This year I’ve been trying to focus my articles and sermons on helping people to trust and follow Jesus. In fact, when we’re finished going through Ephesians, we’re going to focus on Jesus’ call, “Follow me!” But what does it mean to follow Jesus?
If you have a Twitter account, you likely follow other people to know what they have to say about current events or other topics. It’s a great way for people to rant and get folks riled up with 280 characters or less. But following Jesus means more than keeping track of what he has to say.
Some people follow their favorite sports teams. They watch the games, cheer when the team wins, and jeer when they lose. Some people identify themselves with the team, wearing their hats and shirts, but they’re not really part of the team and have nothing to do with the team’s success. But following Jesus is more than being identified as a fan.
Some people follow specific diet or exercise plans to lose or maintain weight or to keep their blood sugar or blood pressure under control. They all have their proponents and opponents, often folks with their own plans, which you can find in their books or special-access websites. But following Jesus isn’t like following a diet or self-help guru who gives advice about how to make your life better.
Perhaps the most common reason people follow anyone or anything is for the benefits, especially to feel good. Many folks become followers simply for the benefits of following.
To be honest, that’s why many people “follow Jesus,” for the benefits. Many “follow Jesus” because they want to feel better about themselves, having their sins forgiven. Many “follow Jesus” to feel better about the future, having the hope of eternity in heaven. Many “follow Jesus” so they can experience the benefits of fellowship within the church.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not bad to experience benefits or to feel good because of them. But what happens when the benefits aren’t what you expected? What happens when following doesn’t make you feel as good as it once did? What happens when you find something that makes you feel better than what you’re currently following? Sports teams know how fickle fans can be, and those fitness and diet gurus are always working on the next plan for those who get tired of following the current plan.
Yes, there are amazing benefits to following Jesus, including forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven, but that’s not what Jesus expects when he says, “Follow me!” Jesus is not expecting us to follow him because he has offered the best benefits. Jesus expects us to follow him because he alone is worthy to follow. Jesus expects us to follow him because he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In fact, Jesus expects us to follow him despite the likely reality that we might not experience a lot of benefits in this lifetime.
Remember the apostle Paul. He wrote in 2 Corinthians about the “benefits” of his life as a Christian missionary: beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, betrayal, sleeplessness, danger from the elements, and danger from evil men. This was the man about whom God said in Acts 9:16, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
To be clear, this ought to be the expectation for all who follow Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It is through the cross of Christ that we have any benefits of following Jesus, and we praise God for them:
Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:2-5)
But the following itself means denying self and carrying a cross. Are you a follower?