Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Original Requirements for Discipleship

Lent is an appropriate time for Christians to review the original requirements for discipleship. The entire passage of Luke 14:25-35 states some rather startling requirements. Let me begin with just one, "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple."

This passage becomes more poignant when we recall that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he said this, and he was well aware of the danger he would face there. He knew a dark truth to which the crowds, including the twelve disciples, were oblivious. He was on his way to death on a cross. The crowds thought they were on their way to a decisive showdown with the Romans and the quisling Jewish religious establishment. But Jesus knew he was on his way to death on a cross.

The hope that Jesus would lead a political revolution and restore the Kingdom of Israel persisted up to and even after the crucifixion and resurrection. The Gospel of Mark reports that James and John asked Jesus to let one sit on his right and the other on his left when the revolution was finished. (Mark 10:35) The Gospel of Matthew which was written some years after Mark, attributes this request to the mother of James and John. (Matt. 20:20-24) In both stories, when the other ten disciples heard of the request, they were angry with the two brothers. During the Passover meal in the Upper Room, a dispute arose among the disciples as to which of them was to regarded as the "greatest". After the resurrection and just before the ascension, the book of Acts reports, "When they had come together, they asked him, 'Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?'". (Acts 1:6). John Calvin in his commentary on this passage, remarked that Jesus must have looked at them and thought, "How dumb can you be?!". If they had been listening they would have known that Jesus' kingdom had nothing to do with political power and everything to do with love. And in the roughly 2000 years following his death and resurrection, some people have continued to argue that Jesus will soon destroy whichever government with which they are unhappy.

While on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus laid down the conditions of discipleship. You need to read the Book to get total picture, but Jesus clearly expects his disciples to follow him, to live the kind of life he led -- one of service to others, kindness, patience, non-violence and love -- even if living such life means you must leave the people and things you love or run the risk of losing your own life

A man carrying his cross on the way to his own crucifixion was a familiar sight in that day. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had been publically crucified in Israel for planning or participating in revolutionary activity and other crimes. Jesus' hearers certainly did not miss the seriousness of death by crucifixion or a discipleship that required loyalty even if it meant the cross.. But they still had no concept that Jesus himself would be crucified. They were certain he was destined to lead their political revolution and restore the Kingdom of Israel.

Jesus was thinning out the crowd of followers with these stringent requirements. He reinforced his demands with two illustrations. He said that whenever a person plans to build a tower, he first calculates the total cost of completing the job before laying the foundation. He does this lest he risk ridicule for starting something he is unable to finish. Neither, said Jesus, does a king engage in battle with another king without first taking stock of the two armies to see if he can win. Jesus does not want anyone to volunteer for his campaign without counting the cost lest they be embarrassed or even defeated because they misjudged what is required to follow him.

It is crystal clear that Jesus did not want disciples to follow him as the result of unreflected enthusiasm. Many who offer themselves are like the young man who wrote the following love letter to his girlfriend: "My dearest darling, I love you more than anything in the world. I would climb the highest mountain and swim the widest ocean just to be at your side. I will see you Saturday night if it does not rain. Love always, John." Unreflected enthusiasm is hollow and cheap.

How far do you perceive the contemporary Christian Church to be from the kind of discipleship which Jesus set forth in this passage? I see the distance as appalling! So many churches and radio and television evangelists offer a cheap discipleship. For a few dollars and your name on their roll, you are promised great rewards. Some promise material prosperity. Troubled people are promised peace and health and a care-free life for a paltry commitment. When I reflect on the millions who are church members today, I am reminded of the general who said that he wished he had as many soldiers as he had men. What a profound influence we would have on this sad, benighted, and sin-sick world today if we had as many disciples as we have church members!

One theologian, Dr. Alan Culpepper, aptly reminds us that the word "cross-bearing" has been cheapened by overuse. Cross-bearing has nothing to do with conditions over which we have little or no control such as illness, painful life situations, and broken family relationships. The cross-bearing of which Jesus spoke is something done voluntarily because of one's commitment to Jesus Christ.

Dr. William Barclay once compared the consideration for discipleship to the admonition in the introduction to the marriage ceremony. The minister says, "It is therefore not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently and discreetly and in the fear of God." Unless the groom and the bride count the cost before accepting the vows of marriage, they are in for some unhappy surprises.

If you are considering signing up to be one of the "Jesus People", count the cost before you make the move. Read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line.