What does it mean to give up everything to follow Jesus?
Imagine living on top of a 50-foot pillar on a platform only about 10 square feet. This is where you live for 37 years. Your diet consists of little more than a few pieces of bread and goat’s milk each day. You spend your days in prayer and meditation.
Is that what it means to give up everything to follow Jesus?
Simeon Stylites the Elder thought so. He was so passionate about his way of life on top of that platform that when his dying mother came to see him one last time, he refused to leave and see her. He reportedly had this message relayed to her, “If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come.” Say what you want about him, but he was dedicated.
Simeon inspired many others to adopt this lifestyle. They were all part of a larger and emerging movement called monasticism. For the first few hundred years of the Christian church, the followers of Christ faced severe persecution. Many people considered Christianity a cult. It was an obvious cross for Christians to carry. Christians accepted this cross because Jesus warned them it was coming: “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
But after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in A.D. 312, Christianity wasn’t just accepted; it eventually became the religion of the Roman Empire. The persecution Christians faced before was gone. Everyone was becoming Christian, at least in name. So some wanted to show their true devotion to Christ. If the cross of persecution was gone, then they manufactured their own crosses by selling everything they had and living alone, separated from the world, like Simeon. In their minds, going to such extremes would show their dedication to Christ.
Is that what it means to give up everything to follow Jesus? One of the very first monks, Anthony of Egypt, certainly thought so. Anthony read what Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). So Anthony took those words literally. He gave away his inheritance and lived in the desert.
In one of his sermons, Martin Luther recounts a story about this Anthony of Egypt. Anthony was deep in prayer and wanted to know who he was equal to in heaven. He supposed that he had attained high spiritual status due to his extreme devotion. In the story Luther tells, God reveals to Anthony that he is not the equal of a certain shoemaker in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. After finding the shoemaker, Anthony asks him what he does every day.
The shoemaker replies, “I’m a poor citizen who simply does his job. I pray every day that all people be saved and that I too, a poor and unworthy sinner, may gain eternal life through Christ.”
With that story, Martin Luther demonstrated that the lowly shoemaker better understood the words of Jesus than the so-called religious expert: “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33).
The cost to follow Jesus
Yes, there is a cost to following Jesus. Yes, you do have to give up everything. You have to give up all of your self-righteousness. You have to hand over anything and everything that you think might make you worthy in the eyes of God. Fork over your pride and the things you do to bring yourself glory. Give it all away. Give up everything you think might make you worthy of God’s grace. Turn over anything you’ve done to try to earn or deserve it. There is no place for your works in God’s plan to save you.
But there’s more to give. That sin that has become a nice little habit in your life . . . it’s got to go. The guilt over that sin you committed so long ago that has built itself a cozy home in your conscience? Evict it. Those thoughts about how God could ever love you after you did that? Put them in Jesus’ hands.
Being Jesus’ disciple means there is no room for any merit of your own in your salvation. Being Jesus’ disciple means there is no more holding on to sin, guilt, or shame.
When Jesus says to give up everything and follow him, it’s because he’s already taken everything upon himself. As Jesus hung on his cross, he paid for everything wrong you or I or anyone has ever done. Every sin was covered by his suffering. All debts were paid by his blood. When he said, “It is finished,” he meant it!
Jesus paid the price to make you his disciple. Even if you could pay all the money and gold in the world, it wouldn’t pay for a single sin. Only the blood of Jesus could do that. That’s the blood of God—holy, precious, and innocent.
When Jesus says to give up everything and follow him, it’s because he’s already taken everything upon himself.
Your one true passion
God paid a steep price for your ransom. His wholehearted devotion to you inspires your wholehearted devotion to follow him. That means putting everything in life after Jesus. Family, career, bank account, hobbies—they all come after Jesus. It means that your one true passion is Christ.
Giving up everything to follow Jesus is recognizing that all of your blessings in life are from Jesus. It means that you no longer have anything except the gifts he has given you. You own nothing; you only take care of what you have. And if your prayer is the same as the shoemaker’s prayer in Alexandria, that all people be saved, then you use those blessings in heartfelt service to Christ and his church. You put yourself and everything you have at the disposal of Christ. That’s the passion. That’s the wholehearted devotion Jesus requires of those who follow him.
But perhaps you feel more like the lukewarm Christians mentioned in Revelation: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (3:15,16). Yes, you want to do good, to follow Jesus as passionately as he has loved you. But you sympathize with the apostle Paul who says, “I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21).
But Jesus has rescued you even from lackluster and lukewarm devotion. When God the Father looks at you, he sees the perfection of Jesus, not your sins. He sees that the Holy Spirit has created a new person in you, a Christian who follows Jesus wholeheartedly.
So please don’t go and live on top of a pillar. That won’t get you any closer to God. Spirit-worked faith in Jesus as your Savior brings you closer to God. He enables you to give up everything to follow Jesus.
Author: David Starr
Volume 109, Number 09
Issue: September 2022