Sometimes children just get it, while adults seem to miss the point. When kids play games, they just play. Ever play “Follow the Leader”? It’s very simple: you just do what the leader does. Don’t overthink it!
So when we see Jesus call his first disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, John – saying to them, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19), why do we over-complicate things? The Bible tells us that these new disciples dropped what they were doing, left everything and everyone behind, and followed Jesus for about three years. As they followed him, the disciples learned from Jesus’ teaching and example; they heard what Jesus said, saw what Jesus did, and were transformed. While the life was certainly not easy, the model was very simple: follow Jesus.
Yet many Christians throughout history and today have made following Jesus far more complicated than it ought to be. Again, following Jesus isn’t always easy, considering his words like we find in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (NIV 1984), but it is simple.
This is the model Paul describes in his letter to the Christians in Philippi:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV 1984)
Following Jesus means following the example of his attitude. It’s an attitude that recognizes our proper place in regard to God. It’s an attitude that leads us to obey and serve God and his plan. It’s an attitude that leads us to follow the example of Jesus, even to the point of death. That is, while we might find ourselves experiencing persecution to the point of physical death, each of us must follow Christ to the point of our own spiritual death. That means dying to our own sinful desires, to sin itself, as Paul described it in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
That seems pretty clear, but it seems that the church doesn’t necessarily get it. Does Jesus really expect us to die? Yes. Jesus absolutely expects his followers to follow his example by dying with him, being buried with him, and being raised with him as an expression of our faith and in response to God’s plan. That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 16, and it’s what Paul explains in Romans 6:1-8.
So, what does it mean for us to die with Christ? It means being a servant, giving up your own rights, needs, wants, preferences – everything – for the sake of others, for the sake of God’s plan to save people from their sins. That’s not easy, but it’s necessary.
The simple truth remains: Jesus died so that we might live. He gave us, the Church, the responsibility to follow his example. If we’re going to fulfill God’s purpose for the Church, we must follow Jesus’ example. That begins with each of us changing our own attitude to be more like Christ’s, and it continues with each of us taking up our own cross and dying with Christ so that others might live. As we share the Gospel message, we’re going to call people of the world to die to themselves in faith so that they might find life in Christ; if we aren’t willing to follow Christ’s example, how can we expect them to follow?
Have you truly died to your own self for the sake of others? Are you holding on to your own rights and needs for your own satisfaction? Are you even willing to give up what you prefer so that others might find in Christ? It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. Let’s work at it together.