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Essena O’Neil, an Australian teenager who’d risen to Instagram stardom with over a half a million followers, suddenly quit Instagram.
Completely shut down her page.
And she made headlines.
She shocked the world because everyone knows how hard it is to gain followers like that on Social Media. Followers are a big deal . There’s a wealth of self-help tips from all directions telling us how to gain those golden followers.
In June, 2015, Forbes magazine published the article, “50 Free Ways to Increase Your Instagram Followers”. It included suggestions like, posting photos at 2 a.m. and 5 p.m., holding a contest, using popular hashtags, and asking questions in the captions of your photos.
Lots of people try everything and still never gain the kind of followers Essena O’Neil had. But, Jesus had them long before the days of social media. Jesus’ “followers” literally followed him from place to place, listening to him speak and watching what he did.
Why do people follow someone today? Usually because they’re beautiful, or rich, or talented. Or maybe because they’re such train wrecks that we simply can’t look away. Sometimes, though, we actually follow people because we like their message.
Similarly, people followed Jesus for a variety of reasons. Many people followed Jesus because they were curious. They had heard the hype and wanted to see what it was all about. Others followed Jesus because they had heard about the miracles. They crowded around him hoping to get a glimpse at something spectacular. They wanted to witness what they thought was magical. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a phenomenon. Some followed Jesus because he had healed them. He made them walk and see; he took away their pain and disease. They were so grateful, they just wanted to be close to him.
And then there were those who followed Jesus because he spoke the word of God with such power and authority. He preached a message of hope and good news that was inviting and captivating. They followed him because they believed he offered truth and life. They followed him because they believed he was the Messiah. They loved him and were devoted to him.
Mary the Magdalene was one of these people.
A Faithful Follower
Did you know that “Magdalene” wasn’t Mary’s last name? Mary was a woman from Magdala – they called her a Magdalene – like they would call me a Minnesotan because I’m from Minnesota.
When Mary met Jesus, seven demons were insider her, possessing her, controlling and tormenting her. Seven. Jesus freed her from those demons.
It seems to me that we tend to breeze right over this part of her story – maybe because we don’t really know what it was like for her to live with demons possessing her. Just imagine for a moment how horrible it must have been for her. We aren’t told exactly what she experienced, but if we consider descriptions of demon possession from other accounts in Scripture, we learn that demons spoke from inside their host (See Luke 8:26-33). They caused their hosts to run wild and live like animals (Mark 5:1-13), tell the future (Acts 16:16-18), prostitute themselves, or contort and spasm uncontrollably (See Mark 9:1-27). I imagine these demons were driving Mary crazy from inside herself; seven separate entities making her do and say things against her will.
Can you imagine what that would be like not to be in control of your own body, your own thoughts, or your own words and actions? Maybe you can.
Now imagine what it must have been like for her to be set free. I imagine she must have felt like a drug addict would feel to be set free from addiction; or like a schizophrenic would feel if she were healed and freed from the torment of her hallucinations; or like someone with Parkinson’s disease or Epilepsy would feel if they were freed from their body’s involuntary contortions and spasms.
How would you feel if you were suddenly set free from your worst nightmare? How would you respond to the one who set you free?
Mary the Magdalene responded with love and devotion. She became one of Jesus’ most faithful followers. She traveled with Jesus and his 12 disciples from town to town as Jesus announced the kingdom and taught about the love of God. She was a walking, breathing testimony to God’s love and power.
Not everyone responded favorably to Jesus. The religious leaders found Jesus’ popularity threatening. Jesus was gaining followers while they were losing them. They must have felt the way Beyoncé felt after being on top for a long time when in 2015 Kim Kardashian stole her reign as the queen of Instagram. (Now both Beyoncé and Kim are old news and Selena Gomez is at the top.) The religious leaders didn’t have Forbes’ free advice to increase their followers. Their strategy was to just get rid of the competition. They conspired to have Jesus killed.
The Price of Being a Follower
Being a faithful follower didn’t come without it’s challenges.
Jesus warned that following him would not always be easy. He warned his followers that they would be insulted and mistreated because of him.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
He warned them that they could even face death because of their association with him.
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”
It doesn’t cost us anything to follow our favorite people on Twitter or Instagram; but Scripture assures us that it will cost us something when we follow Jesus. Philippians 1:29 tells us that we have not only been given the privilege of trusting in Christ, but also the privilege of suffering for him. For some, the cost is very high.
Take for example the story of Sherzod. In 2007, when Sherzod Odilov was an exchange student from Uzbekistan, he did not anticipate the high price he would pay for his decision to follow Christ, but knowing the price Christ paid for him, he stood firm.
When Sherzod telephoned his Muslim parents in Uzbekistan shortly after graduating from High School to tell them of his newfound faith, his father disowned him, making it clear he was no longer welcome in his home. Sherzod was never again to speak to his mother or his siblings. His father withdrew all funds from Sherzod’s U.S. bank account, arranged to cancel his son’s U.S. sponsorship and college scholarship and even drew up legal papers declaring Sherzod was no longer his son. That was a pretty steep price. As devastating as that must be for an 18-year-old, Sherzod remained strong in his commitment to Christ.
“I am not sorry I accepted Christ,” he said. “I am not sorry for getting baptized. Even though my parents did that, I am not sorry for anything that happened.” (Exchange Student Accepts Christ, Disowned by Family; Charlie Warren, 2007)
Sherzod faced his uncertain future with confidence that God would lead him.
But many of the early followers were not as confident as Sherzod. When following Jesus became difficult and dangerous, those who were merely sensation seekers began to disappear. The fair-weather followers fled when it was no longer pleasant or profitable for them to follow Jesus.
When Jesus hung on the cross, many of his more serious followers walked away.
“When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.”
Even some of Jesus’ own disciples fell away at least temporarily – like Peter, who denied knowing Jesus when he feared for his life.
“You’re not one of that man’s disciples, are you?”
“No,” he said, “I am not.”
But a loyal few followed unwaveringly. Mary Magdalene was one of those few. She stayed and looked on as Jesus was crucified. She was still there when they took Jesus’ body down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. She sat with “the other Mary” (who might have been the mother of James and Joseph who was at the cross with her) and she watched as they rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb.
A Faithful Follower’s Great Reward
Mary Magdalene was still following undeterred three days later. She returned to the tomb with “the other Mary” to put embalming spices on Jesus’ body; but when she arrived at the tomb, his body wasn’t there. Her breath caught in her throat. Grief gripped her heart. Tears filled her eyes. Her Lord’s body was gone! Someone had moved him. Who would do such a thing? She turned to run – and there, she came face to face with Jesus himself. She didn’t recognize him at first…until he spoke her name, “Mary, it’s me” (John 20:16). Jesus had risen from the dead, and faithful Mary, the Magdalene, was the first to see him. What a privilege – to be the very first! (And significant that the first to see Jesus risen was a woman.) What a joy to see his face!
This was her incredible reward: to come face to face with her beloved Jesus! Oh, how sweet that must have been.
And one day, if we choose to follow Jesus, this will be our great reward as well.
But it will cost you something.
It may cost you some relationships: friends who disagree with what you believe or just don’t feel they have anything in common with you anymore.
It may cost you your pride – when people ridicule you because they think their modern thinking is more enlightened and your faith is outdated and ignorant.
It may cost you family like it cost Sherzod. When I first became a follower of Jesus, some of my family members avoided me because I was “one of those” religious people.
It cost Peter the disciple everything. Even though he faltered on the night Jesus was crucified, he eventually found his footing and faithfully followed Jesus for the rest of his life. It eventually cost him his life. Nero executed Peter for following Jesus.
The cost may be high; but be encouraged, your reward will be great. Like Mary, you will be freed from the things that hold you. You will enter the kingdom of heaven, and you will see Jesus face to face – just as the faithful follower Mary Magdalene did – and…
Jesus will call you by name.
For more Easter hope, check out the rest of the articles in our 6-week Easter Series. If you enjoy them, we’d be so grateful if you would pass the articles and our blog along.
We’re excited to give you some lovely free Easter art!
There are 4 different quotes and two different styles of art for the quotes:
Picture 1: “He has risen.” Mark 16:6
Picture 2: “Do not abandon yours to despair. We are Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.” John Paul II
Picture 3: “Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.” Martin Luther
Picture 4: “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelations 21:5
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