There are countless demands and distractions competing for our attention and priority every day. It is important that our relationship with Jesus be the first priority as we are practicing our faith, living out our beliefs and accomplishing God’s will for our lives. What we find is that our lives become less cluttered as our priorities find alignment in his purpose for us.
Hey everyone, my name is Scott, and I’m one of the pastors here at Blue Oaks. If you’re watching for the first time or maybe kicking the tires of faith, I’m thrilled you’re here. We’ve spent the last four weeks talking about core beliefs that are the most transformative in spiritual growth, beliefs that lead us into Christ-centered living. Today, it’s the idea of Jesus First.
When I hear the word “first,” I immediately think “priorities.” A priority is something that is regarded as more important than another. Or you could think of it this way: priorities form decision-making grids in our minds, and when faced with a decision, our priorities direct us what to say, what to do, or what not to say and do.
For me, I would list my priorities as my wife, our children, more so when younger, but we still default into parenting habits even though they’re now adults, exercise, my spiritual life—all priorities to me.
Consider for a minute what may be some of the priorities in your life.
But there can be a difference between what we say is a priority and the choices we make. Let me give you some examples:
A high school student wants to graduate with a high grade point average to get into the college of their choice but neglects their studies.
A married woman says, “I want to have a great relationship with my husband,” but she makes the children her priority over them.
A dad says, “I want my kids to respect me as they grow up,” but makes compromises and bad decisions that reflect on his character.
Someone new to faith says, “I want to develop a deep and lasting intimacy with God,” but they start each day lost in social media timelines.
None of these will reach their goals if they keep following the path they’re on. Their goal is not their priority.
To make Jesus First necessitates we make Him THE priority in our lives. Not one of, not on the list of, not in the top five. Not to the exclusion of others, but not secondary to any.
To place JESUS FIRST, we must understand the invitation to “follow.”
The idea of “followers” has a different connotation and understanding in our society than it did in the first century. We become followers on and of social media, of influencers that, for the most part, we never have personal contact with. It’s all images and text on a screen.
An article I read recently said this, “According to the January 2019 ‘We Are Social’ report, 3.5 billion people actively use social media. That’s 45% of the world’s population. Inevitably these people look up to influencers in social media to guide them with their decision making.” Now, this may not be news to everyone, but for you, I may be about to blow up your world. It’s a marketing strategy to get you to do what someone else wants. They’re working you!
So followers is a very accurate term. What’s different about Jesus’ invitation to follow?
To “follow” means to model life after his example, learn from him and then do as he did. “Follow” is a significant term for discipleship in the Gospels, the written accounts of Jesus’ life. A disciple means “a learner” or “student of.”
Disciples in the first century followed their masters around and imitated what they did. It’s like an internship right out of college where you’re soaking up everything you can from your mentor about the role, the business, how to succeed as you advance in your career.
Look at one account of Jesus’ invitation to follow. It’s found in the gospel written by Matthew, who was one of Jesus’ followers. He says,
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.
They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, FOLLOW ME,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and FOLLOWED HIM.
Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and FOLLOWED HIM.
We learn from another follower of Jesus, John, who wrote another book, also named after himself, that this was not Peter and Andrew’s first encounter with Jesus. They had met him before and followed him, but for whatever reason, they had gone home and back to life as it had been. Maybe they felt “I need to get back to my business” or “my family.” We don’t know why, but they went back to their priorities.
I’ve had moments like this. Growing up in the church, they’re called “mountain top” moments. You have this incredible time with Jesus; it’s like nothing else matters; he’s all you’re thinking about; life will never be the same again; you just can’t get enough. And then the weekend ends. You go home from the retreat. Monday happens and life goes back to what was.
But now Jesus is back in the area, and instead of getting snarky with them, “Oh, look who we have here, the once upon a time disciples,” he gets honest in the simplest, most direct way. “Follow me.” It’s time to decide if I’m your priority.
James and John were with their dad, preparing their nets for the workday when Jesus walks up and gives them the invitation. Immediately, they left the boat and started following Jesus. There was something so compelling about the invitation. They didn’t think twice.
There’s something about the voice of Jesus when he invites you to follow.
Remember that moment when Jesus invited you, and your life took on a new meaning and purpose. What had been so important to you didn’t seem so important anymore, there was a shift in your perspective and priorities.
Or you’re hearing that voice today. It might have been the invitation to watch this, or the voice was your coworker or neighbor or friend who broke all the stereotypes of what you believed or experienced a Christian was; judgmental, self-righteous, unloving. That was the voice of Jesus, patient, kind, full of grace and love.
If you haven’t decided to follow Jesus, the very fact that you’re watching this earns my respect. Maybe you haven’t decided to follow Jesus because of what you’ve been led to believe that means. Rules and regulations and restrictions and requirements.
But notice what Jesus doesn’t invite them into. He doesn’t say, follow me, and I will make you the most religious rule-followers you’ve ever seen! Follow me, and I’ll make you better than “them.” No, Jesus says if they follow, they’ll have a new priority, other people!
Jesus invited these fishermen to “follow Him,” and he extends the same to every person imaginable — the wealthy, the impoverished, spiritual people, those who aren’t spiritual. People of all races, ethnicities, colors, gender, social ranking, even your mother-in-law! Which, for you, maybe the hardest one to believe.
On the surface, this may appear to simply mean, “Go where I go,” or “walk this way,” but there is far more to it than that. The disciples would learn over the next three-plus years that Follow Me meant a great deal more than “walk behind Me,” but also “do what I do,” “live as I live,” “experience what I experience.” To follow Jesus is to encounter him, to get to know him, to be with him in daily life, to model life after his example. In the process of being with Jesus, we learn who WE are and what HIS purpose is for us.
Let’s look at another example from Luke, who authored the gospel of Luke, written from eyewitness accounts of the early Christian movement.
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will FOLLOW YOU wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man, “FOLLOW ME.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said, “I will FOLLOW YOU, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem with a group after leaving a town that rejected who he was because of ethnic reasons. I think they must have been talking about what had just happened, and whether it was well-intentioned or superficial pride, someone speaks up, I’m sure loud enough for everyone to hear, says, “I will follow you wherever you go. I’m all in Jesus; I’m yours, let’s do this.”
Jesus responds in essence, saying, “great, just understand that following me will at times be uncomfortable and require sacrifice.”
The man’s response? Silence. We don’t know who he was or if he ever circled back around again, but this seemed too much for him.
Jesus then turns to another in the group and asks him to follow. At least this guy answers! “I’m in, but FIRST I need to bury my father.” Here’s what’s going on. His dad’s not dead yet. If so, this guy would have been nowhere near Jesus because he would have been at home with his family and other mourners, as was the culturally appropriate thing to do. More likely, his intention was to wait until his father died, and then, “Jesus, I’m all yours.” He wasn’t ready to commit his priority to Jesus just yet.
Jesus responds in a way that just, honestly, seems rude, heartless, and demanding. “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Like, what is that?
I’m sure some of you are familiar with the “one-call close” sales approach? The goal is to close a sale on the first visit, whatever it takes! I spent a year in energy-efficient product sales that used a one-call close model. The idea was to go in, and within two to three hours of introducing myself, close a sale of tens of thousands of dollars by overcoming any and every objection, or wearing you down into submission.
What’s funny about this is I’m the kind of consumer who would never do that! I overthink and drag my feet with every significant purchase decision. My wife can confirm that for you.
I’m glad this isn’t the only glimpse of Jesus we have. He’s not the pushy, overbearing salesman. He’s not saying he doesn’t care about this guy’s father or the emotional pain and grief that accompanies losing someone close to you. He knows the guy’s dad is still alive and kicking. Jesus is responding to the use of “first.” He’s responding to the man’s priorities. He wasn’t heartless; he was inviting this guy to examine his primary loyalty. “Don’t wait for a better time. Now is the time.”
The man’s response? Again, silence.
Now, the third guy is the one I wonder about. He’s obviously heard the other two conversations but wasn’t listening with both ears. Typical guy, I know. He’s like, “I just want to say goodbye first, not wait until they’re dead like number two over there. Let me wrap up things at home first, take care of unfinished business, tie up loose ends. Then I’m all in; I’m all yours, we’ll do this!”
Jesus, in essence, responds that you can’t move forward while looking backward.
Jesus isn’t saying our relationships aren’t meaningful or necessary. Over and over again, we read of the importance of relationships to Jesus and their significance in our lives. They’re vital. Family relationships, friendships, spiritual relationships.
What is Jesus doing? He’s laying out a radical reorientation of life, priorities, values, what we’ve thought is most important in life or placed as most important in life. He’s saying that our relationship with Him has a priority position over all else. JESUS FIRST. The invitation of Jesus hasn’t changed.
So, if JESUS FIRST is a matter of priority, and as a Christ-follower, my priority is to follow him, what does that mean for me the rest of today, tomorrow, and beyond? That’s what we’ll look at in just a moment.
More than words we say, JESUS FIRST is evidenced by the life we live. For Jesus, it wasn’t just about priorities; it was about the right priorities. To follow Jesus isn’t measured by church attendance, how much you give, hours served, pages read, or Compassion projects you’ve participated in. All good stuff. But it’s not about an obligation or making sure you’ve fulfilled all the required activities for membership.
So, what did Jesus say we are to prioritize as Christ-followers trying to live a Christ-centered life?
In the following three chapters of his account, Matthew gives us the words of Jesus and what it means to place him FIRST. It’s Jesus’ longest recorded teaching, commonly referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount.” About halfway through, he says,
“…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness…”
If you remember, the kingdom of heaven is what we read Jesus was preaching right before the invitation to Peter, Andrew, James, and John. He had begun traveling around, and he had a message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” His message is basically, “Stop, everyone, stop! Something is happening that will challenge you to make a decision and re-evaluate everything you thought about yourself and God. It’s going to cause a total re-organization of priorities and values.”
What’s happening? It’s the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew, Jesus talks a lot about this kingdom. We read it Luke it was referred to as the kingdom of God. Same thing.
We don’t use the word Kingdom often unless referring to the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland. It’s not an American concept. Or maybe you’ve emigrated from a country or society where the idea of a kingdom or monarchy is more familiar, even if it’s just symbolic.
But this kingdom is unlike any other worldly kingdom. It operates on a different set of values than this world, and in Matthew 5-7 Jesus defines what it looks like. It’s an upside-down kingdom where it’s more blessed to give than to receive, where strength is found in weakness, where the peacemakers overcome the agitators, where one turns the other check rather than retaliate, where you love your neighbor and enemies as well as you love yourself.
Jesus reworks the power structure: those who think they’re important and have the most to offer God are really the least. And those who think they have nothing to give, nothing to offer, these are the greatest. To assert your power over someone is to serve them, looking out for their best interest, even if it’s at the expense of your own. The kingdom of heaven completely upends our views of power, status, significance, and value.
Elsewhere, Jesus put it this way,
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and FOLLOW ME.”
We often think of sacrifice as loss, what was freely given up or what was demanded of us, but it’s loss, and the fear of losing what we’ve made priorities in our lives, causes us to pause or become selective in our self-denial.
Philosopher and author Dallas Willard, calls this “vampire Christianity,” where people take Jesus at his cost, but not theirs. You can take certain parts, but not the whole. I’ll take your blood Jesus, but not your commands.
To sacrifice for JESUS FIRST is not loss, but gain. You’re building your life around God and his purposes for you. You take God more seriously than anything else, whether that’s other priorities or the opinions of other people.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus says, “seek first his kingdom AND his righteousness,” the Jesus way of life and living, and notice, when we get our priorities right, when we’re living in the way of Jesus, when he’s FIRST, “all these things will be given to you as well.”
What things? In the previous verses, he has just finished teaching his followers not to worry about health, meals, clothing, bills, not to worry about tomorrow and what tomorrow will bring. The things that we so often prioritize and, as a result, experience anxiety and worry.
I read of a man who tried something different. He had so many worries that he decided to hire someone else to do his worrying for him. He found a guy who agreed to the job for $200,000 a year. On his first day on the job, he looked at his employer’s bank account and asked, “How are you going to pay me $200,000?” His new boss said, “That’s for you to worry about.”
The word “worry” used by Jesus in his teaching means “to divide the mind.” Have you worried about your job, your finances, your relationships, or your future or health recently? I think we all understand what a “divided” mind is, don’t we?
A divided mind makes it difficult to stay focused. Part of your mind is on one thing while another part is on another. There are so many things for our minds to be divided over; the economy, politics, relationships that are fractured, our jobs, the kids education, the cost of higher education, the mortgage.
One study asked people to select their top three fears from a list of 10. Two personal fears, losing a family member and being alone for the rest of life, took the lead, but financial fears made up 66% of the responses. There’s a lot to divide our minds.
What is Jesus getting at? Not that we don’t need the necessities of life. He’s highlighting the kingdom we live in that places priority on the pursuit of self-fulfillment, self-satisfaction, and self-pleasure, the need for more. We are to “seek” something different, something more significant.
Our first priority determines how we pursue all other priorities.
When we as Christ-followers place JESUS FIRST, and seek his kingdom first, God is active in providing for our needs.
The invitation to follow is to make God and His kingdom the number one priority so that his desires become ours, and our desire is to place JESUS FIRST in life.
So, to live a Christ-centered life, we have to settle the question of priorities, what’s first in our lives? Who is first in our lives? It has to be different from the priorities of comfort, security, money, social status, zip code, achievements, relationships. Any of these can quickly bump Jesus out of first place if we don’t actively choose to give him FIRST place in our lives.
Paul, an early church leader, said,
“If then you have been raised with Christ, SEEK the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
Colossians 3:1 ESV
Two challenges as we end.
First, here’s something you can do this week as a sort of self-checkup for what may be competing priorities. At the end of a day, take some time to look back through all you did, your schedule, your conversations, your commute, your spending. Try to recall the thoughts you had throughout the day. Look at the screen time record of your phone for what apps were opened most.
If someone had shadowed you, what would they say were your priorities? What would they have seen as FIRST of your life?
For Jesus to be FIRST, what needs to change?
Second, maybe for you, it’s time to respond to the voice of Jesus that has been extending the invitation to follow him and make him FIRST in your life. There are no magic words, no special prayers, no crazy initiation rites. What is required is believing who Jesus is? Scripture tells us that,
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Why wait another day? Put Jesus First.
Blue Oaks Church