In reading the gospel accounts of Christ’s life and ministry, have you ever noticed how often Jesus declares that those who follow Him will face challenges, trials, and difficulty? He succinctly summarized this truth during His sermon on the mount, proclaiming: “Difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14, NKJV). It is interesting to note that Jesus links the difficulty of discipleship with the scarcity of those who find salvation. Since most people reject the former (discipleship), they never truly embrace the latter (salvation).
Of course, Jesus is not suggesting works play a role in our salvation – that is entirely a product of God’s grace and mercy. What He is saying, and makes clear over and over again throughout His ministry, is that anyone who genuinely embraces Him as Lord and Savior will necessarily follow Him as a disciple. You cannot have salvation in the absence of discipleship. To confess Him as Savior is to pursue Him as Lord.
The manifestation of that pursuit, however, will be as diverse as the entire body of believers. Nevertheless, despite that variation, some commonalities exist in every model of discipleship. A few are revealed in three brief encounters Jesus had with a trio of would-be disciples. Luke describes it like this:
“As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another person, ‘Come, follow me.’ The man agreed, but said, ‘Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach the Kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Anyone who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:57-62, NLT).
We learn several important insights about discipleship in these encounters. First, it requires sacrifice. We must put to death our own agenda and replace it with God’s. This is an unpopular view with many Christians because it inconveniences us and disrupts the lifestyle we want to live. We would prefer Jesus simply adopt our agenda as His and pepper His blessing on our plans.
But Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity as to what He expects of those who want eternal life. We are to lay our lives down for Him just as He laid down His life for us. As He told His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let Him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25, NKJV).
The linkage between discipleship and denying ourselves could not be clearer. We must die (to self) before we can live (for Him). Sadly, this is one of the most ignored truths in many churches today. It is also one of the most resisted truths by those who profess Jesus as Lord, because our sin nature refuses to abdicate its place on the throne of our heart. It readily allows us to proclaim with our mouths that Jesus is Lord as long as that proclamation does not translate into our abdicating full control of our plans, decisions, and lives to Him. But once our faith in Jesus begins to inconvenience, discomfort, or disrupt our lives, our flesh (sin-nature) adopts a posture of virulent resistance, knowing its very survival is at stake. It will inform us how unreasonable, extreme, and ridiculous it is to follow Jesus when such obedience infringes on our desires and dreams.
That’s why Jesus’ encounter with the three would-be disciples is so instructive. It demonstrates in no uncertain terms that following Jesus often requires we live in a manner that flies in the face of social convention. Society places expectations on people, as does the church, and too often we allow those standards to dictate the degree to which we follow and obey Jesus. But in the passage above Jesus makes clear that obeying Him sometimes require we ignore the demands of society (and even the church). When facing such situations we must remain faithful to God and not the voices around us.
Additionally, there will be instances when family and friends make demands of us that seem sensible but contravene the timing, decision, or action God has communicated to us. In Luke’s passage above the third would-be disciple wanted to say goodbye to his family before following Christ. Jesus’ response seems severe. We wonder, ‘why can’t the young man take a day or two to bid his family farewell before embarking on his journey with Christ?’ It makes no sense, we tell ourselves. Surely Jesus does not intend for us to make similar choices in our lives. Surely faith does not require such irrational acts of obedience.
And yet, it does. Jesus interaction with each of the three potential disciples makes clear that the call of Christ supplants the desires of the flesh, however reasonable. Discipleship requires we prioritize obedience to Jesus above the seemingly sensible requests of friends and family. Though the path Christ calls us to pursue will vary by individual, each path will involve an element of sacrifice and denial of self. When the Lord leads us down one fraught with difficulty and inconvenience, we must resist the temptation to yield to moderation, social convention, worldly logic, and the demands of loves ones. It is the least we can do for the Savior who sacrificed so much for us.