Bearing the Cross
Passage: Luke 14:25–14:35
Bearing the Cross
“Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.” That statement comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr for the faith, and it is a statement that accurately captures the tone of our passage this morning. “Discipleship,” Bonhoeffer said, “is not an offer that man makes to Christ.”
What Bonhoeffer meant is that we are not the ones who set the terms for discipleship – saying what’s required, establishing what’s expected, choosing how we will obey and under what circumstances. Disciples don’t define discipleship. Jesus does. Jesus, through his gospel, calls us, and Jesus, with sovereign authority, establishes what is required for those who would follow him. Far from being an offer we make to Christ, discipleship is a summons – an authoritative call that demands our submission.
And that perspective accurately summarizes our passage this morning. Of all the things we might say about this text, one thing is very clear – Jesus sets the terms. Jesus issues the demands. Simply notice the setting that Luke establishes in v25. There is a great crowd following Jesus, but instead of capitalizing on the moment, Jesus speaks quite bracingly of what discipleship requires. It’s almost as though Jesus is trying to weed out those who will not stick around. He’s certainly trying to get the crowd to see that discipleship requires more than popular enthusiasm.
In fact, that’s one of the important points to understand in this passage. Jesus intends to be alarming. His aim is to get your attention, to wake you up, and to cause you to ask, “Am I following Jesus on his terms or my own?”
And so, if we were to summarize Jesus’ terms in one sentence, it would be this – disciples must count the cost in following Jesus. That’s really the entire passage in one sentence. Disciples must count the cost in following Jesus. This is a non-negotiable in Christian discipleship.
Notice, for example, Jesus’ repeated use of the word cannot. It’s all through the passage – v26, cannot be my disciple; v27, cannot be my disciple; v33, cannot be my disciple. As we’re going to see, each of those verses presents a demand from the Lord Jesus, but what we need to note from the start is that those demands are non-negotiable. You must follow Jesus in this way, or else you cannot be his disciple.
Or take, for example, Jesus’ illustrations in the middle of the passage. I’m sure you noticed them as we’re read, vv28-32. No one builds a tower without first counting the cost. Why not? Because it is foolish to start a project you can’t complete. And no king goes to war without first counting whether he can win. Why not? Because it would be better to make peace than to get beat on the battlefield. In same way, discipleship requires that we humbly count the cost. Again, we are not offering our services to Jesus, as Bonhoeffer rightly pointed out. Jesus is defining the terms for us, and, therefore, to follow him, disciples must count the cost.
From the outset, then, we begin to recognize how radical Jesus is in terms of discipleship. According to Jesus, there is no half-way discipleship, where you follow Jesus in the ways that you like, but not all the ways that he demands. Neither is there any such thing as cheap discipleship, where you get the benefits of Jesus but without the costs of following him. Jesus has no concept of such things. In fact, if we reduce discipleship to merely making a one-time decision, then we have ceased to follow Scripture, and we are instead following something masquerading as Christianity. There’s probably a whole sermon’s worth of things I could say at this point, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time critiquing the world out there. It does not take much insight to point out all that is wrong with contemporary Christianity, and it’s probably not all that humble to do so either. So, I’ll just leave it at this – there is no such thing as cheap discipleship, according to Jesus. There is only costly discipleship, and unless we reckon with the cost, we cannot be his disciple.
Of course, we’ve only summarized the passage at this point. We’ve still got the details to go. Specifically, we need to ask, “What exactly are these costs that Jesus demands we count in order to follow him?” That’s where I want to spend the majority of our time this morning. Three times, Jesus says that bracing word cannot, and from those verses, I’d like us to consider three expressions of costly discipleship. Instead of cheap discipleship that doesn’t lead anywhere, let’s look at how Jesus defines costly discipleship.
To Follow Jesus, Disciples Must Have No Higher Allegiance
The first expression comes in v26 – to follow Jesus, disciples must have no higher allegiance. This verse is perhaps the clearest proof that Jesus intends to be alarming. The language here is nothing than less than shocking. Listen again, v26 – “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Now, when you read that verse, your first thought is probably that Jesus is using hyperbole. “He doesn’t literally mean you must hate your family,” we think. That’s probably your first reaction, and your reaction would be right. Of course, Jesus is speaking in hyperbole at this point. This is the same Jesus who called his disciples to love their enemies, so he wouldn’t follow that up by literally meaning you must despise your family. And this is the same Jesus who on the cross devoted some of his final strength to ensuring that his mother, Mary, was cared for. So, of course Jesus is using hyperbole.
At the same time, while this is hyperbole, there is some reality behind v26 that we ought to recognize. Here’s what I mean. In Jesus’ day, following Christ did often result in alienation – certainly with friends but also, at times, with family. We think of the apostles James and John, for example, who left their father to follow Jesus. Do you remember that moment in Mark 1? When Jesus called, James and John left their father in the boat with the hired servants. Imagine how that moment appeared to those who witnessed it? It probably looked like James and John hated their father. It certainly seemed that the disciples loved Jesus more than their father – that their allegiance to Jesus was higher than any earthly allegiance.
And that gets to the heart of what Jesus means in v26. When he says a disciple must hate his family, he means a disciple has no higher allegiance. He means that the disciple’s devotion is first and foremost to Christ, even if that devotion to Christ looks like hatred of family to the world. So, again, v26 is hyperbole, but it’s hyperbole with a real-world cost. To follow Jesus, you must have no higher allegiance than him.
This is counter-cultural, isn’t it? But what’s interesting to me is that it’s probably not counter-cultural for our brothers and sisters around the world. They probably understand this verse better than we do. I remember meeting a Christian in Burkina Faso, a very poor country in West Africa. This was back in 2001, and this brother had been kicked out of his family’s home and village for following Christ. In that part of the world, that’s a virtual death sentence. These folks were subsistence farmers – they lived in community in order to survive – so to be kicked out was almost surely a death sentence.
So, when this brother’s family threatened to kick him out, he had no other choice. He followed Jesus. In his view, there was no higher allegiance. I remember hearing how the brother slept all night under a tree, and upon waking up, he saw a poisonous snake curled up next to him, taking advantage of the body heat. Kicked out of your home, sleeping outdoors, fending off snakes – who does that? The answer is that a Christian in Burkina Faso does that. Why? Because to follow Jesus, a disciple must have no higher allegiance.
So, practically, how do we put this principle into action? How do we follow this expression of costly discipleship? There isn’t really a practical step that you can take that will complete v26. I think that’s the danger of always looking for the practical action point – we end up missing the point. The point here is not necessarily to look for some series of steps to follow. Rather, it’s to engage in prayerful self-examination – to ask yourself, “Is Jesus my first love, my highest allegiance, my deepest devotion?” “Am I ready to count the cost of earthly relationships, even my most precious ones, in order to follow the Lord?”
The reality is that none of us are completely and totally prepared to bear this cost of discipleship. None of us have arrived at a place where we can say, “Yep, I’ve got v26 checked off. I’m good to go.” So, self-reflection is always needed. Indeed, this is a key aspect of discipleship: to regularly pray for the strength to stand firm in following Jesus. It is good and wise to pray for the Holy Spirit to deepen your allegiance to Jesus, so that you will be ready to count the cost with him.
And that is perhaps my strongest encouragement to us this morning. Make it a regular feature of your discipleship – both for yourself and for others – to ask God to prepare you to count the cost. Pray for fortitude, in other words – for strength of faith, for resolve and readiness. Costly discipleship means that we have no higher allegiance than Jesus. By God’s grace, then, let’s seek the Spirit’s help to count that cost.
To Follow Jesus, Disciples Must Embrace the Way of the Cross
The second expression of costly discipleship comes in the following verse, v27. To follow Jesus, disciples must embrace the way of the cross. Jesus follows up the call of v26 with an equally bracing call. Listen again, v27 – “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Since we know the end of the Gospel story, we tend to read Jesus’ reference to the cross in light of what we know, rather than in light of what it represented in Jesus’ day. So, just to remind us – the cross, in Jesus’ day, was a means of execution. It was a place of shame. A cross pictured losing one’s life, perhaps justly, perhaps not – but losing it, nonetheless. The cross, in other words, was painful, and to hear Jesus make this reference would have been alarming for the crowd.
But while that context is important, that is not the most important reference that Jesus makes in v27. To put it clearly, Jesus does not define the cross in connection with the Romans. Jesus defines the cross in connection with himself. Notice how the phrases go in v27 – “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Do you see the connection? We must bear the cross in discipleship, but we bear the cross in order to follow the Crucified One, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is his cross-bearing that defines our cross-bearing.
Now, what does that mean, exactly? What does it mean that Jesus’ cross-bearing defines our cross-bearing? There are several things we ought to say at this point. First and foremost, Jesus’ cross-bearing is what makes discipleship a reality. Salvation is a work that Jesus accomplished on the cross. It is not a work that we accomplish by bearing the cross. So, this is as good a point as any to say no one is saved by bearing their cross as a disciple. The beginning point of all true discipleship is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. By God’s grace, through the preaching of the gospel, discipleship begins with repentance and faith, as sinners turn from their sin and trust in Christ alone to save them from the wrath of God. That’s the starting line for every person who sets out to follow Jesus. So, when we say Jesus’ cross-bearing defines ours, we mean, at the core, that his work is what makes discipleship a reality. He saved us at the cross.
But a second thing we ought to say is that Jesus’ cross-bearing does provide the shape for the Christian life. What should our expectations be for the Christian life? They should be shaped by the cross, where suffering precedes glory. This is what we see in Jesus’ life. His suffering on the cross was the Father’s means of brining the Son to glory. Ask yourself, “Why will every knee bow before Jesus and confess that he is Lord?” Because Jesus laid aside his glory, took on human flesh, and suffered the cross. Suffering precedes glory.
And brothers and sisters, that is the shape of the Christian life. By God’s grace, we are bound for glory, but the road to glory runs through suffering. The road to glory is paved with bearing the cross in Jesus’ name. This is why the apostles of the NT can say things like, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you.” Why should we not be surprised? Because the Christian life is shaped by the cross. Or when James says we should count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds. Why are trials reasons for joy? Because we know that suffering for the Christian leads to glory with Christ. The Christian life is shaped by the cross. To bear the cross, then, is to endure hardship and suffering in allegiance to Christ, but to endure it armed with the hope of glory.
In fact, that is a final thing we ought to say about how Jesus’ cross-bearing defines ours. According to the author of Hebrews, why did Jesus endure the cross? Answer – for the joy that was set before him, the joy of fulfilling his Father’s will, the joy of submitting to his Father’s will, the joy of trusting that his Father’s will is good and perfect and wise. In short, Jesus believed that the joy of serving his Father was worth more than the shame of suffering.
And so, Jesus’ life of joyful submission to the Father now defines what it means for us to bear the cross. This is key, brothers and sisters. To bear the cross is not simply to suffer, as though suffering held some intrinsic value. Neither is bearing the cross a call to seek out suffering, as though there is some amount of hardship we must accrue before we can enter heaven. No, no, a thousand times no. Rather, to bear the cross is to follow Jesus in trusting the Father, even when that road to glory brings hardship, sorrow, suffering, and loss. That’s bearing the cross. It’s to join Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, on that sorrowful-but-always-rejoicing road to glory.
Who is sufficient for these things?! I know I’m not, and I’m sure you sense that in your own soul as well. Who is sufficient for these things? Oh how deeply we need to see the glory of our Crucified Savior. Like we said last week, the fight of faith is, at its core, a fight to see God’s glory in Christ Jesus. Bearing the cross is not something you can do by willpower. It’s not something that can be sustained by moral fortitude. Bearing the cross is sustained only by the power of the glory of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.
So, if your heart is moved in even the slightest way this morning – if your soul is stirred even a little to bear the cross with Christ – then the first thing you ought to do is not run out and find all the hard stuff you can undertake to demonstrate your commitment. No, the first thing you ought to do – the first thing I ought to do – is fall on my face and plead with God for eyes to see the glory of Christ crucified. Who is sufficient for these things? Not us, so may Christ come and give us what we need to embrace the way of the cross as his disciples.
To Follow Jesus, Disciples Must Forsake Earthly Security
The third expression of the costly discipleship comes at the end of the passage, v33. Jesus uses the two illustrations that we noted earlier, in vv28-32. Both illustrations picture the necessity of counting the cost. It’s foolish to start what you can’t finish, and it’s better to make peace than to suffer defeat. The illustrations urge us that counting the cost is both wise and necessary. And those illustrations lead into our third expression, v33 – to follow Jesus, disciples must forsake earthly security.
The pattern of very bracing language continues. Listen again to Jesus, v33 – “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In a sense, this is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship, at least in this passage. All that we have in this world, we renounce for the sake of following Jesus. That’s the call in v33.
Now, in the history of the church, some have taken this passage to mean that true discipleship requires some kind of intentional poverty, even a vow of poverty. To be a Christian, you must purposefully choose to live a meager life. Is that what Jesus means here? Not necessarily. I’ll contend that Jesus is making a deeper point than simply measuring your net worth. Jesus is talking about where you find your security, where you place your confidence.
Remember, the human heart is a battlefield of trust. Did you know that? Everyday, there is a war taking place in your heart, and it’s a war for trust, for faith. Because we are made in God’s image, we are designed to place our confidence in something. We’re hard-wired to seek security. For many people, that desire for security ends up focused on earthly possessions. If I have the right kind of job, then my future will be secure. If I live in the right neighborhood, then my family will be safe. If I acquire enough things, then that restless craving in my soul will be satisfied. I’ll be happy.
And to be sure, there is nothing inherently sinful in preparing for the future. You ought to do that. There is nothing dishonoring to the Lord in protecting your family. You ought to do that. But the reality is that without vigilance, our pursuit of those earthly securities can easily supplant our confidence in the Lord. Instead of anchoring our hope for the future in Christ, we anchor it in our bank balance. Again, the number is not the issue. Trust is the issue. Where does your security rest? Where does your confidence reside? In your possessions, or in the Lord who conquered death?
So, when Jesus calls disciples to renounce everything, he’s actually saying something much deeper than simply live a meager life. He’s saying forsake finding your security in the things of this world. Root your confidence in the Father, in his provision and in his character.
And in that sense, this is the culminating call of costly discipleship. What is frequently a rival for our allegiance to Christ? Our stuff. What is a consistent hindrance to the way of the cross? An easy life that promises earthly security. At the end of the day, discipleship is costly, and the only way we can endure that cost is by entrusting ourselves to the faithfulness of God.
So, as with our first point, there’s not a neat series of steps you can take to follow v33. Instead, you have to engage in the life-long, heart-level fight for faith in Christ. Each day, I bow the knee once more to the lordship of Jesus Christ – not because I need to get saved time and time again, but because the cost is always there to be counted. It’s not a one-time thing, in other words. It’s a life-long thing, and it’s called discipleship.
Indeed, this is why Jesus ends the passage where he does. Notice the proverb Jesus uses in vv34-35. It’s a simple image about the necessity of counting the cost. Jesus says, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. He who has ears to hear, let him here.” What good is non-salty salt? It’s no good. It’s useless. In the same way, disciples who are not counting the cost lose the saltiness of their allegiance. They’ve run out of gas, as one commentator puts it.
But notice that last line – he who has ears to hear, let him hear. That is Jesus’ reminder to all who set out after him. By God’s grace, those who have ears to hear bear fruit. They stay salty. They bear the cost and follow the Lord. But the point I’m emphasizing is that this hearing in v35 is not a one-time thing. Each day, we ask God for the ears to hear the call of Christ in his Word. Each day, we plead with the Spirit to renew our faith, strength our resolve, and keep us trusting in Christ.
And that means a fitting way to end our exposition is by simply asking, “Are you hearing Christ’s word with faith today? Are you counting the cost and entrusting yourself to the Savior?” If you are not a Christian this morning, the response is to turn from your sin and trust in Jesus Christ. The Lord demands your life, and the cost of following him is high. But the cost of not following him is greater. It’s to bear the weight of your sin and shame all the way into eternity. So, hear the good news of the gospel today, count the cost, and by faith, entrust yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we said at the outset, “Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.” Jesus sets the terms, and his terms are clear. No higher allegiance – embrace the way of the cross – forsake earthly security.
You know, I take great comfort from the fact that even the apostles grew in their costly discipleship. I am encouraged by someone like Peter. On the night of Jesus’ trial, it sure didn’t look like Peter was ready to count the cost, did it? He denied his Lord three times. And yet, in the end, what did Peter find? He found that Christ’s grace was enough even for foolish disciples who don’t always count the cost as they should. Perhaps that is the best place to end this morning – with the reminder that Christ forgives sinners, even weak-willed disciples like us. Amen.