Years ago, late-night comedian Jay Leno used to do a segment he called “Jay Walking.” He’d walk around New York City and ask the “man on the street” random questions – questions the average person should be able to answer like, “In what month do we vote for President?” or “Who is the Vice President of the United States?”
Leno’s audience would laugh and roll their eyes while grown-up American citizens searched their memories for the correct answer that they knew they should know!
Kurt and I used to watch it and sometimes we’d roll our eyes thinking, “Good grief, how do you not know who the Vice President is?!” Other times, we’d cringe in embarrassment because we were just as ignorant. Like this question: Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death”? We’d shrug and feel stupid together because apparently, we hadn’t paid attention in history, and we weren’t willing to get up and Google it.
What does it mean to follow Jesus?
If I were to ask the average person on the street, “How do I follow Jesus?” or “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” we would get a variety of answers. People might say something like, “It means you have to go to church a lot,” or “You can’t do certain things.”
If I asked a more knowledgeable person, they might say, “It means you’re supposed to be kind to everyone and follow The Golden Rule like Jesus did.”
But If I asked a Bible-believing woman, who truly ought to know the answer, who by definition should be living the answer, what would she say? How would I answer that? How would you?
Followers are Everyday People
The apostle John tells a story about his good friend Peter (John 21), who followed Jesus right through the end of his life. Peter’s biography gives us a picture of what following Jesus looks like, what it means, and how it’s done.
But in order to understand John’s account and the implications of following Jesus, we need to hear the prologue to Peter’s story, which begins in Luke 5.
Peter’s Growing-Up Years
If we had to describe Peter’s growing-up years in modern terms, we might say he went to a parochial school. He probably learned some math, but more than addition and subtraction, five-year-old Peter and his brothers and cousins learned the first five books of the Old Testament. And by the time they were teenagers, they’d probably memorized most of it…or at least they were supposed to have memorized it. Think Awana on steroids.
After school, Peter and his brother Andrew helped their dad run the family business. They apprenticed as fishermen under their father, and while it might have been tough to corral them when they were little–scampering about the boat and too weak to handle the oars–when they grew up, they multiplied their father’s workforce and income capacity.
They were probably good boys, but as far as their Jewish teachers were concerned, they weren’t cream-of-the-crop. To advance to what was essentially secondary education, students had to be chosen. And Peter wasn’t. So he went to work with his father to earn a living and provide for his family like any God-fearing, Jewish man ought to do.
He worked the night shift, and every evening they shoved off from the shore and fished until they had enough to eat and sell the next morning.
Peter was doing what was expected of him, showing up, putting one foot in front of the other, believing what he was supposed to believe.
After a long night of work, doing the job he knew best, Peter had come up empty, with nothing to show for all his hard work.
Can you imagine the monotony and discouragement Peter might have felt? Maybe you’re at a similar juncture in your own life. You believe in God, know about Jesus, you try to follow the Golden Rule, but you’re coming up empty.
I’ve been there.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say I grew up like Peter, but in a way, I can identify with him. I didn’t go to private school, but I went to Sunday School, Sunday morning church, Sunday night church, Wednesday church, Vacation Bible School, Summer Bible Camp, high school Bible study.
I didn’t memorize the Old Testament, but I graduated with a double major in Human Development and Biblical Studies.
Even after all that education, I subconsciously operated under the mantra, “If you work hard and do nice things for God, then he will do nice things for you.”
No one ever laid it out for me like that, but I viewed my relationship with God like a divine checking account.
So I subconsciously devised a strategy wherein I would show up and do the right thing. I would make steady deposits into my account with God –read my Bible, pray, encourage a friend– then when I arbitrarily determined I had made enough deposits, I granted myself permission to make a withdrawal. Enough “funds” in my account with God meant I had earned the right to make a request.
And let me tell you, in the early days, it wasn’t anything too spiritual. I’d ask for God’s help on a test I hadn’t studied for. I’d ask Him to help me get to my violin lesson on time when I’d spent too much time socializing after school. I even asked Him to make handsome boys like me.
So off I’d go to do those good things–to make deposits and earn the right to ask God a favor.
If something went wrong for me —I did poorly on a test or the handsome boy wasn’t interested— I figured I probably deserved it because I had overdrawn my account. Insufficient funds!
Then there were those occasions when I decided to sin, because sometimes sin seems fun, and sometimes it seems like the only option. I’d try to make it up to God by doing more good things, making more deposits to pay back my sin debt.
I mean, I knew he loved me, but I was pretty sure the way to stay in his good graces and make him like me was to do nice things…and to make up for my sin by doing more nice things.
Maintaining my account by making “deposits” became my goal. But none of it was motivated by my love for God, although I would have told you at the time that it was. In reality, all my good-deed “deposits” were fueled by my love for me.
It was my way to get what I wanted from God.
This wildly distorted strategy followed me into my marriage and motherhood. I got super irritated when the big and little people in my home and life didn’t adhere to my good-deeds deposit strategy. I felt their behavior was a reflection of my performance in my role as a wife and mom. And somehow, I felt like I had to make up for not only my sin but theirs too! Since I was sleep-deprived and always had multiple kids in tow, my opportunities for “making up for my sin” were limited.
How could I ask God to do nice things for me if I didn’t have time or energy to do nice things for him? In my mind, everything depended on me. And that led to a life of constant, low-grade panic.
I was thrashing around trying to earn an answered prayer, to prove I was a good Christian, loving wife, fun mom, nurturing foster parent, but I was failing on every front. The emotional and relational wreckage was everywhere I looked.
I supposed my account was empty, and I didn’t have one shred of spiritual, emotional, or physical energy to fill it back up.
One ordinary Sunday afternoon, I put my five kids down for a nap (at that time, we had our three boys and two little foster girls. They were ages 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7). When they were down, I collapsed into my chair and cried alone for the next two hours. My only prayer was, “God, help.”
When I was finally out of energy to earn approval and favor from God, he began to teach me that I didn’t have to.
All that time, I kept coming back to my Bible, looking for the key that would make it all better. Maybe I just wasn’t working hard enough to find it, but if I stayed with it and kept searching, maybe God would reluctantly give up the key, and I could unlock the thing that would fix it all.
But he didn’t lead me to a key. He led me to a story. The story of Peter’s first great catch of fish in Luke chapter 5, and I saw myself in Peter–working hard and coming up empty.
For Peter, it was the morning after a long and disappointing night of work. He and his brother Andrew had nothing but a heap of torn and damaged nets to show for their efforts.
Just down the shore, Jesus was teaching, and as the crowd grew and pressed in to hear him, they nudged him toward the water. The lake lapped at his sandals and the hem of his robe, so he climbed into Peter’s boat and asked him to put out into the water where the acoustics were better, and the people could see.
As I read the story, I could see the people straining to hear Jesus over the sounds of professional fishermen and gulls squawking for leftovers. But Peter was in the boat with Jesus, and he heard exactly what Jesus was saying.
When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Peter, “Put the boat out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).
I imagine Peter raised his eyebrows because he made some reluctant and qualifying remarks–we’ve done this all night, and I’m not doing this because I think it’s a good idea, but because you say so. And then, Peter obeyed.
When they let down their nets, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets—which they had just repaired and washed—began to break again (See Luke 5:6).
They couldn’t handle what Jesus provided in abundance. It was “immeasurably more than all they could have asked or imagined” (See Ephesians 3:20). In fact, they had to signal their partners in the other boat to come and help.
Peter got a front-row seat to the kindness of Jesus demonstrated by a pile of fish that was sinking his boat, and it drove him to his knees in worship and repentance.
Jesus did for Peter what Peter couldn’t do for himself.
Followers Find Relief
To me, that story was God’s vivid illustration of the gospel.
I can work and strive and huff and puff, struggle to do all the right things, to “make deposits” in order to earn God’s favor and approval, but my transactions did nothing to improve my standing with God!
In fact, they kept me relying on my “righteous” deposits, and that is the OPPOSITE of following Jesus.
Ultimately, God isn’t asking us to merely be nice and hardworking. He demands that we be holy. And no matter how hard we work, no matter how many “deposits” we make, we cannot make ourselves holy.
The gap between our goodness and God’s true holiness is too vast. We can’t fill it with good behavior. We need someone else to intervene. And much to our relief, Jesus has.
When Jesus died on the cross, God initiated an exchange. Martin Luther called it “The Great Exchange.” I like to call it The Divine Cut and Paste.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made Him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.”
At the cross, God cut away my sin and pasted it on Jesus. Jesus suffered the consequences of my sin. He died instead of me. But that is not all. God also cut away Jesus’s perfect, righteous life-record and pasted it onto me.
All those years of working to maintain my account and status were years of misplaced energy. I had misunderstood. Not only did Jesus suffer the consequences I deserved and give me a “clean slate” when he died on the cross, on the blank slate where my sin had been recorded, God rewrote the record with Jesus’ PERFECT LIFE.
Jesus did for me what I could not do for myself. Once and for all, God declared me holy in his sight because of what Jesus did, not because of anything I had done or needed to do.
And for the first time, the gospel became extremely good news to me. It wasn’t an account that I had to maintain. The gospel was a relief! My standing before God, his approval of me, his kindness toward me wasn’t dependent on me! It was dependent on Jesus!
Suddenly, following Jesus wasn’t a chore. It was a no-brainer!
Followers Find Certainty
Have you misunderstood what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Are you depending on something besides Jesus’ work on the cross to secure your approval, your righteous standing before God? Are you making deposits to “shore things up” with him?
Does it feel strange or difficult to say, “I am holy in his sight,” because of what you know about yourself?
What if you believed that Jesus’s perfect righteousness—credited to your account—is the reason you can say with all certainty, “I am holy in his sight.”
On the other hand, maybe you’re a bit put off that you can’t earn your own righteous standing. I mean, shouldn’t your goodness count for something? We Westerners pride ourselves on earning our keep and not taking handouts. But Christ’s death (instead of yours) and his righteous life (applied to you) is a necessary handout! We can’t be declared righteous in God’s sight without accepting it!
When you stand before God to give an account for the one precious life he’s entrusted to you, what will you point to that will show him you are holy and worthy to enter his holy presence in his holy kingdom?
Pastor and author Greg Gilbert answers, “I’ll tell you what every Christian whose faith is in Christ alone will do. By God’s grace, they will simply and quietly point to Jesus. And this will be their plea: O God, do not look for any righteousness in my own life. Look at your Son. Count me righteous…because of Him. He lived the life I should have lived. He died the death that I deserve. I have renounced all other trusts, and my plea is him alone. Justify me, O God, because of Jesus” (What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert, page 83.)
Following Jesus means putting our faith in Christ and renouncing any other method of being counted righteous before God.
That’s what Peter did.
With that astonishing view of Jesus’s power and kindness, there was no deliberating about what to do with the huge pile of income once it was hauled in.
He left it on the shore and followed Jesus.