On Sunday, we began a church-wide study of David Platt’s book, Radical. With the subtitle “Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream,” this book calls for a serious look at the level of abandonment to which Jesus’ early followers understood His call to mean.
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. Mark 8:34, 35 (NIV)
This call to radical surrender is not the typical invitation heard in most U.S. churches. We would say, “It’s obvious that Jesus never took the Dale Carnegie class, How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Or, we seek to diminish its seriousness by rationalizing that “Jesus didn’t really mean you have to give up everything.” However, Jesus is brutally honest. “Following me,” He says, means: deny your self-directed life, aspirations, and ambitions; take up an instrument of death and die to yourself; follow my footsteps as a humble servant. This is a radical departure from the way many of us live out our comfortable Christianity.
Every generation needs it own clarion call to return to the radical claims of Jesus, and it is often best made by ones living out that radical abandonment to the call of Christ. Late in the 4th century, just a few hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Rome was officially Christian. No longer were Christians thrown to the lions for the entertainment of the populace, but there was still a blood-thirsty bent for amusement. The gladiatorial games now pitted those captured in war against one another in a fight to the death. Thousands crowded in arenas to see these spectacles.
At the time, a monk, called Telemachus, sensed that his isolated life of prayer, meditation and fasting in the desert was doing more to satisfy his own selfish love of God than to demonstrate a selfless love of God. It was revealed to him that if he was to serve God he must serve men. In order to do that, he must go to the cities where the need was, and he determined to go to Rome, the greatest of cities.
Upon arriving in Rome, he went to the stadium where eighty thousand people had gathered for their entertainment of gladiatorial combat. Appalled by the conflict, Telemachus jumped over the wall and came between two gladiators, separating them by his own hands and rebuking them for shedding innocent blood. He then reproved the crowd by saying, “Do not repay God’s mercy in turning away the swords of your enemies by murdering each other!” The crowd demanded that the games go on and began to hurl stones at the interloper. He was finally stabbed by a gladiator and died.
Fox’s Book of Martyrs concludes the account of Telemachus in this way:
His dress showed him to be one of the hermits who vowed themselves to a holy life of prayer and self-denial, and who were reverenced by even the thoughtless and combat-loving Romans. The few who knew him told how he had come from the wilds of Asia on a pilgrimage, to visit the churches and keep his Christmas at Rome; they knew he was a holy man, and that his name was Telemachus-no more. His spirit had been stirred by the sight of thousands flocking to see men slaughter one another, and in his simple-hearted zeal he had tried to convince them of the cruelty and wickedness of their conduct. He had died, but not in vain. His work was accomplished at the moment he was struck down, for the shock of such a death before their eyes turned the hearts of the people: they saw the hideous aspects of the favorite vice to which they had blindly surrendered themselves; and from the day Telemachus fell dead in the Colosseum, no other fight of gladiators was ever held there.
Edward Gibbon said of Telemachus, “His death was more useful to mankind than his life.”  A martyr of the last century, Jim Elliot, expressed his understanding of abandonment for the cause of Christ: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” 
Does abandonment to Christ always lead to death? I think we see stories like this and shrink away from that kind of surrender because we fear the loss of property, ease, relationship and even life. We must remember that for every martyr there are perhaps thousands (even millions) who are ultimately influenced for all eternity and, in turn, carry out a life of abandonment without facing a horrific death. But, are you willing to abandon your life to the level to which Jesus called his original disciples? Who will be the Telemachus or the Jim Elliot of this generation?
- Have you ever found yourself bargaining with God as to the level or location of service to which you’re willing to go?
- What keeps you from total surrender?
- As an immediate reference to his quote above, Jim Elliot added this verse to his journal entry: [I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so]* that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9). How are you wisely using your earthly possessions to store up treasures in heaven?
* Omitted in journal entry; included for context.
1 Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Last Roman “Triumph” online version.