In the midst of church scandal, encounters with mean Christians, and political divisions in the church, we are often encouraged to “Just follow Jesus.” It has also become popular for many believers to escape the political associations of the label “Christian” by identifying themselves as mere “followers of Jesus”. I like the label “follower of Jesus” because most unbelievers like Jesus, and I want to be liked too. It makes it harder for unbelievers to dismiss me or dump me into a box of stereotypes.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that despite many good sentiments behind the phrase, the exhortation to “just follow Jesus” is unhelpful. It may have the virtue of being in true in a general sense, and it is an utterly safe thing to say, but it is almost completely without specific content. Because it is so vague, we are allowed to fill it with almost anything—or nothing at all.
The first reason the phrase is unhelpful is so obvious we miss it. Jesus is invisible. We cannot simply follow Jesus because He is at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. He has ascended. He is now invisibly present with us through the Holy Spirit. Simply following Jesus is therefore more complicated than going where He goes and doing what He does. There is nothing simple about following someone who is invisible.
Someone might object, “Don’t be a smart aleck, Wilson! We don’t mean literally follow Jesus! We mean follow His example!” Since we know little about the first thirty years of Jesus life, this can only mean we should follow the example Jesus set during his three years of extraordinary ministry in Israel. We are probably, however, right to ask whether the years before his ministry are a better example since few of us are going to become itinerant rabbis performing signs and wonders.
Even if we accept the life of Jesus during his ministry as the model we should follow, we run into problems. To truly follow the example of Jesus, we need to do what Jesus did and commanded his disciples to do. In Matthew 10: 7—8 Jesus says, “And as you go, preach saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, freely you have received, freely give.” Jesus is telling them to go and do what they have seen Him doing. But how, exactly, do we “just follow Jesus”?
Most of us are not healing the sick and casting out evil spirits, yet this was huge part of Jesus’ ministry. And although evangelicals are quick to apply the great commission (at the end of Matthew) to all believers and not just the apostles, they are less keen to apply the commissioning of his disciples to heal sick, raise the dead, and cast out evil spirits. Few seminaries, if any, prepare graduates to cast out demons like Jesus did.
However, we can still make a strategic retreat and say, “What we really mean by ‘Just Follow Jesus’ is to become like Jesus in our character. But there will always be wiseacres who instead of saying “Amen” will ask, “How?” We will tell them to spend time in God’s Word, pray daily, and hang out with some mature believers who are genuinely Christ-like. We will urge them to be filled with the Holy Spirit and remove from their lives things that make it harder to hear and obey the voice of the Spirit. However, some will ask, “When and how do I become filled with the Holy Spirit? Is it automatic at salvation? Should I expect anything supernatural or just claim it by faith? At this point, if we are honest, we are long way from anything like “just following Jesus.”
It is interesting to note that Paul seldom exhorts believers to follow Jesus. Believers are encouraged to put on Christ, lay aside the old man, walk by faith, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. It is probably the exhortation (Romans 8:14) to be led by the Spirit and walk according to the Spirit that comes closest to just following Jesus. This is true because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to impart to us the character (fruit), ministry (gifts), and wisdom (revelation) of Jesus.
More common than calls to follow Jesus are Paul’s exhortations to follow his own example. Paul urges believers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (I Corinthians 4:16). Paul asks the church In Philippi to follow his example and to follow others who also walk according to the example he set (Philippians 3:17). Although we often want to protect believers by urging them to “just follow Jesus” and “keep their eyes on Jesus,” Paul acknowledges that we still need flesh and blood Christ-like examples to follow. “Just following Jesus” is hard without such models.
So even if we say, rightly I think, that following Jesus always takes us to Pentecost and living a life led by God’s Spirit, we are far from proclaiming anything simple. Learning to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit takes time and practice. Walking in the Holy Spirit is helped by the spiritual disciplines that make room for the Spirit to speak and work in our lives. Even holiness and Pentecostal traditions that emphasize crisis experiences now recognize that learning to walk in the Spirit is a process, not just a trip to an altar or a prayer line.
Urging someone to “just follow Jesus” may be harmless if it is the beginning, not the end, of our counsel. Because we mean this metaphorically, we must always follow this with an explanation of how we follow Jesus, how we become filled with the Holy Spirit, and how we learn to hear the voice of the Spirit, how we allow God to speak to us through Scripture. The metaphor must be filled with concrete examples of what following Jesus includes.
At the heart of this discussion lies one of the great paradoxes the gospel. It is simple enough for a child and yet deep enough that after years of study, we have only one toe in the ocean of His wisdom and love. Often when we tell someone they should “just follow Jesus” we probably mean they just need to love Him with all their heart—the way children do when they cling to a mother, father, or grand-parent. I have often not known exactly what following Jesus meant or where Jesus was going, but like a child I have clung to Jesus and spoken His name into the darkness. He is the bright and shining morning star.