THE CROSS AND THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
Peter S. C. Pothan
An old Roman coin had the picture of an ox in the middle, with a plough and an altar on either side, which indicated that the ox had to be ready for both, service and sacrifice. Are we ready for both? True Christian discipleship must involve both service and sacrifice.
In Luke 14:25-35, our Lord’s teaching on discipleship can be summed up in three words that mark the distinctive traits of a true disciple: commitment (vv.25-27), cost (vv.28-33) and character (vv.34-35). I would like us to study these three words in the context of their relevance to the cross of Christ and what it means to us.
The New International Bible Dictionary describes 'disciple' as “a pupil of a teacher which implies the acceptance in the mind and life of the views and practices of the teacher.” There is therefore a total commitment not only to the teaching but the very lifestyle of the teacher. What then is a Christian disciple? Juan Carlos Ortiz, an Assembly of God pastor in Buenos Aires, in his hard-hitting book Disciple, comments, “What is a disciple? A disciple is one who follows Jesus Christ. But because we are Christians does not necessarily mean that we are His disciples, even though we are members of His kingdom. Following Christ means acknowledging Him as Lord; it means serving Him as a slave.” You may be a Christian; you may be a member of a church, but are you a disciple of Christ?
The Lord Jesus in the above three scripture texts emphasises two marks of commitment. The first is a total and priority love for Him. He says, “If any one comes after 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.” The emphasis is not on hating parents, it is not on breaking the fifth Commandment. By using the extreme Hebrew hyperbole, Jesus talks of the supreme priority of our love for Him that would make our love for any other human (filial, familial or self-love) or thing look like hate. This is in terms of the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” which speaks of the priority relationship to Yahweh before any other relationship, whether divine or human. “God comes first,” as Joy Davidman puts it.
God's covenant love for His people is a preferential love as represented by the Hebrew word chesed (pronounced 'key-said') which is translated as ‘steadfast love’ in the NRSV. Jesus is emphasising the same preferential love for Him, the total commitment and priority in terms of what He has done for us. If we do not have this love, He says, we cannot be His disciples. Do we have this preferential love for Christ or do we put someone else or something else before Him?
The second mark of commitment is taking up one’s cross and following Christ. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple.” 'Carrying the cross' refers to sacrifice and service. The priority love must be shown in action. As Oswald Sanders says, “Salvation is not merely deliverance from sin, nor the experience of personal holiness; the salvation of God is deliverance out of self entirely into union with Him.” Salvation is not just an act or a process. It is the transformation from our own egos and lives into an intimate relationship with God. That is the basis for discipleship. As Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God?not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph.2:8-10). In other words, we are not saved by works but we are saved for “good works that God has already prepared for us beforehand to do.” In doing these ‘good works’ we may suffer difficulties which are part of the sacrifice and service of carrying our crosses and following Jesus.
After talking of the total love that He demands of His disciples, emphasising the carrying of their crosses, Jesus tells them two parables and forewarns them of the cost of following Him. The first parable is about a man who starts to build a tower without calculating the cost and so is unable to complete it. The second parable is about a king who considers whether or not he can face a more powerful enemy; if he cannot, he will send a delegation with the offer of peace.
We need to count the cost before stepping blindly into discipleship. Jesus says in Luke 9:62, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Please note he is not “fit for the kingdom of God.” The smallest sermon Jesus ever preached has only three words, “Remember Lot's wife!” You cannot look back if your hand is on the plough, or else the furrow will become crooked. This applies to God's ministry. No wonder the Lord Jesus says, “So therefore, any of you who does not give up everything that he has cannot be My disciple.” How often have you heard a sermon on counting the cost? Today’s evangelists emphasise on ‘accepting’ Christ quickly for a ‘born-again’ experience but do not speak a word about discipleship. The devil is not interested in attacking nominal and newly born Christians as much as he is after the disciples of Christ. With the power of the Holy Spirit we can defeat the devil, but the evangelist seldom tells you that. He seldom warns you of the spiritual attacks that are bound to come and how to face them.
If Jesus told the parables to explain the cost of discipleship and warned the young man in Luke 10 not to follow Him blindly, should we not do likewise? Several years ago I met a young man, Johnny, in a student camp. His father, an elder in a church, had compelled Johnny to respond to the altar call to accept Christ in a Gospel meeting. Johnny reluctantly went up to the altar and came back without making a commitment, but his family rejoiced that Johnny was ‘saved’. Johnny was ‘pushed’ into making a ‘commitment’ for Christ which made no difference in his sinful lifestyle. When I met him at the students’ camp, I had already heard his ‘conversion’ story. After spending an afternoon with Johnny and listening to his story, I told him, “Johnny, I don't want you to accept Christ now, but I just want you to pray that you will take the next step as God leads.” Johnny was surprised and said that I was the most unorthodox Christian he has ever met! “No!” I replied, “I think I am biblical.” I then explained to him the two parables of Jesus on discipleship. So Johnny just asked God to lead him into the next step. After the camp, we dispersed and were out of touch for nearly six months, when I heard the good news from Johnny himself that he had indeed accepted Christ, was baptised and was an active member of a church. Above all, having counted the cost of discipleship, he is now a disciple of Christ!
Having decided to follow Christ, no matter what the cost, we need to prove our discipleship in our life- style and character. This is very important. It is the ‘being’ as well as the ‘doing’. Jesus calls us to be the ‘salt of the earth.’ Salt gives flavour to the food and also acts as a preservative. As disciples of Christ, we are to help preserve the good things in society and prevent the increasing rottenness of modern day life. If we do not contribute positively in society, we are useless and only fit for the dung heap. Today's society desperately needs people who can make a difference!
As we continue to contemplate the cross, let us live as disciples of Christ, as those who have counted the cost and are committed to Him. Let us be God’s channels of blessing, making a difference in the lives of others.