As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-20)
Jesus gives the same command to every person in every age. “Follow me.” He did not say things we might have expected, like read your Bibles more, or pray more, or worship God more, or serve God more, or tell others about me, or start a church. He said simply, “Follow me.” On twenty different occasions Jesus said, “Follow me.”
So this will be God’s way forward for every Christian. Whether we have been a believer for 50 years or 50 minutes the command is the same. “Follow me.” This shouldn’t surprise us, although perhaps it does. It sounds so basic, so simplistic. After all, many of us have been involved in the church for many years. When we think of expressing our Christian faith, we think of “church membership.” But the Bible never speaks of “church members.” Not once, ever. In fact, the Bible only uses the word “Christian” three times. And the word “believer” only comes 27 times in the New Testament and only 14 times in the Gospels and Acts. Much more often, around 100 times, the Gospels and Acts talk about people being followers of Jesus, following Jesus. So that is what God calls us to be. Followers of Jesus. People who obey that simple command, “Follow me.”
God loves us so much more than we can possibly imagine! Jesus Christ sacrificed everything so that we could be forgiven, become God’s children, share His eternal life and have the happy certainty of sharing His glory in heaven forever. If we want go on with God, if we really want to respond to God’s love and grace, we must learn to follow Jesus. We must learn more about what following Jesus means. Even more than that, we must learn HOW to follow Jesus, and put what we learn into practice in our lives so that we actually DO follow Jesus in our thoughts and words and actions. As Oswald Chambers said, “One step forward in obedience is worth years of study about it.”
And this is where we must come to grips with perhaps the most challenging word in the Bible. The most demanding word in the Bible. The word which is used over 300 times to describe those people who followed Jesus. The word which is the New Testament name for followers or believers or Christians. That word is DISCIPLE. If we want to follow Jesus, we must become His disciples.
Jesus was a Rabbi, a teacher. And those who followed him were called his disciples, those who were taught by Him. Those who learned from Him. Those whose lives were shaped by Him and became like Him. If we really mean business with God, if we really want to go on with God, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as Christians, or believers, and start thinking of ourselves as disciples. Many people claim to be Christians. Many people claim to be believers. But not all Christians and not all believers are truly disciples of Jesus Christ.
William Barclay wrote: “It’s possible to be a follower of Jesus without being a disciple; to be a camp-follower without being a soldier of the king; to be a hanger-on in some great work without pulling one’s weight. Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a younger man. He said, “So and so tells me that he was one of your students.” The teacher answered, “He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students.” There is a world of difference between attending lectures and actually studying. It is one of the supreme handicaps of the Church that in the Church there are so many distant followers of Jesus and so few real disciples.”
If we really want to go on with God we need to hear the call of Jesus to “Follow me.” It is not enough to be distant followers, to play at being Christians or play at church. We each need to discover what it means to become real disciples of Jesus Christ.
Dallas Willard has written, “For at least several decades the church of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership — either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church. Any exception to this claim only serves to highlight its general validity and make the rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship clearly is optional.”
Dallas Willard is right! Just as an example, preparing for this morning I discovered that only three songs in our book contain the word disciple. But this is not just a modern problem. Oswald Chambers commented a century ago, “We talk about the joys and comforts of salvation; Jesus Christ talks about taking up the cross and following him.” Back in the 15th Century Thomas À Kempis recognised this problem in his book, The Imitation of Christ. “Jesus has many lovers of the heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross. He has many desirous of consolation, but few of tribulation. He finds many companions of his table, but few of his abstinence. All desire to rejoice with him, few are willing to endure anything for him, or with him.”
Discipleship has never been a popular product. We live in a materialistic consumer-driven world. People expect freedom to choose. People want satisfaction guaranteed. But instead Jesus says, “Follow me”. He isn’t looking for customers. Jesus demands disciples. As the corny bumper sticker puts it, “Carpenter from Nazareth seeks joiners.” Not consumers who think they can buy when they feel like it and change brands whenever they like. But disciples. And discipleship is about commitment. It cost those fishermen Andrew, Simon, James and John everything they had to become disciples.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:19-22)
For Peter and Andrew and James and John, becoming a disciple meant giving up everything else to follow Jesus. Going where Jesus led. Doing what Jesus chose, not what the disciples would have naturally chosen. The disciples were not called to learn knowledge or information, but a way of life – the Jesus way. “Follow me.” Learn from me, become like me, Jesus said. That is how it was for those first disciples. And that is how it must be for true disciples in every age. Discipleship is costly! It demands sacrifice! Salvation is free, but discipleship costs everything we have.
Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross (daily) and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
“Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:38)
“No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61-62)
The way forward for followers of Jesus in every age is to become disciples. Discipleship involves three things, and the first of these things is LEARNING. Disciples are learners, but what is it that Jesus wants his disciples to learn? There are so many areas. Prayer. Worship. Understanding. Character. Lifestyle. Fellowship. Service. Witness. Discipleship is about knowing what God wants us to do. It’s about knowing why we should obey God. It’s about having conviction, the motivation to do God’s will. And it’s about learning the skills we need to serve God. Disciples are learners, they are apprentices of Jesus. In one sense we will all be learners for the whole of our lives, but in another sense there should come a time when the apprentice has learned enough to practise his trade. In church life, attenders should be becoming believers. Believers becoming members. Members becoming mature. Members becoming ministers in the sense that all Christians should be ministers serving God in the church and in the world. Atheists transformed into missionaries.
More than anything else as Christians we need to learn from Scripture. We need to learn about God and His love for us and his grace towards us. We need to learn from Jesus the Son of God as He revealed God to us by His words and His actions. We need to learn about the Holy Spirit of God, the Helper, God living inside us. But knowing ABOUT a person is not the same as knowing the person. Some people can know a lot about God without really knowing God personally or having a relationship with God at all. The Christian life is not just knowing about God – but knowing God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord and experiencing the present reality and power of God the Holy Spirit. So we don’t only learn about God – we get to know God and develop our relationship with him.
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. (Ephesians 1:17-19)
Then the Bible also reveals to us the things that are pleasing to God and the things that make God angry. So we need to learn how to serve God and become more like Him in love and Holiness. So much to learn about creation and the fall, about God’s plan of salvation, about heaven and hell and the return of Christ. So much more to learn – a lifetime of learning.
As well as learning the second thing discipleship involves is OBEDIENCE. A wise man has rightly observed, “Most evangelical Christians are educated beyond their obedience.” In other words, we are better at learning in our heads than we are at putting what we’ve learned into practice in our lives. We may say, “We want to learn how to pray, or become more effective witnesses, or grow in holiness, or whatever it is. Peter, preach us some inspiring sermons on prayer, or witnessing, or holiness, or whatever. Write us some exciting Home Group Studies on prayer, witness, holiness.” But the truth is most of us have enough head knowledge in these areas already. We don’t need any more learning. What we are missing out on is the obedience!
A friend of ours knows more about listening to God and interceding in prayer than anybody else I have met. I once asked him how he had learned so much about prayer. It was simple. Early in his Christian life he had devoted a whole year to finding out about prayer. He had looked up EVERY reference in the Bible on prayer. He had read as many books as he could on prayer. And he had spent as many hours a day as he could actually praying. That is how he learned about prayer! Most of the time we don’t need more learning, we just need more obedience! If we are serious about learning to pray we will just make the time and get down to praying!
We don’t need too much more teaching on holiness. We just need to obey the commandments we already know. We know we are commanded to “love one another.” (John 13:34-35) We just need to get on with the practice of caring for each other and sharing our lives together and bearing each other’s burdens! The letter of James commands us to put the truth we know into practice. Failure to do so is sin. (James 1:22, 4:17) “Most evangelical Christians are educated beyond their obedience.” But beyond learning and obedience discipleship includes one more thing. We need PASSION.
The first disciples were committed. They were enthusiastic, they were dedicated, they were passionate about God! We can be passionate about our families, our jobs, our hobbies, even our churches. But we need to make sure that above all these important and precious and worthwhile things and people, God is our greatest passion. Somebody once said of Christians, “If one-tenth of what you believe is true, you ought to be ten times as excited as you are.” Ruth and I went to a revival meeting at Lakeland in Florida in 2008 and just one sentence stuck in my mind from that evening. “A fanatic is only somebody who loves Jesus more than you do!” We need passion!
A famous conductor once dislocated his shoulder while leading an orchestra. Very few Christians are at risk of dislocating anything in our enthusiasm for God. Many never even get their ties out of place!
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. (Romans 12:11) A.W.Tozer once wrote, “There seems to be a chilling fear of holy enthusiasm among the people of God. We try to tell how happy we are—but we remain so well-controlled that there are very few waves of glory experienced in our midst.”
Tozer wrote, “Orthodox Christianity has fallen to its present low estate from lack of spiritual desire. Among the many who profess the Christian faith, scarcely one in a thousand reveals any passionate thirst for God. We fear extremes and shy away from too much ardor in religion as if it were possible to have too much love or too much faith or too much holiness.
“Occasionally one’s heart is cheered by the dis¬covery of some insatiable saint who is willing to sacri¬fice everything for the sheer joy of experiencing God in increasing intimacy’. To such we offer this word of exhortation: – Pray on, fight on, sing on. Do not underrate anything God may have done for you before. Thank God for everything up to this point but do not stop here. Press On into the deep things of God. Insist upon tasting the profounder mysteries of redemption. Keep your feet on the ground, but let your heart soar as high as it will. Refuse to be aver¬age or to surrender to the chill of your spiritual environment. Unless you do these things you will reach at last (and unknown to you) the graveyard of orthodoxy and be doomed to live out your days in spiritual mediocrity!” (A.W.Tozer in The Root of the Righteous)
God wants every one of us to grow to Christian maturity. In honesty, over the last year, how much have each of us grown in our relationship with God our Father and into the likeness of Jesus Christ? As one preacher observed, many Christians are not growing, they are just getting fatter. It is God’s will that EVERY Christian will continually be making progress in every area of discipleship. Every Christian should be growing up into Christ. Every Christian should be closer to Jesus this year than they were last year. Praying more meaningfully. Worshipping more deeply. Serving and witnessing more effectively. Growing up into Christ.
The church today needs the kind of discipleship which will transform us into everything that God calls us to be as Christians, into the image of Jesus Christ. We need learning – not just head knowledge but heart knowledge of God our heavenly Father. We also need obedience – to put into practice the things we have learned. And above all these things we need a passion, a holy zeal that makes it natural and easy to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind.
The old prayer we chose as our theme for 2011 is the prayer of a true disciple.
Day by day, Dear Lord I pray,
To see you more clearly,
Love you more dearly,
And follow you more nearly,
Day by day. AMEN