What does it mean to be a follower of Christ? Part 2: Discipling

Matthew 28: 16-20 But the eleven disciples went into Galilee to the mountain which Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they did homage to him: but some doubted. And Jesus coming up spoke to them, saying, All power has been given me in heaven and upon earth. Go [therefore] and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined you. And behold, *I* am with you all the days, until the completion of the age.

Yes, followers are disciples; but more importantly we are called to be disciplers.

How do we do that? Well, Jesus just gave us the job description here: we make disciples by teaching them to follow Jesus, the way He taught us. And He guarantees we will succeed because we don’t do this work alone, He is with us unto the end of the age.

The key here is that, not only is our goal to be the same goal Jesus worked toward when He did His work in our lives, our approach is also supposed to be the same approach. This is clear from His prayer near the end of the Gospel of John…

First, what is the goal?

John 17:1-3 (NASB) Jesus spoke these things; and raising His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, so that the Son may glorify You, just as You gave Him authority over all mankind, so that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”

As is evidenced throughout the Gospel, from the very beginning, what Jesus came to offer us is eternal life. That is the ultimate goal. He didn’t come to offer us success in this world. He didn’t even come to make our lives in this world pain free. (Yes, He did offer us Peace but He immediately said it is a peace unlike what the world offers or even understands: John 14:27.)

The goal has always been eternal life. We can offer people no more and no less.

And how is that eternal life attained? By knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He sent. Therefore, that is what we are supposed to work toward.

What is, then, to be our approach?

To tell people, to teach people, to bring everyone we can reach to a knowledge of God. How do I know this is the way to do our job, that this is to be our approach? Because this is exactly what Jesus did with us:

John 17:6-8 (NASB) “I have revealed Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have followed Your word. Now they have come to know that everything which You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me.”

The transformation from this earthly life to eternal life can only happen when we come face to face with God. Now, it is true that the Gospel also makes clear that we can only receive that eternal life through repentance. But I would claim that, to repent, you have to come face to face with the reality of God. This is what happened to Peter:

Luke 5:1-8 (NASB) One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

I quoted this passage in its entirety because it shows clearly Jesus’ approach. Jesus began by teaching.

I have always loved this passage because Jesus, even as He was planning to teach this whole crowd, also had His eye on one specific person: Simon. And this Simon was busy washing his nets, probably grumbling about this gathering crowd that is now making a mess of his part of the beach. I like to imagine him thinking to himself, ‘Oh, come on, Andrew, can’t you lead Jesus over there? It’s bad enough that you are not here helping me wash our nets. Can’t I work in peace?’

And then Jesus sees all the boats on the shore, and guess which one He gets into? Then He asks Simon to put out into the water. So, now those nets are not going to get washed… and worse, all of a sudden, he is captive audience for Jesus’ sermon.

It is with this picture in mind that I chuckle at Simon’s snarky response to Jesus when He tells him to put out to deep water and cast the nets: ‘Well… you know, Jesus, fishing is my business… buuuut if you say so… sure we’ll give it a try.’

Simon wasn’t counting on the fact that this itinerant preacher was the One who made all the fish in the world. And when Jesus tells those fish to jump, they jump.

The result is one of my favorite scenes in the Bible: he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

Tissot's painting of the miraculous draught of fish
James Tissot; The miraculous draught of fish

Repentance comes from meeting God face to face.

But aren’t we supposed to call people to repent?

I would agree that both John the baptizer and Jesus called out to the crowds the same way: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But then what did they do after that? Did they go ahead and list all the sins those people were committing and then told them to quit all that, or else? I don’t find that in the Gospel.

Why not? Because it wouldn’t work! If a person does not know the true God – His character and what He desires for His children – how could they possibly understand that doing a, b, c is wrong? Wrong by what standard?

Attacking the sins is an invitation to a dispute with no value and no hope of useful conclusion. You see, to reach the right conclusion, both sides must agree that there is such a thing as Truth. But the lie of the Evil one, the enemy of humanity, has been the same since the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Namely: There is no such thing as absolute truth. Remember, the serpent told Eve, “God said this… but did He really mean it?”

Yes, I am a firm believer that the absolute Truth is already written in the hearts of every person in the world, it is built into every culture in this planet (what C. S. Lewis called the Tao of humanity); but when we live in the world, by the rules of the world, listening to the lie day in and day out, we get used to turning our face away from the Truth whenever it is not convenient.

This is why it is enough for us to say “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And then we go on to explain who God is and what His Kingdom is all about. The listener’s conscience (and the Holy Spirit) will do the rest.

This is what it appears that John the Baptizer did. Out in the desert, proclaiming the message of the herald, “prepare the way for the Lord”, we don’t really know what he specifically told the people, apart from the words of Isaiah. What we do know is that when he was done speaking, they were moved to ask:

Luke 3:1-14 (NASB) And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what are we to do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The one who has two tunics is to share with the one who has none; and the one who has food is to do likewise.” Now even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what are we to do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And soldiers also were questioning him, saying, “What are we to do, we as well?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone, nor harass anyone, and be content with your wages.”

This is the way it should work. This is the way Jesus did it. Think about the sinful woman with “a reputation”, who braved entering the Pharisees’ house, while Jesus was there for supper, just to weep at His feet. Those were tears of repentance. And there, at that encounter, her sins were forgiven.

We need to let the Word of God, the Love of God, do its work.

The bottom-line

A follower of Jesus is, above all, an imitator of Jesus. If I ever wonder what the right thing to do is, how to approach a situation, especially, how to carry out my mission as a disciple, there is a very straight-forward answer: do what Jesus did.

John 17:14-18 (NASB) I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I am not asking You to take them out of the world, but to keep them away from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. Just as You sent Me into the world, I also sent them into the world.

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