Discipleship Involves Learning By Rev. Mariano Di Gangi
At the time of the writing of this pamphlet, The Rev. Mariano Di Gangi was the Canadian Director of the Bible & Medical Missionary Fellowship, and Associate for Bible Ministry with BMMF/USA. Some of Dr. Di Gangi's other books include: Evangelism: Enterprise of Love, Satan and the Gospel, Love and the Spirit, Life and Immortality, and Christian Discipleship.
Only a virtuoso in exegetical evasion would dare to deny that the mission of the Church is to make disciples. The authentic and authoritative word of Christ the King admits of no ambiguity: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matt. 28:19, 20).
Our missionary calling is neither to commit cultural aggression. nor to engage in political subversion or economic exploitation, but to "make disciples." The discipling process, whether at home or abroad. involves "baptizing" and "teaching." It aims at the practical and moral goal of obedience to the commands of Christ. And according to the sayings of our Lord in the gospels, discipleship involves learning, loving, and living. The disciple receives communications from Christ, experiences communion with Him, and yields commitment to the Lord Jesus.
That discipleship involves learning is clear from the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel: "I praise you. Father. Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes. Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (11 :25-30).
Even though not everyone has understood the message and acknowledged Him as the Messiah, Jesus is still thankful. His grateful attitude is expressed in a fervent doxology to the Father of mercy and the Lord of majesty. Jesus perceives that divine sovereignty has been operative, hiding the gospel truth from "the wise and learned" but revealing it to "little children."
The truth about God’s nature and purpose has been withheld from the proud and opinionated people who will not let the Lord teach them. The pseudo-intelligentsia, the snobs and sceptics of society, the arrogant and rationalistic, refuse to receive God’s revelation. They are deaf to the voice that resounds in conscience and vibrates in Holy Scripture. They are blind to the glory of God declared in the heavens, and fail to see Him personally revealed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, in His majesty and justice, the Lord of heaven and earth hides the truth from them.
On the other hand, the Father of tenderness and compassion reveals the truth to those who are willing to be taught. To the childlike, dependent. trusting, hungering and thirsting, He communicates the truth about the deity. He reveals the depravity, dignity, duty and destiny of man. This is His "good pleasure," and Jesus acknowledges it gratefully.
Jesus affirms that the Father has committed "all things" to Him. This is demonstrated by the authority and power of Jesus over Satan, demons, disease, wind, wave, life and death. He can save, and He will someday judge. He reveals God’s saving truth even now.
The Father and the Son are intimately related from all eternity. Only the Father has a complete knowledge of the Son. And the Son alone has a penetrating, pervasive knowledge of the Father. But the Son makes known the Father, in His sovereign grace, so that men may see the Father’s face and hear His voice in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ reveals the Father. "He is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things. and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being..." (Heb. 1:1-3). To this testimony from the epistles, we add that of the gospels. In particular, we note what is reported by John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. . . The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth . . . No man has seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known" (1:1, 2, 14, 18).
Jesus affirms, "I and the Father are one.... Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (10:30; 14:9). Jesus prays: "Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and these men know that you have sent me. I have revealed you to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be theirs and that I myself may be in them." (17:25, 26).
Today, as His Spirit speaks in the Scriptures, Jesus Christ reveals the heart and mind of the invisible God to everyone who has eyes and ears of faith.
Our Lord gives us a blessed assurance. He graciously invites us to come to Him, and promises "rest." But this promised rest is not the serenity of some silent cemetery. The promise held out to us by Jesus is in a context of communication. He speaks of knowing, revealing, learning. The "weary and burdened" are those who still need to discover the true and living God. They are weary from the long journey and fruitless quest of their religious souls. They have sought for God but failed to find Him amid the idols of man’s own making. They are burdened with theological misconceptions and caricatures of the deity. Is He absolute, remote, omnipotent but lacking in compassion? Or is He in every place and in everything, but impersonal and nowhere in particular? Jesus invites all who are weary and burdened to come to Him.
And the rest He promises has to do with such weariness and burdens. It is the clarity and certainty of God’s truth. If we come to Christ, we shall find rest. For He knows the Father and reveals Him to us. When we turn to Him and learn from Him, we shall surely find rest I or our souls. Let every burdensome misconception give way to the refreshing truth revealed in Christ. Let every frustrating pilgrimage take a turn from the labyrinth of religion to the certainty of the Word.
Are we willing to learn from Him? Discipleship involves learning. The ancient Greeks used a variety of words to express the fact that a disciple is a learner. They described the discipling process as one in which you directed your mind to a teacher’s words, attitudes, and actions. From the knowledge gained, the practice of a skill or craft would be shaped. A disciple was thus an apprentice, a serious student, whose mind and hand were applied to learning and doing after the master’s pattern. Homer, Parmenides, Xenophon and Plato spoke of discipleship in these terms.1
A key concept in discipleship is thus that of observation. The Greeks had a verb for it, the very verb used to describe the action of spies in gathering information, or as surgeon probing a wound, or a midwife examining a pregnant woman.2
We are to come to Christ so that He may teach us. We are to learn from Him. But how does the Master instruct us? We cannot now gather with His followers on some green Galilean hillside, or hear His voice speak with authority in the temple area of Jerusalem. Yet this infallible prophet continues to teach everyone who comes to Him with a willingness to learn.
Jesus teaches us today by His Word and Spirit. In the Bible, through His servants the prophets and His apostolic messengers, Jesus teaches His disciples. He speaks in the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of Holy Scripture. He enlightens our minds by His Spirit and guides us into an understanding of the truth. He makes known to us the character and will of God, and reveals to us both our depravity as sinners and dignity as children of God. He discloses to us all we need to know in order to experience salvation, and serve God acceptably in this world, and enjoy Him in the glory of the ace to come.
Christ communicates truth to us in His written Word. And in that written Word, we focus on Him. Cradled in the Scriptures, we find the Son. We are not only to learn what is revealed in the Bible about Christ, but we are to learn from Christ Himself by observing Him closely. Such observation is not the sort engaged in by the sceptics with their critiques, for ever subjecting the Divine Logos to their finite and sin-distorted logic. It is the observation of those who are willing to let Him be the Master in everything.
It is a condition of learning from Christ that we bear the "yoke" of Christ. This means submission to His authority. It implies a willingness to let Him show us the way, set the standards, and evaluate the quality of our lives. Without such submission, there can be no learning. Without a teachable attitude, there can be no discipleship. For there is no authentic disciple apart from surrender to the authoritative Teacher.
Our Lord insists that we must come to Him and learn from Him if we would be numbered among His disciples. This means a willingness to bear His yoke, to bow before His authority, to accept all that He teaches us by His Word and Spirit as the rule of our faith and life.
Our generation tends to treat the great truths of the Bible lightly. This is not only the case in the world, but in the churches. The phenomenon of doubt and disbelief "out there" is not surprising, but its presence among professed followers of Christ is shocking. We need to appreciate afresh the work of Him who is an infallible prophet, and learn as His Spirit speaks to us in the Scriptures. And even in circles theologically conservative and evangelical, where a personal relationship to Christ is rightly stressed, we must be careful not to "disparage or submerge what is equally integral to authentic Christianity, namely, its revealed truths and the historical factuality of the central redemptive events."3
In a day when feeling and enthusiasm have been elevated along with discussion and dialogue, while forthright proclamation and authoritative instruction have been depreciated, this note certainly needs to be vigorously struck.
But the necessary insistence on our historical roots and doctrinal integrity must be balanced by a similar emphasis on a personal, practical likeness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Even when we can cite "chapter and verse" for creation, corruption, predestination, election, vocation, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification, the test of discipleship remains incomplete. We must still deal with the crucial question of our likeness to the Master who is gentle and humble in heart.
What shall a profit the fellowship within the church, and the impact of the gospel on the world around us if we have not learned to
he like Him who is meek and lowly in heart? Only when we really know Him will we speak the truth of the creeds, confessions and catechisms of Christendom in love.
To come to Christ. learn from Him, and become like Him—-this is what discipleship is really all about.
COMMUNION: DISCIPLESHIP MEANS LOVING
All that the Master teaches us is meant to shape our pattern of thought and conform our lifestyle to that of Him who is gentle and humble in heart. Discipleship involves learning from the Lord who speaks with infallible authority. It also means loving. A disciple is one who enters into communion with Christ and His people.
That discipleship means a loving relationship with the Master and all who belong to Him is a truth plainly taught throughout the New Testament. It comes through clearly and powerfully in a passage like Acts 11:19-30.
The setting is fascinating. It happened in Syrian Antioch, a glamorous and cosmopolitan city of the ancient world. Ranking only behind Rome and Alexandria, the pride of Egypt, this Antioch was famed for many things. Located on the main line of trade between Arabia and Mesopotamia, it was quite prosperous. Horses and chariots thronged its thoroughfares. There were green boulevards, commercial arcades, streets paved with blocks of marble, sparkling fountains, stately temples and splendid theatres to attract the eye. Shielded by high mountains, Antioch thrived on the banks of the river Orontes, pale green with melted snow.
But this cosmopolitan city was also corrupt. "In the realm of scurrility and coarse witticism, Antioch stood supreme." Its people engaged in a "perpetual warfare of sarcasm."4 They prized material achievement and worshipped wealth. Superstition flourished along with sophistication. Astrologers and horoscopes were in great demand. In the suburbs of the city, amid the fountains and graves. "all that was beautiful in nature and art had created a sanctuary for the perpetual festival of vice. . . devoted to the orgiastic worship of the river-God.5 Even the pagans of Rome complained that the capital of the empire was being infected by the moral pollution that poured westward from Antioch!
Precisely in Syrian Antioch did the God of sovereign grace cause the gospel to be preached by refugees scattered abroad by the persecution that raged in Jerusalem after the murder of a young deacon named Stephen. Those who believed the gospel and turned to Christ demonstrated the reality of their conversion by loving the Lord Jesus Christ and His people. No wonder these disciples were recognized as Christians by the citizens of Antioch and given that name there for the very first time.
LOVING CHRIST’S PERSON
A disciple experiences communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. The disciples of Antioch entered into a vital relationship with Him after they had heard and accepted the gospel truth shared with them by the scattered saints who came to their city under the pressure of persecution.
First, they heard the message. They were told "the good news about the Lord Jesus" (Acts 11:20). They were evangelized by the presentation of a person in the power of the Spirit. That Jesus was "Lord" meant for them the shattering of all presumption. Not the gods of Greece, not the emperors of Rome, but Jesus alone is Lord. His supreme lordship challenges the lawlessness of men and convicts of sin. Righteous and holy is this Lord. His demands must be met, else sure and certain judgment shall be meted out. This exalted Lord at the right hand of the heavenly majesty, enthroned in sovereign power and authority, confronts the sinner and convicts the transgressor.
But if the message about the Lord shatters presumption, the word concerning "Jesus" saves us from despair. He is the One born to rescue His people from the penalty and power of sin by the sacrifice of Himself in their place. On the cross, in a sacrifice as final as it was compassionate, the sinless Jesus died as the substitute for His curse-deserving people.
Jesus is "Lord," therefore do not presume. But this Lord is "Jesus." so do not despair.
Syrian Antioch heard the good news that centered in the unique person and saving work of the Lord Jesus. Evangelism is not an enthusiastic exhortation to experience some glorifying feeling but the Spirit-empowered presentation of who Jesus is and what He has done for the salvation of sinners from the condemnation and corruption of their sin.
After the people of Antioch were told the gospel story, many of them "believed and turned to the Lord" (Acts 11:21). They didn’t cluster around the evangelists and form a personality cult, but trusted in Christ and turned to Him with repentance and faith. They moved in His direction, believing that He could and would liberate them from the penalty and power of sin. That was faith. And in turning to Him, they broke with pagan idolatry and immorality. That was repentance. The same clear call to "repent and believe the good news" comes through to us (Mark 1:15). What is our response?
The citizens of Antioch were not only confronted with Christ, and converted to Him, but they were confirmed in Him. This came about through the ministry of a Spirit-filled man whose main mission in life was that of encouragement. In fact, although his name was Joses, he is better known to us as Barnabas: son of consolation or encouragement. Because he was filled with the Spirit, he was a good man and had faith in people. Seeing the first signs of new life in these young disciples, he "encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts" (Acts 11:23).
Leaving behind all pagan entanglements, breaking with moral behaviour patterns, they were to cleave to the Lord. As a man cleaves to his wife, so are believers to be joined in a relationship of love to their Lord.
Such a relationship of union and communion is entirely different from superficial and temporary arrangements. It is not temporary but involves an abiding quality —a remaining — a permanence. That is why Jesus tells those who have professed to believe Him: "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31,32).
On another occasion, Jesus says to His followers: "Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself: it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit: apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples" (John 15:4-8).
The disciple’s relationship to the Lord is meant to be permanent, not transient. It should also be radical, not superficial. With the whole heart must we cleave to Him. The Spirit assures us that "neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38). But are we also confident about our constancy and fidelity to Him? Once, when the crowds deserted Him, Jesus turned to the disciples and put this crucial question with a disturbing clarity: "Do you want to leave too?" Their answer was, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:67-69). Shall we do less than promise to follow and serve Him alone and always?
LOVING CHRIST'S PEOPLE
The believers at Syrian Antioch were nourished by a constant union and loving communion with the living Lord. And He ministered to them through the preaching and teaching of the Word. Men like Barnabas and Paul served among them. Once evangelized, these converts needed to be edified. The spiritual obstetrician presides at the time of rebirth, but growth in grace requires the skills of the godly pediatrician as well.
Along with these evangelists, pastors and teachers, prophets also served God in Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, was led by the Spirit to predict that "a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world" (Acts 11:28). This famine, incidentally, actually took place during the reign of Claudius.
How did the Christians of Syrian Antioch respond to this genuine revelation? They might have reacted by appointing a commission of inquiry as to the validity and relevance of predictive prophecy, but they didn’t. They might have suggested that meeting famine needs was a physical matter rather than a spiritual concern, and so no business of theirs, but they didn’t do that either. Or, they might have begun building up their own stockpile of supplies against the day of widespread hunger, but they had something very different in mind.
To this genuine revelation, they gave a generous response: "The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:29,30).
It is interesting to note that they did far more than pass a resolution on world hunger. They actually made a generous gift in proportion to the way God first had prospered them, and sent the donation down to "the brothers living in Judea." Remember that the Christians of Syrian Antioch were predominantly of Gentile origin. Those in Judea were Jewish Christians. Great was the gap between them. High the barrier that separated them. But in being joined to Christ, they found that the gap was bridged and the wall broken down. The same love that relates us to Him also makes us open to one another in Christ. Discipleship means loving fellowship all the way around.
As the disciples of Antioch transcended cultural, linguistic, national and racial barriers to express their fellowship, so must it be with us in meeting the needs of other believers. They may not be "people of our kind," but if they belong to Christ then we belong together and should bear one another’s burdens. This is how we "fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).
While the primary focus of BMMF [Bible & Medical Missionary Fellowship] is on Asia, yet its flexibility has made it possible for me to serve on the Mediterranean island of Sicily each September in partnership with the West Indies Mission. There I have presented the gospel of Christ to the land of my forefathers in the Italian tongue. God’s blessing has been on these evangelistic and educational efforts, and now scores of converts are gathered in a growing church at Messina, right across the straits separating Sicily from the toe of the mainland. Through those straits once sailed the apostle Paul on his way to Rome. Recently, I returned to visit the congregation and was thrilled with its spontaneous gifts to encourage my BMMF colleagues whose devoted work is helping to feed, house, heal, evangelize and teach needy thousands half-way around the world in Bangladesh!
The Bible reminds us of the obligation and privilege of love resting on all Christ’s disciples: "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6:9,10).
Simply singing a verse of "Blest be the tie that binds" at church suppers is not enough. Christian discipleship means loving fellowship, caring and sharing in the family of God. Do we really "rejoice with those who rejoice" and "mourn with those who mourn"? (Rom. 12:15). Are we honest with one another, and open to each other?
There is a heart-warming security in real fellowship. As someone has expressed it,
"Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words — but pouring them
All right out — just as they are —
Chaff and grain together —
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them —
Keep what is worth keeping —
And with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away."6
Discipleship means understanding, helping, accepting, forgiving, restoring, encouraging. It means love within the fellowship of the Lord’s people. As the community of truth, uncompromisingly committed to the historic faith of the gospel in an age of unbelief and apostasy, we must also demonstrate that we are a community of love before the watching eyes of a waiting world. Harsh, arrogant, angry, faultfinding, brittle, bitter, self-righteous and self-centered Christians undermine the credibility of the gospel we profess. But love commends the truth to the unbeliever even as it authenticates the discipleship of the professed disciple of the Master.
Is ours a caring, sharing love? This is what our Lord requires of us. Jesus says. "A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another" (John 13:34,35).
DISCIPLESHIP DEMANDS LIVING
Discipleship involves learning. The genuine follower of Jesus is enrolled in the school of Christ and learns from Him both what to believe and how to live. Discipleship means loving. How can you be closely related to Christ and not sense the bond of fellowship with Him and His people? But discipleship also demands living. To belong to Jesus is to live in obedience to the Lord, no matter what the cost.
In Luke 14:25-33, Christ makes it very clear that discipleship demands costly commitment. Already in this gospel, our Lord has spoken plainly on the implications of following Him. Recall the Master’s words:
"Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on a rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete" (6:46-49).
To call Christ "Lord" is to make a profession of faith in Him. The confession of His lordship is an expression of allegiance to His crown and kingdom. But the sincerity or hypocrisy of our doctrinal orthodoxy is revealed in the way we act or fail to act upon the King’s orders. Hearing the inspired Word but failing to obey the authoritative Christ is the sure road to ruin. Such disobedience is destined to irreparable loss.
Jesus issues the call to commitment, saying. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (9:23-26).
The eschatological reference sheds its clear light on the disciple’s contemporary responsibility. The future coming of Christ in glory should stir our souls to sacrificial discipleship in this present world. As those who would be acknowledged by the returning Lord as His very own, we ought to acknowledge our relationship to Him and His truth before the eyes and ears of the world. Let neither persecution nor ridicule move us away from the position of unswerving loyalty to Christ’s person and precepts.
Again we hear the vibrant voice of Jesus say, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God" (9:62).
These words are spoken in a most interesting context. Several people have expressed an inclination to follow Jesus, but on their own terms. One is eager to cast his lot in with the Son of Man, but without considering the consequences of such a commitment. He is reminded that "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (9:58). Another wants to be a follower of the Master, but is unwilling to give Him the top priority He deserves. It is wrong to put something or someone else "first" rather than serving and witnessing in proclamation of "the Kingdom of God" (9:59.60). Once committed to Christ, we must remain faithful to Him no matter what the cost. To turn back is to disqualify oneself for service in the divine kingdom.
Now we hear the Lord’s clear call once more: "lf anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters yes. even his own life — he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.... Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (14:26-33).
How are we to understand these words of Jesus about hating parents and children? Taken out of context, this text could become a pretext for the justification of inhuman conduct to others in the fellowship of the family. Scripture should be compared with Scripture, under the guiding hand of the Spirit whose mission it is to make biblical revelation plain.
The Old Testament tells us that the family owes its origin to God’s creation ordinance. Sexual differentiation is the Creator’s doing. So also is the relationship of marriage. Even the bearing of children is related to His unfolding will. What God ordained and brought to pass in Eden, He confirmed at Sinai. The commandments dealing with honour to parents and the sanctity of sex are given by divine authority and have abiding validity. Parents, moreover, are to express love for their children by teaching them of the Lord and His ways through precept and personal example (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:23,24; Ex. 20:12; Deut. 6:1-9).
The New Testament stresses the same truths. If wives are to be submissive to their husbands as part of their devotion to the Lord, men are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church — to the extent of sacrifice. If children are to honour and obey their parents, fathers are obligated of God to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 5:22-6:4; Col. 3:18-21).
How, then, are we to understand this very demanding statement of our Lord? Surely, the Christ whose Spirit inspired the Scriptures to which we have just referred is not contradicting them. The incarnate Word does not contradict but fulfils the written Word. To understand this stern saying, we must recall another of His sayings recorded in Matthew’s gospel: "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (10:37). There’s the clue: "more than me," twice over. Our Lord makes it abundantly plain that discipleship demands commitment. And the commitment required involves absolute priority for the claims of Christ. Jesus asks of us precisely what Jehovah demanded of the people of Israel when He said: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3).
In all things. Christ must have the preeminence. This is the Father’s will, and a believing heart responds with the kind of commitment that gives His beloved Son first place:
Discipleship demands commitment. Such commitment means recognizing the absolute priority of Christ in your life. It also means experiencing a complete conformity to Christ in His death. Jesus says, "Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.... Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27,33).
There is, of course, a sense in which only Christ could carry the cross. In offering up that unique and final sacrifice for the sins of His people, Jesus bore the weight of transgression and guilt and judgment alone. The simple words of a familiar hymn express that profound gospel truth like this:
We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in."8
Atonement for the sins of others could only be accomplished by that sinless One at the cross. But although it would be blasphemous for anyone to suggest that we may expiate our sins through personal suffering, it is necessary for us to carry a cross if we would follow Jesus. Not the cross of redemption, which Christ alone could bear, but that of discipleship which every Christian must carry.
The disciple’s cross, unlike that of the Redeemer, does not achieve salvation through atonement. It expresses self-denial in the course of costly obedience to the Master and service to mankind.
For some, bearing the cross means enduring persistent pressure and even experiencing painful persecution in a hostile world, on account of loyalty to Christ and His gospel. The apostles of that first Christian century, and not a few of their successors since then, have known the truth that New Testament words for witness can be translated as martyrdom.
For the missionary, that servant of Christ who crosses cultural boundaries to bring the word of knowledge, healing, and salvation to others, the bearing of the cross has a very particular significance. I sensed something of this while attending a recent conference of the Bible & Medical Missionary Fellowship at Swanwick in central England.
As the conference drew to a close, several of my colleagues were commissioned for service in Asia. Some were leaving the lovely green hills of home for the dust, the heat, and the flies of a desert region. Others would leave behind aging parents whom they might never see again this side of heaven. Still others would be parted from children whose education required boarding in a distant place. Some had given up affluent medical practices to express the compassion of Christ and give credibility to the message of love where misery abounds. Others were postponing the possibility of marriage and children to an indefinite future which becomes more remote with each passing year. And some would meet with accident, or encounter disease, or be confronted with violence abroad and be buried in alien soil. They were willing to do all this, in the course of costly obedience to the Master’s will and the service of mankind.
My heart was deeply moved at that commissioning service. Then and there, my personal commitment to the cause of Christ was clarified and deepened as never before. All that knowingly might hinder me from serving Him was surrendered to His gracious sovereignty. And now, beyond the emotional impact of that sacred moment, the implications of commitment continue daily to unfold.
Every disciple is called to carry his own cross and follow Jesus. Perhaps you may never be summoned by Him to serve as an eye surgeon in Afghanistan, a teacher in Pakistan, or a nurse in Bhutan, but still there’s a cross for you to carry. The Lord may not open for you a door of service in Nepal, or send you to Bangladesh, but there is nevertheless a burden for you to bear.
It is the cross of self-denial. Are we willing to give up our ambitions, to part with possessions, to yield our time and strength, to part with sons and daughters, for the furtherance of the gospel and the glory of Christ the King? We sometimes sing:
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days;
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold;
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine;
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own;
It shall be Thy royal throne.9
But do we really mean it?
The Son of God made Himself of no reputation. He humbled Himself, became a man, assumed the role of a servant, and was obedient to the Father’s will for the good of others even if that obedience would lead to death on a cross. There’s the perfect pattern for us all. May the mind that was in Christ Jesus also be found in us (Phil. 2:5-8).
There’s another sense in which we should understand the bearing of the cross. If you carry a cross, it is because you are on the way to the place of painful execution, not a church social or a Sunday School picnic. Are there attitudes that keep us from giving God the obedience He expects? Are there besetting sins that stunt our spiritual progress and prevent the flow of blessing through us to others? Then we need to "put to death" whatever belongs to our old egotistical nature (Col. 3:5).
In his correspondence with the Galatians, the apostle refers repeatedly to the crucifixion of self. Paul tells of being "crucified with Christ" as a prelude to experiencing the presence of the living Lord within (2:20). He says that Christ’s people do not gratify, but rather crucify, "their sinful nature with its passions and desires" (5:24). He glories only "in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (6:14).
The true disciple confesses, "whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:7-11 ).
The Lord’s disciples are drawn from all nations that they may learn what He teaches and obey all that He commands. Discipleship demands a life of commitment. "The important thing is that whosoever desires to follow Him must be inwardly free from worldly-mindedness, covetousness, and selfishness, and wholly devoted to Him."10 Our professed faith in Him demonstrates its reality and vitality only when translated into a life of uncompromising obedience to Christ the King.
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1 K. H. Regenstorf, art. manthano in "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament" (ed. Kittel & Friedrich, tr. Bromiley); Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1967; vol. N, p. 390ff.
2 Regenstorf, art. katamanthano, op.cit., vol. N, p. 414.
3 C.F.H. Henry, art. "Sharper Focus on Watchman Nee," in Christianity Today, May 9, 1975, p. 32.
4 H.V.Morton, "In The Steps Of St. Paul;" Rich & Cowan Ltd., London, 1936; p.84.
5 Conybeare & Howson, "The Life And Epistles of St. Paul;" Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1885; vol. 1. p. 125.
6 Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, quoted in "Handbook of Preaching Resources from Literature" (compiled and edited by J.D. Robertson); Baker, Grand Rapids, 1972, p. 71).
7 William Cowper, hymn, "O for a closer walk with God."
8 Cecil Frances Alexander, hymn, "There is a green hill far away."