Jesus—His Life and Message: Discipleship (Part 3)

September 26, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

In the previous article about discipleship, we looked at how Jesus made some strong statements about following Him. Jesus wanted to make clear that being His disciple came with a price, and the requirements weren’t easy. The commitment to follow Him required a reorienting of one’s life, loyalty, desires, and loves, just as it does today—and this can be especially challenging when it comes to our closest relationships.

In Luke’s Gospel, we read:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.1

In Matthew, we hear Jesus say:

I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.2

However, we also read elsewhere in these same Gospels that Jesus agreed with the commandment to honor one’s parents. When a man asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to gain eternal life, Jesus told him to “keep the commandments.” When the fellow asked which ones, Jesus listed a number of the Ten Commandments, including the command to “honor your father and mother.”3 Elsewhere, Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for hypocritically dedicating money and other things to the temple treasury, thus putting it out of reach of their needy parents, while they could still use it for themselves.

God commanded, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” But you say, “If anyone tells his father or his mother, ‘What you would have gained from me is given to God,’ he need not honor his father.” So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.4

We also see Jesus’ positive attitude toward family when He speaks against adultery and divorce,5 as well as when He refers to God instituting marriage—a passage that ends with:

So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.6

Jesus advocated that parents were to love one another and love their children, and that children were to love and care for their parents. Thus His statement that those who follow Him must “hate” the members of their own family needs to be looked at within the greater context of what He said about family relationships.

Discipleship is understood as aligning oneself with Christ, and making this realignment means that our priorities change. Discipleship calls for giving Jesus first place and making Him our priority. This doesn’t mean that our former priorities are no longer important, but it means that they no longer hold the same place. When Jesus spoke of hating father, mother, spouse, or children, He wasn’t speaking literally. The call to hate meant “to love less by comparison,” as seen in other places in Scripture.

Jacob went in to Rachel also, and indeed he loved Rachel more than Leah, and he served with Laban for another seven years. Now the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 7

The Hebrew word sane', translated here as “unloved,” is translated as “hated” in the KJV and ESV translations, so that it says:

When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.8 

Of the nine translations I use, only KJV and ESV translate sane' as “hated.” The rest render the word as “unloved” or “loved less.” There are other instances showing that the words “hated” and “unloved” are alternative English translations of the same Hebrew word—for example, If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated …9 is translated in other Bible versions as If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved ….10

Jesus was setting priorities. Disciples are to love Jesus more than our other loves. In the Gospel of Matthew, we see the same point that was made in Luke, but from the perspective of not loving our parents more than Jesus, rather than hating them in comparison to our love for Him.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.11 

The call to disciples is to give Jesus top priority in our affections and loyalty. It’s not calling for exclusive love, saying that we can only love Jesus, but rather guides us to prioritize our love by giving Jesus first place.

Jesus set an example of prioritizing when He put His mission before His mother and brothers.

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”12

Staying true to His calling meant that at that moment, ministering to others was the highest priority. While disciples are to honor their parents, God has higher priority; thus when He calls a disciple, if the parents are in opposition, the disciple understands that while they love their parents, their calling is to love God more, and thus to follow Him even despite their parents’ objections.

Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to reorder what is important to us, what and whom we are loyal to. The call is to make Jesus our primary love and highest loyalty, as we identify ourselves with Him and His mission. It doesn’t mean that we have no love or loyalty toward our family and friends, but it does mean that sometimes the cost of discipleship is sacrificially putting the Lord before others we love.

Those who followed Jesus during His lifetime, as well as those who joined the church in the decades after His resurrection, often became alienated from their families because they were seen as having left the proper practice of the Jewish faith. When referring to becoming a follower of Jesus in the first century, author Darrell Bock wrote:

There could be no casual devotion to Jesus in the first century. A decision for Christ marked a person and automatically came with a cost … The modern Western phenomenon where a decision for Christ is popular in the larger social community was not true of Jesus’ setting. … If one chose to be associated with Jesus, one received a negative reaction, often from within one’s own home.13

We can see just how negative this reaction could be when we read what Jesus said regarding the division that might result from the decision to follow Him:

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.14

The decision to follow Jesus brings the possibility of division amongst members of one’s family. Though such division isn’t desirable, there is a distinct possibility that it might occur, and sometimes it becomes so strong that members of a believer’s family can be understood to be enemies.

Jesus said that in some cases, members of one’s family would bring about persecution and even martyrdom:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.15 

We read that Jesus, at least initially, also faced some division within His family:

Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”16

For not even his brothers believed in him.17

Scripture teaches: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.18 Part of that newness in Christ is adjusting our priorities in life—namely, shifting our primary allegiance from family to God. We now identify ourselves with Jesus, and in doing so we give Him our love and loyalty above all others. We don’t completely abandon our other loves, loyalties, and responsibilities, but we understand that we have entered into a relationship with God which has become our primary relationship.

Prioritizing our relationships in a way that puts God first is no easy task, but it doesn’t go unrewarded, as Jesus made clear:

Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.19

And while Jesus expressed the call to love God above everything else, He also commanded us to love others. When He responded to the question “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”20 We are to love God above all else, but also to love others, especially those who are closest to us.


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

General Bibliography

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Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

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Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

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Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

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Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

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Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

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McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

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Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

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Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Luke 14:26.

2 Matthew 10:35–37.

3 Matthew 19:16–19.

4 Matthew 15:4–6.

5 Matthew 5:27–32.

6 Matthew 19:4–6.

7 Genesis 29:30–31 NAU.

8 Genesis 29:31 KJV.

9 Deuteronomy 21:15 KJV.

10 From ESV translation.

11 Matthew 10:37.

12 Luke 8:19–21.

13 Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53, 1285.

14 Matthew 10:34–36.

15 Luke 21:16.

16 Mark 3:20–21.

17 John 7:5.

18 2 Corinthians 5:17.

19 Matthew 19:29.

20 Mark 12:28–31.