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Being a disciple

Discipleship is the term used to describe becoming a follower, or a disciple of Jesus. We tend to think disciples in terms of the twelve, but actually the term is used of any follower of Jesus. In Matthew 28 Jesus says to the initial eleven (Judas had by this stage betrayed Jesus and committed suicide) “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. It might come as a surprise, but Jesus does not call anyone to become a Christian. I don’t think that He is particularly interested if we want to get involved in church, regard ourselves as ‘Christian’ or want to be good people. What he is actually offering is the chance to be one of His disciples here and now in our generation. To see this in action, see Luke chapter nine (verses 23-24 ESV) where He says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it”. The reason for this statement is that being a disciple isn’t the same as being a fan. The offer isn’t to respect, admire or even follow some of His advice; it is to be a disciple. That requires complete dedication, as with the initial twelve. Just to be sure, Jesus makes that statement to us about taking up our cross. It is not referring to having hardships in our lives. It is not related to whether we are enjoying life with things generally going well, or whether we are having a really hard time with things going wrong. The cross was a method of execution, of death. Jesus is saying that to be His disciple means we give up our own will. It is dying to self, to selfishness and taking up self-less living instead. I’ll explain this in more detail with an example from my own life.

A few weeks ago I heard a few thoughts on the radio that really challenged me. God asked me if I had really given control of my entire life to Him. As I thought it through over the coming days I could only conclude that I had. There was nothing I could specifically think of, no area in which I was holding anything back. As far as I was aware my life was His to do as He wished with. So I asked Him what it was I was holding back. Years before I had read a book on discipleship and the implications of giving control over every aspect of life to God. I was pretty sure that I had been doing that. The thing is that often with God, we are following Him, but only to the best of our ability. As we grow, we go back to an old lesson to learn it again, but this time to a much deeper level.

After a couple of weeks I was reading in Romans and this familiar verse stood out to me (Chapter 12): “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”. Obeying God is more than just avoiding sin. It is actively wanting what He wants. If we love God, we will obey Him. The reason for that is that we actually want what others want when we love them, even if it’s not exactly what we would want! We see that in our human relationships also. God showed me that in actual fact I had been holding back on many areas of life. It wasn’t even necessarily that I was doing something that He didn’t want, rather it was a wrong attitude. Instead of regarding, for example, my time as His, I was thinking ‘what will I do with my weekend’. It is not mine when I become a disciple. Nether is my choice of work location, house, friends, use of money or what I listen to on the radio.

Now I realise many will object to this. God doesn’t care what shirt we wear today I hear you say! Yes, that is correct. There are so many decisions for which God gives us free will. In fact many would argue that God isn’t even bothered over the big decisions, such as choice of house or partner. I can’t give you an answer to that because I don’t know, you may well be right. But I heard something very wise from a pastor I enjoy: “God gives us freewill, but a wise disciple hands it back”. Yes, I do believe that I can do anything I like with this evening. But the thing is that I love God enough that I’d rather do what He wants. It’s all about love. If you have ever really loved another person, you’ll know your greatest satisfaction is seeing them happy. I think that is how I’d like to end this, by saying that doing what God wants brings so much contentment and satisfaction! The more I hand over the less worry I have and the more I enjoy each day. The worry thing is understandable. If God is running my life completely I know He has everything under control. And the aspect of joy is down to love, the more we love God the greater the joy we find in following Him. So today, I set you a challenge, take some area of your life that you have ‘settled’ or decided upon, hand it over to God and see what direction He takes you in!

Faith under attack

One interesting observation regarding spiritual battles is that we very often don’t realise that we are in them.  Ephesians 6 (verse 12) states that it is not flesh and blood we battle, but spiritual forces.  In other words the battle is not actually with other people, but spiritual enemies who are simply using people to attack us.  Of course, any attack by the enemy can only go as far as God will allow it, and we believe it is for our ultimate benefit.  This is theory, but practice confirms what we know, and it will be worth examining this truth in greater detail.

First, the problem as described by God.  Ephesians 6, verse 16 says “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one”.  It is one of those verses that we perhaps don’t fully understand until we have lived through it, and even then only if we actually know what it is we are living through.  The devil will aim arrows, or darts at us.  One of the interesting things about an arrow (and this Biblical illustration) is that an arrow is far more deadly than a bullet.  If you attempt to remove it, the arrow will tear and cause even more damage.  This passage speaks of our defence being a shield, and it has in mind a Roman soldier’s shield which was a very large device, made of wood and covered in leather, probably soaked with water.  It was so large the solider could simply stand behind it and advance safely towards the enemy.  Our shield against the devils arrows is our faith.  Faith protects even more securely against these arrows of the evil one.

 We have to go further to understand this concept properly.  Our shield is faith, but what are the arrows we are facing?  They come in many forms, perhaps discouragement, trials, lies, and problems, and are not always through other people.  You will be anticipating a great day, and then out of nowhere the problems start coming.  They may be small – you loose your keys when you are already in a hurry for work (but just watch how you react to that ‘small’ inconvenience), or they may be large, perhaps a hurtful exchange with someone close to you.  Regardless, these are the arrows that have genuine potential to rock our world and leave us in an emotional condition that no child of God should be in, whether that is anger, hurt, pain, discouragement, fear or something else.  You can see, hopefully, that even worse than the resulting emotional state and any sin we may then go on to commit, is the state it leaves our relationship with God.  Suddenly we are no longer trusting Him, we are at a distance, we are not talking to Him, and if we sin as a result of these negative emotions it gets even worse.  Satan has won the battle, his objective achieved.  Now he just needs to keep on with further attacks, and soon we will be a spiritual mess.

 But this cycle can be avoided; remember the passage tells us how – with faith.  Now, at this point I want to talk about one specific arrow that has hit me recently.  And not once, but multiple times every day.  Its left me ready to give up on so much and finding it hard to pray.  It’s probably the most destructive of the lot.  It is lies.  Jesus tells us (John 8, verse 44) that “the devil…He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies”.  He goes about telling us lies.  And his lies are more destructive than any you will hear from a person.  They may be provided through another person, but much more common is that he will put them directly into our minds in response to circumstances.  He will tell you that you can’t trust your friend, that God has rejected you, you won’t get the job, you didn’t hear from God, that you are not good enough, that you won’t recover, to be afraid, to hold back, to play it safe, to respond in anger, that it wouldn’t work, to never let yourself get hurt again, and a thousand others.  We all know the difference between lies and truth.  Truth does not make sense and goes against logic, whilst lies sound reasonable, and usually have at least most of the evidence on their side.  Satan doesn’t change his tactics often.  We can respond to lies by going back to God, with faith.  Head to the Bible and find out what God has to say on the matter.  And if God has spoken to you specifically, trust Him, you did hear from Him.  You might think it is easier to believe a promise that is written, but actually Satan will attack both.  The most effective method is just to quote God’s word to yourself, and him.  It is what Jesus did, whenever Satan lied to him, he responded by quoting Scripture “it is written” (Matthew 4, verse 4).  It really is that effective.  Of course, Satan will challenge us, he has been doing it from the beginning with the well worn phrase ‘Did God actually say”…(Genesis 3, verse 1).  You would have thought we would have caught on to that old line by now.  Yes, he will cast doubt on what God has told us.  So that is why our faith is so critical, it is our sole defence.

 Faith is so important that in the words of Jarrod Cooper (Pastor, New Life Church, Hull, UK) ‘there is one thing the devil will attack day after day, and that is your faith in God’.  The Bible says “Your faith – more precious then gold that perishes” (1 Peter 1, 7).  Our faith is what protects us from all of this and that is why it is so valuable, and why the enemy is insane about attacking it.  Faith is what protects us, keeping us close to God, and avoiding unnecessary emotional pain.  When all around is falling apart, we can be calm, knowing that our God loves us, and that nothing will overcome Him.  When God says something, we can count on it, no matter what the circumstances are telling us.

 Okay, I want to leave on a high note.  I was praying about all of this on my way home recently, with circumstances still not looking too good.  In fact they had got worse, and since then there has been little change.  And I found myself praising God, because I realised in a deeper way that Jesus is very much alive today.   I want to ask you, is He real, is He there, are you going to step out and trust Him?  That is our faith, we have a relationship with Jesus and He came to give us life to the full, not the half life we try to get by with.  This blog post won’t help you, it just encourages you to get back to your Friend, spend time with Him, and get His perspective on things.  Trust and keep praising until things get better.  He showed me something really special today regarding my own challenges; all these things are leading to a stronger faith, and a closer walk with Him.  This is going to bless us.

Thank you Lord Jesus, may this all be to your glory.

Psalm 23, v 3:  He restores my soul.” (ESV)

God is the expert at restoring souls.  In place of the word soul, we often speak of emotions.  They are not the same, but they are very similar.  When emotions are hurt, souls get hurt.  If we have a heart, it is inevitable that we will get hurt.  There are many responses to hurt.  Perhaps the two most common are to either harden our hearts or to fall into depression.  The first is unhealthy in that it removes love and replaces it with not caring, which is a horrible condition to be in.  The other focuses on the hurt and results in great sadness.  Neither is the correct response.  Rather we should focus our minds on Jesus, not the problem.  That is really very difficult.  The only thing in our mind is the hurt, but God is saying to look at Him instead.  To think of Him, His goodness and who He is.  The result is remarkable, He will restore our soul and the hurt will be replaced by love and peace.  Incidentally, this isn’t instant.  It takes discipline and time, but I can guarantee from every time of hurt in my life that focusing on Jesus always restores my soul, whatever or whoever was the cause of the hurt. 

Matthew 7, v21 -22 (ESA)

Jesus said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven….On that day many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name and do many might works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from me you workers of lawlessness’. 

There is a common perception that Christians go to Heaven while others do not.  Actually, the truth is that all genuine followers of Jesus who have come to Him for forgiveness, will go to Heaven to spend eternity with Him.  Not everyone with the title ‘Christian’ is indeed a Christian, and there are many secret believers in parts of the world where it is not possible to openly follow Christ who have other labels.  We might be surprised to know who the real Christians are.  It is no great surprise to read this. However, the point of this message is not about those who are clearly on the fringes.

Jesus is speaking here about those who we would assume are definitely Christians.  They call Jesus ‘Lord’  (v21). I don’t know many people who refer to Jesus in this way, and those that do appear to be the most committed Christians I know.  They are also actively serving God, as evidenced by their work (v22).  They are very active Christians, and are just as likely to be Christian workers.  These verses refer to serious, committed Christians.  They refer to ministers, evangelists, theologians, academics, elders, and other serving Christians.  And what do we read?  Jesus does not know them here on earth.  They are praying, but they are not genuinely praying to Jesus.  They are working hard, but not for Jesus.  We learn one final thing about them, they genuinely believe (“did we not”) that they are Christians and that their knowledge, speech and hard work was proof of the fact.

For a Christian this must be one of the most sobering passages in the Bible.  We think we are Christians, we think we are following Jesus.  We absolutely know how much work we are doing for the one we call ‘Lord’, and we have a position.  We may even have an impressive background and training in theology.  Yet for all this, ‘many’ of us will be found to have not been followers of Jesus at all.  Many are their own followers.  They are following their own pride and egos.

How can someone be in such a situation?  How can they know the way of salvation, know all about Jesus and yet miss out on actually knowing him personally?  The Bible answers with the simple truth that “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17, v9).  We all know people who genuinely think they love their wives, while to everyone else it is clear as day they do not. It is no different with God.  We believe what we want to believe.  I actually find these verses incredibly distressing.  For people to knowingly reject God is one thing, but to think they are reaching out to Him when in fact they are not is very sad.  It is our eternal future that is at stake.

So how can we avoid this situation?  The Gospel of John has the answer (chapter 4, v 23) “the true worshippers will worship the Father in sprit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him”.  We must come to God in spirit and truth.  Put another way, we need to really, genuinely come to Jesus for a relationship with Him.  It is possible to enjoy church, or theology, or Christian work, but not actually worship Jesus.  Put another way round, lets take everything we enjoy away.  If there were no nice music, no new things to learn, no fellowship with other believers, no privileges, just Jesus.  How would we feel about that?  Is it really Jesus we are seeking to know, or is it the trappings that we enjoy more?  In response to this we need to humbly come before God and make sure we know and have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus.  By doing so we will not only be assured of a warm welcome when we one day meet Him face to face, but we will also be bringing life and love into the Church.

“The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation” Psalm 18, v 46. 

Bob Gass writes in the Word for Today (available from UCB) that when the number 40 appears in the Bible, it always represents struggle.  Prior to starting his ministry on earth, Jesus went out into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  I can’t imagine a worse place to be tempted.  If I’m without food, proper rest and sleep, I’m not hard to tempt.  Yet that is where Jesus went, and as a man experienced the same hunger, tiredness, loneliness that makes all of us easy to prey to sin.  He chose the hardest location for the most intense period of testing of his life.  Could he have failed?  God cannot sin, but man can.  Jesus was both, so he could not, and yet could have.  I can’t give a better explanation than that. Hmanity, you and me, had only one hope for salvation, and that was Jesus making it to the cross as a perfect human being who had never sinned.  One slip up in that desert (or at any other time – as a child, when humiliated or abused for no reason), and it was over.  He would not have been perfect and would not have been able to take the punishment for us. Yet he didn’t give in, he did not sin and he went to the cross in perfection and secured our salvation.  Now we can shout out from our hearts: “blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation”.  Thank you, Jesus.

1 Corinthians 7, v 25 – 40
“I want you to be free from anxieties”
The goodness of singleness (in relation to those who do not need or desire a sexual relationship) is not recognised, perhaps because most teachers are married and carry their personal preferences over into their teaching. But the Bible gives us a different and better picture. This is a long one, but keep reading to the end, it’s a good one! There are, or will be, perhaps four eras of marriage. Adam and Eve experienced a type of relationship that no one else since has ever fully known. While often portrayed as the first marriage, and type for marriages to follow (which it is), we need to remember that their pre-fall relationship was vastly different to that they experienced after their initial short time together. The initial union was something very innocent, loving and complementary. It was not affected by the results of the fall. Whether it was a perfect marriage, or something better than marriage I do not know. The second type of marriage was from the fall, including Adam and Eve and going right through history until the beginning of the Church age at the resurrection of Jesus. We often forget, but marriage, and including having children, was not so much an option as an expectation and duty (see Deuteronomy 25, v 5, for example). So the teaching of 1 Corinthians comes as a shock, it is extremely radical. Incidentally, the forth era will be in eternity when we will be ‘like the angels’, and not married because there will be something better. No one is totally sure as to this meaning, but we can be confident that it will be perfection, even better than the initial relationship of Adam and Eve. Whether we are single or married just now, our relationships in eternity will be even closer and better than the best we currently experience. Now to examine the radical teaching of 1 Corinthians:

V26 “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is”. It is good to be single and to remain so, because of the fact we are living in the church age, a time of waiting for the return of Christ. He could come at any moment, and we are focused on getting ready to be with Him either through His return, or by our death. And life is very often very difficult during the present age. Paul goes on to explain that marriage is a distraction, it takes our minds off serving God (and this is our one chance go get involved in God’s work of populating Heaven!) – “the married man is anxious about worldly things”. The key words are ‘in light of the present distress’. This is not our home and it can get quite nasty. Although in our comfortable western world we often forget this, for much of the world, and especially Christians, it is often really hard. This teaching is only given because of the times we live in. The Bible is not saying that all things being equal, it is better to be alone. It is staying that because things are not right, it might be better to hold off marriage. Prior to the church age, marriage was a duty. In the future, we won’t have marriage, but we will have even closer and more loving relationships. To some extent this pairing of man and woman is likely to continue. It was declared ‘good’ in the beginning and that has not changed. When the Bible suggests no marriage, it is trying to convey that the type of relationship we currently enjoy will be replaced by a better one, not that we will be separated and less close.

But, that is not to say that marriage is wrong! We are not more spiritual if we remain unmarried. “But if you do marry, you have not sinned”. It is still a good thing to do, and the most common thing to do. However, “he who refrains from marriage will do even better”. It is good to get married, and even better not to.

Now Paul finishes with something perhaps even more radical to us than the concept of staying single being ‘even better’. “But whoever is firmly established in his heart…”. This probably means firmly rooted in Christ, in a strong relationship to Him. “…being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well”. It is framed from the point of view of the man, but refers to both men and women. It gives here the example of the betrothed, or in our present culture the nearest equivalent might be engaged, or at least in a committed relationship. This is not a single person but rather man and woman who are in a relationship, love each other, and enjoy each other’s company. They are encouraged to keep each other, to stay together as they are. If they need an intimate sexual relationship, they are encouraged to get married. But if not, they continue together, and are not to leave each other.

The important point of this message is this: regardless of marriage or not, God does not, often, call us to be alone. In society today many people choose not to get married, but they are not ‘single’. They are in relationships, almost always sexual, but not as committed as a marriage. This is not healthy for people and it ends in hurt. But the point is people choose not to get married because they, apparently, can have all the fun and companionship of a marriage without the commitment. The Christian on the other hand not wanting to be sexually immoral either gets married or stays alone. That is not how God intends life for us. Even those who are single are encouraged to be in loving and committed relationships, possibly even in a state of ‘betrothal’, which would mean a very loving and close relationship between one man and one woman, filled with affection each other. It is true that this is not a marriage, a sharing of all, or a sexual union, but it is a very close relationship regardless. It should be wonderful news for all singles should God lead you towards someone of similar thinking.

Incidentally, while rare, I have known of this happen on two occasions. Those involved were thought of as ‘girlfriend and boyfriend’ and everyone wondered why they never got married. To God, and them though, it no doubt made perfect sense.

A final word is needed for those who do wish to marry and for whom this is not good news! Paul said that regarding this teaching he had “no command from the Lord” (v 25). It is an odd thing to say, after all isn’t the entire Bible God’s word? It is, and this is teaching from God, but the ‘no command’ from the Lord is highly significant. This is wise advice from God, but it is not His final command for everyone. He is leaving the door open, deliberately, so that you and I can receive a direct command from Him. This is what might be known as a ‘general rule’, but it does not apply to all. Jesus can, and very often does, give us people to marry, and we are to do so in thankfulness as a gift from Him.

Update:  With thanks to reader, Dr Elizabeth, for sending a link to this blog with further thoughts on this subject.

Luke 6, v 32  “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?” (ESV)

There is a standard of living for the believer that is subtlety mention here and easy to miss.  The point of this passage is extravagant love, even to the point of loving our enemies.  It clearly says we are to do good to those who mean us harm, giving to everyone who asks of us and not returning evil when it is directed at us.  To imagine such situations is not difficult, nor will we wait long before experiencing them.  To the Spirit filled believer this standard can still be difficult, but only if the Spirit is not getting full control of our lives.  When He is given such control, it can actually become quite easy.  Because other people’s reactions do not matter, we can easily get on with living the way Jesus commands us without giving thought to the others response.  However the is a subtle angle to this teaching that is easy to miss.  We reach straight for the extreme examples and forget the lesser ones.  Verse 33, “do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return”.  Yes this is directed towards our enemies, but ‘our enemies’ are only mentioned because it is assumed we will be already be doing good towards our friends.  Yet, is it not the case that we can do good to our enemies and forget our friends.  When we write, or call, or speak, are we doing so in extreme love, with as much as we have, or do we ‘mirror’ the other person?  Are our emails only as friendly and loving as those we receive, or more so?  Do we ask to spend time with people, or smile, regardless of whether they love us as much?  The point is that while it is easy to repay evil for evil, it is also easy to be somewhat friendly to someone who is somewhat friendly to us.  But why not love extravagantly and not mirror other people.  God does not promise that those we love will love us back, but He does say we will be rewarded for such living.