Every year at the end of December, people begin to consider the exciting possibilities for themselves in the new year ahead. Whether we’ve resolved to read more, run a marathon, eat healthier, keep a journal, or take up a new hobby, we’re surrounded by resources and tips that promise to make our goals easy and attainable.
Many Christians will set out to become more faithful followers of Jesus in 2020. It’s a worthy resolution. Jesus is Lord over everything in heaven and on earth, and he wants his followers to place everything under his lordship. He wants our gifts, talents, careers, money, time, health, thoughts, marriages, kids, singleness, aspirations, words, deeds, dreams, motives—everything.
In 2020 and in all years to come, the resolve of every Christian should be to follow Jesus on the narrow and difficult path of discipleship. However, Jesus’ words in Scripture and church history tell us the price of discipleship in 2020 will be costly.
In Matthew 8:19, a scribe approaches Jesus to tell him he would follow wherever Jesus would go. In the next verse, Jesus responds, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” This was Jesus’ way of asking: Have you considered the cost of following me wherever I go?
Since the earliest days of Christianity, many Christians have lost material possessions, status, connections, jobs, family relationships, and even their lives because of their obedience to Jesus. Even now, brothers and sisters face the daily risk of losing everything, including their lives, because of their commitment to Jesus Christ above all. The demands and risks of faithful discipleship cause many to choose the wide and easy path of disobedience that leads to destruction over the difficult and narrow path of obedience that leads to life (Matt. 7:13–14).
As Jesus sends out his disciples on mission in Matthew 10, he commands them to preach the gospel in his name, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons free of charge. Jesus says these acts would be signs that the kingdom of heaven has come through his mission. He informs his disciples of the imminent dangers they would experience as they preached the gospel of the kingdom to a hostile world (Matt. 10:16–17). Consequently, they must be as “wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” since they would suffer persecution and since many people would hate them on account of his name (Matt. 10:16–23).
Jesus states that when his disciples are persecuted in “this city,” they should flee to another (Matt. 10:23, KJV), for the cities must be evangelized before the Son of Man comes. Still, Jesus encourages his disciples to neither fear nor worry about what they will say when they stand trial before hostile leaders on account of his name, because the right words will be given to them to speak (Matt. 10:19; see also Acts 4). Jesus promises that his disciples “will be saved” if they faithfully persevere in their faith until the end of the age as they suffer on the narrow and difficult path of discipleship (Matt. 10:22).
In Matthew 10:24–42, Jesus continues to instruct his disciples about the high cost of discipleship. His disciples are not above him, their teacher and master. They won’t suffer exactly the same way as he, because he took upon himself the wrath of God for the sins of the world (John 1:29; Rom. 3:24–25; 5:6–10). But he says they too will suffer for the gospel of the kingdom (Matt. 10:25).
Jesus’ words are still applicable today. For those who follow Jesus on the narrow and difficult path of discipleship, the question isn’t, “Will we suffer for Christ?” Rather, the question is, “When will we suffer for Christ?” or, “How will we suffer for Christ?” Since he suffered for the sake of the gospel of the kingdom, his followers can be certain they will also suffer today as they preach, obey, and apply the whole gospel to all areas of their lives (10:34–39).
The cost of discipleship is not the same for everyone. The cost is greater and more intense in certain parts of the world than in others. Yet, following Jesus certainly comes with a cost for all who would dare to take up the cross on the narrow and difficult path. The apostle Paul makes it clear that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12, ESV). Obedience to Jesus requires total allegiance to him and to him alone, which will cause a great divide between those who faithfully follow Jesus on this path and those who do not (Matt. 10:34–37).
When Christians suffer for their allegiance to Jesus Christ in the new year, they might be tempted to think their plight represents an anomaly. As a result, when the going gets tough, some will forfeit the narrow and difficult path of discipleship and instead commit to the lie of “cultural Christianity.” There are others who will believe the lie of a false gospel that teaches health, wealth, power, and material prosperity are benefits of following him.
Certainly, some of Jesus’ followers enjoy good health, power, wealth, and material prosperity, and others work very hard to attain these things. While God is the giver of all good and perfect gifts (James 1:17), Jesus never promises earthly rewards to those who follow him on the difficult and narrow path that leads to life. Instead, Jesus invites his disciples to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, and follow him (Matt. 16:24).
Jesus’ call to discipleship evokes the images of both self-denial and death. The one unwilling to take up a cross and follow him might gain everything this world has to offer, but this one is not worthy to be his disciple (Matt. 10:38). However, the one who is willing to give Jesus everything might lose everything this world has to offer, but this one will find eternal life (Matt. 10:39).
To clarify, Christians should be wise and avoid suffering when we can. We should use common grace and common sense to deliver God’s people inside the church and fellow image-bearers outside the church from suffering whenever possible. My point here is the New Testament clearly states suffering for Christ is a normal Christian experience in a spiritually dark world (10:34–39; 1 Pet. 4:12–19).
Nevertheless, this difficult path should not make Jesus’ disciples live in fear of what people could do to them because of their allegiance to Christ. To the contrary, followers of Christ must fear God and God alone (Matt. 10:26–31). While wicked people may distort the gospel for power, prestige, or money; while they may slander the people of God or seek to harm them mentally, spiritually, and physically; and while they may try to kill the bodies of the people of God, the people of God must fear God alone as they remember only God “can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28)—including those who seek to harm Jesus’ followers who faithfully follow him on the difficult and narrow path of discipleship.
Those who follow Jesus in 2020 and beyond must not let fear of what any human can do to them determine the degree to which they are willing to obey Jesus as they live in faithful obedience to the whole gospel.
God is sovereign over all things in heaven and on earth, including over life and death (Matt. 10:26–31). With his help, with the help of the people of God, and with common grace resources—God’s favor to us—followers of Christ can stand toe to toe with the Devil and his agents in the power of the Spirit to work through their fear of man as they follow Jesus on the difficult path of discipleship that leads to life—a path that requires those who journey on it to yield complete allegiance to the Jewish Messiah, King Jesus.
Followers of Jesus on the difficult path of discipleship should be ashamed neither of Jesus nor of his mission to make disciples (Matt. 10:32–33, 40–42). While the path is difficult, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30), because it’s the yoke and burden that lead to eternal life. If Jesus’ followers confess him in word and in deed before others in a hostile world, he promises to confess them as his disciples in the presence of his Father on the Day of Judgment (10:32). But he will deny all who deny him in word and in deed in the day of judgment (Matt. 10:33). Jesus’ disciples will never perfectly follow him, but they must faithfully follow him until the end on the difficult and narrow path of discipleship.
Those who have given their total allegiance to Jesus Christ above all are on a very difficult path that only a few will find. At times, this path may seem more difficult than on other occasions. Certain Christians will find the path more difficult than others depending on their context. However, all Christians should remember King Jesus promises he will be with all of his disciples from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation on the difficult path of discipleship until the end of the age, no matter what the cost (Matt. 28:20).
All of us should ask ourselves the following questions in this new year: Have we counted the cost of faithfulness to Jesus? If so, are we willing to pay it? Only time will tell in the new year and in the years to come whether our answer is yes.
Jarvis J. Williams is an associate professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of numerous academic books, including Christ Redeemed ‘Us’ From the Curse of the Law: A Jewish Martyrological Reading of Galatians 3:13. This article is adapted from a sermon he preached at Sojourn Community Church (Midtown), where he serves as an elder.
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