One of the more iconic things Jesus is recorded to have said is, “Come follow me!” We read those words or similar words over and over in the Gospels. According to Wikianswers, Jesus talks about people following him at least 23 times in the Gospels. He is noted to have asked specific people point blank to follow him about a dozen times by my count.
Following Jesus is so much of a primary theme in the Gospels that even today, 2000 years later, we talk about people “following Jesus”. People identify themselves as “followers of Jesus”. The idea of following Jesus, therefore, is central to Christianity and what it means to be a “Christian”. The idea is so ubiquitous in our western society that we might even take that phrase for granted, forgetting the significance of it.
The unique significance of the idea of following Jesus is, perhaps, best noted by looking at people in the non-Christian world. As I was writing this and thinking of the examples of the areas where we see the idea in operation, starting with the Gospels and extending to the way Christians refer to themselves today, it dawned on me that non-Christians don’t seem to use the same phrase in referring to Christians.
What does it mean to a non-Christian to “follow Jesus”? We think think immediately of the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?” that was popularized in the 1990’s. Following Jesus might mean emulating him and following his example. It certainly can mean that and does mean that, but Christians use it in a very different way. Jesus certainly meant it in a different way when he says, “Come, follow me” to people he encountered.
When Jesus spoke those words, he meant literally for people to follow him!
When he encountered the men who would become his disciples and said, “Come follow me”, they literally stopped what they were doing, left their homes, their families and their careers and began to follow Jesus. They followed him wherever he went. They ate with him, lived with him and accompanied him wherever he went. They became his companions, and more than that – they became his disciples.
We don’t see the apostles emulating Jesus so much, though they did do that at times; we see them literally following Jesus wherever he went.
The story of the rich young ruler is interesting in this regard. He approached Jesus to ask when he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus gave him a seemingly strange answer when he said, go and give all your possessions to the poor and follow me. It wasn’t the answer the young man thought he would get. He was looking for a set of rules to live by, an important ritual or act of worship or devotion he could perform, Instead, Jesus told him to get rid of his stuff and to follow him – like the disciples did.
We can’t literally follow Jesus today like the disciples followed him when he walked the earth in the flesh, but we still speak of “following Jesus” in Christian circles. If you think about it, that must be a very strange notion indeed to a nonbeliever. Believers, of course, believe that Jesus lives, that he was God in the flesh, died on the cross, rose again and ascended into heaven and now exists invisibly in a way that is accessible to all who believe.
Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit who would come after him and comfort, help, counsel and guide believers. Christians believe that God the Father, Jesus (God the Son) and the Holy Spirit are in essence One, and that God (who is manifested in all three forms) lives with us, and lives among us and lives in the heart of a believer. We believe that we “follow Jesus” by doing what he said and by seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit to direct us in the way we should live and what we should do, even in our choice of careers, who we should marry and all of the mundane decisions we make in our lives.
Following Jesus, then, is much more than following (observing, complying with) the ten commandments or any set of rules. Following Jesus isn’t something that we do so much as it is identifying with and relating to Jesus in our daily lives. But is more than that! Following Jesus is being orientated to Jesus in everything that we do. It is seeking to live in constant communion and relationship with Jesus. It is seeking to know Jesus intimately as we know ourselves and other people.
It is easy even for Christians, who consider themselves followers of Jesus, to forget these things and to gravitate toward living by a set of rules, rather than living in intimate relationship with God. We take what it means to “follow Jesus” too nonchalantly, and many of us are, likely, not really “following Jesus” most of the time. Maybe some of us not at all. We are too comfortable and familiar with the term that we don’t take it seriously. We don’t take it literally, as it Jesus meant it to be taken.
Listen to these words spoken by a Muslim woman from Iran who was seeking spiritual truth. Jesus came to her in a dream. She didn’t have the benefit (or disadvantage) of being familiar with Jesus, or the Bible or “Christienese”. She describes Jesus coming to her in a dream and saying to her, “Come follow me”; and her response was, “How do you follow a person and not his instructions?”:
In Islam, God does not interact with people. He is so holy and so above us, that a person has no relationship with Allah. All we can do is keep the commandments, say our prayers and seek to accumulate more good points than bad points on the scale of behavior in order to earn a spot in paradise. A Muslim would not dare to consider that Allah might stoop to listen, let alone communicate with him.
Thus, the concept of following Jesus, that Jesus would even urge us to follow him, came as a foreign notion to this Muslim woman. Thus, her reaction came also as a revelation: what does it mean to follow a person and not his instructions? Follow a person! This is something completely different than the way we tend to think about these things.
Even people who grew up in the church miss this critical distinction. Church people can be the best (or worst) rule followers there are. There is no life in the rules! Paul says if we are saved by the law, we don’t need Jesus.
But, the law doesn’t save us. We can’t be good enough! Jesus, the person who died for our sins on the cross and rose from the grace, conquering death, saves us! Jesus, the one who says, “Come, follow me” is our hope, not a set of rules or philosophy to live by.
Ravi Zaccharias, the famous former Hindu and longtime Christian thinker and speaker, described the conversion of CS Lewis from his book, Pilgrim’s Regress, in a recent address. CS Lewis was an atheist, a materialist who, for a time, believed that world consisted of nothing but matter and energy. He abandoned that view to grasp that there must be more, but he did not, yet at that point, have any sense for what that More consisted of.
He looked for the transcendent truth in experiences he had, seeking the experience again, not understanding the source of those transcendent experiences. He only reluctantly and begrudgingly came to concede that the God of the Bible was the only likely Culprit. And when Lewis encountered the living Christ, his response is paraphrased by Rave Zacharias: “I thought I had come to a place, and I had come to a person!”
Even today, we follow the person of Jesus Christ. We don’t arrive at a place; we embark on a journey of following Jesus when we become a believer and commit ourselves to God. We don’t follow a set of instructions, we follow Jesus.