THE COST AND REWARDS OF FOLLOWING JESUS
Passages: Mark 8:31-38, Acts 5:27-42
Key verse: Mark 8:34-35
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and 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.’”
We’ve learned a lot about discipleship in the previous weeks; but we can’t treat the topic of discipleship without also talking about its cost. There is a cost to following Jesus; but then, everything worthwhile has a cost. Jesus calls us to follow him with eyes open, knowing what the cost is. Of course, if we choose to do something costly, it’s because we judge that the reward outweighs the cost or risk. And so, we also need to consider the rewards of following Jesus.
As usual in our discipleship studies, we’ll quote verses from many places in the Bible. But we’ll focus on two passages: first, what Jesus said to his disciples about the cost and goal of following him; and then, as a practical example from Acts of how the early church faced persecution. I pray we may gain a clearer vision of what we can expect to lose and to gain by following Jesus—and to again realize that it’s worth it.
I. Losing one’s life to save it
Let’s review what we’ve learned about discipleship in our previous five lessons. We actually started by previewing the end goal of discipleship. We learned that Jesus calls us to follow him as his disciples so that he may finally send us out to fulfill his great commission to preach the good news to all nations, so that we may become disciple-makers ourselves. We saw the same thing in Carlos’ Easter message last week: before Jesus returned the Father after his resurrection, he reminded his disciples one more time to feed his sheep. In Week 2 of our discipleship study, we began to dig into what the life of discipleship is really like. We thought about Jesus’ personal calling to be his disciple and how it gives our life new direction. Then we began to think about the meaning of being with Jesus as actually living in God’s presence. Being with Jesus is the core of discipleship; it’s how he teaches and shapes us. In weeks 4 and 5, we studied how we can practically be with Jesus, through his word, through prayer, and through worship.
As we said, today we think about the cost and rewards of being a disciple. As always, the best place to start is with what Jesus himself taught his disciples. When did Jesus begin to teach his own disciples about the cost of following him? Interestingly, it wasn’t at the beginning, when they first began to follow him. It seems that the first stage of the disciples’ following Jesus was mainly about catching the vision—seeing the hope of the coming kingdom of heaven. Then they began to learn the character of the kingdom of heaven, especially through Jesus’ parables. As they continued to follow Jesus, the disciples progressed toward a deeper realization of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Then, there came a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, when the disciples had to learn what Jesus really came to do.
That’s where we are at with our first passage. Look at Mark 8:31. “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” Jesus revealed that the culmination of his Messianic ministry would be his own suffering and death, followed by resurrection. The disciples reacted strongly against this revelation. This did not match with their personal hopes for what the Messiah would do. But there was no other way. We know that Jesus had to die because he really came to be the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world. The Old Testament prophets foretold this; Isaiah even said the Messiah would be “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” (Isa 53:3)
Jesus rebuked his disciples sharply for not having God’s purposes in mind but only human concerns. Then he taught them that sufferings were necessary not just for him but for anyone who wants to follow him. Look at Mark 8:34. “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Following Jesus involves denying oneself and taking up a cross, with no one excepted.
What does it mean to deny myself and take up my cross? It’s a very deep saying, and I don’t think I could do justice to all that it means, but at least it tells us that we have to overcome our old ways of thinking and judging, to learn to say no to our selfish and petty desires, and to be willing to suffer. It is a kind of dying, dying to our old self and to merely human concerns. Following Jesus cannot just be about having a better life in this world. In following Jesus, there can be real losses in aspects of our earthly life. In Luke’s gospel Jesus says taking up our cross is a “daily” operation, showing that this is a commitment that has to be continuously renewed.
If that’s what following Jesus is like, who would want to do it? What could we possibly gain by this self-denial and cross-taking? Jesus tells what in the next verse, Mark 8:35. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” This seemingly paradoxical statement teaches us that what we really have to be concerned about is our soul. Here “soul” really just means our true self, our inner life. We are not just physical beings. Jesus continues, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (8:36-37)
In my family’s nightly reading time, we’re currently reading a biography of Mildred Cable. She and two other single Englishwomen gave their whole lives to serve as missionaries in northwestern China in the early 20th century. They faced so many sufferings in China, including disease, persecution, and danger from continual wars and unrest. The book tells about a time in 1931 when a local warlord named General Ma led a rebellion against the Chinese national government. This “general” was only 20 years old. He had been fighting since he was 14 and had quickly risen to be one of the most feared warlords, nicknamed “Thunderbolt.” He and his men went through one town after another, killing and plundering and burning with no mercy. When General Ma was wounded in battle, he forced Mildred Cable and her coworkers to come to the city where he was staying and treat his wounds. After many days of serving General Ma and seeing all the atrocities he ordered, his wounds were healed and he finally let Mildred go. As she left, she gave him a Chinese Bible and told him to read it and to have care for his own soul. Nobody ever spoke to General Ma that way.
What can we conclude from this? General Ma seemed to be very powerful and feared by many. But an old miss who had lived the life of the soul had authority over him. Just a few years after that, General Ma was captured and nobody ever heard what happened to him.
And, it shows us that we have to take care for our soul. Only trying to preserve and protect our physical, material, earthly life is actually no way to live at all. If we keep putting earthly things first—money and comfort and advancement—we become more and more corrupted until we have no spiritual life at all, and finally Jesus will be ashamed of us. So losing our life to save our soul actually a very good trade. It’s not a true loss at all, because what we gain is so much greater.
That’s the main point of the message: to lose one’s life to save it. The rest of it is an expansion on that theme. So now let’s think more in detail about what we lose and gain in following Jesus.
II. The significance of sufferings in discipleship
Though they initially resisted his teaching, Jesus’ first disciples were changed through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit, and they deeply accepted, and not only accepted but lived out Jesus’ principle in their lives. The disciples are normal human beings like us, so from them we can see real examples of how the cost and the rewards of discipleship come into play in our lives.
First of all, after Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples faithfully gathered together in prayer, forming the beginnings of Christian community. When the Holy Spirit came, they began to preach the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. As more believers joined the church, the disciples taught them, meeting and sharing their lives together. They also managed the practical life of the church, including overseeing works of charity.
That’s not so strange, is it? It’s not different from what we do in the church today. The point is, these things are the foundation of taking up our cross, of paying the cost of following Jesus. It is spending our time, energy, and money and participate in the work of God in the church and the world. Though these things don’t sound like big sufferings, they are still real sacrifices; the people who do these things could easily be doing something for themselves instead. Through the basic works of serving in the church, great things can be accomplished, and those who do these things deserve credit for it. There are plenty of selfish people out there who won’t give a nickel or even ten minutes of their own time to serve God’s work, who only look for benefit from the church. Because we don’t see those people much, we might be tempted to forget how great our coworkers actually are, who faithfully take up these ordinary crosses. An important part of raising disciples is helping believers become faithful in small things. Of course, we shouldn’t make it a comparison between each other, because not everyone can or should do the same things, and everyone has to do what they do before God. And there are many who are taking up their cross and doing Jesus’ work in their earthly jobs as well.
At this point, it might be good to stop and remind ourselves that we don’t earn our salvation through these works, or even through sufferings. Salvation is a 100% free gift of grace through the blood of Jesus. Then what is the relationship between taking up our cross and grace? That is well expressed in Romans 12:1-2, where Paul writes: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Willingly taking up our cross is how we offer our bodies to God in worship as a living sacrifice, and is our grateful response to God’s free grace in Jesus. When we realize what Jesus did for us, we want to live a life of serving, as Paul also said in 2 Corinthians 5:15. “And 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.”
Devoting ourselves to Jesus and to good works is one part of our cross, one part of the cost of discipleship. Beyond that, there are also real sufferings and persecutions that come into the lives of believers. Sometimes the one leads to the other.
Going back to the book of Acts, the first disciples continued to be used to greatly to preach the gospel in Jerusalem, and the church grew rapidly in number and in influence. When this happened, the Jewish religious leaders began to take note. Many of them viewed the work that was happening through the Holy Spirit as a threat to their positions of authority. So one day, while the Apostles were speaking to the people, they had the temple guard arrest Peter and John and bring them before the Sanhedrin for questioning. It was the beginning of the persecution of the church.
At first, they just threatened the Apostles and told them not to speak anymore in Jesus’ name, and let them go. But the work of God through the church only grew more and more powerful, with the Apostles performing many miraculous signs. The passage we read from Acts Chapter 5 was the second time the Apostles were arrested and brought before the high priest. Now they seemed to really be in trouble, because they had clearly flaunted the religious leaders’ previous command not to preach Jesus. It would be very intimidating for ordinary, uneducated people like Peter and John, former fishermen, to have these high council members angry at them. The high priest said to them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” (Ac 5:28)
Amazingly, Peter and John were not intimidated, but Peter boldly replied, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” At that the council members became furious and wanted to put them to death. Peter and John’s lives seemed to be hanging by a thread. At that moment, one of the wiser Pharisees, Gamaliel, persuaded the others to let them go, arguing that if this new movement were not from God, it would fail anyway. But before they let them go, they gave them a painful flogging.
This is what we think about when we think about real persecution for Jesus’ sake: Arrest, imprisonment, death threats, physical punishment. We know such sufferings have continued to come upon believers, sometimes even resulting in death, up until the present day. I don’t have my own authority to speak on these. The most serious kind of persecution I have faced was when M. Anastasia and I were confronted by campus police and told not to go fishing anymore. Will these more serious types of persecution happen to any of us? That’s up to God’s sovereignty.
Regardless, we can be encouraged by remembering that the Apostles went through these kinds of sufferings, and they were not defeated or despairing; in fact, their faith became stronger. And they counseled us on how to face them. After their perilous first mission journey, Paul and Barnabas told all the disciples: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Ac 14:22). In Philippians 1:29 Paul wrote to us: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” This says that if it has been granted to us to believe in Christ, it has also been granted to us to suffer for him. So we can conclude that one way or another, as believers in Christ, we will suffer and have trouble in this world. It is a part of God’s will for Jesus’ disciples, part of losing one’s life to save it.
Nobody enjoys the thought of going through sufferings. But we can be sure that our sufferings are part of God’s very good purpose for us. The fact is, everybody suffers, without exception, believers and everyone else. Currently most everybody is facing some kind of sufferings due to the COVID-19 situation. Often, we try not to think about exactly to what extent suffering is a part of life, but it’s everywhere. In fact, the sufferings of people without faith are worse, because they find no meaning in their sufferings, only the frustration of their desires. But suffering in Jesus is so meaningful. Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:13: “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” The sufferings of believers are a participation in the sufferings of Christ himself. Through our sufferings, we reveal to the world what Christ did for us.
We might think we are making the best example for our Bible students when we look successful; but they learn just as much or more from seeing how we face hardships and setbacks. That might be the time that others see Jesus in us the most. When we know God’s good purpose in our sufferings, we can have courage to face the unknowns of life and win the victory in revealing God’s glory through whatever happens.
III. The blessings and rewards of discipleship
Finally, we made it to the part where we talk about the rewards of discipleship. Of course, it’s God’s will to bless us in Jesus, he is our Savior. There are many great rewards of discipleship, even in this life.
First of all, by taking up our cross to follow Jesus, we receive the gift of his peace. In John 14:27, Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus’ saying that he does not give as the world gives means he gives a peace that the world cannot take away.
Secondly, when we accept Jesus’ grace, we gain the right to become children of God. We have a relationship to God as a child to his or her father, which brings abundant comfort. Paul wrote in Galatians 4:6, “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’”
Thirdly, we gain fellowship with each other. This benefit can be enjoyed as soon as we join the body of Christ. Acts 2:46 describes the joyful fellowship. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” We can have such fellowship because when we humble ourselves and come to Jesus as undeserving sinners, we are already overcoming the barriers of pride and mistrust that divide people from each other. I’ll be so happy when we can meet together and eat together in person again.
In fact, the blessings and the crosses of life in Jesus are so closely linked that it’s even hard to separate them. For instance, in Jesus we receive the blessing of bearing much fruit in our lives. Jesus told his disciples in John 15:16: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” But what makes us become fruit-bearing people? Often, it’s the very hardships that we go through. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” So the saying that a cross is blessing in disguise is really true. The author of Hebrews put it less figuratively, saying, “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Heb 12:10b-11) M. Gideon said that following Jesus actually produces less suffering in the long run, because the discipline that comes from our sufferings makes us better able to deal with everything in life. When I look back on my own life, and see how all the small self-denials and crosses I bore have added up to such a blessed life I now enjoy, I agree that it’s true.
Jesus made it clear that the gains of following him would far outnumber the losses, and will finally result in gaining eternal life. The gains outweigh the losses so much that Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Ro 8:18)
By remembering all this, we have a way to strengthen ourselves to endure the hardships that come our way, and even to rejoice in them. To conclude, let’s look at how the apostles responded after the threatening and flogging they received from the Sanhedrin. Acts 5:41 says, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Their attitude toward sufferings had been changed 180 degrees from the time when Peter said, “Never, Lord, never!” They could rejoice in them, considering it a privilege and a sign of God’s approval that they had been allowed to suffer for him. They knew they were becoming like Jesus.
Life isn’t easy no matter what; but thank God that he gave us a way to be victors even through suffering, through the blood of Jesus who suffered for us. May God bless us to be willing to lose our life to gain our soul, and get stronger and stronger through many small decisions to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. May God richly reward your life as Jesus’ disciple.