Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Following Jesus


In his “Great Commission,” Jesus taught, “go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28.19-20). I was taught in a Christian tradition known as Dispensationalism. My dispensational pastors and professors tended to focus on Paul and paid very little attention to the ethical teachings of Jesus. They focused on the grace of God in salvation to such an extent that any emphasis on the commands of Jesus would almost certainly have been viewed as “legalism.”

My pastors and teachers were very zealous about Jesus’ “Great Commission” to go into all the world and make disciples (and rightly so). But they seemed to ignore or downplay the rest of the Great Commission which says “teaching them to obey all that I [Jesus] have commanded you.” I was taught that Matthew, Mark and Luke really belonged to the Old Testament which applied to Israel, not to the church. One of my dispensational pastors even told me that “there is very little gospel in the Gospels.”

I was not persuaded. First, it didn’t seem very consistent to emphasize the part of the Great Commission about making disciples, but to ignore the part about teaching disciples to obey Jesus.

Second, it didn’t seem very consistent to insist that the Gospel of Matthew was written to Israel and not to the church—and yet at the same time to insist that Matthew 28:19-20 was the top priority for the church.

Third, even my dispensational pastors and professors recognized that the Gospel of John was written for the church and yet the Gospel of John emphasizes the importance of obeying Jesus!

Fortunately, Dispensationalism has evolved since those days. It would almost seem silly today to have to insist that obeying Jesus should be a major goal of everyone who calls themselves Christian. In fact, I would suggest that it is an oxymoron to call someone “Christian” who really does not want to obey Jesus.
But exactly what does obeying Jesus entail? When Jesus taught that we are to make disciples, teaching them to obey all things he commanded, exactly what was it we were to obey?

To answer that question I copied and pasted the Gospels to a Word document. Next, I deleted everything that was not related to the ethical or moral teachings of Jesus. I then organized these teachings and wrote them up in narrative form, citing chapter and verse at every point. The result is contained in the essay below. It is not exhaustive but I think it is a good 30,000 foot overview of what Jesus’ expected of his followers.

Sin and repentance

Jesus was all about love and compassion, but it may come as a surprise to some that he also had a lot to say about sin. Jesus taught that sin does not consist of outward actions alone, but begins in the heart. He said that out of the heart comes “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly, and false testimony (Mk 7.20-23; cf. Mt 15.10-20).

Similarly, in Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” it was not just those who murdered who were guilty—Murder began with hatred in the heart. It was not just those who committed adultery who were guilty—Adultery began with lust in the heart (Mt 5.21-30). Jesus taught that since the mouth speaks what is in the heart, people one day would give account of every idle word they have spoken, (Mt 12.33-37).

For Jesus, sin did not just exist in the hearts of those who were greedy, envious, hateful or immoral, etc. Sin also existed in the hearts of religious leaders who loved to draw attention to themselves in order to make themselves look good, but didn’t practice what they preached. Among other things, Jesus called them hypocrites, blind guides, vipers, and even sons of hell (Mt 23.36; Lk 11.43-44)!
While Jesus insisted that we should let our “light shine before men, that they may see [our] good deeds and praise [our] Father in heaven” (Mt 5.16), he also taught that we should be careful never to do these good deeds for the purpose of self-glorification. For example, when (not if) we give to the poor we should never do so for the purpose of drawing attention to ourselves (Mt 6.4). Jesus warned of severe punishment, for example, to those who loved to flaunt their religious status but oppressed widows (Lk 20.45-47).

Jesus pointed out that, generally speaking, it was the religious leaders, not tax collectors and sinners, who refused to repent at the teaching of John (Mt 21.32).The religious leaders, however, were not the only ones Jesus condemned. He characterized his entire generation as wicked, adulterous, and sinful (Mk 8.38; Mt 12.39; 16.4; Lk 11.29). If he thought of his relatively moral first century Jewish culture as wicked, we can only imagine what he would say about modern western culture!

Jesus warned that sin was a serious issue that should not to be taken lightly. He used the hyperbole of cutting off hands and feet, or plucking out eyes to make the point that people should take drastic action to avoid sin (Mt 5.27-30; 18.8-9). He warned that those he called “evil-doers” and “wicked”—presumably those whose lifestyles are characterized by unrepentant delight in sinfulness—would be cast out of his presence and consigned to a place where there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 7.21-23; Lk 13.24-30, 47-50).

It should not be surprising, therefore, to learn that the very first words Matthew and Mark record of Jesus’ public ministry are a call to repentance (Mt 4.17; Mk 1.15)! Jesus taught that unless we repent we will perish (Lk 13.1-6) but he said that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance (Lk 15.3-31). Obeying Jesus, therefore, must begin with repentance.

Love the Lord your God

Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Mt. 22.35-40; Lk 10.27-28). As such this command should be considered the foundation of Jesus’ ethical teaching. But in Jesus’ teaching there was a bit of a twist. Jesus made claims for himself that could only be true of God and insisted that people should value him, Jesus, above all else. For example, according to the Gospels, Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sin and said he was lord over the Sabbath—characteristics only true of God. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus taught that “I and my Father are one.” Jesus’ enemies understood precisely what he meant because they tried to stone him saying, “you a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). In the Ten Commandments God taught, “You shall have no other gods before me,” so Jesus, viewing himself as “One with the Father,” commanded that people value him (Jesus) above everything else.

For example, devotion to Jesus was to outweigh our love of money. Jesus taught that ultimately, people cannot serve both God and money (Lk 16.13). And as much as Jesus cared for the poor—and demanded that we do so also—Jesus insisted that devotion to him should even outweigh our commitment to help the poor (John 12.4-8).

Even more than that, however, Jesus taught that anyone who loved their family—father, mother, sister, brother, wife, husband, children—more than they loved him, was not worthy of him. Anyone who would not take up their cross for him—a metaphor for being willing to die—was not worthy of him (Mk, 8.34-37; Mt 10.27-39; 16.24-27; Lk 9.23-25; 12.48; 14.25-27).

In Matthew 8.22 someone said he wanted to follow Jesus but that he had to bury his father first. Jesus told him to “let the dead bury their own dead,” apparently meaning that allegiance to Jesus even trumped important and necessary family obligations. Jesus warned that such allegiance to him would bring division in families (Lk 12.51-53), and that some would even be betrayed to death by family members (Mt 10.16-23). That being the case, he warned people to count the cost before following him (Lk 14.28-30). Following him could be deadly. On the other hand, he said that people should not be afraid of those who can kill the body but rather to fear the One who has authority to throw them into hell (Lk 12.4-5).

This ultimate allegiance to Jesus, however, didn’t mean that people should neglect family members. Jesus taught that people should honor their parents (Mk 7.10; 10:18-20; Lk 18.20) as commanded by the Law of Moses, and as Jesus himself did (Jn 19.26-27). He condemned those who contrived to deprive their parents of financial help (Mk 7.9-13; Mt 15.3-9). He taught that we should be faithful in marriage (Mt 5.31-32, 19.4-6; 19.8-9; Lk 16.18) and he warned of dire consequences for those who caused children to stumble (Mt. 18.6; Mk 9.42; Lk 17.2). Indeed, loving the Lord even above family often gives a depth and permanence to familial love that doesn’t exist in many relationships.

An important expression of love for the Lord is worship. Jesus taught to worship God and “serve him only” (Mt 4.10; Lk 4.8), which must be interpreted in light of Jesus’ claim to deity. Jesus said this worship was to be “in spirit and in truth” apparently meaning that worship should not just be by empty rituals or rote but should be sincere, from the heart and according to biblical truth.

Another expression of love for the Lord is prayer. Jesus both taught (Mt 6.6-10; Mt 14.23; Mk 11.25) and exemplified prayer in his life (Mk 14.32-39; Lk 5.16; Jn 17)—sometimes rising early in the morning or praying all night (Mk 1.35; Luke 6.12). Jesus taught that God, like a loving father, wants to answer prayer (Lk 11.5-26; Mt 7.7-11) so people should pray persistently (Mt 11.5-26), in faith with an attitude of expectancy (Mt 21.22). Jesus was clear, however, that public prayer should never be for show or for the purpose of bringing honor to oneself (Mt 6.5-8).

It is important to emphasize that loving Jesus is more than just warm fuzzy feelings. Loving Jesus involves a heart attitude that encompasses such words as devotion, dedication, commitment, and allegiance (Paul would call this attitude “faith”). Such an attitude cannot help but produce a change in one’s life. In fact, a life that produced fruit was one of the characteristics of a genuine love for and allegiance to Jesus. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep [or you will keep] my commandments” (Jn 14.15) and “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14.21) and “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (14.23). In Jesus’ parable of the sower, those who heard the word of God and fell away, or got choked out buy the cares of this world, were not true followers of Jesus. The true followers of Jesus were those who remained in Jesus and produced fruit (Mt 13.1-9; 18-23).

Bearing fruit involves, among other things, being good “stewards” or managers of the abilities, talents, opportunities and resources entrusted to us by God. The Lord expects us to use these wisely. Failure to do so would result in being thrown into a place of darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 25.14-30; cf. Luke 18:11-27).

Bearing fruit was to be so characteristic of Jesus’ followers (Lk 8.4-15, 21) that Jesus said those who did not bear fruit would be cut down like a fig tree (Lk 13.6-9) and “thrown into the fire” (Mt 7.15-20; John 15.1-17). If someone deeply loves and is genuinely committed to Jesus, this cannot help but produce a change in our life that increasingly bears the fruit of obedience to Jesus.
Jesus’ followers were to be characterized by having a hunger and thirst for righteousness, by being merciful or compassionate, being pure in heart, meek, and making peace (Mt 5.3-11). No one is perfect, of course, but sincere love for and genuine commitment to Jesus cannot help but to produce fruit. That fruit may include numerous aspects of loving our neighbors, as explained below.

Love your neighbor as yourself

Jesus said the second most important command was to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mt 22.35-40; Lk 10.27-28). But who is our neighbor? Certainly our neighbor would include fellow Christians. Jesus taught that we should love fellow believers as he has loved us. In fact, Jesus said this love for fellow believers would be how people would know we are his disciples (John 12.34). Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should be prepared to lay down our lives for others (John 15.12, 17).

But loving neighbors involves more than just loving fellow believers. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus seemed to imply that our neighbor was the person we happened to come upon who was in need and whom we were in a position to help. But even more than that, Jesus’ command to love others was to include love even for our enemies.

This love, whether for believers, neighbors or enemies, was not just affection or warm feelings, it involved looking out for the well-being of others. In Luke 6, Jesus explains this love in terms of concrete actions—“do good to those who hate you, bless (speak well) of those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you,” “turn the other check” to insults, give to those in need, lend without expecting re-payment (Lk 6.27-36, Mt 5.38-43).

Loving others meant doing “to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk 6.31). It meant showing compassion to people. Jesus taught to “Be merciful (or compassionate) just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6.36 cf. Mt 5.7). In fact, Jesus’ ministry embodied compassion (e.g. Mk 8.1-13; Mt 15.32-38; 11.4-5). His teaching, feeding, healings and exorcisms were, among other things, expressions of compassion (Mt 9.36, 14.14; 15.32; 20.34; Mk 6.34; 8.2).
Loving others also involved forgiving those who have sinned against us. Jesus commanded that if our brothers or sisters repent we must forgive them repeatedly (Lk 17.3) and that our refusal to forgive would result not only in God’s refusal to forgive us (Mt 6.14), but in eternal judgment as well (Mt 18.21-35).

On the other hand, Jesus was clear that if the offender was a believer, we should confront them personally. If the offender doesn’t listen, we should bring one or two others to help resolve the dispute and if that didn’t work, we could take it before the church (Mt 18.18). Jesus warned, however, that before we judge someone else for their sins we should be sure we are not guilty of the same sins—remove the plank from our own eye first. Jesus warned that the same standard we use in judging others will be used against us (Mt 7.1-5; Lk 6.27; 41-42).

Central to loving our neighbor was caring for the poor. Jesus taught that people should even sell their possessions and give to the poor, thus building up treasure in heaven (Lk 12.32-34). It seems probable that Jesus was using hyperbole here since he did not seem to require everyone to sell everything they had (e.g. Mk 2.11; Mk 5.19; Mk 8.25-26; Luke 8.38-39; Lk 10.38; 19:1-10; Jn 19.27; cf. Acts 2.46; 18.26; 21.16). Jesus’ point was that helping the poor should be very high on the priority list of those who claim to follow him.
In fact, Jesus taught that people who did not care for those who were sick, hungry, thirsty, in prison or poorly clothed were really not his disciples at all and would be sent into eternal fire (Mt 25.31-46). Jesus taught, however, that with God it was not the size of the gift that counted, but the size of the sacrifice (Lk 21.3) and Jesus’ followers should be known for their generosity (Mt 5.42; Lk 6.38).

Jesus warned, therefore, to “Be on guard against all kinds of greed” (Lk 12.14) and not to “store up treasures on earth” because a person’s heart would be where their treasure was (Mt 6.19-24). He strongly condemned self-indulgence (Mt 23.25) and said people should stop worrying so much about the future or cares of this life but to focus first on the kingdom of God (Lk 12.22-31; Mt 6.25-34).

Jesus was clear that his followers were not to be overbearing tyrants who “lord it over others,” rather we are to serve (Lk 22.24-27). In fact, Jesus said that whoever wanted to be great among you must be serve others (Mt 20.26-27; 23.8-11; cf Mt 18.2-6). Jesus actually got down on his knees and washed his disciples’ feet, saying he was setting an example that they should go likewise and serve others (Jn 12.12-17, cf. Luke 22.26). Servanthood necessarily involves meekness (the opposite of being an overbearing loud-mouth), and humility (Lk 14.7-11; Mt 18.4; 23.12) which certainly characterized Jesus’ life and which he expected from his followers.

On the other hand, while Jesus’ followers must generally be characterized by humility and meekness, loving others does not necessarily preclude the occasional possibility of direct confrontation or even harshness. After all, the same Jesus who taught and embodied love, also called self-righteous religious leaders hypocrites, blind guides, fools, white-washed tombs, snakes, vipers, and sons of hell! He compared his whole generation unfavorably to Sodom and Gomorrah and called them to repent (Mt 12.39-42; cf. Mt 17.17). Loving others does not rule out righteous anger against sin.

Finally, loving others involves leading them to repentance and drawing them to Jesus. Jesus’ called his followers to be fishers of men, to let their light shine by their good works (Mt 5.16) and to make disciples (Mk 1.17; Mt 4.19; Lk 5.10). He urged his followers to pray that God would send more workers out into the harvest (Mt 9.37; Lk 10.2).

What are these laborers to do? In his “Great Commission” Jesus says we are to make disciples, baptizing them (as the initial expression of faith) and teaching them to obey everything he commanded (Mt 28.18-20). Making disciples is not just about teaching the doctrines of the Christian faith—as important as that is. Making disciples is about teaching people to “obey everything” Jesus commanded. We are not really making disciples unless we are teaching people to obey Jesus.

Obedience and grace

This discussion on obeying Jesus must be placed in the context of what Jesus taught about grace. For example, in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee prayed, “God thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand did not appeal to any good works but threw himself on God’s grace, beating his chest and pleading, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said it was the tax collector who was “justified” not the Pharisee. In other words, the man who humbly threw himself on God’s mercy and grace was declared to be right with God, not the man who self-righteously thought he was good enough to earn God’s favor.

Another example of grace is found in Luke 7.36-50 which tells the story of a women who came to a dinner attended by Jesus and a group of religious leaders. The woman was crying, apparently over her sin since this little story describes her as a sinner four times! She ignored the religious leaders and went right to Jesus, kneeling down as she kissed Jesus’ feed, anointed them with ointment and wiped them with her hair. Jesus said to the Pharisee who hosted the event that this woman’s “sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” He then turned to the woman and said that her faith had saved her.
The story leads readers to understand that this woman’s sorrowful repentance over her sin, coupled with her loving devotion to Jesus, is the very definition of the kind of faith necessary to enter the kingdom about which Jesus had so often preached. The woman was not saved because she was such a good person or because she had done some wonderful good works. She was saved by grace through her repentance and faith or loving devotion to Jesus.

The stories of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) and the landowner who hired people in the marketplace (Mt 21.1-16) are also stories of God’s grace. The point is that obedience to Jesus is never to be understood as something we do to earn God’s favor or salvation. Obedience should never be thought of as the means of gaining a right status with God. It is out of a heart of faith, i.e. loving devotion/commitment/dedication/allegiance to Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit that our obedience flows.

I am convinced that Jesus would agree completely with what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2.8-10: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Jesus and politics

Some Christian traditions have interpreted Jesus' commands to love and to turn the other cheek, etc., as if he were condemning all violence and war. One author went so far as to suggest that Jesus would even prohibit police officers from using violence in the course of carrying out their lawful duties.

It is important, therefore, to note that Jesus was addressing how his followers should personally love those with whom they come in contact. He was not directly addressing government policy. Judea had been ruled by kings and tyrants for a thousand years before Jesus’ time so the idea that Jesus’ servant-followers would vote in elections or “serve” as senators, governors or presidents was not even a remote hypothetical possibility when Jesus was teaching.

We cannot interpret Jesus apart from his Jewish context and his own affirmation of Jewish scriptures (e.g. Matthew 5:17-18) and we must be careful about trying to apply all of Jesus' teachings directly to government policies. I see no reason to believe, for example, that Jesus would have disagreed with Hebrews 11:32-34 which applauds godly Jewish leaders of faith, not for turning the other cheek but for administering justice, routing foreign armies and conquering kingdoms! Jesus cites both Moses and David approvingly with no hint of disapproval for being men of war. In addition, according to John 10.22, Jesus was in the Jerusalem Temple for the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) which celebrates the violent re-taking of the Temple from a Syrian ruler who had desecrated it and had committed atrocities against the Jews. If Jesus was in the Temple protesting the fact that these rebels had not "turned the other cheek" it seems odd that the Gospel of John gives no indication whatsoever of Jesus' disapproval. 

Similarly, Jesus' teachings on helping the poor cannot simply be applied directly to support government economic policies of socialism, communism or capitalism. Jesus was addressing personal behavior and was not directly addressing government policies. In other words, by way of application, Jesus was not addressing government re-distribution of wealth. He was not teaching that Christian police officers should literally turn the other cheek when they are assaulted while lawfully administering justice. Jesus was not saying that the President of the United States should have metaphorically turned the other check by offering the Empire State Building after the Twin Towers were destroyed. He never taught that governments should disband their armies and leave themselves defenseless (note that John the Baptist did not even require Roman soldiers to leave the military: Luke 3:14).

On the other hand, exactly how government officials who are Christians should apply Jesus’ teachings on personal behavior to government policies (e.g. on war, poverty, immigration or other economic and social issues) is a matter of endless debate among Christian voters.


Jesus condemned the sin of his generation and called people to repentance. Among other things, he preached against sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly, false testimony, evil thoughts, lust, hatred, self-righteousness, self-indulgence, and hypocrisy. For Jesus, sin did not consist merely in outward actions but began in the heart.

Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was to love God above all else—and he claimed to be one with the Father. That being the case, he taught that people should be more devoted to him than they are to their own families or even their own life. Such devotion involves worship, prayer and obedience or bearing fruit.

Jesus taught that the second greatest commandment was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This involves looking out for the well-being of others and treating others as we would want to be treated. It involves serving others, being generous, compassionate and forgiving. Jesus even commands loving our enemies—doing good to them, praying for them and refusing to retaliate against their insults.

Jesus taught that we were to be fishers of men—making disciples which involves teaching them to obey Jesus. Jesus taught that we are not justified before God by our good works, but by God’s grace.

Finally, Jesus’ teachings were primarily addressing how his followers should personally love those with whom they come in contact. How those teachings should be applied to government policies is a matter of debate among Christians—but that debate should never keep us from loving God more than we love life, relying on his grace, and from loving neighbors and even enemies as we love ourselves.

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