The church today calls people. We call the lost to be saved from hell by trusting in Jesus. We then call those saved to spend time in Bible study and prayer. We call them to live morally upright lives as Jesus taught, and to become active participants in the church. Yet, even if we do all the things we are called to do, we may still be poor followers of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said “Follow Me.” We typically understand this as “Go in this direction,” but that is not what He meant. To follow Jesus requires my active attention towards Him. I must be aware of His presence, and listen for His voice calling me personally. And I must obey Him when He speaks to me. Discipleship is about a living relationship with Jesus Christ and walking in His Spirit, not just about obeying a set of ancient rules or principles.
The call of discipleship in the New Testament is different than what most of us encounter today. During His three and one half years of public ministry, Jesus called people in two different ways.
The first way was to the multitude. Jesus called everyone to repentance from sin (Matthew 4:17, 11:20, Luke 5:32) and faith in Himself for salvation from sin (not just from sin’s consequences). He also called people to a life of faith and active obedience to Himself. This was not just a call to a way of life, but a call for people to actively follow Him.
But unlike Jesus’ calls to repent, His calls for people to believe in Him were passive. He issued no commands, and used no high-pressure tactics or tear-filled pleas to the crowd. Instead of urging the crowd to trust in Him, He merely stated the facts:
“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever…”
– John 4:14 (ESV)
“…whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
– John 5:24 (ESV)
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
– John 11:25 (ESV)
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
– John 14:6 (ESV)
Simple statements. You can respond to Jesus or ignore Him if you desire. Yes, there are consequences to ignoring Him, but He is not going to force you to believe.
This passiveness was also true of Jesus’ call to the multitude for disciples. Jesus did not command the crowd as a whole to follow Him, but merely said “If anyone would come after me…” (Matthew 16:24-25, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). Again, anyone could choose to follow Jesus if they wished.
However, Jesus made clear to His would-be followers the conditions required for true discipleship: “…let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” For those who would follow, Jesus made no promises of blessings in this life. Instead, He attracted followers with a cross, an instrument of torture. Some of those who volunteered to follow He discouraged (Matthew 8:19-20, Luke 9:57-58). You don’t see that very much today in our call for people to follow the Lord. We’ll do whatever we can to encourage people to follow Jesus, and downplay or hide the cost.
The second way Jesus called people was a personal one-on-one call to individuals. Unlike His calls to the crowd, these were commands – active calls to follow:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
– John 1:43 (ESV)
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, … And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” … And going on from there he saw two other brothers, … and he called them.
– Matthew 4:18-22 (ESV)
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” …
– Matthew 9:9 (ESV)
All of Jesus’ closest followers were people He chose personally (John 15:16). He did not ask or encourage them to follow. He commanded and they obeyed. They were the ones who stuck to Him when others fell away (John 6:66-71), and they were the ones He actively kept (John 17:12). But like the first group, Jesus did not attract His disciples with promises of blessings. If anything, He spoke of the work He had for them to do (Matthew 4:19, Luke 9:59-60). He spoke of blessings only later.
Today, we tend to attract people to follow Jesus with promises of blessings (i.e. “life will be more rewarding if you do what Jesus says”). However discipleship is not about our benefit here on earth but about cost. If anything, following Jesus will lead to greater difficulties, pain, sorrow, and even persecution (Matthew 10:34-39, John 15:20). Discipleship is about the abandoning of self-interest and becoming like Christ in His death (Romans 6:3,5, 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:31, 2 Corinthians 4:10, Philippians 3:10). It is about giving up your all to build up the kingdom of God and seek only His glory.
What do you think would happen if we attracted people to follow Jesus with a cross, and made no mention of blessings? …or are we too afraid to try?
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer