Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at a dinner party that Jesus had been invited to attend. We saw how he repeatedly took the initiative and taught some highly suitable and appropriate lessons even if his hearers may well have felt somewhat uncomfortable as they listened to what he had to say.
Well that particular banquet had come to an end and Jesus had moved on. He was on the road again accompanied by large crowds of people who were following him. And then he stopped. He turned round and he started to speak to them. They were following him along the road but he wanted them to know what it would mean for them to follow him as one of his disciples.
I wonder how you think of yourself this morning. Would you describe yourself as a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ?
This morning we are going to consider what Jesus says here about what is involved in becoming, in being and in continuing to be a disciple.
Before we begin I want to emphasise the importance of this whole subject. We are not to think of discipleship as somehow reserved for the spiritual keenies as though there are two (or more) categories of Christian believers – the ordinary and the disciple. All those who come to Christ trusting him for the forgiveness of sins, for their new spiritual life and expecting to benefit from his many wonderful promises are to be disciples of their Lord and Saviour.
Jesus is not suggesting that there are various ways of being a true Christian believer. He is not teaching that it is simply up to us to choose whether we will become disciples or not as though both options were valid expressions of genuine Christian faith. Instead Jesus explains here what being a true disciple really looks like. This is simply another way of saying that it is not up to us to determine how we might like salvation to work, he is the one who decides. He has decided that he will save sinners by grace and he has also determined that such grace when genuinely present will express itself in discipleship.
So if you want to be a genuine Christian believer and enjoy the salvation that Christ has secured for repenting sinners then you must be a disciple and Jesus tells you here something of what that will entail for you.
Jesus and Discipleship
Three times in the space of just a few short verses Jesus repeated the same words – and in doing so he leaves us in no doubt as to what this section is really all about. Those words are:
vv.26; 27; 33 "cannot be my disciple."
Jesus didn’t speak like this in order to discourage people from becoming his disciples but he warns us that there are conditions to be met if we would be his true followers.
In vv.26+27 Jesus mentioned two different factors. Firstly he deals with the whole question of our loyalty priorities and having done that he moved on to talk about the reality of our engagement to follow him. At the end of the section he summarises the demands of Christian discipleship in terms of total commitment.
The whole matter of discipleship is both serious and costly and not to be undertaken lightly. In order to illustrate Jesus told two more short stories to help his hearers understand what he was telling them.
The first thing that Jesus says about discipleship is that we must get our priorities sorted out. The disciple is to make sure that Jesus occupies first place in his life:
v.26 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
What does this mean? It means:
Jesus must take precedence over other people no matter how close they may be to us
Jesus must take precedence over our own lives and what we think might be good for them
The way this is expressed may sound at times a bit odd to our ears but he was speaking in a typically Hebrew manner. There is no way we are to interpret him as calling upon his followers to literally hate their family members – the whole lifestyle of the Christian is to be marked by love; he has been called to love not merely his friends, but also his enemies.
So what does Jesus mean by this type of language? He means that our love for him is to be so strong that all other loves, including legitimate loves, might appear as hatred by comparison.
How do we know this to be so? Well, we know it because of what he taught in other situations. He taught, for example, the need to honour (honour not hate!) your parents. At the same time he castigated the Pharisees for finding trying to find ways that would exonerate them from keeping God’s law at this point. If he had really meant his followers to hate their parents then the pharisaical practice of corban might have been commended rather than condemned.
Similarly he would have reprimanded those parents who were so desperately worried about the health and well-being of their children that they sought him out for help. But what did Jesus do? The boy possessed of an unclean spirit is delivered and Jairus’ daughter is restored to life!
Again if we consider Jesus’ own practice how did he relate to his parents? As a boy growing up we know that he respected them and submitted contentedly to them. As an adult he expressed a loving concern for his mother (his father Joseph had apparently died before Jesus began his public ministry). While he was dying on the cross he nevertheless made arrangements for the care and well-being of Mary by entrusting her to the apostle John. Again such behaviour would be out of place if Jesus really taught a positive hatred of our nearest and dearest.
No, Jesus knew that there was a right and a proper love that humans ought to show towards those close to them but what he taught and teaches is that such love must not be allowed to be the dominating force in a person’s life. When love of family becomes so strong that it trumps our love for Christ then there is a problem.
Oftentimes and for many of us there is no clash of loyalties and we will serve Christ well by loving those close to us. But when push comes to shove, when our loves pull us in opposite directions, whom will we determine to please? Will it be Christ or will it be our friends or family? At that point Jesus says to be a true disciple you must put him first, not reluctantly, not grudgingly but gladly because you love him so much, you want to please him so much: you will want to obey God rather than man.
There will doubtless be times when we make mistakes and get things wrong. There may well be times when we don’t see things very clearly at all but if we find ourselves habitually making Christ fit in with our family rather than the other way round then we can be sure that we’re not in a good place at all however we might like to try to rationalise our behaviour!
And make no mistake unbelieving family members or friends can be very adept at applying the pressure. There is an example in the life of Samson in the OT that well illustrates this point.
Samson’s first wife was herself between a rock and a hard place. Her new husband had entered into a wager with the men of her hometown over the solving of a riddle. Those men were now threatening her that unless she got the answer from Samson and passed it to them then there would be trouble. You can read the whole incident in Jud.ch.14. You’ll read there how she pleaded and wheedled until Samson gave way:
Jud.14:16-17 "And Samson’s wife wept over him and said, "You only hate me; you do not love me. You have put a riddle to my people, and you have not told me what it is." And he said to her, "Behold, I have not told my father nor my mother, and shall I tell you?" She wept before him the seven days that their feast lasted, and on the seventh day he told her, because she pressed him hard. Then she told the riddle to her people."
After speaking about the need to get your priorities right Jesus went on to speak to say that a disciple must be ready and prepared to carry their cross. Now what on earth did he mean when he said that?
Some things we need to eliminate right at the outset. Sometimes folk have talked about any little thing that goes wrong or any little trial they might have be it spiritual or otherwise as their little crosses which they have to bear. Now while it is true that the Christian may have lots of little trials by no means all those trials have anything particular to do with his/her Christian commitment. The unbeliever and the believer may both suffer from a very similar form of hay-fever, for example, but putting up with hay-fever is not what Jesus talked about here as he talked about bearing one’s cross. We must be careful not to trivialise what Jesus actually said.
In the first century of the Christian era a person who was carrying a cross was on a one-way trip: they were on the way to the place of execution and there was no turning back for them. So for Jesus to use this picture he was telling his would-be followers that in coming to him they must be ready to die.
But more is involved than the willingness to die and in a country where the risk of actually dying for one’s faith is currently rather unlikely these other elements must also be considered. Because a person carrying a cross was on the way to the place of execution it was a normal assumption to make that this person was a guilty, condemned criminal. There would be therefore all that associated shame in carrying a cross. In following Jesus as his disciple you may well be exposed to ignominy and shame, to ridicule and to mockery – are you prepared to face it?
To carry a cross was a burdensome business, it was disgraceful and it was trying to the feelings. But it is simply par for the course for the genuine believer – it is the simple doing of one’s Christian duty. You don’t have to go out of your way to stir up opposition and animosity but you simply have to put up with it when it comes. But are you ready to do so? If you are not you can never be a true disciple of Jesus Christ whatever else you might like to call yourself.
There is in the NT the picture of a man who did literally have to carry a cross for Jesus’ sake. His name was Simon of Cyrene. He was minding his own business one day coming in from the fields when he met a crowd heading out of town and suddenly he found himself press-ganged into service. Ugh! He had to carry a cross! How awful how shameful! And yet how many people would love to have been able to take his place! What an honour to serve the Lord Jesus at such a time and in such a way!
How do you view carrying a cross for Jesus’ sake? Is it something to be avoided at all costs or a joy to serve your Master?
Not only did Jesus say that to be a disciple you had to carry your cross but he added you had to follow him. By that he meant that anyone who would come to him and be his disciple must openly embrace his teachings, must wholeheartedly accept them and patiently and persistently adhere to them regardless of what others might think or say or do. The true disciple is no shrinking violet, too embarrassed to speak out but one who is ready to shoulder the responsibility of following a wonderful Lord.
The matter of discipleship being serious Jesus told two stories which would be helpful in enabling his hearers to understand that 1. Discipleship like this was costly and 2. Their own resources would not be enough.
The first story is about a construction project, a man wanted to build a tower. Now to do so it is obvious that a cost is involved, materials must be found and sufficient to see the job through to completion. How important then for the man to sit down beforehand and to do his sums – did he have enough to finish the enterprise? How foolish he would prove to be if he started the job and had to abandon part way through because his money had run out or his supplies had been exhausted.
There was nothing wrong with wanting to build a tower but a sensible person only begins to build with a view to finishing the job.
My friend, let me ask you a question. You may have you come to Christ but are you still "building" today? Are you making progress today? Or have you simply settled down so that no further developments will take place in your life? Yes, it may have been costly what you have done so far but you must not stop now. Your own resources may have been used up but not his!! Our own resources will never prove sufficient for the task in hand but his are and will always prove to be so.
Jesus doesn’t intend to discourage discipleship his intention is to be frank and honest – his teaching is a call for serious reflexion before launching out. Don’t act on a whim and don’t imagine that you can do it on your own – but do act and do trust his resources to enable you to be a genuine disciple who brings no shame on himself or on his Master.
The second illustration is similar but whereas the first highlighted the costs involved perhaps the emphasis of this second is more upon the risks and the hazards. Once again the question of resources is very prominent.
The story is simply of a king preparing to go to war with another: he knows he’s going into a difficult situation and wants to reflect carefully before committing himself. He can only afford to take to the field if his forces are up to it, if not, he’d better find some other course of action.
Military language is frequently used in Scripture to describe the Christian life. It is not that we are to be at war with men and women but every Christian should know that they are involved in a spiritual conflict the moment they are converted and start to follow Christ. If you are not prepared for such a conflict don’t bother coming to Christ because you won’t pass the discipleship test. But you must not imagine that you can come to Christ in some other way and somehow avoid the conflict. However we are not in this alone: yes, our resources are meagre and likely to run out before the building is half done or the battle half fought, but we are not in this alone. The disciple has a Master to follow, a Master who has already proved himself successful in the fight and who commits himself fully to helping his followers.
Don’t be frightened to engage with Christ as his close follower. Think carefully about what is involved, the costs, the difficulties and the dangers. But think too about the gains: sins forgiven, peace with God and a sure and certain hope of heaven. There is no other way to enjoy these without being a disciple of the Saviour. There is no other way to be a Christian than to be a disciple. Every other path will lead you to a dead end in a blind alley.
Come to Christ – take up your cross, not just once but daily and follow him, keeping on keeping on relying more and more on his infinite resources than upon your own limited supply.
Give up any idea of holding onto whatever it is you currently cherish most, remember that everything here fades and rusts and breaks down and dies but Jesus Christ goes on the same yesterday today and forever. Remember too that you have a never-dying soul. Can you afford not to be a disciple of the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ?
May God help us all.