Jesus frequently invited people to follow Him. When He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus said, “Follow me”. Likewise when He called Matthew from his tax-collector’s booth, and Phillip, and the rich young ruler, and various other people. In fact, Jesus used the term “following” in a very general sense to describe His people.
But what on earth does it mean? What does “ to follow” mean?
For the people of His time it was probably very clear. Jesus was inviting them to literally follow Him – to walk around behind Him. Images of following, generally show someone walking behind the leader.
But we can’t do that! Jesus isn’t here. We cannot literally follow Him around the countryside. So let’s get rid of that. But the purpose of that was that they would get to know Him and see what He was like and how He operated. And that does apply to us.
Our first meaning of “follow” is to “give close attention to.” We might say we follow the cricket or we are following the USA presidential election. Those first followers of Jesus, by literally following Him, were watching, studying, learning.
That applies just as much to us. Jesus says, “Know me well.”
A second aspect of the meaning of “follow” is to imitate. I always think of the game Simon Says. One person does something; everyone else tries to follow that lead and do the same thing. We use expressions like “follow my example”. The New Testament word translated “follow” also means “imitate”.
You will remember that, at the Last Supper, after Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, He said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15). In other words, imitate me. There are many other examples. Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). In Philippians 2, Paul said, “In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (2:5).
So, “follow” means “Do what I do”.
The third aspect is “Do what I say.” A follower explicitly says to someone else, “You are my leader. What you say, I will do.” And so we use expressions like “Follow my instructions”.
Those three things all require a fourth (which actually comes first.) Following means commitment. Studying, imitating and obeying a person won’t happen without commitment to that person. Who will that person be? There can be only one. What if you say you are following two people and then they go in different directions? You are going to have to choose one. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
So, one person might say, “I am a follower of Karl Marx.” That would generally mean, “I am a committed Communist. I have read the works of Karl Marx. I am dedicated to his teaching and to living out what he taught. And I am committed to promoting Communism and recruiting more Communists.”
If someone claimed to be a follower of Bob Marley, we would expect him/her to have dreadlocks, to love reggae music, to be a Rastafarian and to smoke marijuana – because that is what true followers do.
Followers of the prophet Mohammed are committed, studying, imitating and obeying.
In 1978 Michael H. Hart published a book called “The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential Persons In History”. It was somewhat controversial amongst Christians because Jesus was ranked number 3 behind Mohammed and Sir Isaac Newton. Hart said that Jesus’ teachings were “surely among the most remarkable and original ethical ideas ever presented”. But he continued, “If they were widely followed, I would have no hesitation in placing Jesus first in this book”. Jesus isn’t the most influential (according to Michael Hart) because people don’t actually follow Him – aren’t knowing Him, imitating and obeying.
So “follow” can mean:
- Commit = love me (above all others)
- Study = know me well
- Imitate = do what I do
- Obey = do what I say
So, when Jesus says “Follow Me” does He mean all of those things? Is He looking for people who will put Him first and be utterly committed to Him? Is He looking for people who will give close attention to Him? Is He looking for people who will imitate Him? Is He seeking people who will obey Him?
Let’s look at Matthew 8:18-22.
In v.18 Jesus gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Interesting. Do we think of Jesus giving orders or do we think He is too meek and mild for that? Some people had already responded to the invitation to be followers. They were willing to take orders from this man. They were followers. And Jesus has the authority to give orders. Anyone considering being a follower of Jesus must be OK with taking orders from Him. Do what I say.
Then a teacher of the law said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” This man was clearly educated. He had studied the law – the Old Testament scriptures. Now he wanted to take that a step further and he understood, to some extent, what that meant. “I will follow you wherever you go.” He knew that Jesus would be the leader; he would simply obey. Jesus would decide where they would go; he would accept that, no questions asked. Wherever Jesus chose, he would go there.
Good on him! That was true dedicated followership. Or was it? Jesus simply said, “Animals have homes and beds. I don’t.” He didn’t tell the teacher that he must forsake his home and bed. Jesus simply said, “I have nowhere to lay my head.” The implication was: neither will you. Followers imitate their leader. We are not told how the man responded. Probably that cost was too high. He thought he was ready to follow Jesus but if following means imitating, hmm, maybe not.
Another man also offered to follow Jesus but first wanted to bury his father. That sounds reasonable, except that possibly his father wasn’t even dead yet. Possibly he was saying that he had prior commitments but one day, when he had taken care of family matters, he would be keen to follow Jesus.
Jesus again points out that following requires more than that. Jesus wants to be first, not second. Jesus looks for commitment – ultimate commitment.
Is it a bit off, Jesus demanding to be first? No, Jesus has every right to expect to be first in our lives. He is God. We have to choose whether God will be first in our lives or not.
These men had a choice to make. We don’t know the outcome. What choice would you have made? But we likewise have to decide whether Jesus is the person we want to put first, study, imitate and obey. Are you willing to say, “Jesus, everything I know about you leads me to say, ‘I will put you first. I will seek to live like you lived and I will do whatever you say’”.
Of course, none of us will do that perfectly. Look at the original twelve followers. They were hopeless at it but they learnt and grew, and in the end, they actually did it pretty well. We will have our failures too but are we willing to follow Jesus?
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Following is not optional. Whoever wants to be a disciple of Jesus must follow.
Following is costly! It involves giving up a lot. Putting Jesus first means I can no longer be first. Studying Him requires time and discipline and a teachable spirit. Imitating means I must die to my own preferences and my own ways of doing things to adopt Jesus’ ways. Obeying means sacrificing my ability to make my own decisions. I now take my orders from Jesus. That is costly.
But… Imagine I am at a wedding in the centre of Auckland and the reception is at a venue somewhere out in the country. I do not know the territory well so first I have to negotiate the Auckland traffic and the motorways in the city and then I get out of the city and I have little idea where to go. And it is getting dark. I am stressed, but someone at the wedding says, “I know where it is. Follow me.”
Immediate relief! I don’t have to stress about traffic and directions and being in the right lane at the right time. I don’t have to worry about getting lost and ending up miles away from where I am meant to be. Having someone to follow gives me peace and security. I am in safe hands. Actually, someone else is now responsible, not me. Instead of being stressed by the many things I thought I was going to have to cope with, I now have to do only one thing: follow.
That is what it is like with Jesus. All I have to do is follow. The rest is up to Him and I don’t have to worry about it. Following Him, I am secure. I am in safe hands.
John 8:12 [Jesus said,] I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
Imagine having a guide like Jesus. I can relax. Peace. Security. And at the destination are all the promises of God. Listen to the full passage we started a minute ago.
Matthew 16;24-27 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.