I asked the congregation the previous week, to look up Jesus’ invitations to prospective “followers.”
They found many: as expected, mostly folks were called to “follow”, and asked to “be with him”, and to copy his own work.
Assignment: Look at all 4 Gospels, and notice:
1. How did Jesus call people?
2. What did he ask of them?
3. What did he offer them?
Compare these findings with “invitations” you have heard
When I first heard Ben speaking of “Jesus-followers” among the folks with whom he grew up in Mali, I thought it sounded rather strange. I wondered if there was some reason why they were not simply called “Christians” or “believers”, as most “missionaries” would have termed them. (I’d still be curious, Ben. Was this a deliberate choice? I hope so!)
Because on closer examination of the Gospels, I became increasingly convinced that his label was indeed the preferable choice. Why? Simply because the attainment of those other labels is usually assigned to folks who have simply “signed on the dotted line” and “joined the club” advertised by their preachers, and has very little to do with the Kingdom living – the deliberately changed way of life — of which Jesus spoke and which he demonstrated.
Now, that statement may sound too extreme for many, if not most of you. But what have you found JESUS saying, when he called people? And how does that compare with what passes today for “evangelism”? Did you find a single context where JESUS greeted folks – other than the self-satisfied scribes and Pharisees — with threats of dire “eternal” consequences? Did you find any occasion when he handed his hearers a list of “doctrines” to which they must subscribe or be “forever lost”? Even on the few occasions when Jesus used the (modernly overworked) word “believe”, its direct object is simply “me”, and not “this or that ABOUT me”. His most usual invitation is graciously beautiful in its simplicity: “Come and see!” and “Follow me”!
This study should really be undertaken in tandem with another on “following instructions”, but that requires another study, which would be aimed at those already committed. Here, we are simply concerned with folks who are CONSIDERING faithfulness, which simply intends “personal loyalty”. Loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom is all that he ever asked of anyone.
Of the 90 New Testament appearances of akoloutheo (follow), more than 60 refer simply to physical accompaniment, whether by curious crowds or loyal disciples. Many who responded to the call to “follow” Jesus did accompany him on his travels. But “followers” were also deputized to extend his work. The word sometimes appears with one of five different prefixes, each of which implies various levels of commitment.
“Following” became an apprenticeship for the task of continuing Jesus’ work after his departure. His beautiful description of the relationship of sheep and shepherd, detailed in John 10, includes trusting obedience on our part, and intimate, loving, protective care on his. (You can find a more detailed treatment of this in the Word Study #101 on my web site if you wish.
Those who accepted Jesus’ call to “Follow” became known as “disciples”. This was not an unusual phenomenon in the first century. Even 300-500 years earlier, itinerant teachers had gathered around themselves groups of “disciples” with whom they shared philosophical and scientific teaching. The New Testament speaks of “disciples” of both John the Baptist and the Pharisees. It is not always obvious to whom the term applies. Even when it is specifically referencing followers of Jesus, it may describe curious crowds, the twelve “apostles”, or an inner group, larger than the twelve, but more devoted than the crowds, who occasionally served as assistants as in (Jn.6:66). Calling a person a “disciple” was used in a manner similar to what might today be called a student, or student-assistant, although if a deeper level of commitment is intended, a word like “believer” might have been used.
Jesus’ own teaching about being a “disciple” appears much more restrictive and deliberate, regarding that label as taking priority over all other loyalties (Lk.14:26-27). The goal Jesus sets for discipleship is clear: “to become like one’s teacher”! (Lk.6:40 and Mt.10:24)
Jesus also specifies that it is necessary to “continue (live, persist) in my word” in order to be a disciple (Jn.8:31), to be readily identifiable by outsiders (Jn.13:35) who observe their mutual love, and to be a fruitful branch of the Vine (Jn.15:8). Whatever else may be implied here, and each could well become its own topic for study, it certainly includes a mutual, continuous effort in reflection of Jesus’ own life and personality. Check out the early church uses of the word in Word Study #51.
The epistles are frequently addressed to “disciples”, as well. “Are there still disciples?” as one reader asked plaintively. Yes, thank God! And there always will be, as long as some of us continue to seek for faithfulness to Jesus.
But once that choice has been made, one realizes that “following” assumes that one is GOING SOMEWHERE!!! Where are we going, and how shall we get there? Haven’t we all occasionally asked in puzzlement, along with Thomas and Philip (Jn.14), “If we don’t know where you are going, how can we get there? “
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the goal is only PARTLY about one’s destination (or “destiny”), unlike the assumptions of those who are only – or even just primarily – concerned about “getting into heaven”.
Realizing that they have totally missed the point, Jesus replies, “I AM the Way!” “It’s not about where you are going, Tom. It’s about STICKING WITH ME!” And “Phil, open your eyes and LOOK! All that I AM, all I’ve been doing, shows you the Father!” The critical key to the whole discussion is Jesus’ use of “I AM”. This statement asserted his total unity with the true God of all ages and cultures! This should be yet another careful study, and is detailed in my Word Study #17.
The point he is trying to make, for them and for us, is that Jesus himself is not only the Leader, provider, and Guide, but also both the journey and the goal!
And to this end, Jesus makes use of a very ordinary word, in an extraordinary way. That very ordinary word is “the WAY”.
The Greek word, “hodos” appears 83 times in the New Testament. Classically, it was used in three ways: Of PLACE – a road or highway, or the course of a river; of ACTION – a trip, journey or sea voyage; and METAPHORICALLY – of one’s culture, manner of life, or intent. Most significant here is the latter usage. Jesus had told them clearly, “You all know the way where I am going,” and simply “I AM the Way!”
Not only had they been watching and participating in Jesus’ ”way of life” and conduct for the past three years, but he had continually been trying to prepare them for what lay ahead. Although he had warned them repeatedly of the coming trauma of his rejection by the very folks who should have welcomed him, this was NOT the focus of their final hours together! Rather, it was the BENEFIT that would accrue PRESENTLY for faithful disciples as a result of his “going to the Father who sent me”, and the enabling they would consequently receive from the Holy Spirit, to CONTINUE FOLLOWING the Way he had showed them – IN LIFE, not simply “after death”.
This, I am convinced, is among the primary reasons why subsequent followers of Jesus became known as “people of the Way”. This designation appears throughout the book of Acts, used even by their persecutors! This new movement was a NEW WAY OF LIVING, not just a “new religion “of “strange gods” as the philosophers at the Areopagos assumed. The Greek “thinkers” reveled in the polytheism that surrounded them, and always had room for one more deity, in order not to offend one they might have missed!
It was TRANSFORMED LIVES, subject only to an authority much higher than that of their emperor, that they could not handle.
And that is an accurate description of “The Way”. There is more on this “label” in Word Study #102.
To “follow” the Lord Jesus, is to continue along “the Way” that he taught and demonstrated, in his company and according to his instructions, toward complete unity with him and his Father — TOGETHER with everyone else he has called!
Thanks be to God!