“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 bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
They were having a friendly dinner—three evangelical ministers and their wives—when for some reason the subject of martyrdom came up. What would it be like, they wondered aloud, if they were actually called upon to give up their lives for the faith? Would they do it? Two of them agreed that, if only intellectually, they had settled that question in their minds from the beginning: Yes, they would die for Jesus if necessary. Whether they would live up to that commitment, only events would tell. But one of the ministers present declared that he wasn’t sure he was “there yet.” That is, he didn’t know if he would be willing to hold on to his belief in Jesus if the threat of death were on him. He’d have to wait and see. At any rate, no, he could not say unequivocally that he would lay down his life for Jesus, at least, not at that time.
Perhaps this pastor simply had not considered the question before. I feel reasonably certain that would be the case for many believers in America today. Counting the cost of discipleship is an avenue into church membership traveled by fewer and fewer people. In our “seeker friendly” church culture we don’t want to put any obstacles in the way of folks joining our community. We don’t require huge commitments. We tell people to come as they are; all their baggage and questions in tow. We hold out the hope of a fuller and happier life among friends who understand and care. We want them to ease their way into the church rather than make a full-blown, clear, and final break with their old way of life.
I wonder what Jesus would think of all this?
THE MOTIVE OF THE CROWDS
Have you ever noticed that Jesus often tried to discourage great crowds of people from following Him? In John 6, Jesus openly rebuked the crowds because He understood that the only thing they wanted from Him was to satisfy some purely selfish need. When He stiffed them, they tried to bait Him into doing their will by suggesting that if He really was God, He’d give them free bread, just like God did for their fathers in the wilderness. He replied that He was more than enough for them, and they turned away in droves. The twelve went on like they would continue with Him, but He challenged their motives as well (John 6:66-70).
In Luke 11, great crowds again began to gather around Jesus, looking for more of the kind of signs and wonders they’d heard He had been doing. He called them “an evil generation” who only came to Him for the spectacle (Luke 11:29). Again, in Luke 14, great crowds started to follow wherever He went, so He took a moment to challenge them to examine their motives in coming to Him. This time the crowds seemed to be looking at Jesus as a kind of “add-on” to their lives. They had their homes and families, and life for many of them must have been at least OK. Surely, though, this Galilean prophet would bring a little value-added to their lives? Instead, Jesus advised them that following Him meant forsaking everything and taking up the way of death to self and the world.
Then there were the crowds who hailed Jesus as He entered Jerusalem on that first glorious Palm Sunday. Every day, for the better part of a week, those crowds showed up at the temple to hear Jesus teach and watch as He lambasted the religious leaders. But Jesus knew those adoring masses didn’t really believe in Him (John 12:36,37). Those same people who shouted, “Hosanna!” at the top of their lungs on Sunday would, on Friday morning, be screaming, “Crucify Him!” No wonder He left town every night to be alone (Luke 21:37).
Jesus had little use for crowds. It would be difficult to label His demeanor toward them as “seeker friendly.” Yes, He healed many and cast out demons by the score. But He never trusted Himself to the crowds; He knew them all too well (John 2:23-25). Indeed, Jesus seems to have rebuked, offended, discouraged, and distrusted just about every crowd that ever gathered around Him.
Jesus wasn’t looking for crowds. He was looking for disciples. And to get disciples, He explained that any who wished to follow Him would need to count the cost.
Jesus held out two tests for any who hoped to become His disciples. The first we might refer to as the test of exclusive love. To follow Jesus one has to love Him exclusively, so much so, with such focus and intensity that all other loves one may entertain seem, by comparison with the love he bears for Jesus, rather to be a form of hate. He didn’t want there to be any mistake about this: father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters—the true disciple would have to love Jesus so much that nothing any of them would say or do would command more affection or attention. The true disciple must hate even his own life, not considering his own interests, hopes and dreams, vocations, and avocations as of any significance whatsoever compared with the supreme objective of loving Jesus Christ.
Where our love is lodged our time and energy tend to go. If we truly love Jesus, we will allow nothing to rob us of the time and energy we need to seek Him, be with Him, or obey Him. Jesus is always on the minds of those who love Him. Their first thought in every situation relates to how they may please and honor this One they love more than their own lives. Those who love Jesus talk about Him frequently. They are eager for others to know and love Him as they do. They have little time for frivolous or trivial occupations, for they understand that Jesus is engaged in more serious and eternal business.
The crowds that came to Jesus loved Jesus. They loved the free bread and fishes. They loved the signs and wonders. They love seeing their oppressive leaders get their comeupance. The loved the show, the spectacle, the camaraderie, the escape from the ordinary, the sense of being a movement—they loved it all, loved it all more even than they loved Jesus. He knew that, and He never failed to remind them that He wasn’t seeking self-serving crowds, but Christ-loving disciples.
THE WAY OF SACRIFICE
The second test Jesus held out to would-be followers was the test of sacrificial living. Jesus called His followers to be willing to die to themselves in order to serve the needs of others. Everyone in those days knew what a crucifixion was. They’d seen men carrying their crosses under the brutal Roman scourge to their deaths outside the city walls. It was to escape such oppression and the fears and injustices that accompanied it that people thronged to Jesus. Many of them must have thought that He was going to lead a revolt against Rome—get the Roman dogs off their backs so they could settle into a more normal way of life, without so many taxes and other burdens.
The crowds, in effect, hoped that Jesus would cause the Romans to live sacrificed lives so that they—the crowds—could get a little breathing space. They didn’t want to sacrifice themselves; they wanted others to sacrifice for them.
Jesus said the way of discipleship is the way of self-denial, putting the needs of others so much to the fore that, if necessary, one is willing to set aside his own concerns and give up everything that is precious to him in order to love his neighbor. In short, Jesus said, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
YOU GET WHAT YOU ASK FOR
In the American church today we have lots of crowds. Big crowds. Hand-clapping, big-smiling crowds. Praise-singing, hands-in-the-air, comin’-back-for-more crowds, week in and week out. What we don’t have are many disciples. If even our pastors are not ready to lay down their lives for the Gospel, what can we expect of those they lead? Bill Hybels’ recent admission that, for all their crowds and hype, the Willow Creek team hasn’t made many disciples, is just the first honest admission that the American Evangelical Church has no clothes—none that match the uniform of discipleship, at any rate.
The reason is clear: We’ve been seeking crowds, not disciples. We’ve considered every possible means of getting the most people into our buildings and keeping them there, and we’ve attracted people on the basis of mere self-interest, so that what we have are congregations ecstatic to belong to some place that, in the name of the Lord, takes their self-interest as seriously as they do.
I wonder what would happen if we ever began seeking disciples? Would the crowds turn on us with as much vehemence and vengeance as they did on Jesus?
Or might we be surprised to see some, perhaps many, step forward, like convicted Isaiahs, saying, “Here am I; send me”? My own sense is that church people are weary of status quo Christianity, whether that status quo is of the traditional church, dying on the vine, or the contemporary church that is merely contemporary and not much church. People want to be challenged to lay down their lives, to nurture passionate, exclusive love for Jesus through prayer and devotion to His Word. The world is all superficial and self-centered. Shouldn’t the church be something else? Something solid, profound, deeply mystical, altogether other-worldly, and devoted to loving God and neighbor no matter the cost?
Well, it would be interesting to see, wouldn’t it?
Do you know any “real disciples”—people who fit the criteria for discipleship Jesus held out to the crowds? Do you think those folks would be ready to die for Jesus? Would you?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (Waxed Tablet). Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.