14 min. to read.
Be a follower of Jesus, we’re told. Learn from Jesus how to do life. Get to know Jesus. Sounds good right? But how do we do it?
Think of the people you know best. How did you get to know them? You shared experiences with them. You talked with them. You got to know them by how they treated you. You listened to them talk about their experiences.
That’s how relationship-building normally works, but how do we do this when Jesus isn’t physically, bodily sitting across the table from us at the coffee shop? Is it just learning more facts? Is it all about doctrine? Is it just fuzzy-headed thinking about being loved and accepted?
If we really want to be apprentices of Jesus, how are we to go about learning from him?
(note: This is a follow-up to the previous post. Hey Follower of Jesus, Do you know who you are really following?)
So, how do we really do it?
There are really two possibilities when it comes to learning about Jesus.
If Jesus was simply a 1st centuty historical figure we could learn about him through the stories that have been gathered about Him. These stories found mostly in the four gospels help us understand and make sense of Jesus. [note You might have questions about the veracity of those ancient texts. You might even wonder if Jesus lived at all. Reasonable people have those questions. I don’t, but I understand why some people do. This post proceeds with the assumption that the Gospels are essentially trust-worthy. If that’s your question, here are a couple good places to start: A good intro, A basic primer of the texts dates, A great list of more in-depth resources.]
But if Jesus was, as the New Testament seems to indicate, something more than just a historical figure, if Jesus was the One who came from God, the One who was God, what then? If Jesus is presently alive, as the New Testament claims, then there’s another way we can learn about him. From him!
One warning: This is not a science. There’s not a sequential curriculum that guarantees an ongoing and vital connection to Jesus. It’s much more like gardening. If we plant seeds, tend the soil, and put in the best nutrients we can, the plants will just grow, and fruit will happen. The growth is out of our control, but we can cultivate the possibility of growth. With that in mind, how might we move toward learning about Jesus from Jesus himself?
1. Become Intimately Familiar with His Words.
The starting point is to know his words. His words matter. They contain his teaching that’s been passed on to us. Those words introduce us to his “tone of voice.” They help us understand His heart. This isn’t just about familiarity, or even being able to cite verse and chapter. This is about having his words embedded in your heart.
In the upper room Jesus made a promise. He said that His words would be used by God to prompt and teach us.
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit—the Father will send Him in My name—will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.” – John 14:26
The more his words are embedded in you, the more frequently this can happen. When you know the words, they will come to mind at the most critical junctures. How can you do this? That’s tied up inextricably with the next step.
2. Live in the Gospels.
The words of Jesus are found in four different tellings of his life and ministry. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We know these as the Gospels.
Read them. Read them often. Read them over again. These stories give Jesus’ words context. They help us see how those words might be applied. They show us Jesus’ actions, which offer another window into His heart. The choices Jesus makes in these stories, even the stories that were selected to share with us, these give us a sense of His priorities.
As you read the gospels, be mindful of how you are reading. Read with Jesus’ words as your highest priority. Read with an eye on Jesus’ actions to understand the way that God works in the world. If you grew up in the church, be very careful that you are not reading to extract systematic theology[note Systematic Theology is just our understanding of God organized into categories and propositions. It’s not bad or wrong. It can be very helpful, but it can also become a distraction from engaging with Jesus. Remember how the early church did theology. First, they hung out with Jesus. Then they hung out with each other talking about their experiences when Jesus was with them. They lived and acted in the world based on these conversations. Only after this did they begin to articulate their theology. Theology always came after relational engagement.], or to prove someone wrong.
Your purpose is to read the Gospels over and over so that they embed within you. The gospels are made up of 89 chapters. At a fast pace, you could read through all the gospels in a month. Only 3 chapters a day would get you there. Over a year you could read the Gospels twelve times. Need a slower pace? Read a chapter a day. You would cover the Gospels 4 times in the course of a year.
Either way something vital will happen. Your picture of Jesus will shift. The puzzle pieces you’ve collected (more on that here) that aren’t accurate will fall away. Your mental picture of who Jesus is will get clearer. You’ll have a more immediate discernment of choices that don’t align with Jesus’ heart. You’ll go from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus.
While you do this, remember that the goal is not to memorize the Bible for its own sake, or to be able to check off the accomplishment of having read certain portions over and over. The Bible is simply a tool, a point of access. It doesn’t exist for itself. It exists to point us to Jesus. Jesus’ words on the subject:
You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me. And you are not willing to come to Me so that you may have life. – John 5:39-40
3. Practice By Doing.
Jesus’ original disciples weren’t enrolled in an academic curriculum. They didn’t learn Jesus’ way by filling out workbooks. Neither should you. They learned by living with Jesus, following Jesus, participating in the things that Jesus was doing.
This is the part of our education as Jesus’ followers that is often overlooked today. We take in Jesus’ teachings and his story in the Gospels. In many circles, discipleship has come to mean learning the Bible and behaving more and more correctly. This is terribly flawed! We learn the meaning of Jesus’ words by living them out in the world. It is in the doing that we have the “aha” moments. When we step forward to act on Jesus’ words, our action becomes an encounters with God.
Intimacy with God won’t generally come through candle-lit moments with soft music. It won’t come because we stand up and raise our hands when we sing worship songs. (Don’t get me wrong! I love that stuff.) Intimacy with God comes as we follow Jesus in the relationships and public spaces of our lives. Jesus told us as much:
Jesus answered, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” – John 14:23
Jesus also told us that the doing is the secure foundation for our developing relationship with Him. Remember these words?
Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock.” – Matthew 7:24
Now It’s Time to Get Mystical
Everything to this point is common-sense stuff. Also, it’s something anyone can do—whether they believe Jesus is God or not. In fact, I suspect there are quite a few Christians who do exactly these things, and still aren’t sure what to do with the idea of God being actively involved in the world.
But this isn’t the end. The next steps? They require faith. Not belief in a certain list of theological ideas. I mean trust. They require trust that God is real, that Jesus is alive and present through the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus intends to communicate with us. I can’t prove any of this to you. It’s something we either choose to believe and act on, or we don’t.
The practical knowledge that we gain by living in the Gospels, intimately knowing Jesus’ words, and acting on those words in the world, is our starting point. A real relationship begins when those things lead us to listen for Jesus voice in our lives.
4. Pray / Speak & Listen.
If we believe that Jesus is God, that means that Jesus is full of real wisdom for life. If we believe that Jesus is presently alive and able to engage us through the Holy Spirit (something Jesus said He would do), then prayer is the obvious next step.
You don’t have to undertstand how prayer works. You don’t have to be at peace with the idea of God intervening or not. You can wrestle all you want with the thology of Gd’s foreknowledge, humanity’s freewill, and whether prayer changes things. That doesn’t matter here. If you believe that Jesus is in some way listening, just start talking.
Prayer for you can take a thousand forms. There are great resources to get you started if you want to learn more.[note Want to go deeper on prayer? I recommend these as a great place to start: Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster, Prayer: Does it Make a Difference by Philip Yancey, and Lord, Teach Us to Pray by Andrew Murray.] But at the very core of it, prayer is the acknowledgement that we are not alone. Regardless of how you understand prayer, this much is central. There is a God. That God cares about us enough to listen. In some way that we may not undertand, our conversation with God matters. It matters for us, it matters to God, it matters for the world we live in.
So, start talking to God about your life, about your fears, about your hopes. Make sure your prayer includes silence. Why? Because it’s only in silence that we can listen. At first, if you’re not practiced at being silent in prayer, you’ll find your mind erupting with noise. All your daily stress and fear with come to the surface. To-do lists will manifest themselves. You’ll remember hilarious quotes from long-forgotten TV shows. This is normal because your mind is not practiced at being silent.
Don’t worry about it. Just acknowledge the noice, offer it up to God in prayer, and try again. The more you try quieting your mind, the easier it will become. In that quiet place, if you’ve been feeding your mind with Jesus’ words, you will begin to hear from God.
5. Watch Jesus Walk Around.
Wait a minute? Jesus isn’t physically present with us. How can we watch him walk around? Well, this is getting metaphysical again, but here it is. Jesus promised that He would be present to us in a new way. In the upper room He told his disciples that after his death a new kind of relationship would be available. Jesus called it abiding.
I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. – John 17:22-23
Jesus is in us, and we are in Him. Later on, the early church realized that this meant something incredible. As they chose to follow Jesus, they entered into this abiding relationship. When everyone in the whole fellowship was abiding, that meant everyone was in Christ, and Christ was in everyone. If Jesus really was in everyone in their community, then in a whole new way Jesus actually was walking around.
They expressed this idea most clearly in the metaphor of the Body[note 1st Corinthians 12 is just one place where this metaphor is laid out for us.]. The followers of Jesus were now Jesus’ body on earth. Each one was a unique and important part. Each one was living out the teaching and influence of Jesus. All of them were working together to go places that the head, Jesus, directed.
If you grew up in the church, the language “Body of Christ” is undoubtedly familiar and possibly so bland as to be meaningless. But consider it from the vantage of those first followers of Christ. They really meant that now Jesus was alive in them. As a community they really were Jesus’ body living in the world. Jesus’ arms and feet. Jesus’ heart and action. Jesus’ impact in the world. This wasn’t a symbol for them. It was a vibrant reality. Jesus was moving among them.
If this is true (and some days it takes a lot of faith to believe that it is) then another way we can learn from Jesus is to observe what Jesus is doing in His Body. How is Jesus working in the church? How is Jesus showing up for groups of His followers? That themes are surfacing? What sin and brokenness is being dealt with? How is the church walking with justice, mercy and humility?
Not everything the church does is worthy of Jesus. We’re still broken people in process. But if Jesus is alive and working in His people, then paying attention to the body is another way we learn from Jesus. (Even if, at times, the lesson is “Hey! Stop Being a Jerk!”)
Oh, there’s one last thing.
6. Reflect & Learn
John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Think about your own life and I bet you’ll agree. When we stop and reflect on what we are seeing, our minds begin to make connections. This is where the Holy Spirit stirs and shapes our hearts and minds.
Make sure there is a space in your life where you are paying attention to and reflecting on all these other points of input. Reflect on what you’re reading in the gospels. Reflect on what happens when you act on Jesus’ words in the world. Reflect on what you’re seeing in the Body of Christ. Reflect on how God seems to be showing up (or not showing up) in your own life. Trust that in all these things, Jesus himself can speak to you.
For me this takes place in daily journaling. I have a simple journaling process that I use that helps me bring all of these things together, and keeps me focused. (I have a busy mind that rabbit-trails more often than I’d like. Having a template keeps me on track, and typing out my journaling keeps me focused. But you may find another process that works better for you.) In this practice of reflection, I’ve begun to learn how to hear Jesus speak in my own life.
The path of Apprenticeship
This isn’t a simple 3-steps to enlightenment kind of thing, but it is do-able. Jesus promised that through the Holy Spirit He would be present to us and lead us into truth. Jesus told us that we could live a life connected to Him. It doesn’t require piles of religious rituals. It doesn’t require a certain level of good behavior (although I venture a guess that your thoughts and behaviors will all change as you do this.) It doesn’t require special training or expertise.
Just show up in the places that Jesus’ words and Jesus actions can be found. Engage them. Listen to them. Act on them. Reflect on what happens. As you do this you’ll undergo a shift: No longer just someone who knows about Jesus, you’re becoming an apprentice learning how to do life from Him. That’s what he asked of you all along.