Originally published November 1, 2000
When our Lord Jesus Christ was on earth He repeatedly said to those who would listen to His Word, “Come, follow me” (Matthew:19:21; Luke:18:22, etc.). Large numbers of the Jews, because they or a relative or friend had been healed or fed by Christ, followed Him wherever He went: “And there followed him great multitudes of people…and he healed them all…” (Matthew:5:1; 8:1; 12:15; 13:2, etc.). So large and eager were the crowds that He and His twelve disciples “could not so much as eat bread. And…his friends…said, He is beside himself” (Mark:3:20-21).
Christ’s call to follow Him is extended to all mankind. No hint that Jesus was not sincere in saying, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink” (John:7:37). What He still offers to all is the same “living water [of] everlasting life” which He offered to the woman at the well (John:4:10-14).
Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke:19:41-42) and mourned, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often would I have gathered thy children…as a hen…her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Luke:13:34). He thereby identified Himself as the God of Israel who had pleaded with His people throughout their entire existence to repent and turn to Him: “Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day I have even sent unto you all my servants the prophets, daily rising up and early sending them…” (Jeremiah:7:25; 25:4; 26:5; 29:19, etc.). “But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would [have] none of me…. Oh that my people had hearkened unto me…!” (Psalm:81:11-13).
The multitudes who followed Him were called disciples. Some were genuine, but most had selfish motives and eventually forsook Him. Yes, even Christ himself had a very high dropout rate. Jesus said, “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John:6:70). He was referring to Judas, who would betray Him.
The number of supposed disciples who remained true to Christ was comparable to the low percentage of true disciples today among those professing to be Christians. If we were to add up all of the millions whom Robertson’s CBN, Crouch’s TBN, Billy Graham, Benny Hinn and other evangelists and major denominations declare they have won to Christ in the last twenty years, the total would indicate that all of America had been converted. Knowing each heart, Jesus declared, “…there are some of you that believe not…. From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John:6:64-66).
From the multitudes, Christ “chose twelve, whom also He named apostles” (Luke:6:13) and trained personally. They failed Him often: Peter and Andrew began to follow twice before they finally remained with the Lord. The first time was when Andrew, who had first begun to follow Jesus, introduced Peter to Him (John:1:37-42). They soon left Him; Jesus found them “casting a net into the sea” and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew:4:18-22). Their partners, James and John, who were “mending their nets,” also began at that time to follow Christ. It wasn’t long until once again they all went back to the old life, but Christ persisted and found them a third time, discouraged and “washing their nets” after fishing all night and catching nothing. He got into Peter’s boat, told him where to throw his net, and so many fish were caught that the net broke. Peter fell down before the Lord, acknowledging his sinful unworthiness, and Peter, Andrew, James, and John finally “forsook all, and followed him” (Luke:5:1-11).
The insincere throng of signs-and-wonders seekers of Christ’s day has its modern counterpart in the huge crowds attracted by “miracle crusades” and televangelists promising prosperity for “seed faith” offerings.
The Bible calls Christ’s followers “disciples.” That plural word is found 244 times in 232 verses; “disciple,” 29 times in 27 verses. Thirty-one of these are found in the book of Acts. Quite clearly “disciple” is the biblical designation of a true believer. The word “disciple” is related to discipline and identifies one who is seriously committed to learn, obey and follow.
Today, however, the word “disciple” has fallen into disuse in favor of the word “Christian”—a rather vague designation which almost anyone can adopt and which, as a result, has become almost meaningless. Multitudes who think of themselves as “Christians” live undisciplined lives without any intention of obeying the One whom they insincerely call Lord. Even heretical cults claim to be Christian.
Many consider America to be a “Christian nation.” In contrast to the many occurrences of "disciple" and "disciples," the word “Christian” appears only twice in the Bible; the word “Christians,” once. This label was actually invented by the world as an accusatory and derogatory nickname marking Christ’s disciples for persecution and often for death.
Thus Peter wrote, “…if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter:4:16). Knowing that choice would cost him everything, King Agrippa said to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts:26:28). In those days there were few pretenders. Churches then were not filled with hangers-on gathering for social or business reasons (that began with Constantine 200 years later) or because they liked the choir, or the pastor’s sermons were uplifting or the people were all so friendly and made one feel welcome and important.
In much of the church today, there is little fear of God, little conviction of sin, and hardly the mention of God’s holiness and His dreadful justice with which one dare not trifle. Unfortunately, salvation is frequently presented without explaining why it is needed. One cannot get saved without realizing one is lost. There must be conviction of sin, sorrow and repentance toward a holy God who hates sin but loves the sinner.
Referring to a good shepherd, Christ declared, “The sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow…for they know not the voice of strangers” (John:10:4-5). As the Good Shepherd who gives His life for His sheep, Christ said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish” (John:10:11, 27-28).
How can anyone claim to be one of Christ’s sheep and to have received the eternal life He gives, yet not heed His voice and follow Him? He said, “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord…. [Then I will say,] I never knew you” (Luke:6:46; Matthew:7:22-23).
Most of what is called Christianity today has been made too popular to be genuine. Church growth is sought through surveys and worldly marketing techniques. Of course, worldly methods breed worldly people. Judging by some churches today, one would think that when someone offered to follow Him, our Lord would have called out to His disciples: “Peter, sign him up quick! John, get her into the choir! James, make him an elder, he’s got money.” To remain popular with this unregenerated crowd, many pastors offer inoffensive and pleasing sermonettes which create only Christianettes.
We entertain our youth, instead of calling them to take up the cross and follow Christ. We’re afraid that if we set the standard too high we’ll “lose” them—and thereby we lose them for eternity! Rather than those who give up their lives for Christ, the heroes and heroines held up to “attract” today’s youth are mostly professional athletes, pop musicians, or movie stars, paraded on stage as though to say, “Look who Jesus has on His side! Doesn’t that make Christ appealing?” The Christianity represented by most of the contemporary Christian entertainment industry would shock the early disciples, who would also consider today’s popular gospels of prosperity to be heresy.
In his book, True Discipleship, William MacDonald quotes an American college student, converted to communism and writing from Mexico to his fiancée to break off their engagement:
We communists have a philosophy of life which no amount of money can buy. We have a cause to fight for, a definite purpose in life. We subordinate our petty personal selves into a great movement…compensated by the thought that each of us…is contributing to something new and true and better for mankind. The communist cause is my life—my bread and meat. I work at it in the daytime and dream of it at night…. Therefore, I cannot carry on a friendship, a love affair, or even a conversation without relating to this force which both drives and guides my life. I evaluate people, books, ideas, actions, according to how they affect the communist cause…. I’ve already been in jail for communism…if necessary I’m ready to go before a firing squad.
Isn’t the cause of Christ far better and greater? Why don’t we drop entertainment and challenge our youth with something worth living for, even dying for, if need be? Dying? Yes, Christ expected that His disciples’ lives would be expendable for Him and that each take up his cross, ready if need be to die (Matthew:10:38-39; 16:24; Luke:14:26-27). The most repeated verse in the New Testament is “whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew:16:25; 10:39; Mark:8:35; Luke:9:24; 17:33; John:12:25).
When Christ was arrested in the Garden, “all the disciples [like many today] forsook him, and fled” (Matthew:26:56). Peter even denied his Lord with cursing and swearing (Matthew:26:74; Mark:14:71). But the Lord forgave and restored him (Mark:16:7; John:21:15-19; 1 Corinthians:15:5), as He graciously does for us.
In giving up our lives in exchange for the life Christ would live through us, we find true life—a life of joy and fruitfulness. C. T. Studd wrote,
I had known about Jesus dying for me, but I never understood that if He died for me, then I didn’t belong to myself…. If I belong to Him, either I had to be a thief and keep what wasn’t mine, or else I had to give up everything to God. When I came to see that Jesus Christ had died for me, it didn’t seem hard to give up all for Him.
I was raised in a very devout family and a sound fellowship of believers. Yet discipleship was not considered to be for everyone; it was only for the more spiritual who aspired to a deeper commitment. Biblically, however, if one is not a disciple, one is not a Christian: “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts:11:26). We need to return to this biblical identification and its reality.
Christ commanded the original twelve to go “into all the world, and preach the gospel…” (Mark:16:15) and thereby to make more disciples, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew:28:20). Obviously the “all things” new disciples were to be taught included that they also make disciples and teach them “all things” Christ had commanded the original twelve. In other words, each new disciple is responsible to make other disciples and to teach them to observe all things Christ commanded the original twelve (Matthew:28:20). One can hardly tell others to do what one neglects to do oneself.
Paul warned the Ephesian elders that some of them would teach perverse doctrines in order to “draw away disciples after them” (Acts:20:30). The same problem confronts us today in church leaders who compete with each other to establish a following. Tragically, all too many who call themselves “Christians” are more willing to follow a popular leader than to follow Christ.
Christ didn’t promise His disciples financial prosperity or popularity, but persecution: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven…” (Matthew:5:11-12). “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke:6:26). “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you…. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you…” (John:15:18-21). Does not the absence of the persecutions that Christ promised raise serious questions concerning today’s Christianity in America?
Has Christianity become a brief game called “church” that we play on Sunday morning and then our duty is done? And unlike other more popular games (NFL, NBA, NHL, etc.) where overtime makes it all the more exciting and enjoyable, woe to the preacher who extends this game into even a brief overtime! How many churches find very few at their midweek prayer meeting because priority is given to more important matters? In a recent survey of teenagers, eight out of ten called themselves Christians. Yet, of 19 goals, they ranked highest the establishing of relationships and achieving a comfortable lifestyle! Being deeply committed to the Christian faith ranked fourteenth and being personally active in a church ranked sixteenth.
Following Christ is not a trial subscription but a commitment for eternity. Discipleship has nothing to do with joining a church but everything to do with knowing, loving, and following Christ.
Christ didn’t say, “Follow someone or some church claiming they represent Me.” He said, “Follow me…. Learn of me” (John:1:43; Matthew:11:29). We go to His Word to learn of Him. Each of us is expected to know it thoroughly. Yet many who think of themselves as Christians scarcely study the Bible seriously, expecting the pastor and Bible teachers to do that for them.
Along with Christ’s “follow Me” was His promise, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew:4:19). Yet many who call themselves Christians have little concern for winning the lost to Christ, instead letting days and even weeks go by without telling another person about Christ and the salvation which He procured at Calvary and offers to all.
May the Lord stir each of our hearts to follow Him fully. It is our prayer that this newsletter not be mere information but that it ignite us all to devotion and action.