52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #4 “You Follow Me”

by Travis Bookout

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We just had our first snow this winter. I always love snow, but this year was particularly special. For Oliver, my 17 month old, it was his first snow and he had a blast. In one of our games, I shuffled my feet through the snow, making a path, and he ran/stumbled down the path towards me. I led the way, made the path, and he followed. That’s probably the simplest way that I’ve led Oliver. The much more difficult way is through my words, actions, and example. I’m supposed to be guiding him through life. I hope and pray (multiple times every day in fact) that he follows well and that I lead him well.

More than anywhere else, I want Oliver (and our 2nd son who should arrive shortly) to follow me to the One I’m following. I hope I lead well. But I know He leads well. As followers of Jesus, our life’s call is to stay on His path and lead others to Him.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:36).  The result was “The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus” (John 1:37). As a preacher, this is a short summary of my goal every week. That people hear what I say, and follow Jesus.

In this passage, when it says they “followed” Him, the picture is of them literally walking behind Jesus. In fact, Jesus “turned and saw them following” (John 1:37). But the word “follow” in the Gospel of John is theologically loaded. It’s not just the “Oliver walking through the snow” type of following. This is the “Oliver following my actions and example” type of following. They are walking behind Jesus, but so much more is meant.

Then, the next day, Jesus “found Philip. And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me’” (John 1:43). Again, this is so much more than walking behind Jesus. This is a call to leave everything and dedicate your life to someone. To be a “follower” is a dramatic display of discipleship and service. That’s how Jesus explains the concept in these three passages:

“Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

“When [the shepherd] puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers…My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:4-5, 27).

“If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26).

Sadly, not all understand the true call of following Jesus. Remember when Jesus fed the 5,000? How did such a large crowd of followers form? “A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick” (John 6:2). As the story continues, it becomes apparent that by “following” they were merely walking with Him (John 6:26). Not giving themselves over to dramatic discipleship. After actually listening to Him, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (John 6:66).

Peter turns out to be one of the saddest examples of this: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, where are You going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for you’” (John 13:36-37). Peter thought he was ready to follow Jesus to death. If he were called to bravely die fighting for the kingdom, I bet he would have. But Jesus established a kingdom of nonviolence. To see Jesus willfully taken to be crucified was something Peter couldn’t handle. When an army showed up to arrest Jesus, Peter took out his sword, ready to die in the fight (John 18:10-11)! But when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times (John 18:17, 25-27).

One of the interesting features of Peter’s denials is where they took place. When Jesus was arrested, “Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple…” (John 18:15). The other disciple goes into the courtyard, but Peter “was standing at the door outside” (John 18:16). He can only enter the courtyard when the “other disciple” brings him. But that’s as far as Peter gets. The other disciple follows all the way to the cross (John 19:26, 35), but Peter stops at the courtyard, and denies three times.

That’s interesting because there’s a comparison that takes place throughout the Gospel of John. We’ll talk more about it in a later post, but the comparison is between Peter and the famous “beloved disciple.” One is a picture of true genuine discipleship, the other is the loser/denier/failure. Peter is always the loser. Peter denies, loses the race to the tomb (John 20:6, “following” after the disciple), and is the one Jesus has a talk with after the resurrection.

After Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus makes him declare his love three times (John 21:15-17). Then Jesus describes the manner in which Peter will lose his youthful freedom, and go to where he does not want, spreading his arms in a God-glorifying death (John 21:18). Peter will be a faithful martyr. Jesus concludes this discussion by challenging, “Follow me” (John 21:19).

Peter, feeling the pressure and wanting to place it elsewhere, “turning around saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following…so Peter seeing him said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’” But Jesus doesn’t take the bait, replying, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (John 21:22).

These are Jesus’ final words in the Gospel of John. From the beginning of His ministry (John 1:37, 43) until the end, it’s about that call: “You follow Me!” I believe this call isn’t just to Peter. It’s to you and me and all who hear it. This call is to know and obey the voice of the Shepherd, to serve Him, and to go even “where you do not want to go” (John 20:18). Follow Him with a cross on your shoulders. Follow Him with arms outspread. Follow Him throughout your life. Follow Him to death.