The Radical Demands of Discipleship
There are many marked contrasts between the message we preach today and the message Jesus preached. Perhaps one of the greatest contrasts lies in the way we seek to win people and engage in discipleship. Modern versions of this and that of Jesus tend to be light-years apart.
The sad truth is, we tend to make it as easy as we can on the potential believer, or the new convert. We sugar-coat the gospel and wrap it in all the sweeteners we can to entice non-Christians into the faith. We bend over backwards to make things as easy as we can on them. In stark contrast, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to make things as difficult for his would-be followers as possible.
There are plenty of texts in the Gospel accounts that could be appealed to here, but let me focus on just one: Matthew 10. This 42-verse chapter is all about Jesus’ commission of the twelve. They are already his followers, but Jesus in no way downplays the tough commission he has for them.
Indeed, if we would read this chapter to new or would-be converts today, I am sure we would lose 90 per cent of them. The best thing the reader can do is simply go over this chapter slowly, carefully and prayerfully. It is just such a jarring chapter, when held up to what we have come to expect in most churches today.
Just imagine if you had a dozen new converts and you planned to take them through a week-long discipleship training class, based solely on this chapter. What would be the outcome? Let’s look at a few parts of this incredible chapter. In vv. 16-23 we read for example:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
Wow! What kind of promises is Jesus giving here? Does he promise them a great life of success, personal satisfaction, self-fulfilment, and personal prosperity here? Does he guarantee them new cars and fancy homes, instant weight loss, perfect health, and a life of ease and peace here?
Nothing of the sort. He promises them that they will face active opposition and persecution. People will reject them and their message. They will be hounded out of one town after another. And most amazingly, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
Double wow! They will be hated by everyone! Even allowing for hyperbole here, Jesus is making it crystal clear that the usual response that they will get is hatred. But so many pastors and Christian leaders today are telling us the opposite: if you faithfully represent Jesus the whole world will love you and cheer you on.
Many leaders suggest that if you turn people off and get an angry response from unbelievers, you must be doing something wrong. Well, yes and no. We can misrepresent our Lord and be ungracious, undiplomatic, and lacking in tact and love.
But even if we do everything right, Jesus here insists that the world will nonetheless hate us. Indeed, consider the most loving, gracious, kind and wonderful person ever to have walked the earth: Jesus. The world responded to him by sending him to a horrible death.
But that one verse goes on to say, those who stand firm to the end will be saved. No easy believe-ism here. No cheap grace here. No put up your hand in an emotional meeting and think you are set for life. This is all about radical discipleship and performing the hard yards, all the way to the end.
Indeed, consider vv. 32-39:
“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
Wow once more. This is really hard, radical stuff. When is the last time you heard something like this from the pulpit? Of course we need to understand what Jesus is saying here. He is not saying that family and relationships are unimportant. They are, because God himself established them.
But even these very good things can get in the way of being a real disciple of Christ. It is certainly possible to put family and friends ahead of Jesus. And as C.S. Lewis said, it is not that we are loving family members too much, but that we are not loving Jesus enough.
And Jesus drives this all home by saying that the true disciple of his daily carries his cross. Of course a cross meant only one thing to people in Jesus’ day: death. It was a cruel and effective instrument of death, and it became the very symbol of what Christianity was all about.
Today we want to talk about feeling good about ourselves, and having great self-esteem, and being successful in all that we do, and living a life of prosperity and comfort. That certainly was not the message of Jesus. He promised them only hatred, persecution and death.
That was what Jesus held up to his prospective followers. He certainly did not make things easy on them. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to make things as difficult as he possibly could. He seemed to be deliberately making things so hard that this would weed out all the wimps, and those who simply wanted to get all the benefits but take on none of the responsibilities.
Such a tough message certainly separated the men from the boys all right. No one was under any illusions of the life of discipleship being an easy walk, a cushy ride, and a lot of fun. Just the opposite. So let’s go back to my imaginary class of twelve neophytes in a week-long discipleship course, hearing the kinds of things Jesus said just here in one chapter of Scripture.
How many of the twelve do you think would still be there by the end of the week? I would guess that if we still had one or two by Friday we would have been doing real well. And recall that this is just one chapter. If we take all of the teachings of Jesus, we would be thinning out the crowds even further.
So in the light of Matthew 10 alone, we all need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Just what sort of gospel are we preaching? What exactly are we telling our new converts? Does our discipleship message mirror that of Jesus, or is it nowhere near to what he said?
Matt 10 is certainly part of the hard words of Jesus. Indeed, all of his words were hard. But we want to present soft words and a soft message today. We want to give people what they want to hear, instead of what they need to hear. We want to give them cotton candy and others sweets.
But any convert raised on that sort of fluff and pap will never make it as a disciple. He will give up as soon as the going gets tough. Only the tough will keep going, and the tough are those who have heard and heeded the hard words of Jesus.
As A.W. Tozer rightly stated, “To accept Jesus and not demand a transformed man or woman will result in actually rejecting the Christ of the New Testament. All over the country, evangelists blaze abroad the message, ‘Accept Jesus’, which has become in our day nothing more than a theological zombie. It is a voice out of the tomb, which means nothing to this generation. The outworking of this ‘receive’ doctrine is nothing short of a tragedy.”
And as he said elsewhere: “If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament on the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity… The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter.”
Or as Leonard Ravenhill put it, “Paul never glamorized the gospel! It is not success, but sacrifice! It’s not a glamorous gospel, but a bloody gospel, a gory gospel, and a sacrificial gospel! Five minutes inside eternity and we will wish that we had sacrificed more, wept more, bled more, grieved more, loved more, prayed more, given more!”