What does it really mean to follow Jesus?
In the environment that I grew up in, this question was sometimes asked as if there was only one way to follow God, or one method of becoming a disciple. So when my own relationship with Jesus started to unfold as a teenager, I would often treat him like an item on a to-do list rather than someone with whom I was developing a relationship.
The word ‘develop’ signifies a progressive journey, an unfolding understanding. It takes time, and the beginning point of something that is developing usually looks different from the ending point, which I’m slowly learning is the same with Jesus: following him is a journey of development. Yet somehow, it’s really easy to approach him with a pre-determined expectation of who I think He wants me to be, and skip crucial stages of development altogether! Have you ever found yourself in the situation where you’re reading a really amazing book, and then halfway through, suddenly the temptation arises to skip a few chapters and jump to the last page so you can find out what happens in the end?! The longing to know what happens simply becomes too much. I’ve definitely been there!
Sometimes, I think we can be like that with Jesus. We get too ahead of ourselves and work backwards through the gospels from The Great Commission – Jesus’ last instructions to his followers – in our efforts to ‘become’ disciples. But I think there’s no shame or stigma in being found at the very beginning and progressing honestly and earnestly – no matter how old we are, what sort of position we hold or whether we were brought up in a Christian home or just recently received salvation. Jesus said to Nicodemus – a ‘mature’ expert in religious law in the gospel of John – it is impossible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we choose to be spiritually reborn, to become like small children again, with everything to learn and nothing to hide.
So this question “What does it mean to follow [know] Jesus?” reaches far beyond just myself. I still have so much to learn. But I am learning to embrace every moment of the journey. I personally believe this question is one of the most life-defining questions anyone could ever ask. But, more than asking a question and theorising over answers, my goal in writing this post is to hopefully inspire you to go from a place of just ‘asking a question’ to actually taking a step. In sharing some of the revelations I’ve gained while learning to follow Him, ways in which He has enlarged my perspective and reshaped my approach to being His disciple, I simply hope to contribute a bit of width and depth from my own experience that encourages anyone who might find themselves alongside me on this path, seeking, learning and following too 🙂
One interesting fact I came across while doing some research on Jewish rabbi’s and their followers (via this article) was that the most outstanding students of the Torah in ancient Hebrew culture would often request to become the disciple of a respected Rabbi after completing the equivalent of our modern day secondary school. The Rabbi receiving the ‘application’ would then consider the student’s potential to become like him – an intimate, everyday process of watching and learning to respond like the Rabbi did and apply scripture as he did – before accepting the student as a ‘follower’. It was common for many of these students to be turned away if the Teacher deemed them unable to undertake the level of commitment required, because it was high. But with Jesus, this process was turned on its head. (Like so many other countless things he turned upside down.)
Instead of endorsing those who were already devoted students of the Hebrew scriptures (Torah), Jesus chose to focus on ordinary, unschooled fishermen in his search for disciples. Men of the working class. I’ve often wondered why he chose them in particular. Historians have debated over it for years, but they can only ever speculate! I read in one article that maybe it was because the process of fishing perfectly resembled how the Kingdom of God was going to outwork on the earth. And another article proposed that maybe fishermen were chosen because they were used to hard work and long hours, pulling their weight. Whatever the reason – Peter and James had probably been raised anticipating a career on the sea of Galilee. It was normal in ancient culture for sons to learn the trade of their father before them and pass it on to their sons, and so on. Trades were generational. And according to these sources, the fishermen of the gospels were probably quite successful in their endeavours – fishing was a thriving industry in Galilee at the time of Jesus. These men had accepted their position in society and were busy ‘getting on with it’! To be confronted with the possibility of becoming a disciple to a Teacher of the law (a vocation they had no relevant skills for and probably saw as something far beyond their social class) would’ve taken more than a moment to process!
Imagine the scene:
Peter, knee deep in salt water, dutifully performing the routine task of scrubbing nets at the end of a long day on the sea of Galilee. Jesus, pausing to watch on a purposed walk along the shore, suddenly extends a hand. “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!”
Strange application Peter thinks, still focussing on his task. He smiles, as if to politely entertain the joke while dismissing it as ridiculous in his head. I have work to do, so if you don’t mind…
More vigorous scrubbing.
Suddenly, he recalls a rumour he’d heard at the markets the previous day, about a teacher in town whose healing powers and unnerving authority have made quite a stir in the religious circles. The thought briefly flits across his mind that this man could be that very teacher, but he rejects it as quickly as it surfaces. What’s it to me? he asserts, scrubbing with greater resolve. I’m a fisherman, not a teacher of the law. Miracles or not, I still have a family to provide for.
The shadow of the teacher beside him doesn’t move.
Now his curiosity is piqued. Looking up, Peter squints into the setting sun, shading his eyes to get an actual look at the man’s face. Jesus’ meets his gaze unapologetically, intelligently. There is no shadow of insincerity in his eyes, and his hand is extended as a confirmation of the words He’s just uttered. “I will show you how to fish for people!” he repeats, as if talking about catching some rare specimen of fish. A crippling combination of skepticism and shock prevents Peter from moving. He’s frozen to the spot. Jesus’ hand doesn’t falter and reality begins to sink in like a stone through water. He is actually serious! Peter’s hands falter now, on their way back down to grasp the soaking nets. What?! A fisherman becoming the student of a Rabbi? Whoever heard of such a thing? This is outrageous!
(Would the equivalent proposition today possibly look like a famous public figure approaching a rural farm hand and offering him/her a PA position?! Think about it.)
Maybe the realities of accepting the invitation suddenly begin to play through Peter’s mind. A change in vocation of this sort would also mean a new social status… potential opportunities in the political sphere. An education in the Scriptures he had never considered possible. His imagination starts running wild. What Rabbi seeks his own disciples? Usually, it’s the other way around. If he’s asking me… why would he ask ME? I’m not a student of the law, I’m a fisherman!
Who knows what may have gone through his head?!
Regardless, the Bible says in Matthew 4 that Peter and his brother ‘left their nets at once and followed Jesus’ (emphasis mine). Whether the motivation to go immediately stemmed from selfish ambition – i.e. an anticipation of all that the title ‘disciple’ might hold for them – or whether it was because there was something about Jesus which they wanted in themselves – we will never know.
So far for me, following Jesus has led to a lot of letting go.
Letting go of answers I was given by well-meaning friends and family as a young person. Not because they were wrong necessarily, but because everyone is on a journey and people will often respond and behave according to what they’ve been taught or how they were treated within the context of their own lives. And sometimes the choice is made not to look beyond this personal experience to what else might be learned, which saddens me. I’m amazed to think of the generations that can be affected by those who grow up repeating what they were told as children without ever investigating or work-shopping it for themselves, and exploring it in greater depth personally. A lot of times, Jesus has taken the blame for hypocritical, judgemental, selfish, escapist, narrow-minded behaviour. But the more I’ve followed after Him myself, the more I’ve realised how different He really is from what popular culture (even Christian culture at times) has portrayed him to be. Every aspect of who he is challenges me on so many levels, and reminds me just how far I have to go to become like him, yet at the same time he invites me to walk with Him. I’m more accepted and more assured than ever that I can get there because He enables me and shows me how. I’ve never felt more free, never more thankful, than I do right now.
I recently finished a devotional by N.T. Wright called ‘Lent for Everyone’ which was really encouraging and gave me a deeper understanding of the challenges the first disciples faced when they decided to follow Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had occasional moments of confusion and doubt in trying to compare the early disciples’ experiences with my own; especially considering the years of history, technological advancement and cultural evolution that span the gap between the 1st century AD and the year 2017! For ‘modern day’ followers it can be easy to disconnect the stories in the Bible from how they actually apply to our schedule-based, advertisement-fuelled, social media-driven lives. Personally, I’ve learned that if I’m not proactive about ‘working out my salvation’ in the context of my every day, that gap only gets wider and wider, until I might be left grasping at a faith that feels irrelevant and dry. That’s why I’m very thankful for resources like Lent for Everyone, because this particular devotional enabled me to take a new grip on the early disciple’s very real human condition and apply the lessons they learned to my own life in relevant, practical ways. In the process, I was also reminded how a little extra study can go a long, long way!
As I worked my way through Matthew while doing this devotional, I re-realised (if I can put it that way) that it was never so much the disciples’ outward circumstances or dynamics that Jesus needed to address (although that did happen), but their attitudes, receptivity and perspective. Their inner worlds often needed the most attention. And just like them, it’s my mind and heart that also need the most shaping, reworking and renewing when it comes to following Jesus into the places he leads – whether they be mundane, hidden places, or public, visible platforms. The early disciples started out on their journey of getting to know Jesus with a whole list of expectations, preconceptions and ideals that were gently – and sometimes abruptly – smashed and reshaped by Him; He taught them lessons as they went about their daily business and interacted with others; they watched Jesus come into their world and highlight new truths about some of the old traditions they’d been raised with. And they in turn learned to follow him to places they would never have desired or planned to go previously. They learned they had to be flexible with many of the beliefs and habits they’d cultivated by default, and ultimately let a lot of them go. Their maturing process was a journey that didn’t happen overnight. So when I started to see things in this context, I realised that everything is valuable: every time I allow my inner thoughts or attitudes to be realigned, every moment I’m enabled to get out of my comfort zone, every bit of narrow perspective or shallow faith I allow Him to highlight; every moment I spend with Jesus – whether mundane or miraculous – answers the question of what it really means to follow Jesus.
I’m so grateful for those who’ve mentored me from afar, or in person across different chapters of my life, and helped to shape my understanding of discipleship. I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for such friends and mentors. But, I’m also discovering that there’s a fine line between learning from other peoples’ relationships with Jesus and learning to follow him closely for myself, to recognise His voice intimately. From the moment I made a decision to accept His salvation at age 14, it felt like I entered into a strange balancing act of positioning myself in the crowd (other believers in my world, church community etc) but also regularly extracting myself from the crowd to be alone with God, and immerse myself in his Word. It is sometimes a challenging thing to balance, because both are necessary. I wholeheartedly believe that community is a huge contributor to personal development and maturity, and I’m very thankful for my own amazing church family. But at the same time I’ve learned that it can present a few challenges along with it that need to be navigated with wisdom. Here are a few I’m learning to navigate:
- The danger of comparison. Looking for spiritual guidance is a good thing, because the Bible is clear on the fact that we should seek wisdom and counsel constantly. I think we all compare our lives at times with those we look up to – especially our spiritual mentors, if we have them! But too much of this comparison can also turn into a treacherous, slippery slope of doubt: Am I really following Jesus? Shouldn’t my life look like that person’s if I’m truly a disciple? I’ve asked the question myself during times of (probably unnecessary) comparison. The Bible is pretty clear about the fact that there is such a thing as unhealthy comparison, and one place in particular in the gospels has helped me navigate it better. In John 21, Jesus has just given Peter some insight into his future. Peter’s first response is “what about him, Lord?” referring to John – a fellow disciple. He reacts with instant comparison. But Jesus’ response is: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” Which basically confirms the fact that Peter’s future will potentially look different to the futures of those standing on his left and right, and he needs to be OK with it. So… I’m learning not to over-compare myself with the many amazing people around me. It is, however, a constant choice! And also, deciding to keep seeking Jesus authentically and consistently while I’m in relationship with others, is just as much a choice. Because our faith is designed to be outworked in community. The goal is not to isolate myself so that I don’t need to worry about comparison being a problem – it’s simply about learning not to compare within community. Keeping my eyes fixed on Him.
- The danger of second-hand conviction. The larger the community that might surround you, the more church programs there may be or ministries that might need running; the more tasks that need doing or teams that need building; the more events that could be happening, the easier it is to grow complacent in your walk with Jesus, and ‘borrow’ the convictions and faith of those around you. I feel like I frequently need to be wary of this. Because in an environment of very intentional culture, it can be easy to adopt slogan-based faith and coast along on momentum when there’s always a buzz of activity happening. But when the challenges and pressures of real life come along (because Jesus said that they would), they have greater potential to cripple us if we’ve neglected to tend to the [iron] framework of our own walk with Jesus. Being a disciple is an interactive thing, a relationship. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work on us like stand-alone robots in a factory – He is a living being who works in us as we engage with the Word of God, seeking to understand it and recognise his voice, pay attention to what he’s revealing. He works through our awareness and participation! Second-hand convictions won’t keep you on track if they were never yours to begin with.
I’ve learned that the more I do life in community, and as my world only gets larger, the more I need to be intentional and proactive about my walk with Jesus, about making room to reflect, rest in Him and listen to His voice, daily. To get away with Him. Otherwise, unhealthy comparison and second-hand conviction can become the foundations upon which I build my life, rather than His truth revealed to me personally.
Maybe one of the the challenges us modern, A.D. followers have to grapple with is – now that relationship is based on the enabling of the Holy Spirit and His inner work – rather than a physical person whom we can see – it becomes a lot easier to neglect or ignore.
But such is the abundance of His grace, and the risk he chose to take in making it so available. Just as the first disciples physically followed Jesus and observed His responses to all the colours, interactions, perspectives, customs, political and religious expectations of their day, so I do too, with the guidance and counsel of the Holy Spirit.
The reality is, the disciples didn’t choose Him, Jesus chose them. And by doing so, he displayed unreserved confidence in their potential to become like him.
It was just a matter of those chosen saying YES to the invitation!
Though they were probably the ‘unconventional’ choice from a social, cultural and religious perspective, these fishermen had something Jesus saw as pertinent to the Kingdom he was about to establish on earth; the Kingdom of Heaven. He saw potential. Social and religious status apparently had no sway in His decision-making. He was after inner, more hidden-from-view qualities. Jesus wanted teachable followers – those going around spouting spiritual principles with no actual follow through would be of no use in his kingdom. But those whose faith in Him that might start to translate into action, even when outcomes or end goals were unclear to them, and even if they failed continuously at first – those were the kind of followers Jesus sought! People who had capacity to go wherever he led despite their personal expectations. Those willing to trust him completely, even if it meant pain, even if it meant changing old ways of thinking, or leaving family members and vocations behind, letting go. Those open to learning what it truly meant to love God, objectively.
But of course, only Jesus knew these things at this point. He knew what he was destined for, on earth; that his personal future held great persecution, pain and suffering. His new followers, however, did not. They had just said ‘yes’ to the journey of a lifetime, a journey where most of the initial expectation was going to be reshaped and rewired completely. A journey they could never have imagined in their wildest dreams. Remember development? It’s what we’re all subject to, as followers, no matter who we are.
Here are some things I’m learning about following:
If He called you, He will enable you to become more and more like him.
Being a follower is not as much about our religious efforts or routine as we might believe, but about a desire to learn [and submit] to Jesus’ way of acting and responding in our everyday circumstances. Though we don’t know the particular reasons why the first disciples were chosen, we know that Jesus didn’t exactly choose them because of their scriptural knowledge or religious training. What they already knew was the foundation and platform Jesus chose to work with, and he wanted to take that further. Develop it. He wasn’t going to leave them the same way he found them. So for us, rather than increasing religious activity, or relying on our ideas of what we must do to become more like Him, maybe it is simply in choosing to spend time with Jesus, allowing him to lead and reveal truth to our hearts as we work, interact with others, watch, observe and live life that will most lead us forward into his likeness. True transformation is much more dependent on our relationship with Him – understanding His grace and truth – than it is upon our competency or qualifications! I’m not trying to say that we don’t need to consciously make changes in our lives because ‘it’s all God’s spirit that does the work in us’. But I am saying that when it seems like you fail too frequently, or don’t feel good enough to be called a ‘follower of Jesus’ and find yourself asking ‘how am I ever going to get there?!’ – that is when you need to take heart. Because the truth is, becoming like him is less about what you can do, and more about just ‘sticking with Him’. It’s less about trying not to make mistakes and more about allowing him to hold your heart when you do. Romans 8 puts it this way:
Willingness is everything.
Even if you fail, and fail again at obedience, when your heart is positioned towards Jesus, He will continue to reveal himself and strengthen you with His grace and patience to keep going, keep changing, keep moving forward. No matter how often you fail, as long as you choose to accept His forgiveness and keep running to him in it all, he will give you the courage, boldness and wisdom to take the next step on the journey when the opportunity again presents itself. I think of Peter yet again here: the one who was so quick to follow Jesus at the beginning is seen only a few chapters further into the story vehemently denying any association with him! And yet, that wasn’t the end of his story. Psalm 52 in The Message version says:
“Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.”
Following Jesus is not personal comfort or safety insurance.
My natural tendency is to want clear guidelines surrounding what’s expected of me (for most things in life, really). Happiness generally flourishes when life goes the way I want it to. If I’m honest, I hope for my dreams and wishes to be realised more than I hope for the dreams of others to come true. If you’re anything like me, then you can probably identify. The only trouble with this when it comes to Jesus, is that if circumstances suddenly get puzzling, hard to navigate, or unclear, I’ve found myself easily doubting at times. Just like the disciples did in the storm on the lake, or when Jesus informed them of his imminent death and persecution, or when Lazarus wasn’t prevented from dying. It can be really easy to nurture the expectation that: If God is all-powerful and loving, he should want to make everything go my way. But this is more selfishness and immaturity, than anything. And it can cause us to approach discipleship with a ‘career path’ approach, where we think along such lines as: ‘if I do this much and do it all right, I’ll get promoted, I’ll get moved up the ladder, I’ll be blessed.’ I wholeheartedly believe that God desires our protection and favour and blessing, because His word promises these things. But it’s also clear that He is our loving Father, and like any good father, he disciplines those he loves. He allows us to stand on our own two feet at times, and go through things that develop well-formed maturity in us. His goodness exceeds our understanding of ‘good’ (usually it relates to our personal well being and comfort) because he sees the overall picture, and the end result. Being a follower of Jesus is not about keeping a ‘code of conduct’, or set of rules we can eventually retire from, but about learning to think and move and respond as he directs, to reassess thought patterns, attitudes and habits that might be destructive to ourselves and others. To exercise trust and faith in His authority and love. To ‘grow up’ in our salvation, to think beyond just ourselves. And this applies just as much in the midst of pain, suffering and injustice as it does in the midst of success, fame and recognition. Admittedly, it is really hard to outwork when you’re in the middle of something painful! That’s when it’s usually easier to doubt God and ask Why?! Don’t you love me? Don’t you care about me? because we are naturally wired to self-preserve, and self-maintain. But Jesus came to reveal a bigger picture to us, to welcome the whole world home! The truth is: He loves you, and He cares, deeply. More than you’ll ever know. But this doesn’t mean he automatically shelters us from all pain. Sometimes he will, depending on the lesson and the timing. But if he sees it necessary for us to walk through circumstances that are going to mature us and form deeper conviction in us, and enlarge our capacity, he will probably allow that to happen. Like he did with Mary & Martha, allowing their brother Lazarus to pass away before giving an explanation. This doesn’t mean he isn’t with us in it all, that he has no compassion, because he does. He is full of it! And He’s ALWAYS waiting on the other side, with open arms, just like he was for Mary & Martha, comforting them in their sorrow at their brother’s death. Yet the story ended with a man being raised back to life!! So hang in there, if that’s you at the moment – experiencing a few storms and uncertainties. Just keep trusting. He rewards those who trust in him! And he will make it clear.
Following Jesus isn’t always comfortable. It will not always make sense. Heartache and pain are (unfortunately) part of the reality of this life, just as our imperfection is. But – through Jesus, we can trust confidently in the fact that we have an advocate who is constantly interceding on our behalf (how many in our world need this assurance in the midst of great pain and suffering?); we have a friend and comforter who sticks closer than our own family members, as much as we might love each other (loneliness is a reality for thousands of people, every day) and we have a God we can confidently and intimately address as ‘Father’ in every circumstance, a God to whom we can run for comfort and identity (millions around the globe are smarting from wounds unwittingly inflicted by parents who were unable to fulfil their roles as protectors and providers in the home). As those who follow Jesus, we are promised peace in the middle of our struggles. (I think this is what the world is most desperate for). So, rest in the fact that though storms may come, they will not define you, and though challenges may arise, he has already won the victory! Remember that He is with you, he is bigger than any mistake you can make, and if He called you, He is faithful to finish what he started. You belong to him. Nothing can ever separate you from His love! Keep taking one step after the other in your walk, staying close.
My prayer is that you would experience this peace in all its fullness as you continue to abide in Him and follow where he leads.
“Peace I leave with you; My [perfect] peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid. [Let My perfect peace calm you in every circumstance and give you courage and strength for every challenge.]”
John 14:27 [Amplified]