MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 16, 2001
(Tenth in a series on Christ’s church)
This week, we continue to explore the glories of Christ’s church by examining yet another biblical designation for God’s people. We have up to this point looked at the church as the ecclesia, as the dwelling of God, the New Covenant people of God, the saints of God, the citizens of heaven, the children of God and the bride of Christ. This morning, we will see the church through the lens of the four gospels where believers are referred to almost exclusively as “disciples of Christ.” This word is used almost 300 times, making it the most frequently used term for followers of Jesus in the New Testament and it is found overwhelmingly within the pages of the four gospels. A disciple is literally “a student” or “apprentice.” A good, popular definition of a disciple I heard several years ago is, “a learner who is doing, a doer who is learning.” Those definitions however express only the literal meaning of the word. For us to get a more complete understanding of what a disciple is, we have to study the scriptures. As we look through the pertinent texts we will discover that a disciple is a person who follows Jesus. We also discover that answering the call to follow Christ as His disciple inescapably requires that we surrender to Christ everything we have.
Jesus gave this message clearly and repeatedly to those who sought to follow him. We see this first in his call to the 12 apostles. When Jesus called them to follow him, they abruptly left their old life—they gave it all up for Jesus. Matthew 4:18 records that when Jesus called Peter and Andrew, they were “casting a net into the lake for they were fishermen. “Come follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.” Verse 21 continues, “Going on from there, he saw two older brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”
Now, we must understand this was not the first encounter these men had with Jesus. John’s gospel tells us that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist and had been exposed to Jesus earlier and he went and told his brother Simon Peter. It is safe to assume that James and John likewise had exposure to Jesus before their calling. But even with that said; this is a revolutionary call Jesus issues to these men. He calls these men to immediately leave their occupations and their families and join him. You wonder what poor Zebedee thought of this Jesus who took away his sons and partners in the Zebedee Seafood Corporation, the family business. Put yourself in the place of Peter’s wife. One day her husband doesn’t come home from work and the poor woman hears second hand that her husband has gone off to follow this new Rabbi. Later on in Christ’s ministry Peter says, “We have left all we had to follow you.” Jesus simply comes by their workplace and taps them out.
In Mark, we read Jesus did the same to Matthew. “And as he [Jesus] passed by, He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow me!” And he rose and followed him.” Here Matthew is sitting in his office counting his filthy lucre and Jesus happens to pass by and orders Matthew (the verb is in the imperative mood), “Follow me!” And Matthew drops everything and follows Jesus. With each of these men, he just comes by and orders them to leave everything behind—people, relationships, livelihood, money and property and follow him. There is no indication in any of the gospels that Jesus had earlier met with them and said, “By the way, I’m going to be coming around your business next week and I’d like you to consider the possibility of abandoning all and following me. Take the time between now and then to pray about it and if you sense God is in it, get your affairs in order so your wife won’t be left holding the bag.” There may have been some kind of warnings but they aren’t recorded for us, which means they aren’t important for us to know about. What we DO know without question is that Jesus expected these men to immediately drop everything—(do not pass go, do not collect $200) and follow him on demand.
We know Jesus made this call not just to the apostles, but also to others, most of who refused his radical call to follow him. In Matthew 8 we read, “Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus doesn’t cut this man any slack. Even burying your dead father is not deemed an adequate excuse for tardiness in showing up to follow Jesus. Do we hear how extreme this is? I wonder if we can even feel the weight of this in the midst of our cotton candy evangelical culture where we work so hard at making Christianity a user- friendly religion. Does it really register in us that this Jesus who says these “outlandish” things hasn’t changed and neither have his requirements for discipleship? In Luke 9:61 we see another one of these encounters with Jesus. “Still another man said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
How did Jesus reply? Was it, “Well, certainly—you know me—I’m pro-family—I would never call you to leave them in the lurch. After all, you have to be a good steward of what God has given you. It’s certainly a reasonable request for you to want to say goodbye to the wife and kids—go on and come back when you’ve gotten some closure with them.” NO! That’s the answer given by evangelicalism today where “focusing on the family” is often misinterpreted to mean “worshipping the family” but that’s not Christ’s response. Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Jesus tells this man who makes this “entirely reasonable” request, “when you follow me, you leave everything else in the dust…everything.”
It’s easy to see why scholars group these kinds of statements by Jesus in the category, “the hard sayings of Jesus.” These calls to follow Christ are nothing less than revolutionary, turn-your-world-upside-down commands and becoming a follower of Jesus means that a cataclysmic revolution has taken take place in your heart. This is the radical nature of true, biblical faith. In the church today, where we encourage faith in Christ to be expressed only in highly conventional, measured, prudent, “safe” ways, we have little place for this kind of radical, make-your-relatives-furious kind of commitment. Yet, this is the call Jesus repeatedly gives to his disciples. In Luke 9:23 and following, Jesus says this is a requirement for all who would follow him. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Being a disciple of Christ carries with it an inescapable call to say, “no” to our fallen, natural inclinations and follow him to the point of tortuous death. The cross is an instrument of tortuous death and Jesus says that being his disciple means a daily willingness to die a tortuous death for him. This is a far more radical call than even the deluded martyrs of Islam allegedly answer. That call to martyrdom is answered by only a small group of people within Islam. This call to die is for ALL who would be a disciple of Christ and this call is made every day. This is why in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, “The Cost of Discipleship” he says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Is this radical call, this heroic kind of faith of truly biblical proportions what we think of when we hear the word “Christianity?” It should be if we are true to Christ.
Having said that, now, let’s bring some badly needed balance to this teaching. In doing this, we’re not going to soften one word of this hard teaching of Christ. Its all true and is as true today for us as it was for those who sought to follow Christ 2000 years ago. The problem with this teaching as it is often presented is that its only one side of the coin. It’s only part of the truth about following Christ and the other part of the story is the truth that creates the faith in our hearts we need to live out this radical call to self-denial. That part is often missing when this call of Christ is presented. What I mean by that is this: we must understand that this call to radically abandon our old lives, our old ways, our self-oriented, self-centered lives, is given to us for our great blessing. Jesus is NOT saying in these calls to discipleship, “If you want to find out just what a hard nose I am to serve under--if you want to discover just what it takes to fit into my elite group—if you want to know what kind of spiritual commando will make the grade in MY unit, here it is…SUFFER and DIE for me!” So often we interpret these radical calls to discipleship as if they were coming from a Marine drill sergeant at boot camp. The extreme nature of this call to follow Jesus should never be used as a whip to scourge people.
These calls to self-denial and picking up our cross to follow Christ are, to quote one scholar, not some sort of “oppressive precondition” (e.g.” If you want heaven, you’re first gonna’ have to pay through the nose!”). When you think about it, the absolute necessity for Jesus to give us this radical call is self-evident. The radical nature of this call is utterly unavoidable and perfectly consistent with the truth when you look at the big picture. Here are three reasons why this call to follow Christ MUST of necessity be so radical and none of the reasons has anything to do with Jesus being a hard nose. He’s not—He’s indescribably merciful and patient with us. The first reason the call to discipleship has to be so demanding is because our human nature demands that we give total allegiance to our Master. Jesus says something about our nature in Matthew 6:24. He says, “no man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other.” When Jesus says, “no man can serve two masters” he is not literally saying, “I do not permit anyone to serve two masters.” The word translated “can” is “dunamais” and means “have the ability or capacity to do something.” Jesus is saying that it is impossible for us to serve more than one master. We do not have the ability to serve more than one master.
When God created us, he hard wired us to be monotheistic—that is, serving and worshipping one God with everything we’ve got. At the Fall, that wiring was crossed in such a way as to make our hearts idolatrous, sinfully seeking to give ourselves to many gods. The problem is: we can’t do that—we simply aren’t made to do that. So when Jesus comes to us and says—“drop everything else when you follow me,” he is in part simply displaying his understanding of the way we were designed (by Him!) to worship and serve. What I mean by that is, it is not in us to find anything other than frustration and emptiness when we try to serve both our own selfish interests and God and his kingdom because we are not equipped to do that. When Jesus calls us to abandon everything for him, he is simply calling us to do the only thing our God-designed human natures have the capacity to do if we are to serve God with fullness of joy.
That leads us to the second reason Christ’s radical call is absolutely necessary and that is because God wants us to know “joy unspeakable” according to 1 Peter 1:8. Jesus knows the only way to this is found in himself in this radical call to discipleship. We are most full of joy when we are living under the absolute sway of Christ’s will for our lives. Right after Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and daily pick up our cross, he says in Luke 9:24, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” When Jesus calls us to die to self, he is calling us to the only way to experience real life. Jesus wants to give us life—life in Him and he knows that the only way we can find this real life with unspeakable joy is to jettison all the treasures of this life (which reek with the stench of death) and come to him for life. When we abandon ourselves and the things of this life, we must know that those things we lay down at Christ’s feet are what Jesus knows is keeping us from the joy that comes from having our life in Him.
We see this in Christ’s call of discipleship to the rich, young ruler, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; come follow me.” Notice two things in the Mark version in 10:21. First, before he made this call, Mark records, “And Jesus, having looked at him, loved [“agaped”] him.” That’s the literal translation. We must understand that Jesus made this exacting, radical call to the rich young ruler because he LOVED him! This call to self-denial and the life of the cross is rooted in His LOVE for us. This kind of life is the only way to joy. Notice Christ tells the rich young ruler he will have “treasure in heaven.” He promises Him treasure!! In Luke 18:29 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth,…no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” Here Christ promises treasure not only in heaven, but also on earth and he says the treasure will be worth “many times more” than whatever has been sacrificed to follow Christ.
The call for us to give up everything for Jesus is motivated by his heart to give us so much more of what really matters—himself and his kingdom. This call to self-emptying is ultimately a call to receive great abundance in Christ. The Lord wants to give us the untold treasures of his kingdom but we can’t have them until we give up the treasures of this world. He tells us to drop our wheelbarrow full of trash because he has a wheelbarrow full of diamonds for us; but you can’t pick up the diamonds of God’s kingdom unless you drop the trash this world offers. When Jesus calls us to give up everything and lose ourselves in him, it is in actuality an act of sheer love and generosity on His part.
A third reason and the most important reason the call to radical commitment to Jesus is self-evident is because Jesus Christ is worthy of everything we have. The excellency and majesty of Christ demand that we give Him our all. We intuitively understand the truth that the more worth a person has for us, the more worthy they are of our sacrifice. We all practice this truth at this time of year. There are certain people we are willing to give very generous, sacrificial Christmas gifts to and others who we will send a card to. Those decisions are based on how well we know the people but also on their comparative contribution to our lives and how much we appreciate them. Well, think about this: Jesus created us, left the glories of heaven for us, lived among us, was tortured, took our grotesque sin upon his sinless Person and died for us, gave us new life in Him, promises us eternal life with Him, He protects us, provides for us, prays for us, corrects us, strengthens us, sustains us and has promised to come back for us. And that is only part of what He has done for us! In light of that, giving Jesus anything less than everything we have would be the height of arrogance. If the Lord Almighty, King of the universe were to come and say to his fallen, desperately needy creatures, “Well, just give to me what you feel is reasonable” wouldn’t that infinitely cheapen Him? Do we really WANT a God who only asks of us what we, in our vain, self-centered imaginations think is “reasonable?” Anything less than a call to total abandonment to him would be inconsistent with His Person and his position as the omnipotent King of creation. Even if he had done nothing more than create us, he would still be worthy of all we are and all we have because He is God and God is worthy of nothing less than everything we have. Isn’t this just common sense?
The question at this point becomes, “If its such a great deal to follow Christ, if it makes so much sense for us to be radically committed to him as his disciple, why is it such a struggle for me?” First, because accepting the call to follow Christ requires faith and we are not good at faith. Jesus promises the wheelbarrow full of diamonds in the form of eternal reward and future joy in this life, but he expects us to take by faith that there is something better than we have now. We in America aren’t very good at believing God for much because we don’t have to. We have so much, there are few times when a believer in our culture is FORCED to believe totally on God for something. Materially prosperous cultures are seldom breeding grounds for radical, biblical faith.
A second reason this is such a struggle is found in Matthew 13. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” The second reason we find it so hard to radically follow Christ as he calls us to is because we don’t recognize the ultimate worth and beauty of Christ. We saw already that Christ, because of who he is in his excellency is worthy of everything we have and of all we could possibly give him. The truth is--we must regularly have revealed to us His excellency in order to keep us burning white-hot for Christ. The message of these two parables is that both the man who bought the field and the man who bought the pearl were more than willing to, “with great joy” give up everything they had because they recognized the vastly superior worth of the treasure and the pearl. Their sacrifice was no great thing for them because they saw the ultimate benefit this sacrifice would bring to them—the treasure and pearl were so magnificent. For so many of us, the reason we don’t give it up for Christ is because we have never received a revelation of just how beautiful and majestic and excellent He is. Without this revelation of the glory of Jesus to us by the Father, any attempt to truly follow Jesus is an exercise in futility.
We are often, for all intents and purposes, blind to his glory and therefore are not motivated to live out the radical commitment to follow him. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “…the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Christ is glorious and that glory is reflected in the gospel and the enemy loves to blind people to his glory. This is a primary tactic of his in unbelievers, but it’s also a strategy he employs with believers on a different level. He hates it when we become serious students of the Bible because the glory of Christ is revealed in the Bible. He will do whatever he can to keep us from thinking long and hard about the glories of Christ because these thoughts stoke the fire of our motivation to die for Jesus. He will work hard to keep us from true, fervent prayer and Spirit-led worship because in these the glory of Christ is revealed and they too ignite our hearts to live all-out for Jesus.
A third reason why we struggle so to radically follow Christ is because we are not only blind or at least myopic to the glory of Jesus; we are sinners who love the trash of this world. Our unredeemed flesh is constantly there pulling us toward “exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshipping and serving the created things rather than the Creator…” There is a sinful, idolatrous flesh in us that loves the things of this world and the only action we are to take against that is to kill it with the cross of self-denial. This hurts whether it’s giving our child totally to God or giving him our addictions. We have an idolatrous love for them and hate to see them go because we have this flesh totally bent toward idolatry. As foolish as it seems to idolatrously exchange the trash of this world for Jesus, we do it because sin isn’t about intelligence, it’s about our self-centered, self-absorbed hearts that want to be coddled and comfortable in this world and loved by the world. We must crucify these idolatrous impulses and put the trash of this world where it belongs, at the nail-pierced feet of Jesus.
What do we do with Jesus’ call to follow him with everything we have? The only two options are those we’ve already seen. We can, like Matthew and Peter and the others, drop whatever we are doing and follow Jesus or we can, like the rich young ruler—talk a lot about God and be a very nice person and externally look an awful lot like a follower of Christ, but when the call comes to us to lose ourselves in Jesus, we bail out and turn our backs on the loving call of Christ. If we are here today and have lost the radical nature of our life in Christ—everything in our lives is measured and prudent and “reasonable” as this world counts it, then we may be many things, but we are not living as disciples of Christ. We must in brokenness cry out to God to bring his gift of repentance and cause us to show true, biblical faith in the midst of many so-called believers who, when they see that kind of risk-taking faith, will lash out at us and persecute us. We must cry out to God and ask him to reveal to us, through his word, through prayer, through worship the glories of his Son so that we will be able to, with great joy, abandon the idols of this world for the Pearl of great price.
Finally, we must cry out to God to cause us to recognize the trash of this world we cling to and which keeps us from receiving the vastly superior treasure of Jesus. We must renounce and lay at the feet of Christ whatever rival loves there are in our lives that hinder us from following Jesus with all our hearts. May God give us the grace to live as disciples of Christ.
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