A child learns quickly to take the measure of his parents. Some are all noise and bluster. Some are filled with threats but no follow-through. We’ve all heard parents harangue their children to no effect. Usually it doesn’t take long to discover the reason the children are indifferent to their parents’ demands or openly rebellious against them: the children have learned that their parents do not really mean what they say. There are no consequences for disobedience. The word must in their ears has become utterly meaningless noise. We may rest assured, however, that God always means what He says. When He uses the word must He intends us to know that He is speaking of something essential, an absolute requirement. We cannot afford, then, to fail to take literally the Lord’s declaration that “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me” (John 12:26a).
Matthew in his gospel offers a dramatic perspective on our text when he previews the experience of many at the Great White Throne Judgment who have approached this day thinking that they are believers who have served the Lord. The Lord speaks:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21-23).
Service to the Lord is not predicated on sincerity, earnestness, or diligence. Many of those who will offer the protest above will have met those criteria. And although those qualities will be an integral part of genuine service, when they are offered as the proof of authenticity of faith or the grounds of righteousness, they miss the mark.
At least two thoughts seem to be suggested by the simple declarative statement: “he must follow Me.” The first has to do with salvation. There can be no service for God without salvation. Just prior to our text, the Lord had made reference to His death: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24). Every believer’s salvation has been purchased through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. And all who are truly saved have died vicariously in Christ. Anyone whose hope of salvation and eternal life rests in His own good works or his perceived service for Christ has a false hope: he is neither serving Christ nor is he even saved. To follow Christ is to embrace by faith alone the work Christ alone did on the cross to save a sinner from his sins.
The second truth suggested by Christ’s statement has to do with service. Self-generated, self-directed service is not legitimate service to the Lord. True Christian service is rooted in obedience, submission, and self-denial. Although no amount of self-sacrifice or self-imposed hardship merits salvation, no genuine service occurs without self-sacrifice. As Christ yielded His will in everything and became obedient to His Father, even to death, so those who have been born again must follow Christ in submission and obedience if they are to genuinely serve the Lord.
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