Is it possible to live your whole life thinking you’re a Christian, thinking you have a right relationship with God, thinking you’re on your way to heaven, and be completely wrong? According to Jesus himself, the answer is yes (see Matthew 7:21-23).
This brings up a very basic and vitally important question: What does it mean to be a Christian?
This word means a lot of different things to different people. Is it someone who simply believes in God? Is it someone with traditional/conservative morals? Is it someone who tends to vote a certain way? Is it someone who associates with a more rural or family-oriented life? Is it the judgmental, religious hypocrites of society? Fair or unfair, this term comes with a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of baggage.
Did you know Jesus never referred to believers as “Christians”? Nor does this appear to be a title the Early Church adopted for itself. The first believers were typically called “disciples” – which means “followers.” Other people outside the church began calling them “Christians” because they recognized by their lives that they were those who belonged to and mimicked Christ.
We’re not opposed to, or embarrassed by, the term “Christian.” But throughout this series, we’ll be leaning more heavily on the title “followers of Jesus” because, as you’ll see, that’s the heart and soul of what it actually means to be a Christian. We’ll also add some other terms like “apprentice” and “apprenticeship” to help you understand and practice the life that Jesus calls you to.
With that introduction, here’s a key truth: You can’t be a follower of Jesus unless you first become a follower of Jesus. The journey of following Jesus begins with a first step.
1. A central message.
Mark 1:14-15 – “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.’”
Jesus’ essential message was called “the gospel of God” – literally the Good News of God. And the essence of that good news is right here: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The reign of God had drawn near in the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah.
Notice: Jesus’ essential message was not about our performance for God, but rather his performance for us. It’s not about what we ought to do, but rather what he has done. The King had come to save his people through his own life, death, and victorious resurrection.
And what are you supposed to do with good news? Accept it – and live as if it’s true!
2. A commanded response.
Mark 1:15 – “Repent and believe in the gospel.”
Modern, Western Christianity hears this as “say you’re sorry and believe in God.” But that’s not what Jesus said, nor is that what these key words mean.
To repent is to change your way of thinking. It’s different than saying you’re sorry or even admitting (confessing) you’ve done wrong and missed the mark with your life. Repenting is letting God’s truth about himself, sin, and salvation completely reorder and transform your thinking.
To believe is to accept as true and to fully trust in. It’s different than merely knowing about God or even accepting as fact the reality that there is a God. Belief is putting the weight of your life on Jesus – and Jesus alone.
3. A compelling illustration.
Mark 1:16-18 – “Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.”
The first thing that’s obvious is that the words “repentance” and “faith” are not used here. Instead, we see actions that demonstrate what it means to “repent and believe the gospel.”
These fishermen had already heard the preaching of Jesus. They’d already heard the Gospel. They’d already heard Jesus calling people to repent and believe. But when Jesus came to them, singled them out, and said, “I’m talking to you; come, now, and follow me,” they left everything and followed him.
That bring us to this central theme: Following Jesus begins by responding to the gospel with repentance and faith, and by taking the first steps that his grace calls you into.
Let’s respond to this truth by asking a few important questions for self-evaluation:
1) Do I believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior? Do I believe that he accomplished my salvation through his life/death/resurrection?
2) Have I repented of my sins – and do I continue to repent? When I see that something in my life is out of step with the Word of God or the character of God, do I confess that AND allow God to reorder and reshape my thinking?
3) Have I trusted in Jesus, surrendering both self-reliance and reliance upon other counterfeit gods that promise to save me? Right now, am I building my life on the foundation of that trust?
4) Do I see evidence in my life that I actually want to follow Jesus as a learner, as an apprentice? Through many imperfections and failures, do I desire to know him more, trust him more, love him more? Do I want to imitate his life, knowing full well I can’t do this without his presence and power at work in me?