The Cost of Discipleship

Sueanne and I were thinking recently about some of the safety features that cars have today that we didn’t have when we were growing up – air bags, antilock brakes, backup camera system, seat belts (well, we had seat belts back then but nobody used them).  And I think you would all agree that safety is a good thing.

            That’s why we teach our kids to be safe.  Wash your hands.  Don’t run with scissors.  Don’t play in the streets.  And we have rules like these because we want them to be safe.  And behind the desire for safety lies the instinct for self-preservation — what some people refer to as the survival instinct.  And that’s not a bad thing.

            In Ephesians 5, Paul said that “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it”(Ephesians 5:29).  In other words, we take care of ourselves.  We protect ourselves.  Self-preservation is not a bad thing.  But it’s not the most important thing.

            When men or women act heroically, when they go into battle during times of war, or a mother rushes into a burning house to save her children, we wouldn’t say that they don’t care about their own lives.  They do.  But what we celebrate is that they value something else more than self-preservation; we celebrate the fact that they put something ahead of their own safety.

            And that gets to the real issue. The problem is not safety or self-preservation. The problem is when safety or self-preservation becomes our ultimate goal. 

            I heard about a man who was interviewed for a job at a famous art gallery that housed dozens of priceless masterpieces.  As part of the interview process, he was asked this question, “If a fire broke out in this gallery and you could only save one picture, which one would it be?”  His answer was, “I’d save the one closest to the exit.”

            As human beings, we have a tremendous survival instinct, an instinct for self-preservation.  We see it with the apostle Peter the morning that Jesus was crucified.  We should start by giving Peter some credit. When Jesus went to the cross, Peter followed further than most of the other disciples.  And he found himself in a courtyard just outside the room where the religious authorities were trying Jesus.  But it was there that Peter exchanged true discipleship for safe discipleship.

            We’re told that one of the servant girls of the high priest saw Peter warming himself by a fire and asked him if he had been with Jesus.  Peter denied it, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (Mark 14:68).  When he was asked again about his connection with Jesus, again he denied it.  When he was asked a third time, Peter began to curse and to swear, and he said, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” (Mark 14:71).

            Peter denied Jesus three times because of his instinct for self-preservation.  I’m sure he thought that if he confessed Jesus at that moment, he probably would have been arrested and tried and crucified along with Jesus.  The instinct to save his life took over, and, as a result, Peter denied any association with Jesus.

            That survival instinct is something that we all have.  As someone in an old western series put it, “When it comes to living a little longer, every man has some wolf in him.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is, in many ways, a battle with this survival instinct.  Jesus himself had to overcome the natural instinct to want to save himself when he voluntarily went to the cross.  As men around the foot of the cross cried out, “Save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:30), I’m sure it was a strong temptation for Jesus to do just that.

But in this middle section of Mark that we’ve been looking at for the past couple of weeks, Jesus not only shows his disciples that he was willing to lay down his life, but then he teaches them that, if they are going to be his disciples, they’ve got to be willing to do the same thing. 

But that natural instinct to protect oneself is so strong that the disciples have trouble understanding what Jesus is talking about. They have a hard time comprehending the idea that Jesus had to die on a cross.  And they also have a hard time understanding that they, too, must be willing to lay down their lives if they want to follow Jesus.

The battle that Jesus wages in Mark chapters 8-10 is not a battle against the Pharisees.  It’s not a battle against the crowds who are clamoring for more miracles.  Rather, it’s a battle against his own disciples and their refusal to accept the way of the cross.  It’s a battle that Jesus fought with them, and it’s a battle that he has to fight with each and every one of us.  Because we find it just as difficult to lay down our lives as those first disciples did.  

Mark wants us to see in this section that Messiahship has a price.  Jesus is going to have to give up a great deal to be the Messiah.  And we’re going to have to give up a great deal if we want to follow that Messiah.

            We pick up in Mark 8:27, “And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.  And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’  And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’  And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’  Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’” (Mark 8:27-29)

Jesus begins by asking his disciples a question, “Who do people say that I am?”  He didn’t ask that question because he was worried about what other people thought about him.  But he wanted to see if his disciples’ view of him was affected by the people around them. 

So, the disciples answered Jesus’ question.  They had heard all the rumors in town.  They said, “Some people think you’re John the Baptist.  Others think you’re Elijah.  Still others think you’re one of the other prophets.”

Different people had different ideas about who Jesus was.  And none of those guesses were bad.  People could tell that Jesus was somebody special, and so they understood him in terms of other special people that they knew.  These were all great men.

But Jesus wasn’t satisfied with any of those descriptions, because he wasn’t just another great man.  He was God in the flesh.  So, Jesus continued to question his disciples. “But who do you say that I am?”   He wants to know.  They’ve been with him for about three years now.  They’ve seen his miracles; they’ve heard his teaching.  And now Jesus, for the very first time, asks them directly who they think he is. 

Not surprisingly, Peter is the first one to open his mouth.  Usually that got him into trouble, but not this time.  Peter answers on behalf of all the rest and he says, “You are the Christ.”  Peter is the first person to verbally express what Mark told us back in the very first verse of this gospel — Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. 

We sometimes forget that the word “Christ” is a title, not a name.  We talk a lot about Jesus Christ.  Jesus is his name; Christ is his title.  It’s like President Biden.  Biden is the name; President is the title.  While the Greek word is Christ, the Hebrew word is Messiah.  Both of those are words that refer to someone who has been anointed. 

Throughout the Old Testament, there were three groups of men who were anointed – prophets, priests, and kings.  All three of these roles were combined in Jesus.  As our prophet, he brings us God’s message.  As our priest, he obtains forgiveness for us by the sacrifice he offered.  As our king, he has all authority and power.

So, Peter says, “Jesus, we know who you are — you are the Christ, you’re the Messiah, you are the Anointed One that the prophets looked forward to in the Tanakh and we have been waiting for for centuries!”

And with that confession, the entire focus of the gospel of Mark changes.  Up to this point, Mark has concentrated on the identity of Jesus.  The first eight chapters ask the question, “Who is this man?”  Now we have an answer to that question.  Jesus is the Messiah.

Chapters 8-10 will ask the question, “Now that we know who he is, what does that mean?”  Up to this point, Mark has concentrated on the words and the miracles of Jesus.  Now his attention turns to the cross.

As soon as Peter’s “great confession” is made, you might expect for Jesus to congratulate the apostles for finally understanding (“After all those things you guys messed up, you finally got this one right!”).  You might even expect that Jesus would throw a party to celebrate.  But no, the next thing that happens is that Jesus tells the apostles what it means for him to be the Messiah – it means he’s going to die.

Verse 31, “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.” (Mark 8:31-32a).

To be the Messiah meant that there were certain things that Jesus must do.  In fact, there are four things that Jesus says absolutely must happen:

(1)           The Messiah must suffer many things

(2)           The Messiah must be rejected by the Jewish leaders

(3)           The Messiah must be killed

(4)           The Messiah must rise again on the third day.

So, yes, Jesus is the Messiah, but being the Messiah doesn’t mean what the apostles think it does.  It means that Jesus must die.

Mark tells us that Jesus said this to them “plainly”.  No more parables.  No more riddles or figures of speech.  Jesus wants his disciples to understand, he doesn’t want there to be any excuse for them misunderstanding.  So, he tells them as plainly as he possibly can.

And guess what?  The apostles still don’t get it.  In verse 32, “He said this plainly.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” (Mark 8:32).

The Greek word for “rebuke” is a sharp word that’s used eight other times in the gospel of Mark.  Three times it’s used of Jesus rebuking the demons. It’s used of Jesus rebuking the winds when he calmed the storm.  So, this is a very strong word that describes Peter’s response to Jesus.  Peter takes Jesus aside (so as not to public embarrass him), but then he rebukes him, and tries to set him straight!

Because, you see, Peter thought he knew what it meant to be the Messiah, and when Jesus started talking about a cross, Peter just knew he had it all wrong.  It’s like over in John 12, where people said to Jesus, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever.  How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” (John 12:34).  It just didn’t make any sense.

And I think we could also say that Peter’s instinct for self-preservation got in the way here.  Peter hadn’t spent the last three years of his life following Jesus just for him to end up at a cross. 

And so, as soon as Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, he began to argue with Jesus and claim that he had more insight into what that meant than Jesus did.  Peter tried to correct Jesus’ vision of the future without stopping to think that, the moment he confessed Jesus was the Son of God, he gave up the right to tell Jesus anything.

And so, Jesus had to rebuke Peter in return. “But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33).  Satan had been trying ever since Jesus was born to try to mess up his plans.  And now, he was trying to use one of Jesus’ own disciples. 

Jesus condemned Peter for thinking about “the things of men” rather than the “things of God”.  In essence, he was saying, “Peter, you’re letting your instincts control you.  You’re acting just like a normal man would react.  But if you want to be my disciple, you’re going to have to give up your idea of what you think following me ought to look like, and you’ve got to start doing things God’s way.”

You see, it wasn’t enough for Jesus that his disciples said that he was the Messiah.  He wanted them to understand what kind of Messiah he was and what kind of followers he was looking for.  A humiliated, abused and crucified Messiah requires disciples who are willing to be like him.

And so, as soon as Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus explains what discipleship is all about.  It’s as if Jesus was saying, “If you admit that I’m the Messiah, then there are a few things you need to know about what it means to follow me.”   

Verse 34, “And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35).

Anyone who wants to follow Jesus can do so.  But there are a few conditions, and here’s what they are — “Let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

            Christians today have a comfortable familiarity with the image of the cross: We have crosses in our church buildings, crosses in our homes and some people even wear crosses as jewelry around their necks.  But that was certainly not the case in Jesus’ day.  In fact, in the first-century Roman world, the idea of the cross was absolutely repulsive. The cross was the Roman Empire’s most dreadful instrument of torture, humiliation and execution.

            The famous ancient Roman orator Cicero once said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.”  If you were a Roman, you didn’t even want to think about the cross!

            And that’s what makes Jesus’ statement so startling.  For Jesus to tell his disciples to pick up a cross and follow him would have been as shocking as him telling people today to pick up their electric chairs or pick up their gallows or guillotines and follow him.  Of all the images that Jesus could have used to represent discipleship, why would he choose something so horrible?  Noah got a rainbow.  Moses got a burning bush.  The Wise Men got a star in the sky.  But the followers of Jesus get a cross.

            When the disciples heard Jesus talk about taking up the cross, they immediately understood that a man who took up his cross was ready to die, carrying the very beam on which he would hang.

            For a Christian, to take up our cross is for us be willing to pay any price for the sake of Christ.  It is the willingness to endure shame, embarrassment, reproach, rejection, persecution, and even martyrdom for his sake.

            Now obviously the extent of suffering and persecution varies from Christian to Christian, from time to time, and from place to place.  Not all the apostles were martyred, but all of them were willing to be martyred. 

            It’s not that every Christian has to die for Christ, but we have to be willing to die if faithfulness to Christ demands it.  And it also requires the willingness to give up security, personal possessions, health, friends, or job.  A true disciple is willing to pay whatever price is necessary to remain faithful to Jesus Christ.

            To come to Christ is not just to walk down the aisle while the invitation song is being sung, or to step into the baptistry.  To come to Jesus Christ means that you take yourself off the throne, and you become so intent on following Christ and putting on his righteousness that you will make any sacrifice necessary in order to do that.

            And we’ve got to understand that Jesus doesn’t call us to be his disciples to make our lives easy and prosperous; he calls us to make us holy and productive.  As the hymnist wrote, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free?  No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.” 

            True discipleship is submission to the lordship of Christ.  It is the willingness to say:  “I’ve exalted myself long enough!  I’ve pursued my own will long enough!  But no more!  From here on, I surrender myself and all that is mine to Christ to do with as he pleases.”  That’s the self-denial that Jesus talked about.  That utter surrender of ourselves to Christ becomes the principle upon which all of the actions of our lives are built. 

            In warfare, there are basically two ways you can surrender to the enemy.  The first is a conditional surrender, a surrender with terms.  The second is an unconditional surrender, a surrender without terms.

            The first time the term “unconditional surrender” was used in our nation’s history was during the Civil War at the battle for Fort Donelson.  The fort’s commanding officer was willing to surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant, but only under certain terms.  Grant’s reply was this:  “No terms except an unconditional surrender can be accepted.”

            I think there are times when we think we can surrender to Jesus the same way that Fort Donelson’s commanding officer wanted to surrender.  We’re willing to surrender to Jesus as long as we can set the terms.  “Jesus, I’ll follow you as long as you make me happy all the time.  Take care of my money problems, don’t let anything bad happen to me, put a hedge around me and keep me safe.  And if you do all that, then I’ll follow you.”

            But the response of Jesus is the same as that of Ulysses S. Grant:  “No terms except an unconditional surrender can be accepted.  I make no guarantee that things in your life will be easier.  In fact, they may get worse.  You may have financial problems.  You may have health problems.  People may not like you and they may even try to hurt you.  I make no promises other than the fact that I’ll be with you.”

            And that’s why the rich young ruler was so unhappy, because Jesus let him know that he demands everything we have.  Jesus requires what we often sing, “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give…I surrender all”.

            What makes that so difficult is that it goes against our natural instinct for self-preservation.  But if you want to follow Jesus, you can’t make comfort your top priority or leisure your life’s goal.  If you want safety, comfort, earthly treasures, and praise from the masses, then you’ll never live under the lordship of Jesus Christ.  That’s not the life he offers when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Because, trust me, no one ever took up a Roman cross to play it safe, enjoy himself, and live a little longer.

So, what does all of this mean for us?  Mark wants to know, “Who do you think Jesus is?”  And I would imagine that most, if not all, of you here this morning would say, along with the apostle Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

But Mark wants you to understand the implication of that statement of faith.  If you believe that Jesus is the Christ, then you must deny yourself, take up the cross and follow him.  It’s not an easy thing to do.

            I’ve heard that, in the Bavarian Alps, there is a mountain that is suitable for climbing by amateurs.  Half way up the mountain is a place called the “Half Way House”.  The man who runs it once said, “My Half Way House is not a happy place, and my job is not a happy job.”

            He explained it like this:  “A great crowd of people will enthusiastically start to climb the mountain.  Most of their enthusiasm has vanished by the time they reach my Half Way House.  There are windows on one side that look out across the world below, and the climbers all rush to it with expressions of delight and rave about the beauty of the view.

            “But when they look the other way, up toward the top of the mountain, all of their zeal and zest vanish.  They look at the big fireplace with its roaring fire and comfortable chairs and at the refreshment counter with hot coffee and sandwiches and decide that they have climbed far enough.  About half of them never go any farther.  They tell the guide that they are tired, that their feet are wet, and that the snow is too deep.

            “They are a restless group, but they try to be happy.  Once in a while, as if drawn by a magnet, they will go to the big window and watch the crowd climbing to the top.  By and by everything will grow very quiet, and then one of them will exclaim, ‘They are at the top.’  Then gloom settles over the whole group.  When the climbers return, radiant, laughing and rosy-cheeked, those who stayed at the Half Way House are miserable.”

            Jesus knew that many of his disciples would choose to go only “half way” with him.  These are the folks who come to church some; give a little; pray occasionally; read their Bibles at times; but they’ve never really let Jesus be Lord of their lives.  They’ve never really surrendered their lives and let Jesus take control.  But Jesus knew that the real joy comes when you give your whole life to him.  And so, he demands our complete, whole-hearted allegiance.

            Maybe your reaction to this lesson is to say, “Alan, you’re asking an awful lot.”  No, I’m not, but Jesus is.  He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34).  It’s not that Jesus wants us to go around with a death wish. To the contrary, he wants us to appreciate life, get out there, and really live it for him.  But we need to be clear about one thing: His idea of living for him is very different from our ideas about what living for him looks like.

            This morning, I’m asking you to consider becoming a Christian if you’ve not already done so.  What I’m asking you to do is not an easy thing; it was never meant to be.  You must be willing to give up control of your life and put Jesus on the throne of your heart.  You must be willing to give up everything for Jesus.

            If you’re already a Christian, it’s important for you to consider where your commitment is, who your Lord is — is it Jesus or is it self?  Jesus is asking all of us to unconditionally surrender our lives to him.  He will not allow you to hold anything back, to set the terms of the surrender.  But the rewards of this unconditional surrender are far greater than the sacrifice.  Are you willing to accept Jesus on his terms this morning?


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