Disciples of Jesus are to follow Him and “be more like” Him. However, following Jesus' example is not Pharisaical externalism. Rather, it is a life of abiding in Him and internalizing His ways and teaching so that our lives truly reflect His character.
For many years, preachers and comedians have joked about what it would have been like for Jesus’ siblings to have Him as an older brother. Imagine being compared to someone who never sinned and having your parents say, “Why can’t you be more like your older brother?”
We all know the shame of disappointing our parents. More than that, we know the shame of failing God: disobeying, yielding to temptation, getting angry, failing to keep a commitment, entertaining sinful thoughts, telling a lie, and falling short in countless other ways. Thank God for His grace and forgiveness.
Yet, the Scriptures are clear that as disciples of Jesus we are to follow Him and “be more like” Him. In fact, the call to follow is the call to discipleship, and that call means adopting His teaching, His practices, and His lifestyle. Jesus in not calling people simply to learn information, believe a particular doctrine, or even to develop ministry skills (as important as these may be). Rather, He is calling people to see all of life from His perspective and to imitate His lifestyle and example.
One natural response that comes when teaching "Jesus as our example" for living is for people to attempt to imitate Christ’s example by using self-effort, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Do’s and don’ts appeal to the religiosity in all of us. Our prideful response is to work hard at mimicking externally what we see in Jesus' life, without realizing our first need is to know Jesus as Savior, and secondly to understand that Jesus is calling for an internal change that will enable us to follow his example.
Dr. Daniel M Stearns was a well-known preacher in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. On once occasion he was preaching in Philadelphia. At the close of the service a stranger came up to him and said, "I don't like the way you spoke about the cross. I think that instead of emphasizing the death of Christ, it would be far better to preach Jesus, the teacher and example."
Stearns replied, "If I presented Christ in that way, would you be willing to follow Him?" "I certainly would," said the stranger without hesitation. "All right then," said the preacher, "let's take the first step. The Scriptures say, ‘He did no sin.’ Can you claim that for yourself?"
The man looked confused and somewhat surprised. "Why, no," he said. "I acknowledge that I do sin." Stearns replied, "Then your greatest need is to have a Savior, not an example!”
We must start by acknowledging our need of a Savior, first experiencing God’s forgiveness and cleansing for the many ways that we have fallen short of God’s standard and Christ’s example. Even after experiencing God's "amazing grace," we must be careful not to simply paste on a facsimile of Christlikeness.
It is not externalism that Jesus is calling for. He doesn’t want hypocrites who paste on appearances of righteousness like a bunch of plastic grapes in a fruit bowl imitates real grapes, but is void of organic life, tasty juiciness, and nutritious value. No, Jesus wants His disciples to experience a genuine heart change, internalizing His teaching and drawing their very "life" from Him so that the fruit of their lives is authentic and lasting.
John 15:4–5 (NIV)
4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
The word translated remain in the NIV has been more traditionally translated “abide” in several other Bible translations. John uses the Greek word menō (“abide,” “remain”) to describe our spiritual union and communion with Christ. It is more than merely being attached, it is allowing His divine life to flow in us and through us. It speaks of walking in a continuous intimate relationship with Christ and allowing His word to saturate our minds (John 15:7). We cannot bear the fruit of a Christlike life without drawing our "life" from Christ and His teaching. In fact, the key to living like Jesus, is first to live in Him
1 John 2:6 (NIV)
6 Whoever claims to live (meno - “abide”) in him must live (parapateo - "walk, behave") as Jesus did.
If we claim to have an abiding relationship with Christ, it will show itself in the fruit of a Christlike life. If the Christlike life is not evident, then we must examine how vital our relationship with Christ really is. Fruit does not produce itself through exerting more effort, it simply yields to the life of the vine. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s words, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Unlike the Pharisees who heaped the weight of oppressive external obligations on people, Jesus calls His disciples to join themselves relationally to Him and to learn from Him.
Matthew 11:28–30 (NIV)
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Scholars are uncertain about the type of yoke Jesus is referring to: a human yoke for carrying water or an animal yoke such as one that would join a team of oxen together. However, there is broad agreement that Jesus call to take His yoke is a call to discipleship. In my opinion, the metaphor of an animal yoke that joins a team of animals better illustrates the meaning of Christ’s words.
In discipleship, we bind our lives to Christ, walking with Him in relational intimacy and joining Him in His work.
In discipleship, we learn from Him and commit to follow Him. He is the teacher and the lead oxen so to speak. This parallels a farmer harnessing a younger animal to a more mature animal so that the younger animal can learn the habits of the seasoned animal.
In discipleship, we learn from the attitudes, character, and life of Jesus, not just His words. Jesus is meek and humble of heart (much like an ox). While walking with Jesus, we observe his compassion, his humility, his gentleness, and we catch His values, learn His ways, and get to know HIs heart. We do not just mimic external rules that are placed upon us.
In discipleship, we find rest for our souls. Jesus’ intent is not to place an oppressive burden of legalism on us, but to teach us how to walk in peace with God and others so that our hearts are at rest. He doesn’t free us from all yokes to do as we please. Rather, he frees us from legalistic externalism and then yokes us to Himself. In our relationship with Him, He faithfully works at transforming our hearts and changing us from the inside out so that we walk in true righteousness.
In discipleship, He enables us to do what He commands. Because we are yoked to Him, He will help us shoulder the weight of His commands much like a stronger mature ox carries the bigger load when yoked to a younger ox.
As Jesus’ disciples, our purpose is to learn the perspectives, practices, and lifestyle of our Teacher. His goal is to impart not only what He knows to be true, but also His values, attitudes, and ways so that we become more and more like Him.
Luke 6:40 (NIV)
40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
A disciple when fully trained will be like his teacher. He won’t just know what his teacher knows and practice what his teacher practices, but he will be like his teacher – same attitudes, same values, same character, same devotion to God, same compassion, same worldview, and same behaviors.
First and foremost, the plumbline for our lives is Jesus Christ. As His disciples, we are to align our lives to His life and grow to be more and more like Him. Time and again, the Scriptures place Christ as the model for our lives and call us to follow Christ’s example. To give an overview of this, I’ve prepared the chart below.
In addition to these passages that clearly call us to follow Christ’s example in specific ways, there are many other ways we can follow Christ’s example that are not specifically stated with a comparative word or phrase like “as,” “just as,” or “in the same way.” For example, from observing Jesus’ prayer life, the disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4). In similar fashion, by reading the Gospels, there are many things we can learn from the life and example of Jesus.
How to pray
How to overcome temptation
How to treat others
How to love our enemies
How to spend time with our Heavenly Father
How to trust our Heavenly Father
How to understand the Old Testament
How to preach and teach
How to demonstrate compassion
How to pray for the sick
How to reach the lost (Zacchaeus, Samaritan woman, Nicodemus, to name a few)
And much, much more (already the above chart and this small list offers potential fodder for dozens of future posts)
Jesus is the perfect example. He is the plumbline for "Christians," so called because we follow and exemplify the ways and teachings of Christ. Following Jesus' example is not Pharisaical externalism, but rather it is a life yoked to Him, walking with Him, abiding in Him, be changed by Him, and internalizing His ways and His teaching so that our lives truly reflect His character. Spiritually, God is our Father and Jesus is our older brother (Hebrews 2:9-18). So, in a sense, our Heavenly Father is saying to us, “I want you to be more like your older brother!”
But there is much more. Next week, we will explore God’s plan for all of His children “to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29 NIV). God’s wants a family that carries His DNA and reflects His family traits. He desires that we become like His Son in nature, in character, and in lifestyle. Moreover, He has made provision for this transformation to happen. Hope to see you next week!