CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Discipleship: Making Things Difficult

May 25, 2010

When we preach a me-centred gospel, we end up with me-centred disciples. And when things get tough, these self-centred followers of Jesus will quickly fall away. Yet I hear believers all the time telling me we must make it easy for people to come to Jesus. We must not challenge them, judge them, mention their sin, or put any obstacles in their way.

They want to proclaim a wishy-washy gospel which everyone will be happy with and no one will reject. But if everyone comes rushing to embrace your gospel, then it is very likely not the gospel of Jesus Christ at all. Indeed, such easy believe-ism runs counter to everything Jesus said and did. He deliberately made it difficult for people to follow him. He warned people about the great costs of being his disciples.

Indeed, some of his demands were outright shocking and offensive to his audiences at the time. He demanded stricter conditions of discipleship than did the other rabbis. And because of such strenuous demands, many people turned away from following Jesus.

Consider his harsh and demanding words found in Luke 9:56-62: “And they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ To another he said, ‘Come, follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But he said, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God’. Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first let me first say farewell to those at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who sets his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’.”

There is nothing inviting, easy or welcoming about such words. It almost seems like Jesus is determined to put people off from following him. As Craig Keener comments, “Jesus turned away prospective disciples with heavy demands”. Jesus always rewarded the serious seeker, but never the casual inquirer.

As Keener notes, “Persistent seekers throughout the Jesus tradition display the appropriate response: the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:25-28), the blind man (Mt 20:31-34), the Gentile centurion (Mt 8:7-13), and Jesus’ own mother (Jn 2:3-9).” As Robert Stein says, “Jesus seeks no flippant, frivolous decision to follow him.”

In Matthews’s Gospel (8:19-22), similar words of Jesus are found to the Lukan pericope. Leon Morris remarks, “The paragraph brings out the necessity of wholeheartedness in following Jesus. There were people who were well disposed to him and apparently recognized that his teaching was outstanding, but who were not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to be real disciples. Matthew leaves his readers in no doubt that Jesus demanded wholehearted loyalty.”

Or as R.T. France comments, “The kingdom of heaven apparently involves a degree of fanaticism which is willing to disrupt normal rhythms of social life. Jesus can hardly have been surprised that true discipleship remained a minority movement, and that popular enthusiasm for his teaching and healing generally stopped short of full discipleship.”

And what about these demanding words of Christ? “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If 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 his Father’s glory with the holy angels’.” (Mark 8:34-38)

David Garland comments, “The cross is the heart of the gospel, and bearing the cross is the central requirement of discipleship. . . . Unlike some contemporary pedlars of the gospel, Jesus does not offer his disciples varieties of self-fulfillment, intoxicating spiritual experiences, or intellectual stimulation. He presents them with a cross.”

Consider also John 6:60-67: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” … From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.”

According to the sloppy thinking of so many contemporary mushy believers, Jesus was quite wrong here. He was being far too intolerant and exclusive. He should have been more loving, more accepting and more inclusive. He should not have put up barriers to belief.

Another clear example of the sternness of Jesus’ demands is the story of the rich young ruler: “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt 19:21-23).

Jesus deliberately zeroed in on his false god, and demanded total renunciation of it. Morris rightly comments, “He had made a god of his wealth, and when faced with the challenge he could not forsake that god.” Or as D.A. Carson put it, “His money was competing with God; and what Jesus everywhere demands as a condition for eternal life is absolute, radical discipleship. This entails the surrender of self.”

But plenty of preachers today would not even mention the issue of wealth. Indeed, many would claim that if we come to Jesus, we will get even more wealth! They certainly would not raise the issue of money – far too many of these preachers are up to their ears in the love of money.

In the light of these – and other – passages, most Christians today need a radical rethink about the gospel they are presenting and the Jesus they claim to champion. If the quality of our disciples is so poor today, it is because the quality of the gospel we preach is so anaemic and lightweight.

I can think of no better way to conclude this meditation than to cite some moving and supercharged words of Leonard Ravenhill:

“I think one of the serious breakdowns in modern evangelism is this: it has offered us too much for too little. What we do mostly is offer people forgiveness. We need cleansing! There is no true conversion until a man takes up his cross.”

“We try and get people saved who don’t even believe they are lost.”

“America is not dying because of the strength of humanism; it’s dying because of the weakness of evangelism! We take people to the cross, (but) we don’t put them on the cross.”

“If Jesus had preached the same message that ministers preach today, He would never have been crucified.”

“The early church was married to poverty, prisons and persecutions. Today, the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.”

[1239 words]

9 Responses to Discipleship: Making Things Difficult

  • Your article is the truth Bill, and it is exactly what the Lord is saying to the Churches today. I am just so spit fire mad at the current state of the compromised church, i even feel like the Lord is going to start a war, so that the oppressed stuck in these man made clubs calling themselves churches will be able to go free, i think i’ll shut up now argghhhhh!!!
    Dorian Ballard

  • Well put Bill.

    I think part of the problem today, that you allude to, is that the “christianity-lite” that people are sold is one without the law and therefore without the necessity of the cross.

    Jesus also said my burden is light and he was right when he said that. Not because being a christian doesn’t entail sacrifice and a changing of your life, but because one you see what Christ demands in its true light and what sin and rejection of God demand in their true light, then Jesus’ demands and burdens are actually not bad and heavy and negative at all.

    Jesus calls us to live as we were made by God to live, to “follow the manufacturers instructions”. This is indeed a light burden once you understand it properly.

    That doesn’t make discipleship easy, as we so often seem intent on ignoring the instructions, but that is our fault not God’s.

    Jason Rennie

  • I’m hearing you Dorian,
    As a mechanic in this world i have a interest in cars. So what you say? While surveying a new church to join, i always check out the car park. If i see an array of merc’s and BMW’s i get worried. Shoot me if i;m wrong, but i cant see how a christian can feel at ease with owning a new merc.
    Daniel Kempton

  • I came to realize one day after many years that almost everything Jesus said or did was first a judgment.
    It was then only after the subject or subjects agreed with that word of judgment, that the gate of grace was thrown open.

    In fact the very way Jesus came into this world, born of a virgin (with a bad repute), in a feed box in a stable, etc etc was a judgment upon everything that man thought about God. And it was ironic only two elderly people really recognized Him for who He was.

    Correct me if you think I am wrong but one can only receive mercy after one has met judgment and accepted it is righteous.

    It seems to me the saints of a generation gone by strongly preached the law as a means of rounding up the sinner and throwing him in jail, and only then when they realized their incarceration in trespasses and sins, grace was extended. as a free gift.

    No wonder multitudes wanted to kill Jesus, He left them with only two possible choices.Accept what He said or reject it .The bottom line was something had to die, either the sinner with his sin or Christ. And He always went right to the root in each person and shook the very foundations of their life.

    Chambers nails it in his disposition of sin: My Utmost for His Highest, Oct 5.

    Rob Withall

  • It is very easy to want to remove all the barriers that prevent people coming to know Jesus as Saviour and Lord – because the alternative – their going to hell – is horrific. Since returning last November from over 2 years in Perth, WA, I have had the privilege of learning from the Pastor at the church we now attend a different way of looking at things. He never bends over backwards to encourage people and allows barriers (eg an absence of babysitters) to test how serious people are in their desire to come to Christ. It has taken a while to come round to his way of thinking as I have a deep desire to see everyone turn to Christ – but I now realise that he has the right way of things.
    Katharine Hornsby

  • Dear Bill, You have hit the nail squarely on the head yet again. I am getting on in years and I would describe myself as a comfortable, Sunday Mass-going Christian who tries to live a decent Catholic life based on the Mosaic Law. Truthfully, I don’t see myself as much more ‘Christian’ than my good neighbours who never darken the portals of a Church from one year to the next. I know the rest of the road Home will probably not be so comfortable from now on. There will be more hills to climb with my ever declining strength but hopefully there will be a few level stretches in between to ease the journey a little. I have thought of myself as a Christian all my life and I have had a few troubles over the years. However, just recently God presented me with a Cross which was particularly hard to take. I realised then that I wasn’t the stuff saints are made of. I didn’t want this Cross because at times it was too heavy and I often told God in no uncertain terms that I thought so and what I thought of Him for allowing it. ‘Intoxicating spiritual experiences’ weren’t necessary because I have realised since that He knew in His Wisdom that I had learned, at least in theory over a lifetime, what was required of me as a Christian. Therefore, I often used to say in my pain and frustration [often ungraciously] ‘take it then [my suffering] and do with it what you will.’ Perhaps that was enough for a God Who is Good and Merciful. He knows, better than anyone, being our Creator,what we are and how little some of us can give gracefully and willingly. Christ showed us what real suffering was by His Death on the Cross. My suffering was nothing in comparison to His. His words may have seemed too hard and discouraged some would be disciples but in old age what is the real alternative to perseverance in our feeble attempts to follow Him? As Rob said it was the elderly which recognised Him.
    Patricia Halligan

  • I can’t see the point of making it hard for people to go to church or of judging churches by the value of cars in the carpark, as some commentators suggest.
    However, it is valid to ask for the complete message of the Bible to be preached (hard bits and all). Just let them all come, rich, poor, young, old, with or without children and let them hear the message.
    Matt Puusaari

  • Hey Matt
    I’m sorry but I think you may have missed my point. I think the issue being discussed here is churches being social clubs for the affluent.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Paul Washer preaches a very similar message here on salvation and discipleship (10 min video).
    Of Jesus, he states: “Jesus probably would not get invited to teach evangelism.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYYr6wZnN8M

    Annette Nestor

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