(From sermon of December 4, 2005)
A teenage girl got lost in her car in a snow storm. She remembered what her dad had once told her: “If you ever get stuck in a snow storm, wait for a snow plow and follow it.”
Pretty soon a snow plow came by, and she started to follow it. She followed the plow for about forty five minutes. Finally the driver of the truck got out and asked her what she was doing. She explained that her dad had told her if she ever got stuck in the snow, to follow a plow.
The driver nodded and said, “Well, I’m done with the Wal-Mart parking lot. You can follow me over to K-Mart if you want.”
It’s human nature to want to follow people. The counter-culture says “don’t follow the crowd, be yourself”, but they all look and talk the same anyway.
Today I want to speak on what it means to follow Jesus Christ. If you’ve been saved by God’s grace, you are not to rest in the thought that your eternal destiny has been taken care of – it has. But as a believer, you are now to live and walk as a follower of Jesus. Jesus told His disciples, just before they started spreading the good news of His death for our sin and His resurrection, to go into the whole world and make disciples. Jesus wants disciples – followers. But what does that mean? How do you follow Jesus?
THE SUPERFICIAL FOLLOWERS
In the gospels, we have many examples of people following Jesus. You’ll remember that He was quite popular. Crowds would follow Him everywhere. We read in John that…
…a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased.
– John 6:2
The crowds followed Jesus around because they were curious about Him, they wanted to see the miracles He performed, they even admired Him. But while they followed Jesus physically, they were not followers in the spiritual sense.
In Matthew we read:
And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there.
– Matthew 19:2
Some people, having physical difficulties such as leprosy, paralysis, blindness or demon possession, having unsuccessfully sought help from others, came to Jesus in desperation, expecting Him to heal them, and He did. They followed Jesus to have their needs met. But this did not mean they were true followers of Jesus Christ. We read nothing of them becoming disciples after their needs were met.
Another group of people followed Jesus to hear what He had to say. Luke says:
So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret.
– Luke 5:1
Jesus spent much time in teaching the people the true meaning of the Law. “You have heard that it was said… love your brother but hate your enemy… but I say to you… etc.” Jesus had insight into the Law that only the Author could have. The people would listen approvingly, and maybe tried to live a more moral life, but they were still not disciples of Jesus. Once they knew how to live, what would they need Jesus for?
All of these ways that people followed Jesus were good, but none meant they were true followers of Jesus. You can see it in their lack of discipleship later.
What about you? Do the ways these people followed Jesus describe the extent to which you follow Jesus? Do you admire Him, seek His help to meet your needs, approve of what He says, but go no further? How far does your relationship with Jesus go?
Discipleship is more than just about getting a spiritual education. A disciple is a learner and a follower, but more that, a disciple spends much time with his master for the purpose of becoming like his master. This is the way the 12 disciples lived. Wherever Jesus was, they were. It is almost as if they did not have a life of their own apart from Him. Peter, Andrew, James and John left their fishing boats and immediately followed Jesus and you don’t read anything about them going back to their old occupation until after the resurrection. Maybe they did, but it was not important enough to record.
JESUS’ REQUIREMENTS OF DISCIPLESHIP
Jesus was called “rabbi”, which is sometimes translated “master” (like as in “schoolmaster”). There were many rabbis at the time, each with a following of disciples. The Pharisees and teachers of the law had disciples. John the baptist had disciples 1. One rabbi, Akiva Ben Yosef, had literally thousands. But Jesus was different in that He had some strange requirements for those who would follow Him. In Matthew 16 we see what those requirements are:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, If any one desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
– Matthew 16:24
This is a familiar verse – maybe a bit too familiar. When studying a passage, especially a familiar one, it helps to look at the verse in context. Why did Jesus say this when He did?
Earlier in the chapter (verse 13), Jesus asked His disciples who men thought He was. He was probably referring to those who followed him superficially. Perhaps it was like asking “Why do the crowds follow me?” So they responded:
“John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
– Matthew 16:14
Then He asked them “Who do you think that I am?” (Like asking, “But why do you follow me?”) And Peter responded:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
– Matthew 16:16
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
– Matthew 16:17
Then He told them to keep this quiet and not tell people who He is.
Lets take up the passage beginning at verse 21, for this is where the context of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus gets serious:
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
– Matthew 16:24-25
THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS
In verse 21, we read that at this time Jesus began to show His disciples what must shortly happen to Him. He must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, be killed and raised to life three days later.
“Whoa!”, thinks Peter. “This is the Messiah – God’s Messiah! Didn’t I just tell Him that we know who He is? He can’t suffer and die! He’s supposed to cast down our oppressors and restore the kingdom of Israel! We must protect Him!”
So Peter, thinking he is saying a good and commendable thing, rebukes His Master privately. (Just think – the gall of rebuking God!) He whispers in Jesus’ ear:
“Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”
– Matthew 16:22
The literal meaning is even nicer sounding:
“May God be merciful to You, Lord! This shall not happen to You!”
Peter thinks he is being nice to Jesus, comforting Him. “What are you talking about suffering and death for? You’re God’s anointed! You have His favor! Nobody’s going to do this to you!”
But Jesus’ life was not about Himself. It was about His Father, and doig His will. And in order for God’s will to be done, He would have to suffer and die. In verse 21, Jesus did not just say that He would suffer and die. He said that He “must” suffer and be killed. Yes, this was a necessary fulfillment of prophecy and the main part of God’s plan to save us. But in terms of discipleship, Jesus left us an example.
As followers of Jesus, we must also suffer, to the point of death if necessary. Paul wrote:
Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
– 2 Timothy 3:12
Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.
– 1 Peter 4:1-2
This is not suffering just to suffer, or to impress God in some way, but it’s the incidental result of going against the world because we’re following God’s will. And like Jesus, a significant portion of our suffering could come from those who consider themselves “religious”.
Jesus responded to Peter:
“Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
– Matthew 16:23
Peter, who had just earlier spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, now speaks under the inspiration of Satan. (James 3:10 – “…out of the same mouth come blessings and cursings…”)
When Jesus said, “You are an offense to Me”, he was not speaking of Peter being insulting or disgusting, but literally, “You are a trap to me. You are trying to make me stumble”. Peter is offending Jesus through temptation. “You are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter was seeking to turn Jesus’ eyes from His Father back onto Himself.
But Jesus was resolved to continue denying Himself and follow His Father’s will. You see, Jesus had already died to self long before He died on the cross That was what His forty days of testing in the wilderness was all about.
Many Christians today think Christianity is about blessings – what we can gain for ourselves. We’re like the superficial followers of Jesus. We want Him to meet our needs, and in return we’ll approve of what He said and admire Him.
But when the Holy Spirit tells us to go further, Satan whispers in our ears: “No. That does not apply to you. God be merciful to you.” We need to respond to Satan just like Jesus did: “Get behind me Satan so I don’t have to be distracted by you! You are a stumbling block to me! You want to get my mind off of God and onto the things of men – onto myself!”
WHAT JESUS REQUIRES OF HIS DISCIPLES
In case they didn’t get it from His example, Jesus tells His disciples what the requirements of discipleship are:
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
– Matthew 16:24
When Jesus says “If anyone desires to come after Me,” He is not speaking of those who are mildly curious about following Him. “I’d like to give this discipleship thing a go to see if it’s for me or not.” No, Jesus literally meant, “If anyone is resolved to come after me…”. If you really want to be a disciple, then this is what you must do.
Jesus lists three things: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me”. So many people want to skip the “deny self” and “take up your cross” part and just follow Jesus, just like the crowd that followed Him, but Jesus did not give us a multiple choice. I don’t know of any translation that gives the force of the words in the original (they all say “let him” do these things), but each of these things is an imperative, a requirement for discipleship. It is “Whoever is resolved to come after me, he must deny himself, he must take up his cross, and he must follow me.” In the same way that Jesus said he “must” go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him to be true disciples.
To deny yourself means to no longer live for yourself. You are no longer seeking to reach your own goals, nor using your own methods to reach those goals. The Amplified Bible translates it as “disregard, lose sight of and forget himself and his own interests”.
Self-interest always gets in the way of following Jesus. Either you deny self or deny Christ. If you don’t deny self, you can’t do anything but deny Christ. For example, shortly after this, Jesus told Peter:
“Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”
– Matthew 26:34
It’s that same word: “deny”. Peter had said:
“Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”
– Matthew 26:33
Easy words to say, but much harder to live by. Peter had not yet come to the point in his life where he had denied himself. And because of this, when he was confronted with the choice to deny himself or Christ, self-preservation kicked in and he chose to deny Christ.
Self-denial is no longer seeking God’s blessing but seeking God’s will. Jesus lived not to do His will but the will of His Father. Peter tried to distract Him from that. Satan tries to do the same with us. It’s “my needs”, “my desires” or “my best interests”. What about God’s desires or what is in the best interests of advancing His kingdom?
John the baptist said:
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
– John 3:30
But today’s Christian thinks “He must increase so that I can increase.” No, that is not the way to follow Jesus Christ. Like Paul, we must make the choice to die to self daily.
Oswald Chambers said: “Are we willing to let the wrong that cannot dwell with God die, or to let the life of God die out in us?” (Not Knowing Where, page 193)
Of course, self-denial is inconvenient. You cannot truly follow Christ conveniently. We need to realize that “convenience” is just as much a selfish word as “self-affirmation”, “self-gratification”, or “self-obsession”.
TAKE UP YOUR CROSS
Jesus’ second requirement for discipleship is to take up your cross. This must have sounded really strange to His disciples.
Today, the cross is a symbol of Christianity. We use it to adorn church buildings, we wear it as jewelry. But Jesus did not say to wear the cross. He said to bear the cross.
When the Romans condemned someone to death by crucifixion, they had to carry their instrument of torture to the place of execution, where they would be nailed or tied up on it until dead. Sometimes it took days to die, and all the while they would be in agony, humiliation and loneliness.
Each one of us has a cross to bear 2, but not all of us have taken it up. We must take it up to follow Jesus.
Taking up your cross shows that the denial of self is complete. The cross is a death sentence. Earthly interests fade away. Those who the Romans sentenced to be crucified no longer thought of planning for their retirement or other worldly self-interest. It no longer concerned them.
Taking up your cross is a commitment to going through the suffering that a true disciple must go through (whatever that suffering may be). There will also be humiliation – people will make fun of you. And there will be loneliness. Don’t expect people, even other Christians to look at you with admiration, or to even help you bear it. Jesus’ disciples abandoned Him. But unlike Jesus, God doesn’t turn His face away from us when we bear our cross – He comes closer.
Taking up your cross has a strong sense of finality to it. Once you have denied yourself and taken up your cross, you never put it down until you die on it.
And in taking up your cross, you must lay down everything else. One of our church elders once mentioned the Sesame Street song, “Put Down the Duckie”. Ernie is trying to play the saxophone, but he can’t get a good sound out of it because he also wants to hold on to his rubber duckie. So Mr. Hoots the owl gives him some advice. Part of the song goes:
You didn’t hear a word I said
You gotta get it through your head
Don’t be a stubborn cluck
Ernie, lay aside the duck!
I’ve learned a thing or two
From years of playing in a band
it’s hard to play a saxophone
With something in your hand
To be a fine musician
You’re gonna have to face the facts
Though you’re blessed with flying fingers
When you wanna wail, you’re stuck
What good are flying fingers
If they’re wrapped around a duck?
Change the toy’s position
If you wanna ace the sax!
You gotta put down the duckie
Put down the duckie
Put down the duckie
Yeah, you gotta leave the duck alone
You gotta put down the duckie
Put down the duckie
Put down the duckie
If you wanna play the saxophone!
“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
– Matthew 10:38
What are you holding on to that prevents you from taking up your cross?
Third, Jesus calls those who want to come after Him to follow Him. Again, don’t deceive yourself into thinking you can do this without the first two. Unless you deny yourself and take up your cross, you’ll be no different than the crowd that followed Jesus, but then turned against Him later on.
The Amplified Bible describes following Jesus as cleaving steadily to Him, conforming completely to His example in living and if need be in dying.
Jesus calls you to follow Him, not to follow a method or do specific acts of goodness. Jesus wants you to always look to Him and not to second-guess Him. Your focus is not to be on the works you do but on Jesus.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not just about denying self. It is about putting Jesus in the place where self was enthroned in your life. He is now your Master as well as your Savior.
“Jesus did not say discuss me; He said follow me. We do not make terms with Christ; we surrender to Christ. We do not compromise with Christ; we submit to Christ. Christianity does not mean being interested in Jesus Christ; it means taking the same oath as princes take to the king or queen in a coronation ceremony…. The very word sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum which means a soldier’s oath of loyalty. The Christian is the one who has a sworn loyalty and who keeps loyalty to Christ, the King.” – William Barclay
Obeying the call of Christ, and doing what He tells you to do. Charles Studd did that.
Charles was a famous English cricketer in the 1880’s. He was saved at 18, but lived a backslidden life for 6 years. He said:
“Instead of going and telling others of the love of Christ, I was selfish and kept the knowledge to myself. The result was that gradually my love began to grow cold, and the love of the world began to come in. I spent six years in that unhappy backslidden state.”
But then the Lord began working in his life. He began sharing the gospel with others. Then He went to China to serve as a missionary there with Hudson Taylor. While in China, when his inheritance came to him, he gave it all away (at least
- The apostles Andrew and possibly John were disciples of John at first. ↩
- This cross is not the general difficulties of life, as we like to use the term today. Someone becomes paralysed through an accident and we say he has a pretty hard cross to bear. This is not the cross Jesus is talking about. Jesus is refering to self-denial. ↩