Following Jesus 101

What does following Jesus mean?  Who was Jesus?  What is the New Testament?  I will answer those questions in this blog.  What I want to offer here is a very concise introduction to Christianity to all my friends who are interested in learning more about my beliefs.  The term Christianity has a great deal of negative baggage and cultural associations, so I prefer to use the term “following Jesus” to describe the practice of surrendering one’s life on a daily basis to the Lordship of Jesus.

In order to understand what following Jesus means, first we need to know who Jesus was.  In order to do that we must first understand a little bit about Judaism and a little bit about the Bible.  Jesus can only be correctly understood in the context of 1st century Judaism.  Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world.  It is a monotheistic religion, meaning that it proclaims the existence of one God.  According to Judaism, God revealed himself about 4,000 years ago to a man named Abraham who was living in an area of land that today belongs to the country of Iraq.  God told him to travel to the land of Palestine, because God was giving this land to him as a gift.  God also told Abraham that he would multiply his descendants like the stars in the sky and that through him (Abraham) all the families of the earth would be blessed.  

God continued to reveal himself to the Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael and to Isaac’s son Jacob.  God gave the land of Palestine to Jacob and his descendants. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and Israel married and had twelve sons. These sons became the leaders of the “twelve tribes of Israel.” During a famine, Jacob and his family moved from Palestine to Egypt to survive.  The tribes grew and multiplied, and after spending 400 years in Egypt God brought them back to the land of Palestine under the leadership of Moses around 1500 BCE.  God gave the twelve tribes a set of written laws to live by.  These laws were called the Torah, and they comprise the first five books of the Bible.   The Israelites settled in the cities and villages of Palestine and God continued to bless them and reveal himself to them over hundreds of years in spite of their frequent disobedience to his commands.

The Bible is a collection of books written by leaders in the Jewish religion and by the early followers of Jesus.   These books were written over a period of 1500 years and they tell the story of God interacting with humankind, all the way from creation up until the time of the early followers of Jesus around 65 CE.   The Hebrew Bible, also called the “Tanach” is a collection of writings comprised of the law, the writings, and the prophets.    These were the holy writings read by Jesus himself and his early followers in the first century CE. 

Later on the followers of Jesus wrote stories of his life (gospels) and letters to early believers (epistles).  Around 400 AD the leaders of some faith communities that followed Jesus had a series of meetings and chose a set of these writings that were considered to be inspired by God.  This set of 27 books became what we call the “New Testament”, while the original Hebrew Bible came to be called the “Old Testament.”  So the modern Bible used by followers of Jesus is made up of two main parts:  the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Torah, or Law.  According to Jewish tradition they were written by the prophet Moses.  They describe the creation story and God’s calling of the Jewish nation as a special people set apart by God.  God is revealed in these five books as loving, just, merciful, all-powerful, personal, and knowable.  He is a God who reveals himself to humans. The first book, called Genesis, tells the story of human beginnings and shows that God created humans to manage the earth and to live in relationship with him.  Genesis tells us that mankind rebelled against God and began to live in sin.  Sin is a state of independence from God.   As a result of this, sickness, death, war and other kinds of evil began to proliferate among humankind.

The remainder of the Old Testament tells the story of God’s attempts to reveal himself to the Jewish nation and to call them to live within the parameters or boundaries of His commands.  He told them that if they would obey his commands they would enjoy great peace and fulfillment in their lives, and that they would become an example to other the other people groups of the world.  This does not mean that during these times God ignored the other peoples of the world.  The Bible tells us that he was also involved in their lives, blessing them with rain for their crops and showing them his kindness.

The golden age of Israel was a time around 1000 BCE when they were ruled by King David.  King David expanded the borders of Israel through successful wars against the nations around them.  He was also a devoted worshipper of the one true God who had revealed himself to Abraham so many hundreds of years earlier.  David wrote many songs of praise to God, many of which have been recorded in the book of Psalms (pronounced “sahms”) in the Old Testament.  Hundreds of years after David died Israel was conquered by a series of nations in the region and lived under the oppression of those nations.

God inspired the Israeli prophets to write and to tell of a coming individual called the Messiah, which means “anointed one. “ The phrase “anointed one” means someone especially empowered by the Spirit of God to represent God in the earth.   The prophets suggested in their writings that the Messiah would be a coming King even greater than David, who would defeat Israel’s enemies and establish a never-ending kingdom of justice and peace on the earth (Isaiah 9:6-7).   The Israeli people had great hopes that this Messiah would come and bring freedom and peace to their society.  When Jesus was born in Israel around the year 3 BCE, the Jewish people lived in Israel under Roman occupation.

It in this context that Jesus appears on the scene, proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God has arrived.  The term gospel simply means “good news.” Jesus was a Jewish day laborer who grew up in a small village in northern Israel called Nazareth.  When he was 30 years old he began to travel through the villages around the lake of Galilee, teaching in the Jewish meeting places and healing all the sick people in the villages by simply laying his hands on them or speaking to them.   These miracles of healing drew large crowds of followers from the region and they listened carefully to Jesus’ teachings. People marveled at Jesus' teachings because they knew he had no formal training and was the son of a local carpenter.

Jesus called the people to renewed devotion to the God of Abraham.  He called them to a high standard of purity and love.  He also encouraged people to treat others the way they would like to be treated.  He called the Jewish people to love each other and to forgive one another for their faults even as God loved them and forgave their sins.  In some of his most controversial teachings, he called the Jews to love and accept the Samaritans, an ethnic group who were hated by many of the Jews of that time.  Jesus taught that God’s Kingdom was a spiritual kingdom – not a political one.  He taught that God wanted people’s hearts to change and to be made free from sin through God’s Presence in their lives.  The coming of God's Kingdom would produce changed hearts, not changed governments.

Many of the people began to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  They pointed to the miracles He was doing and to his incredible teachings as evidence that God was with him in a remarkable way.  Jesus selected twelve men from among his followers to be his special disciples.  He called them apostles, which means “sent ones.”    He trained them to heal the sick and to proclaim that the Kingdom of God had arrived.  He then sent them out into the Jewish villages ahead of him to heal the sick and to say that God’s Kingdom had arrived.

The religious leaders of the Jewish people at that time were called “Pharisees”, and they were extremely jealous of Jesus and his following of people.  Jesus did not follow along with the Pharisees teaching, but gave teachings that contradicted what the Pharisees taught.  Jesus deliberately violated some of the sacred beliefs of the Pharisees.  He even called God his father, which infuriated the Pharisees.  The Pharisees secretly plotted to have Jesus killed.  Eventually they were able to have him arrested and brought before the Roman governor on charges of inciting a rebellion against Rome.   Jesus had told his disciples way ahead of time that he would be arrested and put to death by the Roman authorities but after three days God would raise him from the dead.   Jesus also told his followers that through his death and resurrection he would “ransom” humans from the destructive power of sin

The Romans put Jesus to death by crucifying him.  As he was dying on the cross, Jesus prayed that God would forgive his murderers.  Thus he showed even in his death the practice of love and forgiveness that he had so powerfully taught.  .  After three days God raised Jesus from the dead and he appeared to his followers over a period of 40 days in a physical body, eating and drinking with them and teaching them more about God's Kingdom.  His followers were terrified when they first saw him risen from the dead.  Then they calmed down and began to believe in the greatest miracle that has ever taken place in human history.  Jesus told them that God had given him all authority in heaven (God’s realm) and on earth.  The New Testament writings tell us through the resurrection God demonstrated that He had made Jesus King of all the earth.   He is the promised Messiah and He has already inaugurated His Kingdom of justice and peace. 

Jesus told his followers that he wanted them to take the good news of God’s Kingdom all over the world, teaching people to follow his commands and to live lives of truth, justice and kindness.  Jesus promised them that he would send the Holy Spirit of God to personally fill each of them and to empower them to live this new life.  The Spirit of God came upon Jesus followers in a powerful way just 10 days after this, as we can read about in the second chapter of the New Testament book of Acts.

The followers of Jesus began to organize small communities called churches, which met in homes to eat together and to pray.   Other followers of Jesus shared the message with non-Jewish communities in Israel as well as in present day Lebanon and Syria.  Eventually the good news about Jesus and God’s Kingdom spread throughout present day Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Greece and through the entire Roman empire.   Paul was a follower of Jesus who traveled from Israel to present day Turkey and Greece, sharing the message of God’s love and power in and through the Messiah Jesus.   He wrote letters in Greek to the new churches that he had started in these areas.  Greek was the common language of all those regions since they had all been conquered by the Greeks some 300 years earlier.  Several of Paul’s letters were copied and preserved and later became part of the New Testament.  Other followers of Jesus wrote stories of his life which were called gospels.  Four of these accounts were included in the New Testament:  the gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, and the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” in the first century CE.

Later on the teachings of Jesus were twisted and changed by church leaders.  Great corruption entered the church and many traditions were adopted which were never taught by Jesus or his original followers.  Part of my aim in these blog posts is to uncover the original teachings of Jesus (which are very direct and simple) and to help us discover the lifestyle of simply following Jesus.

In my next article I will write more about what it means to follow Jesus in our contemporary 21st century society and why someone would want to do that.

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