Following Jesus When He Is Not Here
Jesus was fully human and fully God (John 1:1, 14). He was not God with a human veneer—like a costume. He was a real, flesh-and-blood man, a carpenter’s son (Mark 6:3). So when he said to fishermen or tax collectors, “Follow me,” their obedience was a concrete, physical act of putting their feet on the ground and walking behind Jesus and being part of his traveling team.
But Jesus knew that he would not always be on earth to have followers in this physical sense. “I am going to him who sent me. . . . I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:5, 7). Jesus was fully aware that the movement he began would continue after he had gone back to his Father in heaven. This was his plan.
Therefore, the command that we follow him was relevant not only for his physical days on earth but for all time. He made this clear at the end of his earthly ministry. He had risen from the dead and was about to ascend to the Father. He told Peter that he would suffer martyrdom someday after Jesus was gone. Peter wondered if he was the only one, and asked Jesus what would happen to his fellow apostle, John. Jesus answered, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22).
What this implies about “following Jesus” is that it happens after he is gone. Until Jesus comes again, he expects his disciples on earth to follow him. So following Jesus is not limited to physically walking around Palestine behind him. Jesus commands it from every person in every country in every age.
Following Jesus Means Joining Him in What He Was Sent to Do
When Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, who were fishermen by trade, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17), he was using imagery relevant to them for something that applies to everyone who follows Jesus. The command to follow Jesus means that everyone should join him in what he came to do. And he tells us repeatedly what that was. “The Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). “What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (John 12:27–28).
In summary, then, he came to “die for the nation [of Israel], and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51–52). He came to gather a people—specifically, to gather a people in allegiance to himself for the glory of his Father—by dying to save them from their sins and to give them eternal life and a new ethic of love like his (John 13:34–35). Therefore, when he commands that we follow him, he means that we join him in that task of gathering: “Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23). There are no neutral followers; we either scatter or gather. Following Jesus means continuing the work he came to do—gathering a people in allegiance to him for the glory of his Father.
Following Jesus into Suffering
Continuing the work he came to do even includes the suffering he came to do. Following Jesus means that we share in his suffering. When Jesus calls us to follow him, this is where he puts the emphasis. He knows he is heading to the cross, and he commands that we do the same. He designs his entire life and ministry to go to Jerusalem and be killed. “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).
So he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). And he knew exactly what would happen there. It was all planned by his Father when he sent him into the world.
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise. (Mark 10:33–34)
Even before heaven, joy abounds along the hard road that leads through death to resurrection.
That’s the plan—down to the details of being spit on.
That was the design of his life. And he knew that his own pain would also fall on those who followed him. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). So the unflinching focus of his command was that we follow him in suffering. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus put the emphasis on self-denial and cross-bearing.
Suffering for Jesus with Joy Shows His Supreme Value
He did not die to make this life easy for us or prosperous. He died to remove every obstacle to our everlasting joy in making much of him. And he calls us to follow him in his sufferings because this life of joyful suffering for Jesus’s sake (Matt. 5:12) shows that he is more valuable than all the earthly rewards that the world lives for (Matt. 13:44; 6:19–20). If you follow Jesus only because he makes life easy now, it will look to the world as though you really love what they love, and Jesus just happens to provide it for you. But if you suffer with Jesus in the pathway of love because he is your supreme treasure, then it will be apparent to the world that your heart is set on a fortune different from theirs. This is why Jesus commands us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.
Suffering for Jesus Is Temporary; Pleasure in Jesus Is Eternal
Of course, the pain is temporary. He does not call us to eternal suffering. That’s what he rescues us from. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). Suffering for Jesus is temporary. Pleasure in Jesus is eternal. When Peter said (perhaps with a tinge of self-pity), “See, we have left everything and followed you,” Jesus responded, without coddling Peter’s self-pity, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:27, 29). In other words, there is no ultimate sacrifice in following Jesus. “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14). “Your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12).
Even before heaven, joy abounds along the hard road that leads through death to resurrection. Nothing can compare with the joy of walking in the light with Jesus as opposed to walking in the darkness without him. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Following Jesus does indeed lead through suffering and death. But the path is luminous with life and truth. Jesus promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). And where Jesus is present there is joy—joy in sorrow for now but joy nevertheless. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
This article is adapted from All That Jesus Commanded: The Christian Life according to the Gospels by John Piper.
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