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Discipleship Is More Than Just Following

by Dr. Henderson Ward  
1/16/2014 / Christian Living

During his earthly ministry Jesus Christ had thousands of followers and wherever he went the crowds gathered to see and hear him. In truth Jesus could have been compared with any rock star of this age as he went from place to place proclaiming the gospel, and at times the crowds were so large and their spiritual hunger so great that he kept them listening for long hours until they were famished and some were near exhaustion. Yet when Jesus died on the cross, after three and a half years of public ministry, he had just 120 disciples.

Anyone who takes an interest in spiritual matters will note that they are some significant differences between a follower of Jesus Christ and a disciple of Jesus Christ, and although on the surface they both look alike, nevertheless it should be understood that a disciple is a follower but every follower is not a disciple; and the Bible clearly highlights this distinction.

At the most basic level a follower may simply be someone who may be an admirer, someone who gives support for your individuality and style, someone who associates with you because to do so brings benefits.

Jesus had many followers like that.

On one occasion more than five thousand followers followed him, and after he preached and taught them about the Kingdom he took five barley loaves and two small fish and fed them all, and the leftovers filled twelve baskets. Free food in abundance is a mighty good reason to follow, especially in times when food was scarce but Jesus recognised their motive: "Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled." (John 6:26)

They were followers of Jesus who went along for the "joy ride" of assembly, food, good stories and seeing miracles but they had no interest in going beyond that. Jesus knew that and tested their fickleness and insincerity as like when he said this, "...Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you." (John 6:53) After this some followers responded negatively, "From that time many of his disciples [followers] went back, and walked no more with him." (John 6:66)

For any preacher today to go to a village or a town unannounced and stand on a soap box and draw a thousand listeners would be amazing. This is what Jesus did repeatedly and drew thousands; the mention of his name did that and everywhere he went the masses followed him.

But Jesus was not deluded by such throngs for he knew that many of those followers would be the same people who, in a few short years, would be bellowing for his execution, "Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him." (Mark 15:14)

Many people, even today, follow Jesus Christ and Christianity for the wrong reasons:

Some follow to make money and live a lavish lifestyle; among them are false teachers and false prophets, the peddlers of prosperity theology, the bogus Christian websites and all those who see spiritual things as moneymaking ventures. To them all, the accursed spirit of Simony prevails.

Some follow to take advantage of vulnerable souls, just like wolves congregating to devour sheep; abusive priests, evil pastors and the like whom Paul warned against, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock." (Acts 20:29) and it's these followers that the church needs to guard against and to be eternally vigilant.

Some follow to grab opportunities to satisfy their carnal lust and to snare the foolish and unsuspecting, of whom they are many scattered across Christendom; appropriately described by Paul to Timothy, "For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts." (2 Timothy 3:6)

All of these can be accurately described as followers but their attitude and stance and commitment fall far short of genuine discipleship.

Jesus Christ knew that he would attract a lot of followers, this Son of God who were performing miracles and doing things never seen before was not interested in having followers, as before described, but in fashioning disciples, people who would transition from the crowds of followers looking for quick fixes and temporal benefits to believers and dedicated supporters of God and his provision for humanity as found in Jesus Christ himself.

Here is how Jesus described how this transition would take place.

"And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." (Luke 9:23)

Observe closely how Jesus detailed the steps to true discipleship:

First the appeal was universal: Some people delude themselves that only some people can be saved, those whom God has chosen from before the world was created and no other, but Jesus taught differently for his call was to "any man", meaning whosoever will (John 3:16) whether he be old or young, rich or poor, black or white, learned or unlearned, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, anyone that has a yearning and a desire can become a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Next Jesus said, "Let him deny himself": Self is the biggest stumbling block and the most difficult to be removed on the way to true discipleship and so Jesus started with that. It has been said that, "A man's self is to him the prime cause of most of his miseries" and in all honesty this truism is borne out by the facts.

A rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus came to him and Jesus said to him, "Go, sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor," (Matthew 19:21) and the very thought of it gave this young man so much grief, that the Bible says, "he went away sorrowful". He chose rather to part with his hope of heaven, than deny himself of his earthly wealth. This is equally true of those who hear the word that is able to save their souls, they admit the truthfulness of what they hear, they are even convicted by the word as did King Agrippa in Acts 26:28; yet they remain dead in trespasses and sins, dammed and unsaved because they will not deny themselves of their sinful pleasures even though they know that in resisting God's call they sentence their souls to eternal punishment.

Very few believers practice this self-denial as taught in the Bible, for it is nothing less than a full-hearted commitment to doing God's will in every circumstance, it is wholly pleasing God rather than self, it is always "not my will but thine be done" and seeking to comply whatever the cost until it becomes the only principle by which we live.

Then Jesus said, "Take up your cross daily": Notice the specificity here that gives the lie to what so many believers understand by "cross". The cross here is not old age, the ups and downs of godly living, sickness and pain and the routine disappointments of life for these are all common to all people of faith. Are these things not burdensome? Sure, but they are not to be confused with your cross.

The Prophet Jonah hated preaching to obnoxious and resentful people (as do most preachers) but preaching salvation to his most repugnant, savage enemy, the rampaging Ninevites that slaughtered Israelis by the thousands and ripped them to pieces for naked fun was for Jonah more than hateful, it was deliriously painful and abhorrent and Jonah would rather die than preach to these dogs (Matthew 15:26). Preaching to the Ninevites was Jonah's cross that he was required to bear if he was to be true to God. After eventually preaching to the Ninevites Jonah found a comfortable perch to watch God wipe them off the face of the earth. Poor Jonah.

Every believer has a cross to bear, something you will never choose for yourself, something that is not fashionable or pleasant or that will bring you earthly honour or glory or generate esteem in your eyes or the eyes of the world, but that which God wants you to shoulder for his sake, for his honour and for his glory. It might be a call to poverty (like nuns and monks), it might be to do some work that you consider beneath you, it might be to do that which offends your family or friends or brings scorn from your professional colleagues, it might be to work in certain locations or any number of things. Any of these appointed for you is your cross and you are to submit knowing it is God's will, for his glory and your eventual elevation and pleasure because passing through the fire may be painful but, like gold, it purifies and enhances.

Finally Jesus said, "and follow me": This is the most pertinent fact in all Christendom for believers are not about following a creed, or some persuasive philosophy or even some well thought-out doctrine but it is all about following Jesus Christ and ALL that he represents. It was for compelling reasons that the disciples in ancient Antioch in Syria were called Christians; because they so closely followed Jesus Christ that they looked like him.

Daily following Jesus requires total commitment for the long run, it is not to bear the cross for a day or two and then laying it aside to do our own thing, it is not setting it aside to take a rest when we feel weary, it is not finding some excuse to abandon cross bearing because of some disagreeable circumstances attached to it; it is taking our cross gladly for the sake of Christ and the gospel, it is sacrificing self with all its concomitant ambitions and goals and dreams and completely surrendering to God's will as did Caleb and Joshua, "...for they have wholly followed the LORD." (Numbers 32:12) or like the magnificent Apostle Paul who remarked, "But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ." (Philippians 3:7)

This is what constitutes more than just following, this is nothing less than a full growth of the seed once planted in good soil now maturing, in full bloom and growing ever more so day by day and bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance, this is the commitment where self is now dead and the glory of God is the only guiding principle and doing his will the all-consuming passion of the soul and the body and the spirit.

This is more than just following; this is true discipleship.

Enough said.

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Dr. Henderson Ward received his Doctor of Divinity in theology, with distinction, from Masters International School of Divinity, USA, where he is currently a post-doctoral fellow. Dr. Ward's career involved pastoring, evangelism, and teaching. Copyright 2017

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