Every morning in middle and high school, my clock radio would click alive and start serenading me with the overnight DJ’s baritone and the Christian pop music of the early aughts. As the winter months settled in, I played a game of chicken with school-cancelation announcements: Stay in bed longer than you should, gambling on the chance of at least a delay, or get up and get dressed like a responsible kid?
I wasn’t a responsible kid, so I took the bet pretty much every morning that I wouldn’t actually have to leave my warm bed. In the half-sleep of hopeful dozing, the current Christian-Top-Twenty would play in the background. I hardly noticed—even today I have a hard time actually paying attention to music. But one morning something struck me as odd in a line that had played a few seconds before I regained full consciousness.
“Follow you, Jesus, all the way up that hill” the voice sang. “To the cross where the river runs crimson even still.”
For some reason, that line lodged in my brain and wouldn’t let go. Something felt off about the sentiment, despite the fact that it was clearly meant to express love for Jesus. After all, most Christians like to think that we’d follow our savior wherever he may lead. It wasn’t until I was sitting down to breakfast (school wasn’t, unfortunately, canceled) and we started family devotions that I realized what my hang-up was.
We’d been reading through the last part of the book of John—particularly Jesus’s long speeches to his friends and disciples just prior to his death. In the middle of beautiful pictures of hope, of unity, and of future promises sits a little comment from the savior that all his disciples would abandon him. “A time is coming,” the NIV reads, “and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone” (John 16:32).
Sitting there munching my cereal, the song from earlier jumped back to mind. The singer proclaimed his desire to follow Jesus all the way up the hill to the cross. But here Jesus promised his own disciples—friends that had been with him in the flesh for years—that not one of them would stay with him.
“You will leave me all alone.”
Alone to face the travails of Gethsemane later that evening. Alone to stand through an overnight farce of a trial. Alone to endure the scourges of Roman soldiers. Alone to carry a cross up Golgotha.
Despite the protests from Peter and the other disciples, Jesus’s prediction came true. When the Twelve realized Jesus had no intention of fighting back against his Roman captors in the garden, they fled. Even Peter, who had worked up the courage to be outside during one of Jesus’s trials, bailed on Jesus when confronted with his history with the Son of God.
So when the well-intentioned lyrics played across the radio, I started to wonder if a modern-day Christian could pull off what Jesus’s very disciples couldn’t. Sure—we know intellectually that Jesus’s mission wasn’t to establish a military kingdom but to die for the sins of humanity. We know now that he calls us to follow him not into power but into weakness.
However we look at it, at the very foundation of following Jesus lies a call to die. Despite our best intentions, we’re not very good at dying. But that’s exactly what’s required if we’re going to pursue Jesus both “up that hill” or anywhere in life. If you’re anything like me, it’s one thing to accept the idea that I might one day have to give up my life for Jesus. The chances of facing an executioner’s blade are fairly low.
But the death that Jesus calls us to begins long before it requires our last breath. It begins with the slow death of self. There’s no way I’m following Jesus up the hill to the cross if I can’t follow his selfless example in the way I treat people on the highway. If I can’t put to death my self-centered expectations for even the smallest aspect of my life, I’ve not really set foot on the path that Jesus has called me onto.
The slow death of discipleship does more than just teach us selflessness, however. In the twilight of his life and long after he wrote his gospel, John penned the words of Revelation—a letter challenging the churches to live worthy of the name of Jesus. Central to John’s challenge (to overcome the kingdom of darkness) is the picture of Jesus as a slain lamb.
Jesus’s own victory over the kingdom of darkness came not through the military power that the disciples hoped for in Gethsemane but through death. It’s as a bruised and bloodied sacrificial lamb that Jesus takes the scroll from the Father. And the balance of John’s letter challenges Jesus’s followers to also live to die. Because in their deaths they bear witness to the worthiness and victory of Jesus himself. By living to die, they rob the kingdom of darkness of its only weapon and rise as conquerors alongside the savior.
It’s one thing to say (or to sing) that we’ll follow Jesus wherever he made lead, but it’s quite another to actually live it. Our savior has called us into death—death to self and even the one-day future of breathing our last. But when we embrace that call to take up his cross and follow him, we also bear witness to a dark and broken world that Jesus is worth following.