Jesus is invisible, and that is a problem. Like many today, I like to identify as a follower of Jesus. I think salvation without discipleship takes us nowhere. I often urge those hurt and bewildered by crazy and carnal Christians to keep their eyes on Jesus, not people. But it is hard to keep your eyes on someone you can’t see. You can’t follow someone you can’t see. Jesus left and is now with His father, so how can we follow him?
The answer that quickly comes is that Jesus left behind His Word and when we obey it, we are following Him. I would certainly agree that obeying the teachings of Jesus is essential, but following teachings is not the same as following a person. And, of course, God’s Word brings us full-circle by commanding us to follow Jesus. Jesus pointed this out when he rebuked the religious leaders:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness to me, and you are unwilling to come to me, that you may have life. (John 5:39)
All the “I ams” (the light, door, life, way, truth, shepherd) in the gospel of John also confirm the centrality of following Jesus—not only his teaching.
Another difficulty of making discipleship equal following Jesus’ teachings is that God’s Word needs interpretation and is subject to the filters of our culture and religious traditions. Consider as evidence these three commands by Jesus:
So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his possessions. Luke 14:33
Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Luke 6:30
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, freely you have received, freely give. Matthew 10:8
Most who call themselves disciples of Jesus have not done the first, would not do the second, and aren’t regularly doing the last. And yet most would argue that following the teachings of Jesus is essential to discipleship. At the very least, these verses point up the need for interpretation and wisdom in application.
The last reason we need more than Scripture to follow Jesus is that God’s Word can provide an umbrella of general principles by which we should live our lives but does not provide the decision by decision guidance that following Jesus demands. If we reduce following Jesus to following a group of general principles, we get stuck following an abstraction of our own making. Oswald Chambers asks, “Many of us are loyal to our notions of Jesus Christ, but how many of us are loyal to Him?” Following Jesus requires more than mental assent to a set of doctrinal propositions about Jesus.
How then do we follow an invisible Jesus? The disciples of Jesus worried about this after Jesus told them that he was going to the Father. He promised not to leave them as orphans:
And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know him because He abides with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. John 14:16—18
The answer to the problem of Jesus being invisible is the Holy Spirit. Only by being filled (and refilled) by the Holy Spirit can we truly follow Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can set us free from the personal and cultural filters that keep us from hearing the voice of Jesus day by day. All our talk about following Jesus must immediately lead us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and learning to walk in the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit makes the teachings of Jesus come alive in us. The Spirit will underline a verse and say this is for you today in this specific way. The Holy Spirit will never lead us into anything that contradicts the Word of God but is instead the voice of God applying His Word to the issues of our lives.
Even so, we may find that we prefer to follow the biblical principles we have formulated—because following a set concepts allow us to stay in control. We can pick and choose and schedule our obedience for the most convenient times. This approach allows us to compartmentalize our lives and lock God in our religion box. We must resist the temptation tame God and make Him manageable.
Walking in the Spirit requires surrender, humility, and trust. It takes courage. When we allow the Holy Spirit to lead, God is set loose in every area of our lives. We will quickly find ourselves living on the edge of our faith as the Spirit leads us into real adventure.