Follow the Leader

Jesus tried to help his disciples understand who he was and what it meant for them to be his followers. He’s still trying, and we who are Christians need to do better at listening to him.

One day, Jesus asked his disciples what they were hearing people speculate about him. They offered various answers. Then Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. A disciple named Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (“Messiah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “anointed one.” “Christ” is the Greek translation of “Messiah,” so when we say “Jesus Christ,” we are saying “Jesus the Messiah.”)

Jesus said that Peter’s answer was a good one. Then he proceeded to tell his followers what it meant for him to be the Messiah: he was going to suffer, to die, and then rise again.

Peter, who had given the good answer, took Jesus aside to tell him that wasn’t what he meant when he said Jesus was the Messiah. We’re not told what Peter did mean, but we can reasonably conclude that it was the opposite of what Jesus said. Peter expected Jesus to exert military and political power, through which he would drive the Roman occupiers out of the land and make Israel great again.

Jesus told Peter that he was very, very, very wrong: “Get behind me, Satan!” For years I read that as Jesus telling Peter to get out of his sight. But I now think he meant, “Get behind me and follow me; I’ll show you the way you should go.” Jesus called Peter “Satan” because Peter was trying to lead Jesus to go in a way he shouldn’t go, just like the devil did when he tried to get Jesus to take the easy way rather than the hard way in fulfilling his mission.

Jesus then described how his followers are supposed to live:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8:34-38, NRSV).

Christians follow a Savior who gave himself away to the point of dying on the cross. He calls his followers to give themselves away too. We do that by living lives that are characterized by selfless, sacrificial service.

We Christians talk a lot about how Jesus died for us. We talk much less about how Jesus calls us to die with him. We should talk about that more. We should also do it by putting God first, others next, and ourselves last. We should do it by regarding our lives as something to give away rather than to hold onto. We should do it by practicing radical love, grace, mercy, and generosity.

It seems to me that many people wear the label “Christian” but share Peter’s flawed view of who Jesus is. Jesus came to love, to serve, and to give himself away. He calls his followers to do the same. Failure to do so indicates that we are ashamed of Jesus and his words.

After Jesus was arrested, Peter said he didn’t know him. None of us would come right out and deny Jesus that way. But what do our lives show about how well we really do know him? What do they show about whether we accept or deny what he said about the kind of life we are to live as his followers?

We who are Christians need to consider how we live. Do we take up our cross and lay down our lives? Or do we refuse to carry our cross and to give up our lives?

We see and hear a lot of “Christian leaders” quoted in the press. We need to consider who among such “leaders” truly represent Jesus in what they say and do. Are they trying to gain worldly power or are they trying to engage in selfless service? Are they promoting hate or love? Are they focused on themselves or on others?

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We follow Jesus when we do that. We don’t follow him when we don’t.

We Christians need to follow Jesus. We also need to listen to and learn from leaders who follow him. And we need to ignore those who don’t.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

This post originally appeared at On the Jericho Road.

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