Discipleship is not Seeker-Friendly

A disciple is a person being trained to follow a leader. For Christians, our Leader is Jesus Christ. We learn what He is like primarily from the Four Gospels. Jesus is alive today and He occuplies the highest place of authority in the entire universe. Yet Jesus is available to give each and every disciple 24/7 personal training.

Luke's gospel provided a weekly men's group I was part of a few years back with a wealth of instructions for us to appropriate and follow. We found in Luke a number of controversial topics. In following Jesus on his last journey to Jerusalem, for example, we keep running into some rather strong statements from our Lord. Instead of making it easy, appealing, and attractive to follow Him, in Chapter 14 Luke, we found that Jesus tightened up considerably the entrance requirements for participating with Him in His kingdom. "All who will may come," shows that we all are offered an open door to everlasting life by God. But Jesus is way more than a mere Savior and we need Him far more than we first expect.

We all thought the following statements by Jesus were not very "seeker-friendly."

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.

"And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it-- "lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, "saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.'

"Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? "Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace.

"So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.

"Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? "It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Luke 14:25-35)

Three times in this passage Jesus uses the phrase "cannot be my disciple." Evidently many will start the journey to follow after Jesus, but drop out, or give up and turn back, as Jesus implies here and elsewhere. Many more will not bother to start at all based on such demanding high standards.

As the old Chinese proverb goes, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." In our men's group, we decided that it is enough at the beginning of our journey to know that we are loved by God, that full provision has already been made for all of our sins. Our Leader has the very best qualifications. The safe end of the journey is guaranteed to all who will commit themselves fully to growing up in Christ. A commitment to Christ is a commitment to discipleship. Jesus is not offering an easy way to better living but a very difficult journey we must undergo in order to be rescued from eternal destruction.

The late A. W. Pink (1886-1952) said,

"The nature of Christ's salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a Savior from hell rather than a Savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness."

Jesus asks us to love Him and to be loyal to His cause well beyond any of our commitment to anyone or anything else. That is a tall order. ("Hate" in the above passage is a strong comparative term--it means "to love much less.") Since Jesus spoke these tough words on His final trip to Jerusalem, the meaning of "bearing one's cross" is fairly obvious. Following Jesus requires a dying to oneself, a renouncing of one's former life, and the severing of all manner of inappropriate ties and affections and connections to the world. If we agree to follow Jesus, it can not be a short-time tentative agreement --with a built-in escape clause. (SeeThe Way of the Crossby Ray Stedman).

Finally, Jesus said that disciples must end up being "salty" or we are of no use to the Lord at all. Commenting on the final lack-luster state of the Church just before the Lord's return, Ray Stedman wrote,

Jesus tells us plainly what his church is to be like. It is to be salt -- and not just plain salt, but salty salt! He said, "Salt that loses its saltiness is good for nothing," (Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34). It will only be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. But a church that is salt should be salty. He means that, like salt in food, it should be spread throughout the whole area, flavoring whatever it touches. The church is to function not only when it meets on Sunday, but out where you people are during the week -- in business offices, in the marketplace, in shops, in your home, wherever you are. That is where the church does its work. That is where it is to tell the good news and to be salt, flavoring life with a different flavor, a different attitude toward circumstances, which does not go along with the willful, wicked, and wanton ways of the world but which chooses to walk in truth, righteousness, love and honesty. That is how the church becomes salt, filled with good works.

And it is also to be light. "You are like a city set on a hill," said Jesus. "You are the light of the world," (Matthew 5:14). Light is a symbol of truth. The church is to be a source of truth and of vision. It is the church that is charged with the task of making people understand the program of God throughout history, and of interpreting the events of the day so that men see what God is doing, not what man intends to do. That is the work of the church: To declare the truth about humanity's lost condition and the good news that a Savior has been born who will save us from our sin. Judged by that standard, Laodicea had nothing. They were as though stripped naked, poor, pitiful, wretched, and blind."

A Hard-Hearted People

When the message of Jesus is first proclaimed in a country where there is little known about the real Jesus ahead of time, it is not unusual for great numbers of people to respond. Christians from the United States who travel to Mexico, India, Nepal, or the Philippines, etc., often return home amazed at the receptivity they found to the gospel and the eagerness with which new Christians in many other lands have about moving on into a fuller experiential knowledge of God.

In contrast, just about everyone in the United States has enough information about Jesus to have already rejected Him--on the surface at least. Our fellow-Americans are not easily persuaded that there are no other options for real life than Jesus offers to mankind. Widespread indifference to Jesus is not entirely the result of lots of misrepresentation of Jesus in our land. Hearing truth and ignoring it causes truth to be taken away from any people. Spiritual blindness follows when people fail to respond to truth from God promptly. Ray Stedman discusses this in detail in his series on the parables, Beyond History. In other words, the current spiritual state of affairs in the United States is very likely a lot like the situation Jesus encountered in Israel late in His three-year ministry.

When Jesus began His ministry in Israel, large crowds followed him--at first. He seemed to be offering them all they had ever hoped for. They were soon disappointed because Jesus did not evict their Roman overlords and bring in the promised kingdom of God on earth. They were offended when he showed any favor towards the gentiles and they disliked any suggestions about their hearts and lifestyles needing major changing. He opposed popular religion and made strong statements about the need for people to change from the inside out. Running ominously through the gospels are short statements that indicate that the popularity of Jesus faltered and declined during his public ministry, until He was finally rejected by the people and by their leadership. "From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." (John 6:66) As this rejection happened Jesus began to focus on the training of his disciples to the end that His message would soon be passed along to the Gentles--with Israel left behind. As Jesus neared the end of his ministry He turned up the heat and made stronger statements about himself as more and more people ignored His call.

Great examples of the way Jesus spoke to the crowd during His last week in Jerusalem are recorded in John's gospel. He did get results, "And many believed in Him there." (John 6:42)

But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: "Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, Lest they should see with their eyes, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them." These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him. Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. (John 12:37-43).

The "Success" of Seeker-Friendly Churches

Much of our difficulty as seeking Christians stems from our unwillingness to take God as He is and adjust our lives accordingly.
We insist upon trying to modify Him and bring Him nearer to our own image.

--A. W. Tozer (1897-1963), The Pursuit of God.

Today, as indicated, there is much apathy towards the message of Christ in our country. Counterfeit Christianity is more popular by far than the real thing. Concerned Christian leaders wrestle with new and better ways to draw people to the Lord Jesus by making His message as friendly and attractive as possible.

Truth never changes, the root message must stay the same, but different approaches are required in every generation. It is hard to argue against success when people are coming to know Jesus, when the lonely are being helped and healed in a caring community, and many are finding hope where was there was lostness and despair. These things do seem to be happening in many "seeker-friendly" churches. The more difficult challenge is moving new Christians on to maturity. This more difficult---and greatly neglected task--is "discipleship."

A. J. Gossip said,

We have all been inoculated with Christianity, and are never likely to take it seriously now! You put some of the virus of some dreadful illness into a man's arm, and there is a little itchiness, some scratchiness, a slight discomfort -- disagreeable, no doubt, but not the fever of the real disease, the turning and the tossing, and the ebbing strength. And we have all been inoculated with Christianity, more or less. We are on Christ's side, we wish him well, we hope that He will win, and we are even prepared to do something for Him, provided, of course, that He is reasonable, and does not make too much of an upset among our cozy comforts and our customary ways. But there is not the passion of zeal, and the burning enthusiasm, and the eagerness of self-sacrifice, of the real faith that changes character and wins the world. --A. J. Gossip, From The Edge of the Crowd [1924]

Jesus is the One who Disciples

Suppose we were to take the call of Jesus in Luke 14:25-35 at face value and agree to sign up earnestly for the discipleship program that must accompany genuine salvation? Obviously Jesus is the one who will do the discipling--that part of the task is His not ours. In our recent men's group discussion on the call of Jesus in Luke, someone reminded us of the abysmal mediocrity of most churches today and the generally low quality of spiritual life all around us. One brother, after reading a new book by Frank Viola on the early Christian communities, commented that alongside these early-day saints none of us stacked up very well. Why is the kind of discipleship Jesus asked for apparently not taking place today? What would real discipleship look like if it were going on around us today?

One of our Wednesday brothers served many years in the Marine Corps. He provided us with some fine insights on what discipleship involves by drawing from the model one finds in military basic training. (The obvious analogies are worth a separate discussion).

The Long Haul

In reality, Jesus does not usually present Himself to us as the tough Drill Sergeant type--though some of us obviously need that from Him at times. If Jesus has our cooperation, His discipleship training program is straightforward, not brutal, kind--but demanding--making sure that we all reach the goal. The discipleship training protocol of Jesus is described in John's gospel.

Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, "If you continue in My word, you are My disciples indeed [alethos, in reality]. "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." They answered Him, "We are Abraham's descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, 'You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. "And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. "Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)

Ray Stedman examines this passage in detail in a message entitled, Straight Talk From Jesus:

What a wonderful word! It constitutes a short course in discipleship. But it is more than that. It is a declaration that discipleship is the only true path to freedom--to being all that you were meant to be. If you want that -- and I'm sure everybody listening to me wants it -- then Jesus says the way is to become his disciple. This is the path to freedom. It is the only way to be all that you want to be. Here Jesus tells us in precise detail -- in four steps -- how to be free.

It begins with belief: "Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him." There is a slight difference between the words in Verse 31 and those of Verse 30. Verse 30 says, "As he was speaking, many believed in him," or, "on him." Literally in the Greek it is "into him." They stood on Jesus, they clambered onto him and stood on him. They trusted him. That phrase indicates a deep commitment of heart to Jesus.

But Verse 31 is a different phrase: "Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed him." They had not yet trusted him, but they had believed him. They had been intellectually grasped by his arguments and his words, but they had not yet committed themselves to him. It is to these people that Jesus says, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Discipleship begins with belief; even intellectual belief; they were there at the door, at the first step.

It is important to understand that belief can only come from evidence. You will never find freedom until you examine the evidence that Jesus is who he claims to be. You must believe him first, and that means examining the evidence. Hundreds of thousands of people reject Jesus without ever really examining the evidence for who he is. That is why this book was written. At the end of his gospel John writes, "Many other things Jesus did that are not written in this book," (John 20:30). (John did not write an exhaustive but rather a very selective account of the life of Jesus.) "But," he continues, "these things are written [these signs are recorded] in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and believing, you might have life in his name," (John 20:31). Obviously, then. if you want to be free, to be all you want to be, you must begin by examining the evidence about Jesus. Read the gospels. Read his words. Search them out. Do not reject them because some atheistic professor sneers at Jesus in a classroom. Do not reject them because some cult distorts him and presents a supposedly historic figure that has no basis in fact. Examine the evidence. Make up your own mind. Look for yourself. That is the place to begin.

Then, second, "continue in his word." Read these words and think about them. Ponder them. Listen to Jesus. Compare what he says with your own experience. Does what he says agree with what you have found to be true in living life? That is the test. The test of any religion is not whether it is pleasing, or whether you enjoy it. The test is: "Is it true? Does it accord with life? Does it fit what is happening? Does it explain what is going on?" That is the test, and that you can only establish as you continue in his word, as you think long and deeply, read fully and frequently. This is a process.

Jesus suggests here that when you do that something will happen to you: "If you continue in my word, you will truly be my disciple." That immediately indicates there are two kinds of disciples. There are those who are not yet real disciples. Outwardly they are -- they follow for awhile, they are interested, they outwardly conform, they may join the organization -- but they have not yet inwardly committed themselves. But if you read his word and you continue in it, if you think about it and you see how true it really is, how practical and pragmatic and relevant it is to life, something will happen to you. Somewhere along the line a crisis will occur. You will find that his words have grabbed you, and you will commit yourself to him (like the people mentioned in Verse 30), and then you are really a disciple.

That is what Jesus said to Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, who came to him by night (John 3:1-15). To that man, who knew all the Old Testament and was an expert in the Torah, Jesus said, "Unless you are born again you cannot enter the kingdom of God." When Nicodemus inquired how that would happen, Jesus said it would be "by the Spirit and the word," using the two symbols, water and wind. The Spirit and the word would accomplish it. Then, as the word takes root in the heart, a transformation occurs, a life is imparted by the Spirit, and one becomes a real disciple.

Step three is, "You will know the truth." "If you continue in my word, you will know the truth." What an objective! Everybody wants to know the truth. Nobody likes to be flim-flammed and cheated. Nobody likes to be taken in by a con artist. What, then, is the truth? Again I come back to what underlies all of life: Truth is the nature of things as they really are. Truth is seeing through all the illusions, the dreams, the phantasmata and the wishful thinking, all the facades and the unreal images, and getting down to the heart, the core, the reality -- that which really is. That is the truth.

There is no more attractive promise in the Scripture than this: To be rendered able to recognize the lies that you hear spread on all sides by the media today. When you flip on the television and listen, even to the commercials let alone the programs (sometimes the commercials are far more interesting and revealing) you will recognize the lies that are being spread. The implications of the media are that you deserve much more than you are getting, that you have it coming to you, that you can do anything you want, that your hands are on the control stick of life -- those are all lies. Life will teach you that. You are given certain choices, but you are not given every choice. You can control a limited area, but certainly not all areas of life. To think you can is part of the lie that is being spread abroad today.

But when you can see things as they really are you can affirm what is good and true and permanent. When you come to see the truth -- and it is a process, it does not happen all at once in one magic moment -- as you obey the word of Jesus, as you continue seeing life through his eyes, you will begin to look at yourself differently; you will not see yourself any longer the way you once did. You will see other people differently. You will read your newspapers differently. You will change your whole value system. You will begin to understand what is happening.

The first letter of John declares that: "Jesus Christ has come and given us an understanding," (1 John 5:20). That is a most valuable thing. Have you ever read the wonderful words of the second chapter of Proverbs? They declare the same truth:

...If you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God! (Proverbs 2:1-5)

What a promise! It ought to set us all searching, listening, thinking and reading, that we might find and understand the knowledge of God.

Now the fourth thing: Jesus promises that when you launch into this program, when you follow him, hear his word, and continue in it, a wonderful thing will happen -- "the truth will set you free." That is a marvelous claim. The truth will deliver you, permit you to be all that you were meant to be. That says a lot about your present condition. doesn't it?

What does it free us from? When we put it into practical terms, it frees us from all our hang-ups! Hang-ups are what keep us from being all that we were meant to be. Hang-ups. What a marvelous modern expression! To be hung up means you cannot move, you are bound and limited by something, unable to free yourself.

Hang-ups are the same for everybody, everywhere. We all suffer from them. Fear is probably the biggest one. Being afraid, worried, anxious, insecure, timid, constantly threatened by anxiety. I know people who are so gripped and bound by fear they cannot even go outside their homes. They do not dare go to the store; they cannot walk on a public street because they are afraid. That is an extreme example, I agree. Most of us, though, have fears that limit us and keep us from doing what we long to do.

Then there is anger. Have you ever felt angry and mad at life in general? Have you ever got up in the morning feeling surly? You didn't feel like saying anything. You felt a quiet rage in your heart and you didn't know why. That is the hang-up of anger, of hostility, hatred, aggressiveness and rage that keeps you striking out at everybody -- prickly, like a porcupine on a cold winter's night.

Then there is guilt. Millions of people suffer inwardly from a terrible sense of failure, of shame about things in your past. A man recently said to me, "I would like to talk to you sometime about some of the things that have happened to me." I could read a sense of guilt in his eyes as he said that, a hurt, a look of despair, even depression, over the past or present. Pride is another hang-up; a proud, aggressive, arrogant spirit that indulges in rank prejudice and bigotry; an aloofness and withdrawing from others, with its accompanying loneliness. Do you see how practical all these things are? This is what Jesus is talking about.

His wonderful promise is that there is a way out. "Bring them to me," he tells us. "Bring them to me. Listen to my words. Look at life as I see it and a wonderful thing will happen: there will be a change in you. You will be given a life that you never had before, and you will begin to be freed from your hang-ups." It will happen! In fact, it is happening to hundreds of people right here this morning. I know some of your lives. I know there are probably five hundred people here who could stand up and say, "That is what is happening to me. I find myself able to live at last. I find myself freed from my hang-ups, and it is getting better all the time. It is a glorious, wonderful thing." That is the promise of Jesus. (fromExpository Studies in John).

The sum of the matter concerning the lack of disciples in the church these days is this: Our problem has a lot to do with our just plain Biblical illiteracy. Most sermons we listen to week after week draw upon only one or two verses from mid-Bible (neglecting the historical context). Many pastors assume their people know the Bible well but this is generally not the case at all. If we professing Christians are to avoid fading away into mediocrity and insignificance on the world stage it is imperative that we begin to know God's word cover to cover. Once we determine to follow that course of action, Jesus our Discipler will step and begin to train us! It is fine to start out following Christ as a "seeker" as long as we move on into the Lord's program of disciple-training. It really is not an option.

Plainly, Scripture is the only reliable guide we have to function properly as a human in a broken world. Philosophy and psychology give partial insights, based on human experience, but they fall far short of what the Word of God can do. It is not intended to replace human knowledge or effort, but is designed to supplement and correct them. Surely the most hurtful thing pastors and leaders of churches can do to their people is to deprive them of firsthand knowledge of the Bible. The exposition of both Old and New Testaments from the pulpit, in classrooms and small group meetings is the first responsibility of church leaders. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" and must be found faithful to the task of distribution. This uniqueness of Scripture is the reason that all true human discovery in any dimension must fit within the limits of divine disclosure. Human knowledge can never outstrip divine revelation. Ray C. Stedman, Hebrews, IVP Commentary).

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathering them around him taught them saying: 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who thirst for justice.
Blessed are you when you suffer.
Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven."

Then, Simon Peter said, "Do we have to write this down?"
And, Andrew said, "Are we supposed to know this?"
And, James said, "Will this be on the test?"
And, Phillip said, "I don't have any paper."
And, Bartholomew said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this."
And, John said, "Do we have to turn this in?"
And, Matthew said, "Can I go to the bathroom?"
And, Judas said, "What does this have to do with real life?"

Then, one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan and inquired of Jesus: "Where is your anticipatory set of objectives in the cognitive domain?" 

And Jesus wept.  (Bryce Self)

Lambert Dolphin
November 8, 2004, August 10, 2020.
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