It is as though Jesus said, “You cannot be my disciple if you won’t do these things.” This is probably the clearest teaching on discipleship in all of Scripture. “Great crowds” followed Jesus. While many popular religious leaders would try to make the crowds even larger, Jesus seemed to try to stop people from following Him. Of all the statements He made that turned people away, we have reached the most shocking: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Learn what this means.
Table of Contents
- Jesus Said, “You Cannot Be My Disciple If You Won’t Learn and then Do.”
- Jesus Said, “You Cannot Be My Disciple If You Won’t Suffer for Me.”
- Jesus Said, “You Cannot Be My Disciple If You Won’t get Off the Fence.”
We have the potential with God’s Word to be in one of two groups: we hear God’s Word and do what it says, or we think our responsibility ends at simply hearing. It’s great to listen, but we must go further and actually do. This is a common theme in Scripture:
- Matthew 7:24 Whoever hears these sayings of Mine, AND DOES THEM, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock.
- Luke 8:21 Jesus said, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God AND DO IT.”
- John 13:17 If you know these things, blessed are you IF YOU DO THEM.
- James 1:22 But BE DOERS OF THE WORD, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
I mention all this because Jesus said as much:
Luke 14:27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:25 says “great crowds” followed Jesus. While many popular religious leaders would try to make the crowds even larger, Jesus seemed to DISCOURAGE people from following Him. Of all the statements He made that turned people away, verse 27 is the most shocking.
Jesus Said, “You Cannot Be My Disciple If You Won’t Learn and then Do.”
The words “bear his own” remind us that discipleship involves more than simply hearing. We must be doers:
- Disciples are more than people who learn by means of lectures, sermons, and books.
- Disciples are people who learn by doing:
Since studying these verses my understanding of discipleship has changed. I’ve said before that disciple means student. Disciples learn, but a better English synonym would be apprentice:
- Picture students – whether in elementary school, high school, or college – and what do you think of? You think of students sitting at desks listening and learning.
- Picture apprentices. What do you think of? You think of hands-on. You think of people doing what they’re learning, and applying the knowledge received.
If disciples were simply students, Jesus would’ve said, ““Make sure you’re listening to Me and paying attention. Watch me take up my cross and deny Myself.” But Jesus told people who wanted to be his disciples, “You need to pick up your own cross and deny yourself too.”
Think this is important because we can be tempted to be students, but not disciples. We can be tempted to be learners without being doers. We go to church, listen to sermons, read Christian books, attend Sunday School, or home fellowships, so we gain knowledge. But if we’re going to be disciples, we must apply it too. If we aren’t, then our knowledge isn’t helping much.
Jesus Said, “You Cannot Be My Disciple If You Won’t Suffer for Me.”
Part of doing is “[bearing our] own cross.” This parallels the idea of “hating [our] own life” from the previous verse (Luke 14:26). If you hate her own life, you’re willing to pick up your cross to follow Christ.
We have so much familiarity with the cross that when Jesus said this, we miss some of the significance. We must avoid understanding Jesus’s words through our 21st century lens, and understand how it sounded to his listeners in his day. I want to help us do this by pointing out the differences between what the cross represents in our day and his day.
In our day, crosses are largely symbols of love and affection. They’re reminders of what Jesus did for us:
- We put crosses in our churches.
- We put crosses in our business brands or logos when we want people to know we’re Christians.
- We hang crosses from the rearview mirror in our cars.
- We have crosses in our homes.
- We have framed pictures of crosses with beautiful poems and verses next to them.
- We wear crosses as jewelry or adornments. We put them on necklaces or keychains.
- We wear clothing that has crosses embroidered on it.
We love crosses. They’re one of the most endearing and iconic images to us. But do you think anyone did this in Jesus’s day? Definitely not. It would be an understatement to say the cross’s imagery has changed dramatically over the last 2,000 years.
When Jesus said disciples must pick up their cross, it would’ve been horrifying. It would’ve made people think of a violent, excruciating, degrading death:
- People didn’t put up pictures of crosses in their homes. That would be like having a picture of an electric chair.
- People didn’t wear crosses as jewelry or adornments. That would be like wearing a guillotine around your neck.
- People didn’t have statues of crosses. That would be like having a statue of a noose or a stake at which people were burned.
Instead, people despised just the thought of a cross. And believe it or not, the cross didn’t primarily mean death. It primarily meant two other things: suffering and humiliation.
Rome could’ve killed people any number of ways. Crucifixion was chosen because it was the most unmerciful. It had been passed down from the Persians, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians, so by Jesus’ day Roman executioners had perfected it to inflict as much pain as possible. The word excruciating is related to the word crucifixion. The cross was a horrible instrument that caused people so much agony, death became very attractive.
To make loyalty to Rome attractive, Rome said, “If you’ll become a citizen, you’ll never have to worry about being crucified.” Even if people hated Rome, they were more inclined to become citizens simply to avoid the possibility of this death. Crucifixion was intended to be a deterrent. When people were crucified, they were lined up on the roads heading in and out of Rome to communicate, “This is what will happen to you if you rebel.”
To make crucifixion as public as possible, those being crucified had to walk through the streets carrying their cross for everyone to see. They were mocked and ridiculed. We are familiar with this because of Jesus’s crucifixion, and it happened to others as well.
So when Jesus made this statement that people had to bear their cross it would’ve been absolutely shocking. Everyone knew it meant being willing to suffer for Him. He was demanding total commitment, regardless of what we must endure.
Bearing Our Cross Means Submission to Christ
When people carried their cross it showed their submission to Rome, and Jesus meant it similarly, but instead of submission to Rome, it was submission to him. If we want to be Jesus’s disciple we must freely give him authority over our lives. We must forfeit our rights in order to serve him in whatever capacity or circumstances he has chosen. Our lives no longer belong to us. They belong to him to do with what he pleases.
It’s as if Jesus said, ““I’m going to die, and you need to be ready to die too! If you want to be like those people who abandoned Me, you can, but if you want to be one of My disciples, there’s a cross for Me, and there’s a cross for you! Whatever happens to Me, happens to you. I’m going to suffer, and you need to be willing to suffer. A student is not above his teacher.”1
Paul said it like this: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him BUT ALSO SUFFER FOR HIS SAKE” (Philippians 1:29). There are several things we want as Christians:
- We want our sins forgiven
- We want eternal life
- We want to be in heaven
- We want glorified bodies
But we don’t want to suffer. Jesus is telling us that having all these blessings also means being willing to suffer with Him.
If We Want the Glory We Must Partake in the Suffering
A few verses in Mark 10:32-34 reveal this. The context is Jesus predicted His death for the THIRD TIME, but the disciples STILL didn’t believe it. Jesus is near Jerusalem, which means He’s less than two weeks from His crucifixion. But the disciples were more excited than ever because they thought he was about to become king, sit on the throne of David, overthrow Rome, and restore Israel to their Golden Years. As Jesus’ 12 right-hand men, they thought they would be sitting next to him. The point is they didn’t expect Jesus to suffer, and they didn’t expect to suffer!
Mark 10:35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.
Who talks to Jesus like this, saying, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask”? It’s shocking! We know from the parallel account in Matthew’s Gospel that it was actually their mother who made this request. They didn’t want to talk to Jesus like this, so they sent their mom to do it! It’s like they (or she) said, “We’re heading to Jerusalem. You’re going to be king soon. We want the most glory with you!”
Jesus’s response is interesting. He didn’t tell them, “No,” like we’d expect. Instead, He wanted them to know that if they wanted the glory, they also had to partake in the suffering. Baptize means immerse, so Jesus told them they had to be immersed in His suffering! Except for Judas, the disciples did suffer. All of them were martyred except John, and he definitely didn’t get off easily. Church tradition says he was boiled in oil, and when he survived, he was exiled on the island of Patmos.
Why were the other disciples angry with James and John? Is it because they couldn’t believe James and John made such a selfish, prideful request? No, it’s because they wanted to be the ones sitting on Jesus’ right and left and they didn’t like these two trying to take that from them.
These verses reveal:
- Suffering must precede glory
- The mistake the twelve disciples made and that we can make: we want the glory without the suffering.
By telling us to pick up our cross and follow Him, Jesus is saying the plan is suffering and then glory. If we understand this, we can have the right perspective and embrace suffering. We can follow Jesus’s example…
Hebrews 12:2 Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before Him.
Like Christ, we should endure the suffering by thinking about the joy that awaits us.
Jesus Said, “You Cannot Be My Disciple If You Won’t get Off the Fence.”
Joshua 24 contains Joshua renewing the covenant with the nation. In verses 1 through 13 Joshua recounted God’s goodness to Israel. He mentions God making them a numerous nation, bringing them up out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea to deliver them from the Egyptian army, caring for them in the wilderness, and bringing them into the Promised Land and defeating their enemies for them. Then:
Joshua 24:11 And you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, and the leaders of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And I gave them into your hand. 12 And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’
God gave them victory over all these enemies. He gave them land they didn’t work for, cities they didn’t build, and vineyards and orchards they didn’t plant. This would be a blessing for anyone throughout all of human history, but it was especially wonderful in the Old Testament when life was very difficult and people had to work for everything.
We would expect Joshua to then say to the people, ““You better serve God. Look how good he has been. Consider all he has done for you. Why wouldn’t you be faithful to him?” He does say this, but he adds something:
Joshua 24:14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua Wanted the Israelites to Get Off the Fence
Would you ever imagine Joshua even mentioning serving false gods, especially those of the Canaanites who were so evil they brought the Canaanites to a level of wickedness that warranted their destruction? Why would Joshua do that? Is it because he wanted the Israelites to serve the gods of the Canaanites?
No. But he did want the Israelites to serve the gods of the Canaanites…versus sitting on the fence. He said, “Serve the God of Israel, or serve the gods of the Canaanites, but no matter what you do, don’t sit on the fence. It would be better for you to worship idols than be neutral toward God.” Serving the gods of the Canaanites is terrible, but sitting on the fence is worse.
Elijah Wanted the Israelites to Get Off the Fence
When Elijah had his famous showdown on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal we read:
1 Kings 18:20 So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.
Basically, Elijah said, “How long will you continue sitting on the fence?” Notice the words “then follow him (Baal).” Unbelievably, Elijah told the people to follow Baal if they wouldn’t follow God. Elijah didn’t want the Israelites to follow Baal. Elijah’s primary ministry was to deliver Israel FROM BAAL WORSHIP. God largely raised him up for that purpose. Elijah said this because serving Baal is terrible, but being on the fence with the Lord is worse.
Jesus Wanted the Laodiceans to Get Off the Fence
The seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 that Jesus wrote letters to are known by certain descriptions. Even if you don’t know the descriptions of the first six churches, you probably know the seventh church, Laodicea is known as, “The Lukewarm Church.” Another way to say it is Laodicea is the church of fence sitters. Jesus says to them:
Revelation 3:14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. 15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
There are two interpretations of these well-known verses, and you can find commentators on both sides:
- One interpretation is that cold water and hot water is good, but lukewarm is bad. We like our drinks hot or cold, but nobody wants lukewarm liquid.
- The other interpretation is Jesus is saying, “Be on fire for me, or have nothing to do with me, but don’t be lukewarm.”
I don’t know for certain which interpretation is right, but I do know both interpretations condemn lukewarmness. Jesus basically says, “Be hot or cold, but don’t sit on the fence.”
Luke 14:27 Also Prevents Fence Sitters
Jesus is also trying to prevent fence sitters in Luke 14:27. He says, “You cannot be my disciple if you won’t pick up your cross and follow me.” If anything is going to get people off the fence, it’s this. He was causing people to serve him or abandon him, be a sheep or a goat, be a wheat or a tare, be hot or cold, but he wasn’t letting anyone remain lukewarm. Jesus is asking us to make a choice: follow him or forsake him. But don’t sit on the fence:
“Keep your eyes simply on Him; let His death, His sufferings, His merits, His glories, His intercession, be fresh upon [your] mind; when you wake in the morning look to Him; when [you] lie down at night look to Him. [Do not let] your hopes or fears come between you and Jesus; follow hard after Him, and He will never fail you.”Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, revised and updated by Alistair Begg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).
- Jesus is preaching self-denial. Mark 8:34 is a parallel verse: “Calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him DENY HIMSELF and take up his cross and follow me.'” Jesus puts denying ourselves and taking up our cross together. This was a common theme in Christ’s teachings. This is the kind of self-denial that results in obedience to Christ’s commands, service to others, and suffering for Christ’s sake.
We might hear Jesus’s words and our minds quickly go to physical suffering, but there are plenty of ways people suffer for Christ that are not physical. Suffering can be emotional, mental, relational, or spiritual. For example, imagine you’re in a marriage that you would describe as miserable, but you made a commitment to God. You know marriage is a reflection of Christ and the church. So, you stay in that marriage. If you’re a husband, you continue to love your wife. If you’re a wife, you continue to respect your husband.
Or imagine, you have a child that is difficult and hard to love. You can feel this child trying to sow discord and turmoil into your home. But you continue to love and invest in that child, because you’re willing to suffer for Christ.
Or imagine you have a job you hate. The thought of it makes you sick to your stomach. You want to tell your boss what you think of him. But you continue to do your best and remain faithful, because you’re willing to suffer for Christ.