Have you ever noticed while watching a game on television that you often see someone holding a sign that reads “John 3:16”? It’s one of the most memorized verses in the Bible. It communicates a great truth. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). In that one verse we learn that God loves us, Jesus died for us, and we can have eternal life through him.
Yet, interestingly enough, I’ve never seen someone holding up a sign that reads “Luke 9:23.” Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 ESV). I can understand why no one would paint that verse on a sign and hold it up for all to see. It doesn’t make a very appealing advertisement for Christianity. In fact, it makes it difficult to recruit new Christians.
But John 3:16 and Luke 9:23 have to go together in order for there to be an accurate understanding of the gospel’s invitation. John 3:16 emphasizes believing. Luke 9:23 focuses on following. John 3:16 speaks to the head. Luke 9:23 speaks to the heart. Those two things are necessary and must go together. There is no believing without following. There is no head without the heart. There is no John 3:16 without Luke 9:23.
An Open Heart
Anyone in Luke 9:23 is a significant word because it makes clear whom Jesus is inviting. Anyone is an all-inclusive word. Anyone means everyone. There are no qualifiers, no conditions, and no list of requirements.
Jesus offers an open invitation to anyone, whosoever will may come. Yet we often feel like we have to clean up our act, get dressed up and get our lives straightened out and then we can come to Christ. Not so. Jesus issues an open invitation.
A Captivated Heart
Come after me is a phrase commonly used in the context of a romantic relationship. When Jesus says, “Come after me,” he’s describing a passionate pursuit of someone you love. The best way to understand what Jesus is wanting from us as followers is to compare how we pursue him to how we would pursue someone with whom we want to have a romantic relationship.
Do you remember what it was like when you fell in love? Fall is a good word. When you fall you can’t hold back, you go all in, you are reckless in your abandonment. Your mind is consumed, your heart aches, your pocketbook is generous. Pursuing a romantic love will make you do some crazy things. Why? Your heart is captivated.
Jesus is looking for followers who are passionate about him. They display a crazy love, a radical response. He is looking for captivated hearts.
A Surrendered Heart.
Jesus made it clear that if we are to follow him, a casual no-strings-attached arrangement isn’t a possibility. You can’t “come after” Jesus without denying yourself. Deny is a strong term. It means to forget that one exists or to cease to consider one’s own interests in the slightest degree.
It’s difficult to do, especially in this me-centered culture like ours. But it’s what Jesus did. Jesus left the glories and comfort of heaven to come to a cold and uncaring world to sacrificially die for its inhabitants. Jesus never asks us to do something that he was not willing to do.
Followers denying themselves say, “I choose Jesus. I choose Jesus over my family, over money, over career, over my freedom, over what people think of me.” Why? Because they have surrendered hearts.
A Committed Heart.
When Jesus said “take up your cross” it would translate in today’s vernacular as “take up your electric chair” or “take up your lethal injection.” The cross was an instrument of torture and death. He was saying “Come and die.” As Dietrich Bonheoffer put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
The outcome for those carrying a cross is certain. “Dead man walking” is a phrase sometimes used to describe a person on death row, and the expression is certainly appropriate for a follower carrying a cross. Jesus took the most despised and rejected symbol of his time and said, “If you want to follow me, take this up.” He invites us to die. He wants a committed heart.
A partial commitment or “sort of” committed does not exist. Henry Drummond wrote, “Don’t be an amphibian, half in one world and half in another—don’t touch Christianity unless you are willing to seek the kingdom of heaven first. I promise you a miserable existence if you seek it second.”
An Obedient Heart.
The most literal definition of a follower of Jesus is “someone who goes where Jesus goes and does what Jesus does.”
In Jesus’ day, it was a big deal to be a disciple of a rabbi. Jesus’ first disciples were honored that a Rabbi would have asked lowly fishermen to follow him. But a follower is more than someone who tags along; they are people who recognize and accept Jesus as Lord, submitting to his authority. Jesus said, “Follow me . . .” which means that he leads; we follow. A disciple is one who is following Christ, hearing his voice and obeying his commands. A disciple makes Jesus their authority. They have an obedient heart.
A disciple’s heart is one that has fallen in love with Jesus and will follow him no matter the cost. It’s the kind of heart Jesus looked for in followers when he walked the dusty roads of Palestine and the kind of heart he looks for in followers today.
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Rick Ezell is the Managing Partner of Employee Care of America, a company that partners with businesses to provide care for employees through chaplaincy and crisis management services. Check out their website at www.employeecareofamerica.com. Also, he is a freelance writer. Read more of his writings at www.rickezell.com.