It’s been a strange couple of weeks: we were supposed to start back in Luke two weeks ago, and on Saturday evening my wife and daughter both came down with a pretty nasty stomach flu. So very last minute I called my friend Gethin Jones, who was kind enough to replace me on Sunday morning.
Paul was meant to preach the week after (so last week), and he knew he’d be unavailable today, so rather than mix everything up, we decided to let him preach what he’d prepared and then come back to the text I should have preached on two weeks ago, today; and then next week we’ll follow on after the text Paul preached last week. (It’ll all make sense, I promise.)
So let’s remember the context a bit. In the text just before this one—which we saw two months ago—we saw Jesus at a dinner party filled with Pharisees (the guys who hated him more than anyone). At this dinner party, he gave them a series of teachings on pride and humility.
The context of today’s text is a little different. Luke says that Jesus is no longer at the dinner party, and that he is surrounded by large crowds. These crowds are not like the Pharisees. There are certainly some Pharisees in the crowd (there always were), but there were also many people in the crowd who are following Jesus because they genuinely want to be his disciples.
As we’ve seen before, Jesus is pretty hard on the Pharisees (because for the most part, they’re hypocrites who want to kill him). What’s sometimes surprising is that Jesus can also be pretty hard on his disciples—not in terms of criticism, but in terms of what he expects of them.
There are, Jesus says, conditions to being his disciple.
And the bar for these conditions is unbelievably high.
One important thing to do, when preaching through the Bible, is to be reminded of the context in which these words were first spoken—how would these people following Jesus have heard what he is saying here? And as I was preparing this text I realized something: they would have heard it the same way we’re hearing it now.
What’s great about this text is that what they would have felt upon hearing this back then, and what we feel upon reading it now, is pretty much the same, because the human condition hasn’t changed in the last 2,000 years. These people had families too; they had hopes and dreams too; they had temptations too. The details may look slightly different, but the fundamental nature of these conditions is the same.
Jesus is going to give three conditions to be his disciples, and these conditions are not cultural in nature. He’s giving conditions that go right to the heart of what it means to be human.
Condition 1: You must love him more than the most important people in your life (v. 26).
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
This is a reality that makes a lot of people really uncomfortable. We talk about the grace of God in Christ being totally free. And that is true: it is God who saves us, from beginning to end. We can’t work to obtain it, we can do nothing to contribute to it.
But God saves us so that a series of very important things might happen in us, and he intends for those things to happen. The first thing that happens is that God opens our eyes to make us see the gospel as the truth, and not fiction.
He opens our eyes to such an extent that we can no longer ignore the gospel, but are compelled to accept it.
And he opens our eyes, not just to the truth of the gospel, but to the beauty of the gospel. He opens our eyes, not just to the reality of who he is, but to why he is wonderful. He opens our eyes to see him as marvelous, and when we see something as wonderful, we think it’s wonderful.
Think of the Grand Canyon. You can hear about the Grand Canyon as much as you want. You can know how it was formed, and even see pictures of what it looks like. You can hear it spoken of so much that you might assume the real thing couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.
But when you actually go there, and see the real thing with your own eyes (and not through an Instagram filter), it never disappoints. You look out at that scene, and your breath is taken away. You see for yourself how wonderful it is, and you feel that wonder acutely.
When you see something as wonderful, you feel it as wonderful.
When you see something as beautiful, you admire its beauty.
When you see something as truly lovely, you love it.
That’s what happens when God saves us. He opens our eyes to see not only his existence, but his beauty, his goodness, his worth.
To say it another way—to know God is to love God.
Now, if you’ve been in this church for a while, this isn’t news to you. We talk about this all the time. And many of us—everyone here, I hope—has experienced this in one way or another. We know what it is to be changed by God, and to love God for what he’s done for us.
But let’s be honest: that love is something we struggle to maintain. That love is something that gets easily snuffed out. It can be because of bad things that weigh us down, or good things that distract us; but our love for God is something that all of us, at some point or another, struggle to keep up.
And despite our best intentions, the reality of that struggle makes us settle. It makes us settle into the idea that our love for God is something that will always be at this level, but no higher—that this might be as good as it gets.
What Jesus says here should dissuade us of that.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
This phrase he uses is an idiomatic expression—obviously, as we see elsewhere in the Bible, God doesn’t want us to literally hate our families. It’s an expression which means “to love less than—” whoever does not love me MORE THAN his own father and mother and wife and children cannot be my disciple. Jesus intends for us to love him more than our parents. More than our husbands. Our wives. Our brothers and sisters. Our kids. Our __________.
In the end, who goes in that ___________ doesn’t matter—he’s talking about those people who are most important to us.
Take what you feel for that person, whoever it is—take your affection for them, your devotion to them, your commitment to them… Your love for Jesus is meant to be greater than all that.
And Jesus goes even further—he says not only should we love him more than the most important people to us; we should love him more than even our own lives.
Condition 2: You must be ready to give everything up (v. 27-33).
27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Let’s work backwards here. Verses 27 and 33 are like bookends to everything that comes in between. They’re two ways of stating the same thing.
In verse 33, he says that any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
This is similar to what he said before about hating your family—he doesn’t mean that Christians should reject their families and get rid of all their earthly possessions and go live like monks in a convent; we see this abundantly in other teachings he gives on how to use the material possessions we have.
He’s saying we should be so ready to give it all up that it’s as if we’ve already lost it.
I hope you see how fair Jesus is being here. He wants every one of his disciples to know exactly what they’re getting into.
And that’s what the parables in v. 28-32 are getting at. In the first one (v. 28-30), he talks about someone building a tower. This person—if he’s smart—will count up how much it will cost to build it (how much material he’ll need, how much manpower he’ll need) and make sure he has what he needs to make it happen. If he doesn’t count up the cost of the project, he’ll get started and be unable to finish.
The second parable (v. 31-32) is of a king about to go to war, who sits down to examine his troops and make sure he can win, before he goes out. If he can’t win, he’s better off surrendering, or compromising for peace, rather than see his entire army wiped out.
To put it succinctly: it’s better not to start than to start and not finish.
People come to Jesus for all kinds of reasons other than the right one—because they think he’ll make their life better, because they think he’ll make all their dreams come true… Then they start living the Christian life and realize that it’s not going the way they thought it would, and they think, Well this Jesus sure is a fraud! The end result is even worse—they’re not only indifferent to the gospel; they actively think it’s a lie.
But Jesus is very honest with his potential disciples. He’s telling these people that they might well lose everything if they follow him, and they need to be okay with that.
And in the other bookend (v. 27), we see just how far the “everything” they might lose extends.
27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
This was a shocking thing to say, and it still is.
People wear crosses around their necks, and they wear them with no hesitation, because little gold crosses are pretty.
If they really thought about what they were wearing, they may be a little more reticent.
Imagine if, instead of a cross, it was a guillotine. A little gold guillotine.
If you saw someone walking around with a guillotine around her neck, you’d wonder if there wasn’t something slightly twisted about this person—because a guillotine isn’t fashionable. It’s an instrument of death.
And even a guillotine is a far more humane instrument of death than the cross; at least the guillotine was instantaneous. Death on a cross took hours. You died of very slow suffocation on a cross. Crucifixion was such a horrendous way to die that Roman citizens wouldn’t even mention a cross in polite company.
Jesus shocks them with this image so they can feel just how far discipleship will take them. They may not literally be crucified like he was; but taking up your cross meant a surrender of everything you are. Everything you think; everything you believe; everything you want.
You see, Jesus’s ultimate goal here is not to create martyrs (even if some Christians will die for their faith—it happens all the time).
His goal is to make disciples who are totally free to do the will of God. It’s okay (and inevitable) to have our own ideas and opinions and desires. But often these things will hold us back, preventing us from doing what God calls us to do.
If more than anything else, we want to have a family with 2.5 kids and a nice house in the suburbs with a garden, what will our reaction be if God calls us to leave everything and go to a hole-in-the-wall town to plant a church?
If getting married is of primary importance to us, how devastated will we be if God plans for us to be single the rest of our lives?
If we have our own ideas of what it means to be happy and to find pleasure in this world, how can we ever hope to obey God when he calls us to put our sin to death—sin which does indeed bring us pleasure (even if that pleasure is temporary and dangerous for us)?
Our own ideas and goals and desires may well cause us to rush into things we shouldn’t do; to ignore clear calls from God to do something we don’t want to do; to give in to temptation when we should resist it.
Or at the very least, even if we manage to obey the letter of God’s law, if we keep holding on to our own ideas of what our lives should be, our obedience becomes a bittersweet affair, something we do through gritted teeth, and with no joy at all, but rather resentment and anger against him for making us do it.
Jesus doesn’t want that. He wants us to be free from anything which will make obedience harder than it should be. He wants us to be free to obey without hesitation, free to go wherever God would have us. He wants us to be so free that even if it’s a question of choosing between our faith and our lives, the choice will be easy, and joyful.
The disciple of Christ must be ready to lose the people he loves the most, the things that belong to him, and even everything he is, to follow him.
Condition 3: You must persevere in usefulness (v. 34-35).
Lastly, Jesus adds this slightly perplexing conclusion:
34 “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? 35 It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
I’ve never encountered salt that has lost its taste, but I can imagine it. You take salt with no taste and add it to your mashed potatoes, and what do you get? Gritty mashed potatoes.
Unsalty salt is of no use, he says. It does nothing for your food; it does nothing for the ground; it doesn’t even serve to fertilize. And once it’s lost its flavor, nothing can bring it back.
Jesus’s followers should be “salty.” Good salt gives flavor; it takes something ordinary and bland and makes it good again. Jesus’s followers should have an air of difference about them, something that people may not be able to put their finger on, but they can immediately sense. Why?
Jesus has already told us why—our lives are different because everything we do is shaped by the simple fact that we love Jesus more than anything or anyone else, that we are ready to leave everything behind to take up our cross and follow him. That is how a Christian keeps his or her “flavor.”
And that’s why this is a third condition to being his disciple, because if we don’t live like this, Jesus says, we’re of no use for the kingdom.
We may understand what it might mean to persevere in good works; to persevere in service; to persevere in doing things. But anyone can tell the difference between someone who acts out of duty, and someone who acts out of delight.
This is why my wife hates Valentine’s Day—she doesn’t want me to give her flowers or show her I love her in some other way simply because it’s February 14th. She wants the things I do for her to come out of the simple fact that I love her, that I delight in her, and that I just can’t help myself.
Jesus’s followers will have something discernibly different about them, and that “something different” is the simple fact that everything they do, they do because they love Jesus more than anything else, and simply can’t help themselves.
But that’s a conundrum too, because who can decide to live like that? Who can manufacture love? Who can make themselves love someone?
The answer, of course, is no one. We can’t do this. We can’t make ourselves love God more than anything! As the saying goes, the heart wants what the heart wants.
This happens over and over again in the gospels: Jesus calls us to do things that we cannot do ourselves, that are out of our power as long as we are sinners living on this broken earth.
So what do we do?
The Gospel and the Conditions
You may wonder why we so often come back to the gospel—why every week, I essentially preach the same sermon, over and over. We do this, in part, because the gospel is the only way to make sense of the Bible’s impossible commandments.
Case in point—he gives us conditions to be his disciples, conditions we couldn’t possibly hope to meet ourselves.
Condition 1: You must love him more than the most important people in your life.
We can’t do this—but Jesus did this. He loved the Father more than his own family.
46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
At that point in time, what was most important to him was ministering to the people who had gathered to him, because that was his Father’s will at that time. In Jesus’s list of priorities, his Father’s will came first, and those most important to him came second.
Condition 2: You must be ready to lose everything.
Jesus did this. He literally took up his cross, and surrendered his own will over to his Father’s; he gave himself to accomplish his Father’s will.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.
And Luke 22.42, when he is praying in the garden before his death:
Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.
Jesus’s own life was always humbly submitted to the will of his Father. He literally died on the cross, because he knew what his Father willed for him, and so his Father’s will took priority.
Condition 3: You must persevere in usefulness.
Jesus did this too. We sometimes make the mistake of assuming that because Jesus is God, he doesn’t understand what it’s like to have to persevere—that perseverance in obedience, and obeying for the right reason, were somewhat automatic for him.
While being God certainly enabled him to persevere, Jesus still had to do it. And he did.
8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him...
Jesus always knew how he could best be "salt” in any given situation. Jesus’s obedience to the Father’s will was assured, but it was not automatic. He always obeyed, and he obeyed for the right reasons.
He did what we could not do.
You see, Jesus fulfilled the conditions of discipleship, these three conditions we couldn’t fulfill on our own. And he did it for two reasons.
Firstly, he fulfilled the conditions for us, to fill the gap between what we are and what we should be. Jesus fulfilled these conditions for us—when he died to take our sins and gave us his perfect life, Jesus’s obedience became our obedience. Or, to put it another way, when Jesus fulfilled the conditions of discipleship for us, God declared that we had fulfilled those conditions, in him.
And secondly, Jesus fulfilled the conditions of discipleship to give us confidence that because he has done these things, he can lead us into them. Because he lived the life we should have lived, and came out on the other side of the resurrection vindicated and pure, he is able to bring us where he is.
Because he loved God more than his loved ones, he can through his Spirit help us love him that much.
Because he was ready to lose everything for the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12.2), he is able to show us the joy set before us, that we may be willing and able to let go of what we want in favor of what God wants for us.
And because he persevered to death on the cross, he is able to take us by the hand and walk with us, giving us what we need to persevere until the end as well.
Jesus did what we couldn’t do; so God has given us his perfect obedience, and the assurance that in Christ, we can follow in Christ’s footsteps.
One Final Question
Now, there is one more question we have to answer before we finish, a question I’m sure not many of you would admit to asking, but that some of you must be asking anyway, especially if you are a new believer, or if you’re not a Christian.
If Jesus calls us to love him more than those people we love the most, if Jesus calls us to give up everything we are to follow him… How is that good news?
Take a step back and look at it objectively. Taken at face value, it sounds as if the conditions Jesus gives for following him basically all amount to this: “To be my disciple, you must be willing to be absolutely miserable for the rest of your life.”
How can that possibly be good news?
The conditions Jesus gives are good news when we remember why he gives them. Yes, sometimes life will be hard, and God will call us to go places we may feel reluctant to go, and do things we may feel reluctant to do.
But his disciples are happy to do it, because through these conditions, they get to follow him. They get to know him. They get to see him, and talk with him, and enjoy him.
Jesus is not just a man; he is not just a wise teacher. He is God—he is perfect love, perfect grace, perfect goodness, perfect justice, perfect power, perfect wisdom, incarnate. He is the goal of every good desire; he is the object of every righteous affection; he is the fulfillment of every good dream.
The disciples of Christ are happy to take up their cross and follow him because they know that at the end of this road, they will get to see the One they love, the One who created them, and they will get to see their love for him increase exponentially, and without end. They know that at the end of this road, they will get to enjoy their Savior forever, and feast on never-ending pleasures at his right hand (cf. Ps. 16.11).
I have two kids, and I love my kids more than anything. And Jesus says I should love him more than I love them. Rather than seeing that as unrealistic or ridiculous, look at it from another angle. If I would be right to love someone more than my kids, how wonderful must that person be? How worthwhile must that person be, if he is worth loving more than the people and the things we love more than anything else in this world?
All of these conditions for following Jesus are good news for his disciples, because it means they get to follow the only One who is absolutely worth following. And when they know who he is, and what he is like, and all they have in him, there is nowhere they’d rather be.
So pray, brothers and sisters. Pray that God would help you persevere in usefulness by obeying his commands. Pray that God would help you willingly let go of your own desires, your own ideas of your so-called self-determining free will, and take up your cross and follow him.
And above all—the thing that will make all the rest possible—pray that God would help you love Jesus more than anyone or anything else.
Pray to see him as he is, and to love him for who he is. Pray that God would expand your heart, and direct that expanded capacity towards a fierce love for your Savior, which will drive you to follow him. Because despite whatever we may lose, as the old song says, “There’s no better place on earth than the road that leads to heaven,” because on that road, we get to walk with Jesus.