The Meaning of Discipleship

Luke 9:57-62 records the exchanges between Jesus and three prospective disciples. All of them carry defects in their commitment toward following Christ that would make true discipleship impossible.

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

The first comes to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” In those days, people would seek out their own teachers or masters, and some philosophers would attempt “to repulse prospective disciples with enormous demands, for the purpose of testing them and acquiring the most worthy.”[1] Since the Bible says that Jesus “knew all men” and that “he knew what was in a man,” (John 2:24-25), we would expect his answer to address the greatest hurdle that prevents a person from offering genuine devotion.

For example, when a certain ruler approaches Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18), the Lord’s reply reflects an ability to diagnose the exact condition of one’s heart: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (v. 22). But the man fails to obey: “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth” (v. 23).

So Jesus tells this first man, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). We do not know what this individual has in mind when he offers to follow Jesus, but it seems that he is not prepared to adopt the lifestyle that this entails at the time. Jesus says that he does not have a home of his own in his travels, but he depends on the hospitality and support of others. To become his follower would mean adopting this difficult way of life.

As Jesus says in another place, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26-27). He realizes that the crowd follows him not “for food that endures to eternal life,” but because he offered them bread produced by a miracle. However, true discipleship is such that one does not “work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

Knowing that many come to him with false expectations, Jesus warns, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’…In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:28-30, 33). One who does not “give up everything” cannot be a disciple of Christ.

Jesus made clear his demands for those who would follow him; however, his words are often read with interest but in a manner that fails to challenge us. He means what he says – it is indeed impossible for one to violate his conditions and still be his disciple: “If 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” (Luke 14:26-27). The Christian faith demands a commitment to total transformation in both thought and conduct.

This does not mean that discipleship must include certain kinds of suffering. Many Christians enjoy health and wealth according to God’s word (Psalm 103:2-3, Matthew 8:16-17, 2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 4:19), while others daily risk martyrdom. The real issue is whether you know what you are saying when you pledge, “Lord, I will follow you wherever you go.” Do you confess his lordship over your life, and dedicate yourself to his teachings? Or do you intend to use him to fulfill your own aspirations? Some people become disciples because they think that Christ will lead them to worldly glory and greatness.

Then, Jesus calls a second man to follow him. “But the man replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father'” (Luke 9:59). If his father has just died, or if the family is in mourning, then he probably would not be out there speaking with Jesus in the first place. On the other hand, one year after the initial burial of the dead, after the flesh has rotted off the corpse, the son would rebury the bones in a slot in the tomb wall. Thus the man might be requesting up to a year’s delay before he would follow Jesus. But if his father is still living and he is waiting for him to pass away, then he is asking for an indefinite delay.

The Jewish mind considers it the children’s sacred duty to attend to the burial of their parents, and so this man would seem to demonstrate a note of filial piety that cannot be faulted. However, Jesus answers, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (v. 60). The statement contains a wordplay where the word “dead” is used with two different meanings.

The first “dead” is metaphorical. It may refer to indifference, lack of relationship, and hostility toward something, or it may indicate something’s lack of influence over a person. The Prodigal Son provides an example: “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24). To be “dead” here means to be spiritually “lost.” The second “dead” is literal, and refers to physical death, since the object of burial would be physically dead.

Therefore, we can paraphrase verse 60 to say, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead, but you should go and preach about the kingdom of God.” As Leon Morris writes, “Let those without spiritual insight perform the duties they can do so well; burial is very much in keeping for the spiritually dead. But the man who has seen the vision must not deny or delay his heavenly calling.”[2]

The demand to place Jesus above a man’s father would shock the Jewish mind, or any non-Christian mind as well. “The language, no less the demand is uncompromising to the point of offensiveness.”[3] Nevertheless, since Jesus requires it, this level of commitment should not be considered optional or extraordinary. Rather, it is a prerequisite to discipleship for a person to put Jesus first, even ahead of one’s parents.

As Luke 14:26 says, “If 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.” It does not say that he would be a poor disciple, but that he cannot be a disciple at all. Genuine faith is more than a superficial acknowledgment of Christ, but it is a sincere assent to the whole Christian message, confessing God’s claim on the entire man. The failure to make an immediate and complete commitment to Christ indicates that there is no true faith in the gospel. However, it is often said that such commitment is unnecessary, and this false gospel has filled the church with false converts.

Professing Christians often delay offering their services to God. There are some obvious excuses, such as how they wish to first enjoy the world, although the satisfaction from sins are only “passing pleasures” (Hebrews 11:25, NASB). Then, there are those who concoct noble-sounding reasons for delaying their commitment to Christ. Some would declare that they can better serve God by producing wealth, so that they could contribute to the spreading of the gospel. Others invent similar excuses to justify their wordly ambitions.

They lie to themselves. They reason that the long-term effect will vindicate their current spiritual condition. They suppose that the end justifies the means such that even Jesus himself should tolerate, even approve, their negligence in prayer, their false doctrines, their unethical business practices, and their unhealthy social relations. They do not wish to renounce Jesus, but they refuse to offer him their all at this time, and they try to arrange an attractive front for their defiance by claiming that it will result in greater service toward him. However, if Jesus would not permit even a parent’s burial to delay total commitment, then all other reasons are obvious excuses. Some might claim that they are serving him “in their own way,” but Jesus says that “service in the kingdom of God” (v. 62) is to “proclaim the kingdom of God” (v. 60).

This does not mean that everyone must enter full-time ministry. Given most Christians’ deplorable level of knowledge and spirituality, they are better off remaining where they are. In any case, it is possible to be a faithful disciple of Christ as a construction worker, a medical professional, or a Christian minister. The point is that many people are pursuing their personal agendas in the name of Christ. This takes on different forms, from business ventures to humanitarian projects. We must ask: Are our plans truly consistent with the cause of Christ? Do we really have in mind the short-term and long-term interests of his kingdom? Or do we ease our conscience by describing our selfish ambitions in Christian terms? Anyone who is not working on his faith and contributing to God’s kingdom right now is not a disciple of Christ.

There are no good excuses. The “Let Jesus wait until I become rich and famous” excuse will not stand, even if one indeed offers most of the profits to God – “he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). God approves only the way he prescribes. Give him what he demands, not what you think he should require. Those who imagine that Christ allows any flexibility on this matter are not his disciples.

After this, Jesus interacts with the third candidate: “Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God'” (Luke 9:61-62). Commentators perceive an allusion to the calling of Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21), but whereas Elijah permitted him to bid farewell to his family and friends, Jesus does not allow it.

Again, from the non-Christian perspective, the man offers what seems to be an acceptable reason for delaying full commitment to Jesus. However, by now we realize that nothing is acceptable that puts a “but first” before the Lord. When God calls a man, there is nothing that comes before it. There should be no “but first,” because God’s command is always first.

Jesus answers, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” The hand-held plow mentioned here is made of wood, light in weight and often had an iron point. Its proper use requires uninterrupted attention from the plowman, guiding the plow with his left hand, while goading the oxen with the right. To look away while plowing would immediately result in a crooked furrow. Jesus also makes a reference to Lot’s wife: “Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:32-33).

This is a metaphor for a man’s soul. The issue is whether he hesitates to abandon his life in order to follow Christ. Paul writes, “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” (Philippians 3:8-9).

To have a righteousness “which is through faith in Christ” is not a goal to be reached after one has become a Christian, but it is what it means to become a Christian in the first place. Thus Paul is not referring to some kind of supreme spirituality, but the basic and common experience of every Christian. No one is saved by nodding at the gospel in superficial agreement, because that is not true agreement. Rather, to be a Christian at all is to “consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.”

Many people have been deceived by a false gospel, that one may first become a Christian, and then later choose to become fully dedicated. Or, one may receive salvation as a “believer,” and afterward become a “disciple.” The Bible never teaches such a thing. True assent to the gospel demands conformity to all the demands inherent in the gospel message, and that is the acknowledgment of God’s claim upon the whole person. If a radical change of disposition does not occur in the mind at the time of conversion, then there is really no conversion at all.

Look around your church. It is likely that most of the people are false believers, never been regenerated by God. They might even appear to be earnest in prayer, attentive to the sermon, or very moved by the worship, but if there has never been a transformation in their souls, then they are still headed for hellfire. How about you? Have you confessed your sins, believed in Jesus Christ, and committed your all to him? “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

As Jesus declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:21-23). Even these could be false disciples, but there are those who harden their hearts and who lack faith to prophesy and work miracles, and even persecute those who do these things, but still dare to call him “Lord”! So Paul commands, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), but the chosen ones should not be overwhelmed with terror: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (v. 13). Jesus is “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes, “The third would-be disciple…lands himself in a hopeless inconsistency, for although he is ready enough to throw in his lot with Jesus, he succeeds in putting up a barrier between himself and the Master…Discipleship to him is a possibility which can only be realized when certain conditions have been fulfilled…The disciple places himself at the Master’s disposal, but at the same time retains the right to dictate his own terms. But then discipleship is no longer discipleship, but a programme of our own to be arranged to suit ourselves…The trouble with this third would-be disciple is that at the very moment he expresses his willingness to follow, he ceases to want to follow at all…Discipleship means adherence to Jesus alone, and immediately.”[4] Those who dictate the conditions of discipleship cannot be his disciples.

A disciple never looks back. As the work of the plowman demands undivided attention, so one who “looks back” is disqualified from “service in the kingdom of God” (v. 62). Jesus does not say that one cannot excel as a disciple if he looks back, but that such a person cannot be his disciple at all. He means what he says. There is no room for hesitation, distraction, or regret. “How searching is this test to those who profess to be Christians!…Religion is everything, or nothing. He that is not willing to sacrifice everything for the cause of God, is really willing to sacrifice nothing.”[5] Religion must be all or nothing. It must dominate every part of thought and conduct; otherwise, our faith is not genuine.

There are those who think that religious differences should never damage our relationships. However, religious commitments are ultimate commitments, so that a relationship that is not affected by them must be a most superficial relationship. If one can have a deep relationship with another of a different religious commitment, it can only mean that they are not devoted to their faiths. Every part of a Christian’s life is dominated by his faith, or he is not a Christian at all. Thus to have anything more than a superficial relationship with a non-Christian must necessarily mean that he has compromised his faith. This is because once the two venture beyond a superficial level of interaction, their two worldviews would bound to clash. And to have the deepest kind of relationship with such a person, such as marriage, is outright forbidden by the Bible.

As Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36). There will be conflicts between Christians and non-Christians. Religious commitments are not something that can be put aside. The non-Christians who claim to be friendly and open-minded, and who desire fellowship with everyone, nevertheless refuse to convert to the Christian faith when we make it a requirement for fellowship. Thus even they acknowledge that religious commitments matter, and that what we believe about the ultimate issues is more important than peace and relationships. The difference is that they are self-righteous and hypocritical about this – they say that they value peace and relationships, but they ask us to put aside our Christian principles while they hold on to their own beliefs about religious and ultimate matters.

Only God has ever demanded total dedication from men and women in the way Jesus does. We must keep in mind that when we are dealing with Jesus Christ, we are dealing with God himself. Our readiness to follow him reflects our attitude toward God, because Jesus is God.

How can we distinguish between true and false disciples? By what standard can we examine ourselves? Jesus declares, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Christian discipleship is characterized by hearing and obeying the doctrines of God. One who follows the word of God will be saved by it, but one who rejects it will be destroyed by it. “The seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15) – the disciple of Christ possesses a faith that obeys and endures. Therefore, let us never comfort ourselves with lies, but follow Christ without reservation, delay, or regret.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993; p. 215.

[2] Leon Morris, Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries); Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988; p. 197.

[3] New Bible Commentary; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994; p. 915.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship; New York: Touchstone, 1995; p. 61, 121.

[5] Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications; p. 211.