I have really been endeavoring to seek the wisdom and counsel of the Holy Spirit in how to walk closer with Jesus. I don't say that out of a desire to be more "religious" or to meet any kind of standard that the organized Church might put on me; but out of a heart that discerns what shape the world is in, and a longing to more fully follow Him in this season. To that end, I have been studying a particular passage in the Bible, as well as diving into a deeply powerful book, called The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dietrich was the martyred Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler and the Third Reich while attempting to expose the mass murder of Jews in his homeland. He was hanged as a spy mere days before the Allies arrived in Germany to liberate the concentration camps, and although he did not live to see that evil empire defeated, what he wrote about following Jesus is especially poignant and instructive for today.
In light of all this history, here's where my head and my heart are ... What does it mean to be a true disciple of Jesus? How do we get there? What is the cost? First of all, we must all understand that what Jesus taught about discipleship over 2000 years ago still holds true today. We are not any more enlightened, or sophisticated in our faith than the first disciples who answered His call to follow Him. If anything, we are more involved in the world and our selfish ambitions.
So, what is the significance of Obedience when considering Discipleship? Mark 2:14 gives us a clue ... As Jesus was passing by, He saw Levi (Matthew) the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax collector’s booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he got up and followed Him. Notice that it was Jesus who initiated the call to Matthew. And the call was responded to immediately with obedience. There is no evidence that Matthew had any prior knowledge or relationship with Jesus, the Christ. And I want you to understand that Matthew didn't respond out of faith, because as of yet, he had none.
It is as simple as this: Jesus called and Matthew responded out of obedience. There were no promises of wealth or status if Matthew followed Him. In fact, by being obedient, Matthew left his life of relative security for a life the world would categorize as absolute insecurity. Yet, in reality, there is no life more secure and safe than one spent in fellowship with God's Anointed One! We leave a life that is bound in rules, parameters and legalism for a life that has infinite possibilities when we bind ourselves to Jesus. Nothing else in this world matters but following Him! Matthew's story is a testimony of a man whom Jesus summoned, and the response was one of obedience; forsaking all else to follow Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Keep this in mind as we take a good look at Luke 9:57-62 and hearken unto the words of the Messiah... As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus told him, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” He said to another, “Follow Me [accepting Me as Master and Teacher].” But he said, “Lord, allow me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the [spiritually] dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and spread the news about the kingdom of God.” Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord [as Your disciple]; but first let me say goodbye to those at my home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back [to the things left behind] is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Notice that Jesus is addressing three different people here, all who profess to want to follow Him. How do our 21st Century responses compare to the 1st Century responses to the call of Jesus? First of all, the first man offers to follow Jesus without waiting to be called. But Jesus gives the man a warning -- He shows the would-be disciple that life following Him will not be easy nor comfortable. Even foxes and birds have places they call home, but His life is one of never knowing where He will sleep that night. In fact, Jesus knows He's on the way to the cross and suffering is His fate. Today, how many times do we see our fellow Christians declare that they are ready to be a follower of Christ, yet there is no evidence they've been called by Jesus nor that they have considered the cost or consequences of following Him in this fallen world? They know nothing of the suffering or what life with Him will require. Jesus's lesson to this would-be disciple is that no man can voluntarily call himself to such a destiny. To be genuine, the call must come from Jesus and the response must come from obedience alone; from a change of heart that instinctively knows the life to which they are being called.
Next we see Jesus actually initiating the call to the second candidate for discipleship who asks to be allowed to go and bury his father first before he answers Jesus's call on his life. This man is conscious of the Jewish laws that burial of the dead must be the same day. Yet there is no information that the man's father has even died yet. Perhaps he is like his 21st Century Christian counterparts whose hearts like the idea of following Jesus, but want to set their affairs in order before making that commitment. Jesus responds with a command to follow Him and to let the spiritually dead bury their own. Because this man is not ready to submit to the call on his life, there is a barrier erected against authentic obedience. If this man's father has truly died ... does he follow the Jewish law regarding burial, or does he answer the call of Jesus? There are times the call of Jesus will look as if it goes against every standard "the Church" has mandated for men. But the true disciple will know that nothing on earth can keep him from accepting that call because it is irresistable.
The third would-be disciple is somewhat like the first; he thinks he can set his own terms when it comes to following Jesus. He earnestly desires to follow Jesus but is beset by the rules of the world, which he feels must be met before he can be allowed to accept the offer. His response seems to indicate that he thinks he must satisfy the order in which his calling will be rendered legitimate. How many times do we Christians today submit to man's understanding about what our calling is to look like? Do we assign a list of objectives to meet before we can call ourselves a follower or disciple? Do we ascribe more value to the title than to our obedience? If we cannot simply surrender to Jesus's call on our life, then we may find ourselves in conflict with both Jesus's desire for us and our own sincere desire to be a disciple. If our response to the call on our life is, "Yes, Jesus, but first ....", then we are not going to act out of pure obedience. That response proves that one is not willing to pay the cost of genuine discipleship.
As you can see, to follow Jesus in obedience means leaving the old behind for a new life that Jesus is calling you to; this is where faith becomes possible. If we refuse Jesus's invitation and stay in our safe and secure situation, then we never learn to believe out of faith. It is a scary place to be, but the rewards are so great! When we are able to respond out of obedience, then we have the opportunity to learn to trust in Jesus as we enter into true dependence [on] and in relationship with Him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes so well, "Had Levi (Matthew) stayed at his customs booth, Jesus might have been his present help in trouble, but He would not have been the Lord of Levi's whole life. In other words, Levi would never have learned to believe. And Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord". Both men left an old reality for a new, unknown one, and all for the sake of obeying the Voice that called them.
We must also discern that it is the obedience to the call on our lives that ultimately makes true faith possible, they are interdependent. Again, Bonhoeffer explains it much better than I can: "Faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience". This is what I know ... we must take that definitive step [out of faith] into obedience, and as faith grows, we become "teachable" and the Lord's passion for mankind becomes ours. That includes both Christ's suffering and his rejection. His heart is for those He desperately loves and it is His willingness to suffer at the hands of men and to die despised and rejected by men which are at the center of His going to the Cross. Jesus makes it clear that to be a disciple of His, we must be willing to become like Him, in both the good and the bad of His incarnate existence.
But have you thought about the fact that Jesus gives us a choice ... IF any man would come after Me....". We have the choice to become like Jesus; we have the choice whether we will follow Him in obedience and faith and deny ourselves in order to become His "disciples" by abiding in Him. But it comes at a cost; one that Jesus was willing to pay and if we are to become His disciples, then we must be willing to follow Him in all His ways. And that word "to abide" means to endure, persist, survive, conform to, to remain [in], and to suffer. So as we grow in obedience and faith and become teachable by the Spirit of the Lord, we grow into discipleship -- moving from being a pupil to being an imitator of Christ. True Discipleship is fearless; being willing to go where you cannot comprehend the road you will be asked to take; yet you are willing to go only where Jesus leads you. You are willing to pay the price of the irresistible call on your life to follow Your Master. My final word is this: True Discipleship is not for the fragile, the fearful, or the doubter. It is not an easy road ... but, oh, my friends, the rewards will be extraordinary when you meet Jesus face-to-face! Do you have what it takes, and are you willing to pay the cost to be called "Disciple" of the Living Christ?
John 15:8 My Father is glorified and honored by this, when you bear much fruit, and prove yourselves to be My [true] disciples.