I was invited to preach a Palm Sunday sermon today. It was a blessing to meditate on the example of our Servant King. Perhaps if I share this here now, some of you will find it in time to watch it this evening–or sometime later during this special week of remembering our Lord’s suffering and death.
Sermon Title: Worshiping and Imitating Our Servant King
Main Text: Matthew 21:1-11 (Jesus’ Triumphal Entry)
Supporting Texts: Psalm 118; Isaiah 53; Daniel 7; Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-34
Teaser: Our world is full of images of power-hunger leaders, leaders who are willing to use even violence to hold onto power. Today we are going to see a King whose example sharply contrasts with such worldly rulers. His way of ruling should inspire both our worship and our imitation.
I was blessed by the responses after the sermon, including someone who shared an impromptu performance of Michael Card’s song Ride On to Die.
But I am asking primarily about the individual, not the group: How can you identify who truly belongs to Jesus?
There are many good, biblical ways to ask and answer this question. What does Christian mean, anyway? The term was first used in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, and it appears that unbelievers were the ones who coined it. According to commentator Ben Witherington III, the term Christians (Χριστιανοι) in its original historical context meant “those belonging to, identified with, or adherents or followers of Christ.” (Pardon his poor grammar!) So in this post I’ll frame it this way: What does a true follower of Jesus look like?
I was motivated to ask this question because our little church gathering here in West Lake, Atlanta goes by the name of Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta (FJCA). Since we chose to bear that name, I decided I should examine the New Testament more closely to see whom we are supposed to be!
I shared my findings with our church and we discussed them together. Now I’ll share them with you.
First, some clarifications.
What follows is not a summary of the gospel. If it was, I’d need to be clearer on the work of Jesus.
Nor is it a description of the church. If it was, I’d need to discuss things like leadership and decision-making.
Some might fault this list because it focuses strongly on behavior. But this is a natural result of simply reading how the Bible, Jesus in particular, describes followers of Jesus. They are certainly people who believe certain things—and my list begins with belief, even if it doesn’t use the traditional language of faith. But they are also people who act, or at least ought to act, in certain ways. Again, this focus on behavior is because I am aiming to describe not the gospel itself, but a primary fruit of the gospel—people who are changed to follow Jesus.
This list is not intended to be comprehensive. It began with a simple concordance search for “follow.” Immediately several central themes (suffering for Jesus, selfless love, etc.) became clear. Though I expanded my search, there are too many related concepts to have found all the relevant biblical data. I did try to throw a wide net—sometimes perhaps too wide—but I realize now that even some basic concepts like repentance and faith could be strengthened. I expect I’ll update this list from time to time.
Lastly, perhaps this list would be better titled “marks of healthy followers of Jesus,” since no one follower exhibits all these qualities perfectly.
Read my summary paragraphs after each heading. Compare my summary statements with the Scriptures that follow. Perhaps you’ll find Jesus’ call to follow as challenging as I did!
Marks of True Followers of Jesus
Suffering witness: Jesus’s followers bear confident witness to his true identity as fully God and fully man—the Son of God, the promised Messiah-Christ-King, the Lamb of God who saves us from our sin, and the risen, ruling Son of Man. These followers are so devoted to Jesus that they willingly suffer for his sake, leaving all—possessions, family, and honor—for the sake of Jesus and the eternal rewards of his kingdom.
They bear witness of Jesus and his kingdom to each other, to the watching world, and to all of creation. They bear witness by word and action, by their gathered worship and their daily lives, and ultimately by their deaths.
In this way Jesus’ followers honor his greatest commandment—to love God with all our being.
Matt. 4:19; 16:15-17; 28:18-20; John 1:35-49; 6:66-69; 10:4-5, 27; 15:26-27; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Col. 3:16-17; Rev 14:1-5; Matt 4:18-22; 8:19-22; 9:9; 10:37-39; 16:24-26; 19:21-23; Mark 8:34-37; 10:28-30; Luke 5:11, 28; 9:23-24, 57-62; John 12:23-26.
Loving service: Jesus’ followers imitate his way of loving others. They gladly suffer injustices without retaliating. They offer generous forgiveness to all who offend them, without holding grudges. They pray for their enemies and look for ways to creatively bless them, refusing to take up the sword. They are faithful in their marriages and all other relationship commitments.
Their whole lives are characterized by selfless service, for they imitate the One who came not to be served but to serve—who gave up his divine rights, washed his disciples’ feet, and laid down his life for the world.
In this way Jesus’ followers honor his second great commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Mark 15:41; John 12:26; Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 6:27-36; 22:25-27; 1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:9-18; 5:1-3; Eph. 4:32; 5:1-2, 25; Col 3:13; John 13:14-16; Phil 2:4-7; Rom 15:1-3, 7.
Christian unity: Jesus’ followers know there is one Flock and one Shepherd. They affirm that all who belong to Christ, the Head, also belong to the Church, his Body. They rejoice that people of every culture, color, and class find oneness in Christ alone. They know Jesus has promised to build his own Church which he purchased with his own blood.
They don’t divide over human leaders, but they do honor the teaching and imitate the example of Jesus’ apostles, whom he appointed as a foundation for his true Church. They welcome all whom Christ has welcomed while disciplining those who falsely claim to belong to him.
In this way Jesus’ followers honor his final recorded prayer for them—that we may all be one in him.
Matt. 12:30; 16:18-19; 18:15-20; Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50; John 10:16; 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47; 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:3-9; 11:1; 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6; Rom. 15:5-7; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-17; Rev. 7:9-10, 17.
Spirit-powered obedience: Jesus’ followers honor his words by doing them. They do this by the Holy Spirit, their Helper sent by Jesus. They know they—like Jesus during his earthly life—will bear good fruit only by the power of the Spirit within them.
They expect the Spirit will bear witness to Jesus by miraculous signs and special graces given as he wishes. They also expect the Spirit will empower them to live clearly counter-cultural lives of moral purity, relational integrity, and neighbor- and enemy-love—lives of humility, contentment, and trust in their heavenly Father.
In this way Jesus’ followers honor the great commission he gave them—to make disciples who are taught to do all that he commanded.
Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 6:46-49; John 14:15, 21-24; 1 John 2:4-6; Matt. 5-7; 22:37-40; Acts 10:38; Luke 3:21-22; 4:1-2, 14-15, 18; Luke 3:16; 11:13; 12:11-12; 24:49; John 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 32-33, 38-39; Gal. 5:16-25.
Endnote: As I did my research, I ended up with about seven main points. I wanted to be more concise, in case we end up using some version of this list as a church values statement someday. So I combined points until I had only four somewhat memorable headings. Many other combinations could have been equally possible, however. For example, combining “suffering” with “love” rather than with “witness” would also have expressed something that is clearly biblical: “Suffering love.” “Spirit-powered unity” also sounds good! The richness of Scripture cannot be summarized in any four, seven, or nine marks.
This starts with being humble about your humility.
Paul’s first words as he summarizes his ministry to the Ephesian elders:
“You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I cam into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility…” (Acts 20:18-19 NIV)
What gives? Here are some observations:
There is a time to urge others to imitate our own Christ-imitation. Paul did it regularly and is clearly doing it in this passage.
Perhaps…. perhaps the word humility here would be better translated as humiliation. Or, better (after I check the NT usage of this Greek term), perhaps as willingness to experience humiliation.
This translation suggestion fits with Paul’s next words: “and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents.” Paul’s ministry involved much public humiliation, especially in a shame-and-honor culture where public expressions of respect were much more important than in our own culture. This suggestion also fits with what I think Jesus was saying when he urged his listeners to humble themselves as little children (Matt. 18:4). In that case, I doubt that Jesus was pointing to an inner attribute of humility that children may or may not possess. I’m not sure that children in the ancient world were admired as models of virtue as they sometimes are today. Rather, I think Jesus was referring to the humble social status of children in the ancient world; we should be willing to be treated as nobodies, just as children were treated. (A fascinating book by O.M. Bakke led me to this conclusion: When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity.)
Humility, I suggest, is more about relating to others (outer) than about personal feelings (inner). Humility, like love, only occurs in relationship. It is hard for a hermit to experience humility.
The word translated humility in Acts 20:19 often occurs in the NT alongside other distinctly relational (rather than merely personal) virtues: gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2); considering others more important than yourselves (Phil. 2:3); and compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience (Col. 3:12). Peter shows this relational aspect of humility most clearly: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Pet. 5:5).
Sometimes the same Greek word is used negatively, of self-abasement or asceticism. In these contexts (Col. 2:18, 23), the relational aspect is significantly missing. This is a false humility that remains insular and ingrown, preoccupied with personal visionary experiences and self-imposed religious piety, distancing itself both from Christ the head and from his body, the Church. True humility is preoccupied with serving others, rather than with personal virtue, piety, or appearance.
So, what about when I am asked to speak in church? Or serve as a friend’s wedding coordinator? Or to serve as church song leader? Or fill some other role of public leadership? How should I respond?
True humility, it seems to me, will see these invitations as opportunities to serve, not opportunities for self-exaltation. Thus, true humility will be eager to say, “Yes, I’m willing to do that”–without immediately needing to list reasons why someone else should do it instead, without worrying about personal humiliation in case of failure, and without worrying whether such willingness might be thought arrogant by others. Paul, after all, proved his humility to the Ephesian elders by describing how hard he worked in his public ministry of preaching and teaching! He proved his humility by public action, not merely by attitude or by attempts to avoid being noticed.
So when I am asked to fill some public role, I want to reach out in service and relationship rather than withdraw as a pious hermit. And if there is unseen service for me to do, I want to do that, too. To the extent that I am imitating Christ, I urge you to imitate me!
Do you have insights about living together humbly in Christ’s Church? Serve us by sharing them in the comments section below.