John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Luke 9:23 “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Thom and I enjoyed a two-day getaway this past week. We went to “Adventures on the Gorge” and went zip lining! My “poof” (the congregation’s nickname for the top of my hair!) survived the helmet I had to wear, but more important, Thom and I survived ten zip lining adventures hundreds of feet above the ground, in between trees, where we reached speeds of up to 40 miles per hour! One of the couples on our tour lives in Leslie Place here in Scott Depot. Anyone know Mark and Sue Truelove?
I knew it would be exciting and maybe a bit scary, but I didn’t think it would be complicated. Learning how to place our hands, sit in our harnesses, brake with our right hand put behind us, turn ourselves when we started to sway, and pull ourselves in when we didn’t make it to the next landing was a bit more involved than I anticipated. Hearing about how to step up on the tree stump to be hooked up to the equipment and how to “come in for a landing,” it was all a bit overwhelming.
We had two “personality-plus” guides who gave us a tutorial. They went over all of the rules. Not wanting to get anything wrong when it was my turn to practice in front of everyone, I found myself wishing I had some paper and a pen to jot down everything they were saying so that I could quickly study. It’s one thing to hear something or learn something mentally. It’s quite another story to put it into practice. It’s a whole different ballgame when you are zipping across a hundred twenty-five foot canyon with trees on each side of you and you are quickly coming to a landing where the guide is giving you one of those motions that looks like an umpire declaring you “safe” which really means, “Put your right hand on the line behind you to break.” Very quickly everything I learned became fuzzy. I felt uncertain. I knew I wasn’t going to be perfect, but to the best of my ability, I relied on the guides’ instruction and went for it.
Now, listen to me. There would have been no tree top adventure without “followship.” I could have learned all of the jargon and memorized all of the rules. I could have donned the stylish red helmet and figure enhancing harness. [Smile] I could have gotten hooked on to the cables over my head. But until I followed the words of the guides’ I would never have been a zip liner. I would never have had the adventure that has now left me wanting more.
You see, I could have had the right information and been in the right position and yet still not have finished the course. Finishing the course required not only faith in the guides’ words, but in following what they told me to do.
John 3:16 emphasizes believing. In our evangelistic efforts to see people saved, we too, like to emphasize believing. Believing is easy. Right? I mean, how hard is it to believe something? Isn’t it a mere mental commitment? Isn’t it simply a decision of the mind to believe something? God did all of the hard work, right? Becoming a Christian is easy for us. We only have to believe. Or is it that simple? Can we finish the course, can we finish the race we call the Christian life, with mere belief?
Luke 9:23 emphasizes following. In a book I read this week called, “Not a Fan,” the author Kyle Idleman stated, that believing and following have to go together. He asserted, and I concur, “There is no believing without following. There is no John 3:16 without Luke 9:23.” (pg. 116)
We see the open invitation in both verses for all people to receive salvation and for all people to follow Jesus. Every one of us is given the same opportunity to be saved from our sin and to become a follower of Jesus. We learn through Scripture that it is our following that proves we have been saved. It is our following that speaks to the new life that salvation produces. James 2:18-20 tells us belief isn’t enough. Faith isn’t enough. We must add “followship” to our faith. For if our lives don’t reflect the new birth we have experienced through our faith, James tells us our faith is dead.
So if followship is how the “proof is in the pudding,” what does it mean to follow Christ? We see some clear direction in Luke 9:23. Let’s read it again together. Luke 9:23 “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
The first step to following is “coming after” Jesus. Coming after someone is something you do on purpose. Every time we stepped up to the zip line, one of our guides went ahead of us. Our goal was then to be where the guide was. We were to “come after” the guide. By following through with their instruction, we would close in the gap, we would eliminate the distance that was between us and the guide since the guide had zipped ahead. We were supposed to keep up.
To follow Jesus, to “come after” Jesus means that we make a commitment to be where He is. When He moves, we follow. Our goal is to keep up with Him.
There is another nuance in this idea regarding coming after Jesus. When I was single and wanting to change that, I used to love quoting part of Luke 9:23 from the King James Version (out of context of course [Smile]). It says, “If any man will come after me, let him.” [Smile] In the book, “Not a Fan,” that I referenced earlier, the author talks about what it means to “come after” someone. He suggests it refers to a romantic kind of pursuit, a following after someone because of a love or a passion.
When Thom and I were going after each other, we looked for ways to spend time together. When we were apart, we were still thinking about each other, and what we were thinking usually had something to do with trying to find a way to be together.
Thom and I were engaged, and he had to go to Florida for a wedding. We hated being apart! It was emotional torture. [Smile] He was thinking about me while he was gone, and I was missing him too. “Just one more day,” I told myself, and he would be home. I was on my way home from church that Sunday night and was over the moon giddy to see as I pulled into my driveway, two dozen roses in the driveway laid in such a way that they spelled out “I Love You.”
Thom missed me so much that he had paid extra money to change his flight and come home a day early. Passion will make you do crazy things! Our passion for one another had led us to the conclusion that we didn’t want to be apart. We couldn’t settle for dating on the weekends. We wanted to be together, every day, forever.
Do you think that’s what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone would come after me. . .” If anyone wants to be with Me as passionately as I want to be with them (which He has proven by coming to earth, living the human life, and dying on a cruel cross to save us from our sins—talk about making the first move!) let them come after me. Is there something to consider when we think about pursuing or “coming after” Jesus? I think so. What I want to suggest to you is that you will never truly follow Jesus if you aren’t passionate about it.
Do you think that’s part of the problem for Christians in general? Are we trying to just date Him on the weekend because we lack the desire to be with Him every day, forever? Do we want Him in our life, but not as the “Love of Our Life?” Do we hold back in our pursuit of Jesus because the commitment required will cost us too much? It might require we change our flight plans and do something crazy!
“If anyone would come after me . . .” “If.” It’s our choice. Are you choosing to pursue following Christ with passion? Is He occupying your thoughts? Do you find yourself daydreaming of ways to spend more time with Him and get closer to Him? What have you changed or canceled or rearranged lately in order to “go after” Jesus? What sacrifice have you made recently to go after Him? Psalm 63:8 says, “My soul follows hard after Thee.” Can you say the same this morning?
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself . . .” How many of you get up each morning thrilled about the notion of telling yourself, “No?” Self denial involves giving up what we want. How easy is that for us to do? How natural is it for us to sacrifice something? Many people are the kind of people that “want their cake and want to eat it too.” They want Jesus, but they want what pleases their flesh too. They want Jesus, but they also want instant gratification. They want Jesus, but they don’t want to give up anything in order to truly possess Him.
The trouble is that when we follow Jesus, He makes some requests of us. He asks us to leave some things behind. He asks us to deny ourselves. He asks us to be willing to give up everything if He requires it.
The disciples chose self denial in order to follow Jesus. Jesus called them and said “Come, follow me.” Luke 5:11 says, “So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” They denied themselves the comforts of their homes. They said “goodbye” to their friends and family. They left the professions they knew. They gave up providing for themselves and relying on themselves. Talk about putting your life completely in the hands of Someone else. They didn’t know where they would sleep, what they would eat or how they would get anything they needed for life. But they said, “No” to their dreams and plans in order to say “Yes” to Jesus.
I can’t tell you what you will have to deny yourself of if you choose to follow Jesus, but I will tell you it will cost you a lot. That’s probably not the way to win people to Jesus, is it? It’s probably not the slickest tactic to say, “Come to Jesus and be prepared that He may ask you to give up everything.” It’s probably not the thing to put on your sign out in front of your church in order to get people to visit, but it’s true.
I don’t meet very many people who don’t think Jesus isn’t a good idea. I don’t talk to very many people who don’t believe God had something to do with this universe and even with the creation of our individual lives. Many seem to recognize having Jesus on board is a good move. But it’s like they want to just add Jesus to their life’s equation without subtracting anything. They’ll keep the drugs, but add Jesus so they can feel better during the times they aren’t using. They’ll keep the alcohol, but add Jesus so they can feel better during the times they are sober. They’ll keep the mistress, but add Jesus so they can feel like their marriage is more solid. They’ll keep the pursuit of money and “the good life,” but add Jesus and think going to church with their family offsets the extra hours they are away each week to pay for their lifestyle.
That’s not followship. Followship requires denial. It means saying “No” to some things or many things or all things if that’s what it will take to help us say completely “Yes” to Jesus.
I want you to hear this morning that you will never truly follow Jesus if you aren’t willing to deny yourself.
However, there is great news about denying ourselves if Jesus asks us to do so. It will bring great joy. It will bring great satisfaction. It will produce great reward. We read the story in Matthew 19:16-22 of a man who didn’t choose followship because He didn’t want to deny himself. Listen to the story:
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” 20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
While the Rich Young Ruler expressed an interest in doing what was right, while he showed an interest in spiritual matters, while he asked some good questions, while he expressed curiosity about eternal life, he couldn’t go the distance because he wasn’t willing to say “No” to himself. He wasn’t willing to say “No” his money. It was obvious to Jesus that he had a love affair with money, and Jesus won’t be one of a few or one of many. He must be our “one and only.” I’m not saying you can’t be wealthy and totally follow Jesus. The Rich Young Ruler’s money didn’t represent an asset, but an idol. For him, it wasn’t a resource, but a mistress. When we follow Jesus, He wants the right to tell us what to do with our money, and if He knows it has too big of a hold on us, He has the right to tell us to give it all away.
In the book, “Not a Fan,” the author mentioned a new breed of vegetarians. They refrain from meat most of the time or a good majority of the time, but once in a while they still like their meat. They actually call themselves “Flexetarians.” These are people who are basically saying, “I really like vegetarian food, but I’m just not 100 percent committed.” (pg. 148)
Perhaps we have become a new breed of Christians. Have we become people who say, “I really like Jesus, but I don’t want to have to serve the community or the poor?” or “I really like Jesus, but I’ve worked hard for my money, and I’ve decided tithing isn’t really something I’m into.” “I really like Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have to be nice to my in-laws or my co-workers. I treat them the way I think they deserve to be treated.” “I really like Jesus, but I also like the comfort and thrill drugs, alcohol and sex have to offer.” If that’s our mentality, we have become a breed of Christian “flexetarians” instead of Christian followers. We want to say “yes” to following Jesus without having to say “no” to ourselves. Friends, it isn’t possible.
If material possessions could make a person content and happy, why did the Rich Young Ruler go away sad? Why didn’t he go away happy? Doesn’t money make you happy? I mean, he was going back to his riches. Wasn’t he supposed to be happy? This story is proof of what many have to learn the hard way. Even though he had wealth it didn’t satisfy him. He wasn’t happy or he wouldn’t have come to Jesus with questions in the first place. He was searching, but rather than receiving what he had finally found and following, he went away sad.
You will never truly follow Jesus if you aren’t passionate. You will never truly follow Jesus if you aren’t willing to deny yourself.
“If anyone would come after me, let Him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Following Christ involves carrying a cross. Let me unpack what that means. Put yourself in the mind of those living at the time Christ uttered these words. What would they have thought when they heard these words? What kinds of images would be conjured up in their minds as they heard Jesus say those who follow Him must also carry a cross?
They were used to seeing crosses. The threat of crucifixion was what kept the Jews in line under Roman control. The Jewish people knew just what it meant to cross Rome. It meant execution. It was a sure death. It was the worst kind of death because it involved so much leading up to the moment of death.
There was terrible humiliation involved. You were hung up to die for everyone to see. It was public because the Romans wanted to publicly humiliate the person who was being crucified. To Rome, there was nothing more humiliating to a person that putting them in the most vulnerable position in full view of everyone in order to taunt them and make their death as emotionally painful as it would be physically painful.
That’s what happened to Jesus, you know. During Jesus’ crucifixion he was spit on and mocked. He was crucified naked. Rome wanted Jesus to feel like He was nothing. They wanted to make the world believe He was nothing. And, in a real sense, He was nothing. He was nothing, not because of the Romans’ efforts, but because He chose to make Himself nothing. Philippians 2:5-8: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!
There is execution in your future if you choose to follow Jesus. The execution is your willingness to choose to become nothing so that Jesus and God’s plan for your life can become everything in your life. Followship means being willing to die to power and prestige in order to see God’s will accomplished.
Not only was the cross a symbol of humiliation, but it was also a symbol of suffering. It was painful for Jesus to be crucified and the experience wasn’t over in a hurry. It was the most intense physical and emotional pain anyone could endure. What Jesus’ hearers would have internalized when they heard His words about carrying a cross is that they could expect some measure of suffering if they chose to do so. Following Jesus could cost you a relationship or promotion. You could be made fun of. You may have to give up some comforts you are used to. You may have to do without something in order to fully follow Jesus and meet the needs of those around you. Can you say you are really following Jesus if you never suffer or sacrifice in any way?
There’s no pretty way to talk about the cross. The main picture we see in the symbol of the cross is a graphic and sobering reality. It’s a symbol of death. Remember the soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus’ side just to make sure He was dead. Jesus was basically saying, “If you are going to follow me, you are choosing death.”
Paul said in Romans 6:6, “For we know that our old self was crucified with Him.” Paul also said in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
The purpose of the cross was to put an end to evil man, to sin. Paul is communicating that being a Christian involves embracing “death” just as much as it does clinging to eternal life. Do you see it? It involves believing and eternal life, but it also involves following and dying to ourselves. Paul is not suggesting that we will be physically crucified, but the cross is to be something very real in our daily experience. The power of the cross lies in the display of Christ’s position on it. For there He was not powerful, and impressive, and significant. He was not being applauded by the multitudes that listened to His every word. Rather, the cross was a place of weakness and rejection. It was a place of remoteness and obscurity, a place where He was willing to lose everything because He trusted the God who had called Him to sacrifice. That is the death of Christ, the death to which Christians must submit.
Paul went on to speak about this kind of death to himself by saying it’s a daily choice. (I Cor. 15:31) We are to “die daily.” Too many people who call themselves Christians believe Jesus came so that they could be better behaved or that they could have the “rough edges” shaved off of their personalities, but as Kyle Idleman points out in his book, Jesus didn’t come to earth to improve us. He came so that we could die. Only when we die can we be born again and made brand new.
“Take up his cross . . .” It’s a choice you make. Most of us don’t think about death that way. How many of you thought this past week about wanting to choose death? Isn’t that something we typically try to avoid? In John 10:18, Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.” Just as Jesus chose death, He asks those who follow Him to choose the same path.
Every day you get up, you have a choice. Will you live your life for yourself or will you die to your agenda and let Jesus live His life through you? You will never be able to truly follow Jesus if you aren’t passionate. You will never be able to truly follow Jesus if you aren’t willing to deny yourself. You will never be able to truly follow Jesus if you aren’t willing to die.
We’ve unpacked Luke 9:23, but take a look at what follows in Luke 9:24. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Denial and death don’t seem very attractive until you realize they are the only way to true life. They are the only way to true happiness and contentment. If you want to keep control of your life, if you want to call the shots, if you want to live for your own ideas about what will bring contentment and peace, you will wind up losing it. You’ll ruin it. I can say that with confidence. You will destroy your life and go away to live a sad life if you don’t choose followship. But if you will surrender to followship, you will find the best kind of life.
The premise of the book, “Not a Fan” is simply this. Too many Christians today are fans of Jesus but not really true followers. They enjoy church. They love to read about all of the blessings of being a Christian. They may even own a Christian t-shirt, but don’t ask them to part with their resources. Don’t demand they respect their bodies as a temple of the Holy Spirit 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Don’t suggest they change the way they live behind closed doors, talk with their friends or altar their viewing or listening habits. Don’t ask them to witness to the lost or interrupt their lives to meet the needs of anyone else. If you do, you’re asking too much.
I’m not asking. Jesus is. He is not looking for fans, but for followers. He is looking for people who are willing to resign from control of their own lives. He is looking for people who will live as He directs, follow where He leads, and do what He asks. He is looking for some passionate people who will come after Him with the same kind of intensity He exemplified when He came after us.
Are you ready to ramp up the passionate pursuit of knowing and following Jesus? Are you willing to deny yourself? Are you willing to die? Are you willing to quit pursuing your own dreams, goals, and agendas? Are you willing to quit turning to food, drugs, alcohol, sex, or some kind of other fantasy escape for comfort and contentment? Are you willing to quit living like a fan and start living like a follower?
(Worshipers had pink slips on their chairs that said, “I Quit.” They were invited to bring their pink slips forward and lay them on the altar as a symbol that they were quitting the life of a fan and beginning the life of a follower.)