A Disciple Responds in Faith and Obedience

This is part 2 in the series “What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means.” Read part 1.


In the first part of this series, we saw that when Jesus called someone to be his disciple, he did not mean sitting in a classroom and memorizing information. Following Jesus means walking where he walks, doing what he did, and teaching what he taught.

Disciples of Jesus are not supposed to simply learn information, they are supposed to apply information into their lives in a way that leads to transformation.

In his book Discipleship Essentials, Greg Ogden writes,

“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”

In this article and each that follows, I’ll be taking a closer look at each phrase in that definition to give us a fuller picture of what following Jesus really means.

Responding in Faith

It’s common to hear someone in the church refer to the time they “put their faith in Christ” or “made a decision for Christ.” And for good reason. That’s part of the way we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, by putting our faith in him and trusting him to lead our lives.

But to truly understand what the Bible means by putting our faith in Christ, we need to know what the Bible says about faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

If we have faith, then, we don’t merely “hope” for things in the sense that we wish they would happen. Instead, we have the assurance that those things hoped for—no more pain, no more tears, no more death—will one day come to pass. If we have faith, we have conviction in the things God has revealed to us through the Bible; things we cannot see. We don’t have to see the resurrection to have the conviction that it happened.

Responding in faith to Christ, then, means we are assured, we are confident, in his promises of salvation, restoration, and eternal life. We have the conviction these things will happen despite our lack of visual evidence.

Our response of faith isn’t a one-time thing, either. Living by faith is an everyday action for the Christ-follower whose beliefs and convictions are constantly being challenged by other people or life circumstances. An unexpected layoff calls for faith that God’s timing is perfect. An unwelcome diagnosis calls for faith in the resurrection of the dead, where we’ll one day receive a new body, uncorrupted by sin.

When Jesus says to us, “Follow me,” it requires faith to move any further.

Responding in Obedience

But responding to Christ’s call to follow him is not merely about faith—it’s also about obedience. By obedience, I simply mean doing what Jesus tells us to do.

Jesus is not satisfied with divided allegiances. He is not content with fair-weather followers. He requires total and complete submission to his lordship over our lives. “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Anyone who would follow Jesus is required to renounce everything he has—his selfish ambition, plans, dreams, family, job, income—before truly being able to say they are a disciple of his.

This is why the phrase “I accepted Jesus into my heart” can be so troubling. It’s not that the heart is uninvolved; of course our submission to Jesus results in an emotional response. It’s that the heart can only go where the hands and feet are willing. To give ourselves to Jesus only sentimentally is the same as not giving ourselves to him at all.

Jesus does call us to follow him with our heart and our minds, but he also calls us to follow him with our hands and our feet. Remember, the call to discipleship, or following Jesus, is not just a call to believe; it’s a call to change your life and actions based on those beliefs, as well.

Just as a disciple following their rabbi would become more and more like the rabbi the more they followed him, so we want to become more and more like Jesus in our thoughts and actions the more we follow him.

To be clear, we are not saved through our actions, but our actions are evidence that we have been saved. This is what James is talking about when he writes, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22 NIV). And it’s what Jesus means when he explains, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14 ESV).

If we have truly put our faith in Christ, our inward transformation will have outward results. But without faith, we have no foundation for following Jesus in the first place. The two go hand-in-hand—the disciple responding in faith and obedience.

Next time we’ll look at exactly what it is that we’re responding to.

What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means

Let’s face it: most Christians in America have no idea what it means to follow Jesus. According to one Barna study, only 20% of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity. Another study found that only 45% of regular church attenders read the Bible more than once a week, and almost 20% never read it. Preston Sprinkle wrote a book based on a Barna study commissioned by NavPress on the state of discipleship in America. His conclusion? “The American church is not doing very well at discipling its people.

In the introduction to that book, David Kinnaman writes that three-quarters (76%) of practicing Christians in the U.S. agree with the notion that the best version of themselves can be found by looking inside themselves. That sounds more like following your heart than following Jesus.

In the church, we talk a lot about “following Jesus,” or being a “Christ-follower.” I fear this is one of those terms we hear so much that we’ve become numb to what it truly means, so we assume we are following Jesus without ever really considering what we say we are.

The Roots of Discipleship

These terms—“following Jesus” and “Christ-follower”—are modern ways of identifying as “disciples” of Jesus. That word, “disciple,” is crucial for understanding what it means to follow Jesus. In Greek, the language the New Testament was written in, the word we translate as “disciple” is mathētḗs. That term simply means “learner.” But it doesn’t mean that in the sense you might think.

Today, to say that someone is a “learner” means that they’re a student. It means they take instruction, internalize information, and regurgitate it for a test or another person. But that’s not what the Bible means when it uses the word “learner,” or disciple. When the Bible speaks of learning or of being a disciple, it’s referring to something closer to what we would call equipping, training, or apprenticing.

In Jesus’ day, being a disciple of a rabbi was the pinnacle of achievement. It’s what every young boy growing up would want to be. From a young age, they would start memorizing the entire Torah, or what we think of as the Old Testament, in hopes that they would one day be qualified to become a disciple. If they actually made it all the way through the process and were picked to be discipled by one of the rabbis, they would start following them around everywhere they went.

If you were a disciple, the goal was to spend as much time with your rabbi as possible in order to learn as much of their teaching as possible so that you could become as much like them as possible. To do that, they had to walk where they walked, do what they did, and teach like they taught. They were being equipped to be a rabbi on their own one day. They were in training as an apprentice. That’s much different than classroom learning as we think of it today.

What Following Jesus Really Means

So when Jesus called someone to be his disciple, he was calling them in that context, with that cultural understanding. Following Jesus does not mean sitting in a classroom and memorizing information. Following Jesus means walking where he walks, doing what he did, and teaching what he taught. Disciples of Jesus are not supposed to simply learn information, they are supposed to apply information into their lives in a way that leads to transformation.

So, what does it really mean to follow Jesus, to be his disciple? Greg Ogden summarizes it this way in Discipleship Essentials,

“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”

In the articles to follow, I’ll examine each of the phrases in that definition so we can see exactly what it means to follow Jesus.

Why Those Wise Men Shouldn’t Be in Your Nativity

And what this says about how we read the Bible

We all have one in our homes this time of year—a cute, cuddly nativity scene. There’s baby Jesus, of course, right in the middle, flanked by Mary and Joseph, a collection of donkeys and sheep, a few shepherds, perhaps an angel above, and, last but not least, the three wise men.

Let’s talk about those wise men. See, the thing is, if your nativity scene has wise men in it, it’s wrong.

Let’s revisit the story.

Revisiting the Christmas Story

Mary, fully pregnant and ready to give birth, finds herself riding a donkey beside her faithful husband, Joseph, as they make their way to Bethlehem in Jerusalem. After arriving in Bethlehem, they find there’s no room for them in the local inn, but there is a manger, or stable, that has some room.

Having nowhere else to go, Mary and Joseph cozy up in the manger alongside what would surely have been a variety of animals. Once inside, Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son. But not just any son. This was the very Son of God. They name him Jesus after having received earlier instructions to do so.

Shortly after, angels appear to nearby shepherds and announce the good news that the Savior of the world has just been born. A choir of angels then appears and explodes into song, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Then, just as quickly as they came, the angels disappeared.

Understandably curious and awe-struck, the shepherds head off to Bethlehem to see this newborn boy. Once they arrive, they find the boy lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Then, the wise men see a bright, shining star and start heading east, following it towards Jerus—not so fast.

The Case of the Missing Wise Men

This is where things go wrong. We assume the wise men were there at the manger because their story directly follows the birth narrative of Jesus in chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel. But our assumption leads us astray because the Bible never says the wise men were present at the birth. Instead, it says they visited Jesus when he was about two-years-old.

We know this from the tragic and gruesome details of Herod’s slaughter of young boys in Matthew 2. The wise men, in an epically unwise move, go to King Herod in Jerusalem to ask where the baby boy who is the new “King of the Jews” has been born.

Immediately sensing the threat to his throne and an opportunity to snuff out this newcomer, Herod plays along with the wise men. He tells them to go to Bethlehem and find this new King, then report his location so he could come and worship kill him. The wise men did find the baby boy, and, indeed, they brought him gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went home a different way.

Herod, realizing he’s been duped by the wise men, then does what all dictators do when things don’t go their way—he starts killing people. Since he didn’t know which little boy to have killed, he orders every boy two-years-old and under to be killed.

This is how we know when the wise men came to visit Jesus: Herod ascertained the time when the star the wise men had been following appeared, then calculated how old the baby King would be. The answer was two-years-old, perhaps a bit younger.

See for yourself:

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” – Matt. 2:16

Okay, so now you know your nativity is wrong. At the end of the day, I’m not really concerned with whether or not you have the magi in your manger.

What I am concerned about is what this error reveals about how we read the Bible. In particular, it reveals three common problems with how we approach Scripture: we don’t read it for ourselves, we assume other people have read it for themselves, and we don’t see what we read.

We Don’t Read the Bible for Ourselves

Bible engagement is, to put it bluntly, abysmal, even within the church. You might even call it an epidemic. In my American culture where unfettered access to the Bible exists in a variety of formats, more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible. LifeWay Research, after their recent study of Bible reading, concluded Americans are fond of the Bible but don’t actually read it.

Scott McConnell, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, highlights the problem, saying, “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.” In my experience, “when someone else is reading it” means when they hear a few verses read aloud as part of a weekend sermon.

The reason most of us think the wise men were at the manger is that most of us haven’t read the Bible for ourselves. We haven’t exposed ourselves to the text first-hand, let alone examined it. Most Americans seem content to live in Old Testament times where God’s Word had to come through the mouth of a prophet. Remarking on this trend, Francis Chan writes,

“A mentor of mine lives in India. Last year, he called me on the phone crying, distraught over the state of the church in America. ‘It seems like the people in America would be content to take a selfie with Moses. Don’t they know they can go up the mountain themselves? Why don’t they want to go up the mountain?’”

One of the reasons we don’t want to go up the mountain is because we assume the people we hear the Bible from went up themselves, which leads us to our second problem.

We Assume Other People Have Read the Bible for Themselves

Millions of people missing a small detail of the manger scene is only possible when those people assume others have read the Bible closely and will tell them what they need to know. Perhaps this is why “good Bible teaching” is most important to American churchgoers—we need good Bible teaching or we won’t get any Bible for the week.

Whether it’s teaching in a weekend service, small group, or Bible study, we assume the people talking the most have read the Bible for themselves. That assumption leads us to believe we can trust what they say about it. And even when they say something that sounds off, we haven’t read enough of the Bible to know where to check their understanding.

One of the big takeaways from LifeWay’s recent study was that “people who really like the Bible don’t necessarily really read the Bible.” If the statistics are true—and if we care deeply about our eternity—we would be wise not to assume people talking about the Bible have actually read it.

But what about those of us who do read the Bible? How have we read the birth narratives in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 without noticing the time gap between the shepherds and wise men? Because even when we read the Bible, we don’t see what we read.

We Don’t See What We Read

Of the small percentage of Americans who read the Bible, an even smaller percentage actually know how. Literacy—knowing how to read—is not the only skill needed to read a thousands-year-old collection of books written in ancient cultures by people from a world that looked vastly different than ours. Hermeneutics, or the science of interpreting ancient documents, is necessary for people in America in 2017 to read a book written in Rome or Israel thousands of years earlier, even if it doesn’t go by that name.

At a basic level, everyone in the church should have access to other, more mature believers who can show them how to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). The value in teaching something like hermeneutics is in helping Christians properly interpret what they’re reading in the Scriptures. The real goal, though, of hermeneutics is to train people to see the Bible.

Most of us read things at such a speed that we don’t notice much of what’s there. We miss context, innuendo, previous references, etc. We see so little because we don’t give ourselves time to look. We read through our passage so we can check the box on our reading plan, or swipe right in our Bible app.

If we want to learn to read the Bible, we must learn to see the Bible.

A Way Forward

Do you need to throw away your nativity if it has wise men? No. But you might need to chart a way forward with your own Bible reading habit. There are a few ways to get started.

First, read the Bible. Just read it. You won’t learn to love the Bible until you learn to read the Bible. So, tolle lege—take up and read!

Next, find someone to teach you how to read it well. If that’s not an option, make use of one of the great online resources available, like David Platt’s Secret Church on How to Study the Bible, or Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s class on Interpreting and Teaching the Bible.

Finally, pray for God to give you a hunger for the Bible. Ultimately, we don’t read the Bible because we don’t delight in reading it. Pray for that delight as you continue to immerse yourself in the wonders of the Word.

Please, don’t put your eternity in someone else’s hands. Read the Bible for yourself.

[Interview] A Long Obedience in an Instagram Age

I was recently interviewed by Bill Feltner for the show His People on Pilgrim Radio. It was a great conversation based on an article I wrote a few weeks ago called “A Long Obedience in an Instagram Age.” Bill and I discuss how to approach discipleship in a distracted age.

Listen Now

(Interview length: 27 minutes)

[Podcast] A Christ-Centered Leader is Built to Last

What does it take to last in leadership? How do you finish well? In this episode, we’ll look at 4 challenges from the Apostle Paul for being a leader who’s built to last.

Listen Now

(Episode legth: 19 minutes)

Show Notes

Main idea: A Christ-centered leader is built to last.

Challenge #1: Live in the gospel

  • When you see the wonders and beauty of the cross of Christ, when you let it wash over your heart and overwhelm your mind, then you’ll find your actions and thoughts conforming to the character of Christ
  • Keep drawing from the living water—the well that never runs dry—the grace of Jesus Christ

Challenge #2: Pass on the gospel

  • A public witness
    • A Christ-centered leader has a public faith
  • Intentional investment
    • Intentionally invest your life in others with time, energy, resources
    • Get serious about passing on what you’ve been given
  • Invest in the right people
    • Paul calls us to invest in those who are 1) faithful now, and 2) will be able to teach others later

Challenge #3: Endure for the gospel

  • A dedicated soldier
    • We are not simply participants in a religion but soldiers in a battle
  • A disciplined athlete
    • It takes discipline—and lots of it—to follow Jesus
  • A hard-working farmer
    • “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9 ESV)

Challenge #4: Remember the hero of the gospel

  • You are not the hero of the gospel—Jesus is
  • “When your tank is empty, remember that the tomb is empty” —Tony Merida

 

Download a full transcript of this episode.