It is a dreaded part of any school year: exam time. Every student has at one time or another believed that life would be better if we could just eliminate quizzes, exams, papers and projects. In fact one of the ways teachers motivate students during the year is by telling them that if they achieve a particularly grade point average they can skip the final exam.
Deep down inside of us we know that tests are necessary in order to measure progress. From exams a teacher can determine whether or not students understand the material. Sometimes teaching methods need to be adjusted.
As a student there was a part of me that viewed tests as a way to show what I had learned. Sometimes there was more to show than others.
As we turn to Luke 9:18-25 it is “pop quiz” day. We are told Jesus was praying and following His time of prayer he asked his disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Jesus was not trying to track his popularity. He was setting the stage for the very important follow up question. The answer to that question would determine whether or not they were ready to move forward in their training.
Who is Jesus?
Jesus asked the disciples this question: “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
19 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
People understood that there was something different and even prophetic about Jesus. They recognized that He was a man who spoke from God. They might not have known who He was but they knew He was someone unique and special.
If the first question on this quiz was worth 10 points, the next question was worth 90, “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” We can read every book written about Jesus; we can memorize everything He said; we can acknowledge that He is the most esteemed man who ever walked the earth and we can appear to be a very competent and spiritual person. However, the only question that will matter will be “Who do you say Jesus is?” The most important question is your view of Christ. Is He a wise teacher, a worthy example, a spiritual leader, or is He the Son of God and the Savior who gave His life as a payment for your sin?
Peter was the first to raise his hand. Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” It was the right answer. The word Christ means Messiah or Promised One. Peter testified that Jesus is the One to whom the Old Testament was pointing. Jesus is the very One for whom Israel had been waiting.
Peter had the right answer so we are surprised to read, “ Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone.” (v. 21) This wasn’t like a teacher telling students not to tell other classes about the test, giving them an unfair advantage. Peter technically had the right answer, but he really didn’t understand what that answer meant.
Think about a person who takes a first year psychology course. These are some of the most dangerous people in the world! They have a bit of knowledge and they often feel qualified to give solutions to anyone who is troubled. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough training to really understand the complexities of truly helping troubled people. The disciples had accurate information but that information was incomplete.
To Peter, the disciples, and just about every other Jewish person, the Messiah was the One who would come and release Israel from foreign occupation (at present that was Rome). They believed the Messiah was going to be an earthly king who was going to restore material prosperity and military strength to Israel. Jesus didn’t want the disciples announcing that He was the Messiah because it would lead to political mayhem. The disciples needed to learn why Jesus had come before Jesus would tell them to “go into all the world and preach the gospel”.
What Does It Mean To Be His Follower?
After a test a teacher will hopefully see that the students are ready to move to the next chapter or level of study. That seems to be what happens here. The disciples understood that Jesus was the Promised Messiah . . . now they needed to understand what the true nature of the Messiah would be.
22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (9:22)
Jesus immediately began the next unit of study with the disciples. He wanted them to understand why He had come. He had not come for a coronation but for a cross. He did not come to build an earthly Kingdom but a spiritual kingdom. Jesus painted a very clear picture of what was to come
- He will suffer many things
- He will be rejected by the leaders
- He will be killed
- He will rise on the third day
This was something even the Jewish theologians missed. The Bible (especially Isaiah) is filled with talk about a Suffering Servant but the theologians of the day never connected this with the Messiah. Jesus set out to help the disciples see the big picture.
Matthew gives us another scene from this story. In response to these words of Jesus we read:
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:22-23)
Poor Peter! He passed the first test and suddenly felt qualified to instruct the teacher! Sadly we are prone to do the same thing. We think we have God “figured out and feel we can now advise Him. We develop our theologies (formal systems or informal systems of the “way our God is”) and we try to force God into our system. We find verses of the Bible and quote them back to the Lord as if we had leverage over Him.
Isn’t the patience of Jesus wonderful? He patiently instructs His followers. He reminds us that we do not see the big picture.
What is The Cost of Discipleship?
It is important that we understand the role of the Messiah because it changes the way we will follow Him. The disciples were expecting that some day they might serve in the cabinet of Jesus. They looked forward to perhaps holding positions of honor. Jesus needed them to understand His true role as Messiah because it was not at all going to be easy to follow Him. These men would be persecuted because of their association with the Lord!
Verse 23 is a description of discipleship that sums up what Jesus wants from His followers. It is a description too often overlooked because it is difficult.
23 Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” (22-27)
The Requirements. Jesus gives the job description of a true follower. Jesus said we need to do three things. The first thing we must do is deny ourselves. This is more than simply denying certain foods to help us lose weight. To deny ourselves means to set aside our urges, desires and passions and to do it every day.
There is good reason for this command: our desires are corrupted by our sinful nature. We have become so skilled at rebelling against God that we are experts at justifying whatever it is that we want. We can see this in some areas of our life. We really want to buy something but we don’t have the money. The facts don’t matter because we convince ourselves that it will be a “good investment” (it will make us more relaxed which will in turn make us more productive in the long run) or “we deserve this” or “we all need to splurge once in a while” (how often is “once in a while?)
We can’t trust our desires, passions or our longings. Instead we need to set those things aside. We must decide to refuse to let these things influence us. This certainly is much easier said than done. To do this we need to be led by something else. We need to pursue something that is better than merely satisfying our whims and desires. We’ll see that Jesus is calling us to be “sold out” or controlled by our desire to honor Him.
Second Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross. In our popular vernacular “bearing a cross” is used to describe any hardship we have in our life. It can be a difficult spouse, a meddling mother-in-law, a cantankerous employer, a nagging health problem, or a rebellious child. But those things are just part of normal living. This is not what Jesus is talking about.
Taking up our cross means that we are to be willing to suffer if that is what it takes to serve and honor the Lord. Pastor and author Francis Chan writes,
Jesus is calling us to be willing to suffer anything and forsake everything for the sake of the gospel. His call is to love those who have cheated us in business; those who have spread nasty rumors about us; those who would kill us if they could; those who disagree with us politically, practically, and fundamentally. His call is to consider everything a loss for his sake. He calls for total surrender. He calls us to give up all that we have, to give even to the point of offering up our lives as a living sacrifice. His call means realizing that His power is made perfect in our weakness, that when we are weak we are also strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
This is a greater commitment than I am used to giving. Perhaps like me, you are too often guilty of fitting your faith into the rest of your life rather than adjusting the rest of our life by the realities of our commitment to Christ. Jesus calls us to submit every area of our lives to Him regardless of the cost.
We don’t talk much about this kind of commitment because quite frankly we’re afraid everyone would quit the church! We live in a day when we want a “convenient Christianity”. We want a God who makes few demands on us because He realizes that we are “extremely busy people”.
We tend to feel Jesus is asking way too much from us. Yet, we ask the same thing of soldiers every day in a time of war. We ask them to be willing to leave their homes, families, and in the case of the National Guard, their jobs, in order to defend our country. We ask them to be willing to risk their lives for the greater cause of our freedom. Soldiers respond because they believe the cause of freedom is worth the sacrifice. Jesus is asking us to feel the same way about Him. He wants us to see the pursuit of the Kingdom of God as worth any sacrifice. I find that very sobering and convicting.
The third requirement for discipleship is to follow Him. The tense of these commands is that of two past imperatives followed by a present imperative. Practically that means that we must make two decisions (to deny self and take up our cross) before we can follow Him.
A true follower of Christ views the Lord as the commander of his/her life. We do what He says and go where He tells us to go. Being a follower of Jesus means . . . .following Jesus! This kind of obedience is something only believers can truly do. Obedience is not just about doing certain things and not doing other things. It is to think, act, and speak in such a way that we bring honor and glory to Christ.
This sounds reasonable when we are talking about it here. But we aren’t nearly as enthused when the Lord tells us to,
- Care for widows and orphans
- Live simply so we can give generously
- Forgive those who have hurt us
- Love our enemies and pray for those who try to take advantage of us
- Put the building of His kingdom before the building of our own
- Confess Him before others; even those who won’t like what we have to say
- Keep our promises even when it hurts
- Stop Gossiping
Please believe me when I tell you that I understand how we (I) tend to rebel against or simply ignore these words. Jesus speaks plainly when He says:
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
In other words Jesus calls us to lift our sights. He asks us to see beyond the immediate payoff. It is like the child who urges the parent who smokes cigarettes to look beyond the calm they get from the cigarette to see the long-term health dangers. Or the family member who urges the drug addict to see past the euphoria of the “high” to the life-destroying addiction that will follow.
Jesus says, “What is more important than your soul?” “Why would you live for the moment if it is going to jeopardize your FOREVER?” We can gather piles of stuff in our lives but when life is over we are going to leave it all behind. The gold medals, the trophies, the nice houses, the fast cars, the crowds of friends who want to hang around us can only bring us a temporary pleasure.
We settle for trinkets instead of the treasure he offers. The Lord offers us real meaning in life. He invites us to do something that will have an eternal impact. He invites us to experience joy rather than fleeting moments of pleasure. He calls us to a relationship in which we are truly loved, appreciated, and cherished . . . warts and all. He offers us forgiveness and a new beginning. He offers us a chance to stand with Him in the day of Judgment. We would be fools to pursue anything else.
Jesus calls us not to simply walk an aisle to gain a guarantee of Heaven. He calls us to a life-changing decision. He calls us to choose to follow His voice rather than the chorus of voices in the world.
A soldier who enlists understands what is at stake. They are disciplined to follow orders knowing that there will be some things they may not understand. They know they can see only the battle before them and they trust those in command see the bigger picture.
If we choose to enlist in the Lord’s Army we need to understand that we are agreeing to submit to the Lord Jesus. His commands are often difficult and sometimes even confusing. We must understand that it may cost us everything we have. We serve because we love and trust the One who died in our place and we long for the Kingdom He has come to create.
Like us, the disciples had much to learn. There were many misconceptions they had to correct. They grew in their faith one test and one grade at a time. Likewise, we must also grow. We are not what we should be but hopefully we are also not what we used to be. We may be raw recruits now. We may be out of shape and undisciplined. Our job is to train, to grow, and to develop.
The follower of Christ must keep working even though some classes are harder than others. We keep moving forward focused on the goal of serving the Lord. We focus not on the test before us. We focus on the day when we will graduate. At the graduation we long for, we will receive something far more valuable than a diploma . . . we will receive a crown and the proud “Well Done” of our precious Savior. We will receive everlasting life on the New Earth that God will create. If we keep that picture in our head, we will have all the motivation we should need to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him wherever He wants to lead us. We will be able to continue serving and following no matter how intimidating the test before us may appear to be.