In this “back to school” season I thought it would be appropriate to write for a bit on what it looks like to become a student of Jesus. Ultimately this is what it means to “follow” Jesus. We become his apprentices in kingdom living, as Dallas Willard puts it. We enroll in his school. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means that we sign up for his course of study.
What does that look like? How do we become students of Jesus? I believe one of the most prevalent hindrances to discipleship is simply the fact that people think that “following Jesus” is just another word for “regular church-goer” or “good person.” It’s worth being clear on what it actually means to become a student of Jesus. After all, Jesus himself made a clear distinction between those who were his disciples and those who just followed him around.
I am thinking specifically of a story in Luke 14:25-35 where Jesus makes several challenging statements to the “large crowds” that were following him. Three times he uses conditional phrases to illustrate what it means to be his disciple. Taking these three conditional statements at face value, it would seem that becoming a disciple of Jesus involves:
- Hating your biological family (v.26)
- Embracing a brutal instrument of torture and execution being used on you (v.27)
- Giving up everything you have (v.33)
What do these statements mean? Why is Jesus being so un-meek-and-mild here?
Jesus is simply telling the crowds, and us, what it looks like to enroll in his school of life in God’s kingdom. To get into a program of study at a university, you would need to fulfill a few pre-requisites, fill out an application, and pay a matriculation fee. In the same way, there are “pre-requisites” associated with becoming a disciple of Jesus. As Jesus himself said, calling him “Lord” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actually a disciple.
A disciple of Jesus is simply someone who is with Jesus to learn from Jesus how to be like Jesus. It will involve loving Jesus and putting his teaching into practice. It will involve re-arranging your life and priorities so that you can do the things he said were best. And to enroll in this course of study, Jesus says you must…
1. Prioritize discipleship above everything else.
Talking about hating your family is Jesus using hyperbole to make the point that being his disciple cannot be an “add-on” to your life. It must become your life. To be a disciple of Jesus means that you prioritize putting his teaching into practice above everything else in your life. Following Jesus needs to take precedence over what your parents want from you, even what your spouse wants from you, even what (pastors take note!) your congregation wants from you. To act otherwise simply means Jesus is not your Lord. Someone or something else is, and the discipling relationship simply won’t work. Jesus will just be giving you advice that you’ll eventually reject because it will conflict with whatever is actually most important to you.
2. Completely die to your old life.
Carrying your cross doesn’t mean that we might have a hard time every once in awhile. A Roman cross was not a minor inconvenience, it was a brutal instrument of torture and execution. To carry your cross meant that you were walking to your own execution. It meant certain death. This means that discipleship to Jesus involves dying to our old life, dying to a life of trying to get what we want, dying to self-will. Being a student of Jesus means really putting an end to your old life, making a clean break from it. No holding on to a few elements of it “just in case it doesn’t work out.”
3. Give up everything you have.
This is similar to #1 above. Becoming a student of Jesus means that he has say over your whole life, not just the “religious” part. There was once a rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus but in the end he couldn’t because he wasn’t willing to give up his wealth. He wanted to hang around Jesus, but couldn’t be his disciple because his real Lord was his wealth.
I’m sure this all seems like an unrealistically high bar to our comfortable, postmodern Western ears, but these were Jesus’ own words to the “large crowds” that were following him. He wanted them to be aware of what it actually meant to follow him as a disciple. Perhaps we need to hear them today as well, when it’s easy to be part of “large crowds” that think Jesus is a great guy that can help them with their struggles, but really need to understand what it looks like to become his student in kingdom living.
We owe it to ourselves and our congregations to be as clear as Jesus was on this.