Lessons on the Way to Jerusalem
From the day Jesus was born, he was on a journey. He had an imperial commission from his father which set him on a course whose ultimate destination was Jerusalem. Intriguingly, Jesus’ journey actually began in Jerusalem with his dedication ceremony as a male child. Not only was he dedicated to the Lord from the very beginning in Jerusalem, but he was also recognized by Simeon as the Lord’s Messiah as he blessed him and proclaimed “For my eyes have seen your salvation.” All of the miracles, healings, casting out of demons and other ministry that palpably defined Jesus’ life notwithstanding, Jesus from his birth was destined for Jerusalem and the destiny that awaited him there. This was the will of his heavenly father because he “…so loved the world…”
Spiritually speaking, all persons whether cognitive of or not are in some stage of travel. Our lives are being spiritually shaped and formed regardless of our awareness of it or any attention given to it. We are one and all on a journey headed somewhere spiritually. Jesus’ life could be summed up as a journey to Jerusalem. In a very real sense, our lives as believers in him could be recounted the very same way. Jesus went to Jerusalem to die that we might share his life with the Father. In dying to self, we journey to Jerusalem that the fullness of Christ might be formed in us. The only question that remains for every soul is what the destination of their journey will be. In other words, what will be the spiritual result of our pilgrimage?
Interestingly, considering travel in the natural, I know of no one who simply starts out on a journey with no forethought as to where they plan to end up. Many folks like to travel to places they’ve never visited before but at least they know their intended destination and adequately plan the trip before setting off. Travelers are very much assisted in their endeavors through the use of maps, highways, natural landmarks and untold signs and indicators all along their routes. Bottom line, journeying in the natural is almost always a well-intentioned, well-planned and well-resourced adventure with as little as possible left up to chance.
Returning now to the idea of a spiritual journey, I am fascinated with the reality of how few confessing Christians appear to be intentionally focused on their spiritual journey and in particular their eternal destination. At the risk of broad-brush painting, I sense that most evangelical believers tend to treat salvation as a “ticket” to a destination that Jesus paid for. There seems to be minimal thought regarding the journey since the result is already a foregone conclusion. Salvation tends to be treated as a place called heaven where those who believe in Jesus will one day end up. But what if salvation were less about a place and more about a way of being in Christ?
Every believer ultimately must answer the question regarding the true biblical meaning of salvation. Basically, this issue is being decided from one of two perceptions. The man-centered point of view understands salvation as avoiding hell and gaining heaven. It tends to be a “What’s in it for me” mentality. Those with more of a God-centered perspective understand that our heavenly Father desires many sons and daughters just like the Lord Jesus. This means the real target isn’t just heaven but rather growing up into the full stature of the Lord Jesus Christ. It means being fully conformed to the image of Christ. With this latter perspective, we can understand that our initial decision for Christ is the beginning of a life-long journey meant to result in fullness of Christ in our lives.
The truth is, everyone, regardless of religious persuasion, is involved in some kind of spiritual pilgrimage. All of life’s experiences, all of our choices and life responses, all our values, commitments, actions and pursuits in life are serving to shape our lives into the persons we will forever become. Robert Mulholland, in his excellent work entitled Shaped by the Word, puts it thusly:
We are being shaped either toward the wholeness of the image of Christ or toward a horribly destructive caricature of that image.
We see a picture of this God-centered perspective in the types and shadows of the Old Testament. Most all believers agree that the deliverance of Israel from Egypt is a type of salvation with the Red Sea experience being a type of water baptism. However, most seem to neglect the intent of God’s great deliverance. Multiple O.T. passages succinctly state that he “…brought you out of Egypt…so that he could bring you in…” (Deut. 4:37) It is manifestly clear that God’s purpose in bringing the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage was to bring them into the Promised Land. The Promised Land clearly foreshadows the full stature life in Christ.
From this understanding, it is clear that a commitment to Christ is the beginning of one’s spiritual journey unto perfection in Him. When Jesus called sinners to repentance and to belief in who he was, he was calling them to follow him. Jesus’ salvation mantra was “come and follow me.” Biblically, to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ meant to forsake all and become his disciple. When Jesus confronted those fishermen, it says that they “…left everything and followed Jesus.’ When Jesus called Levi, the Bible says he “…got up, left everything, and followed him.”
The Greek definition of “follow” is very telling. To follow means to join one as his disciple. It means to cleave steadfastly to one, conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be, in dying also.
Jesus made it very clear that discipleship and following were synonymous. He further defined his calling of followers as necessitating the taking up of one’s cross and denying self. Following Christ is a spiritual journey leading to the full stature life in him.
Salvation, then, is not principally about right doctrine. It is also not primarily one’s mental ascent as to the true nature of who Jesus is with a willingness to believe in him. The distinguishing characteristics of salvation are right belief, self-denial, taking up one’s cross daily and following Jesus as his disciple. Anyone simply relying on right doctrine and mental ascent as their condition of Christianity is woefully still in a spiritual state of lostness.
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me…”
So no one can become my disciple without giving up everything for me. (Lk 14:33 NLT)
Following constitutes a journey, not to a place but to a way of being in Christ. The journey is all about becoming the persons in Christ that he died for us to be. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. (Phil 3:12 NLT)
All following of Jesus, all taking up of one’s cross daily, all true discipleship starts with the denial of one’s self-life. This is the initial step on the road leading to Jerusalem. Self-denial is not about identity, not about who we really are. It is all about the willingness to relinquish all my personal ambitions, wants, needs, desires, goals, anticipations, plans, etc. in deference to all the Lord wants in and for my life in Christ. Self-denial entails the full gamut from one’s life choice for a career to what one might choose to wear. It means yielding every choice to God for his calling and purpose in our lives. It literally means that nothing in one’s life will be withheld from the Lord’s discretion and approval. As we face life choices day by day and choose against ourselves and opt for that choice that constitutes following Christ, we are taking up our cross and following. In doing so, we are on our way to Jerusalem.
As with Jesus, we also will be confronted with obstacles along the way. For Jesus, his ministry journey began with John’s baptism and his experience with temptation in the wilderness. There in the wilderness, Jesus faced three key temptations common to all believers: doubting your true identity, looking to the world for significance and presuming on the favor of God. Jesus understood it was more imperative to stay the course of his calling (living by every word) than satisfying an immediate need as a way of proving who he really was. He knew not to embrace the kingdoms of this world thereby allowing them to shape him and determine his course. Lastly, Jesus refused to dishonor his father by presuming upon his relationship with him.
We also must avoid these same pitfalls by hearing the voice of the Father to our hearts as Jesus did, “You are my beloved and I am well-pleased with you.” We must eschew the world’s attempts to define us by seeking significance through what we do and what others think. And we must never fall into presuming upon the Lord by attempting to squeeze him into our particular situation and time frame.
In Luke 9:51-53 we are told that Jesus’ time to return to heaven was drawing near and that “he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem…” In this account Jesus sent his disciples ahead to a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival. However, they were refused hospitality because of his resolve to go to Jerusalem. These Samaritans represent worldly Christians who have a modicum of belief but are not fully following the way of God. As with the Samaritans, many Christians today are filled with mixture. They are like those trying to have one foot in the world and one in the Kingdom of God. Many like this have a natural resentment toward those who are completely sold out to Jesus Christ and whose lives in Christ tend to bring conviction to those of lesser commitment.
When the children of Israel returned from the Babylonian captivity to rebuild Jerusalem, the temple and the wall, Samaritans showed up in an attempt to thwart their efforts. Their claim was, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God just as you do.” Scripture shows how much these Samaritans resented those rebuilding Jerusalem. If you are totally dedicated to utterly following the Lord in all his ways, you will find resistance even within the established church as well as in one’s own family. You may be seen as some kind of fanatic but at the least seen by lukewarm believers as going beyond the pale. This can often become very discouraging for true disciples of Christ and shows the necessity of always building up relationships with others who also are sold out to Jesus.
True followers of Christ are even discouraged some times by well-intentioned friends who believe they have your best interests at heart. In Matthew 16 we have one of the several accounts wherein Jesus attempted to convey to his disciples how he must go to Jerusalem and ultimately be killed there. In this account, Peter adamantly opposes what he is hearing and attempts to dissuade the Lord from his appointed destiny.
When Paul made it known that he was committed to go to Jerusalem, his friends tried hard to convince him otherwise even with tears. Paul’s response, “Why all this weeping? You are breaking my heart! I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus.”
When German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his decision to pursue the study of theology, his family and friends at first thought it a terrible waste of a brilliant mind. For those who know his story, his life and ministry obviously proved the awesome call of God on his life.
Shamefully, even leaders within the church itself are found to deter, hinder and persecute those in the faith who demonstrate a sincere following of Christ. We see this in the book of Acts with the Apostles, Stephen, Paul and others. When faith and obedience reflect poorly on institutional religion it can create some serious waves. The Roman Catholic Church’s zest for persecuting those operating outside the mainstream of their orthodoxy and orthopraxy is well documented. However, the Protestant movement is far from guiltless. Moravians and Anabaptists were among the early pietistic movements to be severely persecuted by mainstream Protestantism. When a distinct move of the Holy Spirit commenced in the early 1970’s resulting in the Baptism of the Holy Spirit being experienced all across denominational lines, it was met with great resistance in most non-Pentecostal mainline denominational churches.
For those who have chosen to deny self, take up one’s cross and follow Jesus, all roads lead to Jerusalem. Laying down everything in one’s life for the privilege of being conformed to the image of Christ is anathema to the world and life to the disciples. If we set our faces so as to go to Jerusalem, we will experience the continual infilling of his wonderful life. May we always remember:
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. Lk 9:24 NKJV