Being a Christian means following Jesus. Well, what does it mean to follow Jesus?
In 1978 Michael H. Hart, an astrophysicist and historian, published a somewhat controversial book called The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History.1 Unsurprisingly, Jesus Christ made his list. Hart caused some commotion among Christian readers, however, by ranking Jesus third, behind Muhammad and Sir Isaac Newton.
Hart acknowledged that Jesus’ teachings were “surely among the most remarkable and original ethical ideas ever presented.”2 But he continued, “If they were widely followed, I would have no hesitation in placing Jesus first in this book.”3 In Hart’s opinion, Jesus’ influence on the world has been considerably diminished by those who claim to follow him but do not abide by his teachings.
So what does it mean for one to “follow Jesus”?
Jesus frequently encountered people with spiritual questions. They wanted to know how to live life more fully. They wanted to connect with God. They wanted to love others more deeply and authentically. They wanted to know about death and eternal life. They wanted to experience God’s forgiveness for their failures and sin. They wanted to understand how to pray, how to worship, how to understand the words of Scripture.
To such people Jesus frequently offered a simple invitation: “Follow me.”4
What did he mean by that? For those to whom he spoke directly in biblical times, it was often quite literal. He was inviting them to go with him, to stay with him as he journeyed throughout Palestine, teaching and healing. But the early church preserved such stories within the Bible, with a sense that those words of invitation were extended to people throughout the ages.
The invitation is offered as an opportunity to learn from Jesus how to live authentically. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for God and a compassion for people, is something we can learn. Humility and forgiveness are traits we can develop. The practices of prayer and worship can be cultivated.
But we need a teacher and an example. Jesus offers to take on that role in our lives.
If we want to learn how to do something well, whether a craft or skill, we might apprentice ourselves to a master. We spend time with them. We observe them. We let them instruct us and correct us. We seek to model ourselves after them. Craftsmen, artists, and athletes alike hone and perfect their abilities in this way.
The late Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, compared following Jesus to becoming the apprentice of a master: “A disciple, or apprentice, is simply someone who has decided to be with another, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.”5
So what do you do if you want to learn to live life well? Where do you go if you want to live in a way that corresponds to the way God created human beings to live? You seek out an example of a life that has been lived in that way. This is what Jesus offers when he says, “Follow me.”
Willard expounded on the nature of being an apprentice to Jesus: “First of all,” he wrote, “we should note that being a disciple, or apprentice, of Jesus is a quite definite and obvious kind of thing. To make a mystery of it is to misunderstand it. There is no good reason why people should ever be in doubt as to whether they themselves are his students or not.”6
What it means to follow Jesus—to be his apprentice in learning to live life—is then relatively straightforward. It first means that we have come to desire the life he offers. We have determined that Jesus is who he claims to be and that he is the source of the wisdom and knowledge that we are seeking.
In biblical accounts, Jesus uses hunger and thirst to describe our spiritual longings and portrays himself as the bread of life and the living water.7 Following Jesus begins with faith or trust in him and his promises, as it would with any teacher.
Second, following Jesus means being with him. This is not an online course. Christians believe that Jesus Christ died for the sins of humankind but was also resurrected from the dead and thus remains personally available to his followers—available to be known and experienced. We experience his presence and hear his voice through practices like prayer, worship, and reading the Bible. These practices allow us to be intentionally with our teacher so that we may learn to follow him.
Third, following Jesus means learning to obey him. Ultimately, what is the point of having an expert teacher if one does not do what the teacher says? We do not follow Jesus by occasionally going to him for advice when we’re in pain but by trusting him as the source of wisdom from which we wish to learn. Take a look at some of Jesus’ own words:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.8
The purpose of this apprenticeship, as Willard often notes, is not to live the life Jesus lived. That has already been done—and we could never be perfect as Jesus was. The purpose is to learn to live your real, present life with all its responsibilities, relationships, and roles as Jesus would live it if it were his.9
How might one get started on the adventure of following Jesus in the twenty-first century? Begin by asking. Christians often ask Jesus to help them to see him more clearly and to know his reality. This is one way of expressing the desire to learn what Jesus has to teach us about life in God’s kingdom.
Then start to use every means available to learn more about Jesus and to understand his teaching. Reading the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—is a good starting point to come to know Jesus and his ways more fully.
The final step is making a decision. We decide to follow Jesus. We apprentice our lives with him. We commit to listening to him, to obeying him, and to allowing him to shape our lives.
No one follows Jesus perfectly. But over time, the disciple begins to reflect his master’s influence.