Phil Knight, the co-founder and former CEO of Nike, was once in attendance at a large conference, where he was presumably asked about the ethos of his company. What made Nike who they were? What was Nike all about?
He stood up to address the audience in response to some of those questions, and he asked this question of his own: “If any of you have ever run for exercise, would you please stand up?” Of course, in that type of environment, nearly every person in the room stood up. If I asked the same question in a room like this, I imagine a decent number of people would stand up, too.
He then asked another similar question: “If you run at least once a week, please stay standing.” And most of the room sat down. Again, I imagine the same thing would happen in a room like this. He then asked: “If you run twice a week, please stay standing.” More people sat. “If you run three times a week, rain or shine, regardless of what the weather is doing, regardless of how hot it is or how cold it is, please stay standing. And at this point there are only a handful of people in the room who are still standing.
So, Phil Knight looks out at this small segment of the audience, and he tells them this: “The next time you’re out there, and it’s still dark because you’re up before the sun, again; it’s dark, it’s cold, it’s wet, and you’re running all by yourself, we (referring to Nike) are the ones standing under the lamp post cheering you on.”
That’s how he described Nike. And, as was his intention, the audience that day and us today immediately gain a better understanding of what that trademark slogan, Just Do It, really means. Turns out, it actually has very little to do with winning, which is what I typically think. I see the image of an Olympic gold-medalist on the podium next to those words. Just Do It. I see an image of Usain Bolt setting another 100-meter record. Just Do It. Those words become synonymous with winning. But that’s not the intent.
Those words have nothing to do with winning; they have everything to do with trying. They have everything to do with doing, because you said you would.
Phil wanted to communicate to the audience that day that Nike was all about celebrating the ones who do. Routine discipline, routine obedience to one’s character, and, more importantly, the values that form it.
And those ideas should resonate with us, shouldn’t they?
Today we’re wrapping up this series we’ve been in for the last several weeks, What if Jesus Was Serious? And throughout the last several weeks we’ve been digging into what Jesus taught in his most famous talk ever: The Sermon on the Mount.
It’s in this message from Jesus that he introduces, and begins to demystify, what he calls the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of heaven, explaining that it’s not this far-off place you access on the other side of your funeral; it’s right here, and it’s right now. To use Jesus’ language following his baptism, it’s at hand; so close you could reach out and grab it. That is, if you want it.
And Jesus brings even more clarity. As in, this is who’s invited (which is to say, everyone). This is what it looks like to live and thrive in my Kingdom, because the Kingdom is upside down. Which is to say, things like loving others and living self-sacrificially run against the grain of this world. Jesus is teaching a radical way of living; extending that Kingdom blessing to every single person we interact with is a radical way to live our lives.
And, if Jesus was actually serious about what he taught, his listeners then as well as all of us today, two thousand years later, have a choice to make, as we’ll see Jesus makes very clear (more on that later).
Because If Jesus was serious, then you can’t fake your way into the kingdom. The sobering implication being this: Some of us might be trying to, whether we necessarily realize it or not.
See, Jesus is not interested in our going through the religious motions, or simply dabbling in this community called church, or living our lives based on what feels good. He is inviting us, calling us, into a life of Discipleship. A life of routine discipline. A life of routine obedience to him, King Jesus, as he shapes our character to reflect a life spent with him, learning from him how to be like him, so that we can do the kind of things he did. And we’ll unpack more of what that means in a bit.
See, if Jesus is King, and the Kingdom is here, it’s at hand, then Jesus’ expectation (because kings don’t ask, they command) is that his followers obey and live out his teaching. And if that sounds harsh, here’s the reason why: Because Jesus (being a good king who loves you) actually believes that every single thing he has to say to you—about loving others, about living self-sacrificially, about dying to yourself, about embracing an oftentimes difficult and always counter-cultural discipleship to him—will lead to the best possible version of your life, to the best possible version of my life. The question is, do we believe him?
We get to make that choice. Jesus doesn’t force anybody to follow him. He could, but he doesn’t. He knows you can’t force a meaningful relationship, let alone authentic discipleship. Let’s go back to what Jesus said as he began the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount. Look at this, this is Matthew chapter 7 starting in verse 13:
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)
Here’s the thing, If Jesus was serious, then he knew that following him would not be easy. In another translation of this passage (the ESV), the wide gate and the broad road are described as the easy way. The small gate and the narrow road are described as hard. That’s the more difficult choice!
And it’s important to point out here that while Jesus is most certainly being exclusive (just like in John chapter 14 where Jesus explicitly says, “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life; nobody gets to God unless they go through me,” which is super exclusive), he is not being restrictive. Do you see the difference?
The small gate and narrow road are not reserved for super-Christians. That’s not what Jesus is saying. His desire is that we would all choose the narrow way that leads to life, whether you’ve been following him for 5 minutes or 50 years, because Jesus knows and actually believes it’s the only way that leads to life! Again, we get to make the choice, and Jesus gives us full disclosure: It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
It’s choosing celibacy in the midst of your singleness or sexuality when the culture says you’re crazy. It’s downsizing your life and house so you can give more to those in need. It’s turning down the promotion because it would take time away from your family and church community. It’s choosing to love and serve the co-worker or family member who’s been making your life miserable. None of those things are easy!
And because Jesus knows this road of discipleship will be hard, he offers us two parting thoughts in the next two passages that we should find incredibly important, for two reasons. Number one, this is wisdom from Jesus designed to NOT make the hard road any harder than it needs to be. And number two, this is Jesus compelling us to grow in our self awareness. It’s like Jesus is saying in these two parting thoughts we’re going to look at, “Look, this is already going to be tough, I get it. So pay attention to what’s going on around you and don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be!”
First parting part goes like this, verse 15:
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Matthew 7:15-20 (NIV)
Which means If Jesus was serious, then we must be careful about who we follow and who we listen to. And listen, this is not the part of the talk where I propose we should cut out all social media and Netflix from our lives, and burn our Blink-182 CDs, or whatever. Again, this is wisdom from Jesus to grow in self awareness. Look at the first two words in verse 15; Jesus says we need to watch out. As in pay attention.
See, according to Jesus, we should constantly be asking this question: What’s the result (the fruit) of that person’s or thing’s influence in my life? AND do those results point me more or less toward Jesus?
Because Jesus knows the reality of our humanity, which goes like this: We are all students of someone or something. Oftentimes, we are students of multiple people and things, multiple voices of influence that, when put together, inform our worldview, our particular philosophy of life. And you already believe Jesus on this one, I’ll show you.
Have you ever spent a significant amount of time with someone, maybe a friend or a family member you spent the day or weekend with, and then when you came back to your normal routine, whatever that looks like, someone called you out on the fact that you were behaving just like the person you spent time with?
When I was in elementary school I remember having this friend (his name was Brit) who had what I thought was the coolest smile I’d ever seen. Kind of like a mix between Elvis and Ryan Reynolds. Old soul and witty charm. Coolest smile I’d ever seen. So, what did I do? I tried to copy his smile! And now I have a whole year’s worth of third-grade photos of me smiling like a moron because I couldn’t pull it off like he could. It’s horrible.
The point is this: Who you are listening to, or letting influence you, matters. We need to be careful. Why? Because we become like those we spend time with. Jesus says pay attention to the fruit of those voices in your life because it will be obvious.
For example, you might see someone who appears wildly talented, who’s operating in his or her giftings, and what he or she says seems to make sense, but behind closed doors that person is abusive to his or her family. And you probably don’t know that! But what is being produced in your own life as a result of your following that person will be the evidence of it being good and true (as defined by Jesus) or not. As pastors at Gateway, we have to live by this standard! What we teach you and how we lead you should point you more and more toward Jesus, and if it doesn’t this should be a wake up call to us!
Here’s the takeaway: The voices in our lives might promise something good, but if they in any way pull you away from what Jesus would say is right, and true, and best, maybe not right away but eventually and inevitably, just like a hungry wolf, they will kill you. By the way, this is why it’s so important that we know and study the Word of God, Scripture. Ricky Echeona, one of our pastors, put it this way: “You will only recognize the voice of the wolf when you know the voice of the shepherd.”
That’s a fun one, isn’t it? Let’s keep going. Parting thought number two goes like this, verse 21:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV)
And here’s the thing, I’ve talked to a lot of people for whom these verses inspire a lot of fear. As in, “Ross, what if I live my whole life thinking I’m living it in alignment with Jesus, only to find out I was wrong?!” And I get where that question is coming from. Oftentimes in my experience it comes from an authentic concern for actually living in alignment with Jesus, and it probably means you are (at least to some extent). Contextually you could also go back to Jesus’ watch-out-for-these-kinds-of-people language in verse 15. This is a continuation of that warning: Pay attention to—be wise and discerning about—these kinds of voices around you. Not all of those speaking in Jesus’ name actually know and follow Jesus.
And again, if we see this as wisdom from Jesus for us to grow in self awareness, there’s actually a very freeing truth here that’s the better truth to focus on. Because If Jesus was serious, the invitation is for us to know him more than we do things for him.
Some of us need to let that really sink in because we are trying really hard to behave our way onto God’s good side, and it doesn’t work.
And listen, I’m not throwing stones at anyone. Growing up in church, this was hard for me to figure out. From as early as I can remember, my family was in church every single Sunday. Sometimes twice a Sunday. My mom sang in the choir and my dad did the finances. We were at every meeting, every potluck, every event. So, as a kid, my conclusion was that in order for God to like you, you had to do a lot of things for him.
Now, please hear this: I love my parents so much, and they love Jesus, and I am so thankful they raised me and my siblings in the church. That God likes you based on what you do for him is NOT the message they were trying to give me, but it is the message I received. And it would take well into my highschool and college years to truly realize how much more interested God was in my knowing him, and actually having a relationship with him, than he ever was in my doing a bunch of stuff for him. As if he needed my help anyway.
Yes, Jesus wants you to be like him and do the kinds of things he did, but that can only come from spending time with him and actually getting to know him.
So, how do we do that? What does that look like? Well, it comes back to what we said Jesus is inviting us into at the very beginning of this thing: Discipleship. We make the decision to stop just dabbling in this thing called faith, and actually live our lives in routine obedience to King Jesus as he shapes our character to look more and more like his. We Just Do It, because discipleship isn’t about being perfect; it’s about becoming more like the one who is.
So, for the application. Two things: Some of us need to have a better understanding of what it means to be disciples, and others of us need to have more clarity around what it means to become disciples.
Let’s talk about what it means to be disciples.
Dallas Willard, who is known for his writings on spiritual formation, or the forming of disciples, put it this way, and this is so good. Listen to this:
“[As a disciple] I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did.”
“The disciple or apprentice of Jesus, as recognized by the New Testament, is one who has firmly decided to learn from him how to lead his or her life, whatever that may be, as Jesus himself would do it. And, as best they know how, they are making plans—taking the necessary steps, progressively arranging and rearranging their affairs—to do this.”
(Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy)
Willard summarizes himself by putting it this way: “Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.”
If you grew up in church (and even if you didn’t), do you remember those bracelets that had the letters, “WWJD?” You remember what that stood for? What would Jesus do? And it was a reminder to always be asking the question, “Okay, if Jesus found himself in this exact situation I’m in now, what would he do?” Then, as a Christian, you were taught, do that.
Here’s the thing: I love the intent, but that’s the wrong question (or at least not the best one). Why? Because I’m not Jesus. I can’t do the exact same things he did. I can’t walk on water. I can’t restore someone’s sight on demand. A better question, and I think Dallas Willard would agree, would be: What would Jesus do if he had MY life? What would Jesus do if he had YOUR life? If he had your body, and your diagnosis? If he had your job? Your spouse? Your divorce? Your kids? Your singleness? Your addiction?
See, this might sound strange but the world doesn’t need another Jesus. It has one! He’s enough. He’s alive. He’s King. There is no need for another. You want to know what the world does need? It needs you and me living our unique lives in a way that consistently points back to him, and what he can make possible in our lives, so that those around us can get to know him, too.
Which leads to how one becomes a disciple.
I’ll quote Dallas Willard one more time because he just says this so much better than I will. Look at this: “No one goes sadly, reluctantly into discipleship with Jesus…One would be quite sure that to belong to him, to be taken into what he is doing throughout this world so that what he is doing becomes your life, is the greatest opportunity one will ever have.”
(Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy)
And if you don’t see a relationship with, discipleship to, and life alongside Jesus like that, please hear my heart for you in asking you this question: Could it be that you have a poor understanding of who Jesus really is? And listen, if he were really worth that much, wouldn’t you want to at least come and see for yourself?
That can start today, by the way. The Bible says that God loves you with such a reckless love that he sent Jesus, his only son, to live a perfect life, to teach the world about the Kingdom of God and what his Father is actually like; that he doesn’t hate you, he actually loves you enough to die a horrible death as payment for the debt from your sin that you could never repay, and to rise from the dead three days later, just like he said he would, to prove that God always keeps his promises, and that he can bring dead things back to life, in your life, and in my life, and in our world; so that everything would be ready for a day like today, thousands of years later, when you would say, “Jesus, I need you!” And he would look back at you and say, “I know! You’re why I came!”
And the journey of discipleship begins.
And listen, there will still be some storms along the way. Jesus knew that. Listen to how he closes his entire sermon; everything he’s taught us up to this point concluded with these words:
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Matthew 7:28-29 (NIV)
Same wind. Same rain. Same storm. Two very different outcomes. And they both point back upstream to the same question. If Jesus is King, and the Kingdom is here, then Jesus’ expectation (because remember, kings don’t ask, they command) is that his followers obey and live out his teaching. They hear and they do. So here’s the question: Will you? And we definitely won’t do it perfectly, but will we put his words into practice? Will we choose routine obedience, even if it means we have to get to know Jesus a little better than we currently do? Because here’s the thing: Storms are coming either way.
I’ll paraphrase one of the best ways I’ve ever heard another pastor summarize this passage: Discipleship to Jesus will never give you a storm free life, but it will give you a storm proof one. Your life is already really hard. So is mine. Jesus says, “I’ll teach you how to stand firm in the storm. No problem. But this is about more than just weathering storms. Put my words into practice, and I’ll teach you a better way to live. So let’s go.”