Word Study #101 — “Follow Me!”

July 26, 2011

Having started the publication of Word Studies a couple years ago with a consideration of the word, pistis, usually translated “faith”, and its corresponding verb form, pisteuo, usually rendered “believe”, and discovered in the process that neither of these words is accurately understood by those English equivalents (please see W.S.#1), it seems appropriate to me to begin this second series with an examination of the only invitation that Jesus is ever quoted as having issued to prospective disciples: “Follow me!” We have not a single record of his having handed anyone a list of “doctrines” to which he required them to subscribe; not a word about the desperate condition of mankind, nor about how he proposed to remedy it. Even if the traditional translation “believe” is used, on the few occasions when Jesus speaks of “believing”, the direct object is simply “me” (himself), and not “this or that about me”. His more usual invitation is graciously beautiful in its simplicity: “Come and see!” and “Follow me!”

This study should be viewed in tandem with #55, “Following Instructions”, which is an important corollary. But that is for the already committed. Here we will look at “following” from the perspective of one considering “faithfulness” (the better translation of pistis), which intends “personal loyalty”, as opposed to mere intellectual assent to a body of propositions. Far too often, that essential element is lost in intricate “theological” arguments – but loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom is all that he asked.

Historically, akoloutheo included many of the nuances shared by various English uses of “follow”: L/S lists “to accompany a person, to be guided by a person or principle; to be consistent with, to be in logical sequence (as in argument or debate); to be part of someone’s retinue or train, to render obedience or conformity to a superior.”

Of its 90 New Testament appearances, the vast majority (60+) refer simply to physical accompaniment, whether by curious crowds or devoted disciples. But Jesus’ calls to various disciples and others, (Mt.8:22, 9:9, 19:21, 27, 28; Mk.8:34,10:21; Lk.5:11, 27, 28; Jn.8:12, 12:26, 13:37), clearly have a much deeper commitment in view. Especially obvious is this sense in Mt.10:38, 16:24; Mk.8:34, 10:21, where Jesus connects following him with self-denial (#68) and cross-bearing (#34), and Jn.10:4, 5, 27, where following is cast in the intimate, trusting, protective relationship between sheep and shepherd, and thus carries considerably more freight.

Those who responded to the call to “follow” Jesus did accompany him on his travels; they also were deputized to extend his work. “Following” became an apprenticeship, for the task of continuing his work after his departure. Jesus’ parting instructions quoted in John 14-16 clearly assume that the torch is being passed to those who have been “following.”

Akoloutheo frequently appears with prefixes, in which case it is also exclusively rendered “follow”:
– I Pet.1:16, 2:2, 2:15, referring to a negative sort of conformity
epakoloutheo –
Mk.16:20, I Tim.5:10, I Pet.5:21, I Tim.5:24, with a much more positive sense of accompaniment or conformity
katakoloutheo – Lk.23:55,Ac.16:17, simply physically following after someone
– Mk.16:17, I Tim.4:6, II Tim.3:10, Lk.1:3, implying attainment, understanding, and companionship
– Mk.5:37, Lk.23:49, also physical accompaniment.

Interestingly, the gospels do not use either of the other two words also occasionally rendered “follow” in the epistles, except for the single appearance of dioko (usually – 28x — translated “persecute” ) in Lk.17:23 (a very poor translation). There, Jesus is instructing the faithful to neither join (apelthete) nor persecute (dioxete) – thereby implying that they should simply ignore — the “world-enders” who pretend to have inside information about his return.

Classical uses of dioko included “to pursue or chase, as in hunting or warfare; to seek diligently, an object, a goal, or a lover; to drive or chase away; legally, to prosecute; to pursue an argument; to persecute.”

The ten occurrences of dioko in the epistles which are traditionally translated “follow” – Rom.9:30,31, 14:19; I Cor.14:1; Phil.3:12,14; I Thes.5:15; I Tim.6:11; II Tim.2:22, Heb.12:14 – refer to the determined, deliberate pursuit of some aspect of faithfulness.

Mimeomai (II Thes.3:7,9; Heb.13:7, III Jn.11), also occurring only in the epistles (English cognate, “mimic”), refers to following (copying) exemplary faithfulness.
Classical usage, besides mimicry, included “portrayal as an actor, or to use as a model, to emulate.”

Perhaps we may safely assume that these latter admonitions – to be serious about “pursuing” various elements of a faithful life (what is good, justice, faithfulness, love, peace, holiness, spiritual gifts), and to seek to “imitate” those whose maturity in faithfulness sets a commendable example – are addressed to folks who have already responded to the call to “follow.” The epistles, after all, are not “evangelistic tracts” as they are sometimes represented, but instructions written to existing brotherhoods, for their life and interaction together.

Interestingly, mimeomai is the only one of the three to have a noun equivalent (mimetes –“follower”) in the New Testament. Paul urges his readers to “be followers of me”, “of us”, “of the churches”, “of God”, and “of what is good.”

In the gospels, those who respond to the Lord’s “Follow me” are thereafter termed “disciples” (#51).

Paul elsewhere calls them “saints” (#32) – people unequivocally committed as the exclusive possession of God.

And describing one of the joyful assemblies singing praises around the throne (Rv.14:4), John identifies the participants as “those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes!”
This surely incorporates all the fullness of the idea of “following” — personal loyalty, total commitment, constant presence, patterning, and obedience.

May we “earnestly seek” to be numbered among them, and to cultivate the increase of that celebratory throng!