Jesus Christ: Who on earth!
Chapter 5: Suffering for Christ’s Sake
This online book (published on-line through web site bibleden.com) is a compilation of messages about Jesus Christ given by the author over a period of some years at a variety of different churches and chapels. In the chapters that follow this introduction, the original sermon notes have been adapted to create a readable script that is intended to allow you, the reader, to engage with the ideas presented without struggling through a morass of bullet points, complex arguments and baffling terminology.
Despite aiming for simplicity rather than bewilderment, the content is scripturally based and deliberately challenging, by which I mean that assumptions are carefully examined, difficulties acknowledged and alternatives presented transparently. Most of the Bible texts are taken from the NLT (New Living Translation) and also from the NIVUK or other translations (as stated).
Readers who hope for academically grounded arguments and carefully designed theological structures will be disappointed; I leave such matters to those who possess far deeper knowledge and expertise. Rather, the following pages will appeal to anyone who is sincerely interested in the life, work and witness of this extraordinary man, Jesus of Nazareth (as he was commonly known) and wish to draw closer to the one who, among his various other titles, is referred to as ‘the Man of Calvary’ where he offered his life as a ransom for the sins of the world.
Please note: The use of the term ‘religion, when applied to Christianity, is merely a shorthand reference term and not indicating that the Christian faith is bound by a set of rules and regulations, as is commonplace among other world faiths. Christianity is founded on faith in Jesus Christ and his teaching, not on mere religious adherence that does not lead to godliness. As the Apostle Paul warned in his second letter to his protégé, Timothy: ‘They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!’ (Chapter 3 verse 5)
Luke 9: 57-62
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied:
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man: “Follow me.” But the man replied:
“Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him:
“Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said:
“I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
“No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
It has rightly been said that nothing worthwhile is achieved in life without sacrifice. The effort expended in achieving a goal has to be combined with determination and a strong sense of motivation, often to the detriment of all other desires, hopes and aspirations. History shows that the single-minded (‘biopic’) and resolute person pursuing of a specific outcome is often combined with being in ‘the right place at the right time’. In some cases, the willingness to reduce life’s purpose to a single aim has led to corruption and appalling acts of wickedness from people who gained and abused their power. In other cases, the opposite has been true, as talented and creative people have used their skills, talents, inventions and ideas for the general good and generating countless benefits.
It is alleged that the tightrope walker, Blondin, whose daredevil feats thrilled and amazed thousands, asked for volunteers to sit in a wheelbarrow that he used as a part of his walk across the Niagara Falls. The people that had shouted their enthusiasm for Blondin and expressed their belief in his ability to accomplish such a breath-taking enterprise, stepped back from proving their alleged beliefs. Not a single person came forward to volunteer for the journey and sit in the wheelbarrow. It seems that it fell to his manager to undertake the unenviable role. A contrary example of how enthusiastic support was followed by affirmative action was when the explorer Ernest Shackleton was recruiting people for an expedition to the South Pole. It is popularly claimed that Shackleton placed the following advertisement:
‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger; safe return unlikely. Honour and recognition in case of success.’
Whether or not the advertisement is genuine, unlike the Blondin incident noted above, there was no shortage of volunteers for the trip, which went ahead with a full complement of men.
The courageous exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his team seem bold and brazen when placed alongside the seemingly innocuous demands placed upon would-be followers of Jesus Christ (see Chapter 4), yet the same qualities of courage, tenacity and strong faith should characterise both groups. The intrepid explorer and Jesus both gave serious warnings about the true cost of ‘following’ but whereas Shackleton drew attention to the inevitable physical challenges involved, Jesus made it clear that discipleship demanded total commitment and genuine obedience, which could result in ridicule, oppression and even physical violence.
It is easy to be powerfully influenced by the presentation of an ideal or philosophy or revolutionary plan, yet start to experience doubt or lose enthusiasm due to fear of the consequences, the attraction of alternative viewpoints or a realisation that the cost would be greater than the perceived benefits. It is hardly surprising that Jesus cautioned enthusiastic would-be followers about rushing into a commitment to be his disciples without careful consideration as to the implications. In his gospel account, the Apostle Luke records Jesus’s warning: ‘If you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it?’ (Chapter 14 verses 27 & 28)
Before exploring the suffering and sacrifices attached to following Jesus more fully, it is good to remind ourselves that there are many joys and blessings in being his faithful follower and disciple, not least having the promise of the Spirit of Christ living within us to guide, direct and show us the right path to take. As the Apostle Paul reminded Christians in Rome: ‘If Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness‘ (Romans Chapter 8 verse 10). Faithful believers are promised contentment and inner peace through the stormiest periods of life, as Christ carries our burdens and true rest is promised (see Jesus’s assurances in the Gospel compiled by Matthew, Chapter 11 verse 28). The ‘carrying of our burdens’ does not equate with the sudden removal of a problem or dilemma but rather that through expressing our belief in God’s power and authority (saying it out loud can be a powerful affirmation) over every situation, we have the assurance of knowing that, as the Apostle Paul reminded Christians in Rome: ‘God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them’ (Romans Chapter 8 verse 28; note the two conditions attached to this promise!) In similar fashion, true rest is not the absence of deeply held concern or avoiding active participation in resolving or assisting the situation; rather, it is refusing to fret or be overwhelmed with anxiety when the emotional or psychological demands appear overwhelming and unresolvable. Being ‘born again/anew/afresh’ of the Spirit of God also means that in addition to receiving forgiveness from the penalty of sin and restoration of our relationship with God, Jesus promises to be with each of us to the end of the present age (see Acts Chapter 1). These declarations are so compelling that it is difficult to imagine rational people refusing to take hold of them and accept that Jesus Christ is not only their Saviour but also a Saviour for anyone who places his or her trust in him.
Despite the benefits and attractiveness attached to Christ’s offer to ‘come unto me’ and receive freedom from sin, a new life in the Spirit and eternal security, Jesus still maintained that following him was a serious business that should not be entered into casually or with the prospect of personal gain. Jesus’s sombre warning about the cost of discipleship stands in stark contrast to the ‘easy come, easy go’ attitude that characterises so much evangelism in the affluent Western World. For the large majority of people living in countries hostile to Christianity, the decision to trust and follow Jesus Christ often carries the prospect of scorn (at best), loss of family ties, discrimination, prejudice, mental and physical suffering and imprisonment or death.
Three Would-be Disciples
One of the most striking examples about Jesus’s soul-searching wisdom in discerning a person’s true motives in wanting to be his disciple is found in the account recorded by the Apostle Luke, Chapter 9 verses 57-62 in which three men claimed that they wanted to follow Jesus. Luke describes the incident in some detail: ‘As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” but Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” He said to another person, “Come, follow me.” The man agreed, but he said: “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father” but Jesus told him: “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.” Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you but first let me say good-bye to my family” but Jesus told him: “Anyone who puts a hand to the plough and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.” As noted above, Jesus asked the men to count the cost of discipleship but each man was unwilling to pay the price of doing so, as described below.
The first man jumped in without thinking carefully enough about the practical consequences: I shall refer to him as Habakkuk Hasty. The second man made excuses because he appeared to lack sufficient faith and trust; I refer to him as David Dither. The third man tried to buy time by appealing to family affairs; I refer to him as Pontius Procrastinate. Jesus had something significant and personal to say to each man but the principles apply to all of us because there is likely to be something of each of those men’s character weaknesses in everyone, namely, impetuous behaviour, weak faith and using diversionary tactics to avoid wholehearted commitment. Such is the importance of Jesus’s encounters with and responses to the three men that they merit a close examination of the issues attached to each one in detail.
Habakkuk Hasty was eager and enthusiastic about following Jesus but had clearly given insufficient thought to the cost involved. It appears from Matthew’s account of the incident that the man was a teacher of the law (see Matthew Chapter 8), so it is reasonable to assume that he was intellectual and not prone to irrational decisions. Indeed, he not only volunteered to be Jesus’s disciple, but he even claimed that he would follow Jesus wherever he went. It is probable that if you or I were to encounter such fervour for the cause that we espouse, we would respond warmly and positively. But Jesus warned him that there was a price to pay, as well as spiritual benefits to accrue.
It soon becomes obvious that in Mr Hasty’s case, his enthusiasm was not rooted in faith (i.e. trust in God) but in his human instinct to find excitement and explore new areas of service which, though admirable attributes, do not supersede the need for Holy Spirit vision and a sober consideration of the likely cost: personal, financial, emotional and physical. True faith is not defined as rushing ahead in an ill-considered way without acknowledging the implications and costs involved. While a person’s feelings may trigger a desire to ‘do something’, God may have other plans for him or her that take priority over a rush of emotion. I have heard people hear about acute poverty or see pictures of suffering people in another part of the world and exclaim that they would love to go and help them, which is an understandable and loving response; however, the next question to be asked is whether God wants the person to go and become actively involved or to stay at home and provide funds to support the work of others. Here is a poem that I penned some years ago after a close friend expressed just such a dilemma; it is titled ‘RESPONDING TO THE CALL’.
Should I go or should I stay? Work at home or far away?
Speak the Word in places new or be content with what I do?
Is God still able now to use those who fear but don’t refuse?
Those who keep the lost in sight, labouring with all their might?
Though He knows His geography, Jesus just says ‘Follow me’.
Some He’ll lead to distant lands: for some He has quite different plans.
God’s more interested to know whether you’re prepared to go,
For everywhere there are folk to meet: in jungle, desert, park or street.
God’s witnesses are needed here, as well in places dark and drear.
And who knows what the Lord has planned for those who serve in their fair land?
The One who always sees afar can give you grace just where you are.
Can make you salt in your hometown and shine your light to all around
So there’s no need to fret at all that you have missed His great high call
Across the world or down the lane — God’s purposes are just the same.
Let’s imagine a situation in which a person claims to have waited upon God for guidance and is convinced that he or she should ‘take a step of faith’ and become involved in a specific form of ministry. Such willingness to trust and obey is commendable but the scriptural guidance is to involve other believers in the decision and ensure that they are prayerfully convinced that the path ahead seems good to them and to the Holy Spirit (see Acts Chapter 15 verse 28). In practice, working out the will and purpose of God for a person or group of people requires prayerful consideration, wise counsel and step-by-step obedience. Undoubtedly, there are instances where people have received such a clear word from God that they are in absolutely no doubt about what they must do and proceed; such instances are, however, comparatively rare and there is also a danger that the person will be advised by enthusiastic friends with limited spiritual insight and discernment. As referred to in Chapter 2, the classic case of taking poor advice involved King Rehoboam of Israel, who heeded the opinions of his young friends and ignored the wise counsel of established godly men (see First Book of Kings, Chapter 12).
Someone may experience a ‘blinding light’ like Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) on the way to persecute Christians in the city of Damascus (Acts Chapter 9) or ‘hear God speak’ through reading Scripture, praying or listening to a stirring appeal; nevertheless, the person still needs a prophetic word of wisdom from a godly person, such as Ananias (as did Saul/Paul) or a commendation from church leaders (e.g. when Barnabas and Saul embarked on their missionary journey from Syrian Antioch; see Acts Chapter 14). In the latter case, it is important to note that the leaders in Antioch were praying and fasting when the Holy Spirit spoke clearly to them. Spiritual discernment is borne of waiting upon God, not intellectual evaluation of a situation, though practical considerations also require godly wisdom. The leaders at Antioch could have identified a number of others to undertake the mission; instead, the Holy Spirit singled out an experienced, well-respected Christian (Barnabas, who is described as a ‘good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’, Acts Chapter 11 verse 24) and a relatively new convert (Saul). The selection of these two men is a reminder of two things: (a) pairing a less experienced person with someone of greater experience is a valuable principle in Christian discipleship and (b) God must be allowed to be in control of key decisions if progress in the proclamation of the Gospel is to be maintained. It is also noteworthy that later in the Book of Acts, Saul (Paul) is named ahead of Barnabas and designated the chief spokesman and evangelist, reversing the original order of seniority. Barnabas’s humility in respecting Paul’s spiritual authority is a fine example of Christian humility and recognition of God’s sovereignty. Regrettably, Paul and Barnabas are said to have separated later after having a ‘sharp disagreement’ about the role of another disciple, John. (See Acts Chapter 15 verse 38-40). Such events are a painful reminder of human frailty; nevertheless, God ensured that the Gospel message of hope and salvation in Jesus Christ was maintained and (it could be argued) enhanced, following the parting of ways.
Some Church leaders give the impression that they are the people that formulate the vision (i.e. the best direction to proceed) and leave other believers (notably their followers in the case of an organisation or ‘flock’ in the case of a church leader) with the task of implementing it. Jesus did not, however, separate the vision from the practice, telling his disciples that they must go forth and spread the good news (gospel). For example, as he ascended into heaven: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ and teaching such as: ‘Go and be salt and light’ and ‘go and say to this people’. Importantly, he always promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead and guide and empower them; they were not alone when they followed his command and did not need to be concerned about their weaknesses, frailties or anxieties. It is a necessary reminder for everyone who desires to fulfil a heavenly vision that we need the power of God within us if we are to be effective; hard work, talent and dedication are important attributes but they cannot compensate for a lack of God’s empowering.
Jesus also told the disciples to go in pairs and take only the bare essential with them as they moved from place to place. It is little wonder that Jesus impressed upon the eager lawyer, Mr Hasty, that having a desire to follow Him was insufficient reason to become his disciple: the cost and implications in respect of human ambition, comfort and reputation first needed to be weighed carefully before a concrete decision was made. As noted in Chapter 4 of this book, there were many would-be followers who found the level of commitment to be too great.
It seems more than likely that Mr Hasty similarly decided that the cost of following Jesus was too great; on the other hand, perhaps he changed his mind after careful consideration and realised that discipleship is not a spectator sport; attending church is not merely a pleasant pastime or hobby; and following Jesus wholeheartedly is not something to be taken lightly.
Mr Dither was invited by Jesus to follow him but hesitated too long because, it seems, he lacked the conviction to put other matters to one side and make discipleship his priority. Jesus must have recognised his potential and sincerity but needed to test his faith and encourage him to search his own soul and heart to see if he had other priorities.
In response, the man explained that he must first bury his father, which at first sight seemed a perfectly reasonable request; however, scholars say that the father had not yet died! Mr Dither wanted to wait until his father died because, were he to follow Jesus and the father died while he was away, he could lose out on the proceeds of the estate. We are not informed whether the father’s death was imminent or far ahead but the man used its prospect as a reason or perhaps, an excuse, to step back from total commitment to Jesus.
While there is every reason to be critical of Mr Dither’s response, it is unwise and unfair to be spiritually supercilious about his decision. After all, Jesus demanded that each person must ‘count the cost’ and Mr Dither decided that giving up the security of economic stability (through acquiring the inheritance) was simply too much to sacrifice. Jesus was not fooled by the man’s apparently justifiable excuse but was forthright in telling him that others were capable of performing the domestic task concerning his father’s estate (as Mr Dither undoubtedly knew). Each of us, if we seek to follow and serve the Saviour, will be faced with innumerable decisions about our level of commitment. The issue may be a significant one, such as whether to leave a promising career to serve in a full-time capacity, or a minor choice about whether to attend a prayer meeting or remain at home and watch a favourite programme. Making a proper decision about such matters, whether great or small, requires that we are walking closely with Lord God and listening carefully to His Spirit. Our faith and trust in God is perhaps put to the test most sharply when the relinquishment of worldly possessions is a factor.
There are many historic instances where a person has to endure extreme suffering or loss of status or financial pressures as a result of being wholly committed to Christ. For example, Charles Studd gave up his cricketing career and large fortune, as a result of his obedience. He remained in Africa until his death and did not return home. It is said that the pioneering heart surgeon, Christiaan Barnard (the spelling is correct), spent months away from his family without regular contact in order to pursue his calling. In addition to the toll on his health and pressures of constant failures in the medical procedures, Barnard’s three marriages all ended in divorce. Away from the limelight, thousands of committed Christians have forsaken well-paid and secure careers to serve needy people across the world, sharing the Gospel through medical practice, education, orphanage work, caring for the poor and destitute, improving facilities (housing, water supplies, etc.), multi-media communication and expressing Christ’s love in numerous forms of word and deed. For each of these wholeheartedly committed followers, the costs that they pay financially, physically, mentally and emotionally are high but the rewards of knowing that their labour is pleasing to God and a blessing to others more than compensates for the loss in other areas of life. It is doubtful that any of the pioneer mission workers in years past could predict the hardships that lay ahead but their determination to pursue their calling meant that obstacles and sacrifices could be handled in the certain knowledge that they were obeying their heavenly Master. Today’s ‘soldiers of Christ’ have far greater access to advice and guidance but must still weigh the costs and blessings involved.
It is possible for Christians to hear and read about these great men and women of faith with a sense of wonder without recognising that the call of Jesus Christ upon every believer’s life to trust him and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit applies universally. While it is true that some believers are given the gift of faith and respond to their calling in exceptional ways, the principle of waiting upon God, listening for His voice through prayer, receiving advice from wise fellow believers, listening to and absorbing anointed ministry and simply waiting quietly for the ‘quiet whisper’ of God’s Spirit (e.g. Elijah in the cave, see 1st Book of Kings Chapter 19) is in the gift of every true follower of Jesus. Acknowledging the Spirit’s leading, confirmation of the call through the support of mature Christians and stepping out in obedience to God’s will and purpose should form a natural part of discipleship. Admiring the faith and obedience of others can inspire and motivate us but failure to act on our own calling by finding excuses deprives potential recipients of the blessing that would otherwise accrue.
It is important to stress that there is a difference between legitimate reasons for delaying our response (such as the urgent need to care for an elderly relative) and making excuses for following God’s express command (such as citing time pressures or arguing that we don’t possess the necessary qualities). The Apostle Luke records that Jesus told a parable to highlight the disquieting truth that ‘making excuses’ can even be used to delay accepting his offer of salvation (see Chapter 14). A common example of this sad phenomenon is when someone claims to be too busy, not religious, too young, too immersed in family life or business commitments to seriously consider the claims of Christ upon his or her life.
Decisions made on the basis of discerning the call of God are often delicate and challenging ones that require earnest waiting, as to His will and purpose. In contrast to the timidity that leads to hesitation about serving God in a specific way, it is also possible to be drawn to a sphere of service that appears to offer excitement and personal fulfilment, while overlooking the work for Jesus that is immediate and pressing. To quote the words of Elsie Yale’s well-known hymn: ‘There’s a work for Jesus, ready at your hand, ’tis a task the Master just for you has planned. Haste to do His bidding, yield Him service true. There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do’.
In summary, the first step in the process of discovering God’s will and purpose is to commit to following Jesus unreservedly. The second step is to receive clear guidance from the Holy Spirit about the specific sphere of service, which will often make use of the skills and talents that we already possess, though God will sometimes place us in unfamiliar areas of service to test our faith and make us rely on His grace and enabling. The third step is to share the vision with mature Christians and gain their support. The final step is to persevere and be courageous in pursuing the goal and proclaiming the Kingdom of God (see later in this chapter under ‘Perseverance of believers’). It goes without saying that regardless of our calling, it is incumbent on every believer to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness’ (Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 6 verse 33) through living in a way that pleases God by exhibiting loving kindness, goodness and self-control. God is reluctant to use spiritually leaking vessels, as He made clear through the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah: ‘For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me—the fountain of living water—and they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!’ (Chapter 2 verse 13)
The third person mentioned in Luke’s account of Jesus’s encounters with three men (though not necessarily on the same occasion) is Mr Procrastinate. In common with Mr Dither, his reason for hesitating to follow Jesus appears to be perfectly reasonable, namely to say goodbye to his family. What’s so wrong with that?
To understand Jesus’s apparently unsympathetic response to the man, we have to remember that Jesus looks beyond the outward appearance and into the heart and deepest motives. All is laid bare before his searching eye. He recognises when we are ‘half-hearted’. He knows that we are inclined to search for safety and security in familiar situations when he asks us to follow his guiding and leading into places that stretch our faith or even dark and physically dangerous situations. He is also well aware that family members can be highly influential in persuading someone not to be obedient to Him, especially if it entails great personal cost.
For example, parents of mission workers may not see their grandchildren very often, though technological advances have made ‘virtual’ contact far easier, and might well express their disappointment and emotional anguish at the prospect of losing physical contact with their loved ones. Similarly, the wife of a man considering full-time service is likely to be anxious about loss of finance, accommodation and the children’s education. Little wonder that the Apostle Paul cautioned that married life could seriously restrict mission work and distract people from their primary purpose of obeying God. With such considerations in mind, remaining single had to be given serious consideration; see, for instance, Paul’s advice in his letter to Christians in Corinth: ‘So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows—it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am. But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust’ (Chapter 7 verses 8 & 9).
In passing, it may be noted that Paul referred to the role of women as being as significant as that of men. The majority of evangelists in the early church were men, as at that time, women had a great deal less freedom than in Western nations today. During the time of the early church, a widow in particular would be making a considerable level of sacrifice, as her low status in society made her vulnerable to ridicule and exploitation; the temptation to find another partner would be a major factor to ensure her security and wellbeing. It is little wonder that as Jesus was dying on the Cross of Calvary, he made sure that his (presumably widowed) mother was taken care of by John, as Mary’s son, James, does not appear to have been a believer at this point in time (see John’s Gospel Chapter 19 verses 26-27).
Another factor that may dissuade a person following the Spirit’s leading is when family and friends warn him or her about ‘getting deeply too involved’. They fear that even a true disciple of Jesus may be drawn into an unsuitable life style or make a serious, irreversible decision or be indoctrinated by a fanatical group. Such a tension is described in John Bunyan’s book, Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian’s wife rails against her husband when he seeks to faithfully follow God’s leading. The implications for family and friends and its impact upon their lives has to be a consideration for anyone seeking to find and follow the will and purpose of God for his or her life, especially when a decision requires other family members to make significant adjustments. Despite the need for carefully weighing of these factors, the would-be seeker after the Lord’s plan and purpose for his or her life cannot allow the weaker faith of others to be the determining factor in making a decision. Such matters are far from straightforward and need Spirit-filled wisdom and a humble heart.
From our perspective, Mr Procrastinate’s request was perfectly reasonable and we may wonder why Jesus appears to have been so abrupt in his response. It is important, however, to take careful note of Jesus’s exact words to the man, namely that ‘no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Luke Chapter 9 verse 52). It is likely that Jesus had in mind the events involving Abraham’s nephew, Lot and Lot’s wife, as they escaped from the burning inferno of Sodom (Genesis Chapter 19). Jesus did not say that the man would be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven by turning back; rather, he emphasised that ‘service’ in the Kingdom involves a clear focus on the task in hand such that total, unhindered commitment is essential. Interestingly, a serious conflict of opinion occurred in the early church when one of the disciples, John Mark (usually known as Mark) turned back from following the Apostle Paul on his missionary journey. Despite this blemish on his service record, Mark wrote an account of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection and was the person that Paul asked to visit him in prison. The act of ‘looking back’ does not spell the end of our service for God but may disqualify us until we repent and determine to live afresh for His glory.
Benefits and sacrifices
As we reflect upon the responses of the three men in the above account, it helps in gaining a fuller understanding that the benefits of being a disciple have to be weighed against the sacrifices that are needed if our calling is to be little more than an emotional impulse. When Jesus becomes the focal point of our life and supersedes status, possessions and societal approval, God may direct us in surprising ways and along unexpected paths. The early 20th century missionary to Africa, Charles T Studd was directed to release his considerable fortune before venturing into the unknown. Studd later wrote that while some Christians were content with the easy life ‘within the sound of church or chapel bell’, he devoted himself to building ‘a rescue shop within a yard of hell’. Other Christian pioneers, such as Robert Raikes, Hannah Moore, Elizabeth Fry and George Müller were compelled by the love of Christ to devote themselves to serving the poor and neglected. Müller explained the success of his ministry, as follows: “There was a day when I died, utterly died to George Müller, his opinions, preferences, tastes, and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame of even my brethren and friends; and since then I have studied to show myself approved only unto God”.
Although God does not call the majority of people to sacrificial commitment of the kind outlined above, each Christian has to make decisions about his or her use of time and resources, every one of which acts as a measure of the individual’s level of obedience to Christ. The demands of true discipleship far exceed being regular members of a church or conforming to a life-style that rarely stretches faith or allows room for the Holy Spirit to do His work. Wholehearted devotion to Jesus involves a willingness to lay aside personal preferences, comforts and desires; it necessitates a deliberate act of the will to follow Him who is ‘The Way’. If we are walking in close accord with the Spirit, choices and decisions are made far more straightforward than if we have a superficial relationship with the Father and only come to Him when we are confused about the right path to take. As the Apostle Paul urges the Christians in Galatia: ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit’ (Chapter 5, verses 24-5, NIVUK) or in the New Living Translation: ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives’.
Perhaps church leaders, evangelists and those who ‘gossip the Gospel’ to friends and relatives have failed to explain adequately the demands (as well as the joys) of accepting Jesus Christ as Saviour. Outlining the theology is relatively straightforward, thus: every person is a sinner in need of forgiveness; the substitutionary death of Christ on the Cross of Calvary was to atone (make amends) for our sins; new life is promised, both in this life and beyond the grave. However, the fear of alarming would-be converts makes it tempting to present a somewhat distorted Gospel in which the benefits are celebrated, while the possible suffering and hardships are scarcely mentioned. As a result, when new converts face difficulties, opposition and persecution, they are shocked and discouraged. While it is counter-productive to over-emphasise the likely trials that await new believers, it is incumbent upon all of us to gently explain the cost, as well as the present and eternal joy.
Everyone is searching for something (and possibly, someone) in their lives that will give them a sense of purpose, hope and direction. Most people in the world are caught up in a search for financial security, stable relationships and enjoyment, all of which are perfectly legitimate aims. In addition, however, there is a deep yearning to understand the essential meaning and purpose in life. Undemanding, organised religion, in which following a set of rules, procedures and regulations are the basic requirements for adherents seems to have lost its appeal. Younger people, in particular, don’t want a ‘candy-coated’ Christianity with gentle persuasion and the promise of happy times in store; neither are they persuaded by a simplistic gospel, devoid of Jesus’s challenging statements about persecution and suffering and separation from worldly ways. Experiences of the majority of Christians living in the ‘Developing World’ (notably, countries in Africa) and in ‘Emerging Economies’ (e.g. China and India), in ‘One-Party States’ (Communist countries, such as Russia, Cuba and Vietnam) and in ultra-religious dictatorships are anything but smooth and uncomplicated. To offer new life in Christ to comfortable Westerners that neglects reference to the potential cost of following him is to do a severe disservice to those for whom following Jesus often results in hardship, social stigma and official obstruction.
While it is undoubtedly true that presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to children and poorly educated adults requires Spirit-led discernment and wisdom, the response will, in large measure, reflect the way in which we conduct ourselves and show genuine love towards the person. To speak plainly to someone, however gently, about issues concerning sin, judgement, heaven and eternal separation from God necessitates that our lives are free from any hint of hypocrisy or, understandably, the individual is likely to react negatively or angrily. Ahead of every form of testimony or witness, Christians need to examine their lives and see where they stand in regard to Jesus’ command to put him at the centre of everything; there is no room for ‘self’ or boastfulness, only humility and integrity.
Most people have an inner desire to conform and it’s difficult to ask them to break the mould and reject popular culture or the prevailing social norms. Children are always anxious to secure solid friendships; and being excluded from the ‘crowd’ is among a teenager’s greatest fear. The problem for those who wish to advance the cause of the Gospel is that Christianity breaks the mould! Jesus commands us to seek the narrow way and warns us that there are few that find it. True discipleship invites commitment that supersedes all else. It is uncompromising (‘you cannot serve God and mammon’), so rejects much that the rest of the world holds dear. It can also be isolating; that is one reason that Christians tend to seek fellowship with other believers. Unfortunately, Christians tend to have few non-Christian with whom they are friendly, which makes witnessing difficult.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ in modern times is likely to mean that our message will often be rejected through inertia (‘passivity’) from the individual concerned rather than direct opposition. Nevertheless, even mild rejection can be painful, especially if the person concerned lets it be known that he or she would prefer not to discuss the matter further. When the individual is a friend or relative with whom you have regular contact, the position becomes even more challenging. Believers can only leave it to the Holy Spirit to prompt such ‘reluctant’ people to reach a point where they ‘seek and find’ of their own volition without the need for direct human intervention. In such instances, the importance of unconditional love becomes a necessity.
As both sceptics and serious enquirers often ask challenging questions about the Christian faith, it is important to be clear about what we believe and what the Bible has to say about difficult issues, while recognising that we cannot search the mind of God or know His thoughts in precise detail. (I address a number of these issues in earlier Chapters). We must therefore be wise but positive about the sorts of claims that we make and assumptions about God’s eternal plan of salvation in Christ. At the same time, our desire to be thought well of can also jeopardise our witness because we don’t want to be thought of as ‘odd’. Similarly, a desire for fame or the lure of possessions or the enticement of worldly status (i.e. status that is accorded by human decision, not by God’s will and purpose) can deflect from a wholehearted commitment to the cause of Christ. In making choices about how to use our knowledge, expertise and abilities, it is essential to be reminded of the fact that true discipleship demands ‘unconditional surrender’ to the point where we can say with the Apostle Paul that ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians Chapter 2 verse 20, NIVUK).
While the prevailing approach among many people in the liberal-minded ‘Western World’ is syncretism (pick and mix from a variety of sources and beliefs), followers of Jesus need to immerse themselves in the truth claim that Jesus is the only way to the Father, as he emphasised in his ministry. Of course, there are difficult questions to face. Opposition is uncomfortable but we should welcome such interest, rather than resent it or be afraid that we will falter in our response.
Perseverance of Believers
There are a large number of characters in the Bible who demonstrated admirable perseverance in the midst of turmoil and challenge. For example, Noah spent one hundred years constructing a boat when rain was an unknown phenomenon. Abraham followed God’s directing through many years of nomadic existence before God’s will became completely clear for his life and destiny. King David held fast when he was forced to escape both from King Saul and later from his own son (see below).
People in the Old Testament who trusted God during challenging periods in their lives did not know directly about Jesus but placed their hope and trust in the promised Redeemer who would come to save his people from their sins, as numerous prophecies foretold. King David’s life had its ups and downs, yet it was during one of his most severe ‘down times’ when he was forced to run away and hide in the desert after his son, Absalom, set out to kill him and seize the throne, that he discovered so much about God’s character. Thus, in Psalm 63, David describes how God is worthy of our praise. For example, in verses 3 and 5: ‘Your unfailing love is better than life itself; how I praise you! I will praise you as long as I live, lifting up my hands to you in prayer…I will praise you with songs of joy.’ In fact, much of the Psalm is saturated with praise and rejoicing. If David was so full of gratitude and thankfulness when he was suffering such intense emotional pain and anguish, we have so much more for which to thank God, not least, forgiveness from sin through Jesus Christ. A focus on the Person of Jesus Christ (who was God in human form) will help to turn our eyes away from the dissatisfaction or anxieties that we might be feeling in our present circumstances and towards Him. We can luxuriate in the warmth of His love for us and the certainty of His promises, regardless of our situation or suffering. Certainly, such an attitude is easier to speak about than to practise, especially when there is a long term, worrying problem gnawing away in our mind, but an essential element of faith is to trust and praise God through the challenging times in life. If we develop the habit of thankfulness during the ‘sunshine days’, it is likely that we will find it easier to give God thanks and praise during the tough times, as King David did.
In the New Testament, following Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension, the Apostle Paul is the supreme example of someone who persevered against all odds and remained faithful to his calling. In his second letter to the Christians in Corinth (Chapter 11 verses 23-31) he describes all that he had to endure:
- Receiving 39 lashes on five occasions
- Beaten with rods three times
- Shipwrecked three times
- Spending one day and night adrift in the open sea
- Constantly on the move
- In danger from rivers, bandits, Jews and Gentiles
- In danger in the city and in the country
- In danger at sea
- In danger from false believers
- Often going without sleep
- Being hungry and thirsty, after going without food
- Being cold and naked
- Carrying a burden for the new churches and its people
We are given insights into the depth of Paul’s devotion to Christ by referring to the predictions that he shared with the elders of the Ephesian Church before he made the journey to Jerusalem: ‘And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God’ (Acts Chapter 20 verses 22-24). Paul’s trials and his remarkably sanguine response to them puts into sharp relief our relatively minor discomforts, such as:
- Being teased by friends for our beliefs
- Being rejected or ridiculed by those we try to influence
- Being overlooked for promotion because we insist on maintaining integrity
- Finding ourselves isolated and alone because we refused to conform to worldly ways
- Having few suitable marriage partners
- Experiencing bodily and mental weariness because we expend our efforts in active Christian service
- Focusing on the lowly and needy, rather than seeking the approval of influential people
So we must run the race with perseverance, for we shall find blessing if we are willing to keep going in God’s direction, empowered by His Spirit and looking to Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. The Apostle Paul clearly expressed his own intentions, as he wrote to Christians in a number of the churches that he established during his missionary journeys: ‘But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians Chapter 3 verses 13 & 14, NIVUK). And the writer of the Book of Hebrews echoes the sentiment: ‘Let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the originator and perfecter of our faith Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne’ (Hebrews Chapter 12 verses 1 & 2)
Being a disciple means that we have to persevere and be faithful to the end. Perseverance is not popular in our ‘instant gratification’ generation; by contrast, perseverance in the face of uncertainty, doubt, fear and disappointment is an essential quality for those who take seriously the claims of Christ upon their lives. The example set by the Lord Jesus Christ is one that should inspire and challenge every Christian, as he ‘set his face’ towards Jerusalem and despite having the power and authority to save himself, endured the shame and anguish of the cross. As the sinless ‘Lamb of God’, he was made sin for us, bearing in his body the sins of the world to achieve our salvation. In the Book of Revelation Chapter 14 verse 12, the Apostle John explains that as the end of the world as we presently know it draws closer: ‘This [situation] calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus’. Perseverance needs to be directed by the Holy Spirit and motivated by a love for Jesus Christ and fallen humanity, who need to know about the Saviour who gave his life for them and promises a wonderful prospect of a blissful eternity. It is, however, quite possible to persevere in an area of service that does not have the Spirit’s anointing and thereby rendering our efforts ineffectual.
The cost of following Jesus will almost certainly demand sacrifice on our part but the rewards are great if we are willing to persevere and finish the race that he has set before us.
THE RACE (attributed to D.H. Groberg, slightly modified)
Quit, give up, you’re beaten, they shout at me and plead
There’s far too much against you now, this time you can’t succeed
And as I start to hang my head in front of failure’s face
My downward fall is broken by the memory of a race
A children’s race, young boys, young men; how I remember well
Excitement, sure, but also fear, it wasn’t hard to tell
They all lined up, so full of hope, each thought to win that race
Or tie for first, or if not that, at least take second place
As fathers watched from on the side, each cheering for his son
And each boy hoped to show his dad that he would be the one
The whistle blew, and off they went, young hearts and hopes afire
To win and be the hero was each young boy’s desire
And one boy, in particular, whose dad was in the crowd
Was running near the lead and thought: My dad will be so proud
But as they speeded down the field across a shallow dip
The little boy who hoped to win lost his step, to slip
And trying hard to catch himself, his hands flew out to brace
And midst the laughter of the crowd he fell flat on his face
So down he fell, and with it hope, he couldn’t win it now
Embarrassed, sad, he only wished to disappear somehow
But as he fell, his dad stood up and showed his anxious face
Which to the boy so clearly said: Get up and win the race
He quickly rose, no damage done, behind a bit, that’s all
And ran with all his will and might to make up for his fall
So anxious to restore himself, to catch up and to win
His mind went faster than his legs…he slipped, and fell again
He wished then he had quit before, with only one disgrace
I’m hopeless as a runner now, I shouldn’t try to race
But in the laughing crowd he searched and found his father’s face
That steady look which said again: Get up and win the race
So up he jumped to try again, ten yards behind the last
To make up for lost ground, he thought, I’d better move real fast
Exerting everything he had, he caught up eight or ten
But trying so hard to catch the lead, he slipped and fell again
Defeated, he lay there silently, a teardrop left his eye
It’s pointless running any more, three times I’ve crashed, why try?
The will to rise had disappeared, all hope had fled away
So far behind…so error prone…a loser all the day
I’ve lost, so what’s the use? he cried, I’ll live with my disgrace
But then he thought about his dad, who soon he’d have to face
Get up, an echo sounded low, Get up and take your place
You were not meant for failure here, get up and win the race
The voice came clear: Get up, it said, you haven’t lost at all
For winning is no more than this: to rise each time you fall
So up he rose to run once more and with a new commit
He resolved that whether win or lose, at least he wouldn’t quit
So far behind the others now, the most he’d ever been
And yet he gave it all he had, and ran with will unseen
Three times he’d fallen, stumbled down…three times he rose again
Too far behind to hope to win, he still ran to the end
They cheered the winning runner as he crossed the line, first place
Head high, proud, and happy too, no falling, no disgrace
But when the fallen youngster came to cross the line last place
The crowd gave him the greatest cheer for finishing the race
And even though he came in last, with head bowed low, not proud
You would have thought he’d won the race to listen to that crowd
And to his dad he sadly said: I didn’t do so well
To me you won, his father said, you rose each time you fell
And now, when life seems dark and hard and difficult to cope
The memory of that little boy now helps me not to mope
For all of life is like a race, with ups and downs and all
And what you have to do to win is rise each time you fall
Quit, give up, you’re beaten, they still shout in my face
But another voice within me calls: Get up and win the race