The word for “follow” used most often in the gospels is akoloutheo (ak-ol-oo-theh’-o), which comes from the words for “union” and “road.” Akoloutheo is a word describing someone who joins themselves heart, soul, mind, and strength as a disciple to a leader or guide. It describes purposeful movement and intimate relationship. Akoloutheo captures the essence of what a believer’s pilgrimage is.
Akoloutheo was a fairly common word in the first century. When Jesus spoke it, He used it to paint a picture of two-way commitment: His complete, perfect loyalty to His disciples, and the all-in devotion Jesus expected from those following Him. The word also connotes motion. Following joins you to the road Jesus is walking.
There has been a long pattern in evangelical churches of speaking of salvation as a single moment in time. We’ve been imprinted with lasting images of a pastor asking the congregation to bow heads and close eyes as he prays a simple prayer inviting not-yet-believers to invite Jesus into their lives or people streaming forward to the altar to receive Christ at the end of a Billy Graham crusade.
My own story is marked by this kind of single darkness-to-light moment. When I was a young believer, I was sure my prayer asking God to save and forgive me was the single most important moment in my life, sealing my fate for all eternity. While it was a crucial moment, I eventually realized that every moment carries the weight of decision: Will I follow Him here and now?
There are many of us who don’t have a dramatic “once lost, now found” moment like mine as part of their faith story. Whether we have a turning point experience or quietly grow in the faith throughout our lives, each one of us must respond to the call to follow Jesus heart, soul, mind, and strength in this moment.
Pilgrimage is always a step-by-step decision to follow Him. Those steps may look like repentance as we turn toward Him from a place we’ve wandered after choosing to rebel against God. They may look like obedience, as we continue to track His steps as we face the challenge of the narrow road. They may look like fellowship, as we commune with Him on the journey.
But they will always look like death: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matt. 16:24–26)
This is the kind of akoloutheo to which we’re called as followers of Jesus. His first-century audience didn’t need much exposition about what this meant. The cross, a symbol of torture and death, was an instantly-recognizable image to them. The cross was reserved as an instrument of execution for those deemed by authorities to be criminals. The guilty one would be stripped of everything that marked his identity: his reputation, his worldly possessions, his family and friends, and even his clothes. Shamed and scorned, he would then carry the wooden crossbar, and in many cases, the entire cross, through the streets before being hammered onto it and left to die a public, grueling death.
In his book The Radical Cross: Living the Passion of Christ, A. W. Tozer translates for us moderns what the cross means in our lives: “The cross is the suffering the Christian endures as a consequence of his following Christ in perfect obedience. Christ chose the cross by choosing the path that led to it; and it is so with His followers. In the way of obedience stands the cross, and we take the cross when we enter that way.”
Pastor David Platt explains what the cross means for us today:
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the eager followers of Jesus in the first century. This is where we come face to face with a dangerous reality. We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. . . . But we don’t want to believe it. We are afraid of what it might mean for our lives. And this is where we need to pause. Because we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with. . . . But do you and I realize what we are doing? We are molding Jesus into our image. He is beginning to look a lot like us because, that is whom we are most comfortable with. And the danger now is that when we gather in our church buildings to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead we may be worshiping ourselves.
Jesus knows our human propensity for looking backward toward the past to try to tabulate the cost of following Him. Here’s the thing: if our past was uncompromised and overflowing with vibrant spiritual health, He wouldn’t need to tell us to follow Him.
We would have already been following Him as pilgrims instead of wandering as exiles.