(Preached at First Baptist, Pauls Valley, OK 8-03-14)
In Matthew 28, Jesus gave His Great Commission to go and “make disciples.” The most important business of the church is to make disciples. But what does it mean to be a disciple? It means more than raising your hand, or going forward and filling out a card, or being baptized, or being a member of a church. It is a commitment of your life to Jesus to be His follower. Jesus tells us something of the kind of commitment He requires of His followers in Luke 9:23:
“And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.'”
I. To Be A Disciple Means to Deny Your SELF
Jesus said if anyone would come after Him he must “deny himself”. Now, we need to understand what this really means. This Greek Bible word “arneomai” means to “say ‘no’ to” or “deny”. It is the word used in Matthew 26, when Peter “denied” that he knew Jesus. It means to disown.
In THIS case, Jesus uses the word to say that we are to “deny” OURSELVES. It is in the “middle voice,” which means that we to do this to OURSELVES. We are to “deny ourselves.”
Now, we need to realize that this does NOT mean what a lot of people think it does. To “deny yourself” the way that Jesus is speaking of here does NOT mean “deny yourself” of your favorite ice cream, or something like that. That kind of thing sounds very “religious” and it is a tenet of many religious systems, but it is not at the heart of what Jesus is talking about.
For example, when Cheryl & I lived in Southwest Louisiana, there was a big Catholic influence in the area, as it was the religion of choice for most of the people in the area. Every year in February, they celebrated “Lent”, and you would hear of people who were “giving up” certain things for Lent. They would say they are “giving up cokes” or “giving up chocolate” or “giving up red meat”, etc. for Lent. The idea was that they were “denying themselves” of certain things for a few weeks for their religious observance of the season. Some take it even further than that. There are monks who “give up” marriage or the ability to have possessions, etc.
But this kind of “self denial” is not what Jesus is talking about here. He didn’t mean by this call that we are just to deny ourselves certain particular things; it is much more radical than that. He meant you are to “disown” your very “SELF” — the big “I” that is at the center of most of our lives.
It has been said that “money is the root of all evil” – this is a misquote. But I do believe that pride is the root of all evil. It was apparently Satan’s original sin (I Timothy 3:6 “lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.”) and is the root of our sins as well. We don’t want to submit to God and His commandments; we want to do what WE want to do. Like Elvis & Sinatra’s “My Way”, we want to be the “lords” of our own lives. This is the very heart of sin.
So to follow Jesus means that we are to DENY this “self-centered life”, and put the Lord back on the throne of your life. “Denying yourself some little pleasures” is CHEAP AND EASY compared to this!
When Jesus says here that to follow Him you must “deny yourself” means that you take the “I” OFF the throne of your life, and put HIM ON it. That is entirely different than merely “denying yourself” some particular things. You can tell yourself, “I am not going to have any ice cream” or “I am not going to watch a certain tv show”, or “I am going to give up a certain amount of money and give it to church” — but still have the “I” on the throne of your life. To really follow Jesus means that you don’t just give up certain individual things, like smoking or drinking or whatever; it means that you take yourself OFF the throne of your life and put CHRIST there. You “deny” your “self” the throne of your life and make Jesus your Lord & Master. He is now the One who is “calling the shots” for everything you have and are in your life.
One example of this might be in our dealings with money. We think things like: “I am going to ‘deny myself’ a meal of eating out, and magnanimously put $20 in the offering plate” and think this is what God wants. It isn’t. To “deny yourself” like Jesus is talking about here doesn’t mean you deny yourself of $20, it means you deny yourself of the right to ALL the money you have! It means you see it ALL as belonging to Him, and you do whatever He tells you to with it: if He tells you to tithe the first 10% — you do that. If He tells you to give an additional 5% to missions, then you do that. Or if He even tells you to give it ALL away, as He did the Rich Young Ruler, you do that — because you are no longer in charge of your money; HE is!
To “deny yourself” means that you are no longer in charge of your money; Jesus is. You are not longer in charge of your career; Jesus is. It means that nothing is yours; it all belongs to Him. It is not your house; it is His. It is not your money; it is His. Those are not your children or grandchildren; they are His. You are not longer seated on the throne of your life — HE IS. That is what it means to “deny your self”. “Self” is no longer on the throne of your life — Jesus is!
II. To Be a Disciple Means You Take Up Your Cross Daily
This, of course, comes right out of the next phrase, where Jesus commanded His would-be followers to: “take up your cross daily.”
The problems is, many of us have heard this phrase for so many years that it has lost its meaning for us. But we need to remember that the “cross” was the instrument of the death penalty. It is important to observe the context here: Jesus had just told His disciples that He was the Messiah, and that He was about to be killed by the Jewish religious leaders. He also just told them: I am going to suffer and be rejected and killed. If you are going to follow Me, you must be willing to do the same thing. It is in THAT context that He spoke those words: “If any man will come after Me …. you must take up your cross” — you must be willing to die, perhaps physically, and at minimum to your own goals, plans and worldly ideas of “success” for your life.
Many of you have probably kept up with the recent persecution of Christians by the ISIS group in Iraq. Christians there have been fleeing their homes and businesses by the thousands, as they have been targeted for persecution by the Muslim militants. As part of their program of terror, the Muslims have been spray painting the Arabic letter “Nun” on homes and businesses that they know are owned by Christians. The Arabic letter “Nun” is the first letter in “Nazarene” in Arabic. They spray paint this letter on homes and businesses to indicate that these people belong to the Nazarene, Jesus, and the business is going to be destroyed soon by the Muslim insurgents, and its owners persecuted and killed. This identification with Jesus there is a mark of death.
That is a sad and terrifying way to live, but in a real sense it is what Jesus called His followers to: to “take up our cross” — the instrument of the death penalty — and to identify with Him, and whatever hardship or suffering that may involve for us.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his famous book, The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
— It was said of Martin Luther that when he came to Christ he realized “this grace had cost him his very life, and must continue to cost him the same price day by day.”
— George Whitefield, the great English preacher, wrote in the 1700’s “In our days, to be a true Christian is to be a scandal.”
This is true today as well. You may lose your reputation; your standing; your position. You may not lose your life — at least in America yet — but you have to be willing to put to death your reputation in the eyes of others. You have to “take up the cross” and be willing to put anything else in your life to death.
In I Kings 19, God had told Elijah the prophet to anoint Elisha to be the prophet of God after him. In :19 it says that Elijah found Elisha plowing with oxen, and Elijah put his mantle on him. (This is a sign of discipleship) Then, interestingly enough, the Bible says that Elisha took the two oxen with which he had been plowing, and he sacrificed them, shared a meal with everyone, “Then he arose and followed Elijah and ministered to him.”
This is a great picture of what discipleship is, and it involves the death of Elisha’s old life. He had been plowing with the oxen, but when he was called to follow Elijah, he sacrificed those oxen. He literally “put to death” his old life of plowing — he “burned those bridges”; there was no going back now! — and would follow his new master to the end.
That is how it is with following Jesus. We are to put to death our “old man”, our “old life”; our “old way of life”, to follow Him wherever He leads.
For many of us, it will NOT involve death, of course, but we are to have that perspective, that willingness, that commitment, to identify with Jesus, and make whatever sacrifice we are called on to make for His behalf.
Unfortunately, this is just what we do NOT see from so many so-called “Christians” in churches all over America today. People seem rarely willing to sacrifice anything for His cause:
— they don’t want to become uncomfortable for Him
— they won’t change their routine for Him
— they don’t want to hurt their reputation for Him
— they won’t suffer financially for Him
— they won’t make any extra effort for Him …
At some point you have to wonder, when does this stop being called “Christianity”? Jesus said His disciples were to be those who were taking up the cross — the instrument of the death penalty — and follow Him!
And this is not just a “once in a lifetime event”; it is daily commitment. Jesus said His disciples must take up their cross “DAILY” and follow Him. You can’t die physically every day, of course, but you can die to yourself every day. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus wrestled with what His own flesh wanted to do, and what He knew God wanted Him to do, and He cried out, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” For us to “take up our cross daily” means that each day we have a “Daily Gethsemane” as it were, in which we say to God: “Today I am not going to do what I want to do; I am going to do what YOU have for me to do. I will sacrifice my will, my desires, my pleasures — whatever it takes — to follow and obey You.” This kind of self-surrender should be a part of every disciple’s morning prayer. Every day we are to “take up our cross” — and follow Him.
III. To Be A Disciple Means To FOLLOW
“and follow Me”
“Follow Me” is Jesus’ call to all who would be His disciples.
— it is the call He gave to Peter and Andrew: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
— it is the call He gave to James and John: “Follow Me.”
— it is the call He gave to Matthew the tax collector in his office: “Follow Me.”
— it is the call He gives in this verse to anyone who would follow Him: “Follow Me.”
If you are going to be His disciple, you must follow Him
Jesus gave that same call to the Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19. He told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor and have treasure in heaven, “and follow Me.” But the Bible tells us that the Rich Young Ruler would not do this, and “he went away sorrowful.” He did not follow. He did not become a disciple of Jesus. But Jesus would not compromise His call. He did not run after him and say “I didn’t really mean it; you don’t have to do all that.” If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, you must follow Him. You do not have to follow; no one is making you do it. The decision is ours. But if you want to be a disciple, you must follow Jesus. It is what it means to be a disciple.
This is not a call to “pray a prayer” and “sign a card” and get baptized and sit in a pew in worship services. It is a call to take yourself off of the throne of your life, and make Jesus your Lord & Master, and follow Him from this day forward.
So, if you have to follow Jesus to be a disciple, what does it mean to “follow” Jesus? For those early disciples, it meant that they would literally leave where they were and go with Him somewhere. Mark 3:14 says “And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him, and that He could send them out to preach …”. They were to be with Jesus, and learn from Him, and go and do what He did: preach, and heal and cast out demons.
Now we cannot physically “get up and follow Jesus” like the early disciples did. Jesus is not physically here for us to “go with Him.” But He still calls us to “follow Him” in ways which are similar to how His disciples followed Him:
— He called His disciples “so that they would be with Him.” When you follow someone you are “with them”. One of the most important things it means to follow Jesus is to spend time with Him; just to be with Him. Jesus is not bodily with us, but following Him still means that we are to spend time with Him.
Being with God is what mankind was created for in the beginning — to walk with God in the Garden. Sin separated us from being with Him, but when we are restored to a relationship with God through Jesus’ death on the cross, it is the relationship we are restored back to. Becoming a Christian is not just about “going to church”; it is about spending time with the God you were made to know! And so a vital part of following Jesus is just spending time with Him every day in His word and prayer — not as a “religious thing” you do, but just being with with Him: singing songs to Him, telling your needs to Him in prayer; and hearing back from Him as He speaks to you in His word. A time like this with Him every day is vital if you are really going to follow Jesus. “That they might be with Him” is the first purpose of discipleship, and the first way you need to follow Him.
— When you follow Jesus, it also means that you learn to do what He did. Mark 3 says He called His disciples to be with Him first, but then that He might send them out to do what He had been doing: preaching and ministering. They were to learn to do what He did. In Matthew 4, when He called Peter & Andrew, He said, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus said He had “come to seek and to save that which was lost”. So He was telling His disciples that they were to learn to do the things that He did in the world. We are to do the same thing.
I know a number of you are on Facebook. One feature of Facebook is that you can “follow” certain people, which means you get pictures and updates and information about them each day. For example, I was able to “follow” Mike & Cara (Youth Minister at FBC Pauls Valley) on their trip to Branson this week. But my “following” them did not mean that I really went out and “did” anything; I just read about them; I “kept up” with them. I think that terminology is interesting in light of this scripture. One of the problems in American “Christianity” today is that Jesus has too many “Facebook”-type “followers.” Just reading about Jesus, and “keeping up” with what His Spirit is doing in the world today is not following Jesus! When Jesus says: “Follow Me” He means go where I would go, and do what I am doing in the world!
As confessing Christians, each of us needs to ask ourselves: is this what I am doing? Am I doing what Jesus would be doing in the world?
At Trinity Norman last spring, we were practicing a new song in choir practice one Wednesday night, and the words were so convicting. It was a prayer song which said: “Let my feet walk where you would go; let my hands with mercy overflow. Let me lose what You lost for me. Let me be what you have been to me”. I almost couldn’t sing the words, I was so convicted. “Let my feet walk where You would go …”. Is this what I am doing? Am I going where Jesus would go? Am I doing what He would do? Or am I just going about my same old life?
*What are you doing with your life that looks like what Jesus would be doing in this world?* Where are you going that looks like where Jesus would go?*
Each of us needs to ask that personally — and we need to ask it as churches too. Are we following Jesus? Are we going where He would go? Are we doing what He would do — or are we just continuing to do what we’ve always done? It is time for the American church to ask: are we following Jesus in this world, or are we just sticking to the same schedule, the same activities, the same programs, whether they are really accomplishing what the Lord wants us to accomplish or not? Are we following Jesus?
(Let me add this here: A lot of people are introspective about whether they ever made a “decision” to follow Jesus. The best way to discern that is, are you following Jesus?! If you are following Him, then you obviously at some point made a decision to do it. If you are NOT following Him, then no matter whether you “made a decision” to follow Him or not, you aren’t doing it, so it wasn’t meaningful. In a sense we need to get away from this idea of “did you make a decision to follow Jesus” and just see: ARE you following Jesus?! That is what being a disciple is all about. It not whether you “made a decision”; it about whether you are following!)
IV. WHO Can Be A Disciple?
“If anyone wishes …”
Anyone who wants to, can become a disciple of Jesus. The invitation is open to all.
We see that in several places in this text: The verse opens with, “And He was saying to them ALL.” Then He says: “If anyone wills” to come after Me. The word “anyone” there is the Greek word, “tis”, which means, “anyone”! And the word “wishes” is the Greek word “thelei”, which means to will or desire or to wish something. Jesus is saying, Whoever wishes or wills to be My disciple, may — and He goes on to say, here is what you have to do. But the choice is available to all.
The next verse, :24, re-emphasizes that. It says whoever” wished (wills) to save his life … “whoever loses his life for My sake …”.
Jesus is pretty emphatic in these verses, that discipleship is for “whoever” wills to come.
Not everyone is going to become His disciple — but whether or not YOU do is up to YOU! It is your decision, and no one can make that decision for you.
We recently went “house shopping” with our oldest son Paul as he was looking at several different condos he was considering buying. We gave him some input — we told him we liked this or that feature about each one — but the decision was his. It is his life; his money; he is going to be making those payments, and he is going to be living there. We could advise him, but the decision and responsibility was HIS. I think he made a good decision, but whether he did or not was up to him. It was his decision to make.
There are a number of occasions like that in life, where each of us has to make his or her own decision, and no one else can make it for you.
But NO decision in life is more personal and important than the decision to follow Jesus. It is the most important decision of your life, and no one can make it for you.
— your mom & dad can’t make it for you
— your pastor can’t make it for you
— God hasn’t foreordained it and made it for you
It’s YOURS! It is the single most important decision of your life. It is what it means to be human; it is what it means to be made in the image of God; that we have been given a mind, and will and emotions, and we can make real, meaningful choices that have consequences.
Thus it is your responsibility, as a human being, to make the personal choice of whether to follow Jesus. And He is saying to YOU today just as certainly as the Bible says here that “He was saying to them ALL: ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”
Have you ever responded to Jesus the way this verse describes? Are you a disciple?