To mark 22 years since hearing the words “Follow Me” on 8 July 2000, I am sharing the message I recently preached at Wesley Methodist Church (24 April 2022). May many be convinced that when we believed in Jesus, we became His disciples. His invitation to follow Him is a continual invitation to the next level of commitment. I responded 22 years ago and have never looked back. My prayer is that you will do the same.
On the occasion of Wesley Methodist Church’s 137th Anniversary, TRAC President, Rev Stanley Chua said:
“The greatest failure of the church is not our poor evangelism but our poor discipleship. You see, when Christians fail to be true disciples of Christ, they become just like the world, behaving and living their lives that are no different from unbelievers. And in so doing, they become indistinguishable from unbelievers as they have lost their light and saltiness and become poor witnesses to those around them. And in the worst-case scenario, they stumble others and prevent them from knowing God.”Methodist Message, April 2022
I am in full agreement with Rev Stanley. However, as I considered this predicament, I cannot help but wonder why this is so. After all, there is no lack of resources, teaching, programmes, seminars, conferences, where discipleship is concerned. In spite of the abundance of such offerings, in my interactions with different pastors and leaders, the issue of discipleship seems to be a very common challenge across our churches.
To make it more obvious, we add the word intentional; hoping that this will provide the needed emphasis and push. So, we intentionally preach and teach about discipleship, we intentionally offer more classes, seminars and conferences, etc. Sounds right, but is it?
Perhaps the issue is more fundamental than it is intentional?
What if we are missing a very basic point in the way we define and understand discipleship? … in the way we follow Jesus?
In our age of social media, the word follow has been totally re-defined.
For example, if you want to know what a person or company says, or has been up to, you follow them. Some celebrity and influencer accounts attract thousands and millions of followers! Very impressive.
We too are thrilled when we get a few more followers. But careful, a follower could also be a stalker! Or a gossip! Have you seen or heard the latest? Post. Share.
In today’s terms, not much is required of a follower. If we bring this understanding into the Church, what then does it mean to follow Jesus? We are happy to get the information, the updates, attend the meetings, maybe help out every once in a while. But that’s about it.
As such, a church could have thousands of members who consider themselves as followers of Jesus and still struggle with discipleship! Why? Because many believers/followers do not consider themselves disciples of Jesus. Like the celebrity accounts, Jesus has thousands, millions, of followers. But not quite as many disciples.
Let me state once more: the issue is more fundamental than it is intentional. We have missed a very basic point in the way we define and understand the word disciple.
In its simplest form, whether in Greek (matethes) or in Latin (discipulus), disciple just means ‘student, learner, pupil, follower’ In relation to Jesus, a disciple of Jesus is a student of Jesus; a learner of Jesus; a pupil of Jesus; and a follower of Jesus.
Here’s the truth: If you are a believer of Jesus, you are a follower of Jesus. And since a follower is a disciple, a believer of Jesus is thus a disciple of Jesus. If you are a believer of Jesus Christ, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ!
This is where the problem is. Most believers have no issue declaring that they are followers of Jesus. But many believers struggle with identifying themselves as disciples of Jesus. Without acknowledging and accepting our positions as disciples, can you see why discipleship remains such an issue? Intentional or not?
As you wrestle with these thoughts, allow me to encourage you through Matthew 4:18-22 – an extremely familiar account about Jesus inviting the four young men to follow Him.
And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.Matthew 4:18-22 NKJV
However, the problem with familiarity is that we already have certain ideas and pre-suppositions about this account. To address this, let us be good students of the Word and ask FIVE key questions that will help unlock the right perspectives and answers.
Question 1: Was this Jesus’ first encounter with Andrew, Peter, James & John?
It is easy to presume that this was a first or chance meeting: Jesus walks along the beach, spots Andrew, Peter, James & John and says, “Follow Me.” Due to His over-powering charisma, they drop everything and follow Him.
This is not the case. Thanks to the gospel of John 1:35-42, we see that Andrew had already met Jesus earlier through John the Baptist – on the day after Jesus’ baptism. In fact, Andrew (and another) left John the Baptist to follow Jesus. Andrew then brought Peter to Jesus. John was very likely the other “one of the two” who followed Jesus (since it’s typical of John not to mention himself in his gospel). Since James is always mentioned alongside John, it is highly probable that James would have also met Jesus by then.
This was not a first encounter with Jesus. They were already following Jesus. Keep this important point in mind as we consider the next questions.
Question 2: “Follow Me” Was this a call to discipleship?
The section header in our bibles suggests so – Four Fishermen Called as Disciples. But in my opinion, NO.
We have already noted that Andrew and John were disciples of John the Baptist who “switched” discipleship to Jesus. Two days later, in John 2:2, “Jesus and His disciples” turn up at the wedding in Cana. I believe we can include Peter and James too.
Since these were already disciples, “Follow Me” was an invitation to the next level of commitment. Up until this point, Jesus’ exposure was largely limited, in smaller settings. Jesus knew it was time for a greater public ministry. The invitation was for the disciples to follow Him at a deeper level, a higher level. It’s no longer as and when, but all the way, whatever it takes.
It is the same for us. Jesus is always inviting us to go deeper and higher with Him. This is consistent with what the Church is inviting you to do: to take the next step. The Lord is inviting you to follow Him, to the next level of commitment.
Let me state again: This is not a call for believers to become disciples. You are already disciples. It is an invitation to the next level of commitment, to follow Jesus in the next phase or season of the work of the kingdom.
Many still think (wrongly I might add) that we have to be called to be a disciple. As such, too many are still waiting for the call. Others are happy to ignore or miss the call. In the gospels, not all disciples were called. There were many who expressed the desire to be Jesus’ disciples. They believed in Jesus and thus wanted to follow Jesus.
Andrew, Peter, James & John believed in who Jesus was and what He promised so they readily followed. If we believe, we will follow. Whilst one can follow without believing, one cannot believe without following. Conviction will always produce action.
You don’t have to wait to be called to be a disciple. If you are a believer and a follower of Jesus Christ, you are already a disciple. When Jesus says “Follow Me”, He is inviting you to get to the next level of commitment as His disciple. Take the Next Step.
I know some of you may still be struggling with this. It sounds right BUT I don’t feel very qualified to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. So let’s tackle another very fundamental question:
Question 3: What qualifies one to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Let’s consider the four young men.
Andrew, Peter, James and John were all Galileans. Galileans were not exactly well-regarded. They were not considered as spiritual people. If you want to find spiritual and holy candidates, you go to Jerusalem, where the temple is and where all the religious types are found. But Galileans? #cannotmakeitla
They were fishermen. These were considered tradesmen like carpenters, brick layers, blacksmiths. This meant that after turning 13 years old, after Bar Mitzvah, they didn’t make it to continue learning under a rabbi (basic Torah training). They were Rabbi Rejects! Hence, their involvement in a trade or returning to help out in family business.
In Acts 4:13, they were described by the religious leaders as “uneducated & untrained”. They were not theologically trained, didn’t go bible school, or DISCIPLE programme.
Yet, Jesus invited these to follow Him! It doesn’t take very much to be a disciple: Just believe and follow. However, because of how we have defined, taught and understood discipleship, many believers still feel unqualified to be termed a disciple. We think of all the requirements of discipleship and promptly disqualify ourselves, justifying it is a higher call for a special select of the elect; but not for me.
I preached a series of messages once, encouraging believers to see themselves as disciples. After the service, I asked a sister, “So how? Are you a disciple?” She hesitated and said, “I don’t know. I still feel I’m not good enough.” Guided by the Holy Spirit, I gently asked her, “What qualified us for salvation? To be children and people of God?” She replied, “Nothing. We just believe.” AMEN! We believe Jesus. He receives us! That’s just it. By grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
It’s the same for New Testament discipleship. We are qualified by grace through faith. Rabbis of old may have selected and accepted the worthy ones. Jesus only invites us to believe in Him and to follow Him. He makes us worthy and qualifies us!
None of us qualify to be good enough for Jesus. Not to be saved. Not to be His disciples. That’s why the Cross was necessary. That’s why the Resurrection is revolutionary. When we believe, we die with Jesus; and are raised up to live for Jesus. In Christ, we qualify!
Question 4: What enabled the four to respond immediately to Jesus’ invitation?
Have there been those who have responded immediately to Jesus, without question, without hesitation? Of course. However, in my observation and learning, for many, it is usually a process that leads to this point of deep conviction and total abandonment.
I believe this was also the case for the four young men.
As we have already established, this was not their first encounter with Jesus. They had prior experience with Jesus. From the start, Jesus invited them to “Come and see.” John 1:38-40. They went with Him on short-term missions. They saw miracles and witnessed power encounters. They saw Jesus in action.
More importantly, they had personal experience with Jesus. More than just learning about and seeing the things of the kingdom, they had a relationship with the King. This experience was personal. What is your personal experience with Jesus? I am not asking about your church experience. Or how you have grown up in a Christian sub-culture. You can do church and talk Christian and still miss Jesus.
Even more, they were given a glimpse of a promised experience with Jesus: They would progress from fishermen to fishers of men. They would get to do greater works than Jesus. They would be given the keys to the kingdom of God. They would get to rule and reign with Jesus!
If you had all these and a promise of what’s to come, would you not follow Jesus? If not, what are you believing in?
Having grown up in a Christian environment, I knew how to behave as a church person. That was not enough to keep me from backsliding. In 1994, by the Lord’s grace, He drew me back into a real relationship with Him. As I believed, I followed. Slowly. Step by step.
Six years later, on 8 July 2000, the Lord said to me “Follow Me.” I had already been following Him. But this time, I knew it was an invitation to the next level. With prior experience, founded on personal experience, spurred on with promised experience, I said “yes”, quite immediately.
I know many of you have prior experience with Jesus – you have experienced His grace and faithfulness, you have seen His power at work. I also know that you are aware of the many promised experiences, for these are offered to all without exception. The challenge for many is that their relationship and experience with Jesus is not personal. My prayer is that you will receive a fresh revelation of your Saviour and King today. When that happens, I am certain you will immediately and wholeheartedly follow Him.
Our hearts may be willing but I am also well aware of the struggles and hindrances. As such, we must consider the final question:
Question 5: What holds us back from a deeper commitment following Jesus?
To follow Jesus, the disciples left their nets, boats and father.
Nets represent the entanglements & entrapments of life. In the Parable of the Sower and Soils, Jesus warns about the “cares of the world”, the trappings of this life, as well as the deceitfulness of riches (Matt 13:22). Paul reminds Timothy that a good soldier of Jesus will not be entangled with the “affairs of this life” 2 Tim 2:4. For some, they are held back by fear and doubts, hurts and bitterness, or unforgiveness. For others, when sin is not decisively dealt with, Hebrews 12:1 warns that these will ensnare and hold us back from following Jesus.
Boats represent assets & securities. James & John may have had a thriving family business that they would one day inherit. There is nothing wrong with having assets and securities. The question is: Are we trusting in these or in Jesus? When Elijah asked Elisha to follow him, Elisha promptly slaughtered his yoke of oxen and burnt the equipment – his assets and securities – and followed Elijah. Sadly, too many hold on to their bank accounts and assets and end up not following Jesus.
Father represents relationships & comfort zones. Leaving parents may sound odd or irresponsible to us. But in the days of Jesus, it was not a surprising idea. Parents are happy to have their children follow after a rabbi who requires full commitment. Today, our preference is for our children to study hard, get a good job, just serve a little in church, no need to be so radical. In church circles, many are happy to stay where they are because of friends and family – although they are not learning or growing at all. Church then becomes a social club with great fei-lo-ship.
In Luke 14:26, a difficult verse about hating father and mother, Jesus is not asking us to neglect our relationships. He is asking us to serve Him first, then our loved ones. As disciples of Jesus first, we become better husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons & daughters.
If you are struggling to surrender these, I understand. However, I am also here to tell you, that in my nearly 30 years of following Jesus, He has never let me down. Our needs have always been provided for. Our King and Master is more than faithful! Jesus is totally worth following and the leaving of our “nets, boats and father”.
Before we close, here’s a bonus point about following Jesus for those who are leaders or involved in discipleship initiatives. This is where I believe the intentionality of discipleship is directed at. Even if more are convinced to acknowledge themselves as disciples, what we do not need are more discipleship classes or programmes; we need more discipling.
Then He said to them, “Follow [deute opiso] Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed [akoloutheo] Him.Matthew 4:19-20
In Matthew 4:19-20, two different words are used for the English word “follow”:
The first ‘follow’ has the notion of “being behind”. Jesus’ invitation was for the disciples to come after Him. We are to follow the lead of Jesus as He goes before us. He is the leader who sets the example and provides the reference.
That’s what disciplers are to do too. Classes and bible studies are good. But leading, setting the example and showing the way is even better. Conducting a class is much easier, of course. But we miss the heart of discipleship if we do not provide the right reference for others to imitate us as we imitate Christ.
The second ‘follow’ has the notion of “accompaniment, to go with a teacher”. Here, the invitation is to come alongside. We are to follow by keeping in step with Jesus. The picture is that of relationship.
Discipleship is primarily about relationship. But relationship takes time; and our greatest struggle is time. That’s why we compromise the process of discipleship.
Reference & Relationship. Notice the progression. We start by observing and learning from behind, then grow to be walking beside, working alongside, in partnership with Jesus and one another. That’s what discipleship looks like.
In closing, let me share a quotation from Bill Hull, the author of “The Complete Book of Discipleship”.
“When the distinction between disciple and Christian disappears, so does the damaging belief in a two-tiered church. A disciple, then, is the normal Christian who follows Christ.”Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship, p33
I hope you are convinced that there is no difference between a believer, a follower or a disciple. A believer of Jesus is a follower of Jesus, a disciple of Jesus.
The question to ask is not “Am I a disciple?” but “Am I a faithful or unfaithful disciple?”
I say again: The issue is more fundamental than it is intentional . If believers refuse to acknowledge that they are disciples, then no amount of persuasion will get these to respond. After all, discipleship initiatives are only for disciples and I am not one. I’ll just be a believer, thank you very much. [If that is what you hold to, then to be consistent, I regret to inform you that many of Jesus’ promises and words and assurance do not apply to you. Because these were all directed to disciples.]
Allow me one last attempt to press home the point.
In the New Testament, there are 274 mentions of the word ‘disciple’.
Surprisingly, these are found only in the four gospels and in Acts. Which begs the question: If Jesus’ command was to go and make disciples, and discipleship is so important to the church, why are disciples not mentioned in the epistles and in Revelation?
There are only two possible explanations. One: The apostles messed up big time and never taught anyone about being disciples. Or Two: There was no need to mention disciples because it was understood that all believers were disciples. I don’t believe the apostles messed up. I am convinced that the epistles to the churches were letters and instructions to disciples.
In Antioch, the disciples were called Christians for the very first time (Acts 11:26). They were disciples who were labelled as Christ-ians (those who belonged to the Christ). Today, we call everyone Christians first. Then hope and pray that some will become disciples.
The issue is more fundamental than it is intentional. If we would acknowledge that we are all disciples of Jesus, perhaps we would be more intentional to live as faithful disciples.
Jesus is still inviting all to follow Him. To the next level of commitment. Brothers and sisters in Christ, disciples of Jesus, would you take the next step?
Let us pray …
Lord Jesus, the invitation to disciples to follow You is clear. We are the ones who have complicated things, even rationalized and justified why discipleship is optional, or only for some. Forgive us. Wherever we may be in our walk and relationship with You, enable us by Your Holy Spirit, to take the next step, to move to the next level of commitment to follow You. In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN.