Our Lord encountered many who wanted to be his disciples, and he called multitudes to enlist in his service. Here we find three men who make different responses to his calling. Each wants to follow Jesus, but each has something else they feel compelled to do before they start following him. These are by no means evil men, otherwise our Lord would not have called them. Nor are their psychological states the primary purpose that the Spirit recorded their responses to him. What we have here is a practical lesson on what it means to take up our cross and follow the Lord. We often use our life circumstances as excuses not to follow the Lord, or at least not to follow him devotedly. It would be our joy to do so, and these three men did not reject our Lord’s call. They wanted to follow Jesus. Each of them faced a specific obstacle to following him immediately and decidedly. None of their crosses were sins that they would not forsake. They were common responsibilities and needs that must somehow be made subservient to following Jesus. This is the reason that these encounters are important to us. Our Lord does not call us to be monks and forsake the world absolutely. Where we are, we must serve him. He must be first. We must seek his kingdom first. He must be preeminent in our affections, in the time he gives us, in our particular circumstances. This is the glory and the challenge of following Jesus.
Concern about Earthly Provision
Matthew records two of these encounters, and Luke adds a third. They occurred during this general time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, but not necessarily all at once. The first man is very commendable in his desire to follow the Lord. “I will follow you wherever you go.” This is a good response that we must all make to our Lord, whether believing upon him the first time or throughout our earthly pilgrimage. Wherever you want me to go, Lord Jesus, whatever you want me to do, I am willing. This is the response our Lord calls us to make (Matt. 4:19; 16:24; Mark 10:21; John 10:27). He does not condemn this man’s desire, any more than he did Peter when he made a similar commitment (John 13:37). It is evident, however, that our commitments can be made impulsively, without counting the cost, or too dependent upon our own strength. This man, as we shall see, had to face a very common cross, and one we often stumble over. Do we love our earthly comforts too much? Are we feverishly seeking peace and prosperity? Does fear of hardship, fear of what he might ask us to give up or to do, keep us from following him devotedly?
Families Duties Pressing
A second cross is the obligations of family. Family in itself is not a cross, although the apostle’s honesty on this point is worthy of careful consideration. Marriage and family bring earthly responsibilities and cares that make serving our Lord more challenging. If you are up at night with a sick child or find it difficult to please your spouse, it is difficult to rise in the morning and pray, to obey the Lord with joy, or to live peaceably with those around you. This second man also wanted to follow Jesus, and his response indicates that Jesus had called him, and he wanted to follow Jesus. It is not a lack of desire that marks these men. The desire was present, but the trouble of balancing kingdom priorities with earthly concerns presented an impediment to consecrated service. Do we not often face the same challenges?
Earthly Ties Dominating
It is hard at one level to find anything wrong with the third man’s request – did not Elisha make the same request to Elijah? It was granted. But with the greater light and privileges of following the Lord Jesus, even the warmest ties and joy of home must not be allowed to come before serving him. Our Lord does not say that these joys must be forsaken, only that they must not be our first passion. If so, we shall find it difficult to follow him, for our hearts will be divided. All the good pleasures of this life can drag us earthward. Then, to take one example, we shall find it difficult to discipline and teach our children when they resist. Will our love for them and desire to enjoy them come before our duty to the Lord? Many true Christians struggle with “forsaking family for Jesus” (Matt. 10:37), for they place its joys and peace ahead of their allegiance to the Lord. They serve Jesus, worship with his people, and pray only if it fits within their family structure as they have devised it. Or what about our friends, especially from the past – will we be willing to offend them, if necessary, by calling them to join us in following Jesus, or will we hold tightly to the past joy we had with them so that we are unwilling to lose their friendship?
Bearing our Cross Comes First
Expect Earthly Trouble…but Follow Jesus
As our wise Master, the Lord placed his finger upon each of these crosses. He held them up for the potential disciple to consider very closely. He did this also with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:22). It is not that Jesus calls us to abandon our families, wear rags, and forsake every joyful tie. This would be an easier path of discipleship than the true one to which he calls us. Many who have retreated from the world have actually chosen this easier path because they could or would not do the harder thing. Will we serve the Lord, for example, if following him means that “we have nowhere to lay our heads?” The animals do, he told the first disciple, but I have no fixed resting place here. I made everything, but I gave up everything to obey my Father’s will and save the world. This man evidently had a difficult time contemplating the loss of earthly comforts. Perhaps as a scribe (Matt. 8:19), he was wealthy and well-connected, which circumstances may be used in service to Christ, but they are more typically idols to which we fiercely cling. I want to follow Jesus, most of us say, but I also want a comfortable life. I do not want to lose any business for his sake. Surely I can follow him and hold on to my earthly comforts. Many true disciples have found it hard going to take the Lord seriously on this point. Business integrity is costly, especially in our day. Promotions and Sabbath are often at odds. And what if standing for the Lord means that we incur the wrath of the rebels in the street demanding that their perversion be accepted or we shall burn down your business? We must expect many tribulations and short-term suffering, in some ages more than others, if we are to follow our Lord and seek his kingdom first. We must search our hearts and let go our idols. This life rarely offers feather beds for Christ’s disciples. Satan and the world demand you do business on their terms, and our hearts love comfort too much.
Leave Dead…and Preach Kingdom
This is a challenging response. Had our Lord no feeling? We know that he did, so there was something particular in this disciple’s character that had to be faced. He used his family ties and duties toward his dead father as a reason for delay. His heart was held back by his grief, or his family duties were an excuse. It was extremely important in Jewish culture to attend to the burial of the dead. Many other duties – even sacrifice – could be delayed to bury the dead. Our Lord’s kingdom reverses that order. “Let the dead bury their dead.” Here the “dead” must refer at some level to the spiritually dead. God’s kingdom comes before all else. A Christian can obviously attend a funeral and make sure the bodies of his parents are properly sown in hope of the resurrection. But is this not his point? Even death and funerals must serve the interests of our Savior’s kingdom. We must not go about these things like the dead do – talking men of questionable faith and even bad men into heaven. Especially at funerals the truth must be told. Many preachers and Christians have given the gospel and kingdom of our Savior a very bad name by pretending that death is natural and that all men will wind up in heaven. This is a lie. It is against the light and truth of our Savior’s kingdom. We must “preach the kingdom of God” to the dead, even at funerals, at least pointing men to the only hope of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we are little better than the dead, still lying to ourselves and others as we look eternity in the face and call God a liar to his face.
Look Back…then Unfit for God’s Kingdom
How hard it is to give up or balance earthly ties of family and friendship to the opportunities of God’s kingdom! It is not impossible, but our heart must be in the right place. Jesus put his finger on this man’s particular cross. He loved father and mother more than Jesus. His heart was divided. Unless he dealt with this first, he would be a divided disciple – one hand on the plow, another looking back. What does my family think about me? It would be easier if my family approved of my decision and supported me. We have all felt this pull and faced the opposite response. What! You are going to church again? Come over and watch the game with us. Are you not going to the club with your friends and business associates? Like Lot’s wife, we often want to follow Jesus but look with longing upon past pleasures and associations. They are albatrosses to the soul. In this man’s case, he was not looking back with desire for sinful pleasures. I trust we are all resolved to repent and relinquish our filth. Even healthy pleasures must take second place to the kingdom of God. Whatever prevents us from serving our Savior with undivided affection must be forsaken – or we will never plow straight or reap a full harvest for his glory.
Jesus’ Wisdom about Our Crosses
Trust My Father to Care for You
Each of these crosses was sufficiently serious for our Lord to confront. Whether an impulsive commitment to him without counting the costs, unwise delay, or a divided heart, we must face and forsake these idols. We must be willing to shoulder the consequences of seeking his kingdom first. Serving him must hold chief place in our hearts. Consider the first man again. “The Son of man has no place to lay his head.” He became poor for us, so that we might become rich in his grace and love (2 Cor. 8:9). In his poverty, he trusted his Father to take care of him. He learned obedience; he learned to live by his Father’s word alone. He learned as a man to pray: “Father, give me my daily bread. Give me the food you want me to have. Strengthen me with that bread that I may delight to do your will.” His example is our path. Even from the cross, his enemies cast this in his face: “He trusted God” (Matt. 27:43). They mocked him with his deepest hope – that whatever happened to him, however low he had to sink in order to raise us up to heaven, his Father would take care of him.
His hope must become ours, or we shall find it hard going when we struggle or see unbelievers prosper. It will shake our faith (Ps. 73:3) unless we are persuaded that God will always provide for us. Look at the flowers and birds, our Lord directed our weak faith. God takes care of them, and he will take care of you. Many believers in the world today are learning this first hand – that following Jesus Christ is costly. The world will not applaud you. It will likely persecute you. It will first apply pressure to you to do business on its terms. This is our cross, the crucible of faith. Do what is right, and trust the Lord to take care. He does not need stock markets and retirement accounts to provide for his people. We must look to him as our Father and trust his love. He will never forsake us. When our test comes – be honest and lose your job, tithe and live on less – then we must be assured that he honors those who honor him. Our true riches lie in heaven, not in this life. Let us make no rash commitments to the Lord, only to find in the moment of testing that our love for him was not as resolute as we thought – like Peter. Let us count the cost. Let us be willing to follow him wherever he leads, whatever the duty or cost. We can only do this if our hearts rest in his love and promises – like our Savior upon the cross.
Seek God’s Kingdom First
When the Lord told the second man to preach God’s kingdom, he directed him to bring all his earthly responsibilities under this overarching commitment. He encouraged him not to delay. God’s kingdom was too important. The door of opportunity is not open forever, either to enter into that kingdom or to pursue a specific calling from the Lord. Our faith is often sluggish. Impulsive commitments without counting the cost is one failing; vacillating and delay are another. We can easily find all kind of excuses to delay being faithful to the Lord in prayer and family worship. Tomorrow, we say, after I clean up this area of my life or get rid of these circumstances, then I will serve the Lord. Tomorrow may never come; today is the day of salvation. There is urgency to God’s kingdom. When he announces that the gospel doors are open, enter now. If you have never surrendered to God’s kingdom, his authority and rule over you, his grace, love, and power offered to you in the gospel, do so now. He may not open the door again. As a disciple, when he lays a particular duty upon your conscience – forsake this sin, pray more regularly and fervently, speak to this person about Jesus Christ – let nothing interfere. Well, after the funeral I will speak to my lost brother – forgetting that the occasion of a funeral is one of the best times to bear witness to the necessity of faith and repentance. We are so quick to seize upon earthly opportunities to acquire something we want or to take care of what is important to us, but painfully, dangerously slow to seize upon the opportunities and privileges of our Father’s kingdom.
Keep Your Hand on the Plow
And this easily blends into his final admonition – keep your hand on the plow and do not look back with longing for what you have left behind. Anything you have truly given up to follow Jesus will be returned to you many times over – in the joys of his fellowship, his “Well done,” and the earthly tokens of his presence and grace. Today’s casual and worldly discipleship is due to one main factor – we have lost our first love. Our hearts are too divided and distracted so that we lack the appetite to keep “looking unto Jesus.” We love him, but other loves intrude. The wonders of his love are diminished. We look back and around at the offerings of our own versions of Vanity Fair. Then we wonder what is wrong with us. Why is serving him not more pleasurable? Why are we so inconsistent? We do not keep our hands on the plow of faith, of prayer, and of love for our Savior. His fellowship is not our delight. We do not want to miss anything that might be fun, so we miss much of the pleasure of consecrated discipleship.
Our Lord chose the plowing and reaping metaphor intentionally. His joys are not like the world’s. The world’s pleasure is like fireworks – instant but fleeting, a splash that quickly fades, loud but empty. Plowing, on the other hand, requires time and effort. But is he not worthy of our best time and persistence? Again, what our age must learn is to put aside the distractions that take our hand off the plow of God’s kingdom. I strongly suggest taking the weekly Sabbath from your phones and entertainments. The world is constantly notifying you, but are you able to hear God’s more pressing and eternal notifications? We cannot escape screens, but we can be deliberate about our exposure to them. Remember that there are no phones in hell, no new movies, no Super Bowls – nothing but the empty gnawing and screaming of misery as the soul languishes under God’s judgment.
I am not picking upon phones as intrinsically evil, but they are intentionally consuming. Try to leave home without yours. Try to spend a Sabbath growing in love for Christ, quietly meditating upon his word, speaking about him to your family. Be more deliberate in the way you close each day – with the Lord, confessing your sins, thanking him for his mercies, and seeking his grace. If Lot could learn to vex his righteous soul in Sodom and Gomorrah and if the Corinthians could learn to pray while the idolatrous and perverse parades were marching down the street, we can also keep our hands on the plow of faith and love. If Joseph could say NO to Potiphar’s wife and Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar’s meat, then we can say NO to the sins we have left behind and press forward to the glories that lie ahead. We have our Savior’s power and kingdom. The world is not too strong for him. It is not any diminishment of his kingdom that explains our weakness but a diminished love for our Savior. What we love, we pursue.
Take these three examples to heart, child of God. Our Lord did not reject any of these men. He did not retract his calling, and this should greatly encourage and inspire! He did not look for perfect men to follow him, for there weren’t any! We do not know what became of them, but to follow him, they had to face their heart and shoulder their crosses. We have such a kind and honest Master! He will confront us with the obstacles to following him, but he does not retract his invitation because we are weak. We can come to him with our weaknesses, confess them, and depend upon his faithfulness to help us. Yes, you may say, I struggle with trusting the Lord to take care of me. I want to follow him, but will he provide for my family? I have this promotion in the works, but it will come at a cost and place me more in the way of temptation toward covetousness and putting work before everything else. I confess, another may say, that I am very slow to obey Jesus. Any distraction or excuse will throw me off course.
And then for all of us, there are the memories of past sins that haunt and even past pleasures that entice. We find our hearts are divided – wanting the good, but doing evil. Let us bring these crosses to our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps the great point of each of these encounters was to confront his disciples with their weakness and lead them to confess, “Lord, I cannot follow you. I am too weak, too rash, too lazy, and too divided. In me, no good thing dwells.” Ah, a disciple’s honest heart – do not despise it, for it is a gift from the Lord. For every weakness, we must come to him. Each time our idols and fears and sins rear their ugly heads, there is a remedy, the old wooden cross, the empty tomb, and an open heaven, with our blessed Savior sitting at God’s right hand, beckoning to us to follow him. “Yes, without me you can do nothing, but you are never without me. You can do all things through me strengthening you. I will never leave you. Come to me. Shoulder your cross and follow me. I am carrying you and your crosses. I freely give you my kingdom power by the gracious Spirit within you.”