There is much confusion and misunderstanding about how the Word and the Spirit work together to equip the Christian to follow Jesus.
What does being a follower of Jesus look like? If all you knew about Jesus and God were what you saw in people who called themselves Christians, what picture would you have? Would it be positive, progressive, open-minded, inclusive, humble, and extravagantly compassionate? Or would it be exclusive, traditional, judgmental, critical, arrogant, and self-absorbed? Or would it be a mix of the two?
What would you learn about Jesus and God by simply observing Christians? Admittedly, no one, no matter what their views of life and religion, is perfect. No one lives in complete alignment with their cherished values. No one lives a completely consistent life.
We all are challenged to “practice what we preach.” That seems to be a painful human reality. So we are hard put to have the audacity to judge others. That said, however, how we live our lives does go a long way toward giving credibility (or not) to what we believe. So it is significant that Christianity embraces much more than simply what a person believes and values about Jesus and God. Christianity (being a follower of Jesus) involves not only cherishing Jesus but especially cherishing Jesus’ way of living. Central to following Jesus is placing His values and what He came to reveal about God as the pattern for contemporary living.
This may be summarized in two ways:
1. A Life of Confidence. One of the intriguing descriptions the disciple John (author of at least five books in the Bible) gives to himself is the disciple who often is leaning up close to Jesus, his head either on Jesus’ chest or shoulder (John 13:22-25). “The disciple Jesus loved” is his designation. Apparently, John was especially close to Jesus and therefore boldly loyal.
The night Jesus was arrested and sent to His execution, John is the one disciple who refuses to run away in fear and instead, follows as closely as possible to Jesus. And years later, when John has been banished by the Roman authorities to a little island off the coast of Turkey, he documents (in the Bible document called “Revelation”) his visions of Jesus returning to earth at the end of time as the triumphant liberator.
In all his letters John writes with boldness and confidence, brimming with a sense of security from knowing Jesus, deeply experiencing His love and eagerly anticipating Jesus’ return. Here is one of those passages: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:17, 18).1
And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face Him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
John wrote these words facing a very uncertain future, since the Roman authorities were actively persecuting Christians. Yet his words exude great confidence and lack of fear. He’s completely secure in his connection with God, unafraid of the future. He’s being empowered by his love for Jesus. He’s living in that love, and the more he acknowledges it, relishes it and lives in it, the deeper and more complete that love becomes. And with every deepening comes greater confidence. He calls it “perfect love.”
This is the disciple known as “the one Jesus loved.” This is the disciple who was often leaning up against Jesus’ chest so closely he could hear Jesus’ heartbeat. This is the disciple who, when Jesus was hanging on the cross with life violently being ripped away, stood at the foot of the cross and heard Jesus say about his executioners, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” This is the disciple who watched Jesus during the moments of his greatest suffering remember to provide for his mother by giving her to John and giving John to her. This is the disciple who experienced so intimately the unselfish and extravagant love of Jesus that he described it as “perfect love.” And it empowered him with absolute confidence and assurance.
Have you noticed the difference between people who are fearful and insecure and those who are confident? Who would you rather be around? Jesus’ followers are genuinely confident people, not because they have life all together, not because they’re perfect, not because they know it all, not even because everything always goes smoothly. They’re not arrogant. They’re not presumptuous. They aren’t intimidated by what others think of them or think they should be. They’re not insecure with having mystery and the unexplainable. They’re not afraid of differences of opinion. They’re not threatened by diversity.
But they are secure;: they know who they are and to Whom they belong. They have complete confidence and assurance in God’s love for them and their love for God and their ultimate destiny.
Consequently, they can live with boldness like the One they follow. They can serve others freely no matter what the cost, like Jesus. They can love sacrificially because they hold everything with an open hand. They don’t grasp tightly, they give extravagantly. Only free, confident, secure people can live like that–Jesus’ way of living!
The disciple John remembers clearly that night in the upper room when Jesus, Rabbi and Lord, took off His robe, put on the servant’s towel, picked up the pitcher and basin, and washed the disciples’ dirty feet. John got it when he later reflected on the scene and
described how Jesus could do such a radical act of service and love: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded” (John 13:3-5).
Jesus revealed the key to serving boldly and unselfishly: being confident and secure in who you are and where you’re going and how God feels about you. Only the truly confident, who know they are completely embraced by God unconditionally, can unashamedly and courageously serve and love extravagantly.
2. A Life of Compassion. So what does it look like when followers of Christ serve and love like Jesus? Does it involve bombing abortion clinics to demonstrate the human sanctity of life? Does it involve gay bashing and violent protests against gay marriage to demonstrate the sanctity of marriage? Does it involve kicking people out of the church who have failed to demonstrate the purity of the church? Does it involve consigning people who don’t accept “the Truth” to eternal judgment to demonstrate the significance of correct doctrine? Does it involve fearing to befriend people who don’t believe like you in order to protect the safety of the church? Does it involve condemning AIDS as God’s judgment on sin to demonstrate the holiness of God? What does it look like when Jesus’ followers serve and love as He did?
Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu leader who created a global movement of social transformation through nonviolence, once said, “I love your Christ. It’s Christians I can’t stand.” Isn’t he actually describing what should be considered an oxymoron? How can there be a disconnect between Jesus and the followers of Jesus? Aren’t they supposed to be one and the same in character, principle, and behavior? Shouldn’t the Gandhis of the world be able to love Christ’s followers because they in turn love Christ? Loving one is loving the other.
The disciple John understood this perfectly. So he challenged the believers of his day,
“By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).2