Today we field a question from a listener named Mark who lives in Midlothian, Virginia. Mark writes, “Pastor John, my question is, Why does Paul refuse to use the phrase ‘follow Jesus’ when speaking about saving faith or in his imperatives to the church? Jesus spoke this way a lot.
“In Matthew 4:19, he said to his disciples, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Jesus’s command to ‘follow’ seems significant in all four Gospels. In Matthew 8:22 he says, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’ In Mark 10:21 he says, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ In Luke 9:23 he says, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ And in John 10:27 he says, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.’
“Key texts — all of them. The Greek word for follow (akoloutheō) appears 89 times in the New Testament, but only once in Paul (1 Corinthians 10:4). Basically, Paul avoids the language of ‘following Jesus.’ Why? And was this terminology more appropriate for those who could literally follow Christ during his ministry on earth?”
I think that last sentence — namely, that while Jesus was here in his bodily presence, the words “follow me” had a very distinct and particular meaning with reference to Jesus’s actual movements, physical movements and behavior, on the ground — is very, very significant. When he said to the fishermen, “Follow me,” they left their nets and walked behind him (Matthew 4:18–22). When he said to Levi, “Follow me,” he left his money table and he walked behind him (Luke 5:27–28). The words “follow me” were used not only because what he taught was what they should do, but also because he was an itinerant preacher who would show them in his deeds, as they walked around with him, how to live and how to minister.
So, I think Mark puts his finger on the issue with that last sentence — that the words “follow me” had a special physical meaning in the presence of Jesus’s physical body when he was here.
“Union with Christ by the Spirit replaces the relation to Christ by physical following.”
But let’s make a few other observations that I think take us deeper into why none of the apostles made a practice of describing Christians as followers of Jesus, which is what a lot of people are doing today. And I would just wave a little yellow flag that it might not be a good idea to make a dominant practice today out of something that is almost nonexistent among the apostles in the New Testament. After the resurrection, none of them called Christians “followers of Jesus.”
So, here are a few observations.
1. The Christian life begins with death.
In John 13:36–38, Peter said to Jesus, “‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’” And Jesus, in essence, said, “No, you can’t, and you won’t.”
So, what did Jesus mean when he said, “You cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward”? Well, he meant, first of all, that “I’m about to die on the cross, and you’re not ready to follow me there. You’re going to deny me tonight three times.” He says that in the next verse.
But what did he mean when he said, “Later you will follow me” — as if to say, “Later you’ll have the courage to die with me”? Well interestingly, in John 21:18–19, after the resurrection of Jesus, he says to Peter,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God [namely, to be crucified like Jesus].) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Which I think is the answer to the question of what Jesus meant back in chapter 13 when he said, “Afterward you will follow me.” “Right now, I’m going to die. You’re not ready. You’re going to deny me tonight. Afterward you will follow me into death.”
So, on the one hand, Jesus declares, “We have come to a point in my life here, now, where you can’t follow me anymore, not in the ordinary sense. I’m going to die and leave. But if you want to think in those terms, the way to think is that you will follow me into death: you will die with me.” And Paul was indeed willing to think that way in Romans 8:17, when he spoke of suffering with Jesus in this life and dying with Christ. The Christian life begins by dying with Jesus, Paul said.
2. Jesus Christ dwells in his people.
Here’s the second observation: With the departure of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the dominant way of thinking about the relationship between Jesus and his people is not that we walk around behind him, but that he dwells in them, and they in him, and they enjoy union with him. Union with Christ by the Spirit replaces the relation to Christ by physical following. Jesus said in John 14:16–17,
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Now, I think that’s an indirect way of saying that Jesus is with them now, and they can follow around behind him. And later, by his Spirit, he will be in them.
3. We look back to Jesus’s earthly ministry.
Third observation: With Jesus’s departure into heaven, his earthly life is conceived of as an example that we look back on to follow, rather than looking at the front of us as something to be followed. We imitate by looking backward at Jesus. For example, take 1 Peter 2:21–22: “Christ . . . suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”
There has been a clear, historical reversal of the way we orient to Jesus. He’s not physically out there in front of us, walking for us to follow. His life and teaching are fixed in history as an event and a pattern in the past that we now look back on, and in that sense, we can follow an example. But the word has a very different meaning, when we use it that way, than the way it was used by Jesus.
4. We follow Jesus by adhering to the Scriptures.
Fourth observation: Jesus intended that his early followers, the apostles in particular, would complete the writing of a body of teaching that would be more complete than everything he said and did during his lifetime because it would include a full interpretation, by his authoritative spokesmen, of his death and resurrection and the way the church should live in the light of it.
“Jesus is a living, personal identity to be put on, like a garment or a new self.”
That body of teaching, the New Testament, is now a fuller witness to be followed than the life and teachings of Jesus considered by themselves. Jesus himself would consider it a retrograde action, going backward in redemptive history, to isolate the earthly life and teachings of Jesus for our following. Instead, the totality of the New Testament, informed by the Old, is the charter for the church’s life. It is what we follow, and in doing so, in that sense, we follow Jesus, since he’s behind it.
5. Christ is our new identity.
The last observation I would make is that the more profound summons of the New Testament is not that Jesus is a teacher to be followed, but that he is a living, personal identity to be put on, like a garment or a new self.
- Galatians 3:27: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
- Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
- Ephesians 4:24: “Put on the new self.”
Christ is our new identity. So, the new identity of discipleship is something far more profound than the impression you get with the words “follow Jesus.” I think the apostles considered those words inadequate to capture the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” as Paul calls it in Colossians 1:27.