What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?
By Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.
Entering a relationship
The most important part of the answer is that a Christian has a relationship with the living, risen Christ right now! This involves the personal act of commitment. It can’t be done for you, only you can do it. It is not merely joining a church. It is not merely believing that Jesus lived.
The first part is expressed in John’s gospel, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:11-13 ESV) The need for this is expressed by Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, “you must be born again” (3:3).
There are wonderful experiences that come from commitment. A commitment to a woman brings the delights of marriage. Commitment elevates the intimacy of sexuality in marriage. Commitment serves as the basic framework for a family in which children have both father, and mother, and usually siblings. A commitment of love may also involve the larger family of grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Commitment opens the door to companionship of work, shared goals, mutual concerns, and joy when these things are accomplished. Commitment to one another leads to the building of a home where there is acceptance, comfort, peace, stability, safety, and parental guidance.
Commitment also engages the sense of unity. This works for good and for ill. The marriage vow usually includes “for better or for worse.” When I make a good decision my wife rejoices at it because she is affected. If I make a bad decision financially, or otherwise, she is also affected. If I were to depart from our shared commitment and engage in drugs or crime of any kind I risk my health and my reputation which affects her even though she is innocent. If I were to depart from my commitment to our marriage she is affected by the deception and her future and that of our children is jeopardized by the act. Our unity can be destroyed by my act or hers.
But unity is extremely important for the family. Unity means that my life is in her life and her life is in my life. We are united together in one another. She is not property but a person of worth and value.
Commitment involves an act of asking and pledging. A man dates a woman and may then ask her to be his wife. In so doing he commits himself to her. At the same time she has to accept the proposal, committing herself to him, if there is to be a union of two lives. If she does not accept him there is no marriage, no union. A forced marriage is not marriage at all. It is a sham.
In a similar situation, Jesus has come to mankind making a proposal of union of lives, his with ours, and he requires a response of acceptance. That acceptance brings a union of Savior and believer, Lord and disciple, Redeemer and redeemed. If there is no response of acceptance of Jesus’ proposal, there is no redemption, no union. There is no other hope for a relationship with God (John 14:6). There has to be an accepting response to Jesus’ proposal. You can make this commitment by accepting Jesus’ offer to enter into your life as Savior and Lord. This is the basic prayer that must be made. Have you made that positive response?
This is the beginning point, the birth process spoken of in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, “you must be born again” (John 3:5). A baby cannot survive without a relationship with parents. Humans are made for relationships.
Relationships reflect the Divine nature of the Trinity in a human way. The Trinity is a relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing from eternity to eternity. This sense of unity-in-community is reflected in the human situation for a child to have a father and mother who nurture the child to maturity.
The spiritual maturity of the Christian comes about by parallels to the physical maturity. There is the need for continued food, shelter, and growth. The child needs the care of the family to grow to maturity and a good family relation is needed throughout one’s life. Parents who love their children and children who respond in love to the parents enjoy what God meant for humans to experience.
The process of maturity is reflected in what Jesus told his disciples.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5 ESV)
The word “abide” is the Greek word meno, meaning to “remain in union, continue to be present” in reference to Christ. A branch is useless apart from the vine. We are the branches and our sustenance comes from being in union with the vine.
The idea of union with Christ is expressed in a number of other passages:
“It is through faith that all of you are God's children in union with Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26 GNB) The intent is that our lives be immersed in Christ. We are in Him in a relationship, by an intentional and continued commitment.
“So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:22) Union with Christ breaks down former barriers in social units. Color of the skin, position in life, and position in society – all barriers are removed in Christ.
“For when we are in union with Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor the lack of it makes any difference at all; what matters is faith that works through love.” (Gal. 5:6 GNB) The union with Christ eclipses all rituals of the Old Testament.
“Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world.” (Eph. 1:3 GNB) The spiritual blessings we have are because of Christ. We become joint heirs with Him and fellow heirs with one another (Rom. 8:17). My wife is my physical heir, and I am hers. But in Christ we are joint heirs together and receive a spiritual inheritance from Him, eternal life in his presence. In this life we leave behind an inheritance to someone else when we die, in Christ we gain an inheritance when we die.
“Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.” (Eph. 1:4 GNB) God intended to bless us making this decision before creation of the Cosmos. Too much has been focused on God’s choosing rather than on the matter of union.
Ephesians 2:8-9 speaks of our need of commitment to this great union. Repeatedly the intention of being linked to Jesus is underscored for us in the New Testament.
“All things are done according to God's plan and decision; and God chose us to be his own people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning.” (Eph. 1:11 GNB) You are part of the plan of God. That plan is to bless.
“In union with Christ and through our faith in him we have the boldness to go into God's presence with all confidence.” (Eph. 3:12 GNB) Good relations between people are reflected in conversation with one another. Prayer in the Christian life is a reflection of the relation we have with God because of our union in Christ. We can enter the presence of God in prayer with confidence.
When John F. Kennedy was president of the USA he loved his children and wanted them to have a normal upbringing (here). One story that circulated was about John Jr. who sometimes played in the Oval Office, and on one occasion came marching into the Office playing being a soldier and saluting. Another story involves his passing up secretaries, and others, and running into a meeting, exclaiming with childhood exuberance, “Daddy, Daddy.” He had no fear of entering the office of the president. He was going to see his father, where he was loved and accepted.
In a similar sense we enter the presence of Yahweh. “And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4:6) Abba is an intimate form of the word father such as papa or daddy. We may hesitate to use such an intimate term for Yahweh who is infinitely high, it also shows that He is intimately nigh. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.” (ASV)
It is impossible to even think of a meaningful, loving and joyful relationship existing without frequent conversation. If prayer (conversation and communication from the heart to God) is not present in your “life in Christ” something is definitely wrong.
Paul concludes his letter to the Ephesians, “Finally, build up your strength in union with the Lord and by means of his mighty power.” (Eph. 6:10 GNB) Good companions encourage one another to be good in their living.
There are other verses in Ephesians speaking of our union in Christ, eleven all together. In Philippians there are seven occurrences. Two passages stand out.
“In conclusion, my friends, be joyful in your union with the Lord. I don't mind repeating what I have written before, and you will be safer if I do so.” (Phil. 3:1 GNB)
Real union brings joy. A man and wife in union with one another are joyful. Two friends who have common interests share a sense of joy. These are mild examples of the joy that comes from a union with the Lord. Joy is one of the deep emotions that come from the Spirit when one is in union with Christ. Joy is the result of knowing that Yahweh loves you. “May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again: rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4)
“And God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7 GNB)
The idea of union with Christ appears six times in the short letter of Colossians. “Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place.” (Col. 1:17 GNB)
One of the passages in Colossians expresses the sense of union described above.
“In union with Christ you were circumcised, not with the circumcision that is made by human beings, but with the circumcision made by Christ, which consists of being freed from the power of this sinful self.” (Col. 2:11 GNB)
When did this take place? I was not born until centuries after the time when Jesus walked the earth. What is meant here and the following passage is that by my union, my commitment to Christ, what happened to him becomes something that happens to me. This is expressed more directly in the following passage.
“For surely you know that when we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptized into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life. For since we have become one with him in dying as he did, in the same way we shall be one with him by being raised to life as he was. And we know that our old being has been put to death with Christ on his cross, in order that the power of the sinful self might be destroyed, so that we should no longer be the slaves of sin.” (Rom. 6:3-6)
Don’t focus on baptism related to water. Rather your life is immersed into union with Christ. By our lives being immersed in Christ what happened to Him relates to us as believers. We share his death – we are to be dead to the world – and we share his new life – we are no longer slaves to sin, but born of God into righteousness, a new life.
The sense of union is so strong that Galatians draws the parallel that what took place in the life of Jesus takes place in us by our faith and union with him. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (2:20)
Concerned parents do not want their children hanging out with bad companions because the bad companions have bad influences on their kids. Likewise, good companion have good influences. In a sense we can talk about hanging out with Jesus. Hanging out with Jesus as our companion brings good influences into our lives. It is not just for kids that we think of this. All of us need to hang out with Jesus daily.
Nourishing the relationship
How do we let Christ’s influence into our lives? There are a number of ideas that are drawn from the life of Jesus which give us direction. They are:
The community of Believers.
The need for community for the believer is also expressed in the words of Scripture concerning the fellowship with other believers. At the very beginning of the church after the resurrection of Christ, we read: “On that day about three thousand believed his message and were baptized. They spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other. They also broke bread and prayed together.” (Acts 2:41-42) For a young follower of Jesus to be isolated from the fellowship of believers is like asking an orphan to raise himself. It can be done but it is very hard. In the verses we have reference to hearing the teaching of the Apostle, the companions of Jesus, observing the Last Supper of Jesus, and praying together.
The community of believers have reciprocal responsibilities. There is the need of the mature members helping the new members to mature in Christ. This involves teaching, disciplining, involvement in Christian activities, witness, study, out reach to the needy, helping the elderly, etc.
Solitude and silence go together.
In today’s society our senses are bombarded with ear phones, blackberrys, ipods, giving instant access to sports, the market, email, and the internet. Some people even need noise to put them to sleep.
Solitude and silence are important for us to gain a perspective on who we are, what we need to do, how we need to relate to Jesus, and to discover His purpose in our lives. You won’t get this with the senses flooded with meaningless distractions.
In the story of Jesus the disciples were so busy that he had to deal with the problem. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6:31) And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves.
For the disciples, getting away from the crowd was important. They were not alone but were with Jesus. In our modern pace of life hanging out with Jesus means to be alone with him in solitude. The silence may be broken by prayer, praise, and joyful songs of praise. But for hanging out with Jesus there can be no substitute.
When one is aware that something may happen that you want to avoid, getting away is the answer. This happened in the life of Jesus. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15) Withdrawing from the crowd to be alone with Jesus is a way of protecting our spiritual, and perhaps sometimes our physical well being also.
Meditative study and prayer go together.
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Jesus quoted the Old Testament that “man shall not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4). One problem for modern Christians is that we are trying to survive on bread alone. When one considers the horrible fast food fat diets we try to live on there is little wonder that our health is not what it was meant to be.
Think of what it is like to starve the soul of man. An under-nourished soul is weak and cannot resist the temptations of our culture. A meditative study of the Word of God is necessary for spiritual growth and for strength in the midst of a decaying culture.
Jesus taught people to pray in the privacy of their homes. Luke tells us that Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (5:16). On another occasion Matthew tells us, “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” (Mt. 14:23)
There is importance in being alone with God. Without external noise stimuli the mind can concentrate on God and our relationship with him.
There are a number of comments about prayer from the lips of Jesus. He taught his disciples to pray giving them the model prayer (Mt. 6:9-ff). He urged people to pray for laborers in the spiritual harvest (Mt. 9:38). He declared, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” Mt. 26:41). Jesus prayed all night long (Luke 6:12). We are told to pray for those who abuse us (Luke 6:28). We are advised to pray and not lose heart (18:1).
Paul wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26) Thus, we are not alone in our praying.
Prayer is to be an ongoing conversation with God. “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Paul requested the church at Colossae to “pray for us also, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison” (Col. 4.3). Two requests were made to the church at Thessalonica, “pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17), and “Brethren, Pray for us.” (1 Thess. 5.25) There are examples of people who walk through the neighborhood praying as they go for the needs of the people.
There are other examples of praying for the sick, praying for the persecuted, praying for one another, etc. Is it any wonder that one of the most important requests from people serving in foreign countries is that they be remembered in prayer. Christians need to pray for one another. Young people need the prayers of God’s people. We are to pray for those in authority whether it be government, the job, or parents in the role of parenting.
Sacrificial giving is important because Jesus commanded it, “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35 RSV) The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:6-7)
Only a small percentage of Christians embrace these words. Consequently only a small percentage share in the joy and happiness of giving. Generosity leads to more generosity.
The Old Testament model of giving was a tithe, or ten percent of one’s income. This was a minimum. As one grows in the Christian life there is the blessing of greater generosity.
What you do with your money communicates your level of commitment to the words of Jesus.
Giving is an outgrowth of God’s love (agape); because he loved us, we love others in giving to their needs. A friend of mine always believed that one cannot out-give God. I saw a cartoon in which a boy asked his father, how come the waitress gets 15 percent and God only gets 10 percent.
Service is an outgrowth of the Christian life. “God planned for us to do good things and to live as he has always wanted us to live. That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are.” (Eph. 2:10 CEV) Throughout the centuries Christians have been involved in orphanages, caring for the poor, and caring for the widows and elderly. In the modern era Christians have founded universities, rescue missions, church camps for youths, hospitals for health care, organizations for building houses for the poor, charitable organizations for helping in crisis times like tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, organizations for helping world poverty, and many other service organizations. Christians are called to serve and help wherever there is need. Because of your God-given creativity, and by listening to the Lord’s voice you may find a way of serving that no one has attempted or imagined before.
Living in Christ is not only exciting to see what He will lead us to do, but living in Christ is a source of joy. Many people pursue happiness which is often superficial. What they are really wanting is joy. Real joy is to be found in living in union with Christ.