In Luke 9:23-25, Jesus makes some bold statements about following Him. In a sense, these verses provide a “101 Class” on discipleship.
“Disciple” is a word you’ll hear in church world a lot - and rightfully so. One of Jesus’ last commands is for the church to go and “make disciples” of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). Making disciples who make disciples should be on the short list of priorities of every church.
The word disciple literally means “learner.” Don’t just think of a learner in some classroom environment, though. Think “apprentice.” Think “someone learning a skill or a lifestyle.” As followers of Jesus, we’re apprentices of Jesus. Or another way to look at it is that a disciple is someone who walks in the footsteps of someone else.
When I was in college, I went on a couple of backpacking trips in Colorado - one to fulfill some P.E. credit, and one as part of a team building experience for R.A.s. They were great: Get away from civilization, sleep in tents, see some awesome sights in the Rockies, and do a whole lot of hiking. And both times I went, the guide we were with reinforced the value of paying attention to the person in front of you. To watch where they stepped and to follow that same path. To literally walk in their footsteps as much as you could.
As disciples of Jesus, then, we walk in His footsteps. And if the path He went on involved suffering and self-denial (Jesus tells us this in Luke 9:22), we can’t go around that ourselves or skip that part of the trail as His followers. Which is exactly where Jesus takes His instruction to us in Luke 9:23-25:
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?"
And so as we look into what’s involved in this commitment Jesus calls us to, here’s what we see:
Following Jesus will cost us way more than what is comfortable and convenient.
This is the hard truth that challenges how we so often think. Jesus talks about things we probably don’t like to talk a lot about - He talks about self-denial and taking up one’s cross. Everyone who heard Jesus say this would have immediately had very graphic images come to mind of people they may have seen taking a one-way trip to their crucifixion, carrying their own cross as they did so. The cross was a symbol of death.
When Jesus uses this image here, He’s not primarily talking about physical death. (Though to be clear, there are followers of Jesus throughout history and around the world that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.) Nor is Jesus calling us to be a doormat for others. Jesus isn’t saying you can’t have dreams or set goals.
So if all that is what this DOESN’T mean, what IS Jesus talking about? What is He calling us to, when He says we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross DAILY and follow Him? John Stott, a pastor and Bible scholar who passed away a few years ago wrote this about the radical self-denial Jesus is calling His followers to: “Self-denial is not denying ourselves luxuries such as chocolates, cakes, cigarettes and cocktails (though it might include this); it is…renouncing our supposed right to go our own way. To deny oneself is to turn from the idolatry of self-centeredness” (The Cross of Christ).
Jesus is challenging values that are prevalent and unquestioned in our culture today — values to be powerful and spectacular and recognized and to be the center of our own lives around which everything and everyone orbits - and He’s calling us to the radical ideas of humility and sacrifice and selflessness.
This doesn’t mean that having a position of influence or some public role is wrong (we want followers of Jesus to be using their gifts in big ways!). What it does mean is that for all of us - whether your role is visible or invisible, public or private - we all need to be guarding against unqualified self interest and self promotion.
We need to be thinking instead in terms of humility and self-denial. This means you acknowledge you’re part of the greatest story ever told - the story of what God is doing in and for the world - and you realize that Jesus is the center of that story. You’re supporting cast.
Rather than this being a downer, it should be energizing to know that you’re part of something so much bigger than just yourself! By playing the important role you play - by greeting others and loving kids and showing compassion and building meaningful relationships and helping launch and sustain our DCC services and pointing people to Jesus and every way you serve - you’re participating in the greatest mission ever!
And then don’t miss that word “daily” in verse 23. (In my Bible, I double-underlined that word and put a circle around it.) We need to keep our foot on the gas pedal with this humility and self-denial - daily dying to ourselves and having Christ - not ourselves - be at the center of our lives. If you’re a student in high school or college, what we’ve been talking about is a way to live daily - you don’t graduate from this and eventually move past it. I want to give you a vision for living this way for decade after decade of your life. I get chills when I think about how God can use you if you surrender yourself to Him like that! Or for those of you who are empty-nesters or retired and life looks different now in this stage you’re in - don’t let this stage of life draw you away from this commitment we’re all still called to as Jesus’ disciples: to deny ourselves and daily take up our crosses. We don’t throttle back from this!
As we continue digging into a life of discipleship, don’t miss what else we learn in these verses:
Following Jesus offers us far more than we can imagine.
We see this in the promise Jesus makes at the end of v. 24: “…whoever loses their life for me [that’s the self-denial we’ve been talking about] will save it.” That idea that when we lose our lives we save it - that’s talking about saving our lives in every way that really matters. It’s talking about being right with God and the peace that comes from that; being forgiven from our sin - not being haunted by what we’ve done in the past or overcome with the emptiness in our hearts; experiencing the full life Jesus promised; and having the assurance of eternal life.
If we have everything else - the toys, the money, the house - but if we aren’t right with God, if we haven’t had Jesus forgive our sin, and if we don’t have hope as we look toward eternity - then even though it looks like we have everything, we really have nothing. That’s the point Jesus is making by asking the rhetorical question He asks in v. 25: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”
Jesus’ call to discipleship is bold - there’s no way to take that edge off of the call to deny ourselves and take up our crosses as we follow Him. But after a long look at what we’ve seen today, what I want you to see is that Jesus’ call to discipleship isn’t intimidating, but is inviting instead. The bar is still set as high as it’s ever been. But now we’re eager to go after it.
Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor. Learner. Contributor. Reader.