Message: The Scandal of Discipleship | Scripture: Luke 9:23-27 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Songs: O For a Thousand; Jesus Paid It All; There is a Fountain; My Worth is Not in What I Own.
Paradoxically, Christ tells us that in order to truly be his disciple–in order to save our lives–we must follow him to the cross. In the same way, when we call others to the gospel, we are asking them to deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Jesus. Why? Because it is only at the cross–it is only in death, sacrifice, and atonement–that any person is able to find life. Unless the Son of Man dies, unless God himself intervenes, all that awaits us is despair, but because he has died and has risen, we have an unshakeable hope and confidence. It is because of what the cross accomplishes for us that we have absolutely no shame in its power to save others and sustain us into eternal life. In the shedding of blood, we not only identify with Christ’s righteousness, we are called to actively participate in it. We have died to sin, and we have been raised to declare the good news, “Jesus has paid the price for sin. He is risen and sits, now, in glory as our King. Come to the fount of our salvation. Drink of his wondrous grace!” Let’s do the work of leading sinners to the cross. Let’s do the work of bringing them life.
- What is the key to the paradox of Luke 9:23-27? Where in Luke do we find this key/keys?
- What does Pastor Stephen say is the meaning to “deny your life, take up your cross daily, and follow me”? Do you agree with his definitions? Why/why not (i.e. how would you define them differently)?
- In what ways do you actively follow Christ as he walks toward Jerusalem? Do you want what he has to offer, or do you, in most cases, only want what comes after the cross?
- What excuses do we often make for ourselves when Christ says follow me? Why are these excuses insufficient (hint: Luke 9:57-62)?
- In verse 26, Christ says that those who are ashamed of his words, he will reject. What does this mean? Are we an unashamed church? Why/why not?
- Verse 27 says a lot with very few words, what does Jesus mean when he says them? Are these words fulfilled, and if they are, how did it affect those whom Christ is speaking about (NB: this is hard one)?
- If your life ended today, would you be able to say with full confidence that your name is written in the book of life? Would you be able to answer that you are content?
- Are there people in your life who you not only could be discipling, but who you should be discipling (outside of your immediate fellowship group)? How can we be praying and keeping you accountable to doing that?
- Does this sermon describe your own life in how you deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Jesus? Does that translate into others around you wanting to follow Jesus?
- What have you learned from this sermon, or in the sermons in the previous weeks, and how have you applied it to your life/how are you applying it to your life?
- How can we be praying for you in the coming weeks?
- Leave sufficient time to pray one another as you close.
How do we settle paradoxes in our lives? For those of you who need definitions to understand what I’m asking you—a paradox, put in simple terms, is when you have two concepts or ideas that are placed beside each other, and it seems, on its surface, that they cannot coexist. However, when you analyze them with increasing scrutiny, you realize that such a coexistence is possible, despite their seeming contradiction. An example of a paradox is found in the famous book by Charles Dickens in his opening line for The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Paradoxes surround us in all areas of life, and the way to unravel them is to discover the key that allows the potential contradictions to coexist. In The Tale of Two Cities, the key is the ending when love is allowed to endure and vindication is found in the sacrificial death of poor and witless Sydney Carton for the rich, yet guilty, Charles Darnay. See, the best is allowed to flourish—Charles Darnay is allowed to continue living with the one he loves, but it comes at a great and terrible cost. Sydney Carton who looks exactly like Charles Darnay and who is in love with Darnay’s wife, Lucie, gives up his own life by breaking Darnay out of jail and switching spots with him so that Lucie might live out her days with the love of her life. It’s a breathtaking tale of redemption, love, vengeance, and sacrifice—a tale of both the best and the worst of times.
Now, we come to the Bible, and, if you have read the Bible, you’ll know that paradoxes abound, and the passage we are dealing with today is incredibly paradoxical. It is the very core and crux of the Christian message, and it’s one we cannot avoid if we are to be a church that grows, lives, and worships together. We can’t afford to be in the darkness on this text. So, this morning, I suggest that we not avoid it, but that we take the time now to make sense of it. Let’s read Luke 9:23-27 together. TWoL.
And he said to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.
As the passage, itself, stands as a monument of paradoxical statements, I thought it fitting to make our proposition this morning a paradox: Lead Others to Life by Leading Them to Death. I think this not only sums up our passage, but it sums up the entire message of the Bible for humans—how do we find life? We find it in death. Perhaps, I’ve already said too much, so allow me to give you my outline. When I say, “lead,” I’m using the word synonymously with the verb “disciple.” We’re to lead others via discipleship – we disciple by leading one another to life through death, and my outline reflects this this morning.
- The Model of Discipleship
- The Reason for Discipleship
- The Context of Discipleship
Luke, here in chapter 9, is talking about what true discipleship looks like—what it means to follow Jesus, and I want us thinking about this topic because it’s something that each of us should be doing. It’s something that our church needs to be characterized by if we are to grow in holiness. Yet, as Luke records, we can’t disciple, if we haven’t unpacked the paradox that discipleship is. So, this is where we begin this morning—we begin with:
1) The Model of Discipleship
The context of where we are in Luke sets the stage for how we understand this entire passage because on its surface, it’s a very difficult couple of verses. The context doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but it shows us why it’s so necessary. Listen closely because it’s the key for unraveling the entire paradox that the passage seems to present. First, something that we have to understand about the gospel books, particularly the gospels that we call the synoptics: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is that they aren’t written chronologically. They’re written theologically, or better said, they’re written topically to get across a specific theological message.
For Luke, the progression of Christ’s journey from Galilee into Jerusalem is of paramount importance because he is concerned with the outcasts of society. Galilee is associated with gentiles, the poor and needy, the afflicted, those outside the camp of Israel—these are the people that the author wants to make sure receive the truth of the gospel just as much as authors like Matthew want to ensure the same thing for the Jews, and the whole reason for going from Galilee where he is accepted into Jerusalem where he is condemned is so that those who are on the outside might be brought in. And our passage today is right at the end of his ministry and Galilee, and right at the beginning of his journey into Jerusalem.
It’s here in Luke 9:18-22 where Jesus asks Peter who the disciples think he is, and Peter responds, “the Messiah of God.” Of course, we know that when Peter says this, he doesn’t mean it in the way that we know Jesus understands it. Rather, they believed two Messiahs were coming. One was to be a prophet, and many of them believed John was that person, and the other was to be a kingly conqueror, and because of his miracles and powerful works, they thought Jesus was to be this latter-kind of Messianic warrior who would topple the Roman empire and restore Israel’s former glory.
So, to quell Peter and the disciples’ misunderstanding, he tells them, after Peter’s confession, that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.” This is the first time he says this in this book—he’ll say this or something like it three more times between now and when he enters into Jerusalem in chapter 19:28. Then in Luke 9:51, the author tells us that it’s at this point in Jesus’ ministry “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It is these two particular refrains—that the Son of man will suffer and die, and that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem—that set the entire backdrop for what he says here in 9:23-27.
Everything we’re about to unpack is set within the context of Christ’s movement out of Galilee towards Jerusalem and the cross, and if we miss this, then we’ll miss the whole point of the passage, so let’s remember to be facing Jerusalem with Christ and the looming shadow of the cross as we unpack our text together this morning.
Look with me at verse 23: And he was saying to them all [namely, the disciples and those following him], “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Like I said, in the verse directly preceding this one, Christ has revealed to his disciples what the destiny of the Son of Man is, and it is in this context that Christ turns to them, and utters this conditional statement: if anyone wishes—or if anyone desires to still make this journey with me, then here are three imperatives that you have to follow before you do.
You see, it’s not enough that he’s just told the disciples that he’s going to die, but. he says, if you want to come along, then there are certain things you must do: deny self, take up your cross daily, and follow him. And it’s easy for us, on this side of the cross to say we understand him, but we have to remember that the disciples would have had no idea what he meant by these words. Why was he to die? Why would they have to deny themselves to go with him? What is the purpose of taking up a cross—a Roman penalty for a Roman citizen for a Roman offence—what does a Jew have to do with crosses? And what does he mean by follow me? Aren’t we already following him?
These words, in their context, are extremely abstract and paradoxical. Even for us, we might be able to express the idea behind them, but what do they actually mean for how we live? I imagine for those of you who have discipled someone in the past, or for those of you who desire to share the gospel, you don’t go up to your respective person and say, “hey, if you want to follow Jesus, deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him.” That would be fundamentally poor advice. So, why does Jesus say these words?
Well, the answer is the context. First, he says deny yourself because he knows the heart of his disciples. Their focus is on the fact that Jesus has just confirmed to them that he is the Messiah. He is the Son of Man prophesied in Daniel. He is the heir to the Ancient of Days. God himself is standing before them. So, when God tells them that he has to die, that’s not registering.
Instead, what they’re thinking is that they’ve hit the jackpot. We know they’re thinking this because of what the rest of this chapter tells us. There are a number of examples, but let’s look at one. In verse 46, what are the disciples doing? They’re arguing among themselves. They’re not just thinking these things in their heads, they’re audibly yelling at each other, “which one of us is the greatest?” The problem that was plaguing Christ’s followers wasn’t a lack of desire to follow him, it was the perception that they were about to be glorified and venerated. They didn’t care if Christ died ultimately, other people had come before Christ claiming to be the Messiah, but they wanted to make sure that if Christ died, there would be someone to take his place and rise up to lead Israel. Being Jesus’ disciples, to them, didn’t mean giving up anything, it meant gaining everything—and gaining everything in this life.
But what Christ says here isn’t just that they have to give up their things, he tells them to give up themselves. This echoes the words of Christ in other things doesn’t it, and we’ve gone over them before, but let me just rehash some of them for a second. The beatitudes of Matthew 5 seem to express this exact sentiment. Who is the happy man or woman? The one who is poor in spirit, the one who mourns their sinful disposition, the one who recognizes that he or she has no rights in this life, and thus can live meekly and gently with others. And what is the promise for those who recognize their own lowliness and worthlessness? Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is what the disciples do not yet understand because they’ve made Christ’s coming about themselves.
And not only are they to deny themselves and count themselves as worthless, they’re to take up their cross daily. As I’ve already said, this statement would have been staggering to them, because they had no context for it (at least not in the way Luke records the narrative). So, why does Luke record it the way that he does? Well, it’s possible that Jesus had actually told his disciples about the cross before he said these words. It’s also possible that Christ said these words at a different time during his life with the disciples. We don’t know. Remember, the book is written topically not chronologically.
What we have to understand about the synoptic gospels is that they’re written for the reader. They’re written in such a way so that there might be a maximum effect upon us as we unpack the surrounding circumstances and the theological meaning of the text, and what we know is that Christ has set his face towards Jerusalem in order that he might be handed over to his enemies and killed. It is the cross that awaits him in Jerusalem! You see, if we place ourselves in first century Jerusalem and Galilee as people reading this for the first time, they’re seeing these facts play out. Christ said he’s going to die. Christ said he’s going to Jerusalem! What’s in Jerusalem? Well, they find out in chapters 19-23—the cross is there! So, what Luke is doing here isn’t an attempt to give us an abstract description of what the cost of discipleship is, he makes you read these details to set up the climax of the whole book so that when you go back to read about everything that came before, you’ll know that discipleship is about a life confronted with a Saviour who goes to his death upon a cross and demands that if we’re to follow him, there’s more at stake than our personal glory. Jerusalem awaits. The cross is there to be born. Will you take it up, or is Christ not worth it? Luke, here, is calling us to give up our rights and our demands for the sake of displaying Jesus every day. Do we truly want what he has to offer, or do we only say that we want it?
This is what Christ means when he says, “follow me.” It’s not a call for us to be like Christ in making “good people.” It’s a call for us to be like Christ as he journeys toward Jerusalem—toward that cross where he sheds his blood for worthless and sinful people. This is what discipleship looks like. It looks like sacrifice. It looks like cross-bearing. It looks like laying down our rights for another because Christ gave up everything for us.
There is a sense here where we have to be very acquainted with our death and not just abstractly. Yes, Christ uses the phrase “every day” in verse 23 to mean that taking up your cross is not a literal statement. We don’t literally pick up a cross, but it may mean that it costs you your life. It may mean that it costs you your job. It may mean that it costs you your comfortable family situation for the sake of loving them and pointing them to Jerusalem where Christ had an appointment with death that he was resolved not to miss. So too, we lead others to their death—we lead them to a death that doesn’t make sense to the world—that is scandalous to them because the treasure isn’t in the glory that we accumulate along the way. The treasure is in the person, and that person is on his way to die. Allow yourself daily to be pointed to the scandal of Jerusalem, and then point others there as well—point them to the cross. Why?
2) The Reason for Discipleship
We point them to the cross because it is in Christ’s death, and it is in our dying to self—in our counting ourselves as worthless and sacrificing our lives for the sake of others—that we lead them to life. Look with me at verses 24-26: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
Here is where the reader comprehends with explicit force that when Christ talks about denying ourselves and taking up our cross that what he’s talking about is death. Death of self-righteousness. Death of sin. Maybe, even, death of our physical lives. It is only in confronting our death, it is only in our identification and participation in the death of Christ that we find life.
See the structure of verses 24 and 25—verse 25 asks a question: what does a man benefit if he gains the world but loses himself? Again, the question doesn’t ask what does he benefit if he gains the world then loses the world? No, the question asks what happens if you gain the world, but you lose your self. What happens if you get everything you desire in life, but you lose the essence of who you are—you lose the identification you have as one who is made in the image of God? What happens when you forsake so thoroughly what it means to treasure and worship God above all else? Verse 24 gives us the answer: you will not be saved.
If I were to ask you what kind of literature the Bible is, what might you say? Would you say it’s nihilistic in character? That it’s devoid of God and morality, and that evil, suffering, and death is the only outcome for this world? Is it a book of utter despair where, even if there is a moral lesson, evil and suffering will still conquer in the end? Or, is it a book like common tragedies? Where the protagonists, in their sin, suffer, die, and teach us a lesson in our sorrow that things can and should change—that there is hope for righteousness and truth to prevail once again?
Well, I’d tell you that it’s really none of these. Of course, it’s closest to a tragedy—the whole Bible is a tragedy—both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is about the poor fate of Israel. The New Testament is about the poor fate of Christ. But what is different about both the Old and New Testaments from normal stories of tragedy? The difference is that God, in his sovereign election and providence, promises to save his people. The Bible is not just tragedy literature with the hope of change. It’s literature where there is no hope of change—it is utterly despairing when the facts of both Israel and Jesus are presented in isolation—in those stories, there is no hope of life and survival unless God intervenes to save. And God has intervened to save by coming in the form of man, displaying himself as the Redeemer of the world, and setting his face towards Jerusalem to die upon a cross and be raised three days later.
But what do these verses in 24 and 25 tell us? They tell us that for those who remain intent on obtaining their own glory, for those who remain intent on making this life about themselves, God will not save them. Their life is tragic literature lived out, and we’re to learn a lesson from them, but how sad is it for the legacy of this person to be a message of caution to the world. All that they’ve accomplished. After all their striving—there is one thing to learn in their story: whoever desires to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life because he desires to follow after Jesus to the cross, he will save it.
Discipleship isn’t just knowledge. It’s not just the impartation of self-enlightenment tools or wisdom. It’s not mentorship. It’s pointing one another towards the cross, because in that place, we not only identify with Christ’s death, we participate in it with him. We acknowledge that our life does not belong to ourselves. We acknowledge that our hope is not in what this world or this life has to offer. And we lay ourselves down willingly for the sake of winning sinners-alike to the gospel. We plead for people to come to Jesus. We persuade them of his truth. We pray that they might hear. This is discipleship. And we do it because we know the truth! We know that unless people acknowledge him as the only way, the only truth, the only life—they will lose whatever life they hold most dear!
Our job as disciplers and Christ’s motivation in selecting these men as those upon whom he would build the entire church—our motivations are the same. Just as Christ desired to do, so too do we desire to turn peoples’ minds away from their own self-sufficiency and their own self-worth to being utterly dependent and uselessly desperate. We want them to move away from the thought that being desperate and vulnerable is a shameful thing. How relevant is this for us as a church. Consider the culture that many of us come from! Being dependent, being desperately honest, and being vulnerable are considered traits of weakness.
I remember when I was leading VBS at my church back in Toronto, I came into camp one morning to lead our counselors in a devotion, and I had one all prepared. But when it came time to say it, all I could think about was how poorly I had treated my mother that morning. All I could remember was yelling at her and telling her that what she said didn’t matter. So, when it came time to open the Word, all I could muster was a “sorry, I can’t talk to you about what I was planning because it’s not true for my life.” And I broke down into tears and confessed to everyone in that room what I had done. And do you know what the youth pastor at that time said to me after I finished? He said, “You know, Stephen. What these people need isn’t your tears or confession. They need you to show that you’re strong and that you’re confident. This wasn’t really the place or time for your confession.” And to this day, I remain flabbergasted by those words because they were words from the devil, and I don’t want to hear that kind of language among any of us here. We dare not deride or dissuade anyone from being desperate. We dare not speak condescendingly on those who seek forgiveness, confess sin, or ask for help because it is not a shameful thing. We are all desperate for the gospel. I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
The gospel is the ground upon which we stand as those who have nothing to offer but have everything to gain in Jesus. This is what Luke means in verse 26 when he says, “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory, and the glory of the Father, and of the holy angels.” Are we a church that is ashamed of the power of the gospel? Are we a church that is ashamed to depend upon him not only to keep us until our death but to carry us through into everlasting life? Are we a church that is willing to put aside our culture of shame and embrace a spirit of vulnerability and desperation? Because if we aren’t, then what are we doing here? Why would we waste another second sitting in these rows, listening to someone who doesn’t have any idea about what he’s talking about?
These are utterly terrifying words: whoever is ashamed of me and my words—whoever is ashamed to embrace a whole-hearted pursuit of the gospel—will be rejected when Christ comes again in power. Lead others to life by leading them to death—death to self-sufficiency and vainglory, death to our unwillingness to be dependent, death to our unwillingness to be vulnerable. It’s when we die to self, that we allow the scandalous effect of true discipleship take root—that God might look favourably upon the worthless by sending his Son of infinite value to die upon a cross for our sins. And what’s more is that he does this so that we might have life. Don’t forsake the life he offers, look to Jerusalem—keep your eyes upon the cross.
3) The Context of Discipleship.
We come lastly to verse 27: “But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” What does he mean by these words? Does he mean that there are some apostles still living? No, look at what directly follows this passage—it’s the narrative of the Transfiguration. It is there upon that mount that Christ is transformed in glory—it is the image of all that is to come. There the glory of God glimpsed by Moses upon Sinai and whispered to Elijah on Horeb is manifested in fullness. HERE IS THE KINGDOM OF GOD DISPLAYED IN THE ONLY BEGOTTEN SON—it’s here, it has come. Look there upon him and see your reward! All your striving is done! All your hope is satisfied. Your faith has been affirmed. He has come and through him, all creation shall return to glory. The veil has been removed. What was known only dimly before is now brought to its brightest light in the Messiah. If you embrace this Christ—if you look towards the cross, this is its result. The kingdom of God is yours.
This is why later in Luke 10:20, after Jesus has sent out the seventy to minister to the neighbouring cities, and after they come back saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” Jesus replies, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you in my name, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” The context of discipleship isn’t to confess for the sake of confession. It’s not to be vulnerable just to be vulnerable. It’s to guide each other to the truth that the striving is done. Grace has come. Rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven. Rejoice because Jesus has looked towards Jerusalem, he has walked the road of suffering, he has died the death of a sinner, and he, now, in his risen, glorified body reigns supreme superintending for all those who might deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Lead others to life by leading them to death.
Allow me to end with this illustration: In the last six months of his life, certain biographers were given unprecedented access to the daily activities of Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones. They were allowed to look around his house, read his manuscripts, ask him questions—even stuff themselves inside his room as he went to sleep. One of those biographers was evangelical-author, Iain Murray, and one night, when Mr. Murray was feeling especially daring, he asked the feeble Doctor, “how are you coping now that you’ve been put on the shelf?” Dr. Jones, just to let you know, is possibly one of the most influential preachers ever to walk this earth. His influence in expository preaching is unmatched. The effect of his ministry, not just in preaching, but at-large is still affecting ministers, like myself, today. Yet, it is at the end of his life, when he is nearly on his deathbed, Iain Murray asks him, “how do you feel now that you’ve been put on a shelf—now that your best days are behind you?” Lloyd-Jones looked him straight in the eye and said, “Do not rejoice because the demons are subject to you in my name but rejoice because your name is written in heaven.” I am perfectly content.
May we be a church that is content—content with the gospel, content with dying to self, content with living in and for Jesus. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”