; some versions add ‘which is broken for you’). In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he underlined the symbolism of the bread as representing the body of Christ and the cup as symbolising his shed blood (Chapter 13). In today’s churches, the practice of remembering the broken body and shed blood of Jesus is incorporated into the regular service of the large majority of churches, the celebration being referred to by different names (e.g. Eucharist, Breaking of Bread, Communion). Although different Christian denominations attach varying levels of significance and importance to the occasion, they all recognise the central tenet that Christ gave his life freely at the Cross of Calvary to bring salvation to a sinful world.

Jesus not only told his followers that they needed to feed from his body and drink of his blood but also that in doing so, they would live forever and he would raise them ‘at the last day’, indicating life after the end of the present world. Jesus’s claim that he would be responsible for giving eternal life was astounding, as he was in effect declaring his divinity. It is interesting to note that when the people picked up stones to kill Jesus at one point in his ministry, they justified their actions by (correctly) alleging that it wasn’t because of the miracles or good deeds that he had done but because he was claiming to be God (see John Chapter 19 verses 31-3). Similarly, when Jesus referred to himself in the Temple Court as the “I Am”, who existed before Abraham was even born, some of the Jews attempted to stone him for blasphemy (see John Chapter 8 verses 58 & 59). Please refer to Chapter 1 in this series: ‘Who is Jesus?’ for more details.

We see from our main reading (John Chapter 6) that Jesus referred to the fact that eternal life is the work of the Holy Spirit working through the Son (Jesus), who in turn is empowered by God the Father. Jesus emphasised that people cannot attain to everlasting life by means of their own efforts but only by God’s grace, as the Apostle Paul later confirmed repeatedly during his mission travels and letters; for example in his letter to Christians in Rome: ‘For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins’ (Romans Chapter 3 verses 23-4). In short, by feeding on Jesus we receive life through Him from the Father by the work of the Spirit; however, we can only feed from him and receive His light if we make a decision to stay close to Him through prayer, meditating on his words (not merely reading them) and listening to godly ministry. It is also important to emphasise that the ‘bread and wine’ of which we partake is of and from Christ, as other evildoers refer to the same emblems to achieve godless purposes, as the writer of Proverbs 4 reminds us: ‘They eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence!’ (Verse 17, NIVUK).

Following Jesus involves far more than trailing in His wake, basking in his reflected glory or even walking in His light: it is allowing his Spirit to live (dwell, abide) within us to make us righteous in God’s sight. In his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, the Apostle Paul reminds them of this powerful truth: ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?’ (2 Corinthians Chapter 13 verse 5, NIVUK). Furthermore, in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: ‘If Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness’ (Chapter 8 verse 10). From these statements, we can grasp the liberating and empowering truth that Christ imputes righteousness to every believer. Celebrating and employing these glorious revelations in our everyday experience underpins both the challenge and the joyous opportunities that every sincere seeker after the truth desires, as further explored in the next section.

Following Jesus closely

Throughout history, a small but highly influential number of men (mainly) and women (less often) possess exceptional ability in being able to inspire and communicate in such an effective way that people are sufficiently convinced to embrace the particular cause or philosophy with fervour and dedication. Some of these inspiring figures are admirable, morally sound and courageous; others are skilled orators and capable of persuasion but their true intentions are disguised by embedding their arguments in the supposed victimhood of this or that group of people (or whole populations) and high-sounding moral statements about seeking justice and equality for all.

By contrast, Jesus did not use rhetoric, subtle persuasion, propaganda or moralising, nor did he promise a utopian world with fame and fortune for his followers if they obeyed him. Indeed, as we have already noted above, Jesus’s words were direct and uncompromising: he commended those who did good and condemned the hypocrites and naysayers. Far from seeking approval, he set the bar high for those considering whether to become one of his disciples (committed followers). As the Apostle John notes in his gospel (Chapter 6, see main reading) the impact of Jesus’s words, far from encouraging the masses to gather around him, caused many of his lukewarm disciples to desert the cause and seek easier avenues for their commitment. Jesus pinpointed the key issue for tentative adherents, namely that it was a lack of belief in him that prompted their scepticism. John adds a postscript: ‘For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe and he [also] knew who would betray him’ (Chapter 6 verse 64).

Jesus’s sole concern was to please God the Father and obey Him, even to his own detriment. His message to would-be devotees was unambiguous: do not take lightly the step of becoming my disciples or make excuses to avoid wholehearted obedience or imagine that life will be straightforward if you decide to follow me. In his gospel account, Luke records Jesus’s serious warning about such matters: “If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it?” (Chapter 14 verses 25-8). The conditions that Jesus attaches to being a follower have not changed down the centuries, which means that each one of us is faced with the same choices that the first would-be disciples faced. See Chapter 5 for further discussion about the cost of following Jesus.

Levels of commitment

It is universally true that the attitude and behaviour of those who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ varies considerably and may be broadly classified with reference to the closeness of their walk with Jesus, feeding from him and walking in his light. The closer we are to Jesus and willingly ‘take his yoke upon us’, the more we find that far from being oppressive, intimate alliance to Christ brings liberty, as Jesus promised: ‘My yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light’ (Matthew Chapter 11 verse 30). In addition, feeding on him is a means of feeding others, as well as finding a secure way along the ‘narrow path that leads to eternal life’. A framework of categories to identify levels of commitment to Jesus Christ is useful for identifying and examining their common characteristics:

  1. Dissenters
  2. Invisible followers
  3. Intellectual followers
  4. Lost-and-Found

As we explore the distinctiveness of these groups, it is instructive to consider the category into which each one of us falls and where our friends, family and other people may also be placed. Further, it is worth reflecting on the occasions in our lives that we have moved from one level of commitment to another and the factors that triggered or created the change.

Dissenters

Before examining the levels of commitment that characterise people who claim to be Christians, I want to identify a substantial group that dismiss the concept of a God and His relationship with humankind. I refer to such a group as ‘dissenters’.

There are large numbers of people living in countries where Christianity has had a powerful influence in shaping behaviour, priorities, laws and political decisions, who are careless or disinterested in embracing the truth about God, the Bible, the need for repentance and salvation or other spiritual aspects of the Christian faith. It is significant that the increasing number of people in the United Kingdom who identify as having ‘no religious faith’ has coincided with an increase in antisocial behaviour, drug use, divorce rates, abortion and family breakdown. The absence of people from church or irregular attendance or preferring to stay ‘invisible’ (i.e. reticent about expressing their faith, see next section) tells us a great deal about their priorities.

Those who deny Jesus or dismiss his claims remove themselves from the blessing of all the benefits that he bestows. Jesus described himself in various ways, including as the Good Shepherd, while referring to people as sheep; thus: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep’ (Gospel of John Chapter 10 verse 11). It is noteworthy that Jesus is not only the shepherd but also, crucially, the one who is the spotless Lamb of God who sacrifices his human life to take away the sin of the world. Jesus not only guides, protects and leads his followers but also offers them eternal life by carrying their sins in his body through his death on the Cross of Calvary. Dissenters are unable to dispose of their sinful impurity through confessing their sins and thereby have to face the consequences before Almighty God without a heavenly advocate from which true followers benefit. The Apostle John wrote of Jesus as our advocate: ‘But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (First letter of John verse 4). Whereas Jesus was the sacrifice for the every person’s sins, such assurance is not available to those who reject, ridicule or ignore his claims.

In a Western culture that is largely dismissive of Christian ‘organised’ religion (i.e. formal and structured) it is unsurprising that according to recent surveys, only about one-third of young people are aware of what happened on Good Friday (the day of Jesus’s crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (when Jesus rose from the dead), though they are more likely to be familiar with the meaning of Christmas through the words of carols. Midst this rather gloomy scenario, it is noteworthy that new style churches with an emphasis on more contemporary styles of worship and ‘doing church’ are expanding numerically at an encouraging rate, especially among younger people.

It is probable that the large majority of ‘dissenters’ dismiss the Bible as irrelevant and considers God to be a fantasy or such a remote entity that He has little relevance for their behaviour, priorities and decisions. Paradoxically, despite the fact that many people tend to be casual about spiritual matters that invite personal commitment and allegiance to Christ, they are fascinated by the occult, mysticism and the highly publicised views and predictions made by celebrities. While showing disdain for the Christian faith, a significant percentage of the general population are likely to rely on a horoscope, so-called ‘magic crystals’, a ‘lucky charm’ or symbolic practices such as ‘crossing fingers’ or ‘touching wood’, as an indicator of prosperity and security. They don’t give God any thought unless they are in trouble or confronted by death, after which they are likely to accuse Him of not caring if the outcome is tragic or disappointing! Christian funerals are still in high demand, though secular attitudes have introduced alternative services, devoid of spiritual content, without hope or expectation of life beyond the present one.

It is a well-attested fact that there are those who not only reject the claims of and about Jesus Christ but also delight in ridiculing the tenets of the Christian faith, the authenticity of the Bible and the beliefs of believers. They pour scorn on committed Christians, referring to them as naïve, gullible and charlatans. One well-known atheist who fits this description was the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Although he railed against Christianity in his writing and lectures, as his life drew to an end Sartre wrote:

Despair returns to haunt me…The world seems ugly, bad and without hope. There, that’s the cry of despair of an old man who will die in despair. But that’s exactly what I resist. I know I shall die in hope. But that hope needs a foundation.

Madalyn Murray O’Harefounded the American Atheists organisation. It is said that she was one of the most notorious atheists of the 1900s. She was profane and sarcastic, often shouting down Christians and providing what she believed to be powerful arguments to reinforce her beliefs. After she mysteriously disappeared in 1995, her diaries were discovered and auctioned to help pay for taxes that she owed. The diary entries revealed an unhappy woman who trusted no-one, not even fellow atheists. O’Hare declared of her life that she had failed in marriage, motherhood and as a politician. Yet she yearned for friendship. In her diaries she wrote six times about her desperate need to be loved. Sadly, O’Hare’s body was discovered in 2001, along with her son and granddaughter; their cause of death has been contested but it appears that they had all been murdered.

Most non-churchgoing people are not deeply immoral or criminally minded; they simply do not see or will not see the relevance of Christianity for their lives. They may not reject God directly but prefer to focus on other things of direct importance to them such as family, work and pleasure. There is little understanding that the God of the Bible wishes to enjoy an intimate and life-giving relationship with each person that translates into a happier and more fulfilling life.

The non-church attending ‘dissenters’ may have a vague idea that there is ‘something or someone out there’ and may get sentimental when little children sing Away in a Manger at the Nativity service but otherwise continue with their lives without reference to God or prayer or interest in spiritual matters. In general, people of this kind don’t worry unduly about what happens after death; their desire is to ‘live life to the full’ and treat death as something to be avoided but not necessarily feared, either because they believe that it ushers in annihilation (i.e. final and absolute destruction) or hold a fanciful view of heaven where everyone gathers in perfect harmony forever (see also Chapter *** for further details of such fantasies). These views contrast sharply with Jesus’s warning about judgement. In his gospel, Matthew notes the strong warning given by Jesus to unbelievers: ‘Then Jesus began to denounce the towns where he had done so many of his miracles, because they hadn’t repented of their sins and turned to God’ (Chapter 11 verse 20).

In the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica (in modern day Greece), he describes the day that Jesus will come again to earth as Judge: ‘When the Lord Jesus appears from heaven, he will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgement on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power’ (Chapter 1 verses 7-9). Rejection of God’s gracious invitation to find eternal life through Christ is a serious matter and should dispel complacency. Sadly, people who show little or no interest in trusting Christ are unlikely to be moved by such declarations because of a spiritual blindness that they bring upon themselves. The prophet Isaiah, who lived some 700 years before Jesus came to earth, warned about people’s hardness of heart, deaf ears, closed eyes and refusal to turn to God for healing. Encouragingly, the prophet also declared that people could be free from their spiritual ‘captivity’, as their eyes were opened and they found true freedom from sin, not due to their own righteousness but thanks to the Lord’s gracious favour (see Isaiah Chapters 58 and 60, various sections).

The prevailing view in Western Democracies is that all people are entitled to believe what they want to believe, providing it doesn’t harm or offend others; such a notion is extremely difficult to determine, as one person’s offence is another person’s reasoned opinion. The predominance of an offence or ‘woke’ culture (i.e. ‘I have been offended by what you say, which I therefore deem to be hateful and unacceptable’) has led to a worrying curtailment of free speech and concerns that ideology that outlaws genuine opposition to their strongly held (if minority) opinions is curtailing open and honest debate. It has become increasingly clear that most people that live in secular countries (i.e. free from religious ideology) don’t wish to get serious about any particular world vision, philosophy or religious conviction, preferring to ‘pick and mix’ as the mood takes them and modify their opinions to avoid confrontation (see below).

People with a secular worldview may argue that religion has done more harm than good in the world, pointing out that wars have been fought between proponents of different religious persuasions, despite the fact that the large majority of wars are over territorial disputes or leadership, not religion. People who selectively combine secular and religious beliefs gleaned from several sources have embraced syncretism, which involves taking what they perceive to be attractive elements from different areas of life and creating a bespoke set of beliefs and principles to guide their own lives. Jesus Christ demands a wholly different attitude from his followers, referring to the narrow way that leads to life. Matthew’ gospel account records Jesus’s uncompromising words: ‘You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way’ (Chapter 7 verse 13).

It is understandable that Christians who live in countries or areas of the world where there is local or national intimidation and victimisation should feel that in order to be ‘as wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ they should remain largely anonymous and extremely careful about expressing their beliefs. The situation for people who live in democracies (however imperfect) and claim to be followers of Jesus but choose to be ‘secret believers’ is an entirely different matter, as explored in the next section.

Invisible Followers

The above heading might be viewed as an oxymoron (contradiction), as following Jesus presupposes ‘visibility’ not concealment. There are, however, many Christians who are obliged to be secret believers due to the pressure of circumstances. Some governments will not permit any form of Christian expression or involvement and will not allow anyone to change religion (e.g. from Islam to Christianity). In other countries, the church is targeted by state enforcement agencies or by local communities. Such is the oppressive nature of government intervention and restrictions in certain areas of the world that the church has to remain unseen (‘underground’), obliged to meet and worship in secret. Recent pronouncements on behalf of the United Nations and aid agencies confirm that Christians have been and remain the most oppressed group of people on earth during the early years of the 21st century.

Although there are undoubtedly large numbers of people who scorn the notion of a ‘Higher Deity’ and reject their need for a Saviour, there are many others that describe themselves as Christians, yet prefer to remain ‘invisible’ and never to express their beliefs or seek to place Jesus Christ at the centre of their lives. The seriousness of being ‘invisible’ is underlined by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome: ‘For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened’ (Chapter 1 verse 21). In other words, it is possible to ‘know God’ through knowing His Son but fail to glorify Him and thereby sink into what amounts to a spiritual abyss. Imagine your thinking being futile, living in spiritual darkness, having hard hearts, being ignorant and insensitive! What a miserable existence to know God but to be so far from Him!

To be invisible may place us in mortal peril and face eternal separation from God. Rejecting God or lying low and remaining on the perimeter of Christian walk and witness does not please Him. We may be inviting trouble and heartache if we are casual about God’s gracious invitation to trust Him for life’s journey and beyond. In the same way that the angels in Sodom warned Lot’s family to escape the impending disaster (see Genesis Chapter 19), part of our task as followers of Jesus is to point out the seriousness of the situation to those who will listen. Some people may respond, others will choose not to do so; but one day they must stand before God and explain why they made their decision. In his gospel account, Matthew records the serious warning that Jesus issued about those who reject the message of salvation: ‘If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. I tell you the truth, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off than such a town on the judgment day’ (Chapter 10 verses 14 & 15).

The plight of Christians throughout the world enduring punitive restrictions and fearing the consequences of openly declaring their faith and trust in Jesus Christ is not the only form of ‘invisibility’. In the so-called ‘free world’ where governments allow and facilitate choice of religion or complete abstinence from it, there are some Christians who, though trusting Christ for salvation, appear to have little appetite for publicly acknowledging the fact or being involved in any form of open witness. The ‘invisible’ Christians are rather akin to spectators at a sports event or an audience at an opera, preferring to remain on the fringes of church life, quietly applauding front-line workers but failing to express their faith through testimony, financial support or taking a firm stand against injustice. In Luke’s gospel, he quotes Jesus’s stern words: ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, the Son of Man will also acknowledge in the presence of God’s angels. But anyone who denies me here on earth will be denied before God’s angels’ (Chapter 12 verses 8 & 9). Matthew provides a slightly different record of what Jesus said but with precisely the same meaning: ‘Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven’ (Chapter 10 verses 32 & 33). The notion of ‘keeping your head down’ or remaining on the perimeter loses its attractiveness when the consequences are seriously considered.

Superficial followers of the ‘invisible’ kind are those who are happy to believe in Jesus when no cost is attached. They are commonly known as fair-weather friends, who want (in the words of an old song by Tim Whipple of The Fisherfolk) a ‘candy-coated gospel’. At a meeting that I attended some years ago, there were 100 or more present at the start but about 90% of the audience walked out and disappeared when they heard something they did not want to hear about the level of commitment required. In areas of the world where Christians are persecuted and reviled, the ‘superficial’ option does not apply; people are either for or against Jesus Christ. In such situations, those who stand firm for him often do so at great personal cost: at best, being ostracised by the community or members of their families and in extreme cases, forfeiting their lives. It is difficult to imagine many pampered Christians in the so-called ‘free world’ accepting such dire consequences of being faithful to Christ. In his letter to Christians at Philippi, the Apostle Paul stated firmly that as far as he was concerned: ‘for me to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Chapter 1 verse 21, NIVUK), which is in stark contrast to the tentative expressions of faith from may modern converts

A superficial Christian has been compared to a snowflake that soon melts in the heat of opposition or personal sacrifice but Jesus did not disguise the fact that being His disciple (follower) involves a cost, as well as spiritual and practical benefits. During Jesus’s time on earth, some would-be followers began to make excuses, including the need to complete a business deal (buying a field), the need to get married and the need to sort out family affairs. In responding to one man, the Apostle Luke records that Jesus replied starkly: ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Chapter 9 verse 58; see also Matthew Chapter 8) and stressed the importance of wholehearted commitment to him. Note that the emphasis is upon our dedication to Jesus, not to a cause or a movement or our friends or a denomination.

In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul emphasised the importance of being transparent about our faith, linking confession with salvation; thus: ‘If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans Chapter 10 verse 9). It is therefore unsurprising that numerous songs, hymns and choruses have been written down the centuries describing Christ’s worthiness to receive our love and praise and the need for our personal devotion

For Christians in the ‘free world’ to timidly remain silent about their faith in Christ is not only regrettable but also an insult to fellow believers who faithfully declare their beliefs, while suffering at the hands of evil regimes, antagonistic communities and oppressive laws. Declaring our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world, who died to set us free from the penalty of sin, create new life within us by his spirit and promise a place in heaven at the end of life does not require us to be public evangelists, street preachers or Bible teachers. There are at least seven straightforward, stress-free ways to ensure that we enhance our visibility:

  1. Maintain a close walk with Jesus through prayer and meditating on the truth revealed in the Bible.
  2. Have regular fellowship with believers and be seen in their company whenever and wherever they gather.
  3. During informal conversations, let your friends and associates know that you attend church.
  4. Speak freely and naturally about your church connections.
  5. If asked about your faith, explain to the best of your ability what Jesus has done for you and what he means to you.
  6. Offer to pray for someone, as God prompts you to do so.
  7. Be a good witness through your words and deeds.

Finally, each one who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ should pay heed to the Apostle Paul’s determination to be bold for Jesus in his letter to the Roman church: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile’ (Chapter 1 verse 16, NIVUK)

Intellectual Followers

It is perfectly possible to have an intellectual grasp of a subject or issue, yet do so in an emotionally detached way, without accepting the truth being declared or the argument being propounded. There are many interesting philosophies that provide the substance of fervent academic study, accompanied by keen debate and earnest discussion. It is probably fair to say that Christianity, especially the biblical text, has been scrutinised, written about and analysed as much as any other religion, topic or area of human life. Countless numbers of books, articles and forums have delved into the minutiae of the historical content of the Old Testament, Jesus’s teaching and early church doctrine. As a result of these studies, denominations have been created, sects established and a forensic form of critical scrutiny established, driven by an unhealthy moral self-righteousness on the part of sceptics, who constantly seek to undermine the validity of faith-based claims presented in the biblical narrative and embraced by committed Christians.

It is certainly important to examine the claims emerging from the Bible and check to see if the behaviour of the adherents conforms to what Jesus taught and God requires of us. It is also perfectly reasonable to judge the impact on society of Christian values and the moral framework that is being advanced is not riddled with hypocrisy. Jesus was particularly severe with hypocrites (people who rebuke others for what they are doing or failing to do, while indulging in similar but worse behaviour themselves). Matthew chronicles how Jesus described a particular group of religious leaders: ‘What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity’ (Chapter 23 verse 27). Every follower of Jesus must therefore be careful to lead a blameless life that does not invite criticism and scorn from those who seek to find fault. In the Apostle Peter’s second letter, he stresses that although we await the second coming of Christ and the start of the new heaven and earth filled with God’s righteousness, we should ‘make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight’ (Chapter 2 verse 14). In a world where media scrutiny, Internet searches and access to personal information are available, the need for transparent godly living is vitally important. In his first letter, the Apostle Peter explains the importance of being ready to respond to questions from seekers and sceptics but also to avoid giving them any cause to accuse or deride: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander’ (I Peter 3: 15-16, NIVUK).

In Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 13 verses 54 & 55) we read that some people were interested and fascinated by Jesus but at an intellectual level, rather than a faith-driven one. Thus: ‘When he taught there in the synagogue, everyone was amazed and said, “Where does he get this wisdom and the power to do miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just the carpenter’s son!”’ They were unwilling to accept that Jesus had come down from heaven because it did not align with their rational (orderly, pre-determined) view of life. After all, they reasoned, we know his family, we have seen him assisting his father in the carpenter’s shop and he eats and drinks like any other person, so why should we accept that he is any different from the rest of us? His claim that he came down from heaven to earth to live as a man is hard to swallow! He is a person of great interest and we accept that his teaching stands out from the many other teachers and prophets that bombard us with their claims to be the mouthpiece of God. He is certainly not, however, someone in whom we can place our faith and trust as being the Messiah sent from God to redeem the world from sin!

On numerous occasions, teachers of the law and other religious intellectuals asked probing questions and attempted to subvert Jesus’s message or trick him into making blasphemous statements. For instance, they asked him questions about which was greater, Caesar or God; they posed a hypothetical question about married life after death; they attempted flattery, veiled threats and accusations about a failure to keep the Mosaic law. Jesus not only refuted their assaults but also silenced their feeble efforts through his wisdom and spiritual alacrity, focusing the conversation on their godless behaviour and sanctimonious attitude rather than attempting to score academic points. The Apostle Mark records that early in Jesus’s ministry, ‘the people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law’ (Chapter 1 verse 22). Followers of Jesus are similarly equipped to speak with authority, though opposition is never far away, as described below.

It has often been pointed out that Jesus did not write a single book or pay a scribe to faithfully record his spoken words. He did not acquire scholastic qualifications, study at the feet of a renowned teacher or seek to impress people with his superior knowledge of the scriptures. Despite all these (apparent) educational disadvantages, Jesus’s influence throughout the world has been unsurpassed by other major religions, philosophies or movements because his message of love and reconciliation, his purity and wisdom, combined with the power of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin and the danger of turning from God are uniquely powerful and persuasive. The sad fact that many people choose to ignore or reject him is testament to the fact that faith in Christ comes through hearing and receiving by faith and trust in the stark yet authoritative message of salvation, as Mark records Jesus’s words: ‘Anyone who believes and is baptised will be saved but anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned’ (Chapter 16 verse 15). The inclusion of the word ‘refuses’ reveals that every mature person is faced with a choice to accept or reject what Jesus says. Refusal, however, has grim consequences, namely, condemnation from God.

There are many people who express an interest in the person of Jesus Christ but allow intellectual scepticism to cloud their judgement, preferring to adopt a faithless rather than a faith-driven perspective and find reasons to argue against trusting Jesus rather than humbly accepting the truth of the gospel. Curiosity is a useful starting point for presenting the gospel to unconverted people but it is not a suitable end point. In other words, an initial interest must result in making a decision to follow or reject Christ or at least engender a greater desire to discover the truth. A good example of having to make a decision whether or not to believe in Jesus as the Saviour is found in an astonishing event that took place during the Apostle Paul’s missionary work, as described below.

Following accusations against Paul by Jewish religious leaders and their lawyer/orator, Tertullus, for alleged blasphemy, the regional governor, Felix and his successor, Festus, imprisoned Paul in Jerusalem (seemingly under ‘house-arrest). Some two years later, the arrival of King Agrippa II, whose father had been responsible for persecuting Christians (including executing Jesus’s half-brother, James), led to Paul having opportunity to speak directly to the king and present the truth of the gospel. As Paul was concluding his speech, Festus cried out that too much study had sent Paul insane but Paul’s calm response made Agrippa stutter that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian (see Acts Chapters 25 and 26). The important point to glean from this event is that Paul used his intellect, combined with the power of God’s Spirit to present his case, which clearly convicted the godless Agrippa of his need to follow Christ. Paul’s education and training gave him the skill and ability to present the gospel but his purpose was to win people for Christ and not to win an intellectual argument. History does not record whether Agrippa ever became a Christian, though historians suggest that his political influence waned subsequently.

No one can become a follower of Jesus based on purely intellectual argument. Even clever, conviction-led preaching and testimony is not sufficient in itself to convict and convert a person. Nevertheless, while accepting that human effort will not in themselves cause people to repent and commit their lives to Christ, God the Holy Spirit uses both of these approaches (preaching and testimony) to bring about repentance and trust in Christ as Saviour, though there are also numerous well-attested examples of people turning to Christ after dreams and visions, as well as reading Christian literature.

Intellectual arguments are valuable if they facilitate a search for the truth but illusionary if they are merely so-called ‘talking shops’. A strong and alarming trend in the early years of the 21st century has been the suppression of sincere and persuasive contrary discussion in a desire to reach either a consensus or ‘agree to disagree’. In its place has emerged what has been termed a ‘woke’ culture whereby opinions deemed to be controversial or casting doubt on a liberal, anti-Christian moral stance, are dismissed (at best) or elicit an enraged and spiteful response (at worst). In essence, truth (however carefully expressed) has become subservient to feelings and personal preference.

No such woke culture pertained during Paul’s missions to spread the good news about Jesus’s work on earth and its implications for human life and eternity, though strong and sometimes violent reactions were sparked if his message threatened the existing cultural norms (such as casting doubt on the status and significance of idols). During one of his missionary travels, Paul spent time in Athens and Luke (who compiled the book commonly known as the Acts of the Apostles) commented on how people spent their days; thus: ‘All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’ (Chapter 17 verse 20, NIVUK). The key point from Luke’s description of the average Athenian was not a criticism of talking and listening but rather of the search for the ‘latest idea’ rather than in ascertaining the truth. Despite the fact that no one reasons his or her way into the kingdom of heaven, Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, was able to use his intellect to orientate the crowd towards being more accommodating of the gospel message.

We need to use our minds to study the Bible, access good quality teaching and confront difficult issues; but there is a huge difference between using our mind to understand the things of God more clearly and using it for pointless arguments. It has been rightly said that whereas we need to discover the Word of God, it is even more important to discover the God of the Word! In other words, we need to search the Scriptures to discover more about God and His purposes for humankind. In using our intellects to know Him better, however, it is essential to allow His Spirit to search our hearts and motives and reveal the truth to us. Spiritual insight is not gleaned principally from academic study but from a willingness (in the words of hymn writer, J Edwin Orr) to ‘search me, O God and know my heart today; try me, O Lord and know my thoughts, I pray’.

It is said that the intellectual class is one of the more difficult groups to reach because they value human knowledge ahead of faith. If they can be won for Christ, however, God can use their intellect to further His Kingdom work, as He did, notably, through the Apostle Paul (see above). Down the centuries, many capable men and women have chosen to follow the Saviour, far too numerous to mention them all but including well-known historical figures such as JS Bach (composer), Elizabeth Fry (prison reformer), William Wilberforce (politician), Michael Faraday (scientist), Florence Nightingale (nursing), CS Lewis (author) and Mother Teresa. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the fact that if people became followers of Jesus solely on the basis of intellectual argument, those of low intellect could never be saved. On the contrary, ‘the teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand’ (Psalm 119 verse 130).

It is understandable if some Christians are reluctant to discuss their faith with someone of superior intellect for fear that they may be humiliated or unable to respond and ‘do more harm than good’. The key principles to invoke when we are witnessing are: (a) rely on the Holy Spirit to give you the words to speak; (b) talk about the things you know and your own experience; (c) admit when you don’t know the answer, as you can’t know everything or you would be God!

In discussing matters of eternal significance, there will always be people who are so impressed by their own opinions that they are reluctant or resistant to counter-arguments; in such cases, it is usually a waste of time and effort to prolong the discussion. Other people like to divert the conversation and set up what are colloquially referred to as ‘straw men’. In other words, they ask you to defend or explain or respond to an inaccurate or malicious assertion, as a means of forcing you to defend the false proposition. A common example of this distracting approach is for the person to claim that most wars are due to religiously motivated disputes (when the truth is that the vast majority of modern wars are territorial). Yet others will change the direction of the conversation by introducing an imponderable question, the most common of which is: “If God is a God of love, why does He allow suffering (little children to die, natural disasters, abused woman, etc.)?”. Difficult conversations of this kind and people’s scepticism should act as a spur to spend more time prayerfully considering the Scriptures and asking God to reveal more of His will and purpose to us, such that we develop the ‘wisdom of Solomon’ and, as the Apostle Paul explained in his first letter to the church in Corinth, we are able to possess spiritual insight because we ‘have the mind of Christ’ (I Corinthians, Chapter 2 verse 16).

Although we may not have great intellect, God promises to give us something that even a genius cannot possess, namely, godly wisdom (see, for instance, I Corinthians Chapter 1 verses 26-31 and the early chapters in Proverbs). So we boast in the Lord, take our wisdom from Him and spiritually feed on Him through prayer, meditation and worship. The cleverest person in the world cannot compete with us if we have the insight and knowledge that comes from a life that is submitted to the Saviour’s love and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Lost-and-Found

There are countless numbers of Jesus’s followers who recognise that their life is incomplete without believing in and trusting God and His Saviour Son. These modern-day disciples are people who accept the fact that Jesus Christ is not only the way, the truth and the life but also the true light that came into the world to save sinners, both Jews and Gentiles (sometimes referred to as ‘Greeks’ in the Bible). Such followers accept Jesus’s words that they are like sheep that have gone astray; that is, they have wandered from the protection that comes from living close to God and are vulnerable to attack from the destroyer of souls (Satan). Thus, the Apostle Peter reminds his readers that ‘you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls’  (Chapter 2 verse 25, NKJV). Jesus is also described by his followers as the Good Shepherd, who not only takes care of his sheep (followers, believers) in this life but also, through his sacrificial death on the Cross of Calvary will usher them into eternal bliss in heaven at the end of time (see John’s Gospel Chapter 10).

‘Lost-and-found’ followers are not ashamed or embarrassed about confessing their faith in Christ and will do so openly. They do not hide their light under a bucket or stay on the margins of church life and witness; on the contrary, they stay in close touch with Him through persistent prayer and meditation, whatever their circumstances. By contrast with the pointlessness of being without Christ in life or offering mere assent to his teaching without wholehearted commitment, the ‘lost-and-found’ concur with the Apostle Paul’s description of a Christian lifestyle in his letter to the church in Colossae (Colossians Chapter 1), namely that they should:

  • Please God in every way
  • Live a life of purpose
  • Show great endurance and patience
  • Share with Christians in need
  • Live transparently

By doing so, they become part of God’s eternal kingdom: redeemed and forgiven; hope for the present and eternal salvation beyond this life.

Lost-and-found believers echo the words of Simon Peter: ‘Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’ (John’s Gospel Chapter 6 verse 68). They joyfully declare in the words of Henry Francis Light’s hymn that they are ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ with the promise of eternal life stretching ahead of them and the security of knowing that the Spirit of Christ will never leave or forsake them. Unwavering trust in God and deep faith characterise these followers, who acknowledge that without the Spirit of God working in and through them, they cannot hope to live in a way that pleases Him.

Lost-and-found disciples learn the importance of humility and ensuring that they give God the glory at every point in their lives. They gear their priorities and decisions to reflect what they believe to be the will and purpose of God. They view themselves as ‘junior partners’ with the Holy Spirit in seeking the Kingdom of God and His righteousness first and foremost or, as expressed in the NLT: ‘Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need’ (Matthew Chapter 6 verse 33).

Wholehearted followers of Jesus acknowledge that their lives are imperfect but confess their sins and repent of wrongdoing (in thought, word and deed). They are slow to judge and get angry, yet fervently resist ungodly propaganda and deceptive narratives from those who seek to corrupt the truth and impose their own interpretations on believers (see the warnings contained in letters written by the Apostles John and Peter). Steadfast followers of Jesus opt to stand for the legitimacy of Jesus’s ministry and the Apostles’ teaching, rather than remain passive or compliant.

Those who know that they were once lost (‘dead in sin’) and have been redeemed through the blood of Christ are willing and eager to share their testimony about God’s saving grace but do so sensitively and unpretentiously. When false accusations arise or opponents of the Gospel ridicule and mock, true followers of Jesus stand firm and rejoice that they have been chosen to endure suffering and prejudice for his sake, as Jesus explained: ‘God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way’ (Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 5 verses 10 & 11).

Dedicated followers of Christ view themselves as part of the ‘body of Christ’ (that is, the fellowship of believers) with a specific contribution to make as ‘workers in the harvest’ that will bless, encourage and feed other believers, and also draw non-believers and sceptics to acknowledge their need of salvation. The lost-and-found view themselves as part of a worldwide body with different gifts that should be used for the glory of God (not personal gain), as the Apostle Paul explains in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth: ‘All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: First are apostles, second are prophets, third are teachers then those who do miracles, those who have the gift of healing, those who can help others, those who have the gift of leadership and those who speak in unknown languages’ (Chapter 12 verse 28). Jesus’s disciples recognise that whether they are given many talents or few, their lives must radiate the love of Christ to one another and to the world. Sadly, there are schisms and disagreements between denominations and sometimes within a church but these usually relate to procedural or minor points of doctrine, rather than matters of great substance.

Committed followers of Christ rely heavily on the truth of the Bible to inform, guide and adjust their decisions about the right way to live, the correct course of action to take and the way to handle problematic situations. They do not view the Bible as simply a superior reference book but as the inspired Word of God; that is, the forty of more contributors to the complete text were working independently, yet were all guided by the Holy Spirit of God to pen the words that accurately express both the factual details of what took place but also the implications for understanding the deeper meaning of events and their implications for living righteously. The Bible is not perceived as one ‘religious’ book among many others but standing alone as the source of understanding God’s involvement with the world, his promises, commandments and the implications of obedience and disobedience, and right and wrong behaviour. The first disciples of Jesus were reliant on the scriptures compiled prior to Jesus’s coming to earth; subsequently, the apostles were the conduit for further revelation that focused on the person, work and status of Jesus Christ and the implications for true Christian living within the context of both the local and worldwide church.

In a small number of cases, those who believe that without Christ they are eternally lost and with the indwelling spirit of Christ, they are eternally saved, are called to sacrifice their comfortable lives and serve Christ in foreign or inhospitable places, thereby denying themselves the benefits of home comforts, close family ties and regular income. In an even smaller percentage of cases, committed followers of Jesus literally lay down their lives in his service, either through succumbing to disease when living in an alien environment or by physical assault. Apart from these exceptional sacrifices, every true believer is in a very real sense called to ‘lay down his or her life’ through surrender to the purposes of God and for the benefit of other people, as the Apostle John reiterated: ‘We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters’ (I John Chapter 3 verse 16). The crucial phrase in this section of the letter is ‘because Jesus gave up his life for us’. Surrendering to God is not to be thought of as something heroic or in hope of reward but in acknowledgement of what Jesus accomplished on the Cross of Calvary in freely giving his life for the sins of the world.

Summary

In the preceding pages, I have attempted to paint a realistic and accurate picture of the different levels of commitment characterising people who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. I have also tried to offer a description and identify common features of those who choose not to do so. The level and seriousness of commitment varies considerably across and within different churches and, notably, in different areas of the world. The sacrifice required to be a wholehearted faithful disciple of Jesus Christ in lands where persecution is severe is markedly different from the relatively ‘liberal’ countries where discipleship is largely unhindered, though the rise of ungodly organisations are threatening the proclamation of the gospel. In addition, the childlike faith of believers in the Developing World (i.e. non-Western parts of the globe) contrasts with the sophisticated intellectualism and scepticism that has penetrated every section of society elsewhere.

Every Christian is faced with a serious choice about his or her determination to be a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ. We can stay comfortably ‘out of the firing line’ and coast along gently through life without embracing the challenging claims of Christ on our lives or we can yield in faithful and glad obedience, led and guided by the Spirit of God. Alternatively, we can decide that Jesus’s willingness to sacrifice himself for us when we were undeserving sinners demands a reciprocal response expressed through walking in step with the Spirit, seeking His will constantly, placing ourselves fully and unconditionally under His control and being willing to work (labour) for the Master throughout our lives.

I have endeavoured to show that the level of commitment to Jesus Christ—not to a religion, a cause or a social imperative—amongst those who define themselves as being Christian varies considerably, sometimes from day to day, sometimes depending on individual circumstances. I have also noted that there are some followers who, in the midst of personal crises, opposition or wavering faith, have forsaken their first love and returned ‘to the world’, defined by the Apostle John in his first letter as a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions’ (Chapter 2 verse 16).

It is rightly argued that in every area of life ‘everyone has his or her price’. In other words, every person is willing to sacrifice time, money, ambition or status to achieve a particular outcome or fulfil a deeply held need. For followers of Jesus, the level of commitment is measured in terms of the extent of our service to Christ and our ‘neighbours’ (i.e. those whom we are in a position to influence and bless). Although many Christians sing casually about ‘giving their all for Jesus’, the reality is that with few exceptions, a majority of believers are reluctant to face the price that such absolute allegiance involves. Our reticence to allow God to use us in whatever way He chooses by placing our lives totally under His command does not mean that God cannot use such ‘imperfect vessels’ but that our effectiveness is reduced, as we seek to influence others. When the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, declared God’s message: ‘For my people have done two evil things: they have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!’ (Chapter 2 verse 13) he was referring to Israel as a nation and not to individual’s inadequacies, though the seriousness of personal half-heartedness (being ‘lukewarm’, see Revelation Chapter 3 verses 15 & 16) should not be underestimated. Similarly, the physician Luke records Jesus’s words of warning about half-hearted devotion to him: ‘So you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own’ (Chapter 14 verse 33). Quite a challenge!

In highlighting what each follower of Jesus is willing to ‘lay at his feet’, I have drawn attention to the many Christians in numerous areas of the world who, as a result of their expressed Christian faith, have been persecuted and intimidated. Sanctions have included government agents monitoring their movements and attempting to censor their words, close their meetings and bring false accusations; others have been ejected from their homes. Numerous believers and (especially) pastors have been attacked, imprisoned and assassinated over recent years for refusing to compromise their beliefs or recant their faith in Christ. The challenge is therefore placed squarely before all Christians as to how their willingness to follow and serve Christ sacrificially compare with these modern-day martyrs. Even at a commonplace level, every serious follower of Jesus has to confront the way in which he or she prioritises choices; for instance:

  • Am I willing to sacrifice a favourite TV programme to study the Bible?
  • Do I refuse to be drawn into gossip (according to surveys, the most popular topic of conversation at work)?
  • Do I pray instead of panicking?
  • Do I resist taking the easy way out when faced with challenging situations?
  • Do I stand firm for my beliefs, even when mocked or ridiculed?
  • Do I count persecution as a privilege or a peril?
  • Do I praise God or complain about hardship?

When trouble comes, how often followers of Jesus Christ behave like everybody else in fearing the worst and expressing doubt or consternation, instead of demonstrating the quiet assurance that comes through a close daily walk with Christ. Someone has written: ‘Little self-denials, little honesties, little passing words of kindness; little victories over favourite temptations—these are the silent threads of gold which when woven together, gleam out so brightly in the pattern of life of which God approves’.

It is necessary for each one of us to remind ourselves that we were once lost but Jesus found us, rescued us and brought us back into a right relationship with God through trust in Jesus’s redeeming sacrifice at the Cross of Calvary. So we stay close by His side, in His light, feeding on Him. We seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. We long that the love of Jesus Christ is demonstrated to those with whom we have contact.

The sobering truth is that even the most fiercely committed Christian has times when faith wavers and love for Christ seems thin and tenuous. There are occasions when we remain ‘invisible’ when we should be standing boldly for truth and righteousness. There are periods when we can use rational arguments to persuade ourselves that God didn’t really tell us to do something or guide us in a particular (challenging) direction. How wonderful to know that although we are often weak and ‘prone to wander’, God is unchanging and He, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, leaves the 99 to search for us and bring us home with much rejoicing.

Those who trust in Christ have life and eternal assurance, so to whom else can we turn? Who else should we follow? Whose light shines more brightly to show us the way than the One who is The Light? Who can feed us better than the One who is The Bread of Life? Jesus invites us to share an intimate relationship with him; to enjoy a lightness of spirit; to talk with him and walk with him along life’s narrow way; to learn from him and to follow faithfully the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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