In many texts, Jesus explains in greater detail and with other images what it means to be his disciple, but the command to follow him, which occurs in the middle of Matthew’s account (4.19) of Jesus’ calling these first four disciples, is most basic.
We find it in many of these stories. It is here, in Jesus’ calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. But several chapters later, it appears in Jesus’ call of Matthew. Matthew was a tax-collector; he was despised by the people for his collaboration with the Roman authorities. But he obeyed Jesus and followed him. When the people protested Jesus’ involvement with this “sinner,” Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” His explanation shows that the command to follow Jesus was not only a physical following or even, as it were, an invitation to learn more about Him to see if one wanted to be a permanent disciple. It was a turning from sin for salvation, to be healed by God.
In all, the words “follow me” occur thirteen times in the Gospels. But in addition, there are scores of references in which one person or another is said to have followed Christ. These are important because they teach important truths about what it means to be one of Christ’s disciples.
Obedience is an unpopular concept today, which is why we use phrases such as “blind obedience” or “mindless adherence” to authority. We think of it as enemy soldiers blindly carrying out the inhumane orders of an evil commander. When we see a phrase like “follow me,” we interpret it simply as an invitation and match our evangelism to that pattern. We ask people to follow Jesus, promising that He will make them happy if they do. There may be an element of invitation in Christ’s call to sinners, of course, but it can hardly escape any thoughtful student that the words “follow me” are an imperative, a command – which is why those commanded to follow Jesus did in fact immediately leave their nets, boats, counting tables, or whatever else was occupying them and follow Jesus.
Without obedience there is no genuine Christianity. It is not that people cannot “follow” Jesus in some lesser sense and then perhaps fall away when the demands of genuine discipleship become clear to them. Many persons in the Gospels seem to have done just that. The rich young ruler is one example. But that is not the same thing as a sheep of Christ’s flock hearing His call and responding to His voice as he recognizes Jesus to be his rightful Lord and Master. Those who are truly Christ’s sheep both hear and obey His call from the beginning and thus enter a life in which obedience is a chief characteristic.
A second requirement of following Jesus is repentance. When Jesus called Matthew, He called one who knew he was a “sinner.” Jesus emphasized repentance, but the need for repentance is no less evident in the calls of the other disciples. The point is that it is impossible to follow Christ without repentance.
How could it be otherwise? Jesus is the holy, sinless Son of God. He has never taken one step in any sinful direction. He has never had a single sinful thought. Anyone who is following Him, therefore, must by definition turn his back to sin and set his face toward righteousness. Christians do sin, but when they do, they must confess their sin and turn from it, being restored to fellowship again. Anyone who thinks he or she can follow Christ without renouncing sin is at best badly confused. At the worst, this person is not a true Christian.
Following Jesus also involves submission. In one of His most important sayings about discipleship, Jesus describes submission as putting on a yoke. This suggests a number of things, but chiefly it suggests submission to Christ for work assigned. Submission means being placed under the authority of another. How could it be otherwise if the one we are following is our true King and Lord, and we are truly His disciples?
The fourth element involved in following Christ is trust. It is impossible to follow Christ without trusting Him, for a lack of trust will cause us to deviate from the path He takes or cause us to choose to leave Him. By contrast, it is impossible to genuinely trust Christ and not follow Him, since a failure to follow means a person is committed to some other goal or is trusting some other thing or person.
Following Christ also involves perseverance because following is not an isolated act, done once and for all and never to be repeated. Rather, it is a lifetime commitment that is not fulfilled until the race is won, the final barrier crossed, the crown received, and all rewards laid gratefully at the feet of Jesus. Following Jesus is not only a door to be entered but a path to be followed, and the true disciple proves the reality of his discipleship by following that path to the end. David wrote about it in Psalm 119, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (v.105), ending with the words, “My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (v.112). That is it! A true disciple is one who follows Christ to the end of everything.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon described Jesus’ call of these early disciples – “They come straightway; they come at all cost; they come without a question; they come to quit old haunts; they come to follow their leader without stipulation or reserve.”