5 Problems Disciples Have

A Study of the Call to Discipleship in Luke 19

“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.”—Luke 9:23

Christian discipleship is a vital subject in the New Testament, and the book of Luke is a fine source of information about it. In chapter 9, the call to discipleship is given and explained in verses 23 and 24 (as it is also in Matthew 16:24–25 and Mark 8:34–35), but then, beginning in verse 37, several serious problems that true disciples of Jesus Christ have are discussed.

These problems are ones often observed today among some of the most dedicated servants of Christ. Revival in our churches will require us to address these problems and the serious issues they raise.

Luke 9:51 is the turning point in the narrative of the book, “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.” From this point, Jesus begins His final journey to Jerusalem, and the account of that journey and what happened at the destination takes up the rest of the book.

The city of Jerusalem, as well as this final journey there, is a focal point in the content of the third gospel. And five prominent problems the disciples had in following Jesus are examined as they begin the journey with Him.

1. Unbelief

“And it came to pass, that on the next day, when they were come down from the hill, much people met him. And, behold, a man of the company cried out, saying, Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only child. And, lo, a spirit taketh him, and he suddenly crieth out; and it teareth him that he foameth again, and bruising him hardly departeth from him. And I besought thy disciples to cast him out; and they could not. And Jesus answering said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you? Bring thy son hither.”—Luke 9:37–41

The disciples of Jesus failed to meet the need that had been brought to them. Three of them had been up on a mountain with the Lord and had witnessed His “transfiguration” while the others waited at the foot. When they came down, many people came to greet Jesus, and among them was a father with a desperate plea and, in a sense, with a complaint. “Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son,” he cried. The boy, his only child, was possessed of a devil which tormented him and seemed bent on destroying him. Could Jesus help this father and son? The man had asked His disciples to cast out the devil, but they couldn’t.

In the many lessons of faith Jesus taught His disciples, He showed them that by faith in His promises they could meet the needs of hurting humanity. They would not have to turn people away. At the beginning of Luke 9 we read that, “He called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases.” In all the accounts of this incident at the foot of the mountain (in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9), the disciples are rebuked, and their failure is blamed on their unbelief. (As a side note, when cross referencing these accounts, we see that prayer and fasting builds faith like nothing else can.)

Faith is the most basic operating principle of Christian ministry. Unbelief is the most deadly flaw in the make-up of one who serves the Lord. Although fundamentalists are characterized by what they believe and although they separate from others for their infidelity, we are often plagued by rampant unbelief on a practical level.

Faith is taking God at His Word and acting upon the principle that God can be trusted. Faith is not, as some suppose, a matter of conjuring up hope for some desired thing to happen and then making oneself believe that it will happen. Those who teach faith this way are preaching faith in faith, and not faith in God.

Genuine faith is generated by the words of the Lord. The Bible includes many promises God has made to His people, both conditional and unconditional, as well as many indications of what God is like and what He is likely to do in answer to prayer. To take the Bible seriously down to the jot and tittle is to live and serve by faith.

Much can be gathered from the final words of Jesus to His disciples on the Mount of Olives just before He went to Heaven:

“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”—Acts 1:8

Here are at least four great blessings implied or directly promised by Christ for our mission in the world:

1. Power from the Holy Spirit for the work
2. Effectiveness in evangelism
3. Spreading evangelization from the beginning point to surrounding areas
4. Successful worldwide evangelization

The work of a church can be built on faith in this verse. Such a church will look like the first church described for us in the book of Acts.

It will be characterized by:

1. Prayer meetings for these things to be experienced and accomplished
2. Faith in the direction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit
3. Aggressive, faith-based evangelizing of the city
4. Vision to spread the gospel and plant churches in bordering areas
5. Zeal for world missions, involving both faith-based giving and the sending of missionaries
6. Expectation of success
7. Building the whole church program around the Great Commission.

How many churches do we know that look like this? What is the problem? It is unbelief.

Unbelief is the underlying problem that prevents victory in the Christian life, vision for the work of Christ, God-glorifying answers to prayer, joy in the lives of believers, as well as just simple biblical thinking. Unbelief kept the generation that walked through the Red Sea from entering the Promised Land. And unbelief keeps our generation of disciples from evangelizing the world. It also keeps churches small, saints weak, preachers powerless, church members depressed, homes troubled, and needs unfulfilled. It is the reason so many who would look to Christians for solutions to their problems are disappointed in our churches, in our preaching, and in our attempts to minister. It prevents the experience of the miraculous, and is the cause of every aspect of the decline in today’s fundamental Christianity.

But disciples, people who have genuinely set out to follow Jesus, have always had a problem with being “faithless.” That is why Scripture and Christ rebuke this sin, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you?”

Refusal to believe God is indeed perverted. If you have trouble trusting even a good man, that reluctance might be understood and excused because of the frailty of human nature, even in the best of us. But having trouble trusting God cannot be explained rationally and is described by the Lord Jesus as “perverse” or perverted. He wondered how long He would be called upon to put up (“suffer”) with disciples like these.

Look at us. We don’t practice real praying much anymore. We don’t step out in faith much anymore, either in our lives or in our ministries. We have lost our vision. We don’t believe in revival anymore. We see life in terms of the inevitable instead of the possible. We don’t think God does things that cannot be explained in natural and human terms. We are dying of unbelief. We castigate men who won’t believe the Bible as a matter of theology, while we ourselves won’t believe the Bible in a practical way. And our lack of faith is perverse. We must repent of it.

2. Pride

“And I besought thy disciples to cast him out; and they could not. And Jesus answering said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and suffer you? Bring thy son hither….And Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the child….But while they wondered every one at all things which Jesus did, he said unto his disciples,…the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them…. Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest.”—Luke 9:40–46

There is unmistakable irony in the way this account is given in Luke 9. Verses 37 through 42 find the disciples powerless (“they could not”). Then verses 43 through 45 find them clueless (“they understood not”). And then verse 46 finds them discussing the question of “which of them should be greatest.”

The truth is that none of them seemed particularly great in this scenario! Sadly, the situation is typical among the followers of Jesus even in our day. Often Christian leaders are disturbingly proud.

In response to their sinful pride, the Lord Jesus, “Took a child, and set him by him, and said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great” (Luke 9:47b–48).

He would not tolerate their pride. And Jesus will not tolerate ours either! A very basic Bible principle is that “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6).

Throughout Scripture we learn by precept and story that God always resists human pride, and human beings who are proud. Of Uzziah the king we read, “As long as he sought the LORD, God made him to prosper” (2 Chronicles 26:5b). “God helped him” and “he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction” (2 Chronicles 26:7, 15–16a). Pride ruined him. It also destroyed Belshazzar and Herod (compare the deaths of these two wicked men in Daniel 5:17–23 and Acts 12:20–23). God despises human pride and judges it. He calls men to humble themselves in order to have His grace.

It is amazing how people who work for the Lord fall prey to pride. If we succeed in doing any good, it is God who is doing the work. How can we “take pride” in the work we do for the Lord? So often we fail, but even as failures we tend to be puffed up. The powerless, clueless misrepresentation of Christianity displayed by the disciples in Luke 9 is very similar to the kind of Christianity displayed in all of its shame before the world today.

Pride makes men unteachable, unapproachable, disagreeable, and annoying, but people in God’s work often fail to see the harm in it. As a way to expose their folly and teach them an important lesson, the Lord Jesus recommended that His disciples engage in “children’s work.” Read again what He said to them. He pointed out that receiving a child in His name is one of the most significant things a man can do in the ministry.

The first thing to do is to humble yourself. Revivals will occur when leaders of churches humble themselves and demonstrate to those they lead what it is to humble oneself. And revivals are what even many “good churches” need desperately today. Pride is in the way. The old nemesis of Christian service still infects our souls. But Jesus will revive the contrite and humble, even today (Isaiah 57:15).

3. Sectarianism

“And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.”—Luke 9:49–50

Unfortunately, many Christians today display the same tendency to criticize and disdain others who serve Christ outside their own circles that the disciples did.

The issue in the verses above concerned a man who was casting out devils in Jesus’ name, but, “Followeth not with us.” The question was not about the man’s doctrine nor about what he was doing, but about the fact that he was not in their particular group.

Denominationalism has been with us for a long time, and some today are very critical of it. An ecumenical Christian men’s movement several years ago spoke of giving up our “petty denominational prejudices.” But there is something to be said for “denominational prejudices.” The word denomination, of course, means assigning a name or label to a system of faith and practice followed by certain believers and churches.

Denominational labels such as Methodist or Lutheran or Baptist stand for sets of doctrines. And doctrines are teachings in regard to Bible truth. The denominational labels refer to the way certain Christians understand the truth. Although some voices criticize “petty denominational prejudices,” there is nothing petty about truth.

No one should give up any truth he has found in the Bible, even for the sake of Christian unity or love. Erasing the differences between the denominations would involve asking somebody to surrender truths they see in God’s Word. Nobody should ask you to do that. But the disciples were not saying that the man casting out devils was teaching or doing anything contrary to Scripture or to the words of Jesus. They were unhappy that he claimed to follow Jesus but wasn’t in their company.

Some speak about “the fundamentalist movement,” when really there are and always have been many fundamentalist movements. If a Christian calls himself a fundamentalist today, he thinks of himself as standing faithfully for the fundamental doctrines of the gospel and is probably in some way associated with at least one of a number of “camps,” “circles,” or “networks.” For many in these groups, workers for Christ outside their particular group are seen as compromisers or in some other way suspect, just because they are not “with us.” We can be thankful that this tendency among the fundamentalists seems to be declining, but it is not dead.

Consider the probability that if something we do or believe is really based on the Bible, people who did not attend our college or frequent our favorite conference or minister within the limits of our own network might see the same things in the Bible. This would mean that we might find such servants of God outside our own circle and serve with them in some way without committing a sin. Senseless and baseless sectarianism has deprived good men of the influence of godly people outside their group.

Healthy Christian fellowship has always centered on mutually-embraced truths. When association and loyalty among believers is centered on less significant matters such as background or friendship it can be carnal. That is the point in 1 Corinthians 3 where the groupings around Paul and Apollos in the church are identified as evidence of carnality (verses 1–5).

Agonizing to maintain unity in a preachers’ organization when it is divided over doctrine or biblical practice is an unworthy expenditure of energy. To castigate preachers or churches for not changing their viewpoints when the group or the college or the leader does is indefensible. It’s all carnality when the real reason for cooperation or separation is something less than the advancement of truth.

This sectarianism the disciples had is to be expected because it arises from human nature. It is always easier to make judgments based on what our friends think and to form cliques with those we know well, but it is seldom in line with the perfect will of God. We ought to divide over the truth but not over the group.

And Christians do not have to agree on everything in order to have anything to do with each other. We see this in the teaching of Romans 14 and in the Johannine phrase “love in the truth.” The truth we mutually understand and follow can be the basis of some Christian cooperation, although disagreements on other things must limit the extent of it.

Stay loyal to the truth of God, but not always to the whims of the group you are in. When the group abandons the truth that gave it credibility and a good reason to exist, desert it. When you find a brother who sees the truth as you see it, even if he isn’t in your group or didn’t come from where you did, consider getting together with him in a worthy effort.

Nearly all of our Christian service will be done properly in the local church, where this issue does not apply, but uniting in another situation (between preachers or churches, for example) should not be avoided just because the other man “followeth not with us.” And brethren not from our circles should not be condemned just because they are outsiders.

4. Wrong Spirit

“And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.”—Luke 9:51–56

The disciples were very sensitive to the honor their Master deserved. As the prejudiced Samaritans refused to admit Jesus into their city because He was a Jew headed to Jerusalem (see John 4:1–9), the sons of Zebedee wanted to exercise authority to do to them as Elijah had done. But Jesus refused them and rebuked them with the words, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.”

It is good for followers of Jesus to consider what manner of spirit the Holy Spirit is! Yes, the Holy Spirit had not yet come into the disciples at this point as He would on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. However, it is obvious that Jesus was referring to the third Person of the Trinity when He rebuked them for not knowing what manner of spirit they were of, anticipating the coming of the Spirit (see John 7:37–39). He is not the spirit of destruction but rather the Spirit of deliverance! Jesus had come not, …to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).

It is important not only that we say the right things or take the right stand, but also that we have the right spirit. It is important that we display the communicable attributes of the Holy Spirit. Remember that He is:

  • The Spirit of God (Genesis 1:2, for example)
  • The Spirit of wisdom (Exodus 28:3)
  • The Spirit of the LORD (Jehovah, Judges 3:10)
  • The Spirit of judgment (Isaiah 4:4)
  • The Spirit of understanding (Isaiah 11:2)
  • The Spirit of counsel and might (Isaiah 11:2)
  • The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:2)
  • The Spirit of grace and supplication (Zechariah 12:10)
  • The Spirit of your Father (Matthew 10:20)
  • Another Comforter (like Jesus, John 14:16)
  • The Spirit of truth (John 14:17)
  • The Spirit of holiness (Romans 1:4)
  • The Spirit of life (Romans 8:2)
  • The Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9)
  • The Spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15)
  • The Spirit of the living God (2 Corinthians 3:3)
  • The Spirit of His Son (Galatians 4:6)
  • The Spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7)
  • The eternal Spirit (Hebrews 9:14)
  • The Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29)
  • The Spirit of glory (1 Peter 4:14)

Remember also that, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22–23). This is the Spirit who dwells inside us—the Spirit we are of!

When we have a bad spirit in our ministry, it is not Spirit-enabled ministry. When we do not evidence the characteristics of the Holy Spirit, we are not walking in the Holy Spirit. So let us serve the Lord Jesus faithfully with a spirit (His Spirit) that wants to save others and not destroy them.

5. Shallow Commitment

“And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”—Luke 9:57–62

The disciples of Jesus professed to have forsaken all in order to follow Him. They had even abandoned the natural instinct to save their own lives. But soon it became clear that some of them, perhaps most of them, possessed a commitment that was actually much shallower than they professed it to be. The fact is that many supposedly dedicated Christians today are extremely shallow in their dedication.

We are told that some man told Jesus that he would follow Him wherever He led, but was discouraged by where that path might take him. Then we are told about others who were reluctant to answer the call, “Follow Me,” because there were things they felt they had to do “first.” The chapter ends with the Lord rebuking those who would set out to follow Him but then will look back, pronouncing that they are not “fit for the kingdom of God.” Many say they will follow Jesus, but few follow through.

How often one who has lived for years as a “dedicated Christian” will find through the experience of trials that his loudly-professed commitment is very shallow indeed. How many voices are raised to give the family of God and the cause of Christ leadership, direction, and even correction when the ones raising the voices could hardly be called true disciples of Jesus Christ!

“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.”—Luke 9:23

Those who responded to this call were labeled His disciples (verses 1, 18, 40, 43, 54). The demands of true discipleship are great. To deny yourself means to tell yourself “no” often when you really want or don’t want to do something. To take up your cross means to commit yourself to die for the truth, to reckon your own life actually over already, and to do it daily. To follow Jesus is to follow His commands, His example, and His leading with the help and in the power of His Spirit.

Are we who seek to follow our Lord and Saviour really deeply committed to do it? Often we are not. Disciples have always experienced the same problems, but have seldom been willing to admit them.

May now be the time when the multitudes who name His worthy name present a worthy representation of that name before a world more broken and distressed than ever. May men who need His salvation see in us dedicated and sincere, humble and believing, loving and compassionate witnesses to Jesus Christ in a way that will draw them to Him!

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