Stream or download the audio recording from this breakout session titled Rediscovering Discipleship: The Forgotten Cost and Blessing of Following Jesus His Way with Sam Allberry that was delivered at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. In a culture increasingly driven by personal fulfillment, the call of Jesus sounds ever stranger to our ears. For many churches, we prefer to offer the blessings of Jesus with none of the cost. So we need to see afresh how Jesus puts the cost of following him front and center; shows us there’s no way to come to him without cost; and assures us that however much we give to him, we always receive far more from him.
The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check audio/video before quoting.
Thank you very much for coming to this breakout. In case you are in the wrong room by mistake, this one is on discipleship. So, if you were expecting a breakout on something else, you can discreetly leave. We won’t judge you too much. We are being sponsored by The Good Book Company, so we’re grateful for that.
So, our theme is “Rediscovering Discipleship, the Forgotten Cost, and Blessing of Following Jesus his way,” which I think is the longest title I’ve ever had for anything I’ve spoken on.
And I figured if I just read out the title, that will probably take up most of the breakout time anyway. What I plan to do is to teach through some material and I wanted to give a good amount of time for discussion. Let me pray for us as we begin:
Father, we have already been fed amazingly over this past day or so. We pray that you would help us to continue to receive from your word, that you’d give us clear minds, that you’d give us hearts that are receptive to you. Father, we long to be led by you in every area of life. So, therefore, as we think about discipleship, please teach us, give us understanding, help us to be those who follow Jesus all the more effectively and we pray in his name. Amen.
I was going to start this seminar with some thoughts on why we need a breakout on discipleship. And I thought, “Well, you presumably don’t need convincing of that because you’re in a breakout on discipleship.” But let me begin, instead, by saying the reason why discipleship is essential: discipleship is the difference between being a fan and being a Christian.
You can be a fan of Jesus quite easily. In many parts of the Western world, there is still much about Jesus that an unbelieving culture can admire. Some would say they like some of his ethical teaching. Some would say there’s elements of justice that they see in Jesus’ teaching that they like.
Others would revere some of his spiritual insights, or just the beauty of the way he spoke. It is very easy to be a fan, particularly if we think Jesus is there to rubber stamp our agenda and to give us what we want. But a fan is not a Christian because a fan is not a disciple.
So, what I want to do is look at five aspects of discipleship. They’re all from the gospels. Most of them are from the Gospel of Mark. So, if you’ve got a Bible that is either open-up-able or switch-on-able, then start off by finding Mark 1 and we’ll look at some passages in Mark and Matthew.
Let me tell you what the points are now so that you can get a sense of where we’re going. I’ve been trying to go through the gospels and thinking through “What are the main things that we see about discipleship?” So, not very sophisticated, but I hope it will be deeply helpful because we’re looking at what Jesus is saying about following Jesus. Here’s what we’re going to be learning: Discipleship is necessary; Discipleship is responsive; Discipleship is costly; discipleship is corporate; and discipleship is missional.
That last point, I have to thank a friend of mine. It was originally going to be discipleship is multiplicatory, which I don’t think is a word. And he said, “Why don’t you just say missional” I was like, “Oh, yeah, that makes much more sense.”
Discipleship is Necessary
If you’ve got Mark 1, we’re going to look at verse 15. Discipleship is necessary.
Mark 1:14–15 says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”
If you’re familiar with Mark, these are the first public words of Jesus. This is his, if you like, press conference, or ministry launch event. This is significant. This is Jesus laying out what is going on. And it’s just typical of Jesus because it makes outrageous claims about him. He says “the time is fulfilled.” In other words, Jesus is saying there is a shape to time. There is something that has been going on—up until now—that has been anticipating this moment. So, Jesus is teaching us (in that one little phrase) that the Old Testament has been leaning forwards towards something. There’s a sense in which the Old Testament is waiting its promise, its anticipation.
And the time that has been awaited has now come—implication because Jesus is here. Jesus is saying, “I am what all of history has been waiting for.” I love that about Jesus. People who admire the humility and ethics of Jesus, often overlook this kind of outrageous sense, in which, he places himself right at the heart of the universe.
Okay? “I am what all reality revolves around.” He says the time is fulfilled. He says the kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God is at hand is another way of saying, “All the big-ticket items God has promised to do, He is now about to do because I’m here. So now that I’ve arrived—now that I’ve turned up—God’s stuff is really going to kick off.We’re really going to get going now.
Again, a very Jesus-centric view of reality. So think about this: How is God most going to make His love known? How’s He most going to make His justice known? How’s He most going to make His wisdom known? Because Jesus is here. We’re going to see the rule of God breaking into this world, in a way it’s never broken into before, because Jesus is here.
The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand and here’s the key bit for us: That means something for us. That’s not just information. That’s not just, “FYI, in case you’d like to be kept in the loop, this is what’s going on somewhere else.” Jesus is saying this has an immediate personal implication for every single one of us.
He says, “The time is fulfilled. the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” So, what is going on with Jesus, demands a response from us. This announcement of the time having been fulfilled, the kingdom having come, being at hand, is a summons. It’s a summons for us to respond.
And, the fact that Jesus says “repent” tells us what the issue is, because repent, you may well know, just means to turn ’round. If you’re walking down the wrong direction. If you’re as stupid as me, this happens about five times a day in this convention center. You walk the four miles it is to the end of the convention center you need and realize: you had the map upside down or misread the room number. Now you got to do another five miles back in the other direction. It’s great for your steps.
You know, that one breakout is in one county, the next breakout is in another county. I find the room and then realize I’m on the other side of that wall and then need to figure out if I get all the way ’round. So, there’s lots of repenting going on for me at TGC.
It means turning around now.
If Jesus is saying every one of us needs to turn around, he’s saying, “We’re going the wrong way in life. We’re not naturally lined up with God’s ways. You’re going in the other direction to God.” That is what Jesus is saying.
He’s not saying, “Hey, listen, God’s about to kick off His purposes and a little bit of fine-tuning is probably going to help you.”
He’s not saying, “Listen, you’re basically good.You’re basically heading in the right way. A little tweak here and there, just maybe do a little bit better.” He’s saying, “Our whole lives need to be reoriented.” And, this shows us why repentance is so urgent.
There was a thing in my local news a while ago about a very elderly man who was evidently very confused. He found himself in the middle of the night, somehow, he was driving down the wrong side of the freeway. He had managed to get some distance down the road before people realized. Someone called the police and they were able to catch up with him, flag him down, escort him off the road, and return him safely back to his home. No one was hurt because it was the middle of the night and there were hardly any other cars on the road. If he’d been doing that at rush hour, it would’ve been very different. And Jesus is saying to us that, left to ourselves, we are all driving through life the wrong way. We are about to meet the rush hour of God’s purposes coming in the other direction and therefore, we need to turn around.
If God’s kingdom is about to come, and we’re lined up contrary to God’s kingdom, then we need to repent. That is the response to the coming kingdom of God. Jesus’s summons here is good news because he says, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” It’s also very humbling because Jesus is saying, “Actually, your whole life is lined up the wrong way.”
That’s the case for every single one of us. He doesn’t single any one type of person out: this is a human issue. This is us as a species. It’s also quite affirming because, actually, it shows us that we do matter to God. He does want us to be part of his kingdom.
He doesn’t want us to get mown down by his purposes but caught up in them. So, the first takeaway for us is that there can’t be discipleship without repentance.
The phrase, “God loves us just as we are” is not untrue, but I’d suggest it’s only partially true. It can be quite misleading if that’s all that somebody hears: “God loves me just as I am“ can imply, because how I am just as I am, I’m quite lovable, really. Whereas, “God loves me as I am,” says something about God, not something about me
God loves us because of what He’s like, not because of what we’re like. And because God is love, He can love us as we are, but He won’t leave us as we are. And there’s going to be repentance; there’s going to be change; there’s going to be reordering and renovation going on in our lives.
But similarly, we mustn’t think repentance is the condition for becoming a disciple. If you repent enough and you repent to the right level, then you get to follow Jesus and they let you in. I think we sometimes treat repentance as the work we do that fulfills the preconditions for having a relationship with God— which really is smuggling in justification by works.
And, it becomes a kind of video game where, if you get to a certain amount, you then unlock the next level and, hey, now you’re a disciple. You’ve repented your way up to discipleship level. No, I don’t repent in order for God to love me. I repent because God loves me. Repentance is not the condition of God’s love, repentance is the fruit of God’s love.
There’s a wonderful guy called Sinclair B. Ferguson. He has a wonderful Scottish accent. He could read the phone directory and I’d be convicted of sin and pointed to the glory of Christ.
Whenever people talk about preaching requiring unction, I secretly think what they mean is a Scottish accent. But Sinclair has written a book called, The Whole Christ and he takes what is for most of us, a very obscure controversy from Scottish Presbyterian history to make this very point. And it’s a wonderful book to read. It feels like Sinclair Ferguson is giving your soul a hug. Go get that if you want to, kind of, follow up on that.
So, therefore, the fact that Jesus puts repentance and the Gospel together shows me that actually, repentance is part of the good news. It’s not actually that I have to repent, the Gospel means I get to repent.
It’s good news that actually, it is possible under God, with His help, to turn ’round. But, therefore, discipleship is necessary, because we’re not lined up the right way. We’re following all the wrong things and we need to start following our Lord. So, discipleship is necessary.
That means immediately there is no such thing as a Christian non-disciple. Disciple is another word for Christian. It’s one of the primary categories of what a Christian is. It’s not that there’s Christians and then, if you want to be, you can be the Christian who’s also a disciple.
If you’re not a disciple, you’re not a Christian. It’s as simple as that.
Discipleship is Responsive
Next, discipleship is responsive. I wanted to begin with Mark 15 because we read Mark 15 and think, “Okay, so what does ‘repent and believe in the gospel’ look like?” And I’m sure the reason this comes next is because we’re now being given a worked example of what it looks like to repent and believe in the gospel.
We have that fleshed out for us.
So let’s have a look at Mark 1:16–20. Let me read these verses to us:
“Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea,”
(I don’t know who Annette is, or what she did to deserve that, but there we go).
“…for they were fishermen.”
Sorry, that’s a really bad joke.
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.”
We’ve got two instances here of Jesus calling people to follow him. Two sets of brothers: you’ve got Simon and Andrew in verse 16; James and John in verse 19. In each case, it’s fishermen in the middle of work either casting nets or mending nets.
Fishing for them wasn’t a hobby. This wasn’t kind of Saturday morning: “Let’s go out and see if the fish are biting.” This was their livelihood. It was hard work. This is what they needed to do to have food to eat. They’re called by Jesus and they follow immediately. Let’s think about what they’re called to how they respond.
They’re called to Jesus. Jesus said to them, verse 17, “Follow me.” Christianity is about Christ. Being a Christian—being a disciple—is about following Jesus. Jesus isn’t saying to them, “Hey, guys, I’ve got a set of beliefs I want you to give your assent to.”
He’s not saying to them, “I’ve got a moral framework I want you to adopt.” He’s saying, “Follow me. Come to me.” Again, that’s important for us because you can’t be a disciple without having devotion to Jesus.
It’s very easy in parts of the US. It’s similar for me back in the UK. It’s easy to be part of a sort of Christian culture, where you think, “Well, I like going to church. I like the church scene.I like being with Christians we share lots of values.I like the kind of Christian stance on certain social issues. I like the social cohesion, the sense of community.” You can be doing all of that and not be a disciple because, you can be doing all of that without following Jesus. Now, this is good for us to remember, it’s good for me to remember.
When we think about the Christian life, when someone says, “How is your Christian life going?” We tend to think, “Well, how’s my church attendance?How’s my Bible study? Am I being regular in my prayers?” Those are good things to evaluate and to look through. It is better to take a step back and think, “Am I following Jesus today?” Not, am I doing Christian stuff? “Do I love Jesus today? Is Jesus uppermost in my thoughts today? Am I conscious of him today?”
So, they’re called to Jesus. In verse 17, they are called to service. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” So, a commitment to Jesus is a commitment to his work and that work, in particular, is becoming fishers of men.
Now, I am not in any way, shape, or form, a fisherman. Even the word fisherman sounds weird to me. I don’t know, it’s just an odd word. Now, I like water. I like being near water. I quite like being on water. I could happily sit by a river or on a boat somewhere for many hours. That part of it, I’m into.
What I don’t like is trying to flick some long piece of wood with a sharp hook vaguely into some smelly water. What I don’t like is having some heavy, slimy, flapping thing come out of the water, that I’ve got to cut open and take bits out of and all the rest of it.
So, success for me would be not catching any fish. Okay, sitting by a river with a book, yes. If we call that fishing, sign me up. But, I’ve figured out enough about fishing to know two things: It’s not easy and it takes time. It’s not easy because, apparently, fish don’t want to be caught.
They’re not trying to help you here. They’re not saying, “Hey, put the hook this way. No, over here, over here. That’s it.” Fish don’t want to be caught and nor do people. Now, the difference is that what we’re trying to do with the fish is not in the fish’s best interest.
With people, we’re actually rescuing them out of something, into something much better (although they may not realize it at the time). We’re doing something that is in their best interest.
You may well know that before Ronald Reagan was a president, he was an actor. Before he was an actor, he was a lifeguard. And I’d just been reading a biography of him and he apparently saved dozens of people.
But, he was asked once what the most common response was when he pulled someone out of the water, and he said, “The most common response was anger.” He said, “People don’t like being saved.” Most of the people he was rescuing didn’t think they needed rescuing and were quite angry with him.
So, fishing’s not going to be easy, even when we know what we’re doing is in the best interest of the people around us. Fishing takes time. You sit next to water for long periods of time. That seems to be the point of it as far as I’m concerned. It’s a way of getting out of the house for several hours. And therefore, it’s not a dramatic or impressive way for the kingdom to grow. It’s going to be one life at a time.
Now, notice what Jesus says: “Follow me and be fishers of men.” No, he doesn’t say that. He says, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “This is not something we intrinsically have the ability to do, to be involved in the Lord’s work.” That means there’s no place for pride, thinking, “Yeah, I’m a natural at this. Jesus is really lucky to have me on board.”
All of us need to be made to become fishers of men. That implies there’s going to be a significant on-ramp for us. This is not going to be intuitive, it’s not going to be natural. But that also means there is no excuse for sitting this out. “Yeah, there’s other Christians, they seem really suited to serving the mission of Jesus, but it’s just not me, so I won’t.”
No, followers of Jesus, he has to make us become fishers of men. This is something Jesus is going to develop in us. We need to depend on him in order to be involved with this.
Jesus calls his disciples to himself and he calls them to service, in his work, and those two things always go together.
But some people try to follow Jesus without serving him. They’re not committed to living for him—they’re interested in adding a little bit of spirituality to the side of life, but they’re not actually following him if they’re not serving him. Similarly, other people try serving Jesus without following him.
Maybe we just love doing ministry. Whatever it is we’re involved in, we just naturally enjoyed it. It plays to our strengths. We’re interested in Christian activity. We like aspects of the work. And there’s a very real danger, for many of us, that we enjoy the work of the Lord more than we enjoy the Lord. Do you remember when the disciples came up to Jesus and they said, “Hey, we’re casting-out demons in your name!” And Jesus said, “Rejoice rather, that your names are written in the book of life” (Luke 10:20). We mustn’t love serving the Lord more than we love the Lord. Following Jesus and serving Jesus go together. If we’re serving Jesus without following him, we’re not really serving him. If we’re following Jesus without serving him, we’re not really following him. If you think you’re doing one without the other, you’re doing neither. So, that is what they’re being called to. They’re called to Jesus. Discipleship is about him and it entails a commitment to his work.
There’s a very real danger, for many of us, that we enjoy the work of the Lord more than we enjoy the Lord.
And let’s look at their response. Mark shows us what they leave. In verse 18, they leave their nets and in verse 20, they leave their father. And, again, those two things would have gone together in the ancient world. Typically, your work life and your family life were the same thing. If they were fishermen, it was because their family was a line of fishermen.
You did what your parents did. You inherited their work, and you carried it on. Now, we mustn’t get the wrong impression: Jesus isn’t calling them to abandon their worldly responsibilities. He’s not saying, “Oh, just ditch your family, ditch all your commitments, and hop on board with me.”
Because after Jesus died, they actually went back to their nets. They clearly still had them. The point, I think, we’re being told here, is that being called by Jesus means they now have a dramatic new allegiance. And it’s an allegiance that comes before everything else.
So, following Jesus means Jesus comes first. If we’re a disciple of Jesus, it means he is at the center and everything else is now displaced. So it’s not that the focus of my life is my career and I’m going to have a bit of Jesus on the side of that. That is not being a disciple. A disciple is saying, “Okay, from now on, Jesus comes first in everything. He comes before everything else. Even the very best things in life.” Jesus comes before family. Jesus comes before livelihood. Jesus comes before security. Jesus comes before whatever other identity we might have brought to the table. When it comes to being a disciple, whatever previously came first, is now a very, very, very distant second.
Apparently, during the crusades, as some of the soldiers were baptized, they would go down into a river. Some of them would hold their sword above the water as if to say, “Everything else is getting baptized, but not this part of my life. I’m keeping my sword and my arm above the water because Jesus can have everything else, but when it comes to this, I’m doing my thing.”
And that is a picture, I’m sure, of all of us. We’re tempted to hold something back from our discipleship. I enjoy having people come around to my house. I’ve come up with a good system for this (which I offer to you as a free bonus piece of advice for this conference).
What I do is, before people come around, maybe 15 minutes beforehand, I quickly tidy up (which means) I gather up all the mess and I shove it in one room and close that door.
If I could, I would lock it. If I could buy that tape that police put round crime scenes, I would put that across the door as well. And then, when the people leave at the end of the evening, I then go back up to that room, get the mess, and put it back where it was (where it’s kept for the rest of the time people aren’t in my house). And it basically means that when people are around, they’re welcome to all of my house, except that room which I’ve shoved all the mess in.
Okay, they can use the bathroom, they can use the kitchen, they can look inside the guest room if they are so interested, but not the other room. And, again, I think we try and do that with God. We say to God, “Listen, all of these areas of my life are open to you. Look, come and have a look. It’s all prepared, it’s all ready, but don’t come in this bit. Okay?This bit is—that’s my private stuff. That’s my personal stuff.”
Maybe it’s our finances, maybe it’s our relationships. Maybe it’s our work, our ambition, our standing. Whatever it is, we’ve got to yield all of it to Jesus. We’re not going to do that perfectly, we’re not going to do that always consistently, but we do have to do it.
Jesus asks for nothing less than to come before everything else in our lives. And Jesus is worthy of nothing less.
So, we see what they leave, we also see how they leave. Their response is immediate. There’s no ifs or buts. They don’t put it off. Once they receive that call, they follow at once. And, again, that’s the case for us. If we’re ever aware Jesus is putting his finger on something in our lives, now is the time to respond. What we don’t say is, “ Jesus. Okay. I sense. Yeah, yeah, got it. Yeah. You want me to do this? I’ll put a pin in it. I will come back to that, Jesus. Yes. Point taken. I’ve got a few other things to do first, but I’ve made a note. I’ve stuck it on my little efficiency productivity app. That’s going to send me a little alert in a couple of days’ time and I’ll get around to attending to that.”
No. When Jesus is calling us, either to follow him or to continue with him, now is the time to respond. One of the most dangerous habits we can get into as Christians is not necessarily disobedience, so much as it is delayed obedience because, that doesn’t feel like disobedience. That kind of not-yet mentality of, “Yeah, I can see the issue and I agree it’s important. Right now is not good for me. Let me sort these other things out, then, yeah, I’ll be onto it.”
No, discipleship is both total and urgent. And the more we get to know Jesus, the more obvious it becomes why that is because, what could be better than Jesus being in control of everything in our life?
What aspect of your life is going to improve by you running it and not Jesus? What aspect of your life is he going to make a mess of that you would handle brilliantly? So, it’s worth us asking because discipleship is responsive. It is the call of Jesus, the words of Jesus that we respond to.
It’s worth asking ourselves, “Which voices in this world are we giving our priorities to? Which voices in this world are we most attentive to?Are we most shaped by? Are we most committed to hearing?” If discipleship is responsive, then it must mean that the voice of Jesus in our lives is a daily necessity. That, actually, we need his word in order to respond to his word. Does that make sense?
It’s going to be very hard for us to be effective disciples if we are not constantly, continually, hearing the words of Jesus. It’s worth asking the question, “Whose approval weighs more heavily on my consciousness than that of Jesus? Who do I instinctively want to please and obey, more than Jesus?”
It might be our culture, it might be particular people around us. It might be our boss. Discipleship is responsive. Jesus calls, we follow.
Discipleship is Costly
Third thing is discipleship is costly. And for this, we’re in Mark 8 if you want to find your way there.
Mark 8:34-35. We’ve already seen that discipleship is costly. Jesus comes first. That means other things take a back seat to him, but Jesus now kind of makes that much more explicit and generalizes it into a principle. So, Jesus says in Mark 8:34, we’re told, “Calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them (i.e. the non-disciples who are in the crowd), ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Okay? This is Jesus saying, “If you are interested in getting in on this, this is what it’s going to involve.You need to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus wants people to know this upfront. He doesn’t say: “Hey, come on, follow me!” Asterisk, small print: “By the way, following me involves taking up your cross, and denying yourself, and it’s going to be very costly.”
Have you done that thing where you update your device and the little thing says “Have you read all the terms and conditions?” And we know that Christians aren’t supposed to lie, but we also think, “I don’t have time to read through 30 pages of tiny small print.”
And so, we just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Whatever. Apple, yes, I have probably just given you my soul. To be honest, Google had most of it already. If there’s anything left, you’re welcome to it.” There’s never anything like that with Jesus. He never buries things in the small print.
He never hides the cost of following him. He’s really bad at PR, and he’s really bad at sales, and he’s terrible at marketing. And we could learn a thing or two from him because, it strikes me in much of our official stuff about following Jesus tends to avoid the cost of it.
So, Jesus wants people to know even before they follow him—following him is going to be costly. It’s going to involve denying self. Think about that.
Now, that won’t surprise us given what we’ve already seen in Mark 1:15, that we’re lined up the wrong way, we’ve got to radically reorient our lives. This is another way of saying the same thing. Radically reorienting your life is called denying self. Now, that’s very significant because our culture is, at this particular point, expressing self is the greatest good in your life. So, if you want to flourish, our culture’s message to you is: you need to discover your true self. How do you do that? You look deep inside your heart and you look at your feelings.
Your desires are who you are. The deeper your desire, the more core to your identity that desire is. You need to discover your true self, and then what do you need to do is you’ve got to be true to yourself. How many times have we heard that?
It’s only by being true to yourself, defined by these feelings, that you can be fully, authentically, happily, wholly you. People who have to watch Disney movies more than I do, tell me that’s virtually the message of every Disney movie in the last 10 years. You’ve got to be true to yourself. That’s a very Western way to think.
Apparently, the movie “Mulan,” which is set in China. Is that right? Apparently, Disney, so I’m told, I don’t know where I got this from but anyway, let’s pretend it’s true. Apparently, Disney was thinking, “Hey, China, massive market, let’s set one of our movies in a Chinese cultural context. Okay? There’s going to be masses of revenue from that. The second biggest market on the planet, we’ll be in on this.”
But the message of the movie was: “Hey, be true to yourself. Even if other people don’t get you, you’ve got to be true to yourself.” That is not part of Chinese culture. Okay? If you’re doing that in Eastern culture, I’m told, you’re a bit of a jerk. Anyway, that’s all an aside.
But the point is that our culture says: “The most important thing you can do, what is most essential in your life, is expressing self.” Your self most needs to be expressed. And so, the greatest sin in our culture, is to be seen to constrain anyone from being who they are.
Jesus says, not, “Express yourself, you do you.” Jesus says, “Deny yourself.” In other words, that is going to involve saying a profound “no” to some of your deepest longings, some of your deepest ambitions, some of your strongest yearnings and intuitions.
He says, “Take up your cross.” Now, at the time of Jesus, that wasn’t like when Great Aunt Agatha comes to visit for Thanksgiving. He’s not talking about jewelry. In context: taking up your cross was a literal, real concept that people could see around them.
When you were sentenced to be crucified, you would at that point, take up your cross and be led to the place where they would crucify you. And, from the moment you took up your cross, your life was forfeit and you had no rights. So, as you were led on your way to the place of execution, people could do anything to you that they wanted to.
So, you can imagine if someone was a particularly hated and notorious criminal and they were taking up their cross. One historian said that some criminals were actually relieved to arrive at the place of crucifixion because of how badly treated they were by the crowds. Now, of all the images Jesus could have plucked out of the air, he says, “Hey, discipleship is going to look like taking up your cross.”
There’s a sense in which you yield your rights to Jesus. Now, that doesn’t mean that you become a kind of cringing non-person, who just gets walked over by everybody else. He’s not saying you just be a victim of all the people around you. He’s just saying you yield your entire life to Jesus.
Because he says, “Follow me. Don’t become a non-person. Follow me. Instead of following you, deny you, no to you, yes to me.” That’s what Jesus is saying. That’s going to be costly. The next verse says this, “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 8:35). So, when Jesus says “my sake and the gospel’s,” he’s not saying, “You’ve got to live for me in some vague and undefined way.” Jesus is saying, “You lose your life for the Jesus who comes with this gospel message and summons with this specific message.”
So, not “follow the Jesus that’s in your imagination,” but follow the Jesus of this Gospel. And here’s the thing I take from this verse and I find it peculiarly comforting. Jesus is saying, there’s going to be a time in your discipleship where it feels like Jesus is killing you.
He’s saying, “Following me is going to feel like you are losing life.” And yet, the weird thing is, “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s, will save it.” The very act of yielding ourselves to Jesus is the means by which we receive and gain ourselves. Does that make sense?
So, denying self doesn’t mean you become a non-person. The beautiful paradox of the Christian life is actually as you deny self and follow Jesus, you become the true you that God thought up in the first place.
God had the idea of you to start with. and He was having a good day when he came up with the idea of you. And, the way for you to be the real you that God first thought up in the first place, is to deny self and follow Jesus. And, as you do that, you will become who you truly are.
I don’t know how Jesus pulls this off. I just know that he does. But, if every single one of us in this room becomes more like Jesus Christ, firstly, “Yes please. That would be awesome.”
Secondly, we would all become more like Jesus, but we wouldn’t become more like each other. We don’t all get kind of flattened out into this monochrome Christian personality. As we become more like Jesus, we become our true selves. Which, again, is why the world’s view of this is so tragically twisted because, the best way to be yourself, is to deny yourself and follow Jesus.
I had written in my notes, Quote Mere Christianity pages 225 to 227. I’ve just realized I left Mere Christianity in my hotel room. But C. S. Lewis says something amazing about this in Mere Christianity. Discipleship is costly.
Here’s a couple of questions for us to reflect on, something for you to take home. I sometimes put little things on my shaving mirror in the morning just to kind of prompt me to think about something:
What does God love that I’m tempted to hate? And what does God hate, that I’m tempted to love? Because being a disciple will mean loving what God loves and hating what God hates.
Here’s another question: What does God want me to let go of that I’m tempted to hold on to? what does God want me to hold on to, that I’m tempted to let go of?
I hate those questions because in all honesty, the answer is “Tons of stuff.” God is showing us what we need to do to deny self, take up our crosses, and follow him. So, discipleship is costly.
Discipleship is Corporate
Number four: discipleship is corporate. Mark 10:28–30 shows us this.
We’ve just had the account of the rich young man who, we think, looks like your ideal disciple. He comes bouncing up to Jesus full of enthusiasm, wants to jump on the Jesus train, and he looks like he’s out of central casting for perfect disciple.
And yet, he hears the call of Jesus and he doesn’t follow Jesus. He doesn’t leave behind what Jesus is calling him to leave behind. So, it’s all a bit of a downer. And sensing that the fact that it’s a bit of a downer, Peter, who was the emotionally intelligent disciple decides, in verse 28, this is the moment to talk about how amazing he and the other disciples are.
So, Peter says, Mark 10:28, “Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed you.” “So, yeah, that guy failed discipleship, but we’ve left everything. Okay, we are your star disciples. Denying yourself, taking up the cross, yeah, we’ve done all that. So, you know, what’s next? We’ve finished that. What’s the next task?”
Now, listen to what Jesus says next. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Now that’s a long sentence, but notice what Jesus is assuming. Jesus, again, is assuming we leave things to follow him. Basic discipleship. Jesus is assuming the most costly things to leave will probably be relational. It can be hard to leave stuff. It’s harder to leave relationships.
And Jesus is saying: even in the case where someone leaves behind their entire home, and kin, and family—even for that person even in this life—it’s going to be really, really worth it. Because that person will receive back “a hundredfold now in this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”
Jesus’ response to the cost of discipleship, even if it in its most extreme cases, isn’t to say—“Yeah, it’s just going to be terrible, but don’t worry because at the end you’ll get heaven.” No, Jesus is saying: even in this life, it is worth it to follow him. And what he promises here is community. Houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, lands, and you get a side order of persecutions whether you ordered that or not, that’s just kind of thrown in.
In other words, Jesus is saying, “You get family as part of discipleship.” And so, discipleship is corporate. We realize we’re no longer just individual Christian— we are now someone’s mother, or father, we’re someone’s brother or sister, we’re someone’s son or daughter. We’re part of a group. We’re part of a family. Jesus is giving to his disciples family. Which means we are family that Jesus is giving to new disciples.
So, you can’t be a disciple on your own. You are now a disciple as part of a family of disciples. The technical term for which, I gather, is called church. So, discipleship is corporate.
Discipleship is Missional
Final thing is discipleship is multiplicatory, missional.
So, we’re going to abandon Mark and hurt his feelings and just have a peek at the end of Matthew chapter 28:18-20 (you will no doubt be familiar with the Great Commission) where we see that disciples are to make disciples.
That’s another feature of discipleship. So, Jesus says, in Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Now, this is structured around four very significant “all’s”: Jesus says, firstly, “All authority has been given to me.” And, in case we don’t know what the word all means, he says, “in heaven and on earth.” That covers everything. Just in case you didn’t realize. If you can find a bit of authority that isn’t located either in heaven or on earth, you can have it, okay? That’s up for grabs. But it doesn’t exist. So all authority belongs to Jesus. There is no authority in existence in the universe that is not his.
Which means (and I’m saying this to myself because I have enormous fear of man) when you are at those family gatherings or those school reunions where you suddenly feel that intimidation of being a believer surrounded by nonbelievers, and it feels awkward to declare your faith or to speak about it, you are not putting Jesus somewhere where he doesn’t belong.
If all authority on heaven and earth belongs to Jesus, there is nowhere that is out of bounds for Jesus. And if Great Aunt Agatha says, “Well, this is my house…,” “Well, I respect that. Actually, it’s Jesus’ house. So I’m going to tell you about him.”
Jesus says, “All authority,” because he has all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, we make disciples of all nations. If Jesus has authority over everywhere—everywhere needs to hear about the fact that Jesus has authority over them.
If everywhere is his, Jesus has a concern with everywhere and therefore, we are to have a concern with everywhere. So, if Jesus has all authority over Boston, and Bangkok, and Brisbane, and Bahrain, then we need to go and make disciples in those places because those people truly belong to Jesus.
Notice Jesus doesn’t want converts, Jesus wants disciples. So, no nudge someone over the line and then you’re off. People who are won to Christ need to be established in the faith, and discipled in Christ.
“All authority…all nations…teaching them to obey all that I’ve commanded,” that’s the third all, including the command to go and make disciples. We’re not just to make disciples, we are to make disciples who make disciples.
That’s quite a shift. I’m not just to make disciples, I’m to make disciple-making disciples, because that way, the whole thing just multiplies. We can’t do that. Or at least, we can’t on our own. So, Jesus says with the final all, “Behold, I am with you all times (literally) to the very end of the age.”
All authority, all nations, all that he’s commanded, all time. This is part of discipleship. We’re committed to the mission of Jesus. We won’t all make disciples in exactly the same way. We have different gifts—different areas that we can contribute to. Again, this is a corporate endeavor. Everyone has a part to play.
Q&A/R and Conclusion
I’m sorry, I’ve run over time. We’ve got five minutes if anyone wants to ask a quick question, do hop up to one of the microphones. I heard someone in a previous workshop saying that, at his church after the service, they have a time of questions every week and they call it Q&R (rather than Q&A) because his guarantee is, I may not have an answer for you—but I will have a response. So, with that in mind, anyone want to ask a question? If not, I’ll assume I’ve exhaustively taught discipleship. One question over there. Come to the microphone.
Q: “You’ve given a great biblical layout of what discipleship should look like. How have you practically discipled people Or—as you’re seeking to grow someone up in the faith to be a disciple-making disciple—are there tools that you’ve used, approaches, or activities that you found to be especially helpful in that?”
Thank you very much. I find that it’s always gloriously two-way. So, there are people I thought, “Okay, I’m a bit further on in the faith time-wise, than you are. Let’s meet up, pray together, look at the Scriptures together, encourage each other.” You can’t do that with another believer without being encouraged by them and learning from them, which is just a wonderful dynamic. It can sound very pretentious to say to someone, “I am going to disciple you. Congratulations. You have been selected.” It makes it sound like you are the expert Christian helping the junior Christian. What we’re talking about is, “We’re both followers of Jesus, we’re both lifetime learners. Let’s do a bit of that together. I’ve been trying to do it for a bit longer than you’ve been trying to do it so, I may have some life hacks on this that can encourage you, but let’s do this together.” So, sometimes it would simply be, “Let’s pick a part of the Bible, look at it together, share some thoughts and reactions, pray for each other, and then repeat next week.” Sometimes it might be, “Let’s look at a Christian book together and, kind of, we’ll read a chapter during the week, and then meet up and discuss it and, again, pray for each other.” Sometimes it’s just, “Hey, let’s get a coffee once a week. Just to catch up and see how you’re doing.” So, there’s any number of ways of doing this. Paul talks about sharing not just the gospel but his life. And so, sometimes it can be very unstructured and very organic. It might just be, “Let’s walk our dogs together once every fortnight.” You don’t say “fortnight” over here so, once every two weeks. Fortnite’s a game, isn’t it, over here? Any number of ways of doing it. Each of us will have slightly different gifts. The great thing is that all of us can do it because all of us are called to do it, and it will look different each way. Let me close in prayer and I will release you to whatever’s next.
Father, we thank you for the call of Jesus. We thank you. Thank you that he wants us with him. That’s actually quite crazy. We should think about that more than we do. And it’s wonderful, Father, that Jesus actually wants us to be part of what he’s doing. He wants us to be with him and following him. And so we pray that you’d help us to be disciples. Father, we’re never going to be perfect in our discipleship, but we thank you that we don’t have to be perfect disciples to be authentic disciples. So, help us to be people who seek to put Jesus first in all things, people who do that with other people trying to do it, people who encourage one another to put Jesus first. And we pray it in Jesus’ name. Amen.