How we walk in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ seems to be a matter of great confusion among Christians today. I just had another encounter with a Christian leader of a small group Bible study who made a statement which I have often heard in one form or another from many Christians and this prompted me to record my thoughts for my own clarification and edification and for sharing with others in the future.
The statement was along the lines of “I don’t do anything (such as launching a Bible study or seeking to expand a ministry) unless the Lord tells me to.” This is good-sounding doctrine and seems to be a good practice and very spiritual, but in fact is not good sound doctrine. One reason it sounds so good is that it sounds a lot like what Jesus himself said. The problem, and why it is not sound doctrine, is that it is not what Jesus said, just similar, and Jesus said things that promote just the opposite.
What Jesus said was “I only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5: 19) and “whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (John 12: 50), not “I only do what the Father tells me to do”. What Jesus is saying in the first instance, as Henry Blackaby teaches in Experiencing God, is that He was looking for where the Father was working and where He found the Father working, He joined the Father in that work.
That becomes clearer as you look at His statement in the larger context leading up to the statement as I did several years ago when reading the Gospel of John. In John 3, I noticed Jesus having a detailed conversation about the gospel with Nicodemus. From the midst of this conversation comes what is probably the most well-known verse in all the Bible, John 3: 16. We see in later scriptures that Nicodemus apparently believed and became a follower of Christ, though not necessarily following Him publicly.
In John 4, we find Jesus taking an uncommon route through Samaria and ignoring Jewish custom by talking with a Samaritan woman at the well outside the city. And not only talking with her, but again engaging in an in-depth conversation about her salvation, offering her life-giving water despite her sinfulness. Upon believing, she returns to the city, invites everyone to come meet Jesus and brings a crowd out to see Him. Naturally, He shares the gospel with them and many respond in faith.
In John 5, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and goes to the pool of Bethsaida, where He sees a crippled man lying next to the pool seeking to be healed by getting into the pool first when its waters are stirred by an angel. When Jesus asks if he wants to be healed, the man indicates that He does, so Jesus tells him to take up His pallet and walk. Therefore the man did just that, taking up his pallet and leaving. Later, upon seeing the man again in the temple, Jesus tells him to “Go and sin no more”. So again, he goes.
As I read these three stories together, I began to wonder why did Jesus take care to share the gospel with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the people of her city but said nothing to the crippled man about his salvation. Shortly after healing the crippled man, Jesus was confronted by the religious leaders about healing on the sabbath. When they asked Him why He was healing on the sabbath, His answer to them answered my question also … “I only do what I see the Father doing.”
With Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the people in her city, he saw that there was spiritual interest, which only comes from the Father (John 6: 44), indicating that God was working. How did Jesus look for and see this spiritual interest … by making statements and asking questions that gave people the opportunity to respond in a way that would tell Him whether God was working here or not.
With Nicodemus, his indication that He wanted to know more when Jesus said “You must be born again” told Jesus that God was working in Nicodemus. Nicodemus could have thought that this was just nonsense and started to walk away, which would have told Jesus that God was not working in His life and would have let the conversation die there.
With the woman at the well, Jesus made some outlandish claims about living water and never thirsting again that really caused her to thirst for more. Jesus noted her interest and continued to pursue the conversation, even pointing out her sin in a kind way. Again, she could have just laughed and walked away, but her response instead told Jesus that God was working here and He naturally joined Him in that work.
The willingness of the people to respond to the testimony of this woman who was an outcast and to come with her out of the city to meet Jesus told Him that God was also working in their lives, so He shared the good news with them also. Note that in none of these encounters are there any indicators from what is said or what is recorded that God told Jesus to go talk to these specific people. He took the initiative in only one of these situations (with the woman), but interacted with people in ways that would show Him whether God was working.
The same is true with the crippled man. To me, it is sort of a dumb question to ask the man if he wanted to be healed. He even performed a miracle and healed the man, who was not curious enough (spiritually interested) to even ask Jesus who he was or where He got this power. He simply walked away and Jesus did not pursue him. Given a second chance later in the temple, Jesus told him to not sin. I would have been asking (and think anyone with spiritual sensitivity / interest would ask) “How can I not sin … that seems like an impossibility.”). I believe that Jesus concluded that God is not working here, therefore there is no reason for me to pursue him.
Not seeing God obviously working somewhere did not keep Jesus from doing things to reveal whether God was working, such as making those outlandish statements or asking outlandish questions that beg for a revealing response.
The thing that Jesus said that I believe promotes an opposite way of thinking (opposite to doing only what Jesus tells me) is found in the parable of the talents (Matt 5: 14-30). The outstanding statement in this parable is the commendation “Well done, good and faithful servant.” This commendation is given to two servants, not for obedience to what they were told to do (they weren’t really told to do anything other than manage the talents (money) they were given by the master). They were commended for their initiative in knowing the master’s desires that his talents be reproduced and taking steps to make it happen. The servant who was afraid and hid his talents (waiting for the master to tell him what to do with it?) was rebuked and had his talents taken from him and distributed to the others.
This parable certainly was not told simply to convey that Christians are to seek to multiply whatever money God blesses them with, but rather to multiply the gifts and ministry skills that He has given us and advance His kingdom and, in my opinion, to do so without waiting to be told when, where, and how. We certainly need to be listening for God to direct in our ministry activities, but like the mighty ship that is turned by a tiny rudder which has to be moving for the rudder to turn it, so should we be taking the initiative, moving forward in advancing the kingdom, and letting God redirect by adjusting the rudder.
I welcome your input and perspective.