Come and Follow
What did Jesus Mean When He Said, “Come and Follow”?
If you think there is a simple answer to this question, I am going to surmise that you have not thoroughly vetted the biblical concept of “follow.” The earliest New Testament recording of this concept is probably found in Mark’s gospel where he records Jesus summoning his very first disciples. Here the words used are “Come after me…” but the implied meaning is obviously “Come and follow me.” Probably the most common biblical passage associated with following Christ is found in Luke 9:23 where he significantly qualifies the concept thusly—“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” A very similar understanding is expressed later when Jesus addresses a large crowd of persons who in fact had been “following” him—“And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:27). Here again we have an obvious inference in that one who becomes a disciple is certainly one who follows the master.
Part of the reason we might fail to assign greater weight and understanding to Jesus’ invitation to follow is that it is one of those polysemous terms that can convey multiple meanings. Additionally, we have a unique tendency to apply current meanings and understandings to writings of antiquity. That is to say, we assume the ancient writers were assigning the same meaning to words that we do today. Both of these issues become problematic in discovering the true meaning of Scripture. In addressing the polysemous nature of the word “follow” we can easily illustrate the problem. For example, persons who tap into social media often see this invitation—like me on Facebook, “follow” me on Twitter. In this case one is being encouraged to participate to whatever degree in an Internet conversation. Another use of the word “follow” is often seen in sports where persons are considered to “follow” this or that team or athlete. In this scenario it would simply mean paying due attention to the exploits and records of various teams and athletes. Sometimes in giving an explanation of something to another person, one might pause momentarily and ask the question, “Are you following me?” Here the meaning of follow is entirely different from previous examples in that it connotes understanding—are you getting what I’m saying? Maybe another slightly different meaning would be seen in understanding that someone who “follows” the stock market is basically tracking its progress.
Understanding how words can connote many different and varied meanings and can additionally even change in meaning over the years, we can grasp the significance of properly ferreting out the true meaning and intent of the words and concepts conveyed in Scripture. In addition to these concerns, we also have to deal with the temptation to read our own preconceptions, prejudices and biases into Scripture. Most of us already hold a fairly well defined set of beliefs, values and persuasions and it is difficult to hold these modifiers in abeyance when reading the Word. There is a natural tendency to apply existing already held understandings to what we are reading. The unexpressed assumption is that we already possess truth regarding what we are presently perusing. Before delving directly into our study on what Jesus meant by “follow,” I would like to offer several general hermeneutical guidelines that I believe can greatly assist one in coming into a proper interpretation of Scripture.
The first guideline would be having a willingness to ask the question, “What did the original author of the passage mean.” We understand that all Scripture is divinely inspired and has been given by God as a function of the Holy Spirit manifest through various persons on earth. We still need to seek to understand the original intent of what these instruments of God spoke or wrote in their day. This would be appreciating—to put it in terms of Francis Schaeffer—the spatial and chronological realities of what we are studying. What we read in the Bible has a unique historical significance which if ignored can allow us to reach faulty understandings and conclusions. The better we understand the culture into which God spoke his word the better equipped we will be in grasping his original intent. I also believe that Scripture allows for extensive and varying degrees of interpretation that may continue to come to light over the ages.
Another important tool for understanding and unpacking the true meaning of Scripture is in doing word studies in the original recorded languages of the Bible. Our Old Testament was recorded in Hebrew and the New Testament in the koine Greek. One does not have to be entirely literate in these languages to faithfully arrest deeper and truer meanings from the Word. There are multiple study helps available such as Bible dictionaries, thesauruses, concordances, various word study resources and books on biblical history and culture. The best approach is in searching multiple sources for any given endeavor rather than trusting and relying on simply one favorite reference. Even as we stand on the shoulders of scholars such as Strong and Thayer, we must continue to resist the temptation to read our pre-acquired and adopted understandings back into the text we are studying. Discovering the fuller, deeper and contextual meanings of words through the use of biblical Greek and Hebrew dictionaries is a fun and rewarding study and does much to bring us closer to bon-a-fide renderings of biblical meaning.
Surveying the use of a biblical term in multiple passages throughout the Bible can often shed significant light on its understanding. Although words can often connote different meanings, one can usually discover a prevalent pattern in the use of a given word that helps to contribute deeper and authentic meaning to it. The use of a good reference tool such as Strong’s Concordance facilitates the accomplishing of this task.
Studying the context of a word might provide some of the most concrete evidence one could discover in seeking to understand its truest meaning. In many cases, the only way one would know the meaning of a word would be to hear or see it contextually. For example, if I were to ask you to define the word “battery,” you would either have to ask me for its context or provide me with about six variants of the definition in order to hopefully include the meaning I was looking for. The variations for the meaning of “battery” run the gamut from being an apparatus for storing and producing direct current electricity, to referring to the guns on a battleship, to referring to the condition of a gun that is ready to fire, to describing the unlawful striking of another person. It is obviously the context in which this word is used that provides the intended meaning by the word’s user.
We have all heard the accusation at one time or another—and usually from a defensive posture—that something was “taken out of context.” Usually this is in reference to something someone spoke or wrote and can often happen when a less than generous listener attempts to misconstrue the original and intended meaning of the statement. By repeating something sans its original context, one can easily shade or completely change its intended meaning and thoroughly mislead others as to the author’s intent. Context is an absolute essential in fully grasping the original intent and meaning of what is spoken or written. If I were to extract one sentence from a novel, it would most likely carry no meaning whatsoever. If I had the benefit of the paragraph the sentence came from, some meaning would be gained. If I were to read the entire chapter containing that paragraph it would take on even more significance. However, the greatest meaning and understanding of my original example sentence would find its fullest content through reading the entirety of the novel preceding that sentence. Context is invaluable to those seeking to comprehend an author’s truest meaning and intent.
In studying the Bible—just as illustrated from the example of the novel—there are varying and deepening degrees of meaning derived from discovering the ever expanding context of the word or sentence in question. This is exactly the situation in seeking to fully comprehend Jesus’ meaning when he called persons to come after or follow him. By expanding our context to the whole chapter 9 of Luke we enormously enhance our understanding of Jesus’ call to come and follow.
The first point of interest is found in Jesus sending out the twelve with the express command to proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal the sick (Lk 9:2). Please note that verse 6 describes the activity of the disciples carrying out this command. Interestingly, instead of indicating the disciples proclaimed the “Kingdom” as Jesus directed Luke instead says they “preached the “gospel.” This is significant in that the proclamation of the gospel can only be fully understood within the context of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom has to do with the full breadth of the entirety of God’s domain, activity, intent and authority. In Mark’s presentation of the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is expressly proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom of God while illustrating it with miraculous works. The Kingdom context gathers up God’s eternal purpose of bringing all persons into the full stature life of Christ. This means that any proclamation of the gospel which omits calling persons into the transformational life in Christ is short-sighted and incomplete and could probably legitimately be called “another gospel.”
Because many ministries have failed to comprehend the significance of the Kingdom context, the gospel has been reduced to gain heaven and avoid hell. This is a very man-centered concept of the gospel which completely denies God his eternal purpose in conforming all believers to the image of Christ. It is the gospel from the “Field of Dreams” perspective—“what’s in it for me?” The gospel of the Kingdom is firstly concerned with satisfying the eternal heart and purpose of God. When Jesus said, “Come and follow,” those hearing this challenge would necessarily have to put it into the context of the Kingdom of God and all that represented.
The second significant point of context in hearing the call to follow can be found in Jesus’ question to the disciples regarding who men understood him to be. This was simply a lead-in to personalizing the question to his disciples—“Who do you say that I am?” Matthew’s gospel provides even more details in the disciples’ response. Peter nailed it when he said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus made a profound epistemological point in his response to Peter when he established that it is only by revelation that one can know God and truth concerning him. Revelation is not just about knowing something, it is more about perceiving truth in a manner that eventuates in faithful responses, commitment and lived obedience. Few people would be willing to defend information or raw knowledge sacrificially. Conversely, history is replete with examples of believers willing to suffer and die for the undeniable truth they came to through revelation of Christ and his Kingdom. Hearing and responding to the call to follow can only be authenticated in the context of one’s revelatory knowledge of Christ. Jesus’ call to follow cannot be comprehended or legitimately responded to apart from a Petrine response to his question—“Who do you say I am?”
As we survey the larger context of Jesus’ summons to follow we are arrested by the fact that it was preceded by his reflection on the coming events in Jerusalem. Jesus very succinctly laid out for the disciples what was in store for him, how he would suffer, be mistreated by the elders, chief priests and scribes and then be killed. In Luke’s account of this narrative we discover that after the twelve returned from ministering, Jesus took them aside into the desert near Bethsaida. When the crowd became aware of this the Word says, “And the people, when they knew it, followed him.” Here we have an example of the shallowness and detachment with which so much of Christendom is afflicted. This “following” had little or nothing to do with the life altering call that Jesus was issuing. This was the response of the curiosity seekers, the rubber-neckers, the response of those who are attracted to an accident scene or a commotion of some order.
It is not that some in this group might not eventually make the ultimate commitment to Christ, but at this juncture there was nothing of the comprehensive understanding of what was ultimately at stake. It is at this point that so much of the institutional church has failed. Because the principle and practice of the cross is not proclaimed as the core factor of the Christian life, following has been reduced to remote observation rather than the emulation of Christ’s life, suffering and death. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon renders the word “follow” in part thusly—to cleave steadfastly to one, conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying also. When Jesus addressed the greater collection of disciples in the synagogue at Capernaum talking about being that bread from heaven, many of them began to murmur (Jn 6:61). The Greek word for “murmur” means to discontentedly complain, to grumble.
The Scripture goes on to show that after Jesus issued this fuller meaning of discipleship that many of the disciples no longer chose to follow him. It is awesomely significant that the twelve had a different response. Rather than understanding Jesus message in terms of suffering and death, Peter in speaking for the twelve expressed it this way—“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” For them Jesus wasn’t speaking about misery, pain, loss and sacrifice. He was speaking about coming into the fullness of all the Father ordained for them through Christ from before the foundations of the earth were laid. They understood there was a cost to be counted, they knew in their hearts that Jesus call to follow was bidding them to come and die, but their revelation of Messiah compelled them to embrace the greater narrative of God’s eternal purpose. They remembered that Jesus’ explanation concerning Jerusalem ended with his resurrection from the dead.
It has been this author’s observation throughout over 40 years in ministry that the exact same response remains evident wherever persons are confronted with the full context of Jesus’ call to follow. Because the drive to hold on to the things of this life and world are so powerful many believers forsake the call to follow in the sense Jesus meant it. Because so many churches place self-preservation above proclaiming the full gospel, the contextual understanding of what it means to answer the call to “follow” is ameliorated if not outright forsaken. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up Jesus message thusly—Jesus call to follow was bidding persons to come and die.
Seeing Jesus’ invitation contextually wonderfully clarifies what he meant when he said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me…”