Why follow anyone? There’s a good deal of hesitation, not to say cynicism, about following anyone nowadays. And with good reason. All those we start off admiring turn out to have feet of clay – or to be entirely made of clay, come to that. In China, for decades millions followed Chairman Mao. But a recent biography of Mao argues that he was entirely self-serving, and that the price of the Chinese people following him was the death of tens of millions.
In the West, we like to think we’ve learned that lesson. We hero-worship nobody. So, for instance, as soon as someone like Bob Geldof asks people to follow him, other voices immediately start to question his credentials. Who does he think he is? Why should we follow him?
Of course, following nobody isn’t quite what it sounds. Because as soon as we decide to follow nobody, what we’re really deciding is to follow our own lead. If I decide to follow nobody, I’m deciding that I know better than anybody where I should be going and what I should be doing. And that’s a claim that doesn’t bear very close scrutiny.
So following someone else is a highly dubious way of running our lives – but then so is relying on our own sense of direction. Where does that leave us? My prayer is that every one of us here this morning will come to the conclusion that there is in fact one exception to the rule that nobody is worth following. And his name, of course, is Jesus.
‘Why follow Jesus?’ is the question I want to answer this morning. Not that I expect you to be interested in what I think – so my plan is simply to try and explain the answer to that question that’s given in the Bible. Why pay any attention to what the Bible says? Because the Bible claims to be God speaking, and there are many reasons why that is a compelling claim. So if that claim is true, then the Bible’s answer is God’s answer.
Now I’d like us to focus in on just one small part of what the Bible has to say on this – it’s the passage from the Gospel of Mark that we heard read earlier. That’s Mark 8.27-38. Do have that open in front of you.
This incident – and the teaching of Jesus that it records – leads us to a four part answer to that question: Why follow Jesus? First, because of who he is. Secondly, because of what he’s done. Thirdly, because of the consequences of all the alternatives. And fourthly, because of the benefits. That’s why – and I’ll expand on each of those four parts in turn. So:
First, FOLLOW JESUS BECAUSE OF WHO HE IS
Who is Jesus? He’s the ruler of all things, and the Son of the living God. That in itself is more than enough reason to follow him. Why do I say that he’s the ruler of all things and the Son of the living God? Well, take a look at that first paragraph, from v 27-30.
What’s going on here? We’re picking up this account of the life and death of Jesus at a turning point. After thirty years of obscurity, Jesus went public with his message, and backed it up with an astounding series of healings and miracles. He gathered a group of followers around him who saw and heard it all.
By the time we get to this point, Jesus has obviously decided that they’ve seen and heard enough to be able to make up their minds about him once and for all. So he draws them into a discussion and then puts them on the spot. Listen again to what happens. This is from 8.27:
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Ceaserea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’
John the Baptist had identified Jesus as so much greater than him that even tying his shoelaces would be too great an honour. John had been summarily executed for daring to criticise Herod. Some people thought Jesus was John back from the dead.
Others were expecting the appearance of a prophet who would be the forerunner of the Messiah, and they thought Jesus was that prophet.
There were two other theories going around, which perhaps understandably the disciples omit to mention: some thought Jesus was off his rocker; others that he was Satanic. What it seems nobody was saying was that Jesus was ‘just a carpenter from Nazareth’. What Jesus said and what he did was too shockingly extraordinary for any ordinary explanation of him.
So what have you heard people say about Jesus? That he was a fine moral teacher but no more? Those who think that surely can’t have read what Jesus actually said about himself. Or do many you know seem not to think about him at all? ‘Who do people say I am?’ That’s Jesus’s question to this generation as well.
But then Jesus turned his attention to his followers. Verse 29:
‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
They can’t hide behind other peoples’ views now.
Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ.’
What does that mean? The Christ is the prophecied Messiah – the King promised and sent by God to overthrow all the enemies of God’s people and bring God’s people into an everlasting kingdom of peace and security.
Peter has been watching Jesus’ every move and listening to his every word for a couple of years. And he’s begun to realise just whose company he’s been keeping. And he’s decided Jesus is the ruler of all things. After the closest scrutiny of his life, that’s who Peter thinks Jesus is.
Who does Jesus himself say he is? He accepts that what Peter says about him is the truth. He is the Messiah. He is the one chosen by God to rule everything for ever.
But why is he God’s choice? Who does God say that Jesus is? That can be answered clearly from the very next incident that’s recorded after this in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples up on a high mountain, and there they hear the voice of God, speaking about Jesus. God says:
‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’
It’s there in 9.7. And that voice simply confirms the weight of evidence that piles up in the Gospel accounts and that’s there for you to examine for yourself. This Messiah is much more than even the greatest human King. He is God and man; the Son of the Father; one with him. So he speaks and acts with all the authority and power of God himself.
Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” So what’s your answer to Jesus’ question? The truth is, he’s the ruler of everything and the Son of God. Why follow Jesus? Because of who he is.
Secondly, FOLLOW JESUS BECAUSE OF WHAT HE’S DONE
Jesus died for our forgiveness and rose from death. That’s even more reason to follow him.
Let me explain. When Peter says that Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah – he’s right about that, but he hasn’t got the whole picture. That’s why – there in v 30 – Jesus tells the disciples not to go blabbing about him all over the place. There’s more they need to take on board first.
So then Jesus gives them his own perspective on what he’s about (v31):
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man [that’s how he refers to himself] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this…
This is not the kind of Messiah that Peter, for one, was expecting. Jesus agrees that he’s the Messiah – their Saviour and King. But how’s he going to establish his Kingdom? Answer: by dying at the hands of his enemies. Why?
Jesus said later that he would die ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’. That’s in 10.45. In other words, his death would be the price that had to be paid so that we could escape eternal death and hell and find forgiveness and eternal life.
But Jesus said that he wouldn’t stay dead. He said ‘he must be killed and after three days rise again’. An astounding claim. He would be raised from death to live for ever. He would defeat death itself. And that would be God’s proof that Jesus really was the Saviour and Lord of the world. And that’s what happened.
So what does the Bible say about the death and the resurrection of Jesus? Why did Jesus die? It was God’s plan to rescue people from sin and death and hell. Here’s what God said through the prophet Isaiah. Speaking in anticipation of the death of Jesus, he said:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The truth is we all rebel against God. Some openly reject him. In our society, many rebel by simply ignoring him, which if anything is even worse. We maintain a socially acceptable public face on the outside. But inside is what Isaiah calls iniquity. ‘Evil’ is the word Jesus uses for what’s in our hearts. We deserve to be condemned at the Day of Judgement.
Because God loves us, he doesn’t want us to get what we deserve. But justice must be done. So he has come to us himself in the person of his Son, Jesus. And the debt that we owe to God, Jesus, the Son of God, paid on the cross. It’s as if all of our sin was loaded onto his shoulders and the full weight of God’s justice fell on him. We deserve death. He died in our place. So when we trust him and follow him, we go free. Our unpayable debt is cancelled. We are forgiven.
And why was Jesus raised? Because death couldn’t hold him. He’s stronger than death and his resurrection is death’s decisive defeat. His resurrection proves who he is. Jesus rose from the dead to take control. Behind the scenes he is now the ruler of everything.
Why follow Jesus? We should follow him because of who he is. He’s the ruler of everything and the Son of God. That’s part one of the answer. Part two: we should follow him because of what he’s done. He gave his life for our forgiveness. And he rose again to reign.
Thirdly, FOLLOW JESUS BECAUSE OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF ALL THE ALTERNATIVES
Deciding whether to follow Jesus is not like deciding whether to follow a football team. Bill Shankly famously said:
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
Which of course is amusing precisely because it’s such self evident nonsense. Whether we follow any football team, or which team we follow, doesn’t matter. Whether we follow Jesus is the key to life and death and our eternal destiny.
Look, for a start, at the sharp exchange between Jesus and Peter in verses 32-33:
[Jesus] spoke plainly about this [his death and resurrection], and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
There is no neutral ground when it comes to deciding about Jesus, and whether to follow him. It might be an unpalatable thought, but the truth is that if we don’t listen to Jesus – if we think we know better than him – then we’re listening to the lies of Satan and siding with Satan against Jesus. Even Peter found that out, at the expense of this chilling rebuke from the lips of Jesus: ‘Get behind me, Satan’.
And it’s clear that there are further consequences if we don’t follow Jesus. Look at the beginning of verse 35:
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it…”
And then also in verses 36-38:
“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
We each have a choice. We can live for ourselves. Or we can live for Jesus. Living for ourselves is easy. We don’t have to be taught how to go with the flow, take the path of least resistance, make things comfortable for ourselves and indulge our own self-centred desires. It comes naturally to us.
What is more, living for ourselves has an immediate pay-back. If we go with the flow, we avoid all the effort of having to struggle against the flow. If we just do what we want when we want, then our desires are gratified, and it feels good. For a time.
The film director John Huston once said: “The most important thing about life is to avoid boredom at all costs.” Is that what you’re after? Excitement? Or maybe you have some secret ambition, something you want to achieve. Jesus doesn’t deny that self-centred living can have an immediate pay-back of sorts. If things really go your way, you might even gain the whole world. Everything you ever imagined getting in your wildest dreams might come your way.
But there’s a downside. And it’s this. Living for ourselves has catastrophic long-term consequences, for others and for us. Getting caught up in what Jesus calls ‘this adulterous and sinful generation’ can end up being excruciating even now. Just think about the people you know, or look at your own life. The guilt and shame and damaged, broken relationships and general mess of our lives can generally be traced back directly to some defiance of God’s will. The gratification wears off and the pain remains.
And it only gets worse. Because as Jesus makes clear, the truth is we really are accountable to God. Jesus will be our judge one day. And if we’ve chosen a life with ourselves at the centre, a life without God, then that’s what he’ll give us. For ever. That’s what hell is. We will forfeit our souls. We will lose our lives. If we disown Christ now, he will disown us then.
We need to face square-on the truth about death and judgement, heaven and hell. They are real. How do we know? If you want to know about a foreign land, you listen to someone who’s been there. There’s only one man who’s come from heaven, been through death, returned to us, and then returned to heaven. And that’s Jesus. He comes from God. He is God. His life and death and resurrection prove it. So when Jesus talks about death and judgement, heaven and hell, we need to listen. He knows what he’s talking about.
Why follow Jesus? Because living for yourself is easy. It comes naturally. At times, it has an immediate (if short-term) payback. But it’s catastrophic. So follow Jesus, because the consequences of all the alternatives hardly bear thinking about. That’s part three of the answer. Then finally and:
Fourthly, FOLLOW JESUS BECAUSE OF ALL THE BENEFITS
There’s no denying that following Jesus is hard. Just look at verse 34:
Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Following Jesus means saying ‘no’ to selfishness. Denying yourself doesn’t just mean that every now and then you have to think about delaying the purchase of that designer garment for another few weeks. Denying yourself means displacing yourself from the number one spot in your life. If you’re going to follow Jesus, then you will cease to be the centre of your existence. He will be.
So following Jesus also means saying no to secrecy. You’ll need to be openly identified as belonging to Jesus and also to this family that he loves despite all its faults and failures – the church. And Jesus isn’t exaggerating when he speaks of losing your life for him and for the gospel. Many Christians around the world literally lose their lives because they refuse to make their faith in Jesus a merely private matter. In this country at the moment the worst we have to face is misinformation, lies, anti-Christian propaganda and hostility.
Following Jesus means saying ‘no’ to selfishness and ‘no’ to secrecy. But that’s a small price to pay.
One of the big ironies in all this is that if we do try to cling on to things against the will of God, we lose them anyway in the end. A woman died alone at the age of 71. The coroner's report was tragic: 'Cause of death: malnutriton.' Before she died she used to beg food from her neighbours. What clothes she had came from the Salvation Army. She was apparently a penniless, pitiful, forgotten widow. But not so. Those investigating her death discovered a huge stash of stocks and shares and cash. She was a millionaire, but she died of starvation because she would not part with anything. Not even to feed herself. Jesus said (verse 35),
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, C.T.Studd gave up a privileged family background, a small fortune, and his position as a star England test cricketer to preach the gospel in China. The motto he gave to the mission organisation he founded was this:
"If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him."
Anything we give is nothing to what we gain.
He is always with us, so whatever happens in our lives, we have the most profound security.
We find ourselves part of the church – the family of God in the world – which is the lightning conductor for God’s power through the gospel. There is no deeper fulfilment than to be part of that.
We also have the promise of Jesus. We have everything to look forward to. Jesus will save our lives. Eternal life lies ahead of us.
Life following Jesus is full of the presence and the power and the promise of Jesus. And that is abundant life.
One Premiership footballer said:
“Sometimes I would play a big Premiership game – my dream come true – but still I would come home feeling a bit empty… I found myself thinking there had to be more to life then what I was experiencing. A friend took me to church and through getting to know Jesus Christ I gained a peace that money cannot buy and fame cannot replace.”
If you follow Jesus you might not get the one thing that you think you need above all else. But you’ll get something better. You’ll get life – now and for eternity. And that, too, is more than enough reason to follow Jesus.
Why follow Jesus? Because of who he is. He is the ruler of all things and the Son of the living God. Follow Jesus because of what he’s done. He died for our forgiveness and rose from death. Follow Jesus because of the consequences of all the alternatives. They are so terrible they do not bear thinking about. Follow Jesus because of all the benefits: his presence with you always; his power for living; his promise of eternal life.
So what now?
Are you already following Jesus? Then take this opportunity to thank him, and keep on going.
Maybe you think you’re not yet ready to start following Jesus. You still have questions. But you know that you dare not any longer simply reject or ignore Jesus. What should you do? Well, here’s what we recommend. In your service sheet you have a leaflet about a course that we run. It’s called ‘Christianity Explored’. It’s for those who are either just starting to follow Jesus, or who haven’t yet made up their minds, but who want to know more. In other words, it’s for you. It’s informal. Any questions you have will be welcomed. It gives you an opportunity to look at this short Gospel of Mark in more depth. There are short talks on video, and an opportunity to discuss or just to listen. It runs for a few weeks, and we’re running it again later this month, so this is the ideal time to give it a try. To do that, fill in the form that’s on that leaflet, and either hand it to someone with a badge, or put it in one of the boxes at the exits as you leave.
But maybe you’ve been thinking about Jesus long enough, and you know that the time has come for you to start following Jesus. Well, don’t delay. Start today. Start now. You can do that by praying a simple prayer to him. Tell him in your own words that you’re going to follow him. Or I’m going to end in a moment with a prayer that you can make your own. Pray it in the silence of your own heart.
Then if you do that now, what should you do next? One of the best things you could do would be to join that Christianity Explored group. Fill out the form and hand it in before you leave today. That’ll be a great help to you in learning more of what it means in practice to follow Jesus. Then, as well as that, tell a Christian friend that you’ve started to follow Jesus.
Here’s the short prayer I’m going to pray. Let’s all bow our heads. If you’ve decided that now is the time you’ve got to start following Jesus, echo this prayer in your own mind.
Lord Jesus, I believe that you are the ruler of all things, and the Son of the living God. I believe that you died so that I can be forgiven, and you rose to life. I’m sorry that up to now I have not followed you. From now on, I will follow you. Please help me. Thank you that you will never leave me. Amen.