When we think about Jesus, we often depict him as the warm and welcoming savior, waiting with open arms for any and all who want to follow after him. And that’s a good thing, because that’s exactly who Jesus is.
But sometimes, I think that the religious world’s view of the Gospel invitation misses one vital fact: that invitation is on Jesus’ terms. Not ours.
In fact, one of the extraordinary aspects of our Lord’s work on earth is all the time he spent discouraging people from following him! I don’t mean that he told some that they were unwelcome, or that he didn’t want them as disciples. But Jesus was very clear that becoming a follower isn’t a casual decision, and it should never be done lightly or without a clear understanding of the cost.
How much do we want to follow Jesus?
In Luke 14, Jesus makes a remarkable statement — one we need to include in our own teachings to the world. He has just attended a dinner with one of the religious leaders in Jerusalem (Jesus would eat with anyone!) where he told the Parable of the Great Banquet. In the story, a man invited his friends and neighbors to a feast, only to be met with excuse after excuse listing all the things that they deemed more important than this particular event. The master decided to seek out other guests, noting that “none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.”
Luke then skips ahead to a discussion that he seems to relate to this same topic. Jesus is walking along with a throng of people following him, which seemed to be the case everywhere he went. For some reason, Jesus then turns around and addresses the crowd:
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. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Are we lowering the bar?
When was the last time you heard someone talk to a person seeking to become a Christian and saying: “Listen, are you sure about this? Because there’s no turning back, and this is going to be a lot harder and cost you a lot more than you probably realize?” Our emphasis tends to be about getting someone “in the door” first and foremost. The maturity and growth and commitment will come later; right now, we’re just trying to get the papers signed, as it were.
That’s how you sell timeshares. It’s not how you bring people to Christ.
Jesus demands nothing less than commitment, and despite how we often use that word today, there’s no such thing as “partial commitment.” We’re either in, or we’re out. That doesn’t mean we won’t have weak days — that we won’t sin or stumble or question why we’re putting ourselves through this from time to time. But it does mean realizing that Jesus is, in fact, the “exacting man” of the Parable of the Talents (Luke 19:23).
He demands a lot of us. In many cases, it’s more than we’re willing to give.
If we don’t come to Christ expecting to give up many — maybe all — the things we hold dear in this life, we’ve missed the message of the Gospel. In Luke 9, as people came to Jesus and told him of their intentions to follow “wherever you go,” Jesus repeatedly warned them that their priorities might not allow them to give the sort of devotion needed to be a disciple. And he finishes with what seems to be a harsh and unbending statement: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
What does discipleship really mean?
Often, when we look at the idea of Christianity today, we think of it a lot like we might think of a political party. I can be a Democrat or a Republican just by claiming that identity for myself. Sure, I may have to register as one or the other, but no one’s going to tell me “Wait a second… you haven’t voted Republican in 10 years, so you can’t call yourself a Republican!” I am affiliated with a party because I say I am.
Too many believe that Christianity means picking a church, coming in from time to time and preventing a pew from floating up into the air for about an hour, and then going out into the world with the intent of not physically hurting anyone. We may give a few dollars, we may forego an hour’s sleep or so on Sunday morning, and we might even go so far as to participate in the worship service. I might attend a Bible study during the week if I or the kids don’t have something else scheduled.
And we believe that makes us disciples of Jesus.
Vines Dictionary defines the word disciple (mathetes, in Greek) this way:
Literally, “a learner”, in contrast to didaskalos, “a teacher”; hence it denotes “one who follows one’s teaching,” as the “disciples” of John, Matt. 9:14; of the Pharisees, Matt. 22:16; of Moses, John 9:28; it is used of the “disciples” of Jesus (a) in a wide sense, of Jews who became His adherents, John 6:66; Luke 6:17, some being secretly so, John 19:38; (b) especially of the twelve apostles, Matt. 10:1; Luke 22:11, e. g.; (c) of all who manifest that they are His “disciples” by abiding in His Word, John 8:31, cf. 13:35; 15:8; (d) in the Acts, of those who believed upon Him and confessed Him, 6:1- 2, 7; 14:20, 22, 28; 15:10; 19:1, etc.
A “disciple” was not only a pupil, but an adherent; hence they are spoken of as imitators of their teacher; cf. John 8:31; 15:8.
Jesus does not call everyone to literally give up everything for the sake of giving everything up; we know this because of the number of Christians in the Bible who not only were landowners or professional tradespeople or had some sort of secular life, but were in some cases quite successful and wealthy. But he did require some to make that sacrifice if they were really serious about following him in the literal sense of the word. (We follow Jesus in a more figurative way today, but it’s no less meaningful and often no less demanding.) And he — along with the apostles whom he inspired — made it abundantly clear that whatever we do in this life, it’s secondary to serving God.
Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Does that sound like a relationship that we can pursue casually or in our spare time?
Are we really disciples of Christ? Or are we people whose will occasionally overlaps with Jesus’ will, causing us to follow him as long as he’s already going in our direction?
Let’s be the true disciples that Jesus desires. Our Redeemer deserves nothing less, and he will accept nothing less.