On The Road- What Does It Mean To Follow Jesus?
Isn’t it interesting that one word in a language can be used in a whole variety of different ways? Take, for instance the English word “way”.
Health: “Someone is in a bad way”
Desires: “Get their own way”
Progress: “A job is under way”
Talents: “Someone has a way with words”
Normal expected behaviour: “Go out of your way to help”
Mode of living: “Way of life”
Names of roads: There are plentiful examples of road names can end in “Way”. Near where I grew up is a road called Links Way.
The same is true in the language that the New Testament was first written in – the Greek language. In Greek, the word “way” is the word hodos and it is used a lot in the four gospels and the book of Acts (around 17-21 times in each these books). For instance, you can find the word right at the start of the Mark’s Gospel, where we read that the job of John the Baptist was to prepare the way of the Lord. The trouble is, it can be hard to spot which English words derive from this word hodos because the word is rendered in different ways in our English translations. It can mean a physical road, a course of action, a way of thinking and a way of life. But it is an important word because Jesus described Himself as “The Way” (John 14:6) and, in the early days of the Church, Christianity itself was called “The Way” (Acts 9:2).
In Mark 8:27-38, it’s easier to spot where Mark uses this Greek word hodos. It comes near the start in verse 27 where it says, “On the way, Jesus asked His disciples, who do you say I am?”
You can also find this story in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel, but Mark is the only one to incorporate this small phrase “on the way” in his version. That means Mark wants to use this word to emphasise something important. When we find the word hodos in Mark’s Gospel, it’s often used to teach us something about what it means to follow Jesus. It’s about discipleship.
In this passage from Mark, we see three aspects of following Jesus. What does it mean to follow Him?
1. Be clear who you are following
At the start of our story there is a fascinating conversation between Jesus and His disciples. He asks them what the word on the street is about Him. And it turns out that people have quite different opinions. But then Jesus turns the question back to the disciples. He wants to know what they think. The emphasis now is who they think He is.
Jesus wants His disciples to realise that it makes a lot of difference who you choose to follow. It’s hard to follow someone you’ve got the wrong idea about. If you watch spy films like James Bond, you sometimes have one person chasing after someone else. And to throw someone off your scent you can use a decoy, someone who confuses you into following them, while the real person gets away. If you don’t realise the decoy is a decoy, you end up following the wrong person. So, when it comes to following Jesus, it’s important to know who He really is.
This story is seen as a highpoint in the whole of Mark’s Gospel because Peter makes his bold statement to declare that he believes Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the promised King from God. But even though he got that answer right, he had the wrong view of what the Messiah would do. The popular opinion at that time was that the Messiah would be a conquering political leader who would free the people of Israel from their domination by the Romans. So, when Peter hears Jesus say that He must die at the hands of the Romans, Peter thinks this is a big mistake and makes sure he tells Jesus. But Jesus firmly rebukes Peter. Isn’t it sobering that Jesus reserved His most stinging reprimand, not for an enemy, but for one of His close disciples? The One who called the Pharisees “white-washed sepulchres”, didn’t call them “Satan” like He did to Peter. The seriousness with which Jesus rebuked Peter shows the importance of not having a wrong opinion of Him. Jesus was saying that His role as Messiah was going to be different to popular opinion. The Messiah would be a servant who would conquer through suffering, and all this would be part of God’s good purposes.
Knowing Jesus to be a Saviour who triumphed through suffering also gives purpose to our own suffering. Christianity is not a triumphalist faith. It doesn’t say in the Bible that when you become a Christian all your troubles will end. But as we choose to follow the Saviour whose victory came through suffering, so we can have confidence that God will work His own purposes through our times of trouble. Sometimes God will act in dramatic ways to lift us out of suffering and at other times He will grant us the grace to endure, but all the time His purposes for us remain.
2. Follow Jesus in a way that attracts others to follow Him
In the next section of this passage, Jesus speaks to a different audience. To start with, it was just His disciples. Now He calls a crowd to Him and says, “If anyone would come after me.” The call to follow Jesus is not just for a privileged few. Jesus calls everyone to follow Him. The Christian faith is an invitation for everyone to know forgiveness from the past, new life today and a hope for the future.
The invitation to others to follow Jesus comes through those of us who are already following Him. People who are not yet Christians typically decide what they think about the Christian faith by watching how Christians conduct their lives. So, it’s really important for us to reflect upon how our lives are influencing the views of others.
We each carry personal responsibility for how we live our lives beyond what happens in church on a Sunday. And our lives will become more and more attractive advertising for the Christian faith as we recognise the scope of what it means to follow Jesus. This brings us to the final point.
3. Following Jesus means allowing His ongoing transformation in all areas of our lives
In our reading, Jesus gives a hint that following Him is a journey that has different stages. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
One emphasis of Jesus’ words is the importance of keeping on following Him. True discipleship is not a haphazard process. It’s not a Sunday-only activity. Each day we must choose to follow Him.
But also there is an emphasis in Jesus’ words of the totality of following Him. We are to take up our cross and follow Him. Taking up our cross is a powerful image. Those led out to be crucified had to surrender everything to the soldiers. The prisoner couldn’t say, “Now, I know you have to crucify me, but it’s a bit inconvenient for me at the moment, so perhaps we could do it later and I’d really like to wear my best clothes and could we have some nice music playing?”
To be led out for crucifixion was a surrender of everything to the one who led you out. Jesus’ words about following Him are very challenging. We see that discipleship is a journey along which we allow His transformation to come to all areas of our lives, whether it be our relationships, our work, our use of time, our finances, the way we speak and all the other aspects of our lives.
For each of us there is a challenge to consider which areas of our lives should be offered afresh to Jesus, so that He might be first. That’s something that needs regular reflection.
Mark’s Gospel used the word “Way” to describe the journey of following Jesus. It’s a particular kind of journey.
The Australian coat of arms features 2 animals, the kangaroo and the emu. Both animals were chosen because they share a common characteristic that appealed to Australian citizens. The kangaroo and the emu hardly ever move backwards. The emu’s 3-toed foot means it would tend to fall over if it tried to go backwards and it’s incredibly difficult for the kangaroo to go in reverse because of its large tail. Both animals are famous for moving forwards.
Following Jesus is a one-way journey in a forward direction. This passage is a watershed in Mark’s Gospel as a whole, because from this point on, Jesus is on a relentless journey to Jerusalem where He will accomplish His great mission through the cross and His resurrection. His call to follow Him is a call to travel a purposeful journey with Him, sharing His mission in the world. May Christ strengthen us to follow Him with renewed determination on this exciting journey.