"The Love That Jesus Demands"
(Delivered Sunday, February 19, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
I'd like to begin today by sharing with you about the time that I gave my first public testimony as a Christian.
Shortly after I came to Christ, I began attending a local Presbyterian church. I eventually sought membership; and the pastor asked me to give my testimony. I gave my first public testimony of faith to that Presbyterian congregation while still a teenager and as a very young believer. And as I stood before the congregation - with the pastor standing next to me - I stuck out my chest; and boldly testified, "I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior; and I haven't had a bad day since!"
I thought it was a pretty good testimony. It was short, to the point, and - as far as I understood - true. But I wasn't sure why the older, more experienced saints were politely chuckling. And I was even more surprised when the pastor lovingly patted me on the shoulder, smiled, and said, "Greg, don't worry; those bad days will come; but Jesus will be with you in them."
This surprised me. I thought I was setting forth a pretty good advertisement for the Christian faith. I wanted people to believe - as, at that time, I believed - that following Jesus meant the end of life's troubles. No one had to explain to me that, while many of life's troubles DO come to an end when we begin to follow Jesus, many other troubles begin.
I didn't understand that back then. But some thirty-three years later, I now do. But I have also learned - just as that Presbyterian pastor told me - though difficult times do come to those of us who follow Jesus, Jesus never leaves us in them.
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This morning's passage is about those troubles. In it, Jesus gives us far warning. He lets us know that following Him is no easy road. It will cost us all that we are and all that we have.
This passage is found in the tenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus was speaking to His twelve disciples. He was about to send them out to proclaim Him in the cities where He was going to go and preach. Before they went, He gave them many instructions and many warnings. And in speaking to them, His focus clearly expands beyond just the twelve to speak to all of us who would be His ambassadors in this world.
He lets us know the kind of world it is that He sends us out into: that we are being sent as sheep in the midst of wolves (v. 16); and that we will be hated by all men for His sake (v. 22). He lets us know that there will be times when His followers will suffer at the hands of men for their connection to Him - sometimes being arrested and dragged before the authorities (vv. 17-18); sometimes driven from one city to another by persecution (v. 23); and sometimes even put to death (v. 21).
But He also commands us to be unafraid. He tells us not to fear those who can kill our bodies but cannot kill our souls (v. 28). He tells us to remember confidently that our heavenly Father watches us and values us greatly (v. 29). He commands us to faithfully profess Him before men; promising that if we do, He will profess us before His Father in heaven (v. 32-33).
And as we come to this morning's passage, I feel that He brings much of His exhortations to a head; and gives us a serious 'reality-check' in terms of what it will require of us to follow Him. He clears up any delusions we might have about following Him; and makes sure that we understand in advance that it is not the pathway to the easy life. He 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.' 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. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:34-39).
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Consider with me what Jesus is claiming about Himself in these words. Pretend, for a moment, that you never heard these words before; and that you were drawing your very first conclusions about Jesus from what He says in them.
Look at how He begins. He says, "Do not think that I came . . ." He talks about His entry into this world in a way that is quite remarkable. He didn't say that He was "born" into this world; but rather that He "came". To say that He "came" suggests that He existed before He was in this world.
Then, look at how He makes clear that His "coming" was for a reason. He says that we are not to think that He came for the reason that we might have been thinking that He came; but tells us that He came for something that we might not have expected at all. He's letting us know that He existed before He came into this world; and that His coming into this world was intentional; and that it brings about certain surprising and unexpected results.
Now tell me; what kind of a mere man would ever talk about himself in this way? What kind of man would claim to have pre-existed, and to have come into this world from outside of it in the fulfillment of a predetermined purpose?
And then, look at the kind of demands He makes for Himself. He demands to be loved by His followers more than they would love even the most dearest people in their lives - more than father or mother; more than son or daughter. He dares to say that if they don't love Him more than even these, then they're not even worthy of Him. In fact, He says that if they don't love Him so much that they are willing die to self - as expressed in the idea of taking up the cross as an instrument of execution, claiming it as their own, and follow after Him - then they're not worthy of Him.
Again I ask; what kind of mere man would dare to demand that level of devotion of us? What mere man would think Himself worthy of the supreme love of our hearts - even a greater love than that for our own family? Even over our own lives?
And then, consider the kind of centrality He places upon Himself. He says that "life" itself hinges upon Him. He claims that - in the context of following Him - the man or woman who willingly lets go of life in order to follow Him will find that very life; and that whoever refuses the high demands of following Him, and chooses instead to hang on to their own life, will lose the very thing that they seek to hang on to.
Once again; what kind of mere man makes Himself the 'hinge-point' of life itself? What kind of man says that, if we willingly give up life for Him, we will truly gain it; and that if we stubbornly cling to life against Him, we will lose it?
Dear brothers and sisters; only someone who presented Himself as the Son of God would make claims like this! Only He would have the authority to demand so much of us. And the Bible teaches us that the One who spoke these words was, indeed, the "Word" who was in the beginning with God the Father (John 1:1); that He was "the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world" (v. 9). The Bible tells us that this very Man who spoke these words is Himself "the Word" of God which "became flesh and dwelt among us" (v. 14). It tells us that "as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God" (v. 12).
Only One who is the Son of God would have the right to say such things. And that's who He is. No wonder He demands so much of those who would follow Him.
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And I ask you to also consider why He is saying these things to His disciples. He is speaking these words in order to warn them - in advance - of what it costs to follow Him. He is urging them to count the cost of being one of His followers.
In a similar passage - in Luke 14:26-33 - He saw that a great multitude of people were following Him. Jesus was not concerned for popularity with the masses. He was not in a big hurry to gather a great number of followers around Himself. If He was only interested in having lots of followers, He never would have said to them the things He said! The Bible tells us that He turned to the multitude following after Him and said,
"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 14:26-33).
Someone might be tempted to read that and say, "Well yes; Jesus certainly demands a great deal . . . of those who would be His missionaries, or His preachers, or His evangelists! But I don't feel called to be any of those things. I just want to be one of His simple, humble, little quiet disciples and then go peacefully to heaven." But Jesus doesn't even give us that kind of an option.
He doesn't say, "Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My missionary, or My preacher, or My evangelist." He says that you cannot even BE one of His disciples - not at all - if you do not, from the heart, forsake all that you have, and place Him above all other loves in your life, and bear up your cross and follow Him. Those are not my words; those are His!
That's why He tells us in advance to "count the cost" before we take up to follow Him. He gives us fair warning. I believe that that's what He is doing in this morning's passage as well. No one else demands as much as Jesus does of His followers.
But then, no one is who He is. And no one else gives us as much as He gives.
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Brothers and sisters; I didn't feel ready to preach from this passage last week. And now, here we are a week later; and I still don't feel ready! This passage puts me to shame. It reveals that I don't yet love Jesus as much as He demands that I love Him. I'm suspecting that every one of us here this morning feels convicted by His words in the same way.
And so, that being the case, then let's agree this morning to admit before Him that we are not yet were we should be with Him. Let's admit that we are falling short of His demands of love. But let's also agree together to this one life-changing desire: that we want Him to change us. Let's resolve together that we will look to this passage, and allow the Holy Spirit to strip away from us the things that we love too much. Let's resolve together to be taught by the Spirit to set the Lord Jesus apart the supreme love of our lives.
I don't believe He is looking for perfection in our love. He knows us too well to look for that in us. But I do believe that He is expecting from us a whole-hearted willingness to be changed by Him into the people He wants us to be. We really have no right to claim to be His followers, unless we are willing to be made into a people who love Him above every other love in our lives.
Let's consider, then, the high demand of His love in the key areas of our lives, as that demand is laid out for us in this passage. And as we do, let's ask Him to move us closer to the place we should be.
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First, notice that He demands to be loved by us . . .
1. OVER THE LOVE OF PEACE (vv. 34-36).
When I began to follow Jesus many years ago, I sincerely thought that it would mean peace. I fully expected a life of peace and tranquility. To this day, I can still remember when I first read these words: "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth" - and realizing that it explained why I hadn't experienced that idyllic life of peace - and will not so long as I am on this earth as His representative.
Do you remember what the angels announced to the world concerning Jesus' birth? They said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (Luke 214). In fact, the Old Testament tells us that He will be called - among other things - "Prince of peace" (Isaiah 9:6). So, what does He mean here, when He tells us not to suppose that He came to bring peace on the earth?
I believe that He is speaking in the context in which we are to follow Him in everyday experience in this world. It's true that His coming into this world will result in ultimate peace; but that peace will come in the long-term - when He returns. Here, however, He is speaking in the short-term of our experience as His ambassadors to the unsaved people of this world; and that experience will not be peaceful. In fact, He says it will be characterized by conflict. He says, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword."
When He speaks of what He "brings", a word is used (ballő) that basically means to 'throw' something. It suggests something "sudden" and "unexpected" - and perhaps even a bit intrusive. He's saying, "When you go out into this world to proclaim Me to people who do not yet know Me or follow Me, don't go out with the notion in your mind that that I have come into this world to throw 'peace' into the mix. That's not the case at all. Far from it! I have come, in fact, to throw something unexpected and unwelcome into the mix - a 'sword'. My coming brings about conflict!"
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Now, I trust that you know this: Jesus is not giving His followers justification for taking up the sword against unbelievers. Sadly, some in church history have misinterpreted His words to suggest the aggressive advancement of His kingdom through the use of violence. But that's not at all what He means. In fact, when Peter took up a literal sword to defend Him, Jesus rebuked Him and said, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Jesus isn't speaking of a literal sword being handed over to His followers. Rather, He is using a sword as a figure of conflict - a symbol of that which divides His followers from other people that they would have otherwise been connected to.
And look at the level to which that "division" extends. He says that His coming brings about division at the most fundamental level of human relationships. He quotes Micah 7:6; and says, "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.'"
As you might remember, Jesus experienced this first hand. Even His own brothers did not believe in Him and opposed Him (John 7:2-9). And even His own people thought He was out of His mind, and sought to lay hold of Him (Mark 3:21). Some of you have experienced this first hand as well; as have I. It's a very painful reality.
In the pagan households of Jesus' day, the life of the family centered around the worship of false gods. Every member of the family had a part in that worship. Can you imagine how divisive it was when one of the members became a follower of Jesus Christ? Such a person, out of devotion to the Savior, would have to denounce any relationship to the worship of that false god. They would have to declare that they are following the true God; and in doing so, they would be declaring that the whole family was following a false god. In many ancient households, this was tantamount to severing one's self from the family, and setting one's self up as an enemy! To follow Jesus in such a situation is to experience the kind of division He is talking about. This is even true of some who follow Jesus in various cultures of the world today.
But it can happen in another sense. When a man or woman comes to Jesus Christ, they are immediately motivated by love to share Him with others in the family. A follower of Jesus wants other members of the family to become followers of Jesus. They themselves no longer follow the path of the rest of the family; and they want to call their loved ones out of the life of sin to which they are accustomed, and to become devoted to the Savior as they themselves have become. And that kind of zealous love for the salvation of others often brings about resentment and bitterness and division.
The fact is that the kind of peace that Jesus will ultimately bring about first requires conflict. It requires a decision from us; and decision results in division. It will even result in division from those who are closest to us and mean the most to us.
Following Jesus will take away our peace. He offers us eternal peace in the long-term; but it will cost us our peace in the short-term. He demands that we love Him more than we love that peace; and calls us to make a decision.
If He holds out His hand to you and says, "Will you follow Me? Then give Me your love for peace, and then follow"; will you obey?
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Another thing He demands is that we love Him . . .
2. OVER THE LOVE OF FAMILY (v. 37).
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." This is a very high demand of love!
I think of these words as describing the closest human relationship of family bond that we can imagine. Looking backward, we naturally feel a bond of devotion to the father and mother who gave life to us - and by implication, our grandfather and grandmother. Looking forward, we naturally feel a bond of devotion to our sons and our daughters - and by implication, their sons and daughters. We even feel a devotion to these family relationships over any other earthly thing - even earth itself. We rightly say, "Blood is thicker than mud".
But we can let our devotion to our family supercede our devotion to Jesus. If we do - as Jesus Himself says - we are not "worthy" of Him.
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Elsewhere, Jesus said, "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" (Luke 14:26). And whenever I quote that, I always fear someone might be thinking to themselves, "Well what do you know? I've been obeying the Bible all along! I can't stand my family!" But of course, Jesus isn't commanding us to "hate" our family members.
What He is telling us is that, when it comes to a choice being made - if we are forced into a position in which we must choose between following Jesus or appeasing the objections of our family - we must choose Jesus every time. Our love for Him must be so complete and supreme that it makes any other love look like "hate" - even the natural love we would feel toward our father or mother, or son or daughter.
I can think of two biblical examples of this. There was that man who came to Jesus - wanting to be one of His disciples. He told Jesus, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." It may not be that his father was even dead yet; but the man felt a tie to his father that was stronger than his tie to Jesus. And Jesus said something that, to those who place family above all else, sounds unspeakable! He said, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead" (Matthew 8:21-22). Jesus was, in effect, telling the man, "Listen; you are still placing your concern for your father over Me. And until you make your love for your father secondary to your love for Me, you cannot be a follower of Mine. I am the Lord of life! Your father and your family may object; but You follow Me; and let those who do not follow after life take care of lesser things!" Following Jesus comes first above all else - even above our commitment to our earthly fathers.
Another example is in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. He was writing to give them instructions about marriage; and he wrote to them about situations in which a man or woman becomes a follower of Jesus Christ from out of a pagan culture, but their spouse does not. What happens when the unbelieving spouse refuses to follow Jesus and demands that the believer choose between them or Christ? Paul wrote, "But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace" (1 Corinthians 7:15-16). In other words, the believer is not to try to hang on to an unwilling, unbelieving spouse at all costs. If it comes down to a choice between even a spouse and the Lord, the follower of Jesus is to choose the love of the Lord over even the love of the spouse.
These are hard words, aren't they? But Jesus is letting us know in advance that He demands to hold the first place in our love - even above family relations.
And so again, I ask: If He holds out His hand to you and says, "Will you follow Me? Then to do so, you must love Me more than all else. You must give Me first place over even the love and devotion you have to your closest family relationships; and then follow"; will you obey Him? Will you love Him that much?
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It's hard to imagine that level of love. But that's what He demands. And I have come to believe that, if we can love Him to the degree He speaks of next, then He will truly have our hearts in every other area. Notice that, finally, He even demands to hold first place in our affections and devotion . . .
3. OVER THE LOVE OF SELF (vv. 38-39).
He says, "And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me."
In understanding Jesus' words, we should not think of the "cross" in the same way that we are accustomed to thinking of it in the history of Christendom. We tend to look upon it as a symbol of God's redeeming love and atoning sacrifice. But when Jesus spoke these words, there was not yet any such idea associated with the cross.
In His day, the "cross" would be understood as that wooden construction on which a crucifixion occurred; and crucifixions were something that people in Roman cultures saw often. They were the most grotesque and most humiliating form of execution imaginable. When a particularly notorious criminal was condemned to die, they were condemned to be executed by the miserable, inhumane method of crucifixion. And as a visible symbol of their shame, they were even made to carry their own cross to the place of execution.
Whenever someone "took up" the cross and began to walk up the hill, everyone knew that they weren't coming back. Taking it up meant death. And that's the way Jesus means for us to understand these words. Whoever does not take up their own cross - that is, the instrument of their own death to self - and follow after Him; then they are not worthy of Him.
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A love for self - a love for one's own life - is the hardest love of all for sinful people to place into the hand of Jesus. And yet, Jesus demands to be loved by us even more than we love our own lives. And our decision to place our love for Him over our love for our own lives is the most determinative decision we will ever make.
Jesus expresses this in words that are the most repeated of His phrases in all the Bible. He says, "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it." This very phrase is cited a total of six times in the Gospels1. He used it on different occasions. In Matthew 16:24-27, when Peter tried to convince Him that He would not suffer the cross, we read,
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels and then He will reward each according to his works" (Matthew 16:24-27).
In Luke 9:22-26, when He warned them clearly that He was going to go to the cross, He told them,
"The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day."
Then He said to them all, "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 9:22-26).
In Luke 17:31-33, in teaching His disciples about what would happen in the end times, He told them,
"In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. Remember Lot's wife.
Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it" (Luke 17:31-33).
And in John 12:23-26, just before He went to the cross, Jesus said,
"The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor" (John 12:23-26).
Surely, this was a point that Jesus meant to have made clear to those who would be His followers. He means for it to sink into our hearts deeply. He means by it to show how great our love is to be for Him. It is to be even above our love for our own lives.
We can be sure that He means for us to see, by these words, that if we are made to choose between denying Him and living, or confessing Him and dying, we are to choose to love Him and die. But I believe it is also meant to be understand in terms of practical every-day experiences.
If we make it our ambition to pursue the advancement of our own brief life on this earth - our own pleasure, our own comfort, our own desires - and we place that ambition above the cost of following Jesus, then by that very act, we loose the very life we are seeking to hang on to! We may have an extension of a natural life, and it may be made into a very comfortable life. But we loose eternity. What a bad exchange!
But if, on the other hand, we make it our ambition to pursue the kingdom of Jesus Christ above all else, and we place our love for our Savior above the love of even a comfortable life on earth, we gain the very thing we give up - life! In fact, we gain life eternal! And whoever lays down a temporal life FOR Jesus, in order to gain life eternal WITH Jesus, has made the wisest possible choice!
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In all of this, Jesus shows us how much He demands of us if we would follow Him. He demands to be the first love of our lives - above our own peaceful relationships and circumstances, above our devotion to family, even above our own lives. So it's true - following Jesus is no easy road.
And yet, I suggest that it's not too great a thing to ask of us when we consider what He gave up for us. Didn't He give up the peace and tranquility of heaven in order to come to this earth to save us from our sins? Didn't He experience the distress of having His own Father turn from Him as He bore our sins on the cross - causing Him to cry out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46)? And didn't He love us above His own life; to the point of submitting Himself to death on our behalf - "even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8)?
When we see who He is and how much He has loved us, is it unreasonable that He would demand that we love Him in the same way? How could we not follow such a Savior, and give Him first place in our heart's love?
1Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25.
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