In his book, Not a Fan, Kyle Idleman challenges his readers to think of their relationship with Jesus in one of two ways. A Christian is either a fan of Jesus or a follower of Jesus.
A fan is “an enthusiastic admirer,” whereas, a follower is a “completely committed pursuer.”
For example, you might cheer on players from your favorite team. You may know them well enough to rattle off their records. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there’s something a little detached about this form of knowledge. It isn’t personal.
Have you spent a day in their shoes? Have you seen life as they experience it? Have you faced the same fears, struggles, and joys as them? Have they taught you their craft? To answer these questions in the affirmative, you would have to be much more than their fan. You would have to be something more like an apprentice (what the Bible calls a “disciple”). Following someone is personal. It’s immersive.
Following Jesus requires more of us than simply being a fan. It requires total immersion. But does following Jesus look like practically?
Here are three marks of a follower of Jesus. As you read, remember that it’s helpful to think of “following” Jesus more as an apprentice would a master, than a fan would a star athlete, musician, or an artist.
To be a follower of Jesus requires a wholehearted response to his invitation to follow him.
And he [Jesus] said to them [disciples], “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:19-20 ESV)
In this passage, Jesus demanded that his disciples come after him, following in his way. The disciples, then, immediately left their former lives behind and took up a new one.
In Jesus’ time, an apprentice would leave his previous life of family, interests, and livelihood behind to learn a new skill and grow in a new community. Jesus’ new apprentices were learning the craft of being fishers of men. They left all they knew to learn his ways.
A true follower of Jesus will wholeheartedly respond to what he has asked of you—to his call on your life, asking you to come under his Lordship out of love for him and faith in him. A wholehearted response will mean two things.
1. Follow Without Delay
Pursue him without delay. For example, you do not wait for your mother or father to start believing to begin your faith journey (Luke 9:59-62). Follow Christ immediately.
2. Take Up His Work
A wholehearted response means that you begin the process of apprenticeship. You are taking up a new skill and a new life (2 Corinthians 5:17).
For example, are you learning and practicing what it means to love your enemies? Are you practicing the craft of forgiving those who have wronged you? You are following Jesus when you are learning what it means to do his work.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you should not be cheering Jesus on from the sidelines watching as he does all the work. Instead, you will wholeheartedly respond to him by leaving your own agenda behind and joining him in his work.
Suffering and Self-Denial
The second mark of a true follower of Jesus is that you suffer and deny yourself.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 ESV)
Jesus explained that if anyone wants to follow him, they must anticipate suffering and self-denial. In other words, if you are not suffering or denying yourself in any way, then you are not rightly following Jesus.
The Apostle Paul reiterated Jesus’ words when he told us that followers of Jesus are also God’s children and identify as Jesus’ brothers and sisters, “provided we suffer with him [Jesus] in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17 ESV).
So what might self-denial and suffering look like in the life of a follower of Jesus today?
1. Reading the Bible
When you choose to spend time with the Lord, you are humbling yourself (denying yourself). When you read and obey God’s Word, you acknowledge that your life is instructed by God’s desires for you, rather than just your own. Moreover, listening to God’s voice in his Word communicates that you do not know all there is to know about following and practicing Jesus’ ways, but need his daily guidance.
In God’s grace, as we learn to be better readers, God’s Word becomes sweet and it will “enlarge [your] heart” and help you to “run in the way of [God’s] commandments” (Psalm 119:32 ESV). Self-denial is a part of the Christian life but remember: in denying ourselves, we find our true life, which is life with God (John 17:3).
2. Saying No to Temptation
Maybe you aren’t persecuted for your faith daily as many Christians are; however, you likely suffer daily by resisting sin and temptation and choosing to live in obedience to Christ. You suffer for Jesus when you do the harder thing of saying no to temptation, out of love for him (John 14:15). You are rightly following Jesus when you refuse sin and, instead, pick up your cross and deny yourself.
Temptation, the allure of sin, can cause suffering in our lives. But take heart:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Serving God’s People
“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 ESV).
Jesus said these things to provide clarity for what it means to follow him. Like an apprentice serving his or her master, followers of Jesus will serve as he served. If you truly follow Jesus, you will serve him, first and foremost. And serving Jesus means being faithful to his people.
Peter writes, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others . . . If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10-11 ESV). God gives us gifts in order to serve and build up the Christians around us. We serve God by being faithful in serving others with the gifts God has given us. This takes explicit form in the life of a local church.
A servant whose heart is captured by Christ loves to serve Christ’s people.
Lighthouses in the Dark
These are three marks of a follower of Jesus. Remember two things about these marks.
First, these three marks don’t necessarily confirm for you that you are following Jesus. The true mark of every follower of Jesus is faith in him and love for fellow Christians (1 John 2:10; 3:23)—and only God can truly see the heart. Second, if you are not currently exhibiting one of these marks, it does not mean that you are not following Jesus.
These marks are more like lighthouses that are bringing you home—not necessarily the ship of true saving faith that will deliver you to land. They help you consider whether there is evidence of true faith in your life (James 2:20).
Following Jesus is not easy. You will fail. There will be times, for instance, that self-denial will be extremely difficult. But it’s joyful. Remember his grace is sufficient for you and made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
You see, the beauty of following Jesus is that he will not let you fall and rise alone—for though you follow him, he walks beside you. And though he has good things planned for you to do in his kingdom (Ephesians 2:10), he also promises to complete the good work he began in you (Philippians 1:6). Though you choose daily to follow him, he chose you to belong to him (John 15:16).