The Impossible Way

Abandoned Sathorn Unique in Bankok, Thailand

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus is finished with His table talk and is back on the road again, followed (as it always seems) by large crowds. They have not lost their curiosity and anticipate the next miracle with enthusiasm. The words they now hear from Jesus are meant to cool some of the shallow ardor the crowds so often display.

Do you wish to be a disciple of Jesus? If so, Jesus gives you the criteria, and His requirements are as simple as they sound horrifying: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple… Anyone who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26-27, 33).

So, there you go. “Hate your family,” says the Lord. Not just the weird cousin you always try to avoid at the family reunions. Not just the “black sheep” who’s betrayed the family name. Jesus doesn’t even say, “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” No, the Lord specifies: Hate your father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters. In fact, hate yourself.

Hate your family, hate yourself. That’s hardly an effective slogan for outreach, is it? It sounds like the kind of strategy that would lead an aspiring political candidate to a double-digit deficit in the polls. However, it does sum up the first condition of discipleship.

A second demand Jesus makes is this: bear your cross and come after Him. To those who first heard Him say this, the words must’ve been repulsive. Quite literally, Jesus called upon them to suffer the most torturous death known to man, crucifixion. “If you want to follow Me, get your own cross and prepare to be put upon it”—this is the message from the Savior.

Disciples must be ready to follow Jesus and do as He did. This may include laying down one’s life for the Gospel. Of course, many Christians never face violent persecution or martyrdom, yet it always remains a possibility. Furthermore, we all bear crosses (or burdens) as a result of our commitment to the Gospel.

Then Jesus adds a third condition of discipleship: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33). Being a disciple involves the willingness to give up all earthly possessions if duty to God calls for it. Only the Kingdom of God is of ultimate importance.

Hate your family, hate yourself, prepare to die, renounce all earthly possessions. This is a summary of the Lord’s demands that we must do if we are to follow Him. And according to these words, the way of discipleship is impossible, is it not? This has prompted many people to ask: “Would the Lord really make such terrible requirements to follow Him? Did Jesus really say these things?” Yes, He did! And He goes on to tell us why in verses 28-32:  

“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? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 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? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.”

Why does Jesus make such impossible demands on those who would follow Him? (Pause) Because nothing less will get the job done. Without total commitment, you won’t make it to heaven. Instead, you’ll be much like the man who builds a tower but runs out of resources partway through construction. A good start is fine, but an incomplete building doesn’t help much. If you don’t have perfect commitment, then you’re like the king who goes into battle unwilling to commit an adequate number of troops, unwilling to bear the bloodshed necessary.

Hate your family. Hate yourself. Prepare to die for your sins. Renounce all your earthly possessions, That’s the commitment that Jesus demands if you are to be His disciple. In other words, if you’re going to follow Him by your own reason or strength—then this is the level of commitment that you must have. Jesus insists three times: Those who fail do so “cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26, 27, 33).

This news should leave each of us disturbed, troubled, anxious. And before we go on to relieve that trouble and anxiety, let’s point out two other things. First, this text illustrates for you why we waste no time telling you that you are saved by your commitment to Jesus, by your decision to follow Him, or by how much you love Him. That’s why our hymns and songs don’t speak about our love and dedication, but focus on Christ, His love, and His death on the cross. We spend no time urging you on to dedicate yourself further to being His disciple by your own reason and strength, because no one can do it. We might just as well urge you to sprout some wings and fly home. No one can achieve the level of commitment necessary to hate his family, hate himself, and prepare to die.

Second, and far more importantly, we must point out that we’ve only spoken in terms of the Law so far. Remember the purpose of God’s Law. It tells you what God demands of you to be perfectly holy and righteous before Him. And its work is also to point out to you that you cannot do it. When Jesus says these words, He is preaching the Law. He’s declaring that the cost of discipleship is extraordinary, the way of the cross is impossible for you or me or any sinful human being.

But while Jesus proclaims these things to make us despair of our own efforts, He doesn’t do so to leave us in despair. No, implicit in this proclamation of Law is the sweet message of the Gospel. While we cannot afford the cost of discipleship, the price has already been paid so that we might be His disciples.

We take another look at the text, then—this time to proclaim the Gospel. Jesus declares, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

 First, we need to speak about hatred, for the word had a wider range of meaning in biblical times. To hate could mean to despise, as we think of it today. But to hate could also mean to love less than someone or something else. For instance, Genesis 29:31 notes, “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” This doesn’t mean that Jacob despised Leah. Rather, it means he loved her less than he loved Rachel. Likewise, the Lord declares in Romans 9:13, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” This does not mean that the Lord despised Esau. It means that He chose Jacob over Esau to be the ancestor of Christ. So, when Jesus declares that His disciples must hate their families and themselves, He’s not calling upon them to despise them. He’s calling upon them to love Him more than them. He’s telling His disciples to keep the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

But before we feel relieved and say, “Oh! That’s all He meant!” we must realize that even this level of commitment is far beyond our capability. Quite naturally, we often place family above the Lord. Stalwart supporters of sound doctrine may find fault with a pastor or congregation when that doctrine is applied to their son who is living with someone outside of marriage. Even pro-life supporters might be able to justify abortion when it’s their daughter who has the unplanned pregnancy. And who is courageous enough to correct a false teaching or belief that comes up when the family’s gathered around for Christmas dinner?

No, very few of us qualify for even this minimal standard. By nature, we believe that keeping the family peace is more important. Keeping the First Commandment is a cost of discipleship that we won’t pay, that we can’t pay.

But Jesus can, and Jesus has. He has preferred the Father’s will over that of His human family. When Jesus’ family came to plead with Him to stop teaching, Jesus continued to do the Father’s will that He might go to the cross for us.

Jesus preferred God the Father’s will over Himself. Recall His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Though He did not wish to suffer, Jesus gave up His own life to complete His Father’s plan for our salvation. Jesus literally gave it all for you. At the expense of His life, Jesus kept the First Commandment for you. In His mercy, He gives you the credit for His obedience and covers you with His righteousness. Therefore, the Father looks upon you and does not see your sin. He sees His Son’s perfect obedience. Yes, the cost of discipleship—hate your family, hate yourself—is a prohibitive cost. But Jesus has already paid the price, and He gives the gift of discipleship to you freely.

But there are still other costs to be paid. In saying, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27), Jesus calls upon would-be disciples to prepare to die for sin. There is a price to be paid for sin. The wages of sin is death. Therefore, we deserve to die and to suffer the torments of hell. It’s our sin, our payment, and our punishment. It makes logical, legal sense.

But Jesus bore a cross that wasn’t His. He was without sin, and therefore He had no wages to pay. Therefore, His cross was for the sins of the world, and God the Father judged Him in your place. So, God’s anger for your sin is satisfied—it was satisfied on Jesus’ cross, as He suffered and died for you.

Jesus doesn’t demand that you die for your sin because He’s already died for it. Instead, by faith, He does call upon you to confess your sin, to acknowledge that His death is the one you deserve. And then—wondrous news! —He declares that He shares His death with you. He bears the wrath, the stripes, the lies, and suffers so willingly—all so that you might be delivered from the same.

What, then, does it mean to bear your cross to be a disciple? (Pause) To bear your cross is to bear His cross, and your burden is light as a feather. You bear His cross when it is traced upon your forehead with water in your Baptism, for there you are buried with Him by Baptism into death. This is the same cross that some of you might outwardly sketch upon yourself as you hear the Invocation or hear the words of Holy Absolution from your pastor—you will feel no greater pain of Christ’s cross than that, for He has suffered all the weight and all the pain for you.

Rather than demanding your body and blood as a sacrifice for your sin, Jesus gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. That is what it means to bear your cross—it means to be forgiven, for in forgiveness Jesus shares His cross with you, taking away your death and giving you His resurrection.

Hear this Good News! The Law declares that the way of the cross is impossible. But the Gospel declares that Jesus has done the impossible. He has paid that steep price and freely makes you His disciple. Therefore, the rest of the Gospel lesson has all sorts of Good News just underneath the surface!

Left to our own efforts, we could not be sufficiently committed to our Lord. We could not build a tower to heaven that would reach God. But since we can’t lift ourselves into His presence, He comes to us in His Word and Sacraments.

Left to our own efforts to battle into heaven, we would be a short-handed army facing annihilation, with no ambassador worthy to go and plead for peace. Therefore, the King, who commands legions of angels, comes to us. He sets the conditions of peace—the death of a righteous Savior—and then meets them by His own death. Having established peace with us, He then sends us out as His ambassadors to proclaim that peace, even today.

Therefore, we set aside all boasts of our commitment to Jesus. For our Lord exposes what inadequate and puny rubbish that commitment is. Instead, we boast in the Lord. We confess our sins—including pride in our dedication to Him, and trust solely in His grace and His victory. We give thanks that He has made us His disciples by His commitment, by His sacrifice. That’s why we do not urge you to improve your dedication to the Savior, but instead announce to you His dedication to you, that you might be strengthened in your faith and in service to Him.

This is the Good News we proclaim to the world. The way of the cross is impossible, except that Jesus Christ has already paid the cost with His perfect obedience and by shedding His holy, precious blood. For His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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