"Who Cannot Be Jesus' Disciple"
(Delivered Sunday, January 11, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
This evening is an important and exciting one for our church family, because we will be holding the first of our new discipleship ministry meetings. I thought it would be a good morning, then, for us to consider Jesus' teaching in the Scriptures on discipleship.
Let's begin with a basic question: What exactly is a "disciple"? The Greek word that we translate into the English word "disciple" (mathătăs) comes from another one that means "to learn by practice or experience (manthănő). And so, a "disciple" is someone who is undergoing the process of being taught - both by instruction, and by personal, hands-on training - to follow after and behave more like our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. In Luke 6:40, Jesus tells us; "A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher." The end product of discipleship, then, is someone who follows Jesus and lives like Him.
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What an honor and privilege it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ! What a wonderful thing it is that He invites us to do - that is, to follow Him and learn from Him, so that we will grow to think increasingly as He thinks, act increasingly as He acts, love increasingly as He loves, and serve increasingly as He serves.
But before we are quick to sign-up for this wonderful opportunity, we need to consider an important and rarely considered aspect of His teaching on discipleship found in this morning's passage. From it, we discover the high cost involved in becoming His disciple:
Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it - lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:25-33).
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There's one thing you can certainly say about Jesus' teaching: It was never dull. It was surprising - often very surprising. Perhaps a better word would be 'shocking'; or perhaps even better still, 'scary'.
Jesus, the Master-Teacher, actually scared people away by the things He taught. The multitudes would often flock to hear His teaching; but then, after they heard what He had to say, they often just as quickly flocked to leave Him! Whole crowds would turn away at times, rejecting His words. On one occasion, when many of the people were calling themselves His 'disciples' and were following Him, He taught them about Himself in very shocking terms; and many of those would-be disciples said, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" (John 6:60). Shortly thereafter, all of those would-be followers went back and walked with Him no longer (v. 66) - leaving only the Twelve to remain as His disciples.
The words that Jesus spoke in this morning's passage would be, I'm quite sure, among those shocking sayings that sent some of His would-be disciples away - never to return.
But there's another thing that you can say about Jesus' teaching: He was never guilty of false advertising. There were no 'bait-and-switch' tactics with Him. He laid it on the line, and always let His would-be disciples know up front that following Him was a costly enterprise. And what's more, He made it clear that whoever was unwilling to pay the price for following Him could not be His disciple.
Look at that passage again. Can you see that, three times in this passage, He repeats the phrase, "cannot be My disciple"? The word He uses in this phrase literally means 'not able'. That is to say, whoever is unwilling to pay the price would not merely find it difficult to be His disciple, or that such a person would have to settle for being a second-rate disciple. He literally says that they are "not able" to be His disciple at all. He says this in verses 26, 27 and 33 - that they "cannot be My disciple".
I believe we can take this to mean that there are a lot of people - perhaps some here this morning - who have come to Jesus, and who have taken up the ambition of becoming His disciples; but who are literally unable to do what they aspire to do, and cannot be His disciples. And it's very important to understand that this is not because the Lord does not permit them to be His disciples. He welcomes everyone who sincerely comes to Him and genuinely follows Him. He says, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37). Rather, if they are unable to become His disciples, the fault is in them. They cannot, because they are unwilling to pay the price of becoming His disciples. They had hoped to come at the matter cheaply. They had hoped to sign-up for "discipleship-lite". They didn't realize - or perhaps chose to ignore - the very important fact that the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoffer once affirmed; "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."
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Look at how this passage begins. We're told that "great multitudes went with Him." Jesus spoke these shocking words at the height of His public popularity. Crowds and crowds were flocking to hear Him. From a strictly human standpoint, anyone would have concluded that His earthly ministry was a marvelous success; and that He was about to gain a multitude of new disciples if He marketed Himself accordingly.
But Jesus was consistently unimpressed, it seems, with the fact that great crowds flocked to hear Him. We don't get an impression from the Gospels that Jesus ever wrung His hands in concern over whether or not people would follow Him. We don't hear Him saying to people, "Oh thank you so very, very much for doing Me the great favor of becoming My followers!" In fact, we're told that there was a time early in His ministry when many saw His signs and believed on Him; but that He didn't commit Himself to them, "because He knew all men, an had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man" (John 2:23-25). He could see into the hearts of those who propose to follow Him. He was not impressed with or flattered by all His adoring fans. He knew their fickleness.
On this particular occasion, as multitudes went with Him, we're told that He turned and spoke to them. I have a picture in my mind of Him abruptly stopping in His stride, bringing the crowd of would-be followers to a sudden halt, and then turning and speaking these words to them and telling them - straight out - what it took to be His disciple. He certainly didn't tell them something that would attract followers. He certainly didn't 'market' discipleship with persuasive salesmanship, or 'dumb it down' in order to win more followers. He told the adoring crowds that, if they were not willing to pay the price, they "cannot" be His disciples.
And this morning, the Holy Spirit is calling us - who call ourselves 'disciples of Jesus' - to an abrupt halt through this Scripture passage. He is calling us to do something that we wouldn't ordinarily do if it were up to us. He is calling us to stop in the midst of our pursuit of being followers of Jesus, and take very seriously what Jesus says. He's calling us to count the cost of being His disciples; and then, to examine ourselves before God and ask, "Am I truly willing to pay the price that Jesus Himself says must be paid, or have I been kidding myself all along in counting myself among His disciples?"
You see, Jesus puts us at the fork of the road in this morning's passage; and we must now make a decision. He genuinely invites us to follow Him; and He surely welcomes us if we will follow. But before we begin, He Himself gives us a very clear warning, so that we make no mistake about the matter: If we're not willing to pay the price, we "cannot" be His disciple.
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The first thing that Jesus says it will cost us to be His disciple is . . .
1. OUR RIGHT TO RELATIONSHIPS (v. 26).
Jesus says, "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even his own life also, he cannot be My disciple." He is describing someone who perhaps sincerely comes to Him - but who comes without first "hating" the people who ordinarily would be most dear and beloved to him; those within all spheres of the family circle; his parents, his spouse and children, and his siblings. What a shocking thing this must have been to hear! I wonder - is it shocking to you this morning?
Now, what does Jesus mean by calling us to 'hate' those most closest to us? Isn't Jesus' religion a religion of love? Aren't we told by Him to "love our enemies"? And aren't we told in the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers? Who then can follow Jesus if one of the requirements is that we 'hate' the people most dear to us?" (I can imagine that some folks might even say, "Well then; I'm the perfect candidate to be a disciple of Jesus! I hate ALL my relatives!")
Well, we know for sure that He does not mean that we must come to Him with our hearts filled with malice toward those closest to us. One of the ways that we must understand these words is by what Jesus has said elsewhere. In Matthew 10:34-47 - which is another very important passage on discipleship - Jesus says, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be those of his own household."
Some of us here this morning have personally experienced this "sword" that Jesus talks about. When you came to Christ, you lost the close association you once had with some of the people closest to you - including some of your own family members. A father became upset with the fact that his son has gotten on the 'religious band-wagon', and is now in some weird 'cult'. A mother-in-law ceased speaking to her daughter-in-law, because she'd gotten all 'spiritual' and now thinks that she's better than the rest of the 'sinners'. One brother became at odds with another, because that other brother had gotten all 'holy' and now no longer joins him in the wild things they used to do together. A husband became angry with his wife because she started going to 'that church' with all those 'phonies' and 'hypocrites', and now she's always bugging him about going.
And this all means that, very sadly, someone who has come to Jesus must make a difficult choice; "Am I willing to follow Jesus at the cost of my loved ones' love and affection? Or do I refuse to follow where Jesus calls me to follow, and thus preserve the relationships that are dear to me?" Jesus helps us, then, to understand what He means by 'hate' when He says, "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me" (v. 37).
So you see; when Jesus says to "hate" father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters - relationships that, on a human level, we would rightly consider to be worthy of our highest possible love and devotion - He is saying, "'Hate' them in comparison to Me. Regard them with less love and affection than that with which you regard Me. If they force you to choose between themselves or Me, always choose Me over them. If you are not willing to love Me above all other relations, and be committed to Me more than you love and are committed to even these, you cannot be My disciple."
Jesus demands quite a high price for becoming one of His followers; don't you agree? He demands to be the first love in the hearts of those who will follow Him. Just how much this is so is, I believe, demonstrated in the fact that He then says, ". . . yes, and even his own life also." He demands that His follower even 'hate' their own lives. This is not a "hate" of malice, you see; it's a love for Him that takes priority over all other loves - even the love we have for our own lives. This means that, if following Jesus requires even the literal laying down of our own lives for Him, we are to be prepared to do so - and to choose to love Him more than life itself.
But stop and thing about this: He doesn't ask His disciples to do anything more than what He Himself did for them, does He? After all, He willingly left the glory He shared with His beloved Father in heaven to come to this earth for us. And as He walked on this earth, He suffered the misunderstanding of His mother and adopted father Joseph; and He suffered the scorn and rejection of His own half-brothers. And what's more, He did not love His own life so much as to refuse to lay it down for His disciples on the cross. If He gave up His rights to the relationships most dear to Him for our sakes, then how can we - as His disciples - expect to give up less for Him?
Now please note carefully: I haven't shared with you anything but what Jesus Himself has said. I haven't made any of this up; or added to the requirements of discipleship. I've simply shared with you what Jesus Himself has said it costs to be His disciple. And now, I ask you; did you have any idea that this was what it took to be one of His disciples? Did you know that you cannot be His disciple if you will not do so at the cost of all other loves, and if you will not forsake your right to all the most dearest relationships in your life - even your own life? Granted, if you follow, He may not ask you to pay that price in actual practice; but then again, He just might. And He demands that you be prepared to pay that price if you will follow Him.
You may have thought that you wanted to be one of His disciples before, but are you so sure you want to follow Him now? It's wonderful to be one of His disciples; but are you prepared to pay the price? Because if you will not, you cannot be His disciple.
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A second cost Jesus says is involved in following Him is . . .
2. OUR RIGHT TO SELF (v. 27).
Our culture considers that there is no greater right than your right to 'self'. Isn't that our unalienable right by law? - the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Aren't we told in all the popular self-help literature that we can't really love other people until we first love our selves?
Well, Jesus once again shocks us when He says, "And whoever does not bear His cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple." There could be no greater gesture to show you have forsaken your right to 'self' than to take up your own cross and bear it as you follow after Jesus. If that requirement was truly understood, it alone would be enough to turn many would-be followers away - never to return to Him again.
When people hear that phrase today - to 'bear your cross' - I suspect they usually misunderstand it. We have that old saying, "Oh well, I guess that's just the cross I must bear"; and this is based on a distortion of what Jesus' words were really meant to convey. People think that "taking up" or "bearing" their "cross" means putting up with some obnoxious relative or neighbor, or working at an unpleasant job or task, or living with an illness or affliction of some kind. When we patiently "tolerate" these things, we say we're 'bearing our cross.' Those things may have to be, and we may have to tolerate them to some degree; but that's not what Jesus means by calling us to bear our cross and follow Him.
You see, we have grown to give the "cross" a religious or sentimental or symbolic significance in our day. But for those who first heard these words from Jesus, the cross was not a symbol at all. Rather, it was a gruesome reality that they saw very often in life. It was a form of execution invented by the Romans - a form of execution that was very public; and that was among the most cruel, most demoralizing, and most humiliating the human mind could imagine.
To crucify a man was to expose him - naked and battered - for public ridicule and shame. It was to pin him - bleeding and in writhing agony - to beams of wood, suspended by his arms, until the life was slowly drained out of him. It was something so terrible that it was reserved for the vilest of criminals and scoundrels - the scum of the earth. It was designed, in part, to have a deterring impact on future criminals - and I have no doubt that it was very effective to anyone who saw it. To be forced to bear one's own cross, then, was to be made to embrace its shame and humiliation. To carry it to the place of execution was to carry the instrument of one's own dying. To bear the cross was the polar opposite of embracing the right to 'self'.
Jesus is here telling us that neither you or I can be His disciple - that is, that we're simply not able to be - if we are unwilling to take up our own cross and die to 'self'. We can know for sure that this is what He means; because in a similar passage, He puts the matter this way:
"If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father's, and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:23-26).
And so, there it is. To bear one's own cross and follow Jesus means to deny 'self'. It means putting to a humiliating death one's own agenda, one's own independence, one's own plans and schemes and pursuits, one's own rights and expectations. It means crucifying not just the bad aspects of 'self', but all of 'self'. And I note that, in the original language of Jesus' words, He uses the form of the verb that indicates a regular, ongoing, progressive, daily practice. It's not something we do once for all time in life and consider the matter to be settled. Rather, we must be taking up our cross again and again, always and repeatedly denying self, and continually - in that attitude of self-denial - following Him. And if we will not do this, then we cannot be His disciple.
Again, please note: I have made nothing of this up, but have only told you what Jesus Himself has said. And I now ask you who chose to follow Jesus - did you know that that was the standard for being His disciple? Did you know that this was the price you must pay? - to take up your own instrument of the humiliating death to 'self' not just once, but as a continual and daily practice of life, and follow Him? He calls His followers to do something that is contrary to the whole philosophy of this age. He calls us to do something that is even contrary to the very impulses of our human nature. He demands more of His followers than any other person would have a right to ask!
But then again, He doesn't ask His followers to follow Him in any other way but in the one that He Himself has already walked. The apostle Paul wrote:
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
If He gave up His own rights to 'self' - and who could have had a greater right to 'self' than He? - then how could those who profess to be His followers expect to do otherwise for Him? And if they DO expect to do otherwise, then He Himself says that they cannot be His followers.
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How costly it is to follow Jesus! Are you sure you're prepared to pay the great price it involves? This leads us to a third price Jesus says we must be prepared to pay . . .
3. OUR RIGHT TO POSSESSIONS (vv. 28-33).
Jesus calls us to consider this price by giving us two illustrations. The first concerns a man who decides to build a tower. A tower is an interesting thing to use in this illustration, because it would be something that everyone would see - even from a distance. Jesus asks,
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it - lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish' (vv. 28-30).
It would be foolish and shameful to begin such a project without first counting the cost, wouldn't it? An incomplete tower would be sitting there - very evident before the eyes of all - a monument to the man who started to build, but failed to count the cost. Many would-be followers of Jesus similarly have baptismal certificates, and their names on church membership records, and have even made bold assertions of faith to their family, friends and neighbors - all monuments to the fact that they 'started' to follow. And yet now, all these things mock them. They began to build on the foundation of faith in Christ; but they quit somewhere along the way, because they failed to take seriously the cost of going on to following Him faithfully their whole lives long.
Again, Jesus says,
Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace (vv. 30-32).
Do you see the word "able" in that phrase, "whether he is able"? That's the same Greek word used in Jesus' phrase, "cannot be My disciple" - "not able"! Here, Jesus points to a king who first takes the time, before rushing off into battle, to consider whether or not he is "able" to do what he proposes to do. And if he finds that he "cannot", he accepts defeat before the battle begins. To follow Jesus is, indeed, to enter into a battle; and Jesus is calling us to consider whether or not we are able to pay the price before we begin, or find in the midst of it all that we "cannot" follow.
The point Jesus is making in these illustrations is the importance of pausing long enough to count the cost before one begins any great endeavor. Even in such common, everyday things as buildings or battles, people ordinarily "sit down first and count the cost"; or "sit down first and consider". And it's in that context that Jesus then says, "So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple" (v. 33). He makes it very clear that the price of following Him is our own right to all our possessions - all that we have.
Perhaps you remember some other times when Jesus expressed this particular cost. A certain scribe once came up to Jesus and said, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go." A scribe would certainly have been an impressive disciple to have. What the man's motives were for wanting to follow Jesus aren't clearly stated; but we can guess that he thought it was the pathway to earthly comforts and riches. We can guess this because of what Jesus had to then tell him; "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests," He said, "but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head" (Matthew 8:19-20). We hear no more from this man. Could it be that he counted the cost, and found that he could not pay the price of being a disciple of Jesus if it meant giving up his home and possessions?
Another man - a rich young ruler - came to Him and asked Him what he should do to inherit eternal life. And no doubt, he too would have been an impressive disciple to have. But among the other things that Jesus called him to do was this: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But the Bible tells us that, "when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions" (Matthew 19:21-22). Apparently, he counted the cost and found that he could not pay the price of following.
When I think of this, I always tend to think of a story I once heard about how animal catchers used to catch wild monkeys for zoos. (I don't know if this is true or not; but I suppose that if I ever have to catch a monkey, this would be a good way to do it.) I was told that they would set an empty glass pop bottle in an open field with a peanut dropped into it. Then they'd hide in the bushes and wait. After a while, a monkey would sneak up to the pop bottle, squeeze its paw down into the narrow neck of the bottle and grab the peanut. Once it had grabbed ahold of the peanut, it couldn't withdraw its peanut-filled paw from the pop bottle. Then, all that the catchers had to do was walk out and take the monkey into captivity - pop bottle and all. They could walk, not run; because no matter what might be about to happen to him, the greedy little monkey would refuse to let go of the peanut.
Would-be followers of Jesus are often like that monkey. They hear about Jesus, and they even begin to follow; but they also wont let go of the grip they have on the possessions of this life - the income, the home, the cars, the life-style, the security. They would like to follow Jesus dragging their 'pop-bottle' of this world's riches in tow if Jesus would accept that. But when Jesus suddenly turns to them and says, "Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple;" they find that the cost is higher than they are willing to pay; and they can't go any further.
Now you tell me - have I said anything more in all this than what Jesus Himself has said? And so once again, I must ask; did you know that this was the price Jesus Himself says you must pay to be one of His followers - your right to possessions? It's true that Jesus may not ask us to literally give up all that we have. Many who are wealthy in this world's good have faithfully followed Jesus - and all their wealth is brought under His lordship and into His service. But then again, He just might ask you to leave it all behind. And so, if we would be His followers, we need to have such a loose hold on the things of this world that we are able to let them fall from our hands at His command.
Now having said all this; I believe that the Lord Jesus Christ will not be in debt to any man. Whatever we give up in order to faithfully follow after Him is given back to us abundantly. Peter said to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?" And Jesus told the disciples, "Assuredly I say to you, that in the resurrection, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:27-29).
The returns of being a follower of Jesus are great and many - among them is eternal life. But the cost in terms of the things of this world is also very great. And if we are not willing to pay that price, we cannot - according to Jesus' own words - be His disciples. Would you still like to follow Him? Are you willing to part with all you have in order to do, so if He so commands?
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Before we close, please notice how Jesus ends these words. "Salt is good;" He says, "but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out" (vv. 34-35). Perhaps you've heard those words before and have wondered what they mean.
These words, I believe, are meant to be understood in the context of the cost of following Jesus. In saying this, Jesus is comparing those who would follow Him with salt. Salt has a multitude of positive properties. It adds flavor to food that is bland. It promotes the healing to wounds. It helps preserve things from spoiling or rotting. But if the salt should ever lose its saltiness - if it becomes flat and flavorless - then it becomes absolutely useless for any of these things. You can't 'resalt' salt. It has lost all its potential. It can't be used. It's good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled on the ground.
This is the picture of a man or woman who seeks to be a follower of Jesus, but who won't pay the price of following. It's a picture of people who call themselves Jesus' 'disciples'; but who still loves other people more than they love Him, and who still exalt their own concerns over His, and who still cling to the things of this world more than they cling to Him. As far as He is concerned, such would-be followers are as useless to the cause of discipleship as salt is that has lost its saltiness. They are good for nothing. They cannot - according to Jesus' own words - be His disciples.
Now that's a 'hard saying', isn't it? But then, I didn't say it. The very Jesus - whom we propose to follow - is the One who said it. Jesus Himself closes with these words: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" May we hear these words - hard as they may be!
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What do we often look for when we identify someone as a follower of Jesus? Don't we often look to see if they 'prayed to ask Jesus into their hearts' at one point in their lives? Don't we look to see whether or not they 'came forward' at an evangelistic meeting? Don't we look to see if they were baptized in a church? Those things are very important; and I'm always glad when I hear about them. But I suggest to you that those things are not the sign of a disciple. They are the signs that someone desires to be a disciple of Jesus; they are the signs that they have 'begun' the journey. But the true sign of a disciple is that they pay the price of following Him - because, as Jesus has said, if any one comes to Him but does not pay the price of following, they cannot be His disciples.
This morning, as you hear Jesus' invitation to become His follower, I hope you know that He welcomes you. He will never turn any repentant sinner away who truly and sincerely comes to Him. He loves the most hardened sinners, and turns them into His own disciples. What a wonderful Savior He is. But before you begin to follow, know that there is an enormous cost involved.
As you hear these words, do you feel a conflict within yourself? Do you find that something is holding you back from following Him all the way? Do you stop short out of fear that you'll lose the respect and affection of your loved ones? Do you stop short out of a desire to maintain control over your own agenda? Do you stop short out of a refusal to give up the comforts and security that the things of this world might buy you? If so, then consider that Jesus is turning to you today, looking right in your eyes, and saying that if you do not leave those things behind, you cannot be His disciple.
Let's consider the cost; and then, in the strength that God provides, pay it and faithfully follow as Jesus' true disciples!
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