Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

Discipleship Dialogue (Mar-Apr 2004)

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by Thomas Jones
March – April, 2004

The article below about discipleship is by one who has prayed for these discussions and been vocal as a voice of unity and passionate discipleship. We offer this article by Thomas Jones as another way of continuing this important dialogue among Christians who have had experienced division and estrangement but have chosen to walk the path of Christ together while working out the problems that have existed between fellowships.

From time to time, after reading unusual articles in magazines or seeing documentaries on television, I have just a three word response: “That is amazing!” People do things with their lives that are quite astonishing. There are heroic stories and accounts of creativity and perseverance that are remarkable. But seldom do those stories require anything of me; I can feel amazed and then go on my way to the next event in my life. A story may be fascinating enough that I will recount it to some friends at dinner, but normally, I don’t make any major changes in my life because of such things. Jesus’ story is amazing and his message is remarkable, but he did not come just to amaze. He came to call men and women to embrace his message, to make major changes and to follow him in adopting a whole new approach to life.

As I make a few additions to this article for publication in NEW Wineskins, the latest box office numbers from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ are being reported, and the media is astonished. Millions of people are handing over $7 to $10 to see the film, and many millions are leaving the theaters amazed at what Jesus went through. That is a great beginning for which we can be grateful, but how tragic if this is as far as it goes. The Jesus story was never intended to be a startling Hollywood hit. What he did was not designed to cause us to simply say, “That is amazing,” but to cause us to ask, even with the notorious Pilate, “What will I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” This is a story that demands your life, your soul, your all.

Jesus’ first followers were described as disciples. The word meant a learner or a pupil and was used in many contexts to describe those who adhered to the message of a teacher or leader. Jesus talked throughout his ministry about those who would become his disciples, what was involved in being his disciple, and how some people were going to make choices that would mean they could not be his disciples. As he spoke, it became quite clear that he had something very specific in mind when he used the word “disciple.” In our examination of his life and his teachings, we have already seen elements of that message, but in this chapter we will look more specifically at the idea of being his disciple.

The Most Serious Commitment

When we examine carefully those texts in which Jesus calls people to be disciples, we see quickly that what he has in mind is a drastic thing. Since the kingdom of God is so different, so good and so important, it is not really surprising that being a part of it would represent a radical and far-reaching decision, and this is exactly the way Jesus presents it.

Jesus can never be accused of surprising people with the fine print of the contract. He let his hearers know, in the most up-front way, that life with him would be all-consuming. There must be a complete end to token religion. “If any one would come after me,” he said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

Followers of Jesus were not asked to give a certain percentage–they were ask to give up themselves. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Jesus was clear about two things: (1) the kingdom is greatest thing there is; and (2) it will cost you everything you have to be part of it. Every effort to work in Christian activities around the edges of things we are more concerned about is an affront to the gospel of the kingdom. “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me,” Jesus said, “cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). We can be sure that any attempt to soften this message or to explain it away will result in something bearing little resemblance to the kingdom as Jesus taught it.

One point here is hard to miss: We cannot be Jesus’ disciples unless our commitment to him becomes the most serious commitment in our lives. Jesus further illustrated this point when he said that allegiance to him must surpass even commitment to family:

Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37–38).

Jesus purposely chose words that would quickly communicate the seriousness of his message to his first-century audience. Loyalty to family was a sacred obligation. However, if men and women are going to be disciples, they must love him more. We make a serious mistake, however, if we think Jesus is asking disciples to love their families less. What I hear is a call for disciples to put their love for family in a larger context, in the context of an all-surpassing love they have for God and for his kingdom. As a son, a husband and a father, I understand something of the devotion, concentration and perseverance that these roles require. Jesus calls me to have all of these qualities, but first to have them in my relationship to him. By doing this, I will find the power and direction to be faithful to my other relationships.

Affecting Everything

Jesus finished his call to discipleship in Luke 14 with these words: “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). I suppose that we could read this to literally mean that a person or a family must sell everything or give it all away. However, there are several reasons to think he means something different. First, such action would accomplish nothing, except putting a person or his family on the welfare roll. Second, this is not a practice that we ever see taking place in the early church. Third, there could hardly be a functioning group that would be able to make an impact on the world if everyone in it completely divested himself of all belongings and wealth. Fourth, this would assume Jesus was only concerned about our possessions when, in fact, his interests are much broader. It is much better, but no less radical, to understand instead that everything is to be put under the lordship of Jesus. Nothing is to be left out or excluded; every area of a disciple’s life is to be brought under Jesus’ control.

In my experience, I have found that many people want to be religious and want a connection with God, but they do not want this connection to affect certain areas of their lives. They want the freedom to handle certain things the way they choose, while still involving themselves spiritually in matters that appeal to them. This is precisely what Jesus is saying we cannot do and still be disciples.

Think about some of the things “everything” would involve: money, houses, cars, businesses, education, family, relationships, attitudes, ambitions, desires, time, personality traits. Jesus is saying that everything must be given up to him. He then has the freedom to discard what he doesn’t want and control and direct everything else. Those who chafe at this idea either are not in touch with what pride and selfishness do to us or lack the confidence that whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake really does find it. Only those who are ready to let Jesus affect everything can be his disciples. The passion of the Christ is to produce a “passion” in us.

For All People

Many years ago I had a discussion with a man forty years my senior who had been a leader in a church for quite some time. After hearing me speak on Jesus’ message of discipleship in Luke 14, he suggested to me that I change my approach. “There are many younger Christians and many non-Christians,” he said, “who are just not ready for this message that calls for a total commitment.” I suspect there are others who feel the way he did. But when we look at who Jesus was speaking to in Luke 14: 25–35, we find that it was to “large crowds.” These strong words calling for a radical commitment were not spoken to a few select individuals that Jesus thought were ready for the “tough talk” about discipleship. Surely there were all kinds of people in those crowds: spiritual veterans and spiritual newcomers, rich and poor, healthy and ill, married and single, young and old. For all these people there was the one message about discipleship: Jesus expected them to be totally committed to him and to the kingdom.

The old had to take up the cross as well as the young. The poor had to take up the cross as well as the rich. The unhealthy man would not be exempt from the cross just because he was not as well as someone else. In his own way, he too would have to take the cross or else he could not be a disciple. This does not mean, of course, that God fails to take into account our differences in ability and strength and energy. Certainly, different people in different life situations will have different opportunities, but Jesus calls everyone to have the same attitude and the same heart.

A Supreme Concern

We have seen that Jesus described himself as one who came to seek and to save those who were lost (Luke 19:10), but at the close of Matthew’s Gospel, we see what he wanted all lost people to become:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18—20)

As the resurrected Jesus sent out his followers to proclaim his message, their mission was clear: to make disciples. Jesus’ goal was not to get people out of one religion into another or to swell the ranks of religious worshipers. He was supremely concerned that all men and women become his disciples with the understanding of that term which he had been teaching throughout his ministry. For Jesus, the only appropriate and valid response to the good news of the kingdom was to repent, turn away from an old way of living, and embrace the life and lifestyle of a disciple. This means becoming one who is constantly learning to more closely follow Jesus’ teaching.

It is not uncommon in many religious circles to find the idea that there are two types of Christians: first, the normal, garden variety and second, those with extraordinary commitment who are “disciples.” When we find this kind of thinking, we, of course, find the widely held idea that we can be Christians without being disciples. In other words, we can be Christians in decent standing without being so seriously committed to the message of Jesus. There is not a hint of this idea in any of Jesus’ teachings, and there is plenty of evidence that he would have found it to be abhorrent. To those in his day who may have entertained some similar thoughts, he said: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Others were warned with these words:

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:22-23).

Jesus brought a message of unparalleled good news, but he knew that the only ones who could possibly benefit from it were those who responded as disciples. It would be foolish to think that he was just being arbitrarily hard at this point. The nature of the kingdom of God is such that you cannot find it or enjoy it until you treat it as the treasure in the field that is worth everything you have.

Jesus’ words here in Matthew 28 make something else absolutely clear. All who become his disciples and are devoted to obeying all that he commanded, will, in their own generation, embrace the command to make disciples. They can never be content just to have found the kingdom themselves. They must help others find it. They must bring others to an understanding of what it means to put all of life under Jesus’ control. It is impossible to take seriously the message of Jesus and not accept the mission of helping others to become disciples.

The task of making a disciple does not end when someone is baptized and enters the kingdom. If you will forebear one technicality, in the Greek text here in Matthew 28:19–20, “baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” are participial phrases modifying the main verb, “make disciples.” Obviously, there will be certain teaching leading to baptism, but the making of a disciple is an ongoing process in which the person continues to be taught all the ways Jesus’ message affects our lives. Once we have decided to follow Jesus, his supreme concern must become our concern; we too must see the need to make disciples.

Counting the Cost

When we come face to face with the reality of Jesus and his message, the question should not be, “Is this hard or is it easy?” The question should be, “Is it true?” If it is true, all debate should theoretically stop. But life is not lived in the realm of the theoretical. The truth is, Jesus’ message is hard for us, and because of this, we struggle with it. But this struggle is not bad; he described it as “counting the cost” (Luke 14:28, 31).

Jesus’ message is so different from our natural inclinations. It requires faith. It calls for big changes. It is a narrow road. It makes us uncomfortable. And yet, his message is in response to the kingdom and the extravagant generosity of God. It costs us everything, but it gives us a hundredfold in return. We lose our lives, but we find them. As a young adult seeking Jesus, I found Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words about “costly grace” to be most inspiring and helpful:

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Hardly anything in this chapter says what we would have hoped Jesus would say. Taking up a cross. Giving him loyalty above family. Yielding everything. These are big challenges. But a serious problem calls for radical surgery. To find a new life, you have to die to an old one. I referred earlier to the tension between the “unbelievables” and the “undeniables.” We may think it is almost unbelievable that Jesus would make such radical demands of us. But once his reality is undeniable, then we have a big reason to take a huge step in response. “Love so amazing so divine demands, my soul, my life, my all.”New Wineskins

Thomas A. (Tom) Jones is an elder with the Boston Church of Christ and editor emeritus of Discipleship Publications International. He is the founding editor of DPI and served for eight years as editor in chief before stepping down for health reasons. He holds a degree from Harding Graduate School of Religion and is the author of four books and co-author of two others. Tom and his wife, Sheila, have been married for almost 35 years and have ministered in God’s family in four states. They have three grown daughters.

Click here to read the author’s postscript about GRACE on our reader’s forum and discuss.

Taken from an excerpt, with a few additions, from No One Like Him: Jesus and His Message © 2002 by Discipleship Publications International and available at Discipleship Publications International Site

An important conversation happened in February between brothers and sisters in two different church fellowships that have been at odds for two decades.

The Christian Chronicle reported on the event of the meeting between the International Churches of Christ and the “mainline” churches of Christ, and we asked them if we could provide a link here to that reporting. Click the link below to read transcripts and reports from this meeting.

Read more on Dialogue between International Churches of Christ and “mainline” churches of Christ.

Purchase audio of the dialogues from Gaylor Multimedia

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