The Reality of Following Jesus: It’s Costly

following-jesus_t_nvWe talk like we believe, but I am not sure that Christians in America really understand it. I am not sure I always accept it. At one level we concede the reality that following Jesus is costly. We know it more at the macro-level, though. That universal principle played out particularly in the lives of Afghani Christians, but at the personal level we don’t believe that following Jesus is costly nor should it be. We find that following Jesus often fits right into our plans and routines, or at least we’ve made some version of Christianity fit our plans and routines. We are quite comfortable with Christianity in America. Ross Douthat rather brilliantly demonstrated this in his book Bad Religion, but he was quick to point out that this is more a pseudo-Christianity than the authentic thing. It is immensely important, then, that we wrestle with the reality of the cost of following Jesus.

Jesus makes this reality abundantly plain in his earthly ministry and teaching. Luke 9:23-26, for example communicates this. There we read:

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

Jesus outlines a principle that is true of all who would follow him: they must take up a cross. To understand the principle more clearly, however, we should look at the surrounding context of this passage. A more full exegesis of the text illuminates the meaning of “taking up a cross.”

The passage is set around answering a significant question in the gospels: who is Jesus. Back in verse 18 Jesus asks his disciples this very question. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answer with some common misconceptions about Jesus, “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” another “prophet.” But the disciples see Jesus differently. When asked who they say Jesus is, Peter answers, “The Christ of God” (v. 20). Peter asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, the chosen servant of God. Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession is, however, quite surprising.

“Don’t tell anyone who I am.” That’s essential what Jesus instructs Peter and the other disciples. It seems strange to us, rather counterproductive to his mission. Doesn’t Jesus want the people to follow him? The answer is, of course, that Jesus does want to amass followers, but he wants genuine followers. The crowds had expectations about the Messiah, namely that he would be a political leader who would rescue them from Roman oppression. These are expectations that Jesus has no plan to fulfill. In concealing his identity he is making sure that those who follow him understand who he truly is. So he outlines again for the disciples what it means for Him to be Messiah:

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (v. 22)

As Messiah Jesus is not going to overthrow the political powers, rather he is going to subject himself to death on the cross. It is from this point that Jesus springs into a discussion about his own followers. They must imitate him in sacrifice, and Jesus sets the bar of sacrifice exceedingly high.

When American Christians talk about “coming to Jesus,” when we invite others to become Christians we often speak about how Jesus can make your life better. There is some truth to this statement, but it depends on what we mean by “better.” Our vision of the good life looks like the American Dream. It’s full of comfort and possessions and ease. The Bible’s vision of the good life is quite different. Jesus speaks about his coming as an occasion to bring us “life more abundantly” (John 10:10), but elsewhere in the New Testament we learn that such a life involves a measure of suffering. So Paul writes to the Romans speaking of their inheritance as children of God in Christ, but he adds:

 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:17)

Receiving the inheritance requires that we not only share in his relationship to the Father, but we share in his sufferings. In Romans chapter 5 this suffering produces character and endurance and hope in the believer, it serves a good purpose in our abundant lives. This paints a very different picture than the modern American dream. Following Christ is not about achieving your best life now, it is about taking up your cross.

What does this phrase mean: taking up your cross? Several key ideas can help us understand the language of cross-bearing in the New Testament. For starters it is about self-denial. Christ exemplifies this. Philippians 2:8 says, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Our imitation of Jesus requires us to humble ourselves, to let go of our supposed rights and demands and to die to self. Secondly, we ought to notice how this is a re-orientation of our whole lives. Following Christ is costly because it’s not compartmentalized. I can’t follow Jesus in my marriage but not follow him in my finances. I can’t submit to God’s authority in my parenting but deny his authority in my health. Taking up your cross impacts every facet of your living. Thirdly, it requires regular self-evaluation. If I am going to faithfully follow Jesus I can’t settle into routines and ruts of spiritual existence. I need to regularly take stock of how I am doing. Following Jesus is costly because I never arrive, I am always in process of growing and being conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29).

There is no such thing as spectator Christianity. We cannot profess faith in Jesus and sit on the sidelines. Following Christ requires real commitment on our parts. It requires “daily dying to self”. It requires a long view of the Christian walk, no short sprint, but a long trek in the same direction. It will cost us to follow Jesus, that’s the reality and we need to be honest about that. If we are not then new believers will easily become disillusioned and disappointed. We may set them up for failure if we aren’t honest about the cost. But we need to remind ourselves, those of us who have been Christians for many years, too. If we don’t then we will settle for a domesticated Christianity and a tame Jesus, something that is more palatable to our American dreams. Following Jesus is costly, let’s be honest about that. We can, of course, add one other phrase to this idea though: following Jesus is costly, but it’s worth it.

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