Pursuing God’s kingdom: What makes a true disciple?

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Ghandi is reported to have said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians, and they are so unlike your Christ.” Though the source or context of this quote is unknown, it does capture the widely held perception that Jesus’ followers often do not live up to what they believe.

This gap between what we believe and how we live is readily apparent to those around us (even if not to us). Strangely, this is no different to those counted in the hall of fame in Hebrews 11 as there are some who had serious character flaws—Samson, David, Abraham—yet nonetheless their names are there. Despite this, Jesus’ followers are called to live a holy life (1 Peter 1:15; 1 Timothy 4:7b). So how does God exist in a person’s life where sin and the war with sin still rages on within? In other words, what does God look for in us when we are caught between the tension to live a godly life in the face of the battle with sinful tendencies and sin in our lives?

To explore this question, there is no better case study than Judas and Peter. There are some striking similarities: they both spent three-and-a-half years with Jesus and had the best formative teaching as well as the same opportunities. But it is the crucial differences between Judas and Peter that will help us navigate these questions.

Firstly, let’s look briefly at Peter’s life. Peter, when called by Jesus, immediately responded (Luke 5:6-8) and became a prominent disciple. Yet Peter can be characterised as self-serving, self-focused and a man who trusted in his own wisdom about divine things (Matthew 14:28). Peter tried to prevent Jesus from dying on the cross (Matthew 16:22). Peter was egotistical, he wanted to be the greatest (Mark 9:34) and sought reward for following Jesus (Matthew 19:27). Despite these character flaws Peter was ready to pledge absolute faithfulness and was even willing to die with Jesus (Matthew 26:33-35; Mark 14:30,31; Luke 22:33,34), but it was at Peter’s denial that his relationship with Jesus hit rock bottom.

Like Peter, Judas was chosen by Jesus as one of the 12 disciples (John 6:71). Judas was also self-serving, proud (John 13:27-30) and like all the disciples he was ambitious (Mark 9:33-37). Judas, in a privileged position as treasurer, was covetous—he stole money (John 12:6). He raised his voice in criticism of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. He saw nothing beautiful in the gift for which Jesus praised her; he only demonstrated his avarice. Judas achieved infamy for his betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15).

Both disciples misunderstood the nature of the Messianic kingdom. Peter and Judas indeed came face-to-face with their sinful nature. Both battled with their sinful desires and both were gripped by the weakness of human nature. Peter’s betrayal is portentously juxtaposed to Judas’ betrayal, yet the outcomes could not be further apart—so what made the difference? [pullquote]

Firstly, in Judas’ case, it appears he never truly believed (John 6:64, 70, 71); it is significant that nowhere does Judas call Jesus Lord—the highest title he used to address Jesus was Rabbi (Matthew 26:49). Therefore, it can be inferred that Judas never surrendered his self-will and hid his impure motives. Also, like Peter, Judas repented but the repentance did not lead to life but death. But he still repented?

Matthew is the only Gospel that records Judas’ repentance (Matthew 27:4) when he exclaims, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Was this true repentance or an expression of guilt? The word repentance expresses remorse, which is dramatically different to the repentance (metaneo) of Peter. The critical difference between the remorse of Judas and genuine repentance is that the latter means change of heart toward sin or a specific sin, whereas remorse only expresses regret. In Judas’ case, when events did not transpire as he had hoped, he only confesses remorse or regret to the priests. This is a dreadful outcome that stemmed from the spiritual deficiency of being self-willed and ultimately Judas gave in to his passion for money. Judas is condemned, not for his suicide, but for his unwillingness to humble himself and to repent of his sins. These are important differences between Judas and Peter but this is still not the full story.

For Peter, the crucible of pain that finally led to his conversion (Matthew 26:75) was after his denial when he wept bitterly. When Peter made the promise to never leave Jesus (Matthew 26:33) did he mean it? At that very point in time he did. He discovered soon after how fickle the human will and heart is and realised the need to surrender his will through the Holy Spirit. The warfare did not end there and though Peter became one of the greatest leaders of the Christian church, he was guilty of a serious error of judgement (see Galatians 2:11-19).

So the question remains as to how Peter, with the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life, still grappled with sin in his heart—evidenced by the prejudice he still showed toward the Gentiles for which Paul publicly admonished him (Galatians 2:11-14).

Let’s rewind. The first clue is found when Jesus first confronts Peter in Luke 5:8. After Jesus performed the miracle of filling Peter’s nets, Peter exclaims, “Go away from me, because I’m a sinful man, Lord!” Peter recognised his sinfulness and that he was in the presence of God. Judas recognised neither.

Yet there is another intriguing layer that helps to navigate this dilemma. Motive is everything. It is not so much what we do; it is the “why” we do it that is critical. The essential driver of Christians to seek His kingdom—and His righteousness—in the mire of sin is their “honest intent” to follow Jesus. That is critical.

The notion that God seems to “wink” at the weaknesses of His followers where there is honest intent can be unsettling.

Honest intention to follow Jesus is not something wishy washy for it acknowledges the reality of the everyday battle. There are clear injunctions in the Scriptures calling for obedience; to be blameless, holy and spotless (Romans 1:27; 6:19; 15:16; Ephesians 1:18; Philippians 1:10; Titus 1:6). It is clear that Peter always possessed that honest intention to follow Jesus, demonstrated by his acknowledgement as being a sinner (Luke 5:8) and the desire to be clean (John 13:9), dropping his fishing nets to follow (Mark 1:18), his desire to die with Jesus was genuine at the time (Mark 14:31), even though he betrayed Jesus only a few hours later. This desire came from a sense of indebtedness to Jesus and the recognition that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16), unlike Judas who recognised Him only as Rabbi.

Honest intention motivated by worship is able to cut through the complex layers of sinful motives of envy, jealousy and ambition, which emanate from deep inside the heart, to repent and make a full surrender even while the battle of the will rages on. Judas did not possess honest intention but with a sleight of hand betrayed his altruistic motives (John 12:4,5) to advance his own ambitions. Honest intention must come with attitudes of fearing God (respect of His majesty and who He is, Isaiah 2:10), humility and repentance, that emanate from surrender, characteristics that were missing in Judas’ case. Honest intention allows mistakes but the over-riding driver to seek first the kingdom of God must be present.

Many today look back upon the Christians living during the apostolic times with admiration and rightly so. To risk isolation from family and community, including one’s livelihood, are circumstances in which we have little experience. To survive this onslaught we often identify the qualities of faith, endurance, love, joy and Jesus in the heart as necessary to endure persecution. It is necessary to identify these qualities as we need to reproduce them in our lives. However, often that is where the discussion ends without identifying how their faith developed to the point where they considered it a privilege to be persecuted or martyred for their faith. It must begin each day with the “honest intention” to follow God regardless of the cost, and pursue the kingdom of righteousness with a singlemindedness that does not allow others or events to swallow up our time with God amongst the clutter of everyday life. It’s too easy for the “Christian life” to be one amongst all the other activities of daily life—like the Rich Fool. That was not the case with Peter and Jesus’ disciples for they followed Him—regardless of the cost. So for us, who has the heart?

Dr Mark Falconer is pastor of Rosny and Margate churches as well as General Secretary for the Tasmanian Conference.

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