Invitations

… Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.

John 1:38-39 (ESV)

At this point, John’s ministry begins to fade and Jesus’ ministry starts to grow. Read the gospels, especially Mark, and you’ll notice Jesus’ following increasing exponentially. One day He’s virtually unknown, and a week later great crowds follow Him everywhere. And the crowds get bigger as times goes on. In Acts, Jesus’ followers increase by the thousands per day. Today there are millions of people who at least claim to follow Jesus.

It all began here with a multitude of two. Messiah-spotters Andrew and (presumably) John, having found the One they were looking for, immediately followed Jesus.

Jesus, noticing them, turns around and asks them what they want. And they respond with a title and destination.

The young men called Jesus ‘Rabbi’, a term of great respect. As far as we know, they’re the first to call Jesus this. It’s a title they previously applied to the Baptiser. Now they gave Jesus this title in hope that He would be open to having them become His disciples.

The destination, ‘where are you staying?’, expressed this desire further. A disciple wants to be with his master. Andrew and John wanted to spend time getting to know Jesus. If Jesus invited them, then their becoming His disciples was practically guaranteed.

Their wish is granted. Jesus invites them to come, and they get to spend time communing with Him. As they talk and listen to what He has to say, they’re even more convinced who Jesus is (just like the Samaritans later in chapter 4). Andrew is so thrilled, he can’t keep the good news to himself…

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

John 1:40-42 (ESV)

Simon was probably not a disciple of John, but his brother had likely kept him up-to-date on all John taught. Now Andrew was excitedly telling him, ‘The Messiah is here! In town now! I’ve seen Him and talked with Him! Simon, come and see!’.

When they come back to Jesus, Jesus speaks Simon’s name (‘You are Simon Johnson’), and then foretells what he will be known as: Peter, a stone… whatever that means. Jesus doesn’t explain right away.

Not that it matters. Jesus doesn’t call him ‘Peter’ again for three more years, until He approaches Jerusalem for the last time (Matthew 16:18).

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

John 1:43 (ESV)

Philip is the first recorded person that Jesus called to follow. The others, Peter, Andrew, and John, would receive their formal calling later.

Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

John 1:44-46 (ESV)

Like Andrew, Philip wasted no time in spreading the good news. He found Nathanael (which most scholars identify as Bartholomew) and said the equivalent of ‘We have found the Messiah’. Philip mistakenly calls Him the son of Joseph, an error Jesus will rectify over time. In response to Nathanael’s skepticism, Philip gives the familiar invitation: ‘Come and see!’

Have you seen Jesus? To ‘come and see’ is an invitation to know Him. In Greek the word ‘see’ is eido, which when used in the perfect tense, also means full, conscious knowledge. Jesus used this word when He told the Pharisees they didn’t know Him or His Father:

They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know {eido} neither me nor my Father. If you knew {eido} me, you would know {eido} my Father also.”

John 8:19 (ESV)

The Pharisees saw Jesus, and yet didn’t see Him. For the most part they didn’t believe He was the Messiah. But Andrew, Peter, John, Philip, and (soon) Nathanael did. Their knowledge surpassed the religious experts from the beginning.

Perhaps you are like the Pharisees: seeing and yet unseeing. Maybe you believe in Jesus the historical figure or the good man, or perhaps you’re having trouble overcoming doubts. You haven’t arrived at full, conscious knowledge of who Jesus is. If so, the invitation is still open: come and see!

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First Followers

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29 (ESV)

John was busy. His ministry had really taken off. Great crowds were coming to him to be baptized (Luke 3:7), and he had a number of disciples under his teaching. Many had heard John speak of the coming Messiah, and were eagerly hoping for His arrival. Some had actually seen Him and witnessed the extraordinary events at His baptism. But afterwards, nothing was heard or seen of Jesus until over a month had passed.

When John saw Him again, he recognized Him and immediately proclaimed to those around him, “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Those who had not been at the baptism might have doubted that Jesus could be the Promised One. Forty days of fasting must have changed Jesus’ appearance. He was probably gaunt… emaciated. It looked like He shouldn’t be able to stand, and yet He was obviously full of Life, for Jesus walked in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:14). God’s power was revealed through His physical weakness.

For the undecided and doubters, John gave his account of what he saw weeks earlier:

“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

John 1:32-34 (ESV)

John was all about shining the spotlight on Jesus. At every opportunity he told his listeners of the Messiah. He fed a hunger in them for the Promised One: “Someone is coming who is greater than I.” They were now on the lookout for Him.

So it was only natural the next time John saw Jesus and pointed Him out, two of his disciples did the no-brainer: they left their master for a new One.

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

John 1:35-36 (ESV)

One disciple was Andrew and the other was likely John, writer of the fourth gospel. (John shows more familiarity with the Baptiser than the other gospel writers, and while he names other disciples in his gospel, he avoids mentioning his own.)

The Baptiser had performed his mission well.

We have a similar mission: pointing people to the Lamb of God. How well are we doing it?

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Jesus’ Preparation For Ministry – part 3

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. …

Luke 4:1-2 (ESV)

You would think, having been baptized and filled with the Spirit, Jesus was now ready for His public ministry, but the Holy Spirit took Him out of the spotlight one more time for a final stage of preparation. Jesus was compelled to leave the life-giving Jordan for the barren desert to prove His baptismal commitment.

He went alone. As yet, there were no disciples, no train of followers, curiosity seekers, needy people in search of miracles, or self-righteous hypocrites. Other than the wild animals (Mark 1:13), Jesus’ only companion was the ever-present Holy Spirit… and that was enough.

Oh… and Satan was there, too – an integral part of God’s plan (Matthew 4:1). If you’re wondering how he came to be involved, perhaps it went a little like this…

Scene: Heaven.
Time: While John is baptizing Jesus at the Jordan.

The angels appear before God’s throne to give their reports, and Satan shows up.

God: Satan, what have you been up to?

Satan: Oh, you know me. Same old thing: going to and fro on the earth and walking up and down on it.

God: Have you considered My only begotten Son, how there is none like Him? Just look at Him down there at the Jordan. Absolutely sinless, righteous, and submitted to Me. And He allows not one evil thought to enter His mind. You see why I love Him so much, don’t you?

Satan: Well, what do you expect? He’s your favorite! You always protect him. Every time I try to get at him, you snatch him away. I almost had him that one time, and then you whisked him off to Egypt!

God: And your point is?

Satan: I just want you to play fair! Your son is imprisoned in a weak human body now… a body afflicted with needs and desires. Anyone will trust and obey if you bribe them with blessings. But touch even your son in the areas of his human limitations and he will stumble; self-preservation will kick in. He has to satisfy his own needs and wants sometime. Come on, prove me wrong!

God: Satan, My Son in your hands. Do what you need to do to prove your point, but do not kill or physically harm him.

As Satan leaves the presence of God with high hopes, a loud Voice from behind him calls down to earth, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus was in the desert 40 days. During that time, Satan tried to get Him to sin, but could not. During that time, Jesus ate and drank nothing. But the Holy Spirit that drove Him there also miraculously sustained Him. He felt no hunger until the 40 days were over. Then the lack of food caught up with Him and the three temptations recorded in the gospels occurred.

Why was it necessary for Jesus to be driven into the desert to be tempted of the devil? I can think of several reasons, but primarily I think it was to prepare our great High Priest to faithfully and compassionately represent us to the Father:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Hebrews 2:10,17-18 (ESV)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Hebrews 4:15 (ESV)

It’s a mystery why the all-powerful God in human flesh would need to suffer this way to help me in my temptations. I’ll never understand it, but I’m exceedingly grateful He did. Jesus learned in an experiential way what it means to endure suffering and temptation (Hebrews 5:8-10). I now have an advocate who remembers what it was like to go through the difficulties I experience, and this comforts me and also helps me trust Him.

As followers of Jesus, what can we learn from this time in our Master’s life? In what way are we to follow Him? Again, I can think of multiple answers to these questions. Here are a few:

Whether Jesus needed the Holy Spirit to resist Satan or not may be up for debate. All I know is my constant need for the Spirit. I have found walking in the Spirit rather than my own strength is the only way to have victory over temptation.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Galatians 5:16 (ESV)

When suffering, learn to forget the pity party and look forward to the benefits that will come about through endurance. I can’t see Jesus complaining “Why me?” during His trials. He even endured the cross looking forward to the joy that would result (Hebrews 12:2).

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4 (ESV)

To ‘count it all joy’ doesn’t come naturally, but it does come through the power of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise James would have given us an impossible command. Have I attained to this? No. But I am making progress.

Prepare to respond to temptation as Jesus did. This is not just a matter of memorizing scripture verses so you can throw them back at Satan when he appears. It’s about knowing and trusting in God, being confident of His protection and provision. It’s also about abiding in Christ, and being led by the Spirit. Jesus knew His Father so well, the scriptures He quoted came naturally. And He always countered Satan’s attacks by taking the focus off of His needs and wants and on to God. This is how we are to respond to temptation.

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Jesus’ Preparation For Ministry – part 2

Before Jesus came to be baptized, John proclaimed Him as a mysterious Person: “He who is coming after me is mightier than I … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

At some point, I imagine John asking, “Lord, You sent me on this mission to prepare Your people for the Messiah. When He arrives, how can I be sure of Him so I can say to the people ‘This is the One I’ve been telling you about’?” And God said:

… ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

John 1:33b (ESV)

Perhaps John thought, “I’m going to see the invisible Spirit of God descend on the Messiah? This should be interesting!”

When Jesus came, John recognized Him as the One he was looking for (Matthew 3:14), and yet he did not know Him (John 1:33, greek oida). John believed, but it was not the inward, conscious certitude of the heart. (I think the plea in Mark 9:24 echoes this: “I believe, help my unbelief!”). John needed supernatural revelation to be certain that Jesus is the Anointed One.

…And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17 (ESV)

It happened just as God had said, with a couple extra convincers thrown in for good measure: the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit came down in visible form and remained on Jesus, and God gave His utterly incontrovertible testimony: “This is my beloved Son. I am fully delighted with Him.” It would take an act of will (or “won’t”) to doubt now.

Those who had previously heard John’s testimony had now witnessed a greater. They even witnessed fulfillment of prophecy, for Isaiah wrote:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; …

Isaiah 11:1-5 (ESV)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Isaiah 42:1 (ESV)

When the Spirit came down on Jesus, it was not just some theatrical effect designed to create a sense of awe in the onlookers. The Spirit’s visible presence on Jesus confirmed that He would be the One to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Now John knew the One he was proclaiming. From this point on, whenever he saw Jesus, he said, “This is the Son of God” (vs. 34), “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (vs 1:29, 36).

The Holy Spirit also served another purpose here. While John prepared Jesus by baptizing Him in water, it was the Holy Spirit who really prepared Jesus for His ministry. The Spirit never left Him. For the next 3 years, Jesus would minister not in His own power but in that of the Spirit (Matthew 12:28, Acts 10:38).

These two things, the testimony and preparation of the Holy Spirit, apply to us as followers of Jesus.

First, just as at His baptism, the full knowledge of who Jesus is comes about through the testifying work of the Holy Spirit. We can acquire knowledge of Jesus through the scriptures and come to believe in a way, but full knowledge of Him always takes special revelation from God (John 16:12-14, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, 12:3). I need the Spirit to testify to me about Jesus, and I need the Spirit to help me tell others about Him.

Secondly, we need the Holy Spirit to prepare us for ministry. While Jesus certainly had the power and ability to minister in His own power, we don’t have the choice. And even if we did, since our Lord chose to walk in the Spirit, we need to do the same. There is no other way to follow Him.

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Jesus’ Preparation For Ministry – part 1

John’s ministry was flourishing. Great crowds of people were coming to hear him preach and be baptized. His message was meeting with success, for many asked the Big Question of repentance, “What shall we do?” (Luke 3:10-14, Acts 2:37).

Upon baptism, some had gone the next step and become disciples of John. Andrew was one, and perhaps Philip and another young man named John. These had recognized their need for a change of heart and life, and they knew they couldn’t do it on their own.

But the baptizer was not able to effect the change in his followers, for he struggled with a stubborn heart himself. So he proclaimed:

“After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:7-8 (ESV)

To be baptized with the Holy Spirit – that is what we all need, said John. This coming One would have the power to do it.

Suddenly Jesus appeared, but He did not come as expected. John and his disciples hoped to be baptized by Jesus with the Holy Spirit, but instead Jesus came to be baptized by John in ordinary water:

John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

Matthew 3:14-15 (ESV)

It would be over three years before the longed-for Holy Spirit would come upon them.

– – – – –

It’s puzzled me why Jesus would need to be baptized by John. Why did the holy, sinless Son of God have to participate in an act meant for repentant sinners? I’ve read through the Old Testament more times than I can remember, and I don’t recall seeing any ordnance of baptism given to the Jews in general. If it’s in there, it’s very well hidden!

On thinking about it, however, some reasons do come to mind:

First, those of us in Christ know Jesus as our High Priest. He represents us to God, and represents God to us. In order to execute the office of priest fairly, He needed to become like us in every way (sin apart):

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Hebrews 2:17 (ESV)

Part of the Old Testament preparation for becoming a priest is ceremonial washing (Exodus 29:4). Commentator Adam Clarke wrote,

“Our Lord represented the high priest, and was to be the high priest over the house of God: now, as the high priest was initiated into his office by washing and anointing, so must Christ: and hence he was baptized, washed, and anointed by the Holy Ghost.”

Makes sense to me, but there’s another possible implication to this.

We know that when Jesus died, our salvation was accomplished in two complementary ways: He took all of our sins upon Himself, and in exchange He gave us all of His righteousness. Every righteous act Jesus did was imputed to us just as if we did it. So when Jesus was baptized ‘to fulfill all righteousness’, we’re the beneficiaries.

In light of this, if Jesus’ baptism can be seen as a washing of consecration to priesthood, do you think it has any significance towards those of us in Christ being made a kingdom of priests (Revelation 1:6)? I don’t know, but it does give me something to think about.

Second, Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of His ministry. It was His public declaration that He was going to live in submission to His heavenly Father, and not to please Himself. Of course, Jesus already was obedient to His heavenly Father (Luke 2:49), but it was necessary to declare this publicly in a more formal way.

Mark quotes Malachi 3:1 in describing the ministry of John.

…Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way…

Mark 1:2 (ESV)

While John came to prepare the people for their Lord’s coming, it is also true that John prepared Jesus for His ministry when he baptized Him. I don’t know if the original language supports this, but perhaps Mark’s quote can be understood in this way: “…Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare You for Your way (ministry).”

Third, we like to think of baptism as an event that is over and done with. But the significance of baptism is really life-long. For the next three and a half years, Jesus would show us what baptism is all about. As we see Jesus selflessly serve and obey God through teaching, healing, loving, self-denial, enduring of persecution, and submitting to a shameful death, the meaning of baptism becomes more crystallized in our own minds. We begin to see what a life of repentance and following Jesus is all about. We hopefully approach baptism a little more seriously. But it is not just enough for us to know what it’s about…

Fourth, Jesus was baptized as Leader for us to follow. After salvation, baptism is the first step in our walk with Jesus. It’s also not an over-and-done-with event, but the beginning of a life-long journey. Just as Jesus laid aside His will to do God’s will, so are we. Just as Jesus served others, so are we (as in John 13). Just as Jesus gave His life for us, so are we for others (1 John 3:16).

There are probably other possible reasons why Jesus needed to be baptized, but these are what occurred to me. What do you think?

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Preparing A Way For The Way

Just as with us all, Jesus started out a stranger to His disciples. Many first heard about Him from John the baptist, a man conceived and born for this very purpose.

“…he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Luke 1:16-17 (ESV)

Since the people might not recognize their Lord when He came, it was necessary that John come first. (He was born six months earlier than Jesus, and his ministry came and flourished first.) John was like the forerunner of a king telling the people to clean up their streets and houses, for their ruler would be arriving shortly.

“Prepare the way! Make straight His paths!”

But this King would not be concerned with buildings and roadways. He didn’t want His citizens to hide their eyesores: the embarrassing poor, lame, and homeless. Nor did He want to see them replaced with freshly painted park benches and pretty flowers. No, the preparation had to be spiritual, for this King would be looking at people’s hearts.

A unique King required a unique forerunner. John’s message was summarized in his oft repeated call:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

Calling the people to repentance was, perhaps, not too novel of an idea. After all, the prophets had done so for hundreds of years. But the way John went about it was strange: he baptized people in an unusual location and for an unusual reason.

It was common for people to arrive at the temple in Jerusalem in a ceremonially unclean condition. So special baths called mikvehs were provided where the Jews would immerse themselves, becoming ritually clean so they could worship in the temple. (These baths were also used by gentiles when they converted to Judaism.)

Since there were cleansing pools at the temple already, the Pharisees probably wondered who John was, baptizing out in the wilderness. Why would people want to travel away from Jerusalem, the Jewish center of all things spiritual, to the desert, where they’d have to walk through mud to get in and out of a dirty river? Weren’t the baptismal pools at the temple good enough? So, they sent priests and Levites to ask (John 1:19-28).

The Jordan river held an important place in the history of the Israelites. Joshua had led the people across this river to enter the Promised Land. Some see this as a picture of baptism, but there’s one problem with this idea: the people went across on dry land. They never got wet. Whatever your view of baptism is, sprinkling or immersion, you should feel at least a little bit of moisture!

But another event happened at the Jordan, foreshadowing John’s baptism. You can read the story for yourself in 2 Kings 5, but I’ll summarize the relevant details.

Naaman was the commander of the Syrian army. He was directly under the king of Syria. He was powerful, respected, and a leper. Through a series of events, Naaman found his way to Elisha, the prophet of God in Samaria, seeking a cure for his disease. Elisha told him to go dunk himself in the Jordan river seven times. At first, Naaman was incensed.

“Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”

2 Kings 5:12 (ESV)

But his servants convinced him to do what the prophet had said. When he came up out of the Jordan river, his leprosy was gone, his skin became as new as a baby’s backside, and “he was clean” (vs. 14).

Returning to Elisha, humbled and grateful, he said:

… “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel … from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the LORD.”

2 Kings 5:15-17 (ESV)

What was once a stubborn, proud, idol-worshiping leper was now a humble, repentant, clean man who would henceforth live to worship Yahweh alone. Naaman was the first to be baptized in the Jordan. His was a baptism of repentance, and he did so under the command of Elisha, who like John, came in the spirit and power of Elijah (2 Kings 2:9-15, Matthew 11:44).

Unlike the ceremonial washings at the temple (or the more attractive Abana and Pharpar rivers of Syria), the Jordan baptisms were about repentance – a humbling change of heart towards God. Sinners, recognizing their condition, would seek God to be cured of their spiritual leprosy. This was the preparation of the way that John called people to. And the King who was coming would be the one to heal them.

Jesus answered them, “Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Luke 5:31-32 (ESV)

I expect many of Jesus’ followers were first baptized by John. Andrew was, and likely John and Philip also. (It was John’s testimony that led them to follow the King of kings.) They began their journey with repentance, and it is a necessary step for all who would follow Jesus.

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Hidden Beginnings

…among you stands one you do not know.

John 1:26 (ESV)

Before His ministry years, before His baptism and temptation, Jesus was virtually unknown.

It had been some time since the strange rumors of the birth of the long-hoped-for Messiah had made the rounds. Supposedly some herdsmen had seen Him lying in a cattle trough. And later, strangely dressed foreigners had come to pay their respects. But that was a long time ago. The excitement had since faded to a memory, and life under gentile subjection went on as usual.

To those of Nazareth and the neighboring towns, Jesus was just another young man. He was Joseph the carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55), and while He was unusually well behaved, kind, and astute on scriptural matters, He was probably going to continue in the same occupation Himself (Mark 6:3).

We take our knowledge of who Jesus is for granted. The apostle John wrote in his gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…

John 1:1-3, 14 (ESV)

These familiar words are perhaps the most direct statements of the deity of Jesus to be found in all of scripture. John wrote them towards the end of his life, after decades of knowing Jesus. But at the time Jesus walked the earth, the truth was hidden from him, along with virtually everyone else. Jesus appeared to be just another good Jewish boy.

Even John the baptist, who was sent by God to prepare the way for the Lord, who leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s presence, was in the dark. He didn’t know his own cousin was the Christ (John 1:33). Surely mom would have pointed Jesus out to him one day: “Look dearest! There’s the long promised Lord and Savior!” (Luke 1:43,68-79)

Perhaps they didn’t grow up together.

I expect the first thirty years of Jesus’ life appeared, for the most part, unusually ordinary – at least to those who were not personally acquainted with Him.

Who has believed what they heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him

Isaiah 53:1-2 (ESV)

There was nothing in Jesus’ appearance or deportment that proclaimed “Messiah”, “Savior”, “Lord”. It would take John the Baptist to fulfill that role.

When you consider the humble obscurity of most of Jesus’ life, it’s amazing the impact of His last few years, and how quickly His ministry took off.

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Discipleship – Then and Now – part 6

Content – The Essential Christ

By far, the most unique and controversial aspect of Jesus’ teachings is what He said about Himself.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day taught the Law and their commentaries of the Law. They didn’t blatantly call themselves authorities, but would defer to great teachers of the past. Jesus, on the other hand, did not teach second-hand doctrine. It was not “Rabbi So-and-so said…” but “I say to you”.

After the Sermon on the Mount, the people were astonished, because He taught them with authority (Matthew 7:28-29). But as amazed as the crowds were, what Jesus said about Himself was even more shocking.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. …

John 10:27-31 (ESV)

Whenever people wanted to stone Jesus, it was because He, a mere man as the Jews thought (John 10:33), claimed to be God.

Most other religions in the world focus on the teachings of their founders. For the sake of argument, Islam could be essentially the same if Allah supposedly revealed himself to someone other than Muhammad. If John Doe discovered the supposed path to enlightenment instead of Siddhartha Gautama, “Doe-ism” might be the same as Bhuddism.

But there could never be a substitute for Jesus Christ. Without Him, Christianity falls apart, because the focus is not just on what Jesus taught, but on the essentialness of Himself.

We Christians know this in terms of theology and salvation. Jesus made many statements about Himself that we use today in apologetic or evangelistic ways to get people to believe that Jesus is God. But we must remember He also made shocking, exclusive statements to us, His followers.

We cannot treat what Jesus said to us as mere doctrines. If we are to follow Him, we must let statements such as the following have their full, painfully piercing impacts on our hearts and minds:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

John 15:5 (ESV)

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:26 (ESV)

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Matthew 10:37-38 (ESV)

“And whoever of you desires to become first, he shall be slave of all. For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:44-45 (Green)

Too many times we treat Jesus as an example for us to follow: He laid down a set of principles that we’re to follow. We spiritualize away the hard sayings, or we give lip service to them without living them out for real. I know, because I do it also. Despite all we say, this kind of following doesn’t require a real living, personal, day-by-day dependent and submissive relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s all theory and no reality.

Much of our teaching today ignores the practicalities such a relationship. We teach Bible doctrine so we can grow familiar with its contents. We teach the difference between right and wrong. We teach how to apply biblical truths to our lives. We teach lifestyle, the outward actions of keeping oneself morally pure, helping the needy, becoming active members of the church, presenting the good news of Jesus Christ to the lost, etc. Good things all, but none of this seems to require a direct relationship with Jesus. Our practice can easily become Christianity without Christ.

Of course, we also teach things that are more discipleship-oriented such as prayer. But if we’re not focused on following Jesus, these things can be practiced dryly, religiously, or even selfishly. (It’s easy to treat Christianity as a form of self-improvement – with God’s help, of course.)

New Testament discipleship is always centered on Jesus Christ: not just learning about Jesus or following His example, but following His leading. As mentioned earlier, Jesus did not say “Go in this direction”, He said “Follow me.” This requires an active, living relationship with Him, expectantly listening for His voice (John 10:27), talking to Him, and obeying Him.

Yes, we all have a heart condition that prevents us from living right. The solution is not to try live right but to abide in Jesus and walk in the Spirit as He did. Only Jesus can cure our heart condition.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

John 15:4 (ESV)

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Galatians 5:16 (ESV)

Discipleship centers on Jesus. He is the beginning and the end, and everything in between. Let us fix our eyes on Him.

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Discipleship – Then and Now – part 5

Content – Heart vs. Head

I’ve talked about the teaching setting, the call, and the methodologies of discipleship. But the most important characteristic is the content of what is taught and practiced. There are two themes running through all of what Jesus taught: the fallen nature of the heart of man, and the essentialness and preeminence of Himself. Let’s look at the first of these themes.

We Christians tend to focus more on head-knowledge and externals. Good doctrine and actions are essential. But Jesus did not teach dry-facts about God or outward observance of the LawMeaning Jesus did not teach basic stuff like “God is all-powerful” or “Stealing is a sin”, mainly because the people already knew this.. His wasn’t a catechismal method of teaching them the right answers to theological questions. (His disciples probably already had good doctrinal training through their synagogues anyway.) Instead He taught heart issues. He spoke about the way man’s heart is versus how it’s supposed to be. And this wasn’t in abstract concepts, but with intensely practical implications:

To be unjustly angry at your brother is the same as murder (Matthew 5:21-22).

To lust after a woman is the same as committing the act (Matthew 5:27-28).

We are to love our enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:43-44).

We must become humble as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3-4).

These teachings, and many more, focus on who we are on the inside. It is not enough to appear good and righteous outwardly (as Jesus often spoke out against hypocrisy – Matthew 23:27). We must be truly good and righteous on the inside. This was the problem with the Pharisees and Jesus’ disciples, and it’s our problem also. It’s my problem.

We may have doctrine down pat, but it’s depressing how often we fail in the areas that Jesus homed in on. We seize every opportunity to make ourselves look good. We won’t associate with the social outcasts. We proudly tear down those who hold minor theological differences, and angrily speak out against those in authority over usPerhaps living in a country where one has the right to free speech can be a stumbling block for believers. We should use this right, but not abuse it. I don’t think Jesus approves when we slander and belittle those of other viewpoints (even if they are wrong), whether it be political, social, economic, or whatever.. And we forget we’re supposed to love all – even our enemies.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught the humility, submission, obedience and faith that comes of agape love. He didn’t just use words. He lived it in relation to His heavenly Father, and expressed it in His relationships towards those around Him, so that His disciples could see how it worked out in real life.

He brought salvation to a sinful tax-collector, saying “the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Luke 19:1-10).

He crossed a storm-tossed sea just to save a demon-possessed man, and then crossed back over (Matthew 8:23-9:1).

Jesus did not return evil for evil but forgave those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34).

The Son of God modeled love for us, and thereby simultaneously taught God’s love for man.

When Jesus spoke more directly of the Father’s love, it was not just facts, but heart… passion. For example, Luke 15’s parables are about the Father’s loss and then joy when He found what was lost. Jesus spoke of the Father in such a way that we might feel for His loss.

We cannot love people in this way. We have a heart condition that won’t be cured merely by acting the right way. Trying to get the outside actions right without an inward change is futile – it won’t last.

“So every good tree produces good fruits, but the worthless tree produces bad fruits. A good tree cannot produce bad fruits, nor a worthless tree produce good fruits.”

Matthew 7:17-18 (JND)

But if the heart is changed, the outward actions will follow.

That’s a matter for the second theme.

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Discipleship – Then and Now – part 4

Methodology

I mentioned earlier that there are some positive differences in discipleship over the last couple thousand years. I tend to be a skeptic, and if I heard someone else say that, I’d probably doubt him. But I do believe it’s true, although with perhaps some reservations.

The biggest advantage that we have over most New Testament disciples is the ability to personally study the Bible.

For the most part, the early disciples did not have their own copies of the scriptures, and what they did have was not the complete collection like we have today. Most early believers went to the synagogue to hear Old Testament scriptures read, or they had access to someone else’s scripture portions. When the early church started, none of the New Testament books were written, but they did have access to witnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus. Most importantly, they had the Holy Spirit.

Today we are greatly blessed! Those of us in the free world can buy a copy of the scriptures in our native language to read and study for ourselves. Many of us have more than one copy in various translations. We also have access to tools such as concordances and lexicons that help us get at the meaning of the original languages. No longer do we have to rely on second-hand knowledge of what the Bible says …although sadly many still do.

Plus we still have the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and ears to understand what we read. Yes, we are greatly blessed!

And if that were not enough, we also have plenty of other forms of instruction: Christian books, radio, television programs, and websites. The internet gives us access to live and recorded sermons, as well as Christian writings going back to the early church fathers. Assuming you have the ability to discern truth from error, these are great resources to have and you should take advantage of them. But there is a potential drawback.

Discipleship is not about learning doctrine, but putting what you learn into practice in a relational way. Because each of us has the ability to learn on his own, all these tools make it too easy to become an independent learner.

A disciple needs to be under accountability to other disciples. It’s like mentoring, with mutual accountability, fellowship, and encouragement. This is something that neither a solo or formal learning environment supplies.

Jesus’ teaching methodology was relational, not intellectual. The relationship with His disciples was not just a formal student-teacher one. The Twelve spent a lot of time out and about with their Master. Jesus was extremely open and personal with them. He hid nothing from them. They saw Him get angry and they saw Him cry. They were a small, close-knit, intimate community.

Jesus led His disciples by example. He lived what He taught, not just acting it out for their benefit but living it for real. The disciples saw how to live from Jesus’ example. They saw the results and the consequences of such a life (“If they persecuted me, they’ll persecute you” – John 15:20). Jesus spoke openly of hardships as the norm on earth, and benefits as primarily a future heavenly reward (Matthew 5:3-12).

The Apostles continued this method of making disciples in the early church:

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

Philippians 3:17 (ESV)

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:9 (ESV)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:1 (ESV)

So I exhort the elders among you, … not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

1 Peter 5:1-3 (ESV)

This should be a significant characteristic of our discipling others also. We need to disciple personally. We need to spend time with each other, be open, transparent, bold and fearless in our following Jesus.

I’ll admit… this isn’t me. But it needs to be.

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