Following Jesus

18When Jesus saw the crowd around Him, He gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19Then a teacher of the law came to Him and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go."

20Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head."

21Another disciple said to Him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

22But Jesus told him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

Matthew has been recounting some of Jesus’ miracles. Here, in preparation for recounting a miracle that Jesus performed on behalf of some of His disciples in the next section, Matthew gives us this episode in which Jesus teaches us some things about what it means to be His disciple. To set up the episode, Matthew tells us: "When Jesus saw the crowd around Him, He gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake" (vs. 18). After Jesus had been in any area for awhile, the crowds must surely have swelled bigger and bigger as they heard of the healings He performed. But alas, Jesus’ healing ministry was but one aspect of His ministry. Matthew earlier summarized what Jesus desired to accomplish in His earthly ministry: "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people" (Matt. 4:23). To get large crowds of followers was not a main goal of Jesus’ ministry on earth. Crowds, as we all know, can be unruly, and can easily get out of control. Upon hearing of Jesus’ miraculous power, most of the people no doubt desired to see Jesus "perform" for them. The swelling crowd’s desire to see a miracle must surely have made it difficult for Jesus to effectively "teach in their synagogues" and "preach the good news of the kingdom."

As Jesus was leaving, "a teacher of the law came to Him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head’" (vss. 19–20). Here we have a "teacher of the law" stating boldly that he "will follow [Jesus] wherever [He] go[es]." One might think that Jesus would be glad to garner the prestige of having a mainstream "teacher of the law" be His disciple. Yet, Jesus seems to discourage the prospective disciple: "Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.’" Jesus was completely free from earthly ties, living as an itinerant preacher. The "teacher of the law", by contrast, was a respected member of the community, no doubt living a comfortable life. Though the "teacher of the law" said that he would follow Jesus "wherever…", Jesus, it seems, sensed that the "teacher of the law" had not given sufficient consideration to the tough life he would have to lead while following Jesus. He would not have the comforts of a house to come home to in the evening. He would not know where his next meal was coming from. Jesus wanted to make sure that the "teacher of the law" knew what he was getting into. Note that Jesus did not reject the man’s request. Rather, He let the man know, forthrightly, what he would be getting into by becoming Jesus’ disciple. "It was solemn warning rather than definite refusal, for perhaps He saw under the man’s profession an element of superficiality and insincerity which demanded such caution." [Thomas, 113]. Jesus did not turn him away. Ultimately, He allowed the "teacher of the law" to make the final decision.

We should learn from Jesus’ response to the "teacher of the law". Some prospective disciples of Christ come forward to the altar because they think that becoming a Christian will turn their lives into a bed of roses. They think that any trial they face will be cleared away by Christ. They think that any sickness they contract will be instantly healed by prayer. This is not the case. Jesus never promised that His followers would never have any problems. On the contrary, He promised that His followers would have problems. He said: "In this world, you will have trouble" (John 16:33). Jesus teaches in this episode that "people who show a desire to come forward and profess themselves true disciples of Christ, should be warned plainly to ‘count the cost’, before they begin—Are they prepared to endure hardship? Are they ready to carry the cross?… Nothing, in fact, has done more harm to Christianity than the practice of filling the ranks of Christ’s army with every volunteer who is willing to make a little profession" [Ryle, 78].

By the way, Jesus refers to Himself in verse 20 as "the Son of Man". This is the first time in the New Testament that the term "Son of Man" is used to refer to Jesus. It is a term that describes the humanity of Christ, the Son of Man; yet at the same time the term exalts Him as the Messiah, for "the Son of Man" was a well-known Messianic term (e.g., see Dan. 7:13–14). Jesus frequently referred to Himself as "the Son of Man". In doing so, He was explicitly claiming to be the Messiah. He was also rendering "prominent the great fact that He was genuinely and thoroughly a man, a fact which believers in His divinity sometimes fail to appreciate" [Broadus, 185]. It is quite interesting to me that this first use of the term "the Son of Man" in the New Testament, here in verse 20, is within a description of Jesus’ life during His itinerant ministry, a life that lacks the comforts that even ordinary men have. The Lord of the Universe became the "Son of Man", not to live the cushy life of a king, but to live the life of an itinerant preacher, in order that He may serve men by healing all their sicknesses and teaching them the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Let me point out one more thing about this passage before we go on. The phrase that Jesus uses here, "the Son of Man has no place to lay His head," is ironic. John, in his gospel, describes the death of Jesus: "When He had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that He bowed His head and gave up His spirit" (John 19:30). In the original Greek, the words translated in the two verses "lay His head" and "bowed His head" are identical. It is as if the Holy Spirit, by using the same words in the two verses, is telling us that Jesus had no place to lay His head, until on the cross He bowed His head and died for us.

Next, "Another disciple said to Him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’" (vs. 21–22). We learn from Luke that verse 21 is the disciple’s response to Jesus’ command: "Follow me" (see Luke 9:59). The disciple’s answer to Jesus’ request contains in essence a contradiction. He says: "Lord, first…me…" If Jesus is your "Lord", you do not say, "Lord, first…me," but rather, "Lord, first…You." The will of Jesus, as our Lord, should be put above every human endeavor. If Jesus, in His Supreme Wisdom, says, "Follow me," we should follow Him, no matter what obstacles lie in the way.

Now, when the disciple made the request: "Lord, first let me go and bury my father," this did not mean that his father was literally already dead. Instead, this disciple used this expression to indicate that he wanted to stay with his father until he died, then he would follow Jesus. The timing of his father’s eventual death, of course, was in God’s hands, and could have happened days, months, years later. So the disciple was putting off for an indeterminate amount of time obedience to a command from the Lord.

Granted, to pick up and follow the Lord would have been a drastic step for the young man to take. In fact, our Lord has just acknowledged this in His response to the previous disciple, when He said: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head." And to leave one’s family ties is a large step in itself to take. Yet, do we hesitate as much over leaving our family ties when our money-making careers call us away from them? When we are so quick to follow the "green", why do we hesitate to follow our Lord when He calls us to? "Now we learn from Christ’s reply that sons are so to observe their duties towards their parents, as to be able to lay them aside when God’s call leads elsewhere, and to give first priority to His orders. All obligations to men come to an end, I say, when God asks attention for Himself. Individuals must see what God asks of them, what is the demand of the vocation to which they are tied, and not let earthly parents prevent them from having God retain His rights, who is the supreme and unique Father of all" [Calvin, 255].

It seems that when it comes to service to the Lord, we are so quick to find an excuse to get out of it. "An unwilling mind never lacks an excuse." [Henry, in Broadus, 193]. "Even the strongest natural feelings must sometimes give way to Christian duties. Even sacred natural duties may have to be disregarded for Christ’s sake. How much less then should any ordinary matters turn us away from spiritual thoughts or activities?" [Broadus, 193]. So many who are called by the Lord to serve Him, even those who sincerely have a desire to serve Him, wait and wait for one thing after another to be resolved first. Just one more thing… But it is the young men and women who are needed as workers in the Lord’s field. The young are strong and enthusiastic for the Lord. However, most young men and women have aging parents. If all of these young men and women waited until all family matters were resolved before they went out to serve the Lord, we would have few ministers of the Lord, and hardly any missionaries. "The Lord hath need of them, and they are heartily desirous of serving Him—but... They will do this and that—but... There is a difficulty in the way just now. As soon as that is out of the way they are ready. But what if the work required of them can only be done just now—cannot stand still till their difficulty is removed? What if, ere that is out of the way, their disposition to go has evaporated, or, if still there, has no field—‘help having come from another quarter’? Young ministers are wanted as missionaries abroad, and young, ardent, female disciples, who are wanted as helpers for them. Both hesitate. ‘But for those aged parents, I would gladly go; but till their head is beneath the ground I am not free.’ By that time, however, they are neither so in love with the work, nor is the field open to them. While the harvest is so plenteous and the laborers so few, let those who hear the Macedonian cry, ‘Come over and help us,’ beware of allowing secular obstacles, however formidable, to arrest the impulse to obey the summons. Beyond all doubt it is owing to this, among other things, that the commission, ‘Go, make disciples of all nations,’ remains still to so vast an extent unexecuted—eighteen centuries since it was given forth." [JFB, 55].

There is a remarkable balance in Jesus’ response to the two disciples in this section: the first man was too fast, the second was too slow. The Lord seems to discourage the first, yet commands the second. We are all at different places. Some are too quick to jump, in need of counting the cost first, so that there service to God will not be a disastrous failure. Others need to stop procrastinating, need to stop putting other things ahead of stepping out in faith to serve the Lord. Oh, Lord, help us by Your Spirit, to know when and how we may serve You.

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