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FOLLOWING JESUS: What it means and how we should respond

Welcome to another entry of the Objective Mind. This entry is a bit exhaustive, but I hope it causes you to reflect and that it encourages you during this special day (and weekend) of remembrance. Let me start by sharing a quote from Peter H. Davids in, A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude, which states,

“The aspect of judgment he [Peter] does discuss in detail is that of the followers of Jesus. They are not immune from this judgment. The fact that they ‘invoke God as Father’ should make them live their lives in an appropriate fear of that coming judgment, for this Father ‘judges each according to their deeds without partiality’ (1 Pet. 1:7). He will not show favoritism to his ‘children.’ In that judgment, only living for him counts, not pious words about him.”  

When you read this quote how does it make you feel? I guess that question might be difficult to define without having the proper context of what the Peter Davids is speaking of. Mr. Davids is commenting on the epistle of 1 Peter and the judgment of Christ that was present and also eschatological, but we will speak of that later in this entry (Peter Davids commentary is very well done and I definitely recommend it). It is important to understand the background of any Biblical reference when looking to interpret, and in this case it is important to understand how the Good News was preached from the mouth and pen of the Apostles. Their teaching of the Gospel was always eschatological in nature. In other words, they preached the Good News in light of the impending return of Christ. Jesus IS coming, and soon! I put it like this to a youth group I spoke at recently, “Christ’s birth was foretold, His crucifixion and resurrection were witnessed, and His return has been proclaimed.” This is something important to understand when we take a look at 1 Peter.

The epistle of 1 Peter was a book written (mostly) to a group of Gentile converts spread throughout Asia Minor. They were the new Diaspora (People of Israel dispersed throughout the nations). The context of 1 Peter is that these Gentile converts are facing tremendous amounts of suffering due to their rejection of their former Greco-Roman culture, and its gods. The result of their conversion (renouncing “the world” or sin and turning to Christ) was slander, discrimination, isolation, and false accusations (along with other injustices). They endured tremendous amounts of rejection because of Jesus. Rejection from the society they grew up in, which included family and friends. The Apostle Peter was writing to them with the purpose of encouraging them by relating their suffering to the suffering of Christ, and that God (Jesus) is returning soon to judge the world.

In 1 Peter 4:17 the Apostle Peter indicates that this judgment begins with God’s house. The meaning, then, is that the time of suffering they are enduring is a means of “judgment” or purification of the Church in order to prepare it for Christ’s coming as an unblemished bride (Eph. 5:27).[1] He closes the verse by commenting that if judgment begins with God’s house, how much worse it will be for those outside His house. In others words (as spoken throughout his epistle), God is returning soon and will judge the world, and those outside God’s house who have treated God’s children unjustly will answer to God, and do it without Christ, which is indeed far worse. It’s a scary thought to face God’s judgment at any level, but it is far more terrifying to do it without Jesus, our Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). The overall point Peter makes is that everything that they are enduring is worth it because of God’s imminent judgment, and because of the future glory that awaits them. Furthermore, everything they have endured unjustly will eventually be dealt with. Nothing will be overlooked. All people will be held accountable for their deeds, good and bad (Ecc. 12:14; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27). Therefore, those who have mistreated them (to say it lightly) will eventually answer for their crimes to the King of kings. This is not stated to be vindictive but, rather, to ensure them that justice will be done. The same rule applies to everything and anything that occurs unjustly in this world. ISIS, sex traders, child-molesters, rapists, murderers, liars, cheaters, idolaters, fornicators, false preachers, and such, will all have their day in court and receive the proper reward for their actions. There is certain hope that all injustice will be made right, but remember that ALL will face judgment – including you and I. Understanding this, then, how does Peter Davids quote make you feel?

Personally, it was the last line that stuck out to me: “He will not show favoritism to his ‘children.’ In that judgment, only living for him counts, not pious words about him.” It reminds me of Isaiah 29:13 (which was repeated by Jesus in Matthew 15:8 and Mar 7:6) where God says to Isaiah, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” The sad reality is that many, maybe even most, fall into that unfortunate category. How many of us have lived in such a way? I know that I have, and it causes me to lose all trust in my own ability, which is probably a good thing.

As we approach the conclusion of Passion Week and begin to dwell on the work of God through Christ I hope that we will begin to examine ourselves in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). Are we really following Jesus? Or, are we making Him an accessory, only deceiving ourselves? Most people are probably confused on what it means to “follow Jesus.” Does that mean we drop everything and become a missionary to some remote country? Does it mean that I make a verbal commitment (under my breath) and go on with my life as usual? What does it mean to “follow Jesus”?

In order to answer that question, I believe that we have to understand what it means to be “saved.” Romans 10:9-10 states, “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved.” Therefore, through belief in our heart that Christ was raised from the dead, and a vocal proclamation, we are justified and likewise saved. To understand what this mean we should most definitely examine the terms belief, heart, and declare (confession).

First, let’s start with belief (faith). Hebrews 11:6 states, “And without faith it is impossible to please God.” That verse seems pretty direct, however what does it mean? This concept of faith and belief literally begins with Abraham in the Scriptures. The concept of faith is actually something that has been taken from New Testament philosophy and applied to Old Testament interpretation (St. Augustine stated, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New”). Genesis 15:6 (Rom. 4:3, 22; Gal. 3:6), which happens to be the first Biblical reference to faith, states, And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD counted him as righteous because of his faith.” In the New Testament the Apostle Paul uses this concept to confirm that men have always been made right with God through faith, and not the Law or human effort. With God it began with faith and ends with faith. In fact, people who are considered the children of Abraham are not his children because of a biological heritage, but through a spiritual heritage (Rom. 9:6-8). We become the children of Abraham through our faith! The definition of faith is presented to us in Romans 4:18-22 (using Abraham as the example), which states,

“Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb. Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous.”

Abraham’s conviction that God was able, and that God kept His promises, was the essense of this “faith” the he maintained. Essentially, all of his trust was IN God. This, then, is the premise of Hebrews 11:6, which could be accurately read, “And without trust it is impossible to please God.” Habakkuk 2:4 summarizes the antonymous concept to faith (trust) in God, stating, “Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked. But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.” Holman Bible Dictionary states, “Habakkuk 2:4 was properly taken by Paul as the center of Old Testament religion. God prepared the way for His people in mercy and grace, then called them to obedience. To accept the responsibilities of God’s covenant was to trust His word that He alone was God and to commit one’s life to His promises for the present and future. That is faith.” This, then, is why Hebrews 11:1 states, “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” Faith and/or belief, then, is an unwavering, immeasurable, and unbreakable trust IN God and His promises even though we might not see them or receive them yet in full measure. It is being “fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises.” Hebrews 11:13-16 (speaking of the great people of faith) sums up how faith is evidenced in the best fashion, stating,

“All these great people continued living with faith until they died. They did not get the things God promised his people. But they were happy just to see those promises coming far in the future. They accepted the fact that they were like visitors and strangers here on earth. When people accept something like that, they show they are waiting for a country that will be their own. If they were thinking about the country they had left, they could have gone back. But they were waiting for a better country—a heavenly country. So God is not ashamed to be called their God. And he has prepared a city for them.

Secondly, let us look at the heart as understood in the Scriptures. In today’s churches “believing in your heart” has become nothing more than a verbal commitment that someone makes “publicly,” usually while “heads are bowed and eyes are closed” (closet commitments). It is has become more of a cognitive decision, and not necessarily a nature-transformation, or better said, regeneration. In other words, the proof of salvation has become a verbal profession that does not require works to substantiate the individual’s profession. However, in the Scriptures an individual’s profession was confirmed through their works (or fruit) and finalized in their faithfulness to God to the end. One could say that the Apostle Paul’s entire Christian life is consummated in 2 Timothy 4:7, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

In the Scriptures the heart is not just an organ or some fanciful metaphor but, rather, it is that which describes the very seat (or throne) of man’s mind (intellect), will, affections (emotions), and spiritual (conscience) and moral (nature/character) life.[2] This is why an individual must believe (trust in God) in their heart because to believe in the heart is to renounce all self-rule and proclaim allegiance to Jesus as Lord and King. This heart is the very thing God transforms in order to enable us to respond to His grace and be saved. Ezekiel 36:26-27 states, “I will also put a new spirit in you to change your way of thinking. I will take out the heart of stone from your body and give you a tender, human heart. I will put my Spirit inside you and change you so that you will obey my laws. This is what happens when someone is truly saved. They are transformed – mind, heart, and soul! The Holman Biblical Dictionary states, “Because the heart is at the root of the problem, this is the place where God does His work in the individual.” The heart is the very essence of an individual’s decisions, thoughts, and desires; it is an individual’s entire being. This is why it is the necessary place where God either takes His place as King or the individual denies God and usurps His throne, which leads to death. The heart is centric to everything we are, and must place its trust and allegiance IN God.

Lastly, let us describe the matter of the open declaration (confession) of Jesus Christ as Lord. In the 1st Century AD when the epistle of Romans was written (to the Roman Christians), emperor worship was not uncommon. In fact, the emperors of Rome were worshipped as deities throughout the Roman Empire. There were even cults dedicated to the worship of the emperor. Therefore, confessing Jesus as Lord (and King) was not something to be taken lightly during this time in history because of Rome and the Jews. Furthermore, the need of confession was necessary by means of Matthew 10:32, which states, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven,” and because of the necessity for Christians in the 1st Century to define exactly what it was they believed.[3] Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states,

“Confessing God’s name (Hebrews 13:15) or the ‘name of the Lord’ (2 Timothy 2:19) is the mark of a believer. And, since God has revealed himself and his truth decisively in Jesus Christ, confessing Christ becomes the hallmark of genuine Christianity. Reflected here [Matt. 10:32] is the secular Greek use of the word to denote solemn and binding public testimony in a court of law. Confession of Christ, then, is no private matter, but a public declaration of allegiance.”

As time went on and as Christianity grew the need arose for Christian doctrine to be clearly defined because false teachers and heretics were beginning to enter into the Church. This is shown in throughout 1 John (in regards to Gnosticism), and it is also shown in Galatians 1:8-9 where Paul states, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed,” which is in response to the Judiazers. Confession of Christ publically, then, became a means of declaring their belief in the Christ and the Gospel that was preached to them by the Apostles.[4] Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states, “As the church was exposed to more and more alien influences, Christian doctrinal confessions had to become more specific and detailed. From the beginning, the church found it necessary to define what it meant to be a Christian by formulating statements of Christian belief that could be recited publicly.”

The intent was not to say that one is saved by the actual public confession per say but, rather, their public confession of Jesus Christ is the result of their heart transformation and the renunciation of self-rule. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology explains, “Paul here makes ‘confessing with the mouth’ parallel to ‘believing in the heart’ as a means of salvation. He does not mean by this that public confession is a means of salvation in the way that faith is, for his choice of wording is dictated by the allusion to the heart and the mouth in his earlier quotation of Deuteronomy 30:14 (v. 8). But the text does highlight the fact that genuine faith has its natural result in a public confession of adherence to Christ.” It is proper, then, to say that the confession (public declaration) of the Christian is a culmination of faith (trust) and heart (essence) uniting together in submission to Jesus Christ, which is what “salvation” is (we are saved from our sin and our self-destructive rule). Maybe, in reflection, it is the renunciation of what Adam did in the Garden. He ate the forbidden fruit and chose self-autonomy over trusting in God, and the word He gave them. Salvation, ultimately, is a return to Eden – it provides immortality and is based within the restored trust and allegiance (of the individual) to God.

In conclusion, the definition of following Jesus is the complete surrender of human essence (heart) and human autonomy (faith) to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and whatever that entails (decision, desire, thought, will). It is not some cognitive, associative verbal profession that comes with a commitment to attend church once a week. It either becomes your life or it becomes your death (Jn. 3:18, 36). The Gospel, Jesus Christ, will either save you or damn you (Jn. 3:16-21). It’s black and white. It’s all or nothing. Following Jesus requires a life lived like Christ (1 Jn 2:3-6), which is a life of obedience and sacrifice that ultimately led Him to the death on a Roman cross. Jesus appeals to us, “If any of you want to be my follower, you must stop thinking about yourself and what you want. You must be willing to carry the cross that is given to you for following me. Any of you who try to save the life you have will lose it. But you who give up your life for me will find true life” (Matt. 16:24-25). Following Jesus is the most difficult path to every take because it is the death to self (Gal. 2:20), the renunciation of this world (1 Jn 2:15-17; 1 Pet. 4:1-3) and the turning from the sin, which “clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1).

Going back, then, to the words of Peter H. Davids, “He will not show favoritism to his ‘children.’ In that judgment, only living for him counts, not pious words about him,” and understanding what following Jesus means, how then should we live our lives in light of this coming judgment? Our lives should be mirrors of Christ in love (in obedience, self-denial, and sacrifice). Our life is literally not our own anymore. The idea of dying to self is not hypothetical. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology brilliantly states, “Confessing Christ, then, requires both a matching Christian lifestyle and a matching Christian theology.” Everything we believe must be equivalent to what we do. This is why James writes, “Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17). We confirm our faith through our works.

If our works do not confirm our verbal profession, then we should be seriously concerned. In my mind there is no room for compromise. It seems like we make an infinite number of compromises, as Christians, that we should not be making. Whether it is what we watch, say, do or do not do, and/or participate in. I’m not saying we should go live in a hole somewhere, but I do think we need to have better discernment and be wary of dulling ourselves to what is right and wrong (what is and isn’t pleasing to God). The source of this, I believe, is that there is no longer a clear set of principles that Christians are expected or aim to live by. In fact, it is no longer clear who Jesus even was. It seems that culture has more influence on the person of Jesus than the Church, which is the result of “Christians” not committing themselves to study the Bible and defend it (with exceptions). We have not remained on alert (1 Cor. 16:13; Eph. 5:10-18) and have become too comfortable, and we are paying for it.

During this Passion weekend we must examine ourselves and determine (with the enablement of the Holy Spirit) whether we are truly in the faith. It is nerve racking, it’s scary, and the Light can make us shy away, but I say it is better to be exposed and live eternally than to hide in darkness and die perpetually. I think that this can all be pretty overwhelming and seem impossible to achieve. However, in those moments we should remember that it is God that accomplishes all of this in us through Christ. We can’t do it ourselves. For us it begins with openness to repentance, which I guess ultimately begins with God as well. I truly pray that God will open our hearts continually to receive the Gospel and that He would grant us repentance. I pray that this Resurrection Sunday becomes a means for all of us to reflect, to repent, and to pledge our allegiance, in word and action, to the Rock of Ages. I pray that in our lives God would always be glorified and that when we see Him that we will not be ashamed. God bless you all.

“I am sure that the good work God began in you will continue until he completes it on the day when Jesus Christ comes again.” ~Philippians 1:6

 

[1] Peter Davids, A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude

[2] The Holman Bible Dictionary

[3] Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

[4] Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

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