When Jesus Said, "Don't Follow Me"
The title to this article is probably provocative. It’s meant to be. Can you think of a moment when Jesus said, “Don’t follow me?”
Your mind might go to the various times when Jesus calls his disciples. The common refrain Jesus makes to the men who would eventually be his apostles was to “follow me.” He told Peter and Andrew to “follow me” and they left their nets and followed him (Matthew 4:20). Jesus similarly called Philip with the same “follow me” in John 1:43. Jesus also went up to Matthew/Levi at his tax booth and said to him, “Follow me,” and he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow him (Luke 5:28).
There were also other people that Jesus implored to “follow me” regardless of the cost. In Luke 9:57-62, Jesus responds to people who say they will follow Jesus, but first they need to do something. Jesus responds by saying “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” At other times Jesus implores his listeners to “if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Jesus not only called all people to follow him but told them they needed to deny everything else to follow Jesus.
Jesus even left his disciples with the final instructions “go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). A disciple of Jesus follows what Jesus commanded, teaching others to follow and observe all that Jesus taught. And Jesus assured his listeners that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
From this and many other examples, we see that the idea of following Jesus is found throughout the gospels and Jesus’ teaching. Jesus called not only a few people, but all people to follow him. So perhaps it would surprise you to find that there is a place in scripture where Jesus told someone not to follow.
It happens within the story of the man possessed by many demons, calling itself Legion. The story is found in Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39, and it is one of those compelling stories that sticks with your memory. To briefly summarize, there was a man possessed by many demons who would attack people. Jesus confronts the demons, and they ask to be cast into a herd of swine, which then drown themselves in the Sea of Galilee. After this the man is healed and sane. The people of the surrounding area though, rather than being elated, are scared of Jesus and tell Jesus to leave.
It’s at this point that the healed man implored (Mark 5:18) or begged (Luke 8:38) to accompany Jesus and his disciples. But Jesus does something very different than all the other examples we looked at earlier. Luke says, “but Jesus sent him away,” and Mark similarly says, “but Jesus did not let him.” Here is the one time that I am aware of that Jesus effectively said, “Don’t follow me.” But of course, that is not the end of the story.
Jesus tells the healed man to instead, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). There are a few things I surmise from this. First, not everyone is called to “follow Jesus” in the same way. Second, the healed man could do more good for the name of Jesus by returning home and reporting what Jesus had done for him, than if the man followed Jesus as one of his apostles. Third, following Jesus involves more than simply following him around, but doing something to advance the kingdom of God.
Here is where I think a modern application to us could be made. You could truthfully say you are “following Jesus” when you read your Bible and attend church services. These are good things you should always be doing. But if ALL you do is read your Bible and attend church services, you aren’t following Jesus to the extent he’s calling you. Perhaps Jesus might even say to you like he said to the man, “Go to your people and report what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you.”
Following Jesus means going out from the comfortable confines of your home, your work, even the church building, and talking to those who have not yet met Jesus. As Jesus said, “GO and make disciples.” You cannot “GO” staying where you are.