What is it to be a Christian? – Matthew 4:18-22


What does it mean to be a “Christian?” There are dozens of different answers, and sad to say, few of them are correct. Why do I even have to say that attending a Christian church doesn’t make a person a “Christian”? I have to say it is because so many believe it to be true. From where should we glean our definition “Christian”? From the dictionary? The internet? The News? When we are talking about genuine Christianity, we have to use the Bible to form our definitions. So just because someone is a Catholic, a Methodist, a Presbyterian or a Baptist, that doesn’t make him a Christian – these words are not found in the Bible. To be born in the United States rather than in Iran or Saudi Arabia doesn’t make us Christians. To celebrate Christmas or Easter doesn’t make us Christians any more than to dress up on Halloween or keep the Passover.

The word “Christian” is rare in the Word of God. You might say that it developed after the completion of the New Testament, but that isn’t quite true. In our earlier scripture we heard King Agrippa blurt out “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” What did he mean by that? Paul had been pointing out that the Old Testament prophesied about the resurrection of Christ. Are we to assume that Christians believe in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yes, we may make that assumption. But more particularly WHY did Christ die? As a sacrifice for the sins of many.

In I Peter 4 the Apostle says, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” That doesn’t in itself help to define the term “Christian” – but what does the context say? The surrounding paragraph speaks about characteristics which should be found in the Christian. “The end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves…. Use hospitality one to another without grudging… If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God…. Let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” Judging from this we should conclude that there is a standard of behavior which should be found in a Christian. It is not that the behavior creates the Christian, but the child of God behaves in godly ways.

Perhaps the most helpful scripture in defining the “Christian” is in Acts 11:26 “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Initially, the Christians were called “disciples.” And what is it to be a disciple? A disciple is a learner, a pupil, a studier. But he’s not just a student of books. He is a follower, examining his subject – his teacher – his master – following in every possible way. And this brings us to our text.

All of Christ’s first disciples, were invited to “follow me.” In thirteen different verses Christ exhorted people to “follow me.” He didn’t ever tell anyone to “ask him into their hearts,” or to be baptized, or to join His church. He said, “follow me,” and in doing so they became “disciples.” And the disciples in Antioch were the first people to be called “Christians.”

There are relatively few professing Christians, who are true disciples and followers of Christ. And when people are not obedient followers and learners of Christ, they are not true Christians. This message boils down to an encouragement for self-investigation. Am I a follower, a disciple of Christ? Do I bear this characteristic of the Christian?

Some people find it hard to follow the Lord simply because their hearts refuse.

Can these people be Christians? Reading about the first disciples, It appears miraculous that when any of them heard the word “follow” they followed. But they did. They left their boats, their nets, and to some degree even their families, and they followed Christ. But they were the exceptions and not the rule. Most people are not good followers. Some may blame their genes, their fate, the stars, their IQ or whatever else they can think of. They may say that they can’t follow because they are “born leaders.” But the fact is that they often lack the necessary characteristics to be able to follow. They can’t follow because it is true – followship is not in their genes – it is contrary to their fallen nature.

Through the years, some have refused Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, because they lack self-denial. Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Inherent in Christ’s words is the fact that He is the leader, and He is worthy of study, imitation and pursuit. Each of the lives of these four men had been going in their own good direction, and now Christ is going in another, telling them to follow Him. That means the fishing boats of these men, their old friends, even their fishing fathers had to be forsaken to one degree or another. The long held hope of cornering the local fish market was going to have to be laid aside. There was no hope of getting rich and retiring at the age of forty. To follow Christ demands self-denial.

Look at Abraham sacrificing himself – and even his son – in order to go in the Lord’s direction. Think of David, Jeremiah; and Paul – there were so many in the Word of God. Some gave up little, because they had little to give; nevertheless they gave up everything that they had. The widow with the mite which she dropped into the treasury was a follower. And yet, no one gave up anything for the Lord, which has not been repaid either in this life or in the next.

Self-denial is necessary for good followship, and so is its cousin humility. God desires humility in all of His creation, but especially in HIS people. It is an essential element in repentance. “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” One of the reasons that Egypt was destroyed by the ten plagues was her lack of humility. Moses came to Pharaoh and said unto him, “Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, How long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself before me? let my people go, that they may serve me.” In essence Jehovah said, “follow me.”” What if Pharaoh had rushed after Israel in order to join the exodus – as a follower? And then, one of the reasons that Israel wandered in the wilderness so long was a LACK of humility. “Remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.” In scripture after scripture God commands humanity to have humility. And He promises to reward it as well – “He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”

No one can properly follow another unless he is willing to admit his inferiority before his leader. Inferiority is not a complex; in many situations it is a fact and a necessity. Some refuse to obey the scriptures because they have been taught by a pastor who is not as fine a Christian as themselves. But the fact remains that the scriptures are God’s holy Word, and we are all subject to them no matter who the teacher might be. It is true that some men are superior to others – using a hundred different criteria. But it is appalling for anyone to think of himself as superior to the Lord. When Christ says “follow me,” humble yourself, leave your nets and boats and follow.

Followship also demands patience and stamina. Look at the lives of the early apostles; they had a hard time of it for three years. At times they thought that the Lord was going far too fast for them. They couldn’t keep up with His teachings, asking Him over and over again to repeat what He had said. Then when He steadfastly set His face toward Jerusalem, they tried to slow Him down. At other times they thought that Jesus was far to slow for them. They were looking for the Millennium, but it wasn’t developing. And there He sits at the lip of the well of Jacob talking with a common harlot – an adulterer. He stoops to help a lonely soul; He blesses a few runny nosed kids. “Jesus, your friend Lazarus is sick unto death. Let’s hurry to his bedside.” And He replies, “Follow me, but let’s take our time.” To follow the Lord sometimes can make our heads spin. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.” True followers – true disciples – don’t follow for a little while and then choose their own path.

Another requirement in following is love and the commitment which love requires. What makes the puppy follow his master through the pouring rain – is it wisdom? Is it humility, common sense, depravity? None of the above – it’s just plain puppy love. But you and I aren’t puppies, so maybe the illustration is faulty. Do you know why many Christians won’t follow Christ in tithing and giving to missions? Puppy love. Do you know why many spend more on their puppies than then do on the Lord? Puppy love. Why do we pray so fervently for our sick loved one, but not for the Lord’s glory? Puppy love. Often the reason that potential disciples don’t follow the Lord is that they love themselves more than they love their Saviour. Puppy love. Certainly that is not what they say – rather they have other excuses, but it is still a matter of puppy love. Love does the impossible, through sickness, through weakness and through penury. Paul said that “the love of Christ constrained” him to serve the Lord. The truth is that very few people are willing to follow the Saviour, because they don’t love Him well. Is today’s lack of Christian pastors and missionaries actually a lack of love? Christ was calling these four men to become under-shepherds for Christ – pastors.

A fifth requirement for following the Lord well is the fullness of the Holy Spirit. No one can follow unless he knows where he is going, and that requires a guide. You can’t know the Bible without the Holy Spirit; neither can you know the will of God without Him. Jesus said, “When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.” I suppose anyone might have doubts about forsaking his fishing nets to follow Christ, but the man who is filled with the Holy Spirit will have comfort, confidence and God’s counsel to support him in his decision.

To be good followers requires: self-denial, humility, love, patience, stamina and the Holy Spirit. I assume that John and Peter, Andrew and James had these, so they followed as commanded. But am I willing to forsake all to follow Christ? That is at the heart of being a Christian.

Okay then, for these men what were the effects of their following Christ?

As I’ve told you many times, there is a trip that I’d like to take some day, when I’m rich and retired –with nothing to do. I’d like to sail up the “Inside Passage” to Alaska. It’s called the “Inside Passage” because it is sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by Vancouver Island and by other islands further north. In my imagination, I can picture mountains rising out of the sea, glaciers running into the sea, whales jumping out of the sea, and a hundred other spectacular sights. But to follow the Saviour, riding on His grace and wisdom, is equally exciting – and far more rewarding. In fact, I will not be disappointed if I never make that trip up the “Inside Passage,” because, I’m on a far better trip right now.

When Jesus said to Andrew and James, “follow me,” did they know that He’d be taking them through a wilderness of suffering? Isn’t that where He went Himself, with denial, misunderstanding and opposition facing Him? How often did people pick up stones with which to kill the Saviour. Don’t forget that on some of those occasions, Peter and James were standing right beside Him. How often did Christ hold the diseased hand of someone whom He could help? How many of those diseases were infectious and contagious? After Jesus’ departure, weren’t the roads often really rough for those disciples? “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” The scriptures say, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” May I paraphrase that to read “All that will follow Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” There is not a missionary – there is not a pastor – who has been in the ministry very long who has not had a knife plunged into his back. “Et tu, Brute?” The knife in the back usually comes from a professed friend. Despite the problems of following Christ, we never read of any of these four men quitting.

As we look at Christ, we see that it was in the midst of His trial that He displayed His greatest strength. Later, the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” So Paul, Christ’s humble follower, replied, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” In weakness, but following orders, Moses struck the rock and the water poured out. And in weakness, Gideon’s army was reduced to just a few hundred, giving God the opportunity to defeat the mighty Mideonite hoards. It certainly wasn’t human strength which brought down the walls of Jericho – it was followship.

Followship carries with it special promises of knowledge and guidance. “Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the LORD: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth” Hosea 6:3. “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life”John 8:12. We are living in a wilderness of fiery serpents and poisonous people, making it especially important to be good sheep. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” When Israel was traveling, they had the blessing of the Pillar of Cloud and Fire. When Israel was not following the Lord, they lacked the light and direction of that Pillar.

One of the greatest effects of following Christ is described in John 12:26. “If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.” What this says is that despite the hardships, we can’t go wrong in following the Lord. Following Satan will lead you to hell; Following men will lead you to death. Following philosophy will lead you to error. Following details may lead you no where. But following Christ will lead to the praise of the Lord and the glorification of the Saviour.

But it must be understood that forsaking our fishing nets doesn’t make us Christians. Reading the Bible — learning and following Christ doesn’t make us Christians. It may prove us to be Christians, but it doesn’t create Christians. A Christian is a creation of God – he is a miracle – something unnatural in this world of sin.

When a soul is born again, regenerated, it displays the evidence of life – it breathes and it’s heart beats. There is repentance and faith in the Lord; there will be a desire for baptism. And at some point quite soon there will be a desire to follow.

Are you a disciple, a follower of Christ?