In an ever-increasing secular age, where many churches have accepted sinful practices as sound doctrine, where consumerism has planted its seeds, and where more than half of Christians in America have either read little or none of the Bible, it seems like the understanding of following Jesus is becoming muddier and muddier in the West. So let’s discover what it means to follow Jesus.
What is the call to Discipleship? The call to discipleship is defined all throughout the Bible, but one of the most prominent places is found in Luke chapter 14. Luke chapter 14 defines a disciple as someone who is abandoned and surrendered to Christ, someone who has an undivided heart that is wholly dedicated to loving the Lord. The call to discipleship is a call to leave the world behind and follow Jesus.
The mark of a true believer is summed up in surrender to Christ, and this manifests itself in many different ways in the disciple’s life. Radical surrender and obedience lead down crazy and fulfilling roads so let’s gain a better understanding of what these particular marks are.
The Origins of Discipleship
Before we dive into the defining factors of a true disciple, let’s first get a basic understanding of what discipleship is and where it came from.
Discipleship is a practice that has been implemented since the time of Moses and Elijah, and probably even earlier. At its core, discipleship is mentorship and over time it became a structured system that was grafted into Jewish culture.
The word ‘disciple’ is defined as a pupil or student who both adopts the philosophy and ideas of their teacher, as well as spreads thems and eventually teaches others the same philosophy.
Discipleship was an intimate form of mentorship, students didn’t merely go to a classroom to learn, instead, they did life with their teacher, watching the example that they set forth in both their family life as well as spiritual life.
This form of mentorship was the very model that Jesus demonstrated when He entered on the scene in the New Testament. This is why it was not peculiar for Peter and Andrew or any of the other disciples, to drop what they were doing to follow Him.
They recognized Jesus as a “rabbi” (teacher) and understood that they were giving up what they had for something far better.
In Luke 14:25, the Bible says that large crowds were following Jesus and so Jesus turned to them and spoke, explaining what it means to be His disciple.
Before we break down what He was saying to the crowd, it’s important to note that Jesus here, was both instructing them on what it means to be His disciple, while contrasting the difference between Him and other rabbis.
He was showing the people that He was not merely a teacher, but the actual Messiah come to save them, and to follow Him was not one foot at home, one foot in with the teacher. Jesus was saying to His His followers, that true discipleship equaled surrender.
So let’s dive in.
What it Means to Hate Your Friends and Family
The first words of Jesus to the crowd are as follows:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.Luke 14:26
When I was younger I used to think this was a contradiction in the Bible, how could Jesus tell us to hate people and while also telling us that hate is a sin? Well, as I studied a bit more, and really, just read commentaries from people who studied for me, I soon discovered that Jesus is not actually telling His followers to hate people.
What Jesus is saying here is that our love for our friends and families should appear as hate compared with our love for God. In more mild or plain terms, God is seeking whole hearts, not slivers and pieces.
Love the Lord Above All Others
To be a true disciple of Jesus means to have an undivided heart and this principle goes all the way back throughout history, not just the New Testament. In Deuteronomy 6, the greatest commandment is given to God’s people and is again repeated by Jesus Himself in Matthew 22.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment.Matthew 22:37-38
God does not call us to hate brothers and sisters, but to prioritize our love and place it in proper order, God first then neighbor.
Fear God Not Man
When we get this out of order, we fall into a trap of fearing man over God. We can seek to please man and gain their approval and we keep from taking action when God is leading us to act. When our heart’s gaze is set on the wrong thing, it contaminates our motives and makes our hearts sick and in need of a doctor.
Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.Galatians 1:10
The words of Paul make it very clear how weighty an issue this is. In short, living for the approval of man is idol worship because the center of your worship is not God, but yourself, just like at the Tower of Babel when the people were scattered because of their evil intent to glorify themselves.
“Hating” your friends and family manifest itself in many ways, but to carry this out, we don’t focus on all that we lack, but on the power of the Holy Spirit who transforms our hearts and motives and sets our gaze on Him. He is the doctor who repairs and makes new our wicked hearts.
What it Means to Count the Cost
Here I see the sheer gravity of the decision to be His follower laid out before me, you, and all those who were following Jesus at that time. This is both a warning and an encouragement to us.
Jesus is forwarning and explaining the difficulty that will undoubtedly unfold.
Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’Luke 14:28-30
There are two things that stick out, and I will begin with the first, which is the understanding of the decision we make when coming to Jesus.
Jesus was by no means attempting to deter these people from following Him, but instead, He was addressing misconceptions, and today we see the same flawed thinking in our own spheres.
The Lord was explaining that following Jesus was not a flippant decision made on the whim of emotions; too often people come to Christ because they were moved by a message, moved by the worship, or drawn in by the people. None of those things are bad, but they are not enough. As we just covered, we are called to love God above all of those things and those things are not capable of sustaining us.
Making the decision to follow Jesus is a weighty decision that should take considerable thought. This is not to scare someone out of it, but instead to help people realize that this evaluation of what it means to be a disciple is imperative.
Those who come to the decision point are faced with choosing God and living in His presence all the days of their life while facing many trials that come with denying the flesh, or enjoy instant gratification but everlasting separation from the presence of God.
Jesus does not paint a picture of His followers climbing an insurmountable mountain, but of those who decide to press on towards the ultimate goal, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Do Not Look Back
One of my favorite books of all time is The Pilgrims Progress, it is a book every Christian should read, as it is an incredible allegory of the Christian life. It has helped me through some confusing and difficult seasons in my own life. In this book, the author John Bunyan follows the life of a man named Christian.
Christian faces many, many challenges, he is attacked, robbed, imprisoned, beaten, and so much more. At one point in the book, he comes to a place where he can see danger ahead and he is faced with the decision to go forward or turn back, and these are his words.
To go back is nothing but death; to go forward is fear of death, and life everlasting beyond it. I will yet go forward.John Bunyan, The Pilgrims Progress
The words of Jesus were not merely to those on the brink of making a decision, but a reminder for those who have made the decision. Sometimes as Christians we face great difficulty, we experience pain, and we feel sorrow–it is these trials that threaten to push us to the brink of turning back to safety, just as the Israelites did when they left Egypt.
But, Jesus calls us to pause and count the cost. Following Jesus is not blind faith, but trust in His character and understanding that He is worth the momentary pain. As John Bunyan said, to go forward is only fear of death while to return is certain death.
Do Not Lose Your Saltiness
Though saltiness has a bad connotation in 2019, it is a good thing to be salty, don’t stop being salty.
As we are called to count the cost, Jesus is teaching something important here. Those who have tasted and seen that Jesus is good, they have known Him, and yet choose to turn back cannot be made salty again.
Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown outLuke 14:34-35
In Hebrews 6, the Bible tells us that those who turn back are crucifying Christ all over again and subjecting Him to shame or contempt. Let’s take another look at another excerpt from The Pilgrim’s Progress.
At that Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, “Is this the happiness you have told me of all this while? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect ‘twixt this and our journey’s end? If I get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave country alone.” And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got out of the mire on that side of the slough which was next to his own house: so away he went, and CHRISTIAN saw him no moreJohn Bunyan, The Pilgrims Progress
After facing a tough trial, Pliable, who accompanied the man named Christian, had enough and turned back to his home town. When he returned some accepted him, and some mocked him, the moral of this portion of the story is that those who turn back leave behind their testimony and not only harm themselves but harm the name of Jesus.
In the story, after they had finished mocking Pliable they turned their jeers towards Christian who pressed on towards the goal. We see examples of this in reality when famous Christians come out publicly renouncing their faith in Christ. This does not merely affect their life but becomes a powerful statement to those whom we have been entrusted to communicate Christ to.
What it Means to Carry Your Cross
Carrying your cross is a very “Christianese” term, it is something we say in passing but do we really understand what Jesus is saying here? The same theme is found throughout this whole teaching on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and that is surrender and abandonment.
And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.Luke 14:27
What does the cross signify? To carry your cross means to accept shame, suffering, hardship, and even death. What did Jesus do when He died on the cross for us? First, He carried the very instrument that would be used to inflict His own suffering then He died on it for our sins and thus liberated us forever.
The same principle applies to us, the cross we carry brings suffering, but that suffering equals great joy in the Lord and eternity spent living in His presence!
Therefore, Jesus is explaining to the crowd that to follow Him meant to live in humility and contrary to society.
Denying your flesh
Carrying your cross means denying your flesh. Paul once said, “I do that which I do not want to do, and that which I do want to do, I do not do.” It’s a bit of a tongue twister, but it gets the point across, we are at war with our flesh, and the flesh doesn’t desire the things of God.
I am not a believer in doom and gloom–I do not believe that we are to live a life of suffering on earth without joy, not at all, I just believe true joy and happiness is found and fulfilled in a life surrendered to Christ.
It’s important to not get into a Gnostic mindset that believes all pleasure is wrong and that we are purely spiritual beings. God created taste buds, He created sex, He created music, He created the physical world for us to enjoy as the physical beings that we are.
Therefore we should not go living a gray life of unnecessary self-denial, everything is done in alignment with the scriptures.
But what does it mean to deny your flesh? First, what does the flesh desire that we must deny it? The flesh desires things that are contrary to the word of God. Examples of this are lust, greed, murder, hate, gossip, self-worship, etc. the list goes on and on. Notice that these are extreme and wrongly prioritized? In other words, money, sex, anger, none of those are bad until they become unchecked.
It’s not wrong to want comfort, but when we place that above the desire to press on towards the goal, then we are living according to the flesh. We must become aware of where the Holy Spirit is leading as opposed to where our flesh would have us go.
We must place our flesh on the cross that we are carrying and let it die each day while simultaneously making every effort to surrender to and walk in the spirit.
Renouncing All You Have
We know that the flesh seeks comfort and self-glorification, it is all about the self, this is why Jesus says this in verse 33.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.Luke 14:33
Again, the same principle that God was trying to get into the head of the wandering Israelites that had been just set free from Egyptian captivity, is being brought to us. The heart of God is for an undivided people. The Israelites continuously ran to idols when things got tough or they simply forgot and lost their way.
Over and over again, God disciplined them in order that they might renounce all of their sinful ways and set their gaze on Him. Giving up everything as Jesus explained above, indicates a person who doesn’t care a lick for the world and what it has to offer in comparison to a life spent with Christ.
This is the kind of life we are called to as Christians, this is why the believers in Acts shared all of their possessions and cared for each other in such an extravagant way, they were in love with Jesus and thus were willing to surrender all of their earthly goods and earthly reputation for that of a life spent with God both now and forevermore.
How We Know We are True Disciples
All of this can seem somewhat daunting, some might look at it as a checklist or rules to follow, but the truth is, the life of a true disciple is impossible to live without the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus does not demand us to complete impossible tasks, instead, He seeks hearts completely abandoned to Him. And if you find it difficult to have a heart surrendered to Him all you have to do is ask and He will help you.
So how exactly do we know that we fall under the category of a true disciple of Jesus? the following passage from 1 John helps us to better understand.
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.1 John 2:3-6
Our actions are an outward indicator of our love for God. God does not desire for us to check off lists or become pious, think of Matthew 7 when Jesus says that there will be many who did things in His name, and yet they will not enter heaven because Jesus did not know them.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’Matthew 7:21-23
We make the heart of our Father our ultimate goal and everything else will fall into line. Obedience to God is more valuable than doing for the sake of doing. Saul sacrificed to God and was condemned for it because he was disobedient, Samuel the prophet himself said, “obedience is better than sacrifice.”
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.1 Samuel 15:22
And how do we become obedient to the voice of the Lord? By spending time getting to know His voice and understanding who He is. Relationship is key.
Being a disciple is not boring or miserable, though we do and will face many trials we are always strengthened by God, we are never left on our own, nor do we bear our burdens alone. God is “our ever-present help in trouble,” and it is through His mighty love and grace that we are transformed into His likeness and are able to press on towards the goal.