Power to Become A True Disciple (Part 1 of 4)

Power to Become a True Disciple

“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14:25-27)

How easy it is to read Jesus’ words and make them sound something like this:

“Here’s the deal, guys. Hate your life and everything in it, and make sure you’re ready to die for me at any moment’s notice. If you can’t do that, then forget about making my team. My people are only those who are super committed and absolutely loyal. If you’re in the half-baked category, then you might as well pack up and go home.”

Much has already been written by others about the “hate” part of these verses. Clearly, Jesus was not saying that we should hate  our families or ourselves, but that we are to love Him above everything else in our lives. In reality though, that information only changes things to a degree. It means Jesus is not in the business of hate, but love. That is certainly good news. But it does not change the fact that His standard of love and self-sacrifice is well above our means to get there. How many of us can honestly say we put Jesus first and love Him above all 100% of the time? It sounds a bit like the first of the Ten Commandments, and what Jesus said was the summary of all the Law and the Prophets (see Matthew 22:37-40). The problem we come up against is that through centuries of being under the law we have thoroughly established that we can’t keep it! Our track record of failures is astonishing. That’s why Jesus decided to nail these very regulations that condemn us to the cross (Colossians 2:14).

Jesus’ Description – Not Prescription 

I think the reason we often translate Jesus’ words like this is because we approach them as prescriptive instead of descriptive. Meaning, Jesus is telling us we must perform these near-impossible feats of self-denial and self-sacrifice in order to pin the “disciple” badge on our chest. But is that really what Jesus is saying here? We struggle and strive to fit the profile, and end up failing miserably. I have agonized over my own inability to follow Jesus many times, sometimes feeling the need to punish myself through fasting or praying or entertaining depressing thoughts. I have also felt obligated to teach others that they must decide to be all-in for Jesus, or else He won’t be happy with them. The problem is, whatever originates with us is bound to fail.  If what we do is rooted in fear, even the fear of failing, then it is impossible to love. #nofear Click To Tweet (See 1 John 4:18).

A key to understanding Jesus’ heart as expressed in Luke 14:26-27 is to look at the word, “cannot”. The English word could communicate that Jesus is prescribing certain attitudes and actions as qualifiers for following Him, and if we don’t follow through, then He won’t let us into His club. Exclusivity breeds rejection. Tough luck – suck it up and do better, or else. But the original word for “cannot” here is ‘dunatai’. It is the relative of another more known Greek word, ‘dunamis’, which we often refer to when we talk of the power of God. So, a more helpful way to translate dunatai here would be “unable to” or “powerless to”. It would read something like this:

If anyone comes to me and does not love me more than their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person is (dunatai) powerless to be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me is (dunatai) unable to be my disciple.”

Jesus was describing reality, helping the crowds understand the need to receive the ability to be His disciple. Where does this power and ability come from? From ourselves? Jesus wasn’t telling the crowds to try to love Him above all by their own willpower, taking another stab at obeying the Law and Prophets. He wasn’t trying to inspire them to muster up the strength to do better than before. He was simply telling them that it was true followers He was looking for, and inviting them to come and find out how to do that. Whatever doesn’t originate with Jesus is only our sad efforts to make something happen, or to change ourselves. It sounds a lot like religion to me. Jesus hated religion.

Jesus’ way of Choosing and Enabling Disciples

Look, Jesus’ disciples were called “disciples” for three years, long before they ever came close to measuring up to the standard of loving Jesus above all and being ready to die for Him. Consider how they were jostling for position among themselves, failing to do what Jesus did, failing to display His character, often succumbing to fear and despair, and how they ran like headless chicken on the night Jesus was arrested. So much for carrying their crosses! They knew what Jesus was after, and made bold statements about how they would follow Him no matter what. Sure, good luck. Heartfelt, but with the wrong starting point. After Jesus had risen from the dead, He had to chase them down and walk through the wall to visit His disciples, because the door was locked. They were cowering in fear.

Only from the day of Pentecost did Jesus’ disciples receive the power to follow Him the way He had intended. They were deeply impacted by Jesus’ resurrection, but only through being touched by the Holy Spirit did they transform into bold and powerful men and women, ready to love Jesus above all and go to the grave for Him. This is my take on what Jesus didn’t explicitly tell the crowds in Luke 14, but implicitly meant for all of us:

By the way, you all can try as hard as you want to be my disciples, but it’s not going to look like much until you are empowered by the Holy Spirit. My requirements are too tough. It is no use trying to impress through religious striving. You’re going to fail miserably again and again. Come to me and let me help you, also when you fall. Let the Holy Spirit take over now.”

How to Qualify as Jesus’ Disciple

Only through the Father drawing us by the power of the Holy Spirit can anyone come to Jesus (John 6:44). In the same way, only by the power of the Holy Spirit will anyone be qualified as Jesus’ disciples. It doesn’t happen by our own willpower, feeling terrible about our own failings, struggling to do “better”. No way, if this has been our approach, we need to hear Jesus again speaking out of a loving and compassionate heart to us. He is not holding up an impossible standard in order to keep the less committed out of His exclusive band of VIPs, but instead He is inviting each of us to turn to Him and let Him transform us by the power of the Holy Spirit into devoted and bold disciples. What a gracious invitation! In fact, we will love Him more when we are forgiven more. Grace transforms us, religion destroys us. What a loving Master! What a difference between trying to follow a law and being invited to follow a Person. Who wouldn’t want to follow Him?

What does our ways of “doing” discipleship look like? Pushing people to try harder to fit Jesus’ definition of a true follower? Sure, that might make people do better in some areas on the outset, but it won’t transform them to love Jesus more. Furthermore, it will often end in despair and hopelessness. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can do that in someone. If we really want to become more committed, bold, courageous, lovers of Jesus, we need to be introduced to the “Helper”. Pentecost was a day of making true disciples, and it still is today. Not impossible standards followed by religious self-effort. We fail when we start with us. We always succeed when we start with Jesus, continue with Jesus, and end with Jesus. He is the One we follow, and He is the One who is our guarantee of success.  And by the way, when we do fail, He is there to pick us up and carry us forward.

What does Jesus require from us? To allow Him to come into our lives by the Holy Spirit, so that He can live in us (see John 14:17) and empower us to love and follow our Lord from the inside out. Let the Comforter bring His dunamis (power) to help us become what we were dunatai (powerless) to become by ourselves!

Be blessed and encouraged!

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