The Challenge of Christian Discipleship

Bible Book: Luke  9 : 23-25
Subject: Discipleship; Christian Living

Luke 9:23: “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” When considered in the context of other statements Jesus made, it is unquestionably clear that when Jesus invited people to “come after” him, he was inviting them to become his disciples. In fact, the Williams translation begins that verse like this: “Then He said to them all, ‘If anyone chooses to be my disciple....’” The word “disciple” means “learner,” or “pupil,” and is most often used to refer to a Christian, a person who has placed his faith in Jesus and is saved--and that clearly is the way it is used here.

This is a day when, generally speaking, we are constantly looking for an easier, less demanding way to do things. That’s not all bad, but the problem is that we’ve carried that quest over into areas where it won’t work--and saddest of all, many have tried to apply that approach to the spiritual realm. They’re looking for an easy, convenient type of Christianity which doesn’t involve any hardship or cost. They think they can simply add Jesus into the mix of their lives, but continue to follow their own agenda. But that is not Christianity; that is but a pathetic caricature of the real thing. Jesus speaks here in Luke 9:23 about self-denial, cross-bearing, and following him--and the path he trod was a rugged one. As we closely examine our Lord’s statement, let’s first consider...


To whom was Jesus speaking when he voiced those words over two thousand years ago, and to whom are they addressed today?

Three of the gospels record this statement, and--as is often the case--sometimes one gospel writer will give a detail not mentioned by the others, so that by reading all of the accounts we get the full picture. Here is the way it reads in Mark 8:34: “And when he had called the people [the NIV says, “the crowd”] unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

It seems obvious from Mark’s account that Jesus was addressing both believers and unbelievers, and thus those words are also addressed to both groups today.

Someone might ask, “But how could that statement apply to both lost people and Christians?” That is a very good question--and the answer to it will become clear as we look very closely at...


Exactly what was our Lord’s purpose in that statement? What was he telling us?

A. What Jesus was NOT saying

First, let’s be very clear as to what he was not saying: He was not saying, “If you will do these things, you will thereby earn your passport to heaven.”

To imagine that you can even to the slightest degree earn your way to heaven is utterly to miss the point of Jesus’ message, and that of the entire Bible. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that salvation is wholly, completely the gift of God. For example, Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

B. An Explanation of Saving Faith

But the problem is that many people have a “watered down” idea of faith--of what it means to believe; and Jesus, in Luke 9:23, was addressing those misconceptions. Although he was doing it in an indirect way, he was actually explaining what it really means to believe unto salvation--in other words, he was explaining the kind of faith that is required for becoming his disciple.

Someone might say, “How do you get that out of that verse, preacher? Neither the word ‘faith’ nor the word ‘believe’ is mentioned.” Well, let me explain:

Notice that Jesus began his statement by saying, “If any man will come after me....” The Greek word for “will” is thelei, a form of the verb thelo, which has to do with our God-given privilege of choosing; it refers to resolving, to exercising the will.

So, what Jesus was saying, in effect, is this: “In order to become my disciple, you must be willing to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” No one can do those three things in his own strength, but he must be willing to do them. A willingness to do all of that amounts to a total commitment to Jesus--and that’s what true, saving faith is: an all-out commitment of one’s life to Jesus. The Greek word most often used for “believe” in the New Testament is pisteuo, and in at least five verses in the KJV, that word or some variant of it is translated “commit.” In one very real sense, belief and commitment are one and the same.

C. Jesus’ Twofold Purpose Summarized

So, it boils down to this: our Lord’s purpose in his statement in Luke 9:23 is twofold:

1. A Commentary on Saving Faith

First, he is giving us a commentary on saving faith, without actually using the word; he is explaining the type of commitment that adds up to saving faith--and that’s a commitment, a willingness, to deny self, to take up one’s cross, and follow him.

But I can almost hear someone saying, “But wait a minute, preacher; isn’t saving faith always accompanied by repentance? Doesn’t the Bible teach that?”--and indeed it does. Terry Trivette observes, “That phrase, ‘come after me,’ points us to the fact that Jesus calls us to change directions when we turn to Him as our Savior.”1 Trivette was right on target. Let me take it a step further, then, and point out the fact that “changing directions” is essentially a definition of repentance; so our Lord’s explanation of saving faith was, after all, a faith accompanied by repentance.

2. Daily Guidelines for Christians

But that’s not all he was doing; he was, in the second place, also setting forth those three requirements as guidelines for daily living once we are saved.

As already noted, the word “disciple” means “learner,” and God intends that, following conversion, we continue to learn for the rest of our lives; the Bible makes that unquestionably clear. For example, 2 Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ....” The Greek word for “grow” in that verse, auxanete, is a present tense verb, which denotes continuous action--thus, the verb could be translated, “Go on growing in grace....” The mood of the verb is imperative, which means that it is commanded of all believers.

So, not only did Jesus’ challenge in Luke 9:23 show us that saving faith is a total commitment, a willingness to to deny self, to take up our cross, and follow him, but clearly he also intended the three parts of that challenge to be our roadmap for daily living--and as we, one day at a time, call on God for help and pour ourselves wholeheartedly into the effort, we’ll gain an ever-increasing degree of victory in the following of those guidelines. We have this encouraging promise in James 4:7: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Now, having looked at our Lord’s purpose, let’s look more closely at...


That is, let’s examine in more detail each of the three requirements listed in Luke 9:23. When making our initial faith commitment and being saved, we realized that those three requirements amounted to a total surrender of ourselves to Jesus. But now that we are saved, as we grow spiritually and seek to live by those three standards, we should gain an ever-clearer understanding of them. So let’s carefully examine each of those three components of our Lord’s challenge, with a prayer that as God helps us to understand them more clearly, he will also give us the strength to incorporate them more fully and effectively into our daily living.


1. The Problem of Self

Edwin L. Sabin wrote a narrative poem entitled, “My Enemy.”2 He seems to be describing a dream that a man had--a very disturbing dream that kept recurring. In this dream the man would be in pursuit of some lofty goal, when suddenly a masked enemy would appear and would thwart his efforts, leaving him frustrated and defeated. That same dream would repeat itself time after time--until one night it took a different turn. Just as he was almost in reach of his goal, that masked enemy again interfered and stopped him--but this time the man was able to snatch the mask from his enemy’s face--and, lo, the face that he saw was his own!

That’s a fanciful story, but it reminds us of a sobering truth--and that is, that overcoming “self” is every Christian’s biggest challenge.

Years ago I read about an illness in France, the name of which, translated into English, was “me sickness.” It occurs to me that there’s a sense in which our modern society is plagued by that same disease. Advertisers sell a world of products by appealing to our selfish nature. Many marriage problems result from one spouse or the other, or both, wanting their own way. Most crime and violence stems from that same root cause: self-centeredness; wanting what we want, whether it is rightfully ours or not, or feeling that we have been personally slighted or insulted, and lashing out in response.

In Luke 9:24 Jesus said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it....” In that verse, “whosoever will save his life” refers to the person whose approach to every situation, whether he voices it aloud or not, is “What’s in it for me?” Jesus says that such a self-centered person will “lose” his life--in other words, he will lose out on life’s highest and best--and such a person hurts others, as well.

2. The Conquest of Self

But as Christians, we are to deny ourselves. Keeping the focus off of ourselves is a constant battle. Paul Powell said, “One of the hardest things to do is to die to self. Every time I try, Satan rushes in his emergency squad and give me artificial respiration.”3

But that battle can be won--and Jesus told us how. In Luke 9:24 he went on to say this: “but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” Mark 8:35 says, “for my sake and the gospel’s,” indicating that our commitment is to be both to Jesus personally and also to the truth which he proclaimed.

Great old Thomas Chalmers, a preacher who lived in the 19th century, preached a famous sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” His point was that as we learn increasingly to love Jesus Christ, his work, and his people, sin and selfishness will increasingly be expelled from our hearts.


1. Cross Bearing Misunderstood

There is a great deal of misunderstanding as to what it means to take up one’s cross. Sometimes a person will speak of a difficult marriage situation, or of a nagging, painful physical infirmity, or an unfair boss at work, or some other burden that they wish they could be free of, and will say, “Well, that’s just the cross I bear.”

Our hearts go out, of course, to folks with problems like those, and our Lord certainly cares about those situations and stands ready to help--but such burdens as those are not what he was referring to when he said that a disciple must take up his cross.

2. Cross Bearing Clarified by looking at Jesus’ cross

His saying that we must “take up” our cross means that we must choose to bear it; it is not something thrust upon us against our will. Concerning the upcoming sacrificing of his life on the cross, Jesus said, in John 10:18, “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself....”

Further, realize that Jesus’ cross was taken up and borne for a specific purpose--namely, that of providing for man’s redemption. Now, obviously you and I can’t redeem anyone, but we can point people to the One who can.

Thus, when you add all of that up, it amounts to this: when Jesus told us that we must take up our cross, he was saying that each of us who is a Christian must voluntarily take on some burden of responsibility for the ultimate purpose of pointing people to him--even to the point of suffering and dying for him, if such should prove necessary. Regarding the commitment to suffer and die for Jesus if necessary, James A. Brooks said, “Such a concept of discipleship is so radical that many contemporary Christians in the West have difficulty relating to it.”4

So far as the exact nature or shape of that burden of responsibility, that will vary from one person to the next, depending on a number of factors, such as the abilities with which God has endowed us, and the needs that exist around us. Whether your role is “front stage and center” or “behind the scenes” is immaterial--if you are serving where God has placed you, and are conducting yourself so as to let your light shine, you are an important part of the total ongoing work of pointing people to the Savior. Robert Browning wrote, “All service ranks the same with God.”

But none of us are to be spectator Christians. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul likens the church to a physical body. If any one part of the body is not functioning properly, then that body can’t be up to maximum performance. Each of us who is a Christian, as a part of the body of Christ, is commanded by our Lord to find our cross of responsibility, and by God’s grace to bear it.

“Must Jesus bear the cross alone, And all the world go free?

No; there’s a cross for everyone, And there’s a cross for me.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear, Til death shall set me free,

And then go home my crown to wear; for there’s a crown for me”

Jesus said, “let him...take up his cross daily....” I read years ago about a character called “on again, off again Hannegan.” I’m afraid that same description could be accurately applied to many of us, so far as our spiritual life is concerned. We tend to wax hot a while, and then cold; to start various undertakings in a blaze of glory, but then to fade. God expects--yea, demands--better of us; and to whatever extent we are guilty of inconsistency, to that extent we are backslidden, and we need to repent, ask God’s forgiveness, and ask him to help us get back on track.


The Greek verb for “follow” which Jesus used here, akoloutheitho (which literally translates as, “let him follow”), is a present imperative, denoting continuous action--in other words, Jesus requires a lifelong commitment to follow him.

1. Following Jesus Then

When Jesus was here on this earth in the flesh, people had the opportunity to follow him physically. When Jesus went to Galilee, they followed him there; when he went to Jerusalem, so did they.

2. Following Jesus Now

But he is no longer here in the flesh, so how do modern day disciples follow him? The answer to that question is found in 1 Peter 2:21: “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”

In 1897 Charles M. Shelton published a book entitled, In His Steps. Since that time it has sold over 30 million copies, and ranks as one of the best-selling books of all time. It’s a fictional story--but it ought to be a true one--about a pastor and congregation who had a traumatic experience that shook them to their very depths, and caused them to realize how shallow their spiritual lives were. After intense agonizing, the pastor gave a radical challenge to his congregation; he said, “I want volunteers...who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be.” About 50 members of his congregation took him up on that challenge and began that very day putting that pledge into action. Over the next several months their understanding of Christian discipleship was dramatically changed, and their lives were remarkably and wonderfully transformed--and the community around them was deeply impacted.

What would happen in your life, and in my life, and in our churches, if you and I and others would dare to make such a pledge, and then one day at a time follow through?

One man who appears to have done that very thing was a German theologian and pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was born in 1906 and ministered during the height of Adolph Hitler’s reign over Germany. Although many German church leaders were afraid to speak out against Hitler’s atrocities, Bonhoeffer refused to “cave in” and publicly opposed Hitler’s cruel program to exterminate the Jews and his other oppressive policies. He joined a movement to get rid of Hitler, and at age 37 was arrested by the Gestapo; he was executed by hanging in April 1945 while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp, just 23 days before the German surrender. One of his most famous writings, which has become something of a classic, is a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship. In that book, he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That proved to be literally true in his own case. His commitment to Christ cost him his life. He is regarded as one of the outstanding Christian martyrs of the 20th century.

The greatest challenge anyone can ever take on is the challenge of Christian discipleship--Jesus’ challenge to deny self, take up our cross, and follow him daily.

It’s a lifelong challenge--but, as the ancient proverb reminds us, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Step number one is to tell Jesus that you’re willing, by his grace and help, to live by those guidelines--which is another way of telling him that you are repenting of your sins and trusting him as your Lord and Savior. Once you make that initial faith commitment, you are forever God’s child. Then, as you read his Word, pray, worship, serve, and share your faith with others, you’ll gain an ever-increasing degree of victory in living by those three guidelines to which you initially committed yourself.

If you’ve never been saved, I encourage you, with all of my heart, to accept our Lord’s challenge to become his disciple; and to those of us who are already Christians, I encourage us every one to take stock as to how well we’re doing in implementing those three guidelines into our daily lives. Let’s confess the failures that the Holy Spirit points out, ask God’s forgiveness, and determine that, with his help, we’ll make a new start right now, this very hour, in following his example. These simple lines sum it all up:

If washed in Jesus’ blood, then bear his likeness, too;

In every situation ask, “What would Jesus do?”


1 ”Christian Life 101,” a sermon by Terry Trivette, on

2 Edwin L. Sabin, 1,000 Quotable Poems, Vol. 2, p. 50

3 Paul Powell, The Saint Peter Principle, p. 42

4 James A. Brooks, The New American Commentary, Vol. 23: Mark, p. 137