The Mystery of the Middle Road
What does it mean to be a believer?
The people of Jesus’ day were famously confused as to who Jesus was. In one particularly poignant instance of misunderstanding, Jesus had just performed an incredible miracle: the feeding of the five thousand. He had then escaped a highly excited crowd, walked across a lake to reach his disciples’ boat, and then translated the boat instantaneously to the opposite shore. We join the story when the crowd from the day before catch up to Jesus and manage to completely and utterly fail to grasp either who He is, or what He is asking of them:
“When they found Him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, ‘Rabbi, when did you get here?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on Him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.’ Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.’ So they asked him, ‘What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert…’” (John 6:25-30 NIV)
“He was offering them life itself, and they were simply hoping for a free meal.”
The people in this story were honestly pursuing Jesus in the hope that they had found some sort of early bread-and-fish vending machine. He was offering them life itself, and they were simply hoping for a free meal. It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? How can they have misunderstood Jesus so hopelessly?
Well, in this case, the problem stemmed from some deeply entrenched ideas about how the Messiah was supposed to act. It’s a confusion that is easy to spot with 2,000 years of hindsight and one easy to ridicule. Here’s my question: what if we have our own deep confusion about Jesus? We know He is the Messiah, for sure, but do we truly comprehend the life He is offering us? And are we certain we know how to get it? And if so, why don’t our lives look more like the lives of Jesus’ earliest followers?
The truth is, we still come to Jesus with the same confusion. We miss the significance of what He is offering us, and fail to grasp the fullness of what He is asking of us. The result is a misunderstanding no less significant than that of the free-meal obsessed crowd. Later on in this story, Jesus declares: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6:35-40 NIV)
Jesus offers us eternal, abundant life, a powerful source of peace, comfort, righteousness and joy bubbling up from inside that cannot help but transform us and everything we have influence over. But, if we’re honest, we find this life hard to come by. We find ourselves settling for lives that bear little resemblance to the life with Jesus promised in the Bible.
Some people try really hard to act like they have this abundant life, and are incredibly hard on themselves whenever they fail to reach the standard. Others rationalise the discrepancy by saying we are now in some sort of different ‘season’ in which, as far as I can tell, nothing exciting ever happens and there is very little victory. Many others of us put our hope in the few lucky people who do seem to have ‘got it’, and create a culture in which you have to be somebody special to follow Jesus in the way he promised we could. (Mark 16:17-18 NIV) That’s certainly what I believed growing up. It seemed like the promises of God were for the special few who were somehow good enough or fortunate enough to gain access to them. Ordinary Christians were going to have to wait for Heaven. But that isn’t what Jesus said! He promised this incredible, eternal, hope-and-joy-on-the-inside life to everyone, right now and for real.
“If you don’t do what Jesus says, then you don’t actually believe Him. It’s that simple.”
The Narrow Road
This promise isn’t all that we are missing. We also ignore the road that Jesus laid out for us so that we could receive this real life. We read the words,"the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent" , but we interpret them in a way that even someone from Jesus’ time would find bizarre. For us, to ‘believe’ means to agree with, in theory at least, a set of facts. This is our minimum standard for what a Christian is required to do. But that isn’t what Jesus said! It really isn’t. In fact, if that really is the definition of ‘believe’, then the New Testament makes no sense at all.
Jesus said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46 NIV). To put it another way, “You don’t do what I say, so I’m obviously not your Lord.” In our society, we imagine that it is somehow possible to have a belief that is not expressed in our actions. We can believe in Jesus without actually putting into practice what he taught. But the Bible leaves no space for this kind of ‘belief’ whatsoever. Jesus’ brother James had this to say:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? …“You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” (James 2:14,19 NIV).
Was James saying that we have to work to earn our salvation? Of course not! The Bible makes it abundantly clear that it is our faith in Jesus, and not our actions, that save us. But it is equally clear that without actions, there is no faith. If you don’t do what Jesus says, then you don’t actually believe Him. It’s that simple.
“Our actions… are the infallible outward expression of an otherwise inward reality.”
Think about it. If someone gives you advice, and you believe they hold all the answers, will you take that advice? If you believe someone knows the way, will you follow them? If you want to be like them, will you copy them? What does it mean if not? I’m not talking about the mistakes we make by accident, at the beginning of a sharp learning curve. I’m talking about the way we live our lives over a long stretch of time. If our actions don’t line up with the words of Jesus, then on what basis can we claim that we believe Him.
Think of the parable of the sheep and the goats. Why did Jesus teach that mankind would be separated into the eternally blessed and the eternally cursed according to their actions? Because our actions, the ‘fruit’ on the ‘tree’ of our lives, are the infallible outward expression of an otherwise inward reality. There is no such thing as a purely head-knowledge, mental-agreement, irrelevant-to-real-life faith in Jesus. If we believe Jesus, we will do what He says.
So, what does life look like for someone who has staked everything on their confidence that Jesus is telling the truth? It is so easy at this point to come up with our own standard. To be honest, the Church has been defining and redefining this standard for centuries, and we’re still defining it anew today. But what we think, no matter how many of us are in agreement, is irrelevant. What matters is what Jesus thinks. Jesus’ requirements aren’t difficult to find; you only have to read them. Perhaps in the context of our western, cost-free Christianity they are just difficult to hear.
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39 NIV).
The Middle Road
Jesus spoke about a narrow road leading to life and a wide road leading to destruction. The fallacy of our time is the mysterious, and treacherous, middle road that we have invented for ourselves. A road on which faith comes at no cost, discipleship is optional and we get to set our own standard for Christian life based on what the people around us say, rather than on what Jesus said. It’s also the road on which the promises of God are open to question, the gifts of God are only available to a few, and the Kingdom of God is always just out of reach.
“The worst thing about this mysterious new road is not that it doesn’t lead anywhere. The worst thing is that it simply does not exist.”
We are offered the narrow road: to surrender everything in radical obedience to Jesus and find the incredible life that He promises to everyone who obeys Him. But instead we invent a middle road, a journey that requires only what we are comfortable giving, and leads to only a faint glimpse of the life that Jesus promised. The worst thing about this mysterious new road is not that it doesn’t lead anywhere. The worst thing is that it simply does not exist.
The promise of abundant life is for real, and it isn’t just for a special few. The real Jesus offers it to everyone who is willing to give up everything to follow Him. But we have to understand that anything less just isn’t an option. We can’t afford to be confused. We have to be clear on which road we are taking.