It is not an uncommon thing nowadays to hear people, left and right, Christians and non-Christians alike, claiming that they are the followers of Jesus. Are you His follower if you like Him only? At what place on one’s journey with Jesus of Nazareth does one really become his follower?
Let us imagine two young people deeply in love with each other and at the place when they are seriously planning their marriage. We would expect that by now they have both embraced each other completely and unconditionally. Imagine however the bridegroom telling his bride one week before their wedding: “Darling, I love you with all my heart, but there are certain conditions I would like you to take into consideration. Promise me that from now on we would never talk about the things in your and my life that I do not like!”
How much of a genuine commitment is there in the heart of the husband-to-be towards his fiancé? How much is he sincerely in love with his wife-to-be if he dares to be involved in her life only to a certain point? Who would, in his or her right mind, want to be in a relationship with a calculating partner?
Not long ago I was reading the Gospel of John again, with the intention of discovering anew the person of Jesus. I wanted to see afresh what John, Jesus and his immediate followers and contemporaries really said and meant about Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, I wished to discover afresh if the question Jesus posed to his contemporaries “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15) remains to be a defining question in the lives of everyone today who claims to be his follower?
Let me share what I have discovered.
The entire Gospel of John repeatedly demonstrates that Jesus was something else, a unique gift of God. In one instance after another his contemporaries, and his enemies too, declared that He was “the true light” (1:9), “the lamb of God” (1:35), “a teacher who has come from God” (3:2), “a prophet promised to come into the world” (6:16), “the Savior of the world” (4:42), “the Holy One of God” (6:68)
Besides, the Gospel of John reports that Jesus acted and taught with the authority never witnessed before (7:46). He healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, raised the dead, and miraculously fed the thousands. Over a short period of his active life of service He impacted many in such a way that they followed him wherever He went, always expecting a new exciting experience or a new miraculous surprise.
The extraordinary opportunity for the potential use of Jesus for political and social advancement of the nation or personal gain, was quickly recognized by many of his followers, who even conspired to make him a king, whether He agreed with the idea or not. Who would not desire a king who could provide an immediate medical service, free meals for thousands, and a supernatural defense system for the nation? For a while and up to a certain point following Jesus represented a very attractive, promising and rewarding option.
But a turning point would come as soon as and whenever Jesus made sure that his followers understood the true nature of his identity and purpose of his mission. He stated repeatedly and in many ways that his miracles, parables, social and humanitarian engagements went beyond the visible, immediately attainable and socially desirable. He told them that He was “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13), “the bread of life” (6:35), “the true vine” (15:1), “the light of the world” (8:12), “the gate (10:7.9), “the good shepherd (10:11.14), “the resurrection and life” (11:25), and “the way, the truth and the life (9:5)”.
Moreover, he stated with clarity that He was “before Abraham was” (8:58), even from the eternal times before the world begun (17:15). Moreover, Jesus said also that He was ‘the giver of eternal life’ (17:2), that “he and the Father are one (10:30)”, and that “he who looks at him, sees the One who sent Him” (12:45). It was at those moments that many of his followers would turn back and would no longer follow him (6:66). Finding his claims offensive, despite the evidence of his many and outstanding miracles, many of them would eventually join the crowd that turned against Him, shouting – “Crucify! Crucify him!”
Why did so many like Jesus only as long as none dared go beyond the appeal of his humanism, philanthropy, peacemaking, social activism, humanitarian concern and promise of material prosperity? Was it that they honestly could not see beyond the visual and material? Or, could it bee that a creeping conviction, supported by the growing evidence that God indeed dwelled in Jesus, scared them from taking the final step, because it would open their eyes for the fullness of Jesus Christ? Could it be that they were not willing to go further out of fear that He might ask for more; namely that He would call them to a new level of surrender, commitment and accountability? As if they were saying: “Please, don’t tell us more. The less we know, the better…!”
John’s account of Jesus’ healing of a man born blind (John 9) provides an interesting insight into the attitudes of people who preferred denial to full commitment. A moment ago many had witnessed an outstanding miracle; one that could not be denied or explained away. Jesus restored the sight to a man who was born blind. But instead of letting their hearts be changed and minds convinced by the extraordinary encounter with Jesus, most witnesses preferred denial. Some of the healed man’s neighbors, who knew him well, pretended that they were not sure if it was their blind neighbor or someone else who was healed that day by Jesus (9:9). His own parents pretended that they did not know who healed their son, almost wishing that he had not had his eyes open at the first place (9:21.22). Leaders of the prestigious religious establishment of the day fiercely dismissed the whole miracle on the account of a petty theological detail (9:16). It seemed somehow that everyone who witnessed this powerful miracle was embarrassed by it at the same time.
But the good news happened. The man whose eyes were opened responded differently. His journey from darkness into light was a spiritual journey too.
At first the healed man, not knowing better, acknowledged Jesus as a good man (9:11). Then he concluded that the One who healed him must have been much more than an ordinary man. He called him a prophet (9:17). Soon he understood that the Healer must have been much more than a prophet. When finally Jesus revealed Himself to the healed man as the Son of Man, without any hesitation he acknowledged and worshiped Him as the Lord (9:35-39). By the end of the day not only his physical eyes were open. More importantly, his spiritual sight was restored too. The formerly blind man chose the full surrender to Jesus instead of a denial.
This account tells the journey of faith of every follower of Jesus who dares go with Jesus the full journey. It tells the story of a lover who does not brag about being in love with his fiancé, while at the same time setting limits to how much he would really want to be committed to their relationship. This is a journey of everyone who would not let his or her family, piers, culture, tradition, social standing, or other internal and external inconveniences stand in the way of embracing Jesus entirely, in his human and divine totality, wherever He may lead. This is a story confirming that the way I respond to Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am?” will sooner or later determine if I am his follower or am just pretending to be one.
I like the honest testimony of a young believer who I know personally. She comes from a Muslim background. As she declared that she became a follower of Jesus she stated: “I could not help but be faced with Jesus’ statements such as ‘I am one with the Father’. He did not give me much choice. Either would I believe the whole story or discard everything. There was no way I could believe just a part of it. I thought to myself, if this man was not what He said He was then everything else he ever said or did was a lie. It troubled me and I needed the answer. After reflecting and praying for some time I said to myself: ‘I do not believe Jesus was a liar. I believe Him.’ Even today, several years later, I am not sorry I made a decision to follow Jesus. It literally turned my life around.”
It is a good thing to be inspired by the humanism, social awareness, humanitarian concerns and unifying ethical principles of Jesus of Nazareth. People who follow them are changing the world one step and place at the time. But those principles mark only the beginning of a journey that would soon call for more honesty and more courage, till one is able without a hesitation and embarrassment to join in the confession of doubting Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28)
On the other hand a fragmented, trimmed, reduced, beheaded and cosmetically branded Jesus will never do. They are only the placebos with limited, even misleading impact. Jesus never intended to give us the luxury of manipulating him into anything else than what He really is: “The supreme Agent of the unimaginable Power on whom the whole universe depends” (C.S. Lewis). This Jesus indeed “transcends all religion because He is the incarnation of all that is true, good, loving, gentle, tender, thoughtful, caring, courteous and selfless” (Richard C. Halver). This Jesus is worth following to the end.
So, who do you say Jesus is? Are you his follower in a true sense or is Jesus only your fan, or a celebrity of a sort?
May the wisdom of C.S. Lewis assist us again: “A man who was merely a man and said sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, ch. 11; The Business of Heaven.
Questions to Reflect: Who do you say Jesus of Nazareth is? What will you do with Jesus of Nazareth? What scares you from daring to see in Jesus of Nazareth more than an impressive moral example? All references to the Gospel of John are from the Bible, New International Version.