When you were growing up did your parents ever sit you down to have the conversation that you had to pick your friends carefully because your friends influence who you become and you don’t want to become the wrong person? Now, I honestly don’t remember my parents having that kind of a conversation with me, but I generally had pretty clean-cut friends. That’s just the crowd I ran with. But a lot of parents do have this conversation. Maybe you’ve had it with your kids. Well, what’s the reason so many parents have this conversation with their kids? Because the quality of our friends’ character very often determines the quality of our own character. To put that a bit more pithily and familiarly: Bad company corrupts good character. Unless we are primarily an influencer—and not many people are—the people with whom we surround ourselves determine the nature of our own character. If we hang out with people who gossip and cut-up and otherwise tear down other people verbally, we’ll start doing that too. If we hang with people who are verbally gracious and kind, on the other hand, we’ll usually pick up those habits so that we fit in with the group. If we hang out with people for whom truth is really a fluid concept and who spend most of their time living a party lifestyle and all that goes along with it (the Bible word for that is carousing) we will too. If, however, we spend most of our time with people who love to have a good time but not in such a way as to dishonor themselves or anybody else, we’ll fall into those patterns with them.
You already know all this. In fact, you’ve probably seen it happen. Maybe you had a friend who started hanging out with folks who just didn’t ever seem to be doing the right thing. After a while you noticed your friend’s attitude toward other people, toward you, toward life in general had started to change. He stopped wanting to hang out with you so much. She never seemed interested in stopping by anymore. Before long you stopped seeing him altogether. The next time you saw her it was like a different person had possessed your old friend’s body and the person you knew was gone. Let me push that just a bit further. Maybe the person we’re talking about here was you. You started hanging out with the folks who seemed to always be right on the verge of trouble…as long as they didn’t get caught that is. At first you stayed at an arm’s length, but after a while of watching them seem to have so much fun, you joined in the party with them. You took a drink. You made the move. You went to that place. You did this or that. It all seemed pretty innocent, but eventually even you noticed that you were different. The people with whom you had surrounded yourself had influenced your character.
The same thing works in the other direction too, by the way. Maybe you got in with some good folks after having been on a rough path and they got you straightened out. Maybe you were on a collision course with destruction and you got hooked up with some church folks. These folks introduced you to someone named Jesus and before long you found yourself working hard to look more like Him. Eventually you gave your life to Him and started following Him. But over time, the pressures of the world around you made going in the direction you wanted to go a lot more of a challenge than you were prepared to face. As the duties and burdens of life began to press down more and more heavily on you once again some of the things you were doing in your early days of following Jesus—or at least excitedly doing the church thing—like praying, reading and studying your Bible, going to Bible study, talking about your faith with other friends, and so on, started to get harder to do consistently. Eventually you stopped doing them so much. And while you didn’t notice much of a change, something inside you found it more and more difficult to live in the ways you knew Jesus wanted you to live; to make the kind of choices you knew Jesus wanted you to make.
Let me let you in on a little secret. This is the story of just about everybody who’s ever started following Jesus. We start on fire for the Lord, but eventually cool off and settle into a routine that quickly becomes a rut. The truth is that following Jesus isn’t as easy as it seems when we’re still honeymooning with Him. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that living the life of Christ is hard. Being like Jesus is hard. All the same, if we are going to be followers of Jesus, it’s something God calls us to do.
Well, as it turns out, we have been talking about hard things God calls us to do and how we should respond to these for each of the last three weeks. We’ve talked about obeying God in the hard, the nonsensical, and even the impossible. We’ve been challenged with the fact that the next steps we need to take in following God somewhere hard are often not revealed to us until we take the most difficult first step. But, when we are willing to do that, when we are willing to be faithful, blessing is always the result. And that blessing involves the release of God’s possibility-creating power into our situations.
But, talking like we have about obeying and following God in the hard, it’s easy to form the idea that such opportunities for faithfulness are once-in-a-while affairs. I mean, we see the highlights of Abraham’s journey with God and all the times He stepped out in the hard, but his story arc covers 100 years. We only see the snapshots. What about all the other stories we aren’t told? Do you think those were all rainbows and butterflies? Hardly. The same goes with any of the other men and women featured in the Scriptures both in the Old and in the New Testament. Yes, God calls us occasionally to big hard things that take a lot of faith and can reap big, obvious rewards for faithfulness. But in between is a whole line of little hard things that can be characterized together as following God in the day-to-day; following Christ in the mundane of life, following Jesus in the hard. And so as we wrap up our series, Obeying God in the Hard, this morning, I want to close out this journey by giving you some encouragement and advice for how to remain faithful in the little hard things we face on a daily basis; the innumerable decisions we make and opportunities we have to honor God in small ways throughout our days. Because the truth is that following God through the big hard things is great, but if we don’t already have a pattern of following Him in the little ones, we aren’t going to follow Him in the big ones. We always perform the way we practice. So how can we practice well such that when the performances come we’re ready?
To answer this I want to look with you at some words from the apostle Paul in his letter to the believers in and around the ancient city of Ephesus. After spending some time laying out the theology behind the Gospel he makes a turn about halfway through the letter and answers the pressing question: Okay, now that we know all this great stuff, what do we actually do with it? He begins in Ephesians 4:1 by making the marvelous statement: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” In other words, in light of this incredible calling we have to be the people of God, we should live in a manner worthy of this call. Or to put that still another way, the answer to the question of what are we to do with all this great theology is to be who we are.
Now, in a perfect world, that would be enough. We’d say, “Okay, sounds good,” and set about doing it. But, that’s not the world we live in. We hear something like that and instead think, “Well what does that mean?” Thankfully Paul understands this and goes on to unpack exactly what he means. First and foremost for Paul, this calling we have received plays itself out in the context of a unified local body of believers all equipped by Christ to advance the mission of the kingdom of God. With a limited number of physically mandated exceptions, the Christian faith cannot be adequately lived out apart from a healthy, active connection to a local church. Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. There are many folks today who would argue the opposite. They’ll say, “I can live out my faith just fine apart from the church. I don’t really need the church with all its problems.” These folks are lying to themselves and hurting both themselves and the believers who are being deprived of the gifts God has given them. Paul makes the case for this in the first half of chapter 4.
Starting in v. 17, though—and this is where we’ll focus our attention this morning if you want to find a copy of the Scriptures and turn there with me—Paul takes us the next step forward in understanding how to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have received. You see, it starts in the church, but it doesn’t stay there. So then, how do we live out this calling when we are out in the world? Paul answers this question with some fancy writing that basically boils down to a simple idea: Keep looking like Jesus. If you want to live like Jesus, you’ve got to look like Jesus. To that I would add: if you want to look like Jesus, you’ve got to make sure you know Him.
Let me read what Paul writes here and then I’ll show you how he communicates this idea. Follow along with me in Ephesians 4:17: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
What Paul does here is to use a literary device called a chiasm to make his point. A chiasm is where you plant an idea in the middle of a passage and wrap all the supporting points around it in such a way that the points on opposite sides of the passage echo each other in such a way that it forms a kind of arrow aimed at the main point. It’s a kind of literary tur-duck-en where the chicken in the middle is the main point. Look at this with me starting with the turkey. If we are going to live out this hard call to be like Christ in the mundane, daily moments of our lives this is what we need to do. We need to not walk like the Gentiles do in the futility of their minds. What’s that mean? Well, Paul uses that word “Gentiles” there to refer to people who don’t believe in God at all. For us, we might think in terms of people who are not following Jesus in any meaningful sense. Essentially what Paul is saying is this: You know how people who don’t follow Jesus in any meaningful sense live? While there are certainly some notable exceptions, for the most part it’s not very good. On the whole folks not following Jesus live very much broken lives. The brokenness may be more obvious or more subtle in nature, but it’s there and it’s not changing. Now, to answer the objection before it is given voice, many Christians live lives ongoingly broken by sin as well, but the difference is that’s not normal for us. Brokenness is the norm for folks not following Jesus. In any event, Paul attributes this in a big way to brokenness in the mind. There’s a heart problem here to be sure, but folks not following Jesus believe things that aren’t true and thus act in ways that aren’t good by virtue of this “futility of their minds.”
For Jesus followers, on the other hand, if we want to live like Jesus, we’ve got to look like Jesus. And how do we look like Jesus? Look at the other end of the passage in v. 23: By being renewed in the spirit of our minds. We have to change our thinking patterns in order to change our behavior patterns. If we think of ourselves in the same ways and terms that we did before coming to Christ we’ll keep behaving like that. Andy Stanley once put it, “As long as you identify with who you use to be, you will continue to behave the way you’ve always behaved.” We make this mental transition and “put on” the new life we have in Christ. The imagery Paul uses envisions the life we are called to live in Christ as a piece of clothing we put on our bodies. At first it just makes us look like we are something we’re not—righteous and holy. But over time it actually becomes our skin as we with renewed minds begin thinking in righteous and holy ways and thereby begin behaving in righteous and holy ways which leads us, by God’s grace, to fill out the righteous and holy nature that has been ours since we first started following Christ. In other words, by this renewal of our minds enabling us to no longer do the things we used to do, we look like Jesus. Indeed, if you want to live like Jesus, you’ve got to look like Jesus.
Taking a small step in toward the middle from each side of the passage—the duck now—Paul next gets a little more specific about what he has in mind here about how we should no longer be living. Look again at what he said. Folks who aren’t following Jesus in any meaningful sense “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart.” In other words, they don’t live like God because, as we just said, they don’t think in godly terms. But, because they don’t think in godly terms, their hearts are hard and they don’t want to live like God. This becomes a vicious cycle that repeats itself until we finally become convinced of its destructiveness and accept the help and grace Christ offers. Now again, let me hit a potential objection before it forms. Paul describes these folks as callous and greedy to practice every kind of impurity. He makes it sound like everyone not following Jesus is a terrible person. This is by no means necessarily the case. We all know people who don’t follow Jesus and yet seem like fine people. It may be that the corruption of sin plaguing all those who are not in Christ is kept inside where no one can see it such that all we see is a wonderful person. But, the corruption is there at the heart of who they are, nonetheless, and will from time to time make itself known. They may hide their brokenness well behind a wall of wholeness, but the brokenness is what defines them and they can’t escape that on their own.
In any event, Paul’s instruction for us in all of this is to put it off. That kind of thinking and doing is how we who are following Jesus used to act. That’s the way we behaved before we started following Jesus because we didn’t know any better and didn’t really want any better. In Christ we have a new nature and we need to live like it. But, if we want to live like Jesus, we’ve got to look like Jesus. Our old sinful self doesn’t look like Jesus. We need to take that self off like a garment (with Christ’s help) and not put it back on. Our old self rests on a corrupt foundation that will keep us separated from God and very much unlike Jesus. And, if you want to live like Jesus, you’ve got to look like Jesus.
So then we’re back to where we started. How do we do this? Again, following Jesus in the daily grind of life is hard. The thing is, our old self was comfortable. It was all broken in like a favorite pair of jeans. It wasn’t perfect, sure, but we knew where all the imperfections were as well as both when to avoid them and when it was okay to lean into them. Following Jesus, though, takes us time and again to places that are uncomfortable. We have to do things that go against our natural inclinations. We have to make choices that would seem to and in fact do go against our self-interest. Living in a place like this can drain us if we let it. It can wear us down. And just like after staying for too long in an uncomfortable hotel can leave us longing to get back to our old, familiar bed (even if it’s in way worse shape than the hotel bed), sometimes in our daily effort to follow Jesus we just want to get back to the way things were. We romanticize the brokenness just like Israel romanticized being slaves in Egypt when the journey of the Exodus got difficult. It takes the same faith and courage it does to step out and follow God in the big hards of life as it does in the little hards we encounter every day. And yes, obeying in the little hards of everyday life brings blessing and unleashes the power of God into our situations, but how do we do it? Yes, living like Jesus requires looking like Jesus, but where does it start? It starts here: knowing Jesus.
Look right back in the middle of the passage—at the chicken now—where everything we’ve been looking at has been pointing like an arrow. Verse 20: “But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus…” If you want to live like Jesus, you’ve got to look like Jesus, yes, but if you want to look like Jesus, you’ve got to know Jesus. Until we know Jesus deeply in our hearts and in our minds we’ll never look like Him, at least not with much consistency. Until we spend enough time with Jesus to let Him influence us, we’ll keep struggling with taking our old self off and keeping it off. Come on: we’re getting ready to enter dieting season. It’ll be like those last few pounds that just won’t go away unless and until we make a permanent and radical change to our lifestyle. You know how it goes. We’ll get all charged up and go on a diet from the world. The vestiges of our old self will melt away and we’ll feel great. The new life we have in Christ will fit so much better than it ever has. The people around us will notice and may even say something about how good we look. But then something will happen. The busyness of life will overtake us. A tragedy will fall in our laps. We’ll get bored and hungry for what we might call “the good stuff,” but which isn’t really so good for us. We’ll miss some prayer times. We won’t read the Bible quite so consistently. A Sunday here or there will slip away from us. And bit by bit the old self will gradually creep back up on us. The new self won’t fit quite as well. Nobody will say anything this time because it wouldn’t be polite, but they’ll notice. Living like Jesus requires looking like Jesus and we won’t anymore because we’re not spending enough time with Him to really know Him.
So what do we do with all of this? We know now that obeying God in the hard things of life is not a once-in-a-while epic adventure. It’s a daily challenge that every Jesus follower faces. It brings blessing. It unleashes the power of God. And it is our knowledge of Jesus that enables us to do it. What that means is that in order to live up to the challenge—which, when met, is what enables us to stand strong in the big hards of following Jesus—we have to know Jesus. It’s not enough to know church. It’s not enough to do church, even actively. It’s certainly not enough to do church occasionally. We have to know Jesus and commit ourselves to learning more about Him every single day. I know there are some folks in this room who have spent a long time doing church without really knowing Jesus. The kick is that it’s easy to convince folks that we know Jesus when we’re just doing church because from the outside knowing Jesus often plays itself out in our doing church. But the inside is what counts. Come on: you know whether or not you know Jesus. You know when the last time was that you read about Him or had a conversation about Him or had a conversation with Him or even thought much about Him. You know whether or not you’re close enough to Him such that He’s the one influencing you rather than everything else in your life. You know whether or not you’re living like Him. If you want to live like Jesus, you’ve got to look like Jesus. But if you want to look like Jesus, you’ve got to know Jesus. Friends, the challenge this morning is here: get to know Jesus. The New Year is a perfect time to set in place some patterns that will lead to knowing Him more. It’ll get hard after a time, but following God in the hard is a part of becoming more like Jesus and as we stick with it eventually it gets easier. If you want to live like Jesus, you’ve got to look like Jesus.
In the end, then, there are three ways to respond to this. First, if you don’t know Jesus and don’t look like Jesus, it’s time to get that fixed. This morning would be a fine time for that. We can sit down and have a conversation that will lead to life you unlike you’ve known before. Second, if you’ve been doing church for a long time without really knowing Jesus, it’s time to get to know the person you’ve been serving all these years. You may do a lot of the same things afterwards, but the reason behind them, the passion you have for them, and the clarity with which you’ll do them will change dramatically. Third, if you already know Jesus, don’t get complacent in your knowledge. There’s always more to know. Keep learning. Keep modeling. Keep living. If you want to live like Jesus, you’ve got to look like Jesus. As we prepare to enter a new year, my prayer is that you will.