In his mission instructions to the twelve apostles, Jesus has just warned them of the difficulties of gospel ministry. He now outlines some of the characteristics of discipleship. A disciple of the cross will always acknowledge Jesus, will accept the cost of discipleship and will give preference to the gospel over the world
v32-33. Mark's parallel saying in 8:38 uses the title "Son of Man" rather than the personal pronoun "I". cf also Luke 12:8-9. When speaking with the crowds, Jesus often used the mysterious messianic title "Son of Man", but when speaking with his disciples he was more explicit. The believer "acknowledges", or "confesses" Jesus, rather than "disowns" or "is ashamed of" Jesus. Calvin made the point that the public acknowledgment of Jesus will vary in boldness, fluency, wisdom, sensitivity and frequency, from believer to believer. It is the person who disowns Christ who is disowned, not the person whose witness is weak and feeble. Although this passage is often interpreted in evangelistic terms, it more rightly teaches that a person's share in eternity is wholly determined by their relationship and attitude toward Jesus in this present age.
v34-36. Jesus often claimed that his coming would bring division rather than peace. He is the Prince of Peace, but in a sinful world, divine peace prompts violence; the darkness reacts to the light. Here Jesus uses the language of Micah to describe the division caused by the gospel. Disciples are aligned with the prophets who suffered under King Ahaz. Jesus suffered as messiah and his disciples cannot expect anything less. Although in the liberal West believers do not face great hostility, families are still divided, believers are still ostracized. Even worse, there remain totalitarian regimes where believers suffer untold persecution.
v37-39. A disciple's love for Jesus (in the sense of commitment or allegiance) must stand above their love of family. In rabbinic literature, a disciple's personal interest, eg. family, can stand above the demands of their master, but Jesus sticks with his usual absolutism and demands complete allegiance. Pushing further with his hard sayings, Jesus uses the image of crucifixion to illustrate the ideal of self-sacrifice. The ideal of discipleship entails denial of self, even denial of ones very life. Jesus cuts even more deeply with the statement that when a disciple lives to preserve their life, in the sense of living for themselves rather than submitting to Christ, then they lose it in the age to come. The parallel hard sayings in Luke 14:25-35 places Jesus' absolutism within the context of justification. Even the disciple is a sinner, totally unable to live the "righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees." Thankfully, the person "who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God" is the outcast who accepts the master's invitation, 14:15-24. Matthew, on the other hand, establishes the principle of justification in the Sermon on the Mount and expects his readers to apply the principle in the other teaching sections. It is those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" who are "filled". So, as we look with dismay at the ideal of cross-bearing discipleship, we must remind ourselves again that only one person has truly gone the way of total denial unto death, and thankfully his cross-bearing denial is for us. When we lose our life in him, in his cross we find it.
In our passage for study Matthew gives us three qualities of discipleship:
i] Acknowledging Jesus. A disciple openly declares their allegiance to Jesus.
ii] Accepting antagonism. A disciple willingly confesses Jesus, even when this brings division in their own home.
iii] Preferring Jesus. A disciple puts Jesus before their own interests.
These qualities are evident in Jesus' own life. He openly, and without hesitation, acknowledged the Father, giving him all honor. He accepted the hatred that followed, even from his own family, and yet he did not deviate from his gospel mission. He preferred the Father above his own interests, even suffering the loss of his own life.
Jesus calls on his disciples to develop these same qualities in their life and in so doing, he calls on us to press forward along the narrow way. Yet, we must first accept that these Christ-like qualities are actually beyond us. Jesus fulfilled all righteousness in his life, whereas we can only but press toward such ideals. So, they are absolutes to aim at, rather than practical requirements to achieve. We should always regard Jesus' hard sayings as ideals. None of us are "worthy" of Christ for we have at some time disowned him, loved others more than he and put our own interests before him. Thankfully, Christ is "worthy", and if we are in Christ, then his worthiness is judged as ours, by grace through faith.
So then, let us press toward these absolutes accepting the compromise of our own flawed humanity. Let us struggle to acknowledge Jesus in our homes, at work and at play. Let us be willing to speak up for Jesus even when there is a chance that we may destroy a special relationship with someone who is close to us. Let us strive to put Jesus before our self interest, to put him before our desire to live life to the full, no matter what the consequences. And when we fall short, as we will, let us hide in his perfect obedience.
Discuss the absolutism of Jesus in this passage and how it is possible to live with compromised ideals.