“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35)
Part One: The Cost of Following Jesus
What follows is an attempt to outline a biblical perspective on the cost and blessing of discipleship, and to apply insights from that perspective to an evaluation of UBF discipleship practices. The authors recognize the need for much more thought and consultation about this important aspect of discipleship. Taking the gospels as a very significant scriptural resource for discipleship, we can understand the cost and blessing of following Jesus in light of what it cost His followers and the blessing they received while He was still here on earth bodily.1 Let’s consider the cost first.
Losing Your Life for Jesus
To the crowd of people along with his disciples Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:34). In these verses, and parallels (Mt 16:24-25; Lk 9:23,24; Jn 12:24,25), Jesus makes it a requirement for those who would follow him that they deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. He then summarizes this three-fold requirement in the statement that in order to save our lives we must be willing to lose our lives. There can hardly be a greater cost than to lose your life. But what does it mean to lose your life for Jesus and the gospel? Instead of insisting on our own ways and ideas we commit ourselves to learn and obey and adhere to Jesus’ ways and ideas (“deny yourself”). Instead of living in a way that is comfortable to our “flesh” (sarx), we obey the Word of God and the Holy Spirit even when it involves sacrifice ("take up your cross"). Instead of following our own autonomous self-direction, we must follow Jesus’ leading (“follow me”).
Jesus gave this teaching immediately after rebuking Peter, who had opposed Jesus’ description of the path He would take as the Messiah: the path of suffering, rejection by the religious authorities, being killed and rising again. Although Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had his own ideas of what that meant, and as a result could not accept the way of Jesus. This was a serious matter –– Jesus spotted the devil himself, along with a godless humanism, behind Peter’s opposition (Mk 8:33). It was in this context that Jesus taught that everyone desiring to be His disciple had to deny themselves, take up their cross, follow Him, and lose their life for Him and for the gospel. A disciple must make a choice: we are either radically committed to Jesus and His gospel, or we belong to the world –– the godless systems that are opposed to God. Our commitment to Jesus will be expressed in accepting the gospel as it really is, and in being willing to face the misunderstanding and shaming and opposition of the world when we seek to follow Jesus and keep His words. To lose our lives for Jesus and His gospel involves setting Christ apart as our Lord so that we now live lives fully centred on Him and not on ourselves. When Jesus spoke of taking up one’s cross, His hearers would probably have understood Him to be saying they had to be willing to die if they followed Him, and also to face humiliation and shame. For the first recipients of the gospel, “taking up the cross” frequently did mean suffering and death within the hostile Roman Empire. For Christian brothers and sisters in many parts of the world today, it retains a similar meaning, as many lose their homes, families and lives in the course of following Jesus. To associate with Jesus is to risk being hated and persecuted by the world along with Him.
Jesus challenged His first followers to make Him (His person and His gospel) their number one priority. For instance, He said in Matthew 10:37-39, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” In Luke this demand is expressed even more strongly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters –– yes, even their own life –– such a person cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). For Christians, who identify Jesus Christ as one of the three persons of the Godhead, no less God than the Father, such a demand is nothing new. The “Shema Israel” in the Old Testament urged every Israelite to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). In the New Testament context, Jesus also quoted the shema as the most important teaching of the law. And the first two of the Ten Commandments, along with very many Old Testament injunctions against idolatry, require that God’s people not put anything above God. We are forbidden from giving a place in our hearts or in our lives higher than God to even the closest and most important human relations, or even to our own selves. Since in Jesus the eternal Word became flesh, taking on human nature, so that this particular Jewish man was very God of very God, Jesus had the right to demand complete allegiance from his followers. Whenever we find a conflict between what the Lord our God desires of us and what we ourselves or any other person desires, our choice must be to follow the will of God.
For the first believers in Christ, the will of God manifested itself to them in a calling to follow Jesus. In calling them to be His disciples, Jesus was asking them to pledge a total commitment to His person, to be with Him and share in His activity, leaving other commitments (homes, siblings, parents, children, fields) behind. Peter testifies to this when he exclaims to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” (Mk 10:28). Jesus expected a radical commitment to Himself not only from the Twelve, but from anyone who sought to be His disciple, as the passage in Luke 14 shows. Speaking to the crowds traveling with Him, Jesus gave two metaphors that urged them to “count the cost” of being his disciple: (1) a person estimating the cost of building a tower, and (2) a king considering whether he has the resources to go to war against his opponent. Jesus concluded this teaching with the words, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Lk 14:33). Elsewhere in Luke we find Jesus giving three “hard sayings” to people considering following Him. He warns the first that following Him may involve being homeless. He instructs the second to proclaim the kingdom of God rather than burying his father. To the third, who wished to say goodbye to his family before following, Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:57-62). Here Jesus indicates that any would-be disciple needs to prioritize service in the kingdom of God above personal comfort and “worldly” duties.
The Fellowship of Suffering
Related to the theme of self-denial and the losing of one’s life is the reality that as Christians we are called to share in the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul the apostle is an extraordinary example for Christian discipleship. He taught that being a Christian means that a person is “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Ro 6:11). In Gal 2:20 Paul brings this grace of being a Christian to expression saying, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” So a Christian life is to live out this grace in Christ. Grace in Christ means radical discipleship. Our Christian lives are completely claimed by our Lord without any reservations. “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2Co 5:15).
Paul had impressive credentials in his religious, academic, and social career: he was a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Php 3:5-6). But he left everything behind for Christ’s sake (Php 3:7-8). Paul’s faithfulness to Christ our Lord was inevitably intertwined with suffering. Suffering was not a side effect of Paul’s mission. The Lord told Paul at his call that he had to “suffer for the sake of (Jesus') name” (Ac 9:15-16). After he had been stoned at Lystra because of Jesus, Paul encouraged the disciples to remain true to the faith, saying “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Ac 14:22). Suffering is an unavoidable and even necessary component of our Christian discipleship. Paul said to the Thessalonians, “You have become imitators of us and of the Lord, by receiving the word in much affliction with the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit” (1Thess 1:6). Paul also dared to proclaim the gospel among the Thessalonians “in the face of strong opposition” (1Thess 2:1-2). He had to face persecution because he sought approval from God (1Thess 2:4). Following Christ led Paul to being chained. Eventually his discipleship cost him his life: “...I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice” (cf. Php 2:17). According to Paul, Christians “are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2Co 4:11). Based on Paul’s example, a faithful disciple carries in his body the death of our Lord for His name’s sake. But suffering alone is not enough to commend one’s life and ministry. Paul demonstrated his moral integrity in the midst of his unbearable hardships and sufferings (2Co 6:3-10).
Apostle Peter initially resisted Jesus’ teaching about the suffering Messiah. But after his encounter with the Risen Christ and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, he became a different person. In 1 Peter 2:24, Peter testifies about Christ: “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’” Peter accepted Jesus as the Messiah who suffered, died and was raised again and entered his glory. He himself suffered much. When the apostles were persecuted, they rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Ac 5:41). Peter deals with the theme of suffering extensively, repeating the word “suffering” or a variation of it 18 times (1:6,11; 2:19,20,21,23; 3:14,17,18; 4:1,1,13,15,16,19; 5:1,9,10). According to Peter, suffering for Christ’s sake is an essential ingredient of Christian life. He encourages suffering Christians, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1Pe 4:12). He exhorts us to “rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (4:13). Peter also encourages believers to suffer for doing good (3:17), to suffer as Christians (4:16), and to suffer according to the will of God (4:19). Then the Spirit of glory and of God will rest on them (4:14b). According to church tradition, Peter was crucified upside down in A.D. 67-68 during the persecution of Roman Emperor Nero.
The book of Revelation teaches us about the cost the first Christians had to pay. Revelation 2:10-11 exhorts Christians exposed to persecution and tempted to compromise with the surrounding pagan culture to be “faithful, even to the point of death.” For the early Christians, faithful discipleship often literally meant death. As we look to church history, we can find discipleship consonant with what we read about in Scripture from the first Christians down to the present day. Many Christians lived out discipleship and were martyred. Bishops such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna were willing to die for Jesus and their faith. The concept of Christendom was unknown to them. During the ages of Christendom, people didn’t calculate the cost of discipleship because being a Christian didn’t require any cost. When being a Christian is the same as being a citizen of the Roman Empire, baptism does not require any particular change of belief or practice. In cultures where State and Church are closely mixed, it does not take long for grace to become “cheap grace.” As for many monks, however, following Jesus was costly in their monastic life. As the Reformation cried for a return to the Bible and to the spirit of early Christianity, we in our own time will have to go back to Christ and His discipleship repeatedly and fight for costly discipleship. “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace,” by which “Christ bids a man come and die” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 10).
Teaching Costly Grace
As disciple-makers, we are called to teach others to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. We must therefore also teach those we are discipling to be willing to pay the cost of following Jesus. But how should we do this? How ought we to help others to apply the lessons expressed in the passages we have been considering? For example, would it be a legitimate application of Luke 9:57-62 to claim that every Christian should leave behind their home, not be involved in parents’ funeral arrangements and not say goodbye to their family before going on a mission trip? Relatedly, we can ask what the general lesson would be from the example of the rich young man whom Jesus challenged to sell everything he had and give to the poor. Jesus notably did not issue the same challenge to Zacchaeus or to Nicodemus. What putting the kingdom first looks like for each person will depend on that person’s personal circumstances, and the challenge must be heard by them personally. It is probably unwise for a human counselor or Bible teacher to try to apply a general rule about this.
We are often inclined to use a verse like Matthew 6:33 to urge growing disciples to put aside other commitments in order to attend meetings or conferences in our church. While we do this, we should leave room to see if the Holy Spirit Himself is convicting the individual in accordance with our ideas about him or her. Because we are often motivated by numerical prayer topics (we pray to have a certain number of people attending our services and other events), it is easy to urge everyone to attend our meetings without trying to be sensitive to what God is doing in each person’s life. It is difficult to find the balance between trying to help a person to become aware of the radical demand of the gospel on their lives, while at the same time avoiding stepping beyond what God is doing in the person’s life based on our own ideas or agenda. Matthew 6:33 in particular is grounded in the context of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom and righteousness of God, which He gave comprehensively in the Sermon on the Mount.2 It should not be simply assumed that attending a UBF Bible study is always equivalent to prioritizing the kingdom and righteousness of God. Part of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon emphasized the need for righteousness in relationships, which could involve leaving behind certain religious observances in order to be reconciled with a brother or sister who holds something against you (Mt 5:23,24). A person following God’s leading might therefore have legitimate and biblically grounded reasons not to attend certain meetings, and we should be able to help them to discern this and to obey God’s leading in their own situation.
We need to exercise care in using passages about the costly nature of discipleship to encourage others to accept God’s mission. In UBF we are often fairly quick to identify self-denial and cross-taking with “mission,” while understanding mission itself in fairly narrow terms (1:1 Bible study, testimony writing, campus mission, etc.). We can habitually apply these verses to ourselves and our Bible students as challenging us to prioritize our ministry activities over our own personal preferences or desires or even families. It may be the case that in the situation we are in, self-denial calls for precisely these things, for instance to serve a student with Bible study rather than spending a night in with your spouse and children. But if we identify loving and serving God too closely with our ministry activities, we run the risk of turning our ministry work into an idol to be served with the absolute devotion that should be reserved for God alone. If that happens, we may end up far from obedience to Jesus even while we think that we are obeying Him because we are following His word in the Bible. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, the premier opponents of Jesus, for prioritizing human rules and traditions over the word of God. We should always be on guard against doing the same thing in our own time. As disciples and disciple-makers, our constant, consuming focus should be to live before the eyes of God, to hear His voice, and joyfully to obey His word to us, rather than our own ideas or habitual inclinations.
Jesus clearly entrusted the task of discipleship to the community in Matthew 28:18-20, “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (ESV). But while discipleship is commanded of the community, it is not meant to be a work done solely or even mainly by human beings. It is in view of Jesus’ authority and not our own that we are to go and make disciples. And discipleship is only possible because of Jesus’ promise to be with us always to the end of the age. Jesus is present to His church in the person of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:16-26) and exercises His authority as Lord of the church as and in the Spirit of God, who makes use of the Scriptures to enable us to observe everything Jesus commanded us. The apostles were completely unable to make disciples until the Spirit descended on them at Pentecost and filled them with power from on high. At each step discipleship must be a matter of submitting to the Spirit of God, and encouraging others to submit to the Spirit. Even though the role of the human minister (teacher, preacher, pastor, prophet, apostle, etc.) remains highly significant in the NT community, their role and authority must always be exercised within the living and active ministry of the Spirit of Jesus Himself within the community.
Grace and Discipleship
For Christians, the central message of Scripture is the proclamation of the gospel of God's grace. The gospel is the free, sovereign and gracious gift of God to fallen humanity, the gift of His Son, given in order to reconcile the world to Himself and bring many sons to glory. All of this is given to us freely, by grace, and received in faith, not because of anything we have done or can do. Discipleship, on the other hand, seems to be all about our choice, our decision, our struggle and self-denial and cross-carrying. What, then, is the relationship between discipleship as a cost to be paid and the gospel message of the grace of God? And how should we think about discipleship within the context of the gospel of God's grace?
The demand that we give up everything we have appears to be a “cost” which we have to “pay” in order to follow Jesus. Many Christians throughout the history of the church, as well as God’s people in Old Testament times, have experienced God’s call in such a way that to follow it, other commitments had to be released. Those called as missionaries, for instance, have often had to leave behind family, friends, home and property in order to respond to the call. God’s call comes to different people in different ways. To Hosea, God’s call came as an instruction to marry a woman knowing she would commit adultery against him, and then to buy her back once she had sold herself to another man. In order to follow this call, he had to give up the prospect of an ideal family life, and be willing instead to share in the profound heartache of God for His people. The call of God meets each individual in a personal and unique way, and each person must follow Jesus in response to His personal call on their life. But every Christian is called to lose his or her life for Jesus.
But the absolute surrender of a person’s self-determination, the complete commitment and prioritization of one relationship (our relationship to Jesus) over all others, should only be expected as a response to a reception of the love and grace of God. The Christians discussed in the previous section as models of discipleship (Paul, Peter, etc.) all emphasized the life of discipleship as a response to the grace of God revealed to them. For instance, Paul urged the Christians at Rome to offer themselves as living sacrifices only in view of God's mercy (Ro 12:1,2), which he had spent the previous 11 chapters describing and unfolding. For this reason it is crucial that we see that those we are trying to raise as disciples have a profound and sincere experience and understanding of the grace of God in their lives before pushing them to make too many sacrifices and commitments. If people are giving things up and denying themselves to please us or meet our expectations rather than out of a genuine heart's response to the gospel, there is something very wrong, and this will likely lead to burnout and bitterness later on. No one can truly pay the cost of discipleship who has not first received the grace of God into the core of his or her being. Otherwise our effort to pay the cost will most likely degenerate into a works-righteousness rooted in our flesh that is ultimately hostile to God. In other words, to be healthy and biblical, Christian discipleship must be firmly rooted in the grace of God and must flow from the grace of God as a river flows from its source.
But is it really a cost to us to let go of our own ways, which lead to death, in order to walk in the ways of God, which lead to life? Is it a cost to us to take up our cross and share in the fellowship of suffering together with our Lord Jesus, or to follow Jesus instead of holding on to our own self-directed autonomy? On reflection following Jesus can only be understood as a "cost" to us from the perspective of our sinful nature. Paul, thinking from the perspective of the new creation in Christ and not from the flesh, could only conclude that all that seemed humanly good to him was like garbage or dung compared to knowing Christ (Php 3:10). Thinking together with Paul, we too have to conclude that even the costs of following Jesus are in the end blessings. To lose our lives for Jesus is only the way we need to take to find true life, so we should not count it a true loss in the end, but as a privilege and an honor.
Salvation is a free gift of God, that comes to us solely by the merit of Jesus Christ (Ro 3:23,24). Yet those who have living and saving faith express that faith in a life of self-renunciation (Jas 2:26; Ro 12:1-2). Faith itself is an act of entrusting oneself fully to God’s hands, acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus, and involves a radical turning from self-reliance. It would be fair to say that those who put their faith in God through Jesus Christ lose their lives in the very act of believing, because they have transferred control of their lives from the flesh to the Spirit. So even though discipleship is rooted in and is a response to the grace of God, grace and discipleship are inseparable in the sense that no one who truly receives the grace of God can fail to heed the call to follow Jesus and to live under the Lordship of Jesus. Furthermore, discipleship itself is only a continuation of the grace given to us in our justification. Discipleship is God's ongoing grace that takes us further and deeper into a life of sanctification in following Jesus. As we continue to follow Jesus, He continues to save us in the sense of purifying us and maturing us in His grace and in Christian character, preparing us for His coming, that we may be spotless, blameless and pure when He returns. Often, our loving Father uses suffering and discipline to accomplish this further working of grace in us. Though it is painful, we recognize it as good because it has this good purpose. And we must also acknowledge that the fellowship of suffering is above all fellowship with Jesus, and it is grace upon grace that we have been invited into this fellowship. From this point of view, discipleship is not in the end really a cost to us, but rather the further outworking of the grace and kindness and mercy of God in our lives.
Part Two: The Blessing of Following Jesus
Blessings and Discipleship
In relation to self-denial and suffering for the sake of the gospel, Jesus promised rewards to his disciples (Mk 9:41; 10:29; Mt 5:3–12). Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:35). In the New Testament, there are abundant blessings promised to those who follow Jesus. There are “treasures” and “great rewards” in heaven (Mt 5:12,46; Mt 6:20; Lk 19:17,19). In the last chapter of the Bible, Jesus also teaches about the reward by saying, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Rev 22:12).
First of all, it is critical to realize that blessings are “hundredfold” more than the cost of discipleship (Mk 10:29-30). Jesus is an unlimited source of blessings. While we should count the cost of discipleship, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18). When placed on a scale, the “momentary affliction” of discipleship would not even appear at all due to the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2Co 4:17). Therefore, it is not accurate to think that we are paying a great cost to follow Jesus. We have to know God’s heart and his plan for us. Jesus came so that we “may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10b). Paradoxically, this is the bottom line of discipleship: when we lose our lives for Christ and his gospel, we will gain and save them.
All the blessings we receive are grace-based, not work-based. In the parable of vineyard laborers, Jesus teaches that God deals with us based on his sovereign grace. We receive blessings because our God is generous (Mt 20:1–16). We cannot rely on how long and hard we have worked. Rather, we should have an attitude of a servant, who, even though having done his duty, doesn’t deserve a reward (Lk 17:9-10; cf. 1Co 15:10). We cannot boast about our achievements before God, because salvation is not earned, but given by God. Salvation is an act of God’s favor that no one can earn. Fundamentally, blessings are not our wages, but gifts from God (Ro 4:4-5).
At the same time, we have to consider that the quality of a person’s works will be examined and rewarded (1Co 3:8–14). Since salvation does not hinge upon good works, our works and obedience cannot be a basis of claim on God; rather, they are simply an expression of our living faith (Jas 2:14–16; Jn 6:28). This is not to say that our good works hold no importance in our eternal destiny (Col 3:24; cf. Mt 25:14-30; Lk 19:12-27).
While blessings are abundant and grace-based, we have to identify blessings in this age and blessings in the age to come. The New Testament teaches that the Messiah Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom of God while its consummation is promised still to come. In this respect, blessings are both present in this age and in the future. In Jesus Christ, we have already received blessings as believers. One who believes in Jesus already has “eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (Jn 5:24). When we believe, we receive the promised Holy Spirit “who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14). Our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3). We don’t have the fullness of blessings yet. There are indescribable blessings in the age to come; we are waiting for the redemption of our bodies (Ro 8:23; Col 3:4). When Christ comes again, he will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Php 3:21). Following our transformation, we will see Him face to face (1Co 13:12).
Blessings in This Age: A Foretaste of the Next
God is our very great reward (Gen 15:1). When it comes to God’s blessings, essentially, God himself is a blessing for us. Even if there were no blessings in this world whatsoever, we are still blessed. In Genesis 15:1, God said to Abraham, “I am your shield, your very great reward.” God is our God, and “the Lord’s portion is his people” (Deut 32:9). When God chose to enter into the covenant with us, he became our God. If God, the creator of the universe and the redeemer, is for us, we have everything. This blessing leads us directly to our new identity.
Adoption as God’s sons and daughters (Ga 4:4-7). Our fundamental blessing is that we participate in Jesus’ Sonship only by God’s grace. In Jesus who redeemed us, we “received adoption to Sonship” by the Spirit (Ga 4:4-7). Because of our adoption to Sonship, we enjoy tremendous blessings. In Christ, everything becomes ours. We enjoy the forgiveness of our sins: We are redeemed through Jesus’ blood and forgiven of our sins “in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us” (Eph 1:7-8; cf. Ps 103:8-14; Eph 4:32). We enjoy freedom as the children of God; the Spirit we receive does not make us slaves, so that we live in fear again. Rather, since the Spirit provided our adoption to Sonship, we can cry, “Abba, Father” (Ro 8:15,16). We are not slaves in God’s household, even though we are slaves or servants from the viewpoint of ministry. As God sees us, we are sons and daughters his family.
Most importantly, through our adoption to Sonship by the Spirit, we are co-heirs with Christ. The Holy Spirit given to us as “a deposit” guarantees “our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph 1:14). Christian believers are strangers in the world. But we have the certain inheritance of the riches of our Father's glory, as “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Ro 8:17; Jas 2:5; 1Pe 1:4, 3:7). This includes the redemption of our bodies in fellowship with the Lord (Ro 8:23; Php 3:21). This grace will be fully manifested at the return of Christ.
The Rewards of God
There are numerous blessings and rewards we receive as we are following and committing ourselves to Jesus. We will not able to count all of them since they are too many. We can take a look at some important aspects of God’s rewards.
Growing in the knowledge of Christ. When we follow Christ, we grow in knowing him. The apostle Paul had one supreme desire: to know Christ more every day. He declared, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Php 3:8). He also said, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (3:10). In order to know Christ at a deeper level, there must be suffering. In the course of genuine discipleship, which inevitably includes sufferings, we grow in knowing Christ our Lord. If there is no discipleship or suffering, our knowledge is superficial. But when we trust Christ in the midst of our hardships, our relationship with him matures. The growth in our relationship with Jesus is probably one of the most blessed parts of discipleship. There are countless men and women through the centuries who have experience this truth. The more intimately we know him, the more we are being transformed into the image of Christ (Ro 8:29), which is the ultimate goal of God’s calling for us.
To know Christ also includes experiencing the power of the Risen Christ in suffering. We can experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection here and now as we share in Jesus’ suffering. When we “carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” we experience “the life of Jesus … revealed in our body” (2Co 4:10; cf. 2Co 6:10). In following Jesus, there may be trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or swords that try to separate us from the love of Christ. Yet “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Ro 8:37).
Genuine fellowship in community. We have true fellowship in the Christian community. Jesus assured his followers that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for me and for the gospel, will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields, along with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30). We experience these promises when we visit believers in other parts of the world, who welcome and serve us like family, sharing what is theirs with us. At the same time that adoption into Sonship (heir; co-heir with Christ) gives us a new vertical relationship with God, it gives us new horizontal relationships with one another – to the brothers and sisters in the family (cf. 1Tim 5:1-2). In terms of family, believers are a hundred times more blessed than before. God’s family is a genuine one. “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1Jn 1:3). Believers become brothers and sisters in Jesus. The followers of Jesus are bound to each other worldwide through the bond of love in Christ. We find a gracious communion with Christians who belong to other churches as well; we share something deeper than human blood – we are members of the household of God and co-heirs with Christ. This kind of fellowship is a true realization of our human destiny as communal beings.
Becoming blessings for others. The followers of Jesus become blessings for others. When Christ lived a sacrificial life dying for all people, he bore much fruit for them (Jn 12:24). Just as Christ lived a life open to others, we as the body of Christ are called to do the same today. To live and share our lives with others always involves risk in one form or another. Though we must die to ourselves, when living an open life for others, we can become blessings for those around us. In this way, we can participate in the priesthood of Christ for the world; this means that we can live as a royal priesthood for the world (1Pe 2:9).
A fruit-bearing and meaningful life. A follower of Jesus lives a life that is saved “from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors” (1Pe 1:18). Instead of living sinfully, we are blessed to live fruit-bearing lives (Jn 15:5,16). This blessed life is marked by the fruit of the Spirit that is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Ga 5:22-23).
Answers to prayer. As Jesus’ disciples, we have a great promise to receive answers to our prayers. Jesus promised, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (Jn 14:13,14; see also 15:16; 16:23,24,26). We can utilize the unlimited resources of God (see also Php 4:19). We can pray with confidence to God who cares for us (Mt 6:25-34; cf. Lk 11:11-13).
God’s discipline for his children (Heb 12:7-11; 1Pe 1:6,7). Discipline is one of the privileges of Jesus’ followers to be treated as children of God (Heb 12:5-11; Prov 3:11-12). We are blessed to receive the special training of discipline so that we may grow in the holiness and righteousness of God.
Blessings of joy in persecution. The followers of Jesus have the privilege of joy. This joy is different from the “prosperity” gospel that sees financial blessing and physical health as the will of God and thus is unable to provide any positive perspective of suffering. In contrast to this, Jesus speaks of rejoicing in persecution in the Beatitudes. We should “rejoice and be glad” when we suffer for Jesus and his gospel, because our reward in heaven is great (Mt 5:12; Lk 6:22,23). The apostles were rejoicing when they were persecuted, “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Ac 5:41). We can rejoice in persecution, knowing that it leads us into a closer relationship with Christ.
Consummation: Blessings in the Age to Come
Jesus promised the Twelve that He would go to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house (Jn 14:1-2). Many eternal rewards are promised to those who follow Jesus in this life. Paul looked forward to receiving a crown of righteousness from the Lord at the Day of Judgment (2Ti 4:8). In the future, when the perfection comes, we’ll fully enjoy God’s blessing in the new creation. Regarding this consummation, God promised in the OT, “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isa 65:17). Then in the NT John says, “I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea” (Rev 21:1). The beauty of the new creation will go far beyond our imagination. Then, the purpose of God for his creation will reach fulfillment. In the end, God shall be all in all (1Co 15:28).
Perfect beauty of the New Jerusalem. In Revelation 21:2, John sees “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” The perfect beauty of the new Jerusalem is indescribable. We can see the glimpse of its glory. “It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (Rev 21:11). It is a perfect place to live. The city is completely safe and invulnerable to attack (21:12-14). And “the city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev 21:23). There is “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22:1-2).
The heart of the heaven: Our God’s presence. Far beyond these blessings, there is a breathtaking blessing –– the presence of our God with us –– which means everything to us. The heart of the blessings in heaven is the presence of God. Revelation 21:3 proclaims, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” We will enjoy fellowship with God. God himself will be with us and be our God. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. Then there will be a perfect freedom from sin and death. There will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (21:4). “We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2Pe 3:13). We shall be like him (1Jn 3:2; Php 3:21; 1Co 15:49). There will be the fellowship we can enjoy with all God’s people. All these blessings are far beyond our imaginations.
Above all, we shall see God (1Co 13:12; Rev 22:3). When we see him face to face, we will fully know him, just as we are fully known (1Co 13:12). When we gaze into the beauty of our Lord (Ps 27:4) our heart's’ desire will be fully satisfied. Our Lord will fulfill all our longings to live in perfect love, joy, justice, and peace (cf. Ps 16:11; 27:4; Mt 22:2; Rev 19:7, 8).
Assurance motivates faithful discipleship. The certainty of future blessing strongly encourages us to live out faithful discipleship every day (Php 3:12-14; Heb 10:35). This present world is passing by and will be destroyed by God’s judgement. When we gain awareness of this fact, we’ll not be attached to this world. Since only our blessed life in the new creation will last forever, we are strongly motivated to live a godly life worthy of the gospel, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2Pe 3:12). We have an unshakable ground to live a life that stores up treasure in heaven (Mt 6:20), being faithful unto death because our God gives us the crown of life (2Ti 2:12; 2Ti 4:8; Rev 2:10).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Trans by R.H. Fuller. New York: Touchstone, 1995. Originally published as Nachfolge [München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1937].
We follow Jesus today, of course, in a very different context. From the time of Pentecost onwards, the Christian community was guided by the living presence of the Holy Spirit among the believers. Jesus sent the Spirit, the gift of His Father (Ac 1:4,5,8; 2:4,16-18,33,38), to be “another counselor” who would be with His disciples and would guide them into all truth (Jn 14:16-18,26; 15:26,27; 16:7,13-15). After Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, He was no longer physically present to the Church, but this did not mean that leadership in the Church was entrusted solely to human beings, according to their own reasoning based on Scripture. The New Testament model of the post-resurrection Church reveals a Church ruled by Jesus through the Spirit’s activity.↩
Jesus taught the ways a disciple should follow concretely in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), which is a key text for discipleship.. Beginning with the beatitudes, this sermon profoundly challenges our values, attitudes and patterns of thinking and behaving. Those who are truly blessed are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who show mercy. A disciple will be concerned with uprooting any trace of anger, lust, or dishonesty. A disciple will give, fast and pray in the secret place before the Father alone, storing up treasure in heaven rather than seeking to acquire many things in this life. A disciple will love and bless their enemies, and will entrust their life to God completely, seeking God's kingdom and His righteousness before anything else, even the basic necessities of life. Jesus urged that if we ignore His words in the sermon on the mount, we are in danger of building the house of our life on unstable sand, leaving us vulnerable to destruction in the time of judgment.↩