Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard once said, “[Jesus’ Gospel] is how to get into heaven before you die. That’s why the New Testament, for example, routinely treats you as if you have already died.”
This is one of the more profound statements I’ve ever heard outside the Bible and is one which no serious Christian ought to ignore. It has changed the way I look at my approach to life and my pursuit of Jesus altogether. It, I believe, is the answer to the tension with which Christians have struggled for millennia, mainly, how ought we Christians approach God’s law in the light of grace.
Now, we shouldn’t believe that Willard’s words are anything the Bible cannot reveal to us. He would’ve flatly rejected that idea. Instead, we can rightly view this as a simple, yet profound statement which encapsulates the teachings in the New Testament about the call of the Christian.
My goal in starting The Practical Bible was to give Christians (including myself) a way to read the teachings of the Bible and understand what to do with them. Willard’s statement explains why we do what Jesus says and what many Christians are missing out on because we’ve missed the heart of all of Jesus’ teachings: the availability of the kingdom of God.
Today, we’re going to look at a text from Luke’sGospel.
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
There are several different ways to read this passage. Let’s take it section by section. Jesus turns to the myriad people following him and immediately instructs them in a slightly unexpected way. These people were following Jesus in the sense that they were walking behind him and watching him teach and heal. But, here, he tells them something that stands in stark contrast to the Jesus we often hear about in many Christian circles. He begins his teaching by telling them that to _truly_ be his disciple, they must begin by first hate his family and his life. The controversial nature of this teaching isn’t the focus for us here, but most commentators write that Jesus was either using hyperbole (exaggeration) or was telling the people that in comparison to their love for Jesus, their love for their family will look like hatred. He then says that the one who would follow him would have to hate even his own life.
He takes the portion about “hat[ing] his own life” further by saying, “whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” When we read this today, we tend to read it in light of the death of Jesus, which, for us Christians, is a symbol of hope. However, we have to remember that when Jesus said this, his audience would have recognized the cross as a torture symbol - because it was. So, when he said this, he was telling us in effect that to follow Jesus was to die. This demand he makes was not a light one; it wasn’t a “just decide that you want to be a Christian and everything will be OK.” No, instead, it was a serious decision to turn one’s life over to God in that you are doing just that: giving your life over to him. By following Jesus, we humans are taking our old lives - once consumed with ourselves - and killing them.
This death is what separates the so-called nominal Christians (those who are Christians in name only), and true blood-bought saved Christians. Following Jesus was never meant to make everything “better” as in more money, better health, more success, etc. - it was an invitation to die and start a new life here on earth which will culminate in paradise when our physical bodies die. To illustrate how serious it is to follow him, Jesus used two analogies: that of the builder, and that of the warrior-king.
The builder, in Jesus’ example, decides he is going to build a tower but realizes in the middle of the process that he doesn’t have the funds to continue, so his unfinished tower sits there unfinished, both a waste of space and money. I remember visiting my brother-in-law, Liam, in Vegas a few years back. When we went through the strip the first time, he gave us a quick tour of the hotel casinos with some background information on them (I love that stuff). There was one newer building; however, that looked a little off. It had a massive advertising banner stretched across the top portion of the sky-scraping bluish structure but no name at the top - no indication of what casino it was or whose it was. Liam explained that this impressive building had been built a few years back but that one of the contractors cut some corners to save some money and when the behemoth of a building was inspected, it failed to meet the safety standards required and thus was inhabitable. Apparently, the company who purchased the structure was suing the contractor for millions upon millions of dollars. This building served as an embarrassing monument to the contractor. Who would hire this guy? How would he survive being sued for that amount of money? It made me anxious just thinking about it, and I have nothing to do with it. This contractor thought he was saving some money by cutting the corners, but he hadn’t weighed the risk - or cost - of it not working out. This cloud-breaking, beautiful monster of a building was as capable as the nominal Christian is in their walk with Jesus.
The builder of the tower, in Jesus’ example, did not count the cost, and thus was mocked for his lack of planning. He was mocked for not knowing what he was getting himself into. The warrior-king example, however, has a different ending. This king is about to go into battle with another king who has twice the military size. And, while this type of underdog victory has happened before, it wouldn’t have been wise to take that chance. A military defeat would have been devastating. He could have lost most of his army, and potentially his kingship. Who knows what the war was about, and for Jesus’ example, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the king’s wise decision to count the cost. When he did, he decided to make peace terms with the other king avoiding the sure slaughter that was to follow.
Jesus ends this section of teaching repeating the initial line, but more succinctly. He says, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Every single person who considers himself a Christian falls into one of these two categories: the builder, or the warrior-king. The builder-Christians (nominal Christians) never truly understood what Jesus’ demands on their lives were. They didn’t realize that he was asking them to die. Many nominal Christians merely thought that by following Jesus, things would get better, or they may have thought that the whole point of everything was to get into heaven when their physical bodies die, so once they started calling themselves Christians, they knew they had the “get-out-of-hell-free” card with them for that day of judgment. These builder-Christians didn’t count the cost, and thus don’t know that their lives were what Jesus wanted. They didn’t realize that what Jesus offered them wasn’t merely an eventual spot in heaven and out of hell. It was instead, a grand gesture for them to die right now and begin living in God’s kingdom on this earth.
This is what the warrior-king Christians look like. Before knowing Jesus, the Bible says we are enemies of his (Romans 5:8-10), and God in his grand, loving nature offered us a way out of our sin and a way into his Kingdom, but we had to die. The warrior king was at enmity with the other king. For some reason, they were slated to battle and lose many lives. The king from Jesus’ story was undoubtedly going to lose that battle and suffer the humiliation of defeat. Instead, he laid down his arms and offered peace to his opponent.
In surrendering our lives to Jesus, we are laying down our arms. We are giving up everything. We are telling him that nothing can take his place in our lives and that we want to be fully satisfied in him. The peace of God - the real relationship with him - comes only in laying down our arms, laying down our lives, and carrying our cross.
Many of us have given our lives to him, but we will struggle daily to continue to do so. We have died to our old selves, but since we haven’t been wholly sanctified, we still struggle with sin. There are - for all of us, areas of our lives which we are refusing to give over to him. They may not be apparent to us now, but with prayer, seeking of counsel, and honest reflection, those areas can unveil themselves, and we can continue pushing forward.
Charles Stanley once asked, “Are you merely a believer or actually a follower of Jesus?” There is a difference. Unfortunately, many of us are ignorant of the difference or - even worse - indifferent to it.
This week, think about the areas of your life which you’re holding back from God. Also, spend the week reading our passage from Matthew and also the other passages below, which remind us of the fact that we’re dead. By being honest with ourselves and understanding what we need to still give to him, we might hope to - as Dallas Willard said - experience heaven now.
1. Ephesians 2:1
2. Romans 6:1-14
3. John 3:3-7
4. Matthew 16:24-25
5. Mark 8:34-35
6. Galatians 2:20
7. Galatians 5:24
**If you would like an email reminder each morning with one of the passages above. Just comment below and ask for it.**