The Challenge of Discipleship

Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, wrote about the need for men and women who would follow Christ in this world: “Cross loving men are needed . . .  There is a need for us to give ourselves for the life of the world. An easy, non-self-denying life will never be one of power. Fruitbearing involves cross-bearing. There are not two Christs – an easy-going one for easy-going Christians, and a suffering, toiling one for exceptional believers. There is only one Christ. Are you willing to abide in him, and thus bear much fruit?”

There has been a real neglect of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ today in the North American church today, and there is still a need for men and women who will follow Jesus Christ in this world, and who will bear his cross today. There is a need to good deeper in our understanding of what it means to have saving faith in Jesus Christ and what it means to follow him as Lord, and this means that there is the need to go directly to the explicit expectations of Jesus Christ himself. His own Word tells us what it really means to be saved and to live as his disciple. His description which he gave to the crowds and his disciples in Galilee is still his valid Word to us today on what it takes to follow him.

Jesus gave a description of what it would mean to follow him to the disciples and the crowds after Peter had declared him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God – the confession of saving faith. Jesus went on to explain how his identity as the Messiah would culminate in the cross and the resurrection, and even more. Upon the prediction of his own crucifixion and resurrection, he went on to give an explanation of what it would mean to be his disciple in this world. His expectations set forth the reality of what it means to live in a world which goes against being a follower of Christ when a person begins to take his Lordship, his Word and his commands seriously – and even more than seriously, to be the center of one’s own life. Certainly it may well mean the loss of the approval of others and of the comfort of this world when following Jesus becomes the only reason that one lives in this world. But even more certainly it will ultimately culminate in one receiving the eternal approval of God and eternal life in Christ.

“And when he had called together the crowd with his disciples he said to them, ‘If anyone wants to follow me, let that person deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it. For what real advantage does anyone have to acquire the whole world, and yet to lose his own soul? For what can anyone give in exchange for his soul? For it anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “I assure you that there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until them see the kingdom of God coming in power” (Matthew 8:34-9:1).

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means following him no matter what happens. Following him at all costs then demonstrates the reality saving faith in Christ. It shows to oneself, and others, even to the whole world, that belief in his Word and his promises truly is a personal conviction of their truth and certainty, more than anything else in the world.

Following Jesus means saying yes to his direction and no to every competing demand. It is a complete submission to him that cares only to follow where he leads. It is an overwhelming concern for his will alone that will ignore personal ambitions and the rejection of others to follow him no matter what – with no excuses, no prevarications.

In verse 34 Jesus himself stated what following him would involve: “If anyone wants to follow me, let that person deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me.” We call it denial of self, taking up the cross and following him – but it is all summed up in following him. This directly followed his rebuke of Simon Peter, after Peter had the nerve to try to take him aside and correct him about his ministry culminating in the cross and resurrection. Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind, me, Satan, because you are not concerned about God’s concerns but the concerns of people!” So Jesus sought immediately to direct everyone to the concerns of God and not to those of themselves and other people. His call was first to the denial of self. This would mean the refusal of our own personal plans and ambitions for this world, and choosing the will of God above things that may even seem legitimate.  Even more, Jesus said that following him would mean a cross for everyone, and taking up the cross would mean facing the scorn and rejection of this world, like a condemned criminal on the way to the place of execution. His call to follow him would mean sacrifice and suffering for his sake, and his followers should in fact expect nothing better from this world.

This statement of Jesus tells us what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is not the mere confession of him as the Son of God, as in fact Peter had done. It means the acknowledgment of him as a Lord so real that it means following his will no matter what one had originally planed for his or her life and no matter how others may perceive and reject that commitment. The call of Jesus never was just to maintain an institutional religious organization or just to keep up a certain set of standards or morality – though certainly New Testament discipleship means being part of a church and adhering to Biblical morality. Nor was it to follow any new set of religious rituals. Rather, it was to that personal adherence to him and to following him.

The call of Jesus to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow him has been defined as the cost of discipleship, and it needs to be renewed today. This renewal of the call would do much to eliminate the superficial and spurious conversions among those would are unwilling to receive salvation on the terms of Jesus. It would remind us that we have no permission to soften the terms and make things easier for those who prefer no personal sacrifice. It would bring back a healthy Christcenteredness and spirit of sacrifice through which the kingdom of God has always advanced and prospered. Even more, this call of Jesus is the path to freedom from idolatry and slavery which we see all around us in our North American culture.

Note, then, how the call of Jesus to deny oneself frees us from the idolatry of ourselves. It frees us from a deep slavery and addiction to getting what we want, getting our own way and handling things our own way at whatever cost to others and even to the will of God. This kind of deeply ingrained selfishness goes regularly excused, tolerated and uncorrected among modern believers in a way which would have been unthinkable even a generation ago. This is what leads to the terribly sick and deceitful habits and mania for getting our own way, proving ourselves right and manipulating and controlling other people that regularly continue among many professed believers – and is a deep part of the reason why they experience so little of the fruit of the Spirit and presence of God in their lives. It is because there is such continuing idolatry and slavery to oneself, and they have not set themselves firmly on the path of denying themselves and following Jesus.

Just has much, this also frees us from the idolatry of and slavery to our own reputation, even a religious reputation. His call also means freedom from an obsession with being cool and of impressing others with how we look, how we dress, how much we have, and anything else that we try to form into a finely polished image with which to impress the others around us.

The apostles had already responded to Jesus, as Mark had already narrated back in 1:16-20. He called Simon Peter and Andrew, and they left their nets behind and followed him. He met James and John also, and they left their father and hired hands behind and followed him. They had already left behind their livelihood and families to follow him, and, as Peter would point out in 10:28, this was leaving everything that they had behind to follow him. Certainly this has been what it has often meant to follow Jesus into vocational ministry and missionary service; it has often meant leaving behind houses, families, friends and jobs to follow Jesus. Sometimes it has simply meant leaving or changing one’s profession, livelihood and place of living. But this has been a part of the price that many have paid over the years for the sake of following Jesus where he calls. For example, V. Raymond Edman told the story of a man in Ecuador who wanted to go into the ministry in response to God’s call. His wife threatened all kinds of reprisal if he left his lucrative job. But finally he came to her one evening with a bundle under his arm and tears in his eyes. She joined him in prayer and tears, and then he told her what was in the bundle: “It contains my working clothes. I left my employment today.”

But whatever the cost, following Jesus at all costs is the path of eternal life. It shows a saving faith in Jesus deep and real enough to stake one’s entire life on the truthfulness of the gospel. It shows a trust in Christ and a love for him more than anything else in the world.

Jesus directed his words in verses 35-37 against a natural tendency to self preservation and to seeking comfort in this world: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me and the gospel will save it. For what real advantage does anyone have to acquire the whole world, and yet to lose his own soul? For what can anyone give in exchange for his soul?” Our comfort in this world and even our very lives are not to be held at the cost of denial of Christ and his gospel. These words were directed to those who might have been facing eventual suffering and martyrdom. They were also directed as a strong warning to those who would consider their mission in life to have a worldly position, affluence and comfort, even if these would come with religious trappings and religious guise. The Pharisees had all of those: comfort, affluence and religious attainments, position and reputation. They were the religious big shots of their day. But Jesus called his disciples not to be those who would tie their lives to a world which would pass away. Rather, he gave the challenge to all of them to stake their lives on his promise of the world to come, and even to be willing to lose their lives on behalf of himself and the gospel.

Each person, every human being, has an eternal soul made in the image of God, and is more precious than all the riches of this world. The call of Jesus means refusing the eternal tragedy of the person who tries to get everything that he or she wants on earth,and yet loses everything eternally. If it is true that each person was made to live eternally with God, then nothing on earth is valuable enough to risk forfeiting that destiny.

So here Jesus calls us away from our fascination with our stuff, with our possessions and our money as well. Certainly, in the balance of scripture, there does need to be wise management of our money and possessions, and the call of Jesus has not always meant absolute loss of everything – but it might and each one of us needs to be ready to take that step.

The believer who follows the call of Jesus at all costs does so because he or she has come to realize that Christ is all he or she wants and all that he or she needs. Even if there is earthly deprivation and rejection, there is the companionship of the Son of God, the power of his grace, and the irreplaceable and unchangeable value of eternal life, the treasure in heaven which Jesus gives. So this comes from the realization that following Christ comes to mean more than this world could ever offer.

So then, loyalty to Christ is a matter of choice and action. But even more it is a matter of personal conviction that one cannot keep silent. Being a follower of Jesus means openly declaring that conviction before others. This open confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is the expression of true saving faith in the heart. The declaration of personal allegiance to Jesus Christ is not something that can be kept only ultimately private and personal, but it must be public and definitive.

When a believer openly acknowledges Jesus Christ as his or her Lord before others, this shows his or her expectation of his acceptance of us in the same way in eternity. The reverse, though, is also true, that the refusal to acknowledge him before others also entails a false faith that will meet with his rejection as well.

In verse 38, Jesus described a refusal to declare him as Lord this way: “For it anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” In Matthew and Luke, he put it as the alternatives of silence or confession. The denial of Christ by silence and shame is the evidence of a spurious faith which will be answered by his rejection in the glory of his coming sovereignty. So Jesus spoke these words to encourage the personal stand of those who truly believed in him and all that he promises as Lord and Savior. His call was not to be ashamed of him, in order to please others and to fit in with those who were still in their sin and their rejection of the Messiah.

This open declaration of personal faith in Christ and allegiance to him before the world is still something that he expects from us. This is not something that that is often directly intended to persuade others to accept Christ, though it may often lead to those kinds of opportunities. Rather, it is the open declaration of one’s own conviction, the open expression of the saving faith of the heart, that is not ashamed of Jesus and his words before the world.

This gives the warning that an undeclared faith may come to be shown to be no faith at all. The faith which is put away, kept only private and personal, and not declared before others may be found to be nothing some day. This was the discovery of an economics professor at Yale University some years ago. He came to his position with a vibrant testimony of being a Christian, but gradually started to keep his mouth shut. He gave his account of what had happened in this way: “I never consciously gave up a religious belief. It was as if I had put my beliefs in a drawer, and when I opened it, there was nothing in there at all.”

Even more, openly acknowledging Christ in this life shows our realization that we may face him sooner than we anticipate. It shows that we understand that the course of our earthly lives may be cut short by the return of the Son of God in power and glory.

In 9:1, Jesus makes the statement, “I assure you that there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until them see the kingdom of God coming in power.” There has been some ink spilled over what Jesus really meant by this, but in context it is simply his prediction of the transfiguration, which occurred in 9:28. Jesus told them that they would not all have to die before they would see the glory of the Messiah. In the transfiguration, the disciples saw Jesus changed before them, where he began to shine with his heavenly glory and his garments shone pure white. The disciples saw something there that they might have thought that they would have had to die and be resurrected to witness. In context, his statement was that three – namely, Peter, John and James – would have the privilege of a preview of his true glory. The point is that the reality was already there would demanded their decision, and it was not something that would have been postponed until later when they might have thought that they would have time, when they would have thought that it would be convenient and when it would fit in with their plans.

Thus, the open declaration of Jesus Christ as our Lord shows the anticipation that each day may be the one when he might return. Thus the goal is for the believer in Jesus Christ is to live each day as if Jesus were to return before the day is over. This would mean being forthright before the world now with the expectation that each of us will see him one day face to face. This is like the question that F. B. Meyer once put to Dwight L. Moody, on the secret of his success as an evangelist. Moody replied, “For many years I have never given an address without the consciousness that the Lord may come before I have finished.”

The attitude, then, of the disciple who takes his or her stand for Jesus is that the approval of Jesus is all that matters. The conviction of the truth of Jesus’s return and his eternal reward for his followers then gives the strength to declare oneself for Christ no matter what anyone else may say or do. And this demonstrates that one’s faith in him and all he promises is genuine.

So then, since Jesus Christ is coming back, the only realistic course for anyone is to be on his side when he comes. Then those who love him and declare themselves for him will find themselves with him forever.

The mark of genuine saving faith in Jesus is open acknowledgment of him as Lord and submission to him in one’s daily life. Thus the call of Jesus finds a hearty, ‘Yes!’ from those who have been truly born again of his Spirit. They follow him because he has given them a new heart and a new will that wants to follow his Word. They follow because as children of God by faith in Jesus Christ they listen to the voice of the Son of God. They follow because they have come to love the Son of God and trust his Word more than anything on earth. And they follow simply as a the response of the disciple to the Lord who has love him or her more than life itself. They follow the Lord who has himself left the glory of heaven to die on the cross for the sake of those who would not be ashamed of him and his words in the midst of this lost and dying world. They follow because the bond of eternal love and fellowship between the Lord and his disciples cannot be broken by the enticements of this earth nor the intimidation of others.

First of all, being the disciple of Jesus means that he is Lord and Master. It means that in our lives everything is his in a way what we can truly call nothing to be our own anymore. It means that the highest ambition and goal of our lives is simply to follow the will of God to the glory of God. So, then, if you have made the claim to have been saved by faith in Jesus Christ, are you his disciple? Did you realize that salvation entrails being his follower here on earth? Will you make it your decision now, as a new or renewed decision, to be his disciple, with him as Lord over everything in your life?

Then, being a disciple of Jesus Christ means not only letting go of the control of your life to him, but to be ready to tell the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. This means simply taking a stand for Christ before others regardless of whether it will please or offend them. If you want to do this for the first time, simply tell one other professing Christian that Jesus Christ is Lord of your life and that you will follow him at all costs.

But finally, have you risked any form of difficulty or suffering for Christ? Have you followed him despite possible or real rejection, ridicule and loss of position or reputation in this world? If you have, reaffirm now your suffering and difficulty now as your offering of love for the the Lord who suffered for you. But if you have been slack in denying yourself and taking up your cross as part of following Jesus, perhaps you need to examine the reality and depth of your faith in Christ. Maybe that needs to become newer, more real and deeper than it ever has been before, for the sake of the Lord who bore his cross for us to the hill of Golgotha, to suffer and die for us.

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