What does it mean to be a “disciple of Christ?” As we read the New Testament biblical narrative we encounter many who were described as disciples. We may sometimes think of the twelve Apostles who Jesus called as His disciples, and certainly they were. However, there were many others who were also His disciples who submitted themselves to His teaching and often traveled with Him as He went from place to place preaching the Good News, healing the sick and engaging in all manner of ministry prior to His Passion on the Cross of Calvary. The Apostle Paul stated that the number of “brothers and sisters” in Christ numbered over five-hundred individuals.
This is not a trivial question. All who have placed their faith and trust in God and have accepted the truth of His nature, have also accepted the biblical description of Jesus: Christ and LORD, or in the Hebrew, Messiah and YAHWEH. To accept Jesus as LORD involves at least one inviolable truth: faith in Him necessitates a sincere and driving desire to be obedient to Him. After all, if there is no desire for obedience, then there is no acknowledgement of Jesus as LORD.
Therefore, a disciple of Christ is one who has a sincere desire to be obedient to Him. This involves learning the truths of the Gospel that He taught, including the command to separate one’s self from this world culture and adopt a lifestyle of holiness. A dedication to holiness is not an easy task when every voice in this secular and pagan world and every voice in one’s natural spirit is calling one away from holiness. Though Jesus did state that His burden is easy, He never said that there would not be a cost. In fact, there were many instances where Jesus spoke of the very high cost of discipleship. If one is unwilling or uninterested in taking on the full cost of discipleship, then one cannot be His disciple.
Matthew 19:13-15. Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. 14But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. 15And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.
Prior to Jesus’ teaching on the cost of discipleship, He first offered an illustration that serves to bring context to the lesson. Jesus was surrounded by His disciples, and at this time the group included parents with children. The parents wanted to bring their children to Jesus for His blessing, a very reasonable and common ancient custom. They hoped that Jesus would hold them, comfort them, and pray for them. Likely thinking that Jesus’ time was better spent teaching the adults, or thinking that children are not as important as the men to whom Jesus was speaking, some criticized and condemned those were bringing the children attempting to stop them. Jesus quickly intervened, commanding that the children be brought to Him and used their close presence around Him as His first point of instruction: when one comes to the LORD they must come like a child.
· Children are quick to trust someone who they find kind and unthreatening
· Children are eager to learn and are quick to believe what they are being taught.
· Children have not yet developed systems of prejudice and intolerance that separate adults.
· Children do not come with a set of presuppositions that serve to limit what they are willing to believe.
One can probably extend this list to include other advantages that children have over adults when it comes to learning something new. Jesus states that this is the way that one should come to God. He then illustrated some examples of some of the barriers that adults must overcome to come to the LORD in faith and trust.
Matthew 19:16-17. And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
Many, if not most people who do not know the LORD, think that one can be acceptable to God simply by being good. Many believe that if their good works “outweigh” their sinful works, they will be good enough for heaven. However, Jesus is quick to note that there is nobody who is good, except God, Himself. As the Christ, the incarnate YAHWEH, Jesus shares that attribute of goodness. Jesus states that to “enter into life” one must keep the commandments.
Knowing this, the natural question that comes to mind is “which commandments must I keep?” Many religions find success in establishing a set of rules, rites, and works that if successfully accomplished with “guarantee” the righteousness of their followers. However, it is not the commandments of men that God requires, but the commandments of His Word.
Matthew 19:18-20. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus responded to a disciple’s question by citing a few of the Ten Commandments that were common knowledge to all Jewish men. When the young man considered His own state, he sincerely believed that he had kept all of these commandments. This misunderstanding of the Old Testament Law was common to most, if not all, of the Jewish men during the first century. Jewish men were quite proud of their success at keeping the Law. However, the Mosaic Law itself states that to break any one of the laws makes one a law-breaker and unrighteous. Consequently it is impossible to keep the Law, making it impossible to find righteousness through the keeping of the Law. To illustrate this, Jesus suggests that the young man demonstrate his obedience to the last of these listed: loving others as much as he loves himself:
Matthew 19:21-22. Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Though Jesus did not quote the first commandment, that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” this young man did have something that was more important to him than God, illustrated by his lack of generosity. For this man, his love for his possessions was greater than his love for God, and certainly greater than his love for the strangers around him. This would be the barrier that he would need to overcome before he could give his life to the LORD. For him, this was a cost of discipleship that he could not bear.
Matthew 19:23-24. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
What makes it so difficult for a rich man to find righteousness? The rich often find that they are already sufficiently supplied with what they think are all of their needs, and have little or no sensitivity to their need for the LORD. Their possessions become their god, and it is in their possessions that they put their faith and trust.
I once worked on a staff of millionaires and was quite unmoved by their greed. Willing to share the largesse of their industry, I found their obsession with their financial account spreadsheets less than attractive. They suffered from an addiction to greed that cost them their families, their peace, and their joy. When I challenged them on the true value of their millions, they referred to me as a fool. I gladly left the business and the largesse they offered, and went back to the university and ministry setting where I belonged. Now, many years later, every one of them has passed away, taking nothing with them.
The eye of their needle was the decimal point in their net worth.
Matthew 19:25-26. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 26But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
There has been much speculation as to the exact meaning of Jesus’ “eye of a needle,” ranging from some who hold that it is a reference to a crawlspace in the city wall to a literal needle used to sew leather. In either case, one can understand how difficult it would be impossible for a camel to pass through either. Yet, as Jesus said, with God all things are possible.
Consider the experience of Thomas A’Becket who in the year 1162, at the age of 42 was appointed to the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the high priest of the Anglican church. Becket was a very wealthy man, one of the richest in the country, a son of a very wealthy family. Both Anglican and Catholic priests held to an Oath of Poverty, necessitating that Becket divest himself of all his possessions, giving them to the poor. He initially found great difficulty in this requirement, but as he started to witness the amazing impact that his gifts had on the poor as they were so gifted, he became so excited and generous in his giving that he was desperately disappointed when his goods ran out. Much to the disappointment to the crown, Becket’s faith would grow to where his love for the LORD greatly exceeded his love for a corrupt king. He was murdered ten years into his appointment by stewards of the king, but was later canonized by both the Anglican and Catholic churches.
With God, all things are possible.
Jesus had provided a few other examples of the cost of discipleship earlier in His ministry:
Matthew 8:19. And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.
Once an individual, critical of my understanding of the cost of discipleship assessment declared that I am one of those, “Lordship Salvationists” who teach that saving faith is characterized by one’s accepting Jesus Christ as both Savior and LORD. He argued that it is impossible to accept Jesus as one’s personal LORD. He was correct in that it was impossible for him to do so. He possessed the knowledge of the gospel message, and declared his salvation on the basis that he believed it. However, he still considered himself the master of his own destiny, and could see no context of placing his trust in God. I explained that even satan and his minions believe, and they tremble. Salvation comes when we step past belief, give up the throne of our own lives, and give it to the LORD. To the lost, this surrender looks like a great, if not impossible, sacrifice.
If one is committed to the things of this world, commitment to Jesus Christ as LORD does not come cheap. Responses to the gospel message can be divided into two major categories, those who receive the Lordship of Jesus into their hearts, and those who do not. Some make a shallow commitment and continue to “hang around,” reaping the benefits of fellowship but remain unchanged. Others make a deep and full commitment to God and their lives are never the same again. It is these who begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus promised. It is these who find the true depths of peace and joy that come from the knowledge that they are securely held in the hands of a living and loving God.
It is easy to say, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” It’s quite another act to do it. Here is another true cost of discipleship. True discipleship necessitates a change of life’s priorities, a change that many people are simply not ready to make. Jesus met a man along the road while He was traveling through Samaria. Matthew 8:19 reveals that this man was a teacher of the law. As a Samaritan, the law that this man teaches would consist of the Pentateuch, and would not be diluted by the traditions and hedge rules of the Jerusalem Jews. The man had met Jesus and desired to be His disciple. To follow Jesus would be for him a very significant choice since it involves adopting Jesus’ teachings, his lifestyle, and accepting His authority over that of the law that this young man felt so much comfort in. In a burst of confident commitment, this teacher of the law promised that he would follow Jesus wherever He might lead.
Matthew 8:20. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
The man said, in an almost boastful and sweeping manner that he would follow Christ. Jesus perceived the lack of true commitment in the man’s statement and warned the man that to follow would require a step of faith. He would have to leave behind the comfort and security of life as he knew it and take on the risk of the life ahead, trusting in God alone. As a teacher of the Law, this man experienced great respect from the people he taught, a respect that brought to him a stable and financially successful career. Would he be willing to give this up to follow Jesus? Could he leave the Law behind? Could he leave the career behind? The man would have to change his priorities, depending upon God to provide for his needs, a provision that he had successfully maintained himself. It is evident in the text that this man could not do so, and walked away.
What does this say about our pilgrimage as disciples? When we commit to follow Jesus, we must act in faith and simply let God be our God, our Source, and our Provider. Why did this man apparently reject Jesus? He could not risk losing the comfort and security of his secular lifestyle and step out in faith, possibly experiencing the sufferings that Jesus experienced along with the joys.
Matthew 8:21. And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. 22But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.
Here we see a similar request from another man who Jesus met along the road and one who was probably a Samaritan. It appears at first that Jesus’ response was a bit harsh, but as we look at the context of the situation, another very important truth is revealed. Was the man grieving his father’s death? If his father had just died the man would be with his family attending to the responsibilities appropriate to the situation. He would not be speaking to Jesus. Actually, the words used by the man form a common Hebrew idiom that refers to the tradition of staying close to one’s father, expectantly awaiting his death so that an inheritance can be received. This man feared that by following Jesus he could risk losing his inheritance. There is no indication that the father may be anywhere close to death, and the use of the idiom reinforces this possibility.
Understanding this, Jesus’ response may make more sense. Worldly inheritance will always remain in the possession of worldly people. Those who chase after the inheritance, the mammon of this world, will be the ones who receive it, and upon receiving, fail to receive the true inheritance that only God gives to those who trust in Him. Jesus called upon the man to “Go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The implication by the word “Go” is that he is to leave the old world behind. He would have to leave his father and trust God rather than trust in his inheritance.
The first man valued his security and comfort so much that it stood in the way of following Jesus. This second man’s commitment was to his inheritance of the things of this world. Note that in their day, the “inheritance” was a specific and primary valued thing. It had ties to their ancestry, their progeny, and served to define who they were. The man would have to dramatically change his priorities if he were to risk his inheritance. It might be interesting to note that modern, practicing Jews who come to understand that Jesus is the Messiah and turn to Him in faith are almost always disinherited by their families. The cost is real. However, it is a great cost only if the things of this world hold too high a place of importance in the person’s heart.
We find another illustration of the cost of discipleship in the Gospel of Luke:
Luke 9:61. And another also said, LORD, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.
What happened to this third man? Note he said, “let me first…” He could not place Jesus first in his life. Where the second man wanted to delay his discipleship for an extended period, this third man wanted to delay it only for a short period. This delay would be used so that he could return home for a formal farewell where he would be honored by his family and friends in a party that could last for a few days. This man revealed that his heart was still committed to his home. The call of Jesus could not be the first priority in his life. Wanting to look back now, his desire would always be to return to his pagan home and its lifestyle. Again, this man was not fully committed to his decision to follow Christ.
Luke 9:62. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
What was Jesus’ response? When we make the commitment to follow Jesus, like the plowman, we cannot look back. What happens when a plowman turns around and looks back? As he guides the plow with one hand and the beast of burden with the other, balancing both as he focuses on the end of the furrow, he would lose orientation if he were to look back. With the target out of sight, the furrow would soon be crooked. The same analogy today might apply in riding a bicycle. Imagine the task of riding a bicycle on a path that is only slightly wider than the tires. This can be done if the focus on the path is maintained. However, what will happen when the rider takes his eyes off the path and looks back?
Christians leave behind a lifestyle and perspective that is characterized only in sin. What happens if we look back? We are often tempted, and may lose focus on our objective. One of the shorter verses in the book of Luke is:
Luke 17:32. Remember Lot’s wife!
What happened to Lot’s wife? Lot and his wife lived a riotous and ungodly lifestyle in a riotous and ungodly city. Because of the prayers of Abraham, God spared Lot and his family by commanding their evacuation from Sodom prior to its destruction. God commanded them not to look back. This command was not as related to a visual glimpse back as it is to the attitude of their heart. Lot’s wife looked back to Sodom when she grieved its loss. Her heart’s true desire was only for Sodom, and she was destroyed with it. In the same way, a commitment to the LORD is a commitment to leave behind the ungodly acts of this wicked world. None of the these men who met Jesus could do it. Many who call themselves Christians have been similarly encumbered in their commitment, and find their experience burdened by their sin and lacking the power of God in their lives. Leaving behind the things of this world is extremely difficult for those who love them.
Matthew 19:27. Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?
Having heard the state of those who could not put Jesus first in their lives, the Apostles and the disciples came to consider their own commitment to the LORD. Peter, likely speaking for himself as well as the other Apostles, asked Jesus about the voracity of their sacrifice. They sincerely believed that they had left behind everything to follow Jesus. They did not regret the life they left behind. They did not consider returning to it. Their commitment to the LORD was complete and it was sincere.
Matthew 19:28-30. And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. 30But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
Jesus told the Apostles that their commitment to Him is sincere indeed, and that they will receive the reward for their faithfulness. Peter was correct in his own evaluation of his commitment to the LORD. Likewise, we can all look at our own lives and assess the level of commitment that we have made to the LORD. With the examples of the four men who came to Jesus and were turned away, each had something in their lives that was more important to them than their commitment to the LORD. Many today are unable to turn to the LORD in faith because they are unwilling to give to Him the faith, trust, and commitment that He deserves.
It is important to note that Jesus was not setting down a law through these four examples. Jesus told the first to sell all that he had because it was a love for possessions that kept this man from salvation. This does not mean that we are to sell all we have to find salvation. However, if our possessions are standing in the way of our acceptance of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then they are a similar barrier. In the same way each of the four men had something that was uniquely standing before them as a barrier to faith and trust in God.
This passage started with Jesus’ example of how easy it is for a child to trust in others. As we have become adults, we have filled our lives with the flotsam and jetsam, the wood, hay, and stuble of this world that can become a distraction to our faith in God. Even as people of faith, we can become more obsessed with the color of the carpet in our sanctuary than we are with our love for others in the body.
There is a great cost of discipleship when we put great value on the things of this world. However, when we come to faith in the LORD, as He brings wisdom and perspective into our lives, we find that the allure of the things of this world begins to fade away. That which is of God becomes far more important than the things of this world, and we will find that we can truly place our faith and trust in the LORD Jesus, Christ rather than place it in this world. It is then that we will find the reward that Jesus promised to Peter, a reward that starts even now with the abundant life that Jesus promised, a life that is abundant in the love, peace, and joy that is found in a spirit that is immersed in the LORD.