Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Radical Nature of the Normal Christian Life

In countries where the church is badly persecuted, Christians often tend to have a good grasp of the true nature of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  When persecution heats up, the Christians on the receiving end have a choice.  They can abandon the faith or they can keep following.  And those who continue to follow come to understand clearly what being a Christian really involves.

In places where persecution is much lighter, however, I would suggest that most Christians do not properly understand what being a follower of Jesus is all about.  Where there is no real danger of being killed or imprisoned or denied employment etc., shallow faith often results.  And distorted ideas of what it means to be a Christian are common.

At the present time persecution of Christians in Western countries seems to be increasing.  Nevertheless, it is still at a very low level in comparison with many parts of the world.  And I think the lack of persecution is at least part of the reason why the church here is full of believers who have not properly understood what it means to follow Jesus as Lord.

When we turn to the Bible to see what it has to say about being a follower of Jesus, time and again we find radical statements.  Let’s look at some of these.

Matthew 16:24-25

In this passage Matthew writes:

‘24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wants to follow Me, let him deny himself and pick up his cross and follow Me.  25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it.  But whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.’’

The first thing to note here is that the command to pick up the cross in v. 24 is a command to be willing to be literally crucified for Jesus’ sake.  It is true that this saying about the cross is also speaking metaphorically about denying oneself.  But we should understand clearly that Jesus is also implying that a person cannot be a Christian unless he or she is willing to be literally crucified.  This is truly radical teaching. 

Verse 25 is just as striking.  Jesus says here that to be Christians we need to lose our lives for His sake. 

There is a literal element to this verse.  It is hinting that some Christians will need to be martyred for the faith.  But the main emphasis in v. 25 is metaphorical.  Every Christian needs to metaphorically lose his or her life for Jesus’ sake. 

Deep within every human being is a powerful drive that pushes us to gain what we can from life.  The vast majority of people constantly live in this way without even stopping to question what they are doing. 

But Jesus says that Christians should act in a completely different way.  Instead of our lives being focused on what we can get, He tells us to focus instead on giving to Jesus.  This is radical teaching indeed.

Mark 8:34-35 and Luke 9:23-24 contain very similar ideas.

Matthew 18:8-9

In this passage the Lord Jesus uses some powerful imagery:

‘8 If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.  9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell fire.’

Jesus’ words here obviously contain hyperbole, i.e., language that is deliberately exaggerated for effect.  We are certainly not supposed to follow these instructions literally.

However, when reading something in the Bible that is hyperbolic, we need to be careful to take what is said as seriously as we should.  If we are careless, an over-compensation for the hyperbole can occur when interpreting, with the result that the forcefulness of the words is not fully recognised.

When we properly take account of the hyperbole Jesus uses in this passage, we see that His teaching here is radical.  He is telling us that normal Christian living involves taking drastic steps to keep out of situations where we are likely to be tempted.

Matthew 5:29-30 and Mark 9:43-47 contain very similar teaching.

Mark 12:28-31

In this passage Mark tells us:

‘28 One of the scribes came and heard them disputing.  And when he saw that He [Jesus] had answered them
well, he asked Him, ‘Which is the most important commandment?’

29 Jesus replied, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.  30 And you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  31 And this is the second most important: ‘You will love your neighbour as you love yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.’’

The two commandments that Jesus cites here are from the Law of Moses.  As Christians living in New Covenant times we are not under this Law (see, e.g., Romans 6:14-15; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Galatians 3:23-25).  So we are not bound by any of the Law’s commandments.

Nevertheless, it is still the case that we can learn moral principles from the Law.  And there is no doubt that we should apply into our lives the principles in the two commandments Jesus cites in this passage. 

Let’s think for a moment about what these principles involve.

Firstly, to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength means quite simply that there is no room left for anything else!  It is a way of life that encompasses everything we do, say and think.  Even loving our neighbours as we love ourselves is really included in what we mean by loving God in this way.

And if we think specifically about the command to love our neighbours as ourselves, it also stops us in our tracks.  The vast majority of people put the interests of themselves and their families far, far above the interests of other people.  But Jesus is saying that we should treat others on a par with how we treat ourselves. 

Jesus’ teaching in this passage is massively counter-cultural and highly radical.

Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28 contain similar teaching.

John 12:25

Here Jesus states:

‘Anyone who loves their life loses it, but anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’

This is similar to the passage we looked at that speaks about losing our lives for Jesus’ sake.  But here, a bit differently, Jesus tells us that in order to be a Christian, we need to hate our lives! 

Of course, He doesn’t mean that we should literally go out of our way to do ourselves harm.  There is clearly hyperbole in this verse.  But He is implying that our devotion to God should be so great that it is as if we hate our own lives in comparison. 

Human nature to its core spurs us on to love our lives and to live for ourselves.  But Jesus has no time for anything like this.  He bluntly tells His followers to hate their lives instead.  What He says here is radical in the extreme.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

In this passage the apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth:

‘24 Don’t you know that those who run in a stadium all run, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you win.  25 Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in everything.  They do this to receive a perishable wreath, but we do it to receive an imperishable one.  26 Therefore I run in this way: not without purpose.  I box in this way: not hitting the air.         27 But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, having preached to others, I myself won’t be disqualified.’

Professional sportsmen in Paul’s day took great pains to make themselves as good at their sport as they could possibly be, just as they do today.  And Paul sees the Christian life as similar to this.  Normal Christian living involves exercising self-control in everything and making our bodies our slaves.  This is radical teaching.

2 Corinthians 5:15

In this verse Paul states:

‘And He [Jesus] died for everyone, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for the One who died and rose for them.’

The vast majority of people channel all or almost all of their energy into living for themselves and their families.  In this verse Paul doesn’t just say that Christians should put some effort into living for Jesus as well as living for ourselves.  He says that we should live for Jesus instead of living for ourselves!  This is totally radical.

Philippians 1:21

Here Paul writes to the church in Philippi:

‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.’

Paul is implying that the whole fabric of his life is saturated with Christ, with aiming to do His will.  He implies that there is no part of his life that is outside the scope of this.  Paul’s attitude to being a Christian is clearly a highly radical one.

And Paul, of course, is given to us as an example to follow.

Philippians 3:7-8

In this passage Paul says:

‘7 But whatever things were assets to me, I have considered as loss for Christ’s sake.  8 What is more, I consider everything loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For His sake I have lost all things, and I consider them excrement, so that I might gain Christ . . .’

Note Paul’s emphasis here on losing everything to gain Christ in return.  He even uses the shocking Greek word skubala, which in this passage probably refers to excrement rather than ordinary rubbish or refuse. 

All the things that the vast majority of human beings spend their lives pursuing, Paul considers excrement!  He chooses to gain Christ and to have knowledge of Christ instead.  This is an utterly radical approach to the Christian life.

Colossians 3:17

In this verse Paul tells the church in Colossae:

‘And whatever you do in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus . . .’

It is not easy to define precisely what Paul means by ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’ here.  But the meaning seems to include the ideas of acting in submission to Jesus and acting for His sake. 

So Paul is apparently teaching that everything we say or do should be done under Jesus’ authority and for Him.  Paul doesn’t think of a normal Christian as someone who spends time saying and doing things for Jesus.  He thinks of a normal Christian as someone who spends all their time every day saying and doing everything for Jesus!  This is completely radical.

Summing up

I could list many more passages in addition to the ones I have quoted.  But I think I have said enough to make my point.  According to the Bible, the normal Christian life is a radical one of extreme and wholehearted commitment to Jesus as Lord.  It is about using 24 hours of every day to do the will of God to the best of our ability, and then doing the same the next day, and so on.

A tale of two camps

We could perhaps compare incorrect and correct ideas of what it means to follow Jesus to two camps. 

The name of the first camp is ‘May My Will Be Done’.

In Western countries most Christians spend a lot of their time in this camp. 

Many spend the majority of their time there.  They make a few sorties out of the camp every day to do things for God and for others.  But then they quickly return. 

Other Christians are more obedient.  They spend considerable time outside the camp.  Most days they will be away from camp for several hours, and they have even been known to be away for days at a time.  But they always make sure that they return to camp often enough for them to feel comfortable and at home there.

Other Christians are more obedient still.  They spend so much time outside the camp that it is not clear whether they really live there or not.  But they are frequent visitors to it, and they always enjoy visiting.

What God wants us to do, however, is not just spend more time away from this camp.  He wants us to burn it to the ground!  And then He wants us to walk away and never even come near the place again. 

Instead God wants us to take up residence in another camp.  Its name is ‘May Jesus’ Will Be Done’.  This is where Christians are really at home, and it is where our loving God lives.

The Christian life should not be a heavy burden

It is very important to recognise, however, that living for Jesus does not mean that we should expect our lives to become miserable burdens to bear. 

It is true that there will be a cost, high at times, in following the Lord.  The Bible makes it clear that suffering is a key part of normal Christian living.  See, e.g., Luke 9:23; John 16:33; Romans 5:3; 8:18; 2 Timothy 2:3; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 5:10; Revelation 21:4.

But, crucially, it is often the will of Jesus for us to do things that we want to do anyway.  It is not that we surrender our lives to Him and that He then afflicts us constantly.  We surrender, and then we trust Him to lead us in His will, knowing that a large part of His will is for us to be blessed.

In Matthew 11:30 Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  This doesn’t mean that we should expect life to be easy.  But it does mean that the normal Christian life should not mean that we feel we are weighed down with many burdens.  We give our lives to the Lord and He gives much back to us.

But for Jesus to give back, we first need to hand everything over to Him.  It takes courage to do that, to step into the future without having control over our lives.  But that is what we are commanded to do.  And when we meet Him face to face, we will see clearly that it was all well worth it.

See also: