Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
Within a family of churches whose modern obsession has been adding new people to the church membership rolls, discipleship has taken a back seat to conversion.
Jesus was famously uninterested in adding converts. At the end of three and one-half years of ministry, he had a net gain of eleven disciples. When great masses of people gathered around to join his movement, he all but ran them off (see, for example, John 6:115). Individuals who approached him wanting to secure a spot in his movement were severely challenged as to their intentions and commitment.
For Jesus, a convert required “conversion”a real and material change from one world to another, from one set of allegiances to another. There are many textual examples of Jesus encountering this problem, a problem that persists to this very day.
Of all Jesus’ stern rebukes to would-be disciples, none has captured my imagination as strongly as the three, recorded in quick succession, in Luke 9:5762. Here, Luke has condensed for his readers a sampling of the kind of interest Jesus’ ministry attracted. People were regularly drawn to him. Sometimes it was his powerful and courageous words aimed at the status quo. Sometimes it was his miraculous acts. Sometimes his deep compassion. These three archetypes, if you will, had prior commitmentsall three wanted discipleship to fit in neatly with his lifeto neatly conform to prior commitments. Jesus brushed them aside in a way that seems almost harsh.
The vitally important context for these three would-be disciples is a single sentence that serves as a hinge in Luke’s narrative: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51).
This paradigmatic “journey to Jerusalem” takes almost half of Luke. The reader knows that this journey will not end well for Jesus. He was going Jerusalem to face rejection, condemnation, and death as a political criminal. The expression “set his face” tells more than just what Jesus’ itinerary was. It says something about his determination and focus. He was on a mission and he would not be deterred.
If we back up to get a bit of the story leading up to verse 51, we notice that even before the journey to Jerusalem got started there was trouble. In typical fashion, the disciples were found, in verse 46, to be arguing over who was the greatest. It seems, once again, the disciples had gotten their own personal ambitions mixed up with the purposes of God.
Any time God’s ministry is being carried forwardpeople are being healed, the kingdom of God is being proclaimedsome ambitious person wants the credit or the glory. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day and it remains the case today. Any time God is getting something done, there are would-be disciples who get their own personal ambitions mixed up with the purposes of God. Part of following Jesus, as a faithful disciple, is being aware of our personal ambitions and learning to lay them down and follow Jesus. After all, this isn’t a nature walkwe are headed to Jerusalem.
Coming back to our three would-be disciples, we are again confronted by Jesus’ seemingly strange response. I confess being surprised by Jesus.
I picture myself being approached by these “seekers,” who say, “we want to come with you where you’re going.” Of course, I would encourage them. Perhaps I would give them Bible studies, pray with them, mentor them, and help them join the church.
Not Jesus. His outreach tactics were, well a little more severe. The first person approached Jesus and wanted to join in the journey, but Jesus flatly discouraged him. “We’re essentially homeless,” he told him. “You might want to reconsider. Even wild animals have a place to call home a place to sleep at night. But not uswe have nowhere to lay our heads. If you want to come with us those are the terms.”
The second would-be disciple wanted to follow Jesus, but after he gave his father a proper funeral. That seems like a reasonable request. Jesus response appears coldhearted“let the dead bury the dead.” A third man wanted to follow Jesus, but only after saying goodbye to his family. Jesus would have none of it: “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is worthy of me.”
I want to protest, “Wow, those are some high standards, Jesus! It’s not very ‘seeker sensitive of you.’ I mean, how do you expect to build a significant following when you’re so hard to please? Couldn’t you at least lead with the benefits? Maybe then you could throw in the downside.” But it’s almost like he didn’t want people to join his mission.
In conversation with a friend many years ago, both of us wrestling with the issues of evangelism and discipleship in our respective churches, we wondered how this teaching of Jesus would go over in today’s church environment. The contemporary church, of which Adventism is a part, is very concernedone could even say anxiousabout numerical growth. Pastors, will do almost anything, it seems, to make the teachings of Jesus palatable so that more people will join our churches.
My friend mused that, whereas we are prone to preach sermons like, “Ten Ways Being a Christian Will Improve Your Life,” Jesus was far more prone to preach sermons like, “Ten Ways Following Me Will Mess Up Your Life.” He repeatedly advised them to consider what Dietrich Bonhoeffer dubbed, “the cost of discipleship.” Why is it that we shy away from speaking clearly about this “cost?”
Instead of following Jesus’ example, the contemporary church has been so eager for converts that we have taught for generations that Jesus can fit in with your life and your plans. In fact, the church has even taught that Jesus’ purpose is to make your life work to make you successful and happy. Yet I don’t find that anywhere in Scripture. To the contrary, those who came to Jesus with those expectations and conditions were discouraged from following him.
Clearly we are not Jesus. We don’t know what brings people to curiosity about Jesus. Personally, I think I will always be one to nurture people along the path of discipleship. I don’t think this text is a license to discourage people from being disciples. But neither are we licensed to offer people something other than the gospel. Our message is not that people can “have Jesus in their life,” as the church has often said. Nowhere does the Bible teach that we can have Jesus as a part of our lives. With Jesus, there is no middle ground. You either follow or you don’t.
Don’t go looking over your shoulder, either. Jesus uses an illustration that doesn’t mean much to us urbanites, but if you’re plowing a row and look over your shoulder to see how you’ve done, even if the row has been perfectly straight up to that point, you start wandering all over the place. You cannot follow Jesus while looking over your shoulder. And you can’t follow Jesus with your list of expectations.
So, let’s be clearJesus wants disciples. Jesus loved his disciples, John tells us, to the very end. He staked his kingdom on these twelve crazy guys and the dozens of other women and men who clustered around him. But there are several lessons about discipleship that Luke wants us to get in this story.
- Discipleship is not about greatness or power or position. You can’t be a disciple of Jesus while you’re constantly measuring your greatness against your neighbors.
- Discipleship is not about wiping out the enemy or triumphing over the world. Discipleship is about a steady, determined march of self-giving love. With each step, we pour ourselves out for the world and God’s kingdom.
- You cannot be a devoted disciple of Jesus with a list of pre-conditions attached. Jesus won’t fit into your life, and he’s not going to accept any prenuptial agreements. Jesus is not just being hardnosed here. The journey to Jerusalemto the crossis going to take everything you have. Jesus needs our unswerving loyalty.
- Discipleship will include suffering. The journey will be hard but rewarding. Anything beautiful enough to pursue with all your life is worth suffering for. Are the disciples greater than their Master?
- Finally, disciples cannot follow Jesus while looking back over their shoulder to see how they’ve done in yesteryear. After all, where is Jesus asking us to follow him? Not yesterday, but today and tomorrow.
Ryan Bell is senior pastor of the Hollywood, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church.