The Cost of Discipleship

April 20, 1997 / Acts 21:1-16

"A Question of Identity" is the heading one American newsmagazine put over a recent story about an issue within modern Judaism. Many American and European Jews are upset by a bill now moving through the Israeli Knesset that would refuse to recognize conversions in Israel under Conservative or Reform rabbis. In other words, the bill seeks to settle the question "Who is a Jew?"

You may know that there are three main branches of Judaism today ó Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Around 90 percent of Jews living in America are either Conservative or Reform, but these two branches account for fewer than one percent of the 4.5 million Jews in Israel. In the modern Jewish state, Orthodox groups ó so easily recognizable by their long beards and black hats or yarmulkes ó control the religious life of the nation. And the Orthodox are pressing hard for the essential disenfranchisement of people from the branches of Judaism that dominate America and Europe.

At a hotel news conference in New York last month, for example, a series of Orthodox rabbis went to a microphone to condemn Conservative and Reform Judaism. Streams other than their own, the rabbis, said are "not Judaism at all, but another religion." The acting chairman of Orthodox rabbis in this country said, "We call upon all Jews to discontinue to pray any time in a Conservative or Reform temple and instead pray in an Orthodox synagogue. If you have no Orthodox shul within walking distance, then pray at home."

I bring up this issue only to show you that Christians arenít the only ones who have an identity crisis in their religion!

Who Is a Christian?

Who is a Christian? What does it mean to say that someone is a disciple of Jesus Christ? If it seems strange that the question has to be asked, let me remind you of the variety of answers that can be given to it.

In its most elemental meaning, the word Christian simply means "Christ-follower." In the New Testament, it is like the word "Herodian" at Matthew 22:16 or Mark 12:13. It identifies one as a follower or devotee of the person to whose name the suffix is added. The use of the -ian suffix this way seems to have been a Latin formation that was used in a variety of settings in the first-century world. And the essential meaning of the word disciple is, of course, "student" or "learner."

The first of the three appearances of the word Christian in the New Testament is at Acts 11:26b. There Luke writes: "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." Clearly Lukeís commoner and preferred way of speaking of those who belonged to Christ was the word disciple; it occurs about thirty times in Acts of the Apostles. And there is pretty good evidence that its use at Antioch was by the enemies of the church and was meant as a mocking or derisive term ó perhaps a bit like Campbellite is sometimes used of people from my tradition. Whether it was a mocking term at Antioch or not, it clearly was in its second occurrence in the New Testament. A piqued Herod Agrippa II would say this to Paul: "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" (Acts 26:28).

Thus, in its broadest and most inclusive meaning, the word today would include all those who "follow" or consider themselves "students of" Jesus as opposed to the Buddha, Mohammed, or some other central religious figure. This is what The New York Times or the Tennessean means when it speaks of the Christian community.

One step further, most people today probably understand the term Christian to identify those who are members of churches that confess their allegiance to Jesus Christ. Thus a Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, or member of this church will be counted as a Christian in Gallup or Roper Polls. Groups such as the Mormons are hard for pollsters to classify, for they donít make "orthodox" confessions of Jesus ó though they quote his words freely and say they believe in him. Remember the fracas that played out locally a couple of years ago about the election of a Mormon teenager to an office in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes? The national offices of FCA donít consider Mormons Christians and voided the election.

See what I meant earlier by saying that the Jews werenít the only ones having an identity crisis?

Moving one step further along this path, religious historians and theologians across a wide spectrum would probably define the term this way: a Christian is a baptized communicant of an orthodox Christian church. That definition is certainly much narrower than the ones with which we started, and most of you might be willing to accept it. Before you take it as a final answer, though, let me remind you of the great diversity among "orthodox Christian churches" about what baptism is. Some churches sprinkle water on babies and call it baptism. Others of us donít think sprinkling passes muster as baptism and point out that the Greek word baptizo means "to dip, to plunge, to immerse." And we wouldnít even think about immersing a baby, for we see personal faith and repentance as prerequisites to baptism. Thus we would want to define baptism more precisely as the immersion of penitent believers (i.e., adults).

This is beginning to get close to Paulís teaching about wearing anotherís name in religion. When he was bothered that some of the believers at Corinth were wearing his name, Apollosí name, or Peterís name, part of his rebuke came in this form: "Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. 1:13). He even went on to say how glad he was that he had personally baptized so few of the people at Corinth lest anyone accuse him of baptizing in his own name (1 Cor. 1:14-17).

Even though Paul was arguing against anyone wearing his name, did you catch the flow of the argument? He was insisting that at least two criteria would need to be met before anyone could wear someone elseís name in religion. First, that person would need to be "crucified for you." Second, you would need to be "baptized into the name of" that person. Christ was crucified for the people at Corinth. Many of those people had been baptized in Jesusí name ó although not by Paulís own hands ó for Luke records that at Acts 18:8: "Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized."

But does that work to settle the matter of Christian identity? Hardly. Getting baptized and being a church member are good things, mind you, but they are not the defining traits of a Christian. What about lifestyle? What about a church member who lies to people at work and cheats on her husband? Is that person "following Christ"? Not in any meaningful sense! That personís life does not honor Christ and brings him into disrepute among those who know that the person behaving so immorally and irresponsibly claims to be a Christian.

The third use of the word Christian in the text of the New Testament becomes instructive at this point. Peter wrote followers of Jesus living in a hostile environment and said: "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name" (1 Pet. 4:12-16).

A Christian who does not live up to the name of his Master isnít worthy of the name. One who wonít suffer for Jesusí sake ought to be honest enough not to parade under it. Someone who is called upon to suffer for the sake of the gospel should rejoice and praise God that he or she wears the name "Christian." But is it possible that some people have the lifestyle of Christ and suffer for him who have gotten some of the doctrinal tenets wrong ó even about a subject so important as baptism? Not only is that possible, in my opinion, but even likely!

In the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement, one of the issues of urgency among its leaders was on this point. Should baptism be considered the critical issue in considering one a Christian and admitting him or her into fellowship? Thatís what some argued. Or should it be the fruit of the Spirit in a personís life ó even if he or she hadnít been immersed? Others argued that a lifestyle rooted in the Spirit was not being produced by Satan and that such persons ought to be admitted into the churchís fellowship without believersí immersion.

Arenít you glad the Lord Jesus Christ himself will be on the throne when Judgment Day comes to settle all these theological issues? Arenít you glad we donít have to do his job of judging the world?

I believe and teach that one is justified by Godís grace through faith in Christ Jesus. I believe and teach that the normative way faith in Christ was expressed in New Testament times was through the immersion of men and women in Jesusí name. I further believe and teach that the proof that faith, baptism, and church membership "took" in a given instance comes in the transformation of oneís life by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And I further believe and teach that one who is a Christian will pay a high price for his or her discipleship.

Discipleship Is Costly

Although we have argued and fought more over the nature of faith, the mode of baptism, and the age of baptismal candidates in recent Christian history than we have taught about the likelihood ó no, necessity ó of suffering for Christ as a mark of a discipleís identity, our text for today tells us that such suffering is the ultimate identification of a follower of Jesus.

Paul had torn himself away from the Ephesian elders, resumed his sea voyage, and eventually landed at Caesarea. He is back on dry land now. He will walk directly overland to Jerusalem and make the Holy City before Pentecost. He must have felt light-hearted and happy about the prospect. Yet there were good reasons for him to stay away from Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had already warned him that "prison and hardships" lay ahead, and there was every indication that those warnings could be about Jerusalem (cf. Acts 20:23).

At Caesarea, Paul stayed in the house of Philip the evangelist (cf. Acts 6:5). Philip had "four unmarried daughters who prophesied" (Acts 21:9) ó now wouldnít you like to know all the freight carried in that line? Spirit-gifted women in the earliest church were allowed to use their gifts. Under certain circumstances, they even prophesied! So letís not get antsy when a woman makes an announcement at church today, sings a solo, or stands on the platform with a praise team! I understand the New Testament to say that one office and two functions are prohibited to women in the work of the church today ó the office is elder-shepherd and the functions are preaching and prayer-leading when the whole church is assembled in settings like this (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12ff).

Other than those two biblical restraints, letís unshackle the women of God today! Letís get outside the cultural mores of a hundred years ago that had women baking cakes, sitting up with the dead, and otherwise invisible at church. Encourage the women who take responsibility here. Donít even make a corny, no-harm-intended joke about "women song leaders" or scowl about "where this could lead." Celebrate all the gifts God has put in this church, and affirm their use in the ways our shepherds have identified as appropriate. But thatís not the theme of this lesson, so letís get back to Paul at Caesarea.

While Paul was visiting with Philip and his daughters, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He took the long sash around Paulís waist, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said: "The Holy Spirit says, ĎIn this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentilesí" (Acts 21:11). All the vague fears that trouble might be ahead at Jerusalem were in focus at that point. If Paul went ahead with his travel plans, he would not do so ignorant of what lay ahead.

Luke, Philip, and the others there pleaded with Paul not to go. Here was his answer, the answer of a Christian who understood that discipleship was costly: "Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 21:13).


Are you a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are you a Christian? Do you have a secure identity in him?

Donít tell me your theology; tell me what you have sacrificed to be a person of integrity in this world. Donít tell me your views about the Holy Spirit; tell me how you have remained loyal to the Lord when life had turned against you, you had lost your job, and your family was suffering. Donít tell me your views about baptism; tell me how much you love your wife and what you are modeling day by day for your children. Donít tell me about your church affiliation; tell me that, like Paul, you are ready to be bound or even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.

Of course, your beliefs are important. But true beliefs issue in holy living, Spirit-empowered faithfulness, and the willingness to suffer for his name. And today it is my task from the Lord to remind us all that both he and the world want the proof of our faith in daily demonstration rather than mere words. That is the true cost of our discipleship.

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