With this month’s post, I want to address a very basic, yet critical question for all Christians to ask–why should we follow Jesus?? What exactly does it involve, and how might it affect your life? Doing ministry in a largely secular setting like Boulder, Colorado these last three years has constantly reminded me that as a Christian, I can never afford to assume that someone else appreciates or understands the value in identifying with Jesus and giving their lives over to His teachings. Now admittedly, the majority of non-Christians I’ve interacted with do express at least some admiration for the person of Jesus, and some of His ethical teachings. But that is still a far step removed from viewing Him as God, and as such someone worthy of worship and our entire life’s purpose. So the purpose of this month’s entry will be to examine both the comforts and the challenges associated with following Jesus. I realize that some people come across my blog and they are not Christians, and might not even really know anything about Jesus or what His followers do. I hope that I can explain a little better about what it means to follow Jesus, and how that can bless you, and what that might cost you. Now obviously, spoiler alert here—I’m going to be advocating for people to consider following Jesus, and living in a personal relationship with Him. But I want them to understand why.
Pete Carroll is the super bowl winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks. But before that, he made his name in the college ranks. From 2001 to 2009 he was one of the top coaches in college football, presiding over a USC Trojans team that won two national titles, and 97 games over a nine-year span. One big factor in Carroll’s success is that he was known as a tireless recruiter, always ready to sell the program and the opportunities it offered to new potential players. In a 2007 L.A. magazine profile, Carroll talked about his enthusiastic vision for what the USC football program could offer to a recruit. “I know what I’m offering. They can’t even conceive. They don’t—they can’t possibly understand how special—” And he stops there. Pete Carroll is at a loss for words to explain just how significant, important, special he thinks an opportunity to play football at USC is for a young man. Now that’s just a life decision regarding sports—what school to play football at, what color uniform to wear, what conference you will be competing in, etc. Imagine though a decision involving your spiritual life, one that could affect your entire worldview, how you treat others, and even perhaps gives you some answers to some of the biggest questions out there—what is the purpose of my life, and what might happen to me after I die?? I get pretty excited when I’m sharing with people about Jesus, and I sometimes feel like I don’t have the ability to fully describe how amazing it can be to have Him at the center of your life. It’s interesting, also to reflect that when Jesus called His initial group of helpers, known as the disciples, He didn’t give some big speech detailing everything they were going to do, and sort of outlining all that they were signing up for. Instead, He just said “Follow Me.” And I remember I had a professor in seminary who once remarked that these two words were simultaneously the most comforting and the most challenging words that Jesus could speak. Comforting and challenging? Seems like a paradox, doesn’t it? Well that’s what we are going to investigate for the rest of the evening.
So first, let’s talk about what exactly it means to follow Jesus. That word, “follow” is a fairly vague, all-purpose term in our language today, with a wide variety of possible uses. You can follow a sports team—keeping up with their wins and losses, the players’ stats, going to see the occasional game. You can follow a celebrity on Twitter, taking note of what they post about, learning about their opinions on different events, seeing their pictures. Music lovers who have a little free time on their hands might follow a particular favorite band around, going to the concerts, and interacting with other fans along the way. In the classroom, you can follow the argument or line of reasoning of a professor as they explain a particular concept. But all of these various types of following are quite distinct from what we mean when we talk about a follower of Jesus. Because in every situation I’ve just described, to follow means to be a passive spectator, or listener. But to follow Jesus means not only to learn and absorb His teachings, but to actively participate in His work in the world today, walking in direct imitation of His life and attitude. Now one dominant theme that we see demonstrated throughout the life of Christ, and that should be equally prominent in the lives of His followers, is being a servant. Listen to Christ’s words in Matthew 20:28—“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Later, Paul writes about the humble servant attitude demonstrated by Christ in Philippians 2:7—“[He] made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Jesus teaches in many different ways about serving—one of the most notable comes in the form of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. This is the story of a man who sacrificed of his own time and money to help an injured traveler along the way, while other, supposedly more pious individuals simply passed him by. Another memorable example of Jesus’ servant heart in action comes from John 13, where even in the time leading up to His betrayal and arrest, Christ remains focused on the needs of others, to the point of washing the feet of His disciples.
What else do Christ followers do? They teach, and instruct others in the truths of God. Scripture is full of “blocks” of teaching, where Christ sits down, and in great detail explains, whether to crowds or to His inner circle of disciples, what it is that God expects of them. Examples include Jesus teaching the multitudes about ethical standards for living in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, or in John 14-17, where Christ gives a detailed farewell address to strengthen and encourage the disciples before His own impending death. Throughout the Gospels we also see how Christ employs novel and thought-provoking illustrations, called parables, to help His listeners grasp what could otherwise be very abstract and challenging spiritual concepts. One such example comes in Matthew 13, which is actually a whole chapter full of nothing but parables. And when Christ teaches, He reaches a representative cross-section of the many different people in His society. He is not concerned only with the elites, or even just with the Jewish people. Jesus reaches out to everyone, from the highest to the lowest, and His teaching is for all to receive. He becomes somewhat notorious amongst the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, for spending time with societal outcasts such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and many Gentiles, or non-Jews. In response to their critiques, Christ says in Mark 2:17—“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” In John 4, Jesus takes a bold step by initiating a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. The Samaritans and the Jews were historic enemies, and in Biblical times it was highly unusual for unrelated, or unmarried men and women to converse together in public. But in doing so, Jesus boldly challenges the social conventions of His day, which did so much to separate people based on gender, ethnicity, and profession, thus reminding us that everyone is a child of God, worthy of dignity and respect.
When we look at His interactions with people as a whole, we could summarize much of Jesus’ work, and teaching by saying that He comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable. I’m reminded of a description taken from the lyrics of an old Michael W. Smith song, “Secret Ambition” which talks about Jesus: “questioning those in powerful positions/running to those who called His name.” Again and again in the Gospels, we find Jesus coming to the aid of the powerless, and the persecuted. In John 8:7, Jesus rescues a woman caught in adultery, as an angry crowd is preparing to stone her, dispersing them with these powerful words in “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone first.” To all of His followers who might face affliction and challenges in the world, Jesus gives great hope, and comfort, as expressed in John 16:33—“In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” As we’ve already mentioned, Jesus sometimes has clashes with the religious authorities of His day, especially the Pharisees, who considered themselves to be the most observant of all Jews, and experts in all areas of religious law. And yet, from Jesus’ perspective, they often appeared more concerned with observing the letter, rather than the spirit, or actual intent of the law. For example, when the Pharisees chastise Him for the company He keeps with societal outcasts such as tax collectors, Jesus responds in Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’, which is itself a quote from the Old Testament prophets, specifically from Hosea 6:6. Jesus is frustrated with these religious leaders because He sees them missing the point of the law, in order to seek to enforce its exact detail. In another famous example of challenging the powerful, Jesus enters the Temple and in a holy fury, drives out all of the money-changers and business people who were using the outer area of the Temple to transact their trade. In Mark 11:17, He angrily accuses them: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a den of thieves.” Just as an interesting side note—a lot of people assume that Jesus drove out these figures because they were cheating worshippers and overcharging them for exchanging money, or buying animals for sacrifices. But another interpretation I’ve heard of this story is that Jesus drives them out because their activities are taking place in what was known as the Court of the Gentiles, an area outside the main temple, where Gentiles were permitted to come and worship. Jesus did not want their access to worship to be blocked by this makeshift marketplace that had arisen in the Temple complex.
The fact too that Jesus refers to the Temple as a house of prayer for all nations” is a further indication of another dominant trait of His life and work—and something subsequently that His followers should strive to imitate: a passion for evangelism. Throughout the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus has a message for all peoples, and not just the Jews. And He calls on His followers to continue to spread His message to all people, once His earthly ministry is concluded. The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:18-20, is well-known as Jesus’ final command. It offers a pretty clear mandate to His followers to go and spread the Word: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So then people who identify as followers are Jesus are to never keep their faith a secret, or private matter, but rather they are to always look for opportunities where they can share it with others. Jesus accordingly advises in Matthew 10:32-33 that sharing a verbal witness is not just the responsibility of pastors or ministry leaders, but is something that all believers are called, and expected to do. “Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”
Followers of Jesus are also people of prayer. In all circumstances, regardless of what is happening in their lives, they communicate with God through prayer, directly imitating the life of Christ, whom, according to the Scriptures, spent frequent time with God in prayer, and often got up early in the mornings, or retreated away from the crowds to a place of solitude in order to pray. In Luke 11:2-4, we find the model prayer given by Jesus, sometimes known as the Lord’s Prayer. But this is not to be followed slavishly or mechanically. In fact, in Matthew 6:7, Jesus cations “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Prayer, for the Christ follower then, should be personal and heartfelt, and never a matter of lip service or mechanical repetition. The attitudes displayed by Christians to those around them are very important too. Following the example of Jesus, who forgave even the very men who put Him to death as hung in agony on the cross, Christ’s followers are to be forgiving people as well. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Followers of Jesus are also to be men and women who display unfailing personal integrity. In John 8:44, the devil, Satan, is referred to be Jesus as “the father of lies”, and so in sharp contrast, followers of Jesus should be marked by their truthfulness. With this in mind, Jesus instructs us in Matthew 5:37 to not make oaths or swear by anything, but rather “let your yes be yes, and your no, no”. Lastly, but certainly not least, Christians are to be known as people of faith. We are told in Hebrews 11:6 that without faith it is impossible to please God, and a constant request by Jesus in His interactions with the disciples, and others is that they learn to demonstrate faith, trusting in God even when circumstances are difficult, and it is hard to discern a Divine plan. According to Jesus, exercising even just a little faith can make a huge difference. Matthew 17:20—“If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
I could go on talking about what all it entails to follow Jesus, but now I want to shift gears into discussing the practical question of why?? Is it worth my time, my life, or anyone’s time, or life, to devote over to following the teachings of Jesus Christ? May I suggest at this moment what is known in the business world as a cost-benefit analysis? Let’s measure out some of the potential positives, and negatives to following Christ, and see where that leads us, see where we end up. Now I know some of you are already thinking, wait a minute Blake, you’re talking about a purely spiritual decision here—how can you possibly be making an allusion to business?? But a decision to follow Jesus gets us into the territory of what we call Lordship. This is the idea that for a Jesus follower—not only spiritual things, but every aspect of their life: relationships, finances, your career, even hobbies and how one spends their free time—these things should in some way all reflect one’s identity as a Christ follower. Recognizing the concept of Lordship means there’s no area of our lives that we should keep God out of, and that there isn’t a sharp divide between “sacred” and “secular” aspects of life—everything we do falls under God’s domain, and jurisdiction. In Luke 14:27-28 Jesus tells us—“Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it” So let’s look now at both some of the benefits, and some of the challenges and costs to following Jesus.
In terms of the benefits that following Jesus can bring to your life, there are so many things I could talk about. But I’ll touch on just a few. First, following Jesus gives you a personal relationship with Him. Now some of you may be wondering exactly what this means. It means that following Jesus is not just an abstract process whereby you learn His teachings and try to honor and emulate them, the way you would a political philosophy. For the Christian, Jesus is not some distant exemplar from the ancient past, He is a living and ever-present source of inspiration, a guide to every facet of life, and most importantly, a Savior. We’ll talk more about that in a minute. But in John 10:4, a passage where Jesus is called the “Good Shepherd” the personal relationship Christ has to His followers is well-illustrated. “When He brings out His own sheep, He goes before them; and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.” This is why too, you might sometimes hear a Christian say,“it’s about a relationship, not a religion.” Jesus is a personal, every day presence in the life of the believer, a dear friend, and not someone you only encounter in church, or through certain rituals. In John 15:15, Jesus tells His disciples, “no longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” Note again the emphasis on a close, and personal relationship between Christ and His followers. Following Jesus and knowing Him personally also gives you purpose for your life. I think that’s something that everyone is looking for, but so often it eludes us. Now throughout the Old Testament, a big part of what gave purpose and order to the lives of the Jews was following the Law. This was an exhaustive code that basically governed how to act and behave in every conceivable facet of human life. But in Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus takes the 613 commandments of the law, and perfectly reduces them to two main commands. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We look at the world around us today, and read news of monster hurricanes, raging forest fires, North Korean nuclear threats, credit agency security breaches…and now most recently a horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. So amidst all of this turmoil and unrest, isn’t it nice to know that another major benefit of following Jesus is the peace that Christ brings to your life. The gift of peace is a promise that Christ offers to His faithful. Listen to Jesus’ words in John 14:27—“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” A wonderful Biblical example of Christ’s peace-giving power in action comes in Mark 4, when Jesus, traveling in a small boat with his disciples, calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee that threatens to capsize them. And when I think of Christian peace, I’m reminded too of a great story that my mother shared with me one time. A farmhand once arrived in a prairie town, and soon found work on a large family farm. He got along well with the owner, and seemed to be a dependable, reliable helper. Now one of the things the farmhand did every night, before going to sleep, was to make sure that the barn was shut up securely, all the animals were fed, and to double-check that all of his additional tasks for that day were completed. Well late one evening, a violent storm blew in–it sounded like it might be a tornado. So the farm owner awakened, and rushed out to check on things. Immediately, he went charging into the little building adjourning the barn where his farm hand was quartered, and he found the man asleep. Absolutely livid, the farmer yelled at him to wake up!! But the farmhand upon awaking was very calm, and simply told his employer that everything was safe and secure as it should be. The farm owner, still alarmed, rushed out to check on the barn and animals and everything else, and when he returned, he told his farmhand he was pleased, and apologized for his earlier outburst. The farmhand replied that he knew he could rest secure, even though the storm raged, because he had already completed his duties as instructed.
The point of this little story is that Christian peace comes to us not when sit back and passively wait for it, but when we actively trust Jesus, and do those things He commands us to do. At the same time we must leave whatever is out of our control in His hands, and trust that He will bring about the right outcome in any situation. Following Jesus can bring you peace, and there’s all sorts of other ways it can positively impact your character and attitudes. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul lists out nine character qualities, called the Fruit of the Spirit, and these are qualities that all Christ followers should demonstrate. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Now let me just ask you—whether you’re Christian or not, whether you even consider yourself a spiritual person or not, don’t these sound like qualities you’d like to have in your life? One final benefit of following Jesus is the hope He gives us for the future, and indeed for eternity. Hebrews 13:8 assures us of the unchanging nature of Christ, as someone we can always put our faith and trust in: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Now as we just talked about a minute ago, following Jesus can bring you peace, and this peace is really tied into the idea that Christ, as our Savior, has overcome all of the sin, and the evil in the world…even death itself. Two of the most hopeful and comforting verses in all of Scripture can be found in John 11:25-26. There Jesus promises us: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” To be able to possess that lasting, powerful hope that even extends beyond the reach of the grave is perhaps for me the greatest benefit, the greatest blessing in following Jesus as my Savior.
But as I mentioned at the outset of this message, I don’t want to just paint a rosy picture here. Everyone needs to know that following Jesus, as wonderful a journey as it can be, will come with a cost. And talking about this cost is something that Jesus never shrank back from doing. He offered full disclosure as it were regarding the potential difficulties and challenges to anyone who was considering becoming one of His followers. He once compared the path of following Him to taking a difficult road. Listen to Jesus’ caution in Matthew 7:13-14—“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” And why exactly can the way of following Jesus be so difficult? Well Jesus calls us to attitudes and lifestyles which are often at odds with what is popular or celebrated in the world around us. And being different can at the very least provoke misunderstanding and disdain from others…sometimes it can prompt an even stronger reaction, like hatred. Jesus warns us of this in John 15:18-19—“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” But the opposition that a Christian faces is not merely human in nature. There is a chilling verse in 1 Peter 5:8 that warns us of the powerful spiritual opposition offered by Satan. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” And you can be sure that the more you try to live for Jesus, the more Satan will seek to find ways he can undermine and attack you. I know it’s not popular to say so, but following Jesus can and will lead you into suffering. When Paul first converts, Jesus says in Acts 9:16—“I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” And you can go read in 2 Corinthians 11, in great detail about all of the calamities which Paul did endure for the sake of his allegiance to Christ.
But in whatever suffering we face as believers, we can be comforted by the fact that Jesus has suffered first, both as an example for us, and ultimately on our behalf. 1 Peter 2:21 touches on this theme, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.” As former director of Christian Challenge here at CU-Boulder, Bobby Pruett, liked to say, “Jesus was raised up higher than any man could go, but He also had to suffer and be brought lower than any other man could have endured.” Now you may be thinking…wow Blake, this Jesus thing was sounding ok, but all of this talk of suffering, and Satan, and walking narrow roads…I’m not so sure any more. AI can certainly understand some of those thoughts. But just consider the fact that in other fields of human endeavor, people will gladly make sacrifices, even leading to death. In the mid 1960’s as the war in Vietnam raged, Army ranger Charlie Beckwith was called upon to establish an elite surveillance and reconnaissance unit that would operate in dangerous conditions well behind enemy lines. The assignment was called “Project Delta” and Beckwith’s recruiting pitch for it was simple. “Wanted: Volunteers for Project Delta. Will guarantee you a medal. A body bag. Or both.” Amazingly, he still got men to sign up for it! In 1836, Colonel William B. Travis, was in charge of the small garrison of Texans at the Alamo, and he knew full well that the military situation was increasingly bleak. So he addressed his troops. “We must die. Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death.” Travis saw three possibilities: surrender and summary execution, trying to fight out only to be “butchered” by Mexican lancers or “remain in this fort…resist every assault, and to sell our lives as dearly as possible.” Then Travis took out his sword and marked a line in the dirt. “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” Amazingly, so the story goes, every man but one crossed over the line to join Travis. Now in both of these historical instances, these soldiers were not compelled these to take on these missions. They could have declined, citing the high risk of death. But they willingly volunteered out of a sake of duty and love for country, and perhaps even a desire to obtain glory. So is it so strange that we might willingly choose to follow Christ, despite the challenges that might entail?? Because after all, the spiritual rewards for obedience to Jesus are much more lasting than any kind of earthly recompense one could imagine.
Perhaps the ultimate cost to following Jesus perhaps is not necessarily dramatic, visible suffering though. It’s just the daily, private choices we must make as Christ followers to continually deny our own selfish impulses, and always seek to put others first, to serve and be open-handed. This is what Jesus embodied throughout His whole life and ministry, as He says in Matthew 20:28—“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” So is it worth it to follow Jesus?? This is a question that ultimately you will have to answer for yourself. Certainly though I, and many others throughout history have felt that it is. But you must be prepared to go “all-in” as they say. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:24 that we have to make a decision about who we will commit to, and who we will serve with our lives. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches.” So the question is, if you don’t turn to Jesus, and if you don’t follow Him, who or what will you turn to and follow? Because we all are going to be looking to something to guide us in this world, to center our hopes and dreams around. Make sure that whatever it is for you, it’s something that is big enough and worthy enough to occupy your attention and your focus. Will you choose to live for something bigger than yourself?? To live for others, and for God? I urge you to count the cost in following Jesus, but also to count the potential cost for not doing so…for a wasted life that doesn’t leave you fulfilled in the end, and doesn’t utilize all of your God-given potential. Also please remember that regardless of your choices in the past, and even whatever choice you are making today, it’s never too late to turn back to Jesus—He will receive you, and in following Him you might just find everything else that you’ve looking for all along. Amen!