The original requirements for discipleship

July 26th, 2019

Luke 14:25-33

This passage becomes more poignant when we remember that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he said this, and he was well aware of the danger he would face there. He knew a dark truth of which the crowds, including his immediate disciples, were oblivious. He was on his way to the cross! The crowds thought they were on their way to a showdown with the Romans and the quisling Jewish establishment. The hope that Jesus would lead a revolution and restore the kingdom of Israel persisted up to and even after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The Palm Sunday crowd believed Jesus would lead a revolution. The Gospel of Mark reports that James and John asked Jesus to let one sit on his right and the other on his left when the revolution was successfully finished (Mark 10:35). The Gospel of Matthew, which was written perhaps some years after Mark, attributes this request to the mother of James and John (Matthew 20:20-24). “When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers” (v. 24). During the Passover meal in the upper room, a dispute arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. After the Resurrection and just before the Ascension, the book of Acts reports that “when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ ” (Acts 1:6). John Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, remarked that Jesus must have looked at them and thought, “How dumb can you be?!” (Commentaries, Acts of the Apostles, vol. 18 [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, reprint 1981], 43–44; The quotation is a characterization of Calvin’s commentary by Dr. William Mallard, Candler School of Theology).

The power of the messianic expectation into which they tried to make Jesus fit continued to the end, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

While on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus lays down the conditions of discipleship. He does this with powerful symbols and language. It is clear that Jesus expects a disciple to be willing to give up everything in order to follow him. Luke quotes Jesus as saying that one could not be a disciple unless he hates father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life. Those who are “put off ” by the idea of hating your immediate family and family of origin should remember Jesus’ penchant for using hyperbole, which exaggerates a contrast so that it can be seen more clearly. Jesus demands unalloyed allegiance, but he is not calling for hatred of natural family ties. This statement, taken in the light of all we know about Jesus, certainly must not be taken literally. Matthew couches the concept in softer and more reasonable language: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Even when understood in the more gentle language used by Matthew, it is nonetheless clear that discipleship to Jesus requires the willingness to leave family and possessions, and to run the risk of losing one’s life.

Seeing a man carrying his cross on the way to his own crucifixion was a familiar sight to Jesus’ hearers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had been publicly crucified in Israel for planning or participating in revolutionary activity against the Romans. His hearers certainly do not miss the seriousness of discipleship that would be loyal even if it meant the cross. We must not think, however, that they think of this in association with the cross of Jesus, an event that was yet to come.

Jesus is thinning out the crowd with these stringent requirements. He reinforces these demands with two illustrations. Jesus says whenever a person is going to build a tower, he first calculates the cost of completing the job before he lays the foundation. He does this to avoid being ridiculed for starting something he is unable to finish. Neither does a king engage in battle with another king without first taking stock of the two armies to see if he can win. Jesus does not want anyone to volunteer for his campaign without counting the cost, lest they be embarrassed or even defeated because they misjudged what it would cost to follow him. Finally he says that anyone who does not bid farewell to his possessions cannot be one of his disciples.

It is crystal clear that Jesus does not want disciples who follow him as the result of unexamined enthusiasm. There are many who offer themselves who are like the young man who wrote the following love letter to his girlfriend: “My dearest darling, I love you more than anything in the world. I would climb the highest mountain and swim the widest ocean just to be at your side. I will see you Saturday night if it does not rain. Love always, John.” Unexamined enthusiasm is hollow and unacceptable.

How far do you perceive the contemporary Christian church today to be from the kind of discipleship Jesus set forth in this passage? The distance is appalling! So many churches and radio and television evangelists offer a cheap discipleship. For a few dollars and your name on the roll, you are promised great rewards. Some promise material prosperity. Troubled people are promised peace and health and a trouble-free life for a cheap commitment. When I reflect on the many millions who are church members today, I cannot help but remember the general who said that he wished he had as many soldiers as he had men. What great influence we would have in the world today if we had as many disciples as we have members!

Dr. Alan Culpepper, in his reflections on this passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible, suggests that the language of cross-bearing has been cheapened by overuse. It has nothing to do with illness and painful conditions and broken family relationships. The cross-bearing of which Jesus speaks is something voluntarily done because of one’s commitment to Jesus Christ (vol. 9 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995], 293).

Dr. William Barclay compares the consideration for discipleship to the admonition in the introduction to the marriage ceremony. The minister says of marriage: “It is, therefore, not to be entered upon lightly or unadvisedly, but thoughtfully, reverently, and in the fear of God” (The Gospel of Luke [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956], 204).

Unless a man and a woman count the cost before accepting the vows of marriage, they are in for some unhappy surprises, which is one of the reasons why so many marriages fail.

If you are considering signing up to be one of the Jesus people, count the cost before you make the move. Read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line.

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