17. Discipleship: Its Requirements and Its Rewards
(Luke 14:25-33; Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 11:28-30)
I find that I am always prone to overestimate the benefits of things I desire and to underestimate the price involved. My wife and I recently committed ourselves to a ‘small’ remodeling project. Any of you who have done the same know that it has become a far bigger commitment than we anticipated.
This is also a danger in the matter of discipleship. Repeatedly, our Lord cooled the enthusiasm of eager candidates for discipleship by urging them to consider its cost.216 In evangelical circles today, there seems to be a trend in the opposite direction. We urge people to be saved and to become disciples of our Lord, highlighting its benefits and blessings. We conceal the true cost of discipleship and any liabilities in the fine print, if we mention them at all.217
If we truly desire to be followers of our Lord along the path of discipleship, it is imperative that we first heed the words of our Lord and count the cost of discipleship. Lest we become falsely discouraged or disillusioned, we should also weigh these costs against the benefits of being a follower of Jesus. In this way only can we make an intelligent decision in this decisive matter of discipleship.
The Requirements of Discipleship
In the gospel of Luke, we find the requirements of discipleship outlined by our Lord.
“Now great multitudes were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, “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 carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and take counsel whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks terms for peace. So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:25-33).
From one perspective, discipleship centers upon the issue of dependence and submission. Taken from another direction, we might say that discipleship entails a complete rearrangement of our priorities. To be a disciple of our Lord demands that He become the most important thing in our life. This is what Luke sought to remind us of when he recorded the words of our Lord in the fourteenth chapter of his gospel. Consider with me the rearrangement of our priorities demanded by discipleship.
(1) The disciple of Jesus Christ must put his Master above those nearest and dearest to him. “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, … he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
We should all understand that Jesus did not mean by this that we cannot love God and family at the same time—that we can only love God while hating those nearest and dearest to us.218 The Scriptures speak too plainly elsewhere of our obligations to our families, husbands, wives and children.
What our Lord means is that our love for Him must have precedence over any other. Our attachment to Him must be greater than any other. While husbands are to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25), they are to love the Savior more. No human relationship should be more intimate, no human bond more inseparable than that between the disciple and his Master.
We in America can hardly grasp the potential threat that family ties pose to true discipleship. In the days of the New Testament as well as down through church history, individuals have been confronted with the ultimatum to choose either Jesus or family, but not both. Many Christians have been totally disowned and disinherited because of their faith in Christ, the Savior.
Several years ago when I was teaching school, I had a little Jewish girl as a student. More than anything else in the world she dreaded telling her parents of her new faith. She was a handicapped child and to be put out by her family would seemingly be disastrous.
Not only is our relationship to Christ to have priority over family ties, our union with Him is to have precedence over all human relationship. Friendship (or identification) with Christ will inevitably result in enmity with the world.
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore, the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
The disciple of Christ may not desire persecution, but he can depend on it.
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25).
(2) The disciple of the Lord Jesus must value following Jesus Christ above life itself. The basic instinct to preserve life is inherent in all of creation. Discipleship demands a devotion to the Lord Jesus that surpasses the instinct to preserve our own life. The history of the church sufficiently proves that this requirement has resulted in the death of countless Christians through the centuries. Once again, we Americans can scarcely comprehend the demands of discipleship as faced by many of our persecuted and oppressed brethren. Perhaps even in our own lifetime conditions in our nation may become such that we will come to appreciate the significance of this requirement of devotion to Christ above life itself.
(3) The disciple of Jesus Christ must place his commitment to Christ above material possessions. I have the distinct impression that we are now beginning to arrive at the real crunch for those of us who are complacent, affluent, American Christians. “So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33).
Simply put, we must love God more than we love money and what it can buy. The story of the rich young ruler illustrates this requirement of discipleship. He wanted to be a disciple of our Lord (and therefore obtain the fringe benefit of eternal life), but not at the cost of his material possessions.
I do not think that the Bible teaches that one can become a Christian only after disposing of his material assets. It is the attitude behind our affluence that is the crucial factor. Oftentimes the poor are more materialistic than the rich, for they assign too much importance to material things. The desire to have money and material goods is what is sinful. In biblical terms, “The love of money (not the possession of it) is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang” (1 Timothy 6:10).
Paul instructed those who were rich in material things to be rich in good works, and not to trust in the uncertainty of riches (1 Timothy 6:17-19). That is the point. Nothing must compete with our devotion to and our dependence upon the Lord Jesus.
(4) The disciple of Jesus Christ must daily die to self-interest. Even as our Lord spoke of His destiny leading Him to a cross, so also every true disciple must also bear a cross. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Our cross must not be confused with the cross of our Lord. His was a cross borne once for all, while ours must be taken up daily. “And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).
His cross was the instrument which put to death the sinless Son of God. Taking up our cross involves the daily putting to death of the selfish desires and ambitions of the old self, our lower nature (cf. Romans 6:1-14; 1 Corinthians 15:31; 2 Corinthians 4:7-12; Colossians 2:20; 3:11). There is a “Christian” song which is nicely done, but its theology makes me cringe. The words go something like this (be grateful I don’t attempt to sing it):
Must Jesus bear the cross alone
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone
And there’s a cross for me.
Now I would agree that all of us must suffer in this life and bear the reproach of Christ. Paul calls this: “… Filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). As Christians, we will suffer and be persecuted for the sake of Christ, even as our Lord told us. But our sufferings are not atoning; they contribute nothing to our salvation, nor to anyone else’s.
Taking up our cross daily is speaking of our willingness to lay aside all self-seeking and selfish ambition. It means that our desire and ambition is not to satisfy ourselves, but to please the Savior. He, rather than self, is the object of our supreme affection. Pleasing Him is the highest, most compelling motive of our lives.
We, like the disciples, do not come out looking very good on this point. Over and over the disciples evidenced a jockeying for position, and a desire to get ahead of the other eleven. And repeatedly our Lord rebuked and instructed them on this very point (cf. Matthew 18:1ff.; 23:11-12; Mark 9:34ff.; Luke 9:46-43; 22:24,26). The supreme example is that of our Lord who looked not after His own pleasure and comfort, but Who was obedient to the point of infinite suffering and death for our salvation (Philippians 2:4-8).
Putting all these elements together we can conclude that true discipleship puts Jesus Christ above everything and everyone else. We esteem His fellowship above that of any other. We consider it a far greater thing to be related to Him than any human kinship. We see His purposes, His desires, as vastly more important than our own.
On a human plane, discipleship is something like joining the armed forces. No one can sign up and yet retain his autonomy. (At least, this is the way it used to be!) When you are enlisted, your own interests are subservient to your superiors. You eat when you are told, you get leave when it is granted. You contribute to a greater cause by making yourself expendable to that cause. And so, to some degree, it is with discipleship (cf. Luke 9:57-62).
The Rewards of Discipleship
With the requirements of discipleship so demanding, we are not greatly shocked that so few chose the path of discipleship to our Lord. In fact, we may wonder why anyone would choose to do so. Let me suggest several principles of discipleship which prove to be compelling reasons for being a follower of Jesus Christ. As we shall see, the rewards of discipleship make its requirements look pale. The first principles of discipleship are found in Matthew’s Gospel: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Principle 1: We must all have a master, and none is more gentle than the Savior. The Scriptures make it clear that we are the slaves of whatever it is that controls us (Romans 6:16). Some are the slaves of the body and its appetites. Others submit to a religious system. Our Lord described those enslaved in the Judaism of their time as ‘weary and heavy-laden’ (Matthew 11:28). It is hard to think of a more fitting description. Ultimately, if we are not the servants of Jesus Christ we are slaves to sin and to Satan (Romans 6:16). What a cruel taskmaster he is!
In contrast, our Lord is ‘gentle and humble in heart’ (Matthew 11:29). To be His disciple is not a dreary task, not a drudgery, but a delight; not a burden, but a blessing. While the scribes and Pharisees lorded it over the people and ruled in pride and arrogance, Jesus gave His life for His sheep. He humble and gently leads His own. Though the path is rough, the way is sure, for we have a gentle and skillful guide.
Principle 2: Although the demands of discipleship are great, He never requires of us anything which He does not enable us to do. We have seen that the requirements for discipleship are rigorous. How, then, can Jesus speak of His burden as ‘light’ and His yoke as ‘easy’? Why is the way of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees hard and their burden heavy? It is because they demand much and do not give so much as one bit of help (Matthew 23:4). But what our Lord expects, He enables us to do. This is the crucial difference. Let us not think about the demands of discipleship without also contemplating the dynamic enablement which He provides to meet them.
Principle 3: It is only to His disciples that our Lord reveals His innermost thoughts and most intimate secrets. While our Lord spoke plainly to His disciples of His purposes, these were carefully concealed from the masses. “And He was not speaking to them without parables; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples” (Mark 4:34). The reason for this was sought by His disciples, and the Lord explained it when He said, “To you has been given the mystery of the Kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables” (Mark 4:11, cf. also verse 12). Discipleship brings one into a level of intimacy with the Lord that others cannot experience. It is to His intimate friends (cf. John 15:15) that His intimate secrets are revealed.
Principle 4: Our rewards as disciples are based not on the magnitude of our actions, but on their motive. Many, in my opinion, shy away from discipleship because they sense that they have little or nothing to contribute, and hence, that their rewards will be few. We have already established the principle that God does not choose us on the basis of our potential contribution. He chooses the foolish things of this world (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). The basis for our rewards as disciples is defined in the Gospel of Matthew:
“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly, I say to you he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:40-42).
I understand from this text that rewards are based not so much on the magnitude of our service, but on the sincerity of our motives; not so much on the response to our service as on the reason for it. If we are obedient to our Lord and live so as to please Him, we shall have a reward.
Principle 5: Our great reward is Jesus Himself. Whenever we begin to think about this matter of rewards and blessing, let us never forget that He is our great reward. In the book of Hebrews we are told that God is “a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). God also told Abram, “I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Genesis 15:1 KJV).
If we seek to be followers of our Lord only for the fringe benefits we have succeeded only in kicking materialism and self-interest out the front door while inviting them in through the back door. He is our reward. The cost of discipleship is nothing compared to the riches of fellowship with Him.
Principle 6: There is nothing which the Lord denies His disciple which is for his ultimate good, and nothing which He takes away which He does not replace with something better. In the Garden of Eden, Satan succeeded in deceiving Eve into thinking that what God forbade was really good and that in so doing, God was not really good. Satan is always changing the price tags and the labels. When we come to the matter of discipleship, Satan wants us to dwell on the negative side of the ledger. He wants us to ponder what we are missing. But God withholds no good thing from those who follow Him: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11; cf. Psalm 34:10).
But even more than this, what God takes away He replaces with something even better. Look at these words from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:
“Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers (notice the omission of father) and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life’” (Mark 10:29-30).
Do you see the principle behind this promise? God only withholds what is not for our good. What He does withhold, He replaces with something far better. Now Christianity is often accused of promising ‘pie in the sky, bye and bye.’ And, with certain qualifications, we must say this is surely true. God does promise many great blessings in the future. But, to quote an insightful writer,219 most disciples would insist that they have received a good sized slice of the pie already.
Implications and Application
The relevance of these things is almost too obvious to mention, but let me reiterate some areas of application. First, we should neither underemphasize nor overemphasize the demands of discipleship. Many who discover what is involved in true discipleship will avoid it, as did the rich young ruler. But if we thoughtfully consider the rewards of following Jesus, along with the alternatives to it, we should quickly conclude that there is no other way, there is no better way, there is no easier way, than His way.
Second, we should see the folly of those who suppose that they are getting the ‘best of both worlds’ when they trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and then walk far behind in daily life. The theory is that by straddling the spiritual fence we can enjoy the blessings of heaven while also soaking up the pleasures of sin for the present. Discipleship is not to be understood only as the sacrifice of pleasant joys for future rewards.220 Discipleship is God’s provision for a purposeful and pleasurable life in the present, as well as a blissful eternity in the presence of God, His angels, and the saints. No one but the disciple of our Lord is living life to the maximum.
Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? Is He the most important person in your life? If not, you are being cheated out of life at its fullest. Have you considered the cost of discipleship, as well as its rewards? If you do, you will conclude that the way of discipleship is not a way; it is the way. May God grant that we may become His disciples by His grace.
217 “The type of ministry that is here in mind starts by stressing, in an evangelistic context, the difference that becoming a Christian will make. Not only will it bring a man forgiveness of sins, peace of conscience, and fellowship with God as his Father; it will also mean that through the power of the indwelling Spirit, he will be able to overcome the sins that previously mastered him, and the light and leading that God will give him will enable him to find a way through problems of guidance, self-fulfillment, personal relations, heart’s desire, and such like, which had hitherto defeated him completely. Now, put like that, in general terms, these great assurances are scriptural and true—praise God, they are! But it is possible so to stress them, and so to play down the rougher side of the Christian life—the daily chastening, the endless way with sin and Satan, the periodic walk in darkness—as to give the impression that normal Christian living is a perfect bed of roses, a state of affairs in which everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist—or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once. This is to suggest that the world, the flesh, and the devil, will give a man no serious trouble once he is a Christian; nor will his circumstances and personal relationships ever be a problem to him; nor will he ever be a problem to himself. Such suggestions are mischievous, however, because they are false.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 222.
218 I must comment here that some, in the name of Christian commitment to Christ, have neglected or forsaken their family responsibilities, and with considerable harm, while sincerely supposing that they were obeying our Lord’s instructions in this passage. This text, as all others, must be interpreted and applied in the light of all other Scriptures on this point. When the Lord has highest priority in our lives, we find that our family obligations are taken more seriously, too. We obey Him by loving our wives as He loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). We submit to our husbands as unto the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). We obey parents and honor them (Ephesians 6:1,2). We deal lovingly with our children (Ephesians 6:4).
220 This is, however, one aspect of the Christian life (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 11:24-26). The point I wish to make is that the sacrifices we make in this present life are to our benefit now, as well as in eternity.