A major goal throughout this series will be to tear down and deconstruct the various cultural “myths” we tend to believe as Christians. Where do these myths come from? Well, they’re mostly bits and fragments that emerge from the evangelical sub-culture. If we’re not careful, we can allow these myths to craft a form of Christianity that is less an avenue of conversion but an enemy to conversion. And—if you think about it—what better tool could the devil have in his arsenal than to convert God’s people to a form of Christianity shaped more by culture than it wields the power of the gospel.
The first myth we’re tackling is a simple one: that a “disciple” means someone who “has it all together.” What is a “disciple?” A disciple—at its most basic—is a student, usually of one particular person. Jesus wasn’t the first to have disciples. His cousin John the Baptist had disciples. Many rabbis (Jewish religious teachers) had groups of disciples that spent their days at their sides. And long before that, Greek philosophers had students who would literally follow them around, listening to their teaching. It was known as the peripatetic school—from a Greek word that literally meant “to walk around.” So to be a student had more meaning than today. It wasn’t about waking up and attending a class for an hour or so. It was a lifestyle of staying close to the side of the teacher. It was therefore about intellect as well as character.
Of course, in today’s thinking, we have a mental portrait of what we think a student of Jesus should be. Probably someone overtly “religious,” a sort of “Ned Flanders” type who has it all together: right answers, church attendance, and a list of good deeds under his belt.
But the Sermon on the Mount is arranged such that it concludes with a warning against religious hypocrisy. In this passage, Jesus tells the crowds:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 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 mighty works in your name?’23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
In his commentary on Matthew, D.A. Carson observes that in Jesus’ day, the word “Lord” would not have been widely understood. But at the time Matthew was writing—some 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection—the people would have understood the word “Lord” as having the same import as the word LORD in the Old Testament. So for a person to call Jesus “Lord” meant they understood their theology quite well: Jesus was God in the flesh.
But their devotion didn’t stop at the level of intellect, but penetrated to the level of emotion. They didn’t just call Jesus “Lord;” they called Him “Lord, Lord.” In Semitic culture, the repetition of a name was meant to convey emotion (Luke records a story wherein Jesus conveys His concern for a woman by repeating her name: “Martha, Martha”). This was an expression of emotion. These were folks who raised their hands during worship and wept during prayer.
So these folks had an intellectual knowledge of Jesus, they had an emotional connection to God, but finally, they had a track record of obedient service. They “cast out demons,” they did “mighty works.” These were the folks who taught Sunday School and volunteered for short-term missions work.
What portrait do we get? We get someone who had a set of right beliefs, emotions that leaned toward God, and a list of good religious deeds. And it’s at this point that you and I should start to feel ourselves break out in a cold sweat, because if we’ve spent any time in a church then there’s a very good chance that we, too, possess intellectual knowledge, emotional conviction, and a devotion to service. But Jesus says these kinds of people aren’t worthy to be called His disciples. But why? The answer is hinted at in the next section:
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 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 founded on the rock. 26 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. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27)
It’s natural to assume that Jesus was using the word “rock” in the same sense as other Biblical writers. David, for instance, referred to God as his “rock” and “fortress” (Psalm 18:2). So what is Jesus saying? To obey Jesus—to truly be a follower of Jesus—means to trust not in the shifting sands of my own achievements (intellectual or otherwise), but rest solely on the character of God.
This is why Jesus’ reference to suffering is such a big deal. “Crises reveal character,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Suffering strips away all of the things we naturally cling to, exposing our true source of confidence and trust. Our happiness can be swept away like the sands beneath a flood. But trusting in the gospel—in the rock-steady character of God—leaves us prepared for anything.
This is why Paul would later write a letter to Titus, encouraging him in his ministry to stand strong in the face of the shifting sands of cultural opposition and false religious teaching. In Titus 3, Paul starts by encouraging Christian character in the political sphere:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1-2)
This seems generally wise, of course, until we realize that Paul understood the basis for this—and all human conduct—as rooted in the gospel:
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:3-8)
Titus 3:5 will become sort of our “theme verse” in these next several weeks. This, this is the rock on which we stand. The tragedy of contemporary Christianity is that we’ve dismissed the gospel as elementary when it should be elemental. We’ve convinced ourselves that the gospel is about a sinner’s prayer at the beginning of our spiritual life, and then we move on to the serious work of becoming a “good” person. But if we don’t allow the gospel to shape every aspect of our lives, then we effectively step off the solid rock and into the shifting sands of human experience and self-righteousness.
In the coming weeks, we’ll explore how the gospel changes the way we approach such things as the spiritual disciplines, evangelism, personal holiness, etc. Discipleship isn’t about “working harder” or “being really hard on myself.” Instead it’s about trusting in what God has done for us—and trusting in what God can do with us, and through us.