I have often wondered what in the world convinces a Muslim to follow Jesus. In many Muslim countries, the moment you convert to Christianity your wife will leave you, your husband will abandon you, and your friends will betray you. You can lose your job, your house, and everything you have ever worked for. Worst of all you can end up rotting away in a prison or killed for your faith. So what do you say to someone in these countries in order to convince them that they should follow Jesus? In the west we would go on and on about how wonderful Jesus can make your life. We would talk about how he can bless your finances and give you an abundant life and make you happy and fill you with blessings. We will tell you how much God loves us and wants us to have the best in life and we would invite you to the best church in town with an awesome worship band, comfortable seats, and a super cool preacher. The deacons would work hard to make sure the building is clean and the air conditioning is just right because we don’t want to give anyone an excuse for not accepting Jesus.
Now, I'm not knocking any of this but do you realize that in Iraq there is no cool worship band and there is no trendy preacher or air conditioned, cushion chair, church? Do you realize that in many of these countries saying yes to Jesus means accepting the fact that you could lose everything including your family and your life? I ask again, what in the world convinces these people that they should follow Jesus? There’s nothing in it for them. And I look at my own life and I wonder, do I follow Jesus because I want to get something out of him? Or would I follow him even if I lost it all?
Well, I’m not the only person to ever have followed Jesus in order to gain something for myself. Peter struggled with this same exact concept. For many years Peter followed Jesus not out of love but because he wanted something out of Jesus. Have you ever met someone like that? They only call when they want something. They only come around when they need something. And when you have something they need or want they are all over you but when they get what they were looking for they are gone. I suppose we are all guilty of that and so was Peter.
In Matthew 16: 21-24 we read the following story:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Matthew begins this story with the words “from that time on” indicating that something significant had just happened. When we look back we see that Jesus was with his disciples and asked them who people said he was. The disciples gave all kinds of answers and then finally Jesus asked them who they thought he was. Peter stood up and confessed “You are the messiah.” And “from that time on” Matthew says, Jesus began to explain his destiny.
Peter had finally come to the place where he knew Jesus was the messiah but he still didn’t know what that meant. You see, the Israelites had been under oppression for hundreds of years. First the Babylonians, then the Medo-Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans. They were treated with cruelty, abused, exploited, and dictated by the governing power of Rome. The Jews wanted freedom and they wanted a messiah who would deliver them from Rome and establish them as the most powerful nation on the earth. And this is what Peter wanted. To Peter, Jesus was a ticket to success and not much more. So Jesus began explaining to them what his messiahship meant, that he would suffer and be killed. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
For Peter Jesus' messiahship was about the earthly kingdom. Peter wanted to be a part of that earthly kingdom. In many ways, Peter and the other disciples were following Jesus, not because of what they could give but what they could get. They followed Jesus mainly because they believed that through him they would get political power and prestige. And when Jesus said he would suffer and die Peter said, “This shall never happen to you!” but what he really meant to say was “this shall never happen to me.” And Jesus rebukes Peter saying, “You don’t have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” I like how the Voice Bible translates it. It says, “You are not thinking about Gods story.”
To the limited eye it appears that Peter was trying to protect Jesus, but the reality is he was merely protecting his own ambitions. He didn’t want Jesus to die because if he did, what would become of his own story? Peter didn’t really care about Gods story. He only cared about his own story. And Jesus was the key to make his own story better. In modern terms, Jesus was nothing more than a product Peter could use to improve his quality of life. For Peter following Jesus was about “What’s in it for me?” And the church today is filled with people who show up asking “What’s in it for me?” And what is the end result of this self-centered Christianity? The life of Peter answers the question, for when Jesus was taken prisoner Peter denied ever having known him.
Why are you following Jesus? Why are the Christians in Iraq following Jesus? What of those who have been hung, imprisoned, or shot? If someone points a gun at your face and tells you “deny him or die” what will you do?
The sad reality is that today myriads of people are following Jesus, not because of their love for Him, but because they see Him as a product that can improve their quality of life. Jesus has been objectified into a philosophical commodity that makes us “happy.” Christianity has denigrated into a “what’s-in-it-for-me” religion. And church has depreciated into a “what-can-I-get-out-of-it” performance. If that is our view of Christianity, I wonder, what will we do when we are asked to “deny him or die” with the cold barrel of a rifle pressed violently against our throats? Like Peter many of us are living a Christianity that does not have in mind Gods story, but merely our story—human concerns. And this is why Peter freaked out. His story was too important to him and the moment he heard the words suffering and death he was like, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I am here for! I want to be prime minister." And there was no room in Peters Christianity for suffering and death.
Is there room in your Christianity for suffering and death?
Jesus doesn’t give us much of an option.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”
In Jesus’ day the cross was not jewelry or a t-shirt. It was an instrument of execution. To carry your cross means that you die to yourself and your own ambitions and live for him and his glory. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what it means to commit your life to him: Suffering and death.
As a church we have got to stop trying to sell Jesus. He is not for sale. We do not bring people to Christ by telling them that if they follow him they will get everything they want. We do not make Jesus more attractive by turning him into our personal genie. We do not lead anyone to Christ by offering them a shallow, cheesy, and easy faith. In his article “Are You Ready? (Thoughts on Iraq’s Christian Genocide)” Pastor Gabriel Johnson says,
“as I listen to the messages being preached by many of the world’s most renowned religious leaders I can’t help but wonder if we are missing the point. Don’t get me wrong I want the big house; nice car and enormous bank account just like the next guy. And I do believe that the promises of God can open amazing doors in every area of life. But when much of what I hear is how God wants to bless my business while children are losing their lives it causes me to question our religion. Will the belief in the promise of success sustain me when they’re trying to kill my family or take my wife? What are we being prepared for in our churches?”
It is not our responsibility to try and make Jesus attractive by presenting only the promises and the blessings while ignoring his radical teachings such as “if you want to follow me, it involves a cross.” Because following Jesus is wonderful. Because following Jesus is the most rewarding thing you will ever do. But it involves a cross. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing some of your closest friends? When my wife became a Christian she lost many of her friends. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means alienation from your family? I have a friend in New Jersey who got kicked out of his house when he became an Adventist. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your job? Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means you will miss out on all the wild things your friends are doing? Allow me to make this a little more painful for each of us. Are you willing to follow Jesus when people in church criticize you? Are you willing to follow Jesus when people in church judge you? To the youth: Are you willing to follow Jesus when the old folk in your church reject, criticize, and insult everything you are trying to do? To the elders: Are you willing to follow Jesus when your church is making changes you don’t like? We can’t choose to follow Jesus based on how pleasant it is. We must carry the cross. We must die to self. We must live for his story, not our own—even if it costs us our life.
You know, I am heart broken when I hear about people who became Christians and then they left the church because someone said something mean or did something wrong. Don’t get me wrong, as a church we need to bend over backwards to make sure our youth and new converts feel safe and welcome. But at the same time, who told you no one will ever insult you in church? Who told you there wouldn’t be hypocrites? Who told you there wouldn’t be hard times? Jesus sure didn’t say that. And when we are concerned with our own story we walk away when something unpleasant happens. But when we are concerned with Gods story we can’t walk away because we know it’s all about him.
Some of you are probably asking right now: This is all good and everything Marcos, but if following Jesus involves so much suffering then why follow him? I have enough problems in my life at the moment. Why should I commit myself to something that is going to bring more problems? First of all allow me to say that God does bless his children. I am not saying that he doesn’t. There are many benefits to following Jesus and I am not denying any of those. Jesus does bring peace and comfort and joy to our lives. He does heal the brokenness of our families and he does forgive our sin and transform our lives. But I find it interesting that of the 22 times that Jesus said “follow me” in the New Testament not once did he say "you should follow me because if you do you’ll get this." Twice he mentioned a benefit of following him such as, “whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” But not once did he say, “I am Jesus. Follow Me and you will receive all of these benefits.”
For the most part, Jesus invitation of follow me is not preceded or followed by any sales pitch. He doesn’t market himself like a new refrigerator. He doesn’t promote all the benefits of having a Jesus-membership.
To Peter and Andrew he said “follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” Peter and Andrew had no idea what he was talking about. But they followed him. Why?
To an unknown man Jesus said, “follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.” To the rich young ruler Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The rich young ruler decided “you ask for too much.”
And then we come back to our story. Peter didn’t want to suffer and die. So in the end he denied Christ. But that wasn’t the end. Jesus came back to life. He found Peter and their conversation is recorded in John 21.
Look at what was said,
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me…”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
And look at what Jesus says next. Pay close attention. Here it is:
And to Peter he said, “when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
No benefit. No discounts or coupons. Death. "Peter, you will be killed because of me. Now, follow me." And years later Peter was indeed crucified upside down in Rome. What changed? Why did Peter choose to follow Jesus when the cost was so high? Because Peter now understood what it was all about. It wasn’t about his story. It was about Gods story. Peter got lost in Gods story and he discovered it is a romantic and breath taking love story. “Peter, do you love me?” Yes, I do Lord. I love you. And that love was so strong he was willing to carry any cross, suffer any loss, and give his very life so that God’s love story could be told. Peter experienced Jesus. Peter tasted the love of Jesus. And Peter loved Jesus.
I have discovered that this love is the only reason why anyone should follow Jesus. This is the only reason why a Muslim who stands to lose it all would be willing to follow Jesus. Because they saw him. Because they tasted his love and like Paul they cry out, “everything is trash compared to him!” I don’t want what he has to offer as though he was some sort of philosophical commodity or some kind of product off of the shelves in a super market. I just want Him! Love for Jesus. Live for Jesus. Die for Jesus. No matter the cost. No matter the cross. Follow him.