I wrote the following article was written for the March/April edition of ARP Magazine, a publication of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. May it be an encouragement and a challenge to you.
My task is to write an article on the Moderator of our General Synod, Patrick Malphrus’s theme for this year which comes from Luke 9:62 — “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” You probably already know that this statement comes from a collection of passages in Luke’s Gospel where he defines the cost of discipleship.
In verses 23-27 of chapter 9, Luke records Jesus’s famous teaching on self-denying discipleship where he said that his disciples are duty bound to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.” We must willingly lose our own lives for Christ’s sake in order to save them. There is no salvation for the man or woman who will not forfeit the whole world in order to gain Christ.
Luke 9:57-62 further explains this call to committed discipleship and what it means for faithful Christians in three ways. First, Christian discipleship means life-long struggle and warfare in the pursuit of Christ. Second, it means faith-filled devotion to Christ and his cause. And third, it means a definite break with our old life for the sake of Christ.
Before I expound upon each of these statements, let me quote the passage from which they were taken. It’s imperative that we always root our understanding of discipleship in the Bible.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” — Luke 9:57-62 (ESV)
Struggle and Warfare in the Pursuit of Christ.
The first of the three prospective disciples approached Jesus and boldly stated that he would follow Jesus wherever he went. Now, that’s and admirable statement from anyone, but especially from a scribe (Matt. 8:19). Scribes were the lawyers of the day. They understood the Law of Moses and made opinions on it. As a result, they were well respected in the community. They also frequently aligned with the Pharisees as they shared a common commitment to following the continually growing legal demands of the Law as it was interpreted by the tradition of the elders. Righteousness, for them, was found in how well they kept the law and the traditions of the Jewish faith externally.
This scribe, for some reason, was intrigued by Jesus. In fact, he was so intrigued that he was willing to commit his life to following Jesus. Not surprisingly, Jesus stood ready to welcome him into his band of disciples. But first Jesus wanted him to know what following him would mean in his life. It would mean struggle, conflict, and rejection.
Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but Jesus and his disciples have nowhere to permanently lay their heads in this world. The Christian’s life is described in the Bible as a pilgrimage – from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Think about the people of God in the Exodus. They were delivered by the grace and power of God from the land of bondage. They were given the Law on their journey to the Promised Land. Along the way, God provided for their every need while leading them day and night and meeting with them in the Tabernacle until they arrived in Canna. Consider also the image of Revelation 14 where the redeemed of God in Christ are pictured singing a new song and marching their way behind the “Lamb who was slain” to Mount Zion, the dwelling place of God. Our home – our holes, our nests – are not in this world; they are in the eternal dwelling place of God.
This scribe needed to hear this message from Jesus. Remember, he enjoyed a comfortable life, a position of honor and influence in the religious community of his day. To follow Jesus, he’d be required to forfeit his familiar and comfortable life. Was he willing to pay the price of following Jesus? Was he willing to join a group of disciples who were rejected, persecuted, ostracized and would eventually lose their lives for the sake of Christ? We cannot tell from the story.
Faith-filled Devotion to Christ and His Cause
The second potential disciple is different than the first and third because he received a direct call from Jesus to join the disciples in their pursuit of Christ. Jesus walked up to him and plainly said, “Follow me.” The man’s response is puzzling because it’s hard for us (at least for me) to imagine anybody telling Jesus to his face, “Hold on. I’m doing something. I’ll be with you when I’m finished.” But that is what this guy does! He responds with, “I’ll come but let me go take care of some other stuff first.” Jesus’s response is equally stunning. “Let the dead bury the dead. You go proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Now, I could write much about burial rites in the culture and whether Jesus is condemning a tradition that placed undue burdens of family members of the deceased. We could even make a spiritual argument that Jesus is distinguishing those who are spiritually dead and those who are spiritually alive. None of those things, however, changes the ultimate meaning of the interaction. The guy simply isn’t ready to devote himself to following Jesus at that moment. Burying his father is nothing but an excuse for not responding to the Lord’s call immediately. You see, discipleship is a matter of faith that plays itself out in devotion to Christ and his cause. It makes our relationship with Jesus and his demands on our lives our top priority.
I want you to notice that Jesus identifies one demand as paramount — “You go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Discipleship is not about “me and Jesus.” Rather, it’s fundamentally missional. That means we are called to join Jesus in the announcement of his kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel message. There is no Christian discipleship without witness and mission. “You follow me and proclaim the kingdom” is the call, not only on this disciple, but on everyone who has ever received the effectual call of Christ on his or her heart.
In this instance, there is something else of note as well. Jesus connects witness to mourning. In no way is Jesus saying that the man shouldn’t mourn the loss of his father. What he is saying is that family duties in the mourning of death or in the celebration of joy should not consume our time to the point that it prevents us from fulfilling our plainly stated religious duties. We are to declare by words and our deeds that our hope rests in Christ and that the world to come occupies our minds. Paul said it well, “We do not mourn as those who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” So, we proclaim the kingdom of God as we mourn. And that is what Jesus called this potential disciple to do. Did he? We won’t know until we get to Heaven.
Definite Break with Our Old Life for the Sake of Christ
The third man in this story has the easiest story to understand. He came to Jesus and said, “I’ll follow you on one condition, that you wait for me to go home and say goodbye to my family and my friends. It won’t take long.” Jesus said, “No.”
I want to draw your attention back to verse 57 for a moment. There Luke uses a participle to express the movement of Jesus and his disciples from one village to another, meaning that when Jesus meets this third prospective disciple he is literally on the move. To stop and wait on this fellow go home and say goodbye would disrupt the fulfillment of Jesus’s mission. He will not wait.
The significance of this interaction is found in the condition that this aspiring disciple, who approached Jesus about discipleship, puts upon his devotion. “I’ll follow you Jesus but let me go home first.” Jesus is not opposed to closure in personal relationships when his calling on our lives leads us in a different direction. He is, however, opposed to anything that places conditions on our discipleship, especially connections to our old lives. This is because he demands top billing and following him necessarily demands a defined break with our old lives. It’s the essence of repentance.
The Shorter Catechism defines repentance unto life as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (#87). Think about this for a moment. A Christian understands his or her sin and the mercy of God in such a way that he or she turns from it and unto God, forsaking the old life and its sin while embracing the new life and its pursuit of obedience to God. This is exactly what Jesus called the third man to do – “Forsake that old life and follow me because were on the move.” Was he willing to do it? We don’t know.
A Pearl of Great Value
Luke leaves us with big questions at the end of this passage. We don’t know, nor can we know, whether any of these three men made the decision to follow Jesus. We don’t know if they were willing to pay the price. And I think that is Luke’s divinely inspired point. He wants us to ask the question of ourselves. Are we willing to pay the costs associated with following Jesus? Each one of us will identify with one of these characters, if not all of them, and we must decide if we are willing to follow Jesus.
Some of us, no doubt, need to decide if we are willing to give up the comfortable and well-respected positions we now enjoy in order to pursue Christ and his call on our lives. Others of us need to make Christ and his cause the top priority of our lives. And some of us need to confront our past lives with its relationships and trappings that pull us away from Christ and our devotion to him.
Inevitably, we will make our decision based on whether we believe that following Jesus is worth the cost. It’s how we make decisions, isn’t it? Is the payoff worth the cost? The Bible’s answer is a resounding, “Yes, Jesus is worth everything.” What is your answer?
Jesus taught that the kingdom of God, which we enter through faith and repentance, is like “a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45-46) The value of the kingdom of God, as it is embodied in the King, the Lord Jesus himself, is far greater than anything you or I could ever dream of possessing on our own in this life or the next. Just ask yourself what in your life is more valuable than an eternity spent in the presence of your Creator who loved you enough to take human flesh upon himself, live a perfect life, and bear the wrath stored up for your sins by dying on a cross in your place? You don’t have anything more valuable than that. I promise.
Friend, sell it all and throw yourself on Christ in faith. He is infinitely worthy of your life. Cash out your faith in yourself, endure the hardships in this world, repent of your sins, and trust him to get you home!