Sunday, January 1, 2017

IN HIS FOOTSTEPS

The meaning or the significance of a title can change over the years. For instance, during the Revolutionary War, to be an “American” was synonymous with one who held strongly unto the values of our emerging nation. Today, the term American does not necessarily carry this same inherent meaning. Many who are called American in these days do not believe in the form of government that was initially drafted in the founders of our country. Today, to be an American means nothing more than someone who is from America, regardless of their beliefs concerning the system of government and the guiding values of the country.

It is much the same for the term Christian. To be called a Christian today does not nearly have the meaning that it did originally. Much as the term American has ceased to be synonymous with the principles of the founders, to be called a Christian today also does not necessarily mean that one agrees with what Christ and the early apostles taught. It is in fact, even more difficult to give a realistic contemporary definition to the term Christian than it does to the term American.

However, at its core and true to its origins, what it means to be a Christian must be one who follows Christ. This in fact, is exactly the sentiment of the first Christians. They actually did not even at first call themselves Christians, but instead described themselves as followers of “the Way,” probably having some reference to the words of Jesus when he said “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). The Way was actually quite a descriptive term for them, since the teaching of the early church centered on the way of God (Acts 18:26). 

I’m a Christian Cheesehead

When the term Christian began to be used, it seems not to be one that the early believers chose for themselves. It was one that apparently was given to them by the people in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26). I read in a couple of different sources that the people of Antioch were especially fond of giving nicknames to people. They gave nicknames to their kings. The term Christian may have at first even had somewhat of a derogatory connotation, but the early Christians of that day instead took it for themselves and even took pride in it.

In this regard, it is much like our Wisconsin affection for of calling ourselves “cheeseheads.”
 This is a name that was bestowed upon us by those horrible Chicago Bears fans, although this was not the first usage of the word. However, the Chicago fans had a football team could not figure out a way to beat our Green Bay Packers, so instead the fans decided to call us names.

“Those Wisconsin people are just a bunch of cheeseheads!” I suppose that they thought that this was clever because of our fondness for producing and especially for eating cheese.

But instead of being insulted by this name, we took ownership of it. After all, it is true that we all love cheese! Cheese-shaped hats begin appearing at Packer games. When we Wisconsinites are in another state and are introducing ourselves to someone, at times instead of saying that we are from Wisconsin, we might say, “I’m a cheesehead” (You may not want to try this in another country though, they might misunderstand).

I think it may have been much like that for the early Christians. The name was not one that they chose for themselves, but it really was quite descriptive of them. They took ownership of the name. It meant “belonging to Christ,” or “followers of Christ.” 

To Be a Follower

It is this last definition that I would like to discuss at this time, because a Christian certainly should be, above all else, a follower of Christ. This is much more than someone who considers himself a Christian almost by default, simply since he doesn’t see himself as being anything else exactly. This he feels is especially true because if he were to go to a church sometime, it probably would be a Christian church.

Speaking of going to a church, one may think that a Christian might be one who follows a certain set of church doctrines. But even this is not necessarily true, for there are doctrines in many churches that are known as Christian churches but have teachings that are not what Christ taught.

Instead of these things, a Christian is one who follows Christ – that’s it. He or she is one who studies the life of Christ and seeks to learn to view life as did Christ. A Christian patterns his or her life according to the teachings and the example of Christ. That is what Jesus told us to do. He said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29).

The apostle John tells us, “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6 NLT).

The early apostles were Christians in the true meaning of the term. They were Christians before the meaning began to be corrupted by outside influences of acceptability, and before men tried to make the teachings of Jesus more palatable to the sensitivities of the times and the caprices of culture. Because these first disciples were personally chosen by Jesus and commissioned by him to carry on his work, I, at least, am comfortable in also believing their words. 

Not a Part-Time Position

One thing that many today who may call themselves Christians do not realize is that becoming a follower of Christ is not a part-time occupation. It is not something that happens on Sunday mornings only, or even in a daily five-minute Bible reading before you head off to work. Becoming a follower of Christ is a complete commitment of your entire energy.

Jesus one time told his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:25 NAS).

Notice that Jesus did not say these words to a crowd of people who were weighing both sides of an issue and considering whether or not they should become followers of Christ. He said it to his disciples. These were those who had already in some sense committed themselves to Jesus, and who had already made great sacrifices in their personal lives. 

Let’s Begin

Having this initial commitment of course is fundamental. This phrase is today much overused, but Jesus put it in terms of being “born again.” This is the initial commitment that we must make in order to be a follower of Jesus. Without this commitment, not only can we not be a follower of Christ, but we can never see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

But the reason that this phrase is overused in these days is because very many Christians think that this is the end goal of our Christian lives. That is all that they can talk about. “Are you born again?” “You must be born again.” “I am a born again believer.”

All of this is very good, but it is far from the goal of the Christian life. Birth is always essential for life, of course, but it is not the entire magnitude of life. What would you think of a parent who thought that the full extent of his or her parental responsibilities had been fulfilled once their infant had been born? Unfortunately, we do have some parents like that in our society, which is why we have children who are unprepared to handle the challenges of life.

It is much the same in the Christian life. If we think that once we are born again, there are no further stages in our development, we will be unprepared to face the challenges of living the Christian life. Our growth will be anemic and we will fail in many ways. 

Knowing Jesus

If we are to be followers of Jesus, then it must go almost without saying that we look to his life as a pattern for ours. He is our example.

We have just completed the time in our year when we observe and celebrate the birth of Christ. At Easter we will observe his crucifixion. These are the only two things about Jesus that most people know. They may know a few of the sayings of Jesus – “Blessed are the peacemakers.” They may know that he healed some people. But little else. Most people have never taken the time to study the life of Jesus. Even Christian people have not. Even those who claim to be “followers of Christ.” It all seems a little strange to me.

It is for this reason that I mentioned the early name that the Christians took for themselves. “Followers of the Way.” A follower of Jesus Christ must study his life to the best of his or her ability to understand the ways of God and the way that Jesus lived. I understand that there are some difficulties in doing this. Jesus never wrote a book. He did not leave us a written dissertation. There is a huge gap in the record of his life between the time that he was a child and when he again suddenly appeared on the scene as an adult.

Nevertheless, we do have four verifiable eye witness accounts of the life of Jesus during the years of his ministry. This was the time when he expounded his teachings and explained his perspective on life. And we do have one verifiable account from the early childhood of Jesus. Not very much, I know.

It Requires Growth

And yet, I think that most people miss even a single and most important lesson from the early life of Jesus. It is in the gospel of Luke where we read of Jesus when he was still just an infant. Luke says of him, “The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.”

Then later in the same chapter of Luke, when Jesus was twelve years old, this is said of him: “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:40, 52).

Even with Jesus, who was God, when he was on earth, his life and his understanding required growth. He of course needed to grow physically, but I am speaking more to the fact that he increased in wisdom. He was not born fully mature. How is it that we should expect anything different about ourselves?

One of our sons, when he was a little boy, developed a serious health condition. When he was about four or five years old, his growth stopped, and he began to lose weight. Doctors could not at first explain why, or what we needed to do about it. The situation worried Vivian and I greatly. Thankfully, the issue was eventually resolved and he is now a big and strong young man. However, during the time, it was the fact that he was not growing that worried us. A four year old boy should not be losing weight.

When a small child or an infant is not growing, we know that something is seriously wrong in their life. Again comparing this physical condition with the spiritual, why is it then that we do not find a lack of growth unusual in the life of a Christian? Many think that once they are born into the Christian life, there is nothing left to be done.

This is not the example that we have from the One that we seek to emulate in our own lives. Jesus went through a process of growth and continually increased in wisdom. 

2017

Today is the very first day of the year 2017. It is the point of the year when many people make an assessment of their lives, see if they have failed in some way during the previous year, and resolve to do better in the New Year. Perhaps it is a good time to make an assessment of your spiritual growth.

Perhaps you have identified yourself as a Christian for many years, but have never really been a follower. Your growth has stopped. In 2017, you can begin again to follow the life of Christ. Pattern your life after his.

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