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Called to Sacrifice
Spring Quarter: Discipleship and Mission
Unit 1: Call to Discipleship
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 10, 2019
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scriptures: Mark 1:16-20; Luke 14:25-33
Key Verse: Luke 14:27
- Restate Jesus’ concept of discipleship.
- Explain how a Christian is to evaluate commitments in light of the call of discipleship.
How many times have we heard or read stories about the percentage of people who claim to be Christians in various parts of the world? Usually, however, those surveys have no accompanying criteria to support the authenticity of such claims to be Christian. Evidence of practical Christian commitment such as prayer, bible reading, worship attendance, and/or Christian ministry is absent. Therefore, many people are counted as Christians merely through their own self-identification as such. A term often used to describe such people is “nominal Christians” – Christians in name only.
However, before we form an opinion related to this designation, we ought to consider what Jesus has to say about it in today’s scripture lessons.
The first of today’s two texts come from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. First up is John the Baptist’s preaching the message that all must repent and be cleansed by God to prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s king. Next, Jesus appears for his baptism, and at that time he is identified by a voice from heaven as God’s kingly son. Following his triumph in the wilderness over the devil’s temptations, Jesus repeats John’s message of repentance, announcing that God’s promised reign is very near.
Now, there is probably nothing in Christian theology about which there is more disagreement among scholars than the meaning of the kingdom of God. But all agree that it was the central message of Jesus’ teaching.
Whatever else it may mean – gift, task, here and now, future – God’s kingdom is the reestablishment of his rule over all creation, especially over rebellious humanity. This idea is clearly expressed in the Lord’s Prayer in the words: “Your kingdom come, you will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Timothy Keller stated, “The good news of the kingdom of God is that the material world God created is going to be renewed so that it lasts forever. And when that happens you’ll say, like Jewel the unicorn at the end of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia,’ ‘I’ve come home at last! This is my country…this is the land I’ve been looking for all my life.’”
At any rate, Jesus connects his coming and ministry to the inauguration of God’s kingdom. And this is a movement that will stretch the rule of God to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), finding its fulfillment when Jesus returns as King (Acts 1:11). It is out of this context that Jesus calls his first disciples.
Heed the Call
Beginning to speak publicly about the kingdom of God, Jesus abruptly selects 12 men to be his disciples. Mark records the first two of these encounters, where Jesus begins to call unsuspecting fisherman to be his disciples. Jesus is not going to be a lone prophet wandering in the desert but a leader whose task as Messiah is to create a community of followers.
Jesus’ ministry begins and largely focuses on Galilee. This is the northern region of Israel’s homeland that features as its geographical focus “the Sea of Galilee, which is a large freshwater lake.
Along that lake shoreline, Jesus sees two brothers working as fishermen. Since Peter and Andrew are casting their nets from shore, they are possibly too poor to own a boat. On the other hand, the Zebedees are more prosperous with a boat of their own and hired hands to help with the labor.
Jesus’ invitation is blunt and brief. His challenge is to follow him as disciples, as learners follow their teacher. The custom of Jesus’ time is that students of Jewish religion teachers actually live side by side with their teachers. That allows the students to observe the actions of the teacher and participate in “on-the-ministry” training. Jesus’ invitation is to that kind of life.
One of the striking notes here is that Jesus calls these fishermen to “follow me.” Prophets did not call people to follow themselves but to follow God (compare 1 King 19:19-21). The sages of Jesus’ day never called people to follow them, only to learn Torah from them. However, Jesus’ call to these fisherman was so dramatically overpowering that their lives were never the same again.
Near the end of his life, in a television interview, Karl Barth was asked, “Has your view of Christ changed over the years?” “Yes,” replied the honest old theologian. “At the beginning I thought Christ was the prophet of the kingdom of God. Now I know that He is the kingdom.” When Karl Barth met Christ, his life was changed and never the same again.
Another note here is that “Jesus calls” these fishermen. As I understand it, this is unique in Jewish tradition. Students chose rabbis, rabbis did not choose students. Those who wished to learn sought out a rabbi for permission to study with him. But Mark is showing us that Jesus has a different type of authority than other rabbis. Important! Our relationship with Jesus depends upon his call to us.
When Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, “Come, follow me,” at once they leave their vocation as fishermen and follow him. Keep in mind that fishing was a major industry on the Sea of Galilee. It was hard work, but it provided a reliable income for hundreds of families in a place and time when life as an overwhelming struggle for most. To simply walk away from the fishing profession was unheard of. But there was Jesus call to Simon and Andrew.
When Jesus calls James and John, they leave behind their father and friends right there in the boat. From reading the rest of the Gospels, we know that those men did fish again and they continued to relate to their parents. But what Jesus is saying is still disruptive. In traditional cultures, you get your identity from your family, so when Jesus says, “I want priority over your family,” that’s dramatic. Or when Jesus says, “I want priority over your career,” that is also dramatic. Jesus is saying, “Loving me, learning from me, acting like me and serving me must become the passionate priority of your life. Everything else comes second.” Certainly, we see here that there is a cost to following Jesus and living as his disciples.
Peter, Andrew, James and John’s responses are as abrupt as Jesus’ invitation. They abandon their trade, their way of life and means of survival as well as their families, and follow Jesus. Without doubt, their lives will never be the same again. But their lives will not be less, but more than before.
Scholars point out that these four fishermen show their repentance, their desire “to turn,” by dropping everything to heed Jesus’ call. And their response is more than just a matter of an internal transformation; they turn into something that they are not now, from fishermen to fishers of men.
So Jesus’ invitation to become disciples is an invitation to follow him and to work to extend God’s kingdom. The prospect of fishing “for people” sets Jesus apart from other teachers. Since these fishermen used nets (not rods) and fishing lines with hooks, we can see Jesus’ image is one of gathering. The prophet Jeremiah used this same image of fishermen to promise God would regather his scattered people after Judah’s exile (Jeremiah 16:16).
Now, these four fishermen are not chosen because they are choice. Mark will emphasize that Peter will argue with Jesus (Mark 8:31-33) and even deny him (14:66-72). James and John ask to sit in the place of privilege when Jesus is enthroned, failing to understand that Jesus is about to die (10:35-45). Truth is, all 12 of the disciples or later designated “apostles” will fail Jesus.
But even so, Jesus will invite them back into his company at the resurrection. He will commission them again as his messengers (Matthew 28:18-20). As powerful as these disciples’ response is, God’s grace is even more powerful.
Count the Cost
When Jesus spoke the words of our second text, from Luke’s Gospel, he was on his final trip to Jerusalem, which would result in death on the cross (Luke 9:22,44). He had tried to explain it to his disciples, but they had failed to understand (9:45).
The crowds that were with Jesus thought he was on his way to an empire. That is why he addressed them as he did. He tried his best to explain to them that the person who would follow Him was not on the way to worldly power and glory. Rather, the person who would follow Him must be ready for a loyalty that would sacrifice the dearest things in life, and for a suffering that could be similar to the agony of a man on a cross.
Jesus begins his conversation about the real nature of the kingdom of God by saying, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple. As we are, Jesus begins with a list of family relationships that people cherish most. These are not merely valued by his audience. They were regarded as sacred and demanded by God’s law. Added to this list, is one’s own life, one’s very existence. Yet, Jesus says that to be this disciple – one who follows him and learns from him how to live the godly life – one must hate all.
So, why does Jesus talk about hating? In other places we are not even allowed to hate our enemies. As Timothy Keller points out, Jesus is not calling us to hate “actively,” he’s calling us to hate “comparatively.” Jesus says, “I want you to follow me so fully, so intensely, so enduringly that all other attachments in your life look like hate by comparison.” If Jesus calls you to follow him, he must be the goal. As important as our other relationships are, Jesus is even more important.
However, disciples learn that following Jesus does not diminish love for others. Rather, it increases it. The irony of Jesus’ instruction is that only by putting Him in unchallenged first place does one learn to love faithfully those most cherished.
The key verse of the lesson is verse 27 where Jesus says, “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
The Roman Empire uses death by crucifixion as a way of asserting its absolute power over its subjects. So anyone carrying a cross is marked as a defeated enemy of Rome, about to feel the full effect of Roman wrath.
On the other hand, Jesus uses the image of the cross-bearing because of his own impending death by crucifixion. But his cross will not mean defeat. By giving his life willingly, surrendering to his enemies and letting them do their worst, Jesus will pay sin’s price. In what is known today as “the substitutionary atonement,” Jesus will give his worthy life on behalf of the unworthy.
Consequently, those who follow Jesus as disciples do so to join him in the work of God’s kingdom, establishing God’s reign in the world. And as they do, they must carry out that work as Jesus has modeled: by giving themselves sacrificially in service to others (Luke 9:23). Then, they, like Jesus, must trust God to provide and vindicate. The full fruit of their labor will be seen only at the resurrection from the dead.
Now, it is a Christian’s first duty to count the cost of following Jesus. The tower which the man was going to build was most likely a vineyard tower. Vineyards were often equipped with towers from which to watch for thieves who might steal the harvest. An unfinished tower building would be quite humiliating. Therefore, a careful accounting would be required to be sure one has sufficient resources to complete the project.
I’m reminded here of the introduction to our marriage ceremony when the minister says, “It is therefore not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God.” The bride and groom are to count the cost of what they are about.
So Jesus urges his followers to listen carefully to his teaching, to understand the cost that he will pay and that they in turn will pay.
Jesus now provides a second comparison about assessing costs. In this illustration, a king faces a battle against an adversary with an army double the size of his own. Can the king with the small army prevail?
A proper assessment of the situation suggests that there is only one possible course of action. And verse 32 is that course. The outnumbered king has only one choice. He cannot take the risk of battle. Therefore, he can only send his representatives to meet his adversary “a long way off,” way before their armies meet to pursue peace on unfavorable terms. And, of course, the choice is humiliating, but far better than defeat and death.
Like a person building a tower, they must understand the true cost of following Jesus. And, like a king facing an army of overwhelming force, they must be prepared to pay a cost that seems like defeat, but is in fact the way to life.
Some think of the word “Christian” to be a term for those who confess Christ, while the word “disciple” is reserved for those seriously committed to following him. As we are reminded, the New Testament knows no such distinction. To confess Christ as Lord demands a counting of the cost of that confession. The cost is everything, but payoff is participation in the eternal, victorious rule of God.
The late Sam Shoemaker, dynamic Episcopal priest, put it into perspective when he stated, “total commitment is giving as much as we can, to as much of Christ as we can understand, day by day.”
There, if we are daunted by the high cost of following Christ, let us remember that we are not left to fulfill those costs alone. The One who has promised “to be with us always,” will walk the steep road with us every step and will be there at the end to meet us.
- In what ways might the Lord call you to minister for Him in the week ahead?
- What struggles might you have to undergo in order to “hate” your family in the way Jesus intends that word to be taken?
- How will a person know when he or she has given up everything to follow Christ?
Information in this lesson was drawn from the following sources:
“2018-2019 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary,” Uniform Series “International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 241-248
“The NIV Application Commentary, Mark” by David Gariand, pages 67-70
“King’s Cross” by Timothy Keller, pages 14-25
“The Gospel of Luke Commentary” by William Barclay, pages 202-204
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).