Following Jesus

What Does God Want From You?

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Who is God and what does he want or expect from me?

Perhaps there is no greater question to ask yourself and to spend your life trying to answer than the one presented above. Our view of what God is like and our assumptions about what he wants or expects from us will determine how we interact with him and whether or not we will fully devote ourselves to a relationship with him.

There’s a story in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus challenges some of the most basic assumptions that people have about God and reveals to us what God is like and what he wants from us. Matthew demonstrates how the crowds that were following Jesus were astonished and amazed by his authority, but this was something that was difficult for the Jewish religious establishment to get on board with because to them it often seemed like Jesus was disregarding the authority of the Hebrew Bible and doing things that just didn’t line up with their view of God.

And so, in this particular story that we’re going to look at today, we see the religious leaders questioning what Jesus is doing, and we see Jesus challenging their assumptions about what God wants from us. Matthew is using this story to highlight a key aspect of Jesus’ life, teaching and mission:

God is bigger than the boxes that we try to put him in, and God wants something much more profound from us than just rule-keeping and doing religious things.

The story is found in Matthew 9:9-13:

As Jesus was heading down the road, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed Jesus. Later, Jesus reclined at table in the house, and behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. So when the Pharisees saw this, they asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

So Jesus is interacting and embracing people that were considered immoral and socially unacceptable. And this is a big reason why the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had a hard time getting on board with him. Jesus was saying things and doing things that didn’t line up with their view of what God is like and what he wants from us. And so, as they question what Jesus is doing, Jesus very deliberately and lovingly challenges them by pointing out that their assumptions about what God wants from his people are off.

Jesus tells these Bible scholars to go back and learn a particular passage that is found in the book of Hosea. It’s a passage that they would have already known well, but Jesus is saying that they’ve missed the big point that was being made in that passage and throughout the entire Hebrew Bible. And it’s in this passage, that we too are given a portrait of God that might challenge some of our own assumptions about what he wants from us. Jesus tells these religious leaders and us today to go back and learn what God meant when he said:

“I desire mercy over sacrifices.”

Now, that word mercy is a good word, but it doesn’t do justice to the full meaning of the original Hebrew word that is used in that passage. The original Hebrew word used there is an extremely significant word that is used over 250 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is the word hesed which is sometimes translated as loving-kindness. It is a very difficult word to translate, but it’s this idea of this over-the-top kind of love in which you give someone everything even though they have no reason or right to expect anything from you.

Hesed is a Hebrew word that describes what God is like and what he wants from us. In the most famous description of God that is used over and over again throughout the Hebrew Bible, we are told that God is a God who is merciful and gracious and slow to anger and full of hesed. God is full of this loving-kindness.

Jesus explained what this kind of loving-kindness looks like in several of his parables. Hesed is seen in the way that the good father goes over-the-top in embracing his prodigal son when he returns home. Hesed is seen in the way that the good Samaritan goes over-the-top in taking care of the injured man that he finds on the side of the road. And hesed is seen most powerfully in the way that the Creator of the world went above-and-beyond what seems possible when he took on humanity and came into his creation to be with us and then to willingly suffer death himself in order to rescue his creation and give us eternal life.

So Jesus is telling these religious leaders and us today that we need to go back and make sure that we understand who God is and what it is that he really wants from us. He is a God who is merciful and gracious and slow to anger and full of this loving-kindness that led him to come into this world so that we could be forgiven of sin and given a new life. That is what leads Jesus to point out that this is the very thing that he is doing and demonstrating in his own life. He tells these religious leaders that he has not come to pat people on the back for their rule-keeping and religious performance; he has come to redeem and to put people’s lives back in order.

That is what God is like and that is what God wants from us. God is a God full of hesed, and he wants us to be his special agents of hesed in this world who go over-the-top in extending this loving-kindness to others.

Hesed is pursuing a conversation or a relationship with someone who would never expect you to give them the time of day. Hesed is doing random acts of kindness for people who have no reason to expect that from you. And hesed is participating in the mission to heal the world with the hope that is only found in following and reorganizing your entire life under the authority of Jesus.

Many of us have assumptions about what God is like and what he wants from us. But if you’re still struggling to get on board with Jesus then I challenge you to go back to the Scriptures and make sure that you actually understand who God is and what he really wants from us.

What Are You Building Your Life On?

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Many of us often think about Christianity in terms of those who believe and those who don’t believe. But Jesus often taught about something that is not quite as clear as believers and nonbelievers. It is a condition that people often don’t see in themselves, and therefore a trap that is very deceptive and dangerous.

This trap that Jesus taught about is the trap of unauthentic discipleship. It is being a fan of Jesus but not a faithful follower of Jesus and not being able to see the difference between the two.

As I look back over my own life, there’s a period of eight years or so between my sophomore year of high school and my fourth year of pro-ball where I was stuck in this trap. I believed the Bible, I would pray, I would go to church or chapel, I would talk to other people about what I believed and encourage them to trust Jesus, but I was still doing things and living my life based primarily on what I wanted to do. I would do things that I knew Jesus would not approve of, but I would find ways to justify it or to make it feel like it wasn’t that big of a deal. But then God got my attention in the offseason of 2005 and opened up my eyes to see that I wasn’t what I thought I was this whole time. I wasn’t for real; I wasn’t a faithful follower.

You see, we can believe the stories about Jesus, read the Bible, pray to God and be actively involved in Christian service and yet still be what we are identifying here as an unauthentic disciple. We can be fans of Jesus but not faithful followers of Jesus.

You can know a particular sports team inside and out. You can follow them, be passionate and enthusiastic about them. You can wear a jersey, have season tickets and refer to the team as We, but that does not make you a member of that particular team. That just means that you’re a really good fan of the team. And that doesn’t work when it comes to following Jesus either. Being a really good fan of Jesus doesn’t make you a faithful follower of Jesus.

So how can we know for sure whether or not we are for real when it comes to our allegiance to Jesus? How can we make sure that we are faithful followers and not just good fans?

Well, since unauthentic discipleship is often hard to see in ourselves, we must go beneath the exterior aspects of our faith and examine the underlying foundation.

There’s a helpful illustration that Jesus gives to conclude his Sermon on the Mount. It’s an illustration about two different builders who build two different houses. And Jesus uses this illustration to help us see the underlying difference between being a fan or supporter of Jesus versus being a faithful follower of Jesus.

The Sermon on the Mount

In Matthew 7:12, Jesus sums up the kingdom way of life that he has been teaching about in the Sermon on the Mount with what we call the Golden Rule. Jesus teaches that authentic followers of Jesus are to love everyone around them by treating other people like they want to be treated. And so, all the radical demands of the kingdom way of life that Jesus lays out in Matthew 5-7 are culminated into this one main principle in 7:12.

From there, Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount in 7:13-27 with four short teachings that are all doing the same thing. All four are forcing us to make a decision concerning these radical demands. In his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, R.T. France puts it this way:

“Together [these four short teachings] constitute a striking call for authenticity in the disciple’s response to the demands of Jesus. Each presents a contrast between the authentic and the unauthentic disciple, and this authenticity is found not in the disciple’s profession but in his performance. A professed adherence to Jesus and his teaching may be very impressive so as to deceive others, and even the professed disciple himself, but Jesus here gives warning that it will not deceive God, who looks for practical results. The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be admired but to be obeyed.”

In the first three of these final four teachings, Jesus talks about two different paths, two different trees and two different kinds of servants. Today, I want us to look at the last of these four teachings where Jesus talks about two different foundations.

The Illustration

Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with these words:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been built on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was that fall.

This illustration is not a difficult one to understand, and we don’t need to over-spiritualize it. Here we have two different houses that look exactly the same on the outside. The exterior aspects of the house are the same. So what is the big thing that sets these two houses apart? What’s the key difference between them?

The key difference is something that cannot be seen from the outside. The key difference is the underlying foundation on which these two houses have been built. One is built on solid rock and the other is built on sand. Only the house that is built on solid rock will be able to withstand the storms that will eventually come its way. And Jesus compares the wise man who builds his house on solid rock to the authentic disciple who hears what Jesus has taught and does what Jesus tells him to do. Wise men obey Jesus.

Jesus says that only a foolish man would build his house on sand. Only a foolish man would hear about the life and teaching of Jesus but then not do the things that Jesus has told us to do. Only a foolish man would think that he can do whatever he wants to do in life and not eventually suffer the consequences of those decisions. Only a foolish man would live his life as a good fan of Jesus when he is called to be a faithful follower.

So what is the thing that you are building your life on? What is the underlying foundation of your life? What determines how you live and the decisions that you make? Is it your own desires, feelings, intelligence and the influence of other’s lives or the is it the desires of God and the life and teaching of Jesus?

What is the thing that you are trusting will enable you to stand confidently before Jesus when you finally see him face to face? What are you placing your hope of forgiveness and eternal life on? Is it in your beliefs and your pretty good behavior compared to other people or is it on the work of Jesus and your total allegiance to him as your Redeemer and King?

Conclusion

Jesus is warning us: Since unauthentic discipleship is often hard to see in ourselves, we must go beneath the exterior aspects of our faith and examine the underlying foundation.

Trusting Jesus as your Redeemer, swearing your allegiance to Jesus as your King and obeying everything that Jesus has taught us is like building your house on solid rock.

This mixture of trust, allegiance and obedience is the underlying foundation of a faithful follower of Jesus. And this is the only foundation that will withstand the pressures of this life and that final day of judgement where we will see Jesus face to face.

Let’s build our lives on obedience to Jesus. The teaching of Jesus is not meant to be heard and admired; it is meant to be heard and obeyed. Don’t just be a really good fan; be a faithful follower.

3 Regular Activities on Jesus' Calendar

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How would you describe the life and work of Jesus during his three-years of ministry here on earth? What were some of the things that he was doing on a regular basis?

What were some of the regular activities on Jesus’ calendar?

In his Gospel, Matthew often gives short descriptive summaries of what Jesus taught or what he was doing in order to help his readers maintain a big picture view of Jesus’ identity and mission. In one of those summaries, Matthew gives us a description of Jesus’ ministry in the region of Galilee, and he lists three things that were regular activities on Jesus’ calendar.

In 4:23, Matthew writes:

And Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

These are three things that Jesus did on a regular basis, and they are three things that the first followers of Jesus continued to do after he left. This means that it is important for us that we understand each of these activities and see how they are regular activities that should also be on our calendars today.

Teaching in Synagogues

The first regular activity on Jesus’ calendar was teaching in synagogues. This was formal times of teaching and explaining the Scriptures to a congregation or a small gathering. Synagogues were the places where Jewish people met to worship God, and these places were scattered all over Israel. And so Jesus would regularly attend these worship gatherings to teach from the Old Testament and to explain how his life and ministry was fulfilling the Scriptures. (There is a fantastic example of him doing this in Luke 4:16-20.)

Formal times of gathering with other people to learn and to teach the Scriptures should be a regular activity on our calendars today. This can take place in the context of a church service, Baseball Chapel or a small group, but it is a type of teaching and learning that is meant to be done in the context of a gathering. Reading on our own and listening to podcasts are great supplements to our study of the Bible, but Jesus intends for us to regularly read, learn, study and teach the Scriptures in the context of being with other people.

This is something that the first followers of Jesus embraced from the very beginning (Acts 2:42), and something that needs to be a regular part of our weekly routine as well.

Proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom

The second regular activity on Jesus’ calendar was proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. This was more informal times of interacting and talking to others about the kingdom of God. Jesus looked for opportunities to talk about what God was doing with those who were unfamiliar with his message. This was something that Jesus did in the context and rhythm of his everyday life, but he did so through pursuing intentional conversations with those that he encountered.

Informal times of intentional conversations about the kingdom of God should be a regular activity on our calendars today. Many people are unfamiliar with or confused about the life, work and teachings of Jesus. Therefore, as ambassadors of King Jesus, we should be actively seeking opportunities throughout our week to spark conversations with others about who God is, what he’s doing, how it’s changed our lives and how he can change theirs. Being a Christian is not something that we can privatize or compartmentalize; Jesus expects us to tell our families, friends, neighbors and teammates about the kingdom of God.

This is something that the first followers of Jesus embraced from the very beginning (Acts 28:31), and something that needs to be a regular part of our weekly routine as well.

Healing Every Disease and Affliction

The third regular activity on Jesus’ calendar was healing diseases and afflictions. This included healing people physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Jesus took time to care for people that were hurting and helpless. This was another thing that Jesus did in the context and rhythm of his everyday life, but it was also something that he did to teach others about the true nature and plan of God. He didn’t heal everyone who needed help, but every time he did, he used it as a way to demonstrate the love of God and that he was the promised King who was restoring God’s order and goodness back to the world.

Caring for those in need and taking the time to help put people’s lives back in order should be a regular activity on our calendars as well. We are surrounded by people who are hurting and in need of some physical, mental, emotional or spiritual help. Therefore, as image-bearers of our Creator, we should be actively seeking opportunities throughout our week to bring order out of chaos. We should listen to people and speak words that bring healing. We should keep our eyes open for needs that we can meet. And we should care for those who are hurting and pray to God with them on their behalf. We can’t help everyone who needs help, but we can take time to care for someone. Let’s care for others and use those moments to show them the true nature and plan of God.

This is something that the first followers of Jesus embraced from the very beginning (James 5:14-16), and something that needs to be a regular part of our weekly routine as well.

  1. Do you have formal times of gathering with other people to learn and to teach the Scriptures?

  2. Do you have informal times of intentional conversations with others about the kingdom of God?

  3. Do you have times of caring for those in need and praying with them on their behalf?

These are three things that Jesus and his first followers did intentionally and often, and they are three activities that should be a regular part of our weekly rhythms and routines today.

Which of these three is the most consistent in your own life? Which of these three is lacking? And what changes can you make in your life and your regular routine to begin living each week like Jesus lived his?

The Numbers Don't Lie

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Last year, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study that looked at 10 reasons why people may or may not attend church or other religious services. It was discovered that about 2 out of every 3 American adults who regularly attend a church or religious service say that they go primarily for their kids, for personal comfort or to become a better person.

And while the most important reason for going was to become closer to God, 1 out of every 5 adults who attend monthly or more said that they do not usually feel God’s presence; 1 out of every 4 adults said that they do not feel a sense of community; and 4 out of every 10 said that they do not feel connected to their faith’s history.

Unfortunately, this means that 67% of American adults who regularly attend a church or religious service are doing so primarily focused on how it can make their lives better (for their kids, personal comfort and self-improvement). And sadly, 20-40% of these people admit to not really experiencing God’s presence, a sense of community or a connection to the history of our faith. This is not good.

What’s going on here?

Well, there are several factors that I am sure we can point to as potential reasons for these numbers, but one of the main things that this study reveals is that many of us in American Christianity have simply lost sight of the vision and the sense of mission that defined what Jesus’ life and ministry was all about. And so, we are confused about the foundation of our faith, and therefore, we don’t really know how to respond to Jesus.

Unfortunately, many in the church today tend to view our faith in Jesus as something that is primarily about singing songs, listening to sermons and believing the Bible stories. And so sadly, many of us often feel like our faith in Jesus is dry, boring and disconnected from our everyday lives in the “real world”. The numbers don’t lie; many of us are going through the motions in our Christianity for the wrong reasons, and our faith in Jesus is proving to be unproductive.

So what can we do to turn things around?

Well, since many of us are experiencing a dry and disconnected Christianity, we need to start by rediscovering what Jesus initiated and responding to his invitation.

We need to refresh our Christianity by rediscovering the vision and mission that defined what Jesus’ life and ministry was all about. It is more than just listening to sermons and learning Bible stories. We are invited to join in on what Jesus initiated. And if we are unclear about this vision and mission of Jesus then we will be uncompelled to truly participate in the life that he has called us to, and we will fall into this trap of a dry and disconnected Christianity.

Rediscover What Jesus Initiated

Matthew sums up the focus of Jesus’ message and ministry with the one sentence that says it all, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has arrived.” (4:17) This was the message of John the Baptist and later the message of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus calls people to make a decisive response to a new reality — God was now reconciling the world back to himself and restoring his rule as its unrivaled King. It was an invitation to experience a renewed relationship with God and to participate in what he was doing to restore his order and goodness back to the world. This was the mission that Jesus initiated; humans could join him in reconciling the world back to God. 

This call to participate in God’s great restoration plan is clearly seen in what Jesus says when he first invites  some young fishermen to join him. He tells these fishermen, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” He does not say, “Follow me, and I will make you a better person.” He does not say, “Follow me, and I will make your kids well-behaved and morally grounded.” He says, “Follow me, and I will give you a new mission to carry out in life.”

Now, following Jesus does make us better men, and it does provide a healthy environment for our kids’ development, but it does all these things in the context of the main vision and mission that defined Jesus’ life and ministry. If we truly want to experience God’s presence and a real sense of community and a relevant connection to our faith’s history then we have to rediscover this mission that Jesus was initiating and respond to his invitation to join him.

So what does that response look like? 

Respond to Jesus’ Invitation

Matthew shows his readers how to respond to Jesus by sharing the response of Jesus’ first disciples. And to emphasize their response, Matthew intentionally repeats this formula: Immediately, they left… and followed him.

You see, Jesus’ invitation to join him in a renewed relationship with God and to participate in God’s restoration plan is not something you put off for later or until it’s more convenient. When God gets your attention in life and gives you one of those pivotal moments to finally make a decisive response, he is expecting you to respond immediately. An indecisive response in those moments is actually a decisive rejection of God’s invitation. This isn’t a difficult thing to understand. When you propose to your fiancé, if she hesitates or puts off her decision for later then she just rejected your proposal.

Have you made a definitive decision to join Jesus in a renewed relationship with God and to truly participate in what he is doing to restore his order and goodness back to this world?

Following Jesus requires an unwavering allegiance to him and a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of who he is and what he is doing in this world. And this is something that will disrupt our normal everyday lives in the “real world". These young fishermen had to leave the family business in order to join Jesus in this mission.

You see, following Jesus is not simply believing that he exists, and that the stories about him are true. Following Jesus is literally following his lead and doing what he does. It is an active commitment in which you are trying to learn everything that you can from him and do anything that he asks you to do with the hope and the goal of becoming just like him in the process. To truly follow Jesus changes everything!

Now, this does not mean that in order to join in on what Jesus initiated we all have to leave our jobs and go into full-time ministry. Jesus has now given us the Holy Spirit that works within us wherever we go and no matter what we do for a living. Jesus does not call everyone to leave their jobs; but he does call us to leverage our jobs for him and for the sake of God’s restoration plan. This means that when we have conversations in the clubhouse, interact with the media, sign autographs for the fans, take batting practice and play the game that we do all these things as if we are working for King Jesus and not for ourselves or for anyone else. 

The numbers don’t lie; many of us are unfortunately missing out on the mission that Jesus has initiated and invited us to join. Let’s rediscover what Jesus initiated and respond to his invitation.

Jesus took a small team of ordinary young men, and then he turned the world upside down. He initiated a movement that has transcended time and cultures, and one that is still infiltrating every nation on earth. What might happen if more of us took his invitation seriously and made a decision to truly follow Jesus?