Radical Discipleship


Luke 9:23-27

Text Comment

Luke 9 is a long chapter and a very important one in the history of the Lord’s ministry. In Matthew and Mark as well, the verses we are about to read follow immediately upon Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ of God and the Lord’s declaration that he must suffer and die. These pieces obviously belong together both historically and theologically. The connection between what has just been said and what Jesus now says to his disciples is obvious and important.  As he must suffer, so must they.

v.23     In a world where crucifixion was commonplace, it is very likely that all of the disciples had seen a man taking up his cross to drag it to the place of his own execution. It would  have been a gripping scene and made a powerful impression! To watch a man going to his death must always make a powerful impression. The disciples would not all hang on literal crosses — though some would! — but they would all suffer greatly in some way for their loyalty to Jesus. From the beginning there was nothing self-indulgent about following Christ! As the rest of the New Testament will elaborate at length, Christians must die to their former way of life and embrace a life of various forms of hardship. [Morris, 189] Remember, the Lord was not speaking theoretically. John the Baptist had already been killed and open hostility toward Jesus was beginning to surface. Trouble was brewing. [Bock, i, 851] In any case, the connection with what has come immediately before is obvious.  If discipleship means identification with the master, then the Lord’s disciples must be prepared to share the fate that he has just prophesied for himself.

            You remember Ananias: The man the Lord sent to give marching orders to Saul whom we know now as the apostle Paul. And what was the message Ananias brought to the former persecutor of the church? “Tell him how much he will have to suffer for my sake. Not, you might think, the most winning introduction to the Christian life.

            We have here in v. 23 a definition of the Christian life: it consists of self-denial, of taking up the cross, and of following Jesus. That is, the true Christian life amounts 1) to the denial of one’s own will and submission to the Lord’s, 2) the embrace of the suffering that identification with Jesus will require, and 3) the imitation of Jesus in obedience to God. If that doesn’t describe your life — not perfectly by any means, of course, but really, genuinely — you are not yet living the Christian life!

v.24     It is impossible to compress a great truth and its implications in fewer or more powerful words than Jesus did here. William Barclay offers one short summary that does justice to only one part of the statement: “The Christian must realize that he is given life, not to keep it for himself, but to spend it for others; not to husband its flame, but to burn himself out for Christ and for men.” [In Morris, 189] It is in such a life that the Christian finds fulfillment and ultimate reward.

v.26     Again great truth compressed and memorably expressed. Obviously many truths are here assumed more than directly stated: the reality of the next world, the judgment of God, the possibility of loss in the world to come, and so on. You can refuse to stand up for the Lord’s truth and kingdom now — doing so may well make for a more comfortable life in some ways — but only at the risk of his refusing to stand up for you when it matters for eternity. Whatever one may gain in his physical life in this world, it is not worth it if it costs him his eternal life. The Lord makes the point so forcefully precisely because we can’t see eternity! It is easy to ignore it because we can’t see it.

v.27     As you may imagine there has been much debate as to what the Lord was referring to when he spoke of some seeing the kingdom of God before they died. There are a number of possibilities, each of which has been supported by good men. They include: 1) the transfiguration; 2) his death and resurrection; 3) Pentecost; 4) the spread of Christianity; 5) the destruction of Jerusalem; and 6) the second coming.  I incline to the view that Jesus is referring to the transfiguration which is reported in the next paragraph. Only some of those with him when he made the remark were witnesses of his glory on the mountain, viz. Peter, James, and John.  The rest saw nothing like the transfiguration to the end of their lives.  And what those three saw is well described as “seeing the kingdom” for what they saw was the Lord clothed with his divine glory and majesty. They saw what had been hidden from view and would continue to be hidden, that Jesus of Nazareth was no one less than the eternal and divine King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

            In any case, all three assertions in these few verses — the command to carry the cross, to lose one’s life, and not to be ashamed of the Son of Man — combine to indicate that the life of the follower of Jesus was not going to be easy. It wasn’t for him; it will not be for us. But for those who follow that difficult way there is a great reward in store. [Bock, i, 850]

Now, as I said in treating the previous two paragraphs, this conversation at Caesarea Philippi was a watershed in the Lord’s ministry. From this point forward the tone is very different. The strong current of the Lord’s mass popularity has not entirely dissipated, to be sure — his miracles though less frequent would continue to amaze and thrill the crowds — but even on the people’s part the enthusiasm for Jesus would never be the same as it had been and the hostility of the religious leadership and of a number of other fellow countrymen toward him would continue to grow and be expressed more openly.

More important still, on the Lord’s part there was a decided turn. The prospect of the cross will from this point be much more a feature of his teaching his disciples and their preparation for the work he would leave them to do. As one writer has put it,

“The Galilean sunshine is suddenly clouded over and the air grows sultry and heavy with the gathering storm. The voices shouting applause die away, and another more ominous note is heard. At Caesarea, Jesus stood, as it were, on a dividing line. It was like a hilltop from which he could see behind him all the road he had traveled and in front of him the dark, forbidding way awaiting him. One look he cast back to where the afterglow of happy days still lingered and then faced round and marched forward toward the shadows. His course was now set to Calvary.” [J. S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 106]

This was approximately a year before his crucifixion. And it is in this context, it is at this turning point, it is when for the first time the prospect of the cross is set before his disciples that we get for the first time the solemn teaching — of which there will be much more before the Gospel is finished — of what difficult things will be required of those who follow the Lord Jesus.

The Gospel is the announcement of very happy things, to be sure. Life forever, love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in the knowledge of God also forever, these are the inheritance of those who put their trust in Jesus. Let no one take our crown in proclaiming in Jesus Christ the happy fulfillment of all the longings of the human heart. But mixed with that happiness, peace, high purpose, and satisfaction and, in some respects, the price of them, is the bearing of the cross, the denial of self, and the imitation of Jesus who suffered in every conceivable way in order to give us life. As the Bible is at pains to point out, in many different ways and for many different reasons, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” And “he who would live a godly life in this world will suffer persecution.” Some of those tribulations and persecutions we must impose upon ourselves, “beating our bodies and making them our slaves,” as the Apostle Paul once wrote was his habit in the pursuit of godliness. Others are the work of the unbelieving world which has never been a friend to God or to God’s people. And still others are the Devil’s work. We have adversaries within and without and that makes and must make the Christian life — the serious, faithful, determined Christian life – difficult and painful work. It has always been so and it is so today.

I suppose that this realization came upon the Twelve in stages. Everything had been so thrilling at the outset: the miracles, the crowds, the extraordinary teaching that they heard from Jesus day after day, teaching that revolutionized their thinking about God and about the world and about salvation. Believe me, nothing can be so exciting as the discovery of great truth! It is often so with the new Christian as it must have been for the Twelve: it is as though they had entered a new world, full of the most amazing things, mesmerizing, entrancing, supremely beautiful.

But then they began to realize that the Lord ministry was not proceeding as victoriously as they had first imagined it must. They caught the sneer on the edge of a remark by some Pharisee or scribe. They observed the crowds pressing around Jesus and realized that the interest of many of these people did not extend beyond their desire to get something from him for themselves. And then the shock of the news of the execution of John the Baptist. Remember, they had been, or most of them, first followers of John. His senseless death, to satisfy the whim of an evil woman, was not supposed to happen. He was the one who had proclaimed the coming of the day of the Lord. And now he was dead.

And then, most recently, after the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus had repudiated the desire of the crowds to make him their king and many had turned away from Jesus in disappointment if not disgust. Luke doesn’t record that fact — we read it in John — but the turning point is as clear in Luke as it is in the other Gospels. And from this point forward the opposition mounts on all sides. The disciples actually begin to fear for their own lives, something they had never done before in the company of Jesus. Apart from a few days of sunny interlude from Palm Sunday through the first few days of the Passion Week, the remainder of the disciples’ time with the Lord Jesus is overshadowed with uncertainty, disquiet, and even fear. Remember how Thomas, when Jesus proposed to join Mary and Martha in the environs of Jerusalem to comfort them after the death of their brother, Lazarus, Thomas had said, “Well, let’s go die with him.” The opposition to Jesus was obvious to all.

In other words, the Lord wasn’t speaking hypothetically when he spoke of his disciples taking up their cross to follow him, nor was he speaking only of what would be the case at some time in the future. They would learn what he meant as they followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem to Calvary to the Upper Room where they huddled in fear wondering if, having killed the Master, the religious authorities, their blood up, would go after them next. But even after the triumph of the resurrection; even after Pentecost; even after the gospel took wing and began to overspread the world, there was for these men opposition, imprisonment, unrelenting hard work in the Master’s name, and for at least a number of them a cruel and early death, the penalty of their loyalty to Jesus.

What we have here is a tightly reasoned argument. The rest of the Bible elaborates it, but it’s clear enough here in a simple form. The Lord must suffer and die. So much does the kingdom of God advance by the Messiah’s suffering that his disciples, his followers, those who are representing him to the world, must suffer as well.  If they are to do his work, they must do it his way.  As Augustine would put it some centuries later, when the gospel had made its way powerfully out into the world, “The world was not conquered by fighting, but by suffering.”  Then the Lord supports that assertion by reminding his disciples that difficulties in this world are nothing, not to be considered, if they bring salvation in the next; that no happiness and prosperity here is worth the loss of one’s soul there.  There is a judgment coming — that fact is the presupposition of everything Jesus said and did — and this judgment will take into account precisely in what measure one demonstrated his or her loyalty to Christ by sharing in his sufferings.

There is but one Cross “on which the Prince of Glory died.”  But there are many crosses by which the followers and servants of Jesus Christ do his will and serve his cause by undertaking hard and wearying and painful labor and by undergoing all manner of difficulties required of those who would be found faithful to him. The story of the Christian life in this world has been the story of suffering on Christ’s behalf from that time until our own. And why? The great point, here and everywhere the Bible speaks of our suffering as Christians is that it stems from our identification with Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, who was, for our sakes, acquainted with grief.

Think of some of the ways in which the Lord Jesus bore his cross before he was ever crucified on one.  He certainly suffered the ordinary privations of a poor man who had no time to devote himself to his own comfort.  Very shortly he is going to say to his disciples, “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” [9:58] He died a poor man. He didn’t own a home as many of his disciples did; you can today see the foundations of what was once Peter’s home among the ruins of ancient Capernaum; he had very little in the way of this world’s goods. He was, in modern parlance, homeless and that is a sad and difficult place to be.  From the very beginning of his life it was so: born in a stable and laid in a manger. He never went begging. He was no example for the medieval mendicant who supposed it a virtue to ask others for food.  But, in fact, he lived on the generosity of others. That is a humbling, if not a humiliating thing, and must have been all the more so for someone who knew he had right and title to everyone’s riches but could claim nothing for himself.  Such was his calling.  It will be good for us to probe, as far as we can, the inner thoughts of the Lord Jesus about his own poverty and his own dependence. He was a human being. You’re a human being and you don’t want to be poor and you certainly don’t want to be dependent upon the generosity of others.  You don’t want to be poor and you hate to be dependent on others. What of him?

He faced, of course, terrible suffering at the end of his life, torment of body and, what is often much worse, torment of heart.  He suffered the pains inflicted upon him by evil men and far deeper and excruciating spiritual suffering when the cup of the divine wrath against sin was poured out into his heart. 

The cross is sharp, but in thy woe this is the lightest part;
Our sin it is which pierces thee, and breaks thy sacred heart.

But, to make matters worse, he knew it was coming and had to endure the anticipation of it for months on end.  With a mind as powerful and an imagination as sensitive as his, the wracking pains of the end of his life were brought forward to be suffered over and over again long before they actually began. Gethsemane is the proof of that. Dark night of the soul as it was, it was the pain of anticipation only; the knowledge of what was to come overwhelmed his soul to the point that his body poured out sweat like great drops of blood. How many times, do you suppose, had he awakened with a start in the middle of the night to find his bed clothes soaked with the sweat of fear?

He suffered as well the sorrow of causing the pain of others. He foresaw and foretold the sufferings that would be theirs because of him. If they hated him, they would hate them also.  And to a perfectly unselfish mind and a perfectly loving heart, this was sorrow indeed.  You would feel the burden terribly if, simply because they belonged to you, your children whom you love more than life itself, were to be thrown in jail, mocked, persecuted, and finally cruelly murdered. Such was the sorrow of the Son of Man. That has happened to Christian parents through the ages; let them tell you how heartbreaking that cross was! is! Do you suppose they loved more than he?

But his also was the cross, the bitter suffering of shame made infinitely worse by his own sinlessness and perfect goodness.  A man who loved righteousness more than any man has ever loved it was accused of being a drunk, a glutton, a heretic, and a traitor to his country. He who loved the Sabbath day as no one had ever loved it before or has loved it since, was accused of treating the Lord’s Day with contempt. They said he was in league with the Devil. There was a young Scot shepherd in the 18th century, an orphan, John Brown of Haddington, to whom the Lord had given a very good mind. When still a teenager, he had, under the impulse of love for the Word of God and by diligent application in self-study, so far advanced in his study of Greek and Latin that he was accused by the local townsmen of being demon-possessed. How else could a poor orphan be so knowledgeable in ancient languages? To work hard – much harder than anyone else your age, and then to be thought evil for what you had learned! Imagine it.

But so it was in the Lord’s case. Who was he, they said, to tell the world what to think and do? They thought him uppity; full of himself; a pretender. How that must have reddened the face of the only truly righteous man and truly humble man in all the world. In the Lord’s case, it would not have hurt him so much to be mocked for being a poor carpenter’s son and not a trained and educated rabbi, though it would have stung him to have his parents made fun of in that way, but to be thought a sinful man must have caused him no end of shame. Think of it, after all he had done for them and shown to them, his countrymen finally preferred a common thug, Barabbas, to him. That’s how far he had sunk in the estimation of his fellows. You know very well how impossible it is for you to sleep when you know that others are thinking you foolish, or cruel, or unfaithful, or impure, or weak. Why you can’t sleep if you only imagine that they are thinking such things of you. There was no imagining the hostility and contempt of his fellow countrymen and the leaders of his church. They mocked and criticized him; they even laughed at him for his weakness at the very end, when he was being scourged and when his life was ebbing from him as he hung on the cross.  You have to really hate somebody. You have to despise somebody to do that. The Almighty, think of it, made sport of for his weakness and having to take it and say nothing and do nothing because our salvation depended upon his suffering such things.

He also knew the exquisite sorrow and had to bear the cross of being deserted by his friends. It was terrible enough to have the entire nation think him a bad man, but to have the few men who knew better desert him and run for their lives, that was the perfection of ignominy. What was left of his once so promising movement scattered like frightened rabbits. It was bad enough that all along the way they refused to understand what he was there to do; they refused to accept what he said over and over again was his mission; they even rebuked him and told him not to say and think silly things. Bad enough. But then to be left alone by them all when the full weight of the state was brought down upon him. What had David said centuries before?  “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” [Ps. 41:9]  When a person enters into true and close friendships as Jesus did he gives himself as a hostage to that friendship.  He shares his life in such a way that he opens himself up to the sting of betrayal if the friend should prove unfaithful. How many times has that happened to the saints of God in the ages since!

I mentioned a few Sundays back St. Patrick’s betrayal by a long time friend. He was brought up on charges, if you remember by some unworthy English bishops and one of the charges was a sin Patrick had committed as a young man and confessed many years before to this friend who had kept his brother’s secret all those years but who had betrayed him at the last when it mattered most. What I didn’t read you some weeks ago was Patrick’s own thoughts on his betrayal.

“I had entrusted to him the deepest secret of my heart. I even heard from some of my brothers that he had stood up for me back when they were deciding whether or not to make me a bishop…. My friend was even the one who told me later: ‘You’ve made it!  You’re going to be a bishop! – though I wasn’t worthy of this. So why, out of the blue, did he later publicly disgrace me in front of everyone, good and bad alike? And over a matter that years earlier he had freely and gladly forgiven – as had God, who is greater than anyone.”  [Freeman, St. Patrick, 185]

You can tell how that betrayal had stung!

How is that much different from Peter first declaring publicly that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then promising to remain faithful no matter that all others desert him, and, finally, deserting him himself to save his own skin by telling a slave girl, in the hearing of the Lord Jesus, “I never even met the guy!”?

And then, there was this cross the Lord had to bear: the sorrow, the painful work, the wearying labor of resisting temptation all his life and, unlike you and I, resisting every temptation to its bitter end.  We know don’t we, from the times, perhaps the relatively few times, we actually do resist a temptation to its bitter end and overcome it, how much effort that takes out of us. And he was doing that every day, every hour of every day. We make a mistake in speaking of Satan’s tempting the Lord in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry as the temptation.  His entire life was one continuous temptation. Even his friends made his life more difficult for him by tempting him to leave the way that had been appointed for him. And, of course, perfect goodness always brings out the worst of wickedness in others. Jesus had to face that constantly. What temptations were posed to him by the jealously of the Pharisees, by their virulent hatred of him, by the false love of the crowds, by the venality of Pontius Pilate, the stupidity of his disciples and the cruel indifference of the Roman soldiers? And every one of those temptations had to be met with perfect love and perfect patience. Can you and I even begin to imagine what resources of will had to be summoned up to master those endless temptations? He was the man of sorrows, but he was also at the end of his life the exhausted man!

We have hardly begun to plumb the depths of the crosses that our Lord bore for us before he ever was hung on the cross.  But even this superficial survey of his sufferings on our behalf makes it perfectly obvious how and why those who follow him, identify with him and serve him in this world must bear their own crosses in turn. It may be the loss of this world’s pleasures and comforts because we have devoted ourselves to other things, higher things, eternal things. I know very well that it often crosses the mind of serious Christians to think about what they would do with all the money that they would have to spend if they were not investing so much of what they have in the kingdom of God. 

It may be the scorn of the world that falls upon any man or woman who, for Christ’s sake, will not walk as the world does or seek its pleasures or worship its gods. A faithful Christian life is a reproach to unbelief and that reproach is not often forgiven. The more faithful a Christian life, the more certainly it will be patronized and belittled by others. And we hate to be patronized and we cannot bear to be belittled. Or our cross may be the bitter fight that must be waged in the secret places of our hearts hour after hour and day after day to resist temptation and remain pure and holy before God and man. Why will sin and the devil never leave us alone?  It may be the betrayal of friends to whom one has given oneself, as Christians do.  In this sinful world not all friends will remain true. Or our cross may be, as it so often was for the Lord, that we must work ourselves to weariness to attend to all that a faithful servant of the Savior of the world ought to do on his behalf.

But you see the point.  There is an immediate and intimate connection between the Lord’s suffering and that of his disciples, between his cross and ours.  These are sorrows he bore for the kingdom of God and salvation and ours are as well, and being such sorrows, though ours are much lighter than his, they must be of the same type.  The Devil, the world, our own flesh were his enemies and they are ours and so our lives will be difficult and hard in just the ways that those three adversaries must make it and so they must be, to some degree, the same as his.

The Lord states that here as a fact. But he goes quickly on to help us. He knows how easy it is to resent and then to lay down such crosses as these – he was tempted to resent his and lay them down every hour of every day. We need iron in our back and nerves of steel. And so the Lord gives us that here. The day of reckoning is coming. The man or woman who takes his comfort here, in this life, who exchanges Christ’s cross for a life of ease and pleasure and the acceptance of the world, will rue his choice forever and the man or woman who takes up Christ’s crosses will wear an endless smile in the heavenly country. Eternity, heaven and hell, the rewards of the life to come, these loom above every sorrow endured for Jesus’ sake in this world and beckon us through the trials and tribulations of a godly life in a sinful world.

Like it or not, every human being in this world is in the process of making such an exchange of his life for the corresponding situation in the world to come. He can save his life now and lose it then or lose it now and save it then. The wise man, the faithful woman will do what Jesus did and carry a cross now so as never to have to carry it then.

Every one of us should consider these tremendous words of Jesus as if he or she were hearing them for the very first time. Take up your cross now for the umpteenth time or for the first. In what does that cross consist?  It is a cross such as his crosses were; sufferings like his for the same reasons. He took up his cross, we read elsewhere, for the joy that was before him and we should take up ours in the confidence of that same coming joy.