For almost 2,000 years, people have responded to Jesus’ challenge to follow him. His call continues to confront us today.
More than a century has passed since Charles Sheldon wrote In His Steps, one of the most widely read books in the English language. Dr. Sheldon was a minister in Topeka, Kansas. Beginning in June 1896, he gave a series of sermons on what happened to people who solved life’s problems by asking, “What would Jesus do?” The sermons were then serialized in the Advance, a Chicago religious paper.
Almost immediately, the material was published in a 10-cent paperback book. The English edition of In His Steps has been in print ever since. One conservative estimate puts the number published at 22 million. The book has been translated into several languages and has been published in 45 countries.
The continuing popularity of In His Steps is but one example of the influence of Jesus’ teachings. Each day, people from all walks of life decide to “receive Christ,” “make a decision for Jesus,” or in some way express their commitment to follow him.
Walking Jesus’ walk
Yale University historian Jaroslav Pelikan has examined the ways people across the ages have tried to model their lives on Jesus. He recounts what he found in his book Jesus Through the Centuries. Professor Pelikan described 18 different heroic images of Jesus held by Western society since Christ’s time. He found that different portraits of Jesus have dominated at various times.
Some have cast Jesus as the great Rabbi, the True Image, the Cosmic Christ, the Monk Who Rules the World, the Divine and Human Model, the Universal Man, the Teacher of Common Sense and the Liberator. In our time, Jesus has become, in the words of Dr. Pelikan, “The Man Who Belongs to the World.” He has become all things to all people— the world’s Everyman.
In all this veneration of Jesus, we must ask a basic question: Why should we follow Jesus? We might look to him as a holy man and teacher of the good life. But many other wise people and religious gurus have appeared through the ages. Why imitate Jesus instead of Buddha, Confucius or Mohammed? Why not put one’s faith in a Martin Luther, St. Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Mother Teresa?
The New Testament explains why Jesus stands above all the pious and saintly people of the world. Quite simply, he was the unique person of history. His uniqueness did not lie in his being the greatest teacher ever or that sort of thing. Jesus was, as John’s Gospel tells us, the Word of God, the Logos in the flesh!
Image of God
According to the New Testament, during a short time in history almost 2,000 years ago, the miracle of the ages was in progress. God’s presence was on this earth in the man Jesus. We should pause a moment to ponder the meaning of this startling reality. It alone explains why we should not only follow in Jesus’ footsteps, but worship him as well. We should worship Jesus because he was more than a man—he was God incarnate.
The word incarnate comes from the Latin incarnari. God came in carnis—which is to say, in human flesh. He confronted humanity in the person of Jesus as “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The apostle John could therefore write of Jesus in the language of eternal preexistence. “We proclaim to you the eternal life,” he said of Jesus, “which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:2).
John opens his Gospel in the same vein by connecting Jesus to the Logos or Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word,” wrote John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then, remarkably, “the Word became flesh,” said John, “and made his dwelling among us” (verse 14). In some mysterious way, God was able to dwell with humans in the person of Jesus (Philippians 2:6-7).
God’s mediator to humanity
For what purpose did such a unique miracle happen? God had a supreme aim: to reveal himself to humans. Since it is impossible for humans to “see” God as he is, his revelation of himself had to come through incarnation. John, for example, says of Jesus, “No one has ever seen God; God’s only Son...has made him known” (John 1:18, Revised English Bible).
God revealed himself on earth in the person of Jesus, and he reveals himself to us today through the writings of those who were there. These New Testament writings describe the experiences of those who encountered the living person, Jesus Christ.
If we know what Jesus was like, we can know what God is like. Jesus testified to this truth. He said of anyone who has known him: “When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me” (John 12:45).
Jesus made this point to his disciples. “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well,” he said (John 14:7). Then, Philip, one of his disciples, said to him, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (verse 8). Jesus’ response affirmed his claim to be God in the flesh. “Don’t you know me,” he said to Philip, “even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (verse 9).
While Jesus was divinity in flesh, he was also a human.
In human flesh
John wonderfully expressed the humanity of Jesus in one of his letters. He said Jesus was the One “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched” (1 John 1:1).
The New Testament tells us that Jesus was as human as we are. Paul says God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful man” (Romans 8:3). Hebrews says Jesus shared in our humanity and was “made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:14, 17). Hebrews also tells us that Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Why without sin? Because Jesus was also God in the flesh and God does not sin.
The book of Romans contains a fairly thorough statement of basic Christian theology. Paul begins this monumental letter by teaching the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus Christ. He says the gospel or good news about Jesus is that although he was a man as to his human nature—a descendant of King David (Romans 1:3)—Jesus was also shown to be “the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (verse 4).
Jesus is now glorified as the Son of God. He is both God the Son and the Son of God. The glorified Jesus serves as the High Priest of his disciples and followers. The book of Hebrews describes this spiritual work of Jesus Christ. It tells us he is the “source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9) and the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Those are the divine credentials of Jesus Christ. It is because of who he is and what he does for us that we should follow and trust him.
As he did during his earthly life, the resurrected Jesus Christ invites us to walk down the road of a new life with God. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” said Jesus (John 12:26). That was one of his favorite phrases— “Follow me.” “Come, follow me,” Jesus told Peter and Andrew as they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:19).
Jesus Christ walked up to Levi, a tax collector sitting in his booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him. The man saw the light. We’re told that “Levi got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:27-28).
During that time, Jesus called his disciples out of their life situations. This created for them a new life in which faith was possible.
On one occasion, a man was attracted to Jesus, but did not want to follow him right away: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” he said. He wanted to follow Jesus, but on his own terms. Jesus wouldn’t accept any excuse. “Follow me,” he said, “and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). Jesus was saying, don’t put off a commitment to me. Make it now. Follow me, now.
The first disciples and followers of Jesus heard him speak and saw his example. They could pattern their lives on his life, and in that way follow him. Now, however, Jesus is more than simply with humans as he was almost 2,000 years ago. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ now forms himself within those who believe in God and follow him (John 14:17; Galatians 4:19).
The apostle Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). If we follow Jesus Christ, he enters our lives, re-creating us as new men and women of God.
That’s when the struggle begins. The sinful self does not want to die. Yet Christ urges us to follow him into his death on the cross. “When Christ calls a man,” said Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), “he bids him come and die.”
Jesus’ intent is that we be conformed to his death. Not necessarily in a literal sense. But anyone following Christ will be crucifying his or her own sinful desires. For us, the words “Follow me” mean we die daily as temptations that lead us away from Christ are crucified. Ours is the daily sacrifice of the sinful self on the cross of Christ (Romans 12:1).
In the process, we do more than follow Christ—we become Christlike. That is, through God’s Holy Spirit, which is also the Spirit of Christ, we are remolded and remade spiritually. We are reborn from above. If we live our lives by the faith of the Son of God in us (Galatians 2:20), then we are a new creation.
Sin violates and deforms the life of Christ dwelling in us. Through the Spirit of God in us, we can crucify or put sin to death. But we are then truly alive, spiritually speaking. In the struggle, we may experience anguish and pain. However, this suffering and spiritual death are not futile. When we die with Christ, we are led to a new place of freedom.
Jesus told his listeners. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Ultimately, those who follow Jesus will be freed from the greatest enslavement and fear of all—death. Jesus will destroy death by giving us immortal life.
Those who lose their life by crucifying the self will be given eternal life. If we follow in Jesus’ footsteps now, we will also follow him with our glorified bodies—in the resurrection of life.