We have all kinds of people on our staff. One young preacher showed up a few years back to gather Intel in order to go back to his church and preach against the woes of Mountain Lake. I kid you not! I can only imagine what they might have to say about him after crossing over to the other side. The other day I suggested to him that he had only recently gotten saved (a southern Bible-belt term for “following Jesus”). He laughed, but I was serious. That’s why I wrote Detox for the Overly Religious. Let’s face it we could all use a little detoxing. We really could! We all have a tendency to lose our way. We all could use a little saving from religion. I’m convinced that for many of us religion is our greatest barrier to what Jesus wants to do in our lives and in this world. Religion was certainly Jesus’ greatest opponent in the Gospels.
A New Way!
Jesus invites us into a whole new way that transcends religion. As a Rabbi or teacher Jesus had a yoke. As a Rabbi Jesus’ yoke was his teachings as it related to the Torah. The Rabbi’s of Jesus’ day were known for their heavy yoke of religion that they placed on everyone. In addition to the Commandments and the 613 laws in the Torah, they had dozens of additional rules or hedges unique to them for protecting the Law. This was their “way” or their “yoke”. Each Rabbi’s ways was heavy and impossible to live up to. Jesus came showing us a whole new way. A way he described in Matthew 11:28 when he said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Perhaps this explains how he began his public ministry, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matthew 4:17).” Here Jesus tells us that he is about to show us a whole new way that requires a radical shift in mind, heart, and direction. Jesus invites us to lose our religion and discover the simplicity of a life following him. Jesus didn’t only come to save us from our sins, he came to show us how to live and how to live in such a way that heaven can come right here on earth as it is in heaven.
Religion is on us. It’s about anything we do in order to get God’s approval. We can turn anything into a religion. We can turn our quiet time into a religion; we can turn our church attendance into a religion; we can turn our acts of service into a religion; we can turn our prayer life into a religion; and we can turn our gifts into a religion. When our motivation is wrong, all else is wrong. Jesus came to show us a whole new way, a way in which we are already fully loved and accepted. Jesus is our approval. With that out of the way we can spend the rest of our lives following him.
That’s right! Jesus’ way is about following him. He leads, we follow. In Jesus’ day there were many different groups buying for God’s approval. There were the moralists who believed the way to get’s God’s approval was by keeping the Law. There were the separatists who felt that God’s return was eminent and the way to get in his graces was build their own religious compounds and live lives separate for the evil people of this world. There were the zealots who felt that God needed a little help from the sword. Finally there were the syncretists who said, “Things aren’t so bad here. We just need to blend in and not rock the boat. When in Rome, do as the Romans”
Jesus came along and said, “Hey wait a minute. You don’t have to do anything to get God’s approval. I’m going to handle that.” He did that on the cross. Meanwhile during his time on earth he said, “I’m going to show you how to live so come follow me.” He didn’t call us to a creed. He didn’t call us to a profession. He didn’t call us to confession. He called us to a whole new way of living that involves following him every moment of every day.
The amazing thing about this entire conversation is whom he called. He called those who had been overlooked by religion. He called those referred to as “sinners”. He called those who were considered unclean. He called those whom others had passed by. Come to think of it he even called some of the most religious. Some followed, others didn’t.
Jesus invites us to come as we are. We’re the poor in spirit. We’re the ones who mourn. We’re the meek. He invites us to come in all of our brokenness and disrepair and he declares us blessed. We follow him because we have nowhere or no one to go back to.
Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus didn’t come to simply take us to heaven, but he came to bring heaven to earth. He taught his disciples his way through a prayer, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). This is what he meant when he said, “…the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus came to show us this whole new way of living. His way is about a whole new kind of righteousness. “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). He goes on to tell us, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus uses the term “righteousness” to describe a kind of ethical righteousness. This righteousness is about using power to make things right. It is a form of Justice.
When Jesus prayed “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He is praying for God’s righteousness to be expanded throughout the earth. God’s means for carrying out his justice are you and I. When you see someone hungry and you have the ability to feed him or her, and you do so, you use power properly. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus came to fulfill the law by fulfilling God’s vision for redeeming the world. When the kingdom comes, God’s will is done. The kingdom of heaven is God’s rule or God’s ways lived out in this world. This is Jesus yoke. Jesus wants his kingdom to come. Jesus invites us to participate in his kingdom. We are “little Jesus’”.
While in Africa I had the opportunity to see a village Chief become a follower of Jesus. He had no prior knowledge of Jesus. When we provided clean water for his village, God’s kingdom came on earth as it was in heaven. God’s will was done. He became open to hearing about the living water. Upon becoming a follower of Jesus, I left instructions for my interpreter to show him the Jesus way. My specific request was to begin with the Sermon on the Mount and teach him about Jesus and his ways. This sermon was Jesus’ vision of his kingdom.
In Matthew 13:13 Jesus tells a series of stories about his kingdom. It is in the context of explaining to the disciples why some people got his kingdom and others didn’t he said, “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand.” As disciples we are learners. When we follow him we become part of a learning community. We call this community the church. As followers, we spend the rest of our lives learning the Jesus Way. We never fully arrive. This explains why there is the constant hunger in our lives for more. It is the Jesus Way. In order to learn the Jesus Way it requires seeing, hearing and understanding Jesus and his way. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit as our constant companion in order to show us his way. The Holy Spirit reveals his way to us through the Bible, prayer, the church and circumstances.
Jesus tells us that the kingdom is at hand. The challenge is we don’t see it or either we don’t recognize it. Several years ago my wife was recovering from having been hit by a car while jogging in our neighborhood. I found myself getting angry each day as I passed by the spot where the accident occurred. One day I came in and told Tami how angry I was about the accident. I will never forget her response, “Why are you so angry? Can’t you see what God is doing?” To be honest I couldn’t, but she could. I was living in my kingdom; she was living in God’s kingdom. This is what I mean by seeing, hearing and understanding him. As we follow Jesus we come to know him and his ways. He speaks to us through his Spirit, his word, his people, and circumstances. Jesus is not way out there, he is right here.
God’s ways are not our ways. Therefore, when he reveals his kingdom activity to us it requires obedience. In the very last words of Jesus in Matthew he tells us to “go make disciples…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” As disciples of Jesus he is the leader and we are the followers. Henry Blackaby calls obedience the crisis of belief in Experiencing God. I would agree. Obedience requires trust and surrender. Obedience doesn’t come easy. Jesus never said it would be easy. Matter of fact he models absolute obedience to the Father by going to the cross. In return he let’s us know that following him requires a cross that we are must be willing to carry daily.
Not very long ago I was invited to a meeting with a ministry to the Iranian people. Prior to that I had no understanding of what God was doing in Iran. While I was there a Skype call came in from a house church pastor from southern Iran. He told us story after story of people in Iran who were coming to follow Jesus. He said, “It is God’s time for Iran.” For the first time I saw, heard and understood that God is indeed sending revival to Iran. This was God’s invitation for me to join him. Since then I have gone to an undisclosed place to meet many of the Iranian people and to encourage them. I am seeing God’s kingdom come in Iran with my own eyes. For me to participate in the kingdom of heaven it required obedience. It still does.
Heaven on Earth
While I was overseas I had the opportunity to participate in encouraging and training 14 young people on discipleship and church planting. They were all going to be house church planters. It was an amazing experience being in the center of the kingdom. When we got ready to leave I wanted to take a picture of these young people, but their faces couldn’t be exposed because of the danger in which they live. We took the picture while I prayed for them. After I prayed a young man came up to us and asked us to pray for his wife and three children. They had been in prison of three years. We prayed and wept together. It was an overwhelming ending to our journey. I arrived home a few short days later to receive an e-mail informing me that on the next day his family was released. God’s kingdom came and he allowed me to participate. I don’t understand why I got to participate, but I did. God invites us into his kingdom. When we are obedient we experience his kingdom and our faith is strengthen. Experiencing his kingdom we become more like him, we discover his ways, and we are able to continue to follow him.
I am discovering that being a follower of Jesus is not complicated. We have complicated it by religion, which is why Jesus began his ministry calling us to repent. Following Jesus is about losing my religion and (re) discovering the centrality and simplicity of Jesus and his ways. When we follow him a whole new world opens up to us. This world is his kingdom and we live in the middle of it. Jesus invites us to “Come follow him…”