The Discipleship You Never Knew
The cost of discipleship is a prominent motif in Jesus’ early discipleship training with his followers (Mt 8, 10). In contradistinction with the promises of today’s well-suited health and wealth apostles, Jesus promised a difficult journey for his authentic witnesses. The environment, reminiscent of a wolf-invested sheep pasture, would carry threats of every kind, from every direction. Of course, this is the promise for those who remained faithful and who persevered. Many just walked away (Jn 6).
Most people are not Christian. Most named Christians follow common distortions of true Christianity. Most born again Christians are not engaged in serious discipleship. Cult members appear more zealous for their perverted Jesus than saints do for the Son of God. Unfortunately, Christianity is like a mere seasoning on their daily bread. Their daily bread is the pursuit of happiness via self-interested, self-fulfillment. Far from wanting to be the one to throw the first stone, I am reflecting on my own struggle with faithful discipleship. Whatever your poor opinion of me as the chief of sinners may be…think lower, think less. Still, I am convinced that He is able to keep that which I have committed to him, no matter how lame, against the day.
The perils of following Jesus are legion. It begins with mild disdain by family and friends. It grows when the uphill grind of Bible study, prayer, and consistent attendance at worship services are left lax in favor of demonic-inspired visits to Vanity Fair. Then, eventually, a Christian must open his mouth. He is consumed by Christ. Everything else is dim or dung.
When a saint is full of the Spirit and full of God’s Word, he shares Paul’s lament, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” Jeremiah experienced a burning in his bones (Jer 20:9). Through varied ministry engagements, leading to diverse hardships, Paul learned to be content because his life and ministry were in the schoolroom of providence. This meant seizing opportunities for prison ministry…while a prisoner! The ultimate Christian peril is persecution unto death. Church history is rich with this glorious sacrifice of the saints.
Christianity is a life of conflict with the world, unless you redefine it, and loathe your fellow Christians who are in conflict with the world. Jesus promised, “And you will be hated by all on account of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved (Mt 10:22).” Who wants to be hated by all? Is this the Christianity you signed up for? Is this a reality for you, or do men praise you because you have brought strange fire or hidden your light under a bushel?
Jesus was hated because he testified that the people and their deeds were evil (Jn 7:7), and His Father affirmed that this is every intention of every heart, all the time (Gen 6:5). Men hate that assessment. They will know we are Christians because of what we say about the world of sin. The work includes exposing evil (Eph 5:11). This is complemented with the good news solution of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God; but He is good news for Christians, only. The hostile enmity of humanity against the Triune God is a voluminous topic in Scripture. Truly, it is a disservice to promote Christianity as happy, happy, happy alternative to worldly lifestyles.
The apostle Paul helps us immensely with his boasting. He was forced to submit his resume to the carnal Christians at Corinth. His reluctance to boast about his adventure with Christ was pressed by the factious leaders, who placed themselves in competition with Paul. The Christian popularity contest, including sheep-stealing, was a problem, then, as it is today. Fortunately, God uses Paul’s reluctant resume together for good for us, who use it as a helpful tool for understanding the cost of discipleship.
Two resume expositions prove prominent: 1 Corinthians 4 and 2 Corinthians 11. In the first, Paul identifies himself as a slave of Christ, and he articulates his function as a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1). Stewards of anything must give an account to their masters, and for this reason they must be trustworthy. Church members, rather than joining in this stewardship of the Gospel, operate with the Corinthians in judging the performance of those who actually do the ministry (1 Cor 4:3–5). Paul rebuked the Corinthians for this bad behavior because man can only judge another by appearance, but God judges the heart motives (1 Cor 4:5). Every Christian should trust God for her reward, not the deficient opinion of other Christians. Paul echoed John the Baptist is reminding the Corinthians that a man can receive nothing unless God gives it to him (Jn 3:27; 1 Cor 4:7).
Next, Paul’s financial support by the churches he planted and edified proved scant (Phil 4:15), but God raised up poor brethren to give the apostle pecuniary provision (Phil 4:16–19). No doubt the resources were abundant in Corinth, but materialism held the hearts of these rich Christians. Even Paul’s Holy Spirit-inspired plea for Christian giving fell on deaf ears, hardened hearts, and clenched fists (2 Cor 8–9).
Paul was convinced God was sporting apostolic suffering, to humiliate the arrogant men of the world (1 Cor 4:9). Ironic that God’s way of humiliating the proud is to humiliate the humble. Paul wished the Corinthians would join him in God’s grand scheme of Christian humiliation (1 Cor 4:10). No doubt a few did, but most pursued money, position, and power (1 Cor 4:8).
Fools for Christ will always be few in number. The cost is simply too high for most church members. Unfortunately, we romanticize the pilgrim sojourner. We plaster our Cadillac Escalades with “not of this world” decals. Jesus was the suffering servant (Is 53), and Paul implored others to follow his own suffering steps, as he followed Christ, “To this present hour we are both hungry, and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless (1 Cor 4:11).” This is this Christian life. Does it look familiar to your personal experience?
Paul intensified his argument for the real cost of discipleship, in his second letter to the Corinthians (which is probably his fourth). In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul defended his character. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul defended his apostleship. In both of these very long chapters, we register the cost Paul paid to be the great apostle to the Gentiles. With the privilege of Christian service came an extreme price to pay. Paul lamented the prospering false teachers throughout his writings. The Corinthians were easy prey to these wolves. Paul knew it and was forced to write harshly toward them, in order to protect them. They did not appreciate him for this ministry, or for the fact that Paul was not the image of a mega minister they wanted (2 Cor 11:5–6).
The extreme is reached when Paul unleashes a litany of his personal suffering starting in verse 22 of 2 Corinthians 11. Paul was hard-pressed externally through physical persecutions, but he also suffered internally with concern for the churches (2 Cor 11:28). The great test question is: “In your fight against sin, have you shed blood?” I am guilty of being born in the West, but I have been with those Christians on the front line of persecution in Asia and Africa. American Christianity appears rudimentary, sometimes silly, in light of global forces crushing the faith, elsewhere. Still, like a pressed spice, the fragrance, the aroma of true Christianity is a sweet savor as unto the Lord.
“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Mt 8:18–22).” Homelessness is one mark of discipleship (Go ahead…read that again.). Paul affirmed this as we saw in 1 Corinthians 4:11. I suppose I would be more uncomfortable with my profession of Christianity, if I had never experienced homelessness. Somehow it is more pleasant to tell the story(-ies) of homelessness in the past tense, than to live them out in the present tense. God knows that; but we really are Christians, and that means loving discipline (Heb 12), from our heavenly Father. I will call it, “Agape homelessness…”
Loving discipline comes with various measures of faith and very high standards of testing. We must remember Job (Yes, he was homeless, too), even as we marvel at Paul’s course of being fitted for heaven. If God ignored or despised us, I am confident we would be much more comfortable in this world. Christians — the suffering kind — have been promised trouble in the world. We are to count it all joy in the midst of our troubles. Jesus had joy, as he faced the Cross. Paul wrote the words, “Rejoice and again I say, Rejoice!” Peter wrote an entire epistle on the subject of Christian suffering (1 Peter). Jude reported trouble. John wrote from an exilic prison. We are not alone in the days of testing, and His grace is sufficient for us.
God is faithful and true. He is able to make all grace abound toward us…with a house, or homeless. His purposes and providence will be accomplished; and our sanctification, as true believers in Jesus Christ, will have been exercised according to His will and good pleasure… and to the praise of His glorious grace!
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
December 9, 2020