If we were to conduct a survey with only one question on it, “What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ?” we would receive many different answers. Some would say that following Jesus means being religious, others that it means attending church, and still others that it means learning what Jesus taught, putting into practice the Sermon on the Mount, or loving your neighbor. But while these responses all get at part of the whole truth, their sum would not provide a complete answer.
The simple addition of some good deeds and habits to an otherwise unchanged life is not what it means to follow Jesus. An encounter with God in Christ is not casual; it is life-altering. It divides those who respond in faith from those who will continue to think of Jesus as just another voice to listen to—or not listen to—as it suits them. To follow Jesus Christ means the transformation of one’s whole worldview and the upturning of one’s whole life.
What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ? For the first disciples, it meant that when Jesus called them, “they left everything” (Luke 5:11). In Luke 5:1–11, we find a picture of such an encounter when Simon Peter and his companions hear Jesus preach by the lakeside.
The Word of God
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. (Luke 5:1–3)
An encounter with God changed the lives of Simon Peter and his companions by the lakeside—and that encounter began with the preaching of God’s Word. At the heart of Jesus’ preaching in those early days, the Gospel of Mark tells us, was this message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Or, as the NIV puts it, “Repent and believe the good news!”
The world is full of bad news. It is full of stories of disaster, tragedy, crime, and cruelty. It is full of evil—and that evil begins in the human heart. If we’re honest, we can’t say we live up to our own standards, let alone God’s standards. We don’t love God or one another fully. We don’t always speak truthfully. We don’t always keep our temper. We don’t always think pure thoughts. We don’t live as God intends, and thus we are separated from Him. There is a bias within all our lives which is oriented away from God and toward ourselves. The Bible calls this sin, and it says that everyone, without exception, is sinful (Rom. 3:23).
Because we are sinful without exception, we don’t need a “savior” who will come and add to the sum of our total happiness. Jesus Christ didn’t come along and say, If you follow Me, I’ll give you an easy life, and you’ll make all the money you need, and your problems will go away. No, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) from the power of sin that separates them from God and to restore our relationship with Him. This salvation that He brings to us comes not just by faith or repentance but by repentance and faith together.
And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. (Luke 5:4–7)
When Jesus commanded Peter to put down his nets, he obeyed the instructions that the Lord gave. You can imagine him as a fisherman thinking, This is crazy. I’ve been out, and I’ve caught nothing, and now He says to go back out again? The time for fishing had passed. What chance could there be of catching anything now?
But Jesus was teaching Peter a vital lesson: when we walk in the Christian life, we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Jesus wanted Peter to realize that there was going to be a new dimension to his life if he would follow Him. Peter would now be living on the basis of this statement: Lord, whatever You say, I’ll do, because I trust You. That’s what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
This is not a story about fish, and it’s certainly not a story about worldly success. Peter, after all, goes on to leave the fish in the boat. He even leaves the boat itself behind! No, this is a story about the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ. When Jesus asks you to repent and turn your life upside down for Him, it may seem like too much to ask. It may seem ridiculous. Yet His insistent word comes to our hearts: Give up your small ambitions. Do what I’m telling you. If you say you’re following Me, then trust Me, and follow Me.
Jesus taught that we must repent. We repent when we turn away from our sin and to the Lord Jesus Christ in obedience. He purchased our forgiveness on the cross with His blood, and He did it so that we “might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). We thus walk in faith and repentance when, in the power of Christ, we continually say no to sin and yes to God (Titus 2:11–12). God wants to bring us to the point where we can say with Peter, Because You say so, I’m going to do it. And as with Peter, He will do this by giving us a proper idea of who He is.
“Believe in the Good News”
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. (Luke 5:8–10)
If you take your Bible and read it from the Old Testament right through to the New, you will find that when God manifests His glory, either to an individual or to a company of people, their response is not to immediately do some ancient equivalent of posting on social media and tell everyone what has happened. Instead, they often respond by humbly confessing their sinfulness before God. Like Peter, like Daniel (Dan. 10:4–9 ), like Isaiah (Isa. 6:1–5), like Paul (Acts 9:3–5), those men and women who encounter the living God immediately recognize how sinful and unworthy they are and how great God is.
When Peter saw his own unworthiness, he also saw the glory of his Master. We need God to bring us to that same place.
When Peter saw his own unworthiness, he also saw the glory of his Master. We need God to bring us to that same place. Our walk with God will always be diminished until we have learned what it is to bow before Him in the silence of our own homes and to say, Lord, You are holy, and I’m a sinful man. How great is Your kindness, that instead of turning from me, You forgive me and draw me closer to You! The reason some of us do not know what it means to follow Jesus is because we’ve never faced ourselves as we really are and humbled ourselves before Him as Peter did.
This is why Jesus said we must believe the Gospel, His good news. And when we do so, He will set us to the purposes that He made us for—to follow and glorify Him with all that we are.
“Go into All the World”
And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” (Luke 5:10)
Just as Jesus preached, “Repent and believe in the gospel,” so Peter would preach to others in order that they might also know life in Christ. (See, e.g., Acts 2:14–41). And just as Jesus provided a great catch of fish, He would also build up His church through the teaching of Peter and the apostles. Following Jesus means sharing in the task of bringing the good news to the people who need to hear it and trusting Him to make that word yield fruit.
It is not enough that we should know the good news about Jesus Christ. It is a message for the whole world!
This is exactly the picture we have in the account of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20. After Jesus rose from the dead and before He ascended to the Father’s right hand, He told His disciples, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” He has authority not just to know where the good fishing will be, but He has authority over all things! So we can trust Him when He commands us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It is not enough that we should know the good news about Jesus Christ. It is a message for the whole world!
Peter and his companions were called to a special task as apostles of Jesus Christ, but every believer then and today is a witness to the transforming power of the Gospel. The testimony of our changed lives supports the testimony of our words. For those who have encountered God, have repented, and have believed, Jesus Christ has become life’s fundamental reality. They will therefore say with the apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16).
“Come, Follow Me”
And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:11)
Jesus said that there are two roads: a broad road “that leads to destruction” and a narrow road “that leads to life” (Matt. 7:13–14). Many today seek to carve out a middle road that has all the appearance of being the way of Jesus, but it is a road that Jesus never offered. They want a “new life” without a new lifestyle. They’re like someone who wants all the benefits of marriage but without assuming any of the responsibilities or challenges. But no husband is content with the partial love of his wife. No manager is content with the partial commitment of his employees. No coach is content with partial attendance at training. Could it possibly be that the Lord of Glory, who died for us, is content with our partial commitment to walk in His way?
Peter and his companions “left everything and followed” Jesus. But Mark 10:17–22 tells the story of another man confronted with a similar choice. He asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was a man who kept God’s law meticulously, but Jesus could see that there was one thing in his heart that he exalted above God. So He answered, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This was too much for the young man: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” He wanted to follow God, but he loved his wealth more, and he couldn’t let it go.
Many today seek to carve out a middle road that has all the appearance of being the way of Jesus, but it is a road that Jesus never offered.
Many want to say they follow God, yet they have not repented, they are not obeying, and they are not trusting Him. They say they follow God, but they do not, because they still cling to the ways of the world. Like the rich young man, they slink away from what God asks of them. But an encounter with God and with His Gospel demands a decision. We do not drift into faith. We do not catch it in the air. No, God speaks to us in our hearts and confronts us with the need to “repent and believe”—and we do so.
When Peter saw the young man leave, he told Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” In response, Jesus gave him a promise that is true for all who would leave everything and go after Him: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28–30).
Jesus does not make empty promises. There is nowhere safer and nowhere with a greater reward than following in His footsteps, whatever the cost. And it’s with this promise in mind that we must answer the call: “Come, follow me.”
This article was adapted from the sermon “‘If Anyone Would Come after Me, He Must…’ Leave Everything” by Alistair Begg.