We live in an era when it is common for churches to promote the “benefits” of being a follower of Jesus. Certainly there are benefits! I am concerned that we teach and preach the whole truth rather than simply acting like salesmen to get people to buy a product. The reality is that we are not in a competition with other ideas or philosophies. We are not trying to out-sell others by touting the highlights of a relationship with Jesus.
There are many blessings that come from being in a relationship with Jesus. There is the practical nature of the wisdom of the Bible that can lead to a more productive and enjoyable life for anyone.
There are also the blessings that Jesus said that apply just to his children. He told his followers not to be anxious about anything because his Father would take care of their needs (Matthew 6:25-34). He promises peace and security that is unavailable elsewhere (John 14:27). He promises to answer our prayers (Matthew 7:7-11). We have these promises highlighted in our Bibles, don’t we?
When he walked the earth his power and care was demonstrated multiple times. He healed the sick and raised the dead. When the crowds grew into the thousands and they were hungry, Jesus fed them all with equivalent of a child’s lunch box of food. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of following a man like this?
Not only that, his message of love resounds with the modern audience. He was a friend of the outcast, the foreigner, the sexually immoral, and the handicapped. They were drawn to his love like a moth to the flame. This type of inclusiveness is in-step with our times.
It’s no wonder that churches, in an attempt to be successful, hold up this all-embracing love and the wonderful benefits of following him. Churches that preach this “you can be successful” message grow. Their ministries are trumpeted across the land and around the world.
But something is wrong. These things were not the whole message of Jesus.
Jesus said radical things as well. He wasn’t interested in saying the things that would bring in the greatest number of people. He wasn’t interested in having the most followers on Instagram. He said things that made people unfriend him on Facebook. (I know, I know, those things weren’t around then).
Consider these three potential followers and his response to them:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
This person volunteered to follow Jesus wherever he went. This sounds like someone ready to be led in the sinner’s prayer! Jesus did not respond enthusiastically, instead he throws cold water on him. Instead of assuring him that all of his needs will be taken care of and that he will experience one blessing after another, he warns him that he has nowhere to sleep. Jesus made it clear that being a follower was not going to be a guaranteed life of ease. Jesus was a homeless man. Those who follow him must understand that.
To another Jesus said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
This one said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus tells him to let the dead bury their own dead. Scholars have debated the exact meaning of this phrase. Some say that the man’s father wasn’t dead and he wanted to take care of him until he died. Others argue that the man’s father was dead, but had not been buried yet. Still others think that Jesus was referring to the spiritually dead. Whichever is correct, Jesus is pointing to the priority of following him over every other priority. Notice that the man was willing to be a follower, but said, “Let me first…”. Such a attitude shows that one is not in full submission to Christ.
Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”(Luke 9:57-62 ESV)
This man wants to simply say goodbye to his family. Jesus tells him that if he sees that as important, he isn’t fit to be a follower. What kind of leader wouldn’t let his follower run home to say goodbye? But he said even stronger things than that about the priority of family for those who would follow him.
Listen to what he said to the great crowds that followed him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-33 ESV)
Those who follow him must be completely in love with him and completely satisfied by him. Family, position, wealth, and comfort must be left behind. Read that last sentence again. Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. The word “renounce” means to forsake, to say goodbye to, or to separate yourself from something. Jesus is telling the crowds that they need to leave everything behind to follow him.
It’s the same thing that he said to the rich man who wanted to have eternal life. He told him to sell everything he owned. All of his possessions needed to be sacrificed. This wasn’t a fundraising appeal by Jesus. He wasn’t looking for the rich man to transfer the ownership of his possessions to the ministry. Jesus told the rich man to give it to the poor. Once he had renounced all that he had, he was free to become a disciple. When the man went away sad, Jesus didn’t run after him to soften the requirement. Instead, he said to his disciples, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 10:17-27).
These radical crowd-dispersing sayings don’t make sense, unless we understand that Jesus is God Incarnate and that he is offering us something a million times better than anything the world has to offer us. He is offering us himself. He is offering us the relationship that we were created to experience forever. This is the greatest thing that we could ever hope to receive.
This is the central message of the gospel and must be at the core of our lives and ministries. Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. He died for our sins and was raised to life. He offers himself to all who will follow him. At the core of following him is understanding who he is. This is what led Paul to write, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I might gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
The message of the Scriptures is not things like “Five Steps to a Happy Marriage” or “Keys to Financial Freedom” or “Have a Peaceful Center in Troubled Times”. Let’s say a person has a happy marriage, is financially secure, leads a relatively calm life, and is nice to their neighbors. Is that person a Christian? Maybe. Maybe not. There are plenty of atheists, Muslims, and Hindus that live “good” lives. What if we add attending church regularly to the mix? Does that make them a Christian? No.
Can you look your successful Muslim neighbor in the eye and tell him that following Jesus is better than the success that he has enjoyed? Can you tell him that even if it means losing his family? What about your scientist friend who fears rejection by his peers if he becomes a follower of Christ? Remember, the early Christians were not financially secure. They were persecuted and often fled for their lives. Even though they were considered the scum of the earth, they rejoiced in what they had found in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).
John Piper has said it well: “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It's a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don't want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.”
Jesus isn’t against having a nice house or a good job. He is against people having idols. And an idol is anything else that we turn to for satisfaction and security. It could be our money or our career. It could be family or a car. It could be our tools or our talents. All of these things have the potential to be soul-destroying idols. We are to love him with all that we are because he is worthy of being loved.
Our message must be one of exalting Christ above all things. He is worthy of our complete love and devotion. He died on the cross so that we might be forgiven of not giving him priority in our lives. We can be freed from the guilt of this sin and all the behaviors that flow from it. This is the message of the Bible and it must be the central message of our lives and of our church.