v.18 Now we have said that Matthew is divided into sections of discourse, or teaching, and narrative, or an account of what Jesus did. Here, in a narrative section, we have what seems to be some more teaching indicating that the division between discourse and narrative is not absolute. However, it also appears that what we have here in this short section is, in a way, an introduction to the following miracles that complete chapter 8. In introducing the miracle that follows – the stilling of the storm and, perhaps also, the healing of the demon possessed man on the other side of the Sea of Galilee – Matthew mentions Jesus’ decision to leave Capernaum. Apparently, beleaguered by the crowds, he sought some peace and quiet in the less populated area across the lake. That decision resulted in a separation between his true followers, who accompanied him, and the less committed supporters of his ministry who did not. So Matthew takes this occasion to mention brief conversations that Jesus had with two of his followers on the subject of the demands of true discipleship. So when, in v. 23, at the beginning of the next paragraph, the key words of this short section of vv. 19-22 – “disciple” and “follow” – are repeated, we are given to understand that the following narrative of the miracle is also a lesson in discipleship. In other words, these brief conversations are an introduction to what follows.
v.19 The teacher of the law, or scribe, may be only interested in following a rabbi as a pupil. He obviously was impressed by Jesus’ teaching. He may think of Jesus as nothing more than a teacher. He addresses Jesus as “Teacher,” a term used almost only by outsiders in the Gospel of Matthew [Cf. France, 159 and especially Hagner, i, 216]. One commentator suggests that he was only an “academic dilettante disciple.” [France, 160] But Matthew does not explicitly say this. His interest is not in the question but in the Lord’s reply.
v.20 The Lord’s reply indicates that following him is not like following another rabbi; much more is involved and greater sacrifice will be required. It requires rigorous and self-denying living. This is the first instance of the title “Son of Man” in the Gospel, the Lord’s preferred way of referring to himself. Sometimes in its biblical usage, “son of man” means simply “man” or “human being.” It is used in that way, for example, when God frequently addresses the prophet Ezekiel as “son of man.” But its use in Daniel 7:13 gave it standing as a description of a messianic figure and apparently Jesus chose it in large part because it was not a customary designation for the Messiah in those days and so did not carry with it the baggage of the contemporary misunderstanding of the Messiah and his mission. “Son of Man” did not have the nationalistic associations that “Messiah” did, for example. Using it, therefore, would lead to no political complications. [Morris, 202] In other words, Jesus chose a fitting term that was not in use to refer to himself. In that way he could invest the term with his own meaning.
v.21 If the commitment of the scribe is half-hearted – though that is not certain – this next man is referred to explicitly as one of the Lord’s disciples. Of course, “another disciple” may mean that the scribe is being referred to as a disciple as well. But, unlike the scribe, this man refers to Jesus as “Lord.” What is more, he seems to understand that following Jesus would mean, to some degree, a severing of home ties and he is willing to do that. So what is in question is his degree of commitment. If the father was, in fact, dead, it was the obligation of the son to bury his father and it had to be done within 24 hours of his death. It is an entirely natural request. On the other hand, it is doubtful that if the father had just died, the son would be talking to Jesus in the street. So the disciple may mean that he needs to care for his father during his declining health and was, in fact, saying to Jesus that he would follow him after his father had died and he had fulfilled his family responsibilities.
v.22 Here we have another of those categorical statements of the Lord that were intended to force a point home to the conscience and have had precisely that effect on readers of the Gospels ever since. It seems shocking to us that the Lord would forbid one of his disciples to undertake a sacred responsibility on behalf of his own father. Is it not God’s law that we honor our parents? But the Lord’s point, with his exaggeration for effect, is that commitment to Christ surpasses all other obligations. Later on he will make the same point by saying that a man must hate his father and mother and, once again, by saying that his disciples will have to give up husbands and wives and children. The “dead” here are probably the spiritually dead. Let them look after mundane things. Christians have bigger fish to fry! Or, as one commentator puts it, “What Jesus is saying in this striking expression is ‘The claims of the kingdom are absolute and immediate’ (Nixon).” [Morris, 203]
The Lord’s point is that one must be wholehearted to be his disciple and that means one must be prepared to make sacrifices, even sacrifices of things that, ordinarily, we would consider our right. Following Christ means forsaking the easy way and the securities of life that people take so much for granted. It may even mean great sacrifice and real suffering.
And in that, of course, he led the way himself. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Now, some of you may be asking yourselves, “Didn’t Jesus have friends who put him up for a night or several nights? Did he not perhaps stay quite often at Peter’s home in Capernaum, as we said last week?” And, of course, you are right. I don’t suppose that the Lord had very often to sleep in the open air and on the bare ground because he had no proper place to spend the night. He wasn’t in fact as lonely or homeless as all that. But the point he was making is true nonetheless. He not only forsook what one scholar calls “all middle-class security,” [Schweizer in Morris, 201] but he purposefully chose a way of life that held no promise of earthly comfort and held great promise of persecution, suffering, and, eventually, death itself for the sake of his mission. Indeed, to understand him aright perhaps we should say that the place he did not have to lay his head was in the hearts of the people to whom he came. There was no place for him to rest there. By and large they misunderstood him and then rejected him and finally murdered him.
The Lord didn’t care so much about a bed as he did about the welcome that the people gave him and his teaching. And with the truth he had to tell, and with the work that he had come to do, that welcome was short-lived. He knew it would be and that he would suffer for the message he brought, but it was his commission from his heavenly Father and he would do his duty. It was in that way, especially, that he was homeless. His work in the world placed him at odds with most people and his mission required such absolute devotion that he had nothing left to invest in a home or the comforts of life.
And so it was for his disciples after him. In 1 Cor. 4:11 Paul speaks of his life and the life of the other apostles in this same way:
“To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags,
we are brutally treated, we are homeless.”
To be sure that was not always literally the case. But it was sometimes literally the case and always spiritually and in principle the case. They had, as Jesus before them, forsaken the comforts and the pleasures of the world in order to pursue the kingdom of God. And if sometimes they enjoyed the pleasures of this world nevertheless – as Jesus and his disciples certainly did – it was not because they made a life of seeking them, but because God added those pleasures to them because they were seeking his kingdom first. The seeking of the kingdom made for a hard life of real sacrifice and especially those sacrifices that resulted from the disinterest or the positive ill-will and opposition of those who did not believe. Everything would be so much easier if only people willingly and easily believed!
The rest of the Bible will go on to explain this. The kingdom of God has adversaries and to work on its behalf is to invite their opposition. Only the committed soldier will stand to fight and to overcome. As they opposed the Lord Jesus, so they oppose those who follow him and work for him. What is more, half-measures are not adequate when our own wills are themselves so weakened by sin. A person who wishes to be Christ’s disciple but is unwilling to pledge his or her absolute loyalty and commitment and is unprepared to make any sacrifice necessary to stand with him in the world, will never really follow Christ. The distractions of the world and of his own heart will divert him and then overwhelm him and he will by his living gradually prove himself the servant of the world and not of Jesus Christ. Only the determined, the forceful, only those who intend to make sacrifices will remain loyal to Jesus in this world. This is a fact that Jesus will return to time and time again in his teaching: “Unless you are willing to take up your cross and follow me you cannot be my disciple.”
Here is the reason why the world so largely views the Christian church as little more than one among many human organizations. Because it contains within its membership so many who call themselves the Lord’s disciples, but who have never made the sacrifices that Christ says here are the mark of true discipleship. There are too many who call themselves Christians who live, not in opposition to the world, but at peace with it and according to its own principles. There is a heroic element in true Christian living but only some among the many who call themselves Christians are heroic in this way.
I titled this sermon “The Cost of Discipleship,” the title of a famous book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazi government just days before the end of the Second World War in Europe. It was first published in 1937, before the war had begun but already Bonhoeffer was worried about what he called “cheap grace,” the idea indulged by many Christians of his time, that you could be a follower of Christ without making that sort of absolute and unqualified commitment to him that was bound to require sacrifice, loss, and suffering. How could we follow Christ, how could we take his way in the world and enjoy a life of ease and harmony with the world? Only if the Lord’s enemies left us alone and they would do that only if we posed no threat to them at all.
It is a great thing for a Christian man to write a book like The Cost of Discipleship, but it is a much greater thing to adorn such a book and its message so gloriously with his life. Bonhoeffer could have sat out the war in safety in England or America; he had every opportunity to leave Germany as the storm clouds gathered. Many friends urged him to do so. He was very well aware that he was a marked man not only because he was an outspoken Christian minister but for his harsh criticism of the government. But he remained in his homeland facing the prospect of real sacrifice and death precisely because he was a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ. And eventually came imprisonment and finally death. Nothing cheap about God’s grace in that man’s life! There is a cost to following Christ and Bonhoeffer willingly and nobly paid it.
And every man and woman, boy or girl, with Christian blood in his or her veins hears the Lord’s summons here and knows how right he was to demand this of us. It is what is right. It is what we should want to give him. It is what we know ought to be true of our lives in this world. We are aware what it means. We know, at least those of us of any years, we know how difficult it can be to be faithful to Jesus in a world that is hostile to him. But we have no doubt that we must be faithful to him, no doubt that it will require sacrifice, especially those sacrifices required of us precisely because we intend to be faithful to Christ and do his will!
The other day I was called by a man who wanted to go over a reference I had sent on behalf of one of our young women for a summer job. I had given that young woman very high marks and he was calling to ask some follow up questions and, I suppose, to be sure that I had taken the assignment seriously and wasn’t simply saying nice things about someone because it was easier than speaking the truth. We talked for a bit about her and then he said, “I can tell from her application that she is a devout Christian.” I could tell by the man’s tone of voice that her commitment to Christ was not necessarily a plus in his view. “Yes,” I said, “she most certainly is.” “But,” he continued, obviously not quite sure how to say this, “she will not wear her religion on her sleeve, will she?” Obviously he didn’t want a Christian taking her faith seriously upsetting people and causing offense to the largely unbelieving group she would be working with. “I am sure,” I said, “that if anyone takes offense at her it will be their fault and not hers!”
But, there it is. The more openly and obviously one is a follower of Christ, the more inevitable it is that the world will see us in a different and not favorable light. It was precisely because the world had such a different outlook than did Jesus Christ that he had no place to lay his head and it has always been so for faithful followers of Christ and will be the same for them today.
We have been hearing a great deal these past two weeks about Pat Tillman, the NFL linebacker who, after 9-11, gave up a lucrative contract and a bright future as a pro football player, to serve his country by joining the army and becoming a ranger. We have paid special attention to the news of his death in combat in Afghanistan because David Uthlaut, who worships with us, commands the platoon in which Pat Tillman served and was himself wounded in the same engagement.
Now Tillman didn’t leave football and join the army in order to die in Afghanistan. He left the NFL and joined the army to serve his country, to offer himself to the battle against terrorism. It was the impulse of loyalty that prompted him to sacrifice so much. But though he didn’t intend to die, his joining the army and the fight put him in the way of death and, in his case, led to his death.
Well, in the same way, the Christian does not come to Christ in order to make difficult sacrifices. He does not enroll as a follower of Jesus Christ in order to make his life difficult. He comes to Christ for forgiveness of his sins and for the renewal of her life. But, having come to Christ, knowing what he or she now knows, loving Christ and his cause as every true Christian will and must, the fact that sacrifices must be made, the fact that a price must be paid, is embraced without question or hesitation, that is something only to be expected.
What this text says to you and to me is not that we must bear with the fact that sacrifices will be required of anyone who would be a faithful follower of Christ. Christ is not asking us to accept that the Christian life must be difficult in certain ways and that our loyalty to him will be tested by pain in this world.
He is not asking us to accept that. He is asking us to embrace it and to glory in it as that which gives our lives nobility and greatness. We Christians who have grown up amid the comforts and pleasures of American life tend to blanch when we see another difficulty rise in front of us, rise in front of us because we are following Christ. Instead we should square our shoulders and embrace the fight. It is our calling. It is the best way in all the world to demonstrate our loyalty to the Lord Jesus and our gratitude for the supreme sacrifice he made for us. It is the way to adorn the gospel in the world and to advance the interests of Christ’s kingdom. It is the best way to make something of our lives. And it is altogether what we are going to want to have done when our short lives are passed and gone.
John, “Rabbi,” Duncan once said in an address to the graduates of the New College, the seminary of the Free Church of Scotland, “What you need, gentlemen, are the three “Gs” – Greek, Grace, and Gumption. If you haven’t Greek, you can learn it. If you haven’t grace, you can pray for it. But if you haven’t gumption, the Lord help you.”
Well, read again the Lord Jesus in these few verses. Isn’t that what he is saying? He wants his followers to have gumption, to be noted for their gumption. To be people with big fish to fry and large causes to occupy their minds, and great hearts full of unshakeable commitment to him, his name, and his cause. He expects his followers to be ready to make sacrifices for the kingdom as he did and to embrace a hard life as he did, a life made hard precisely because one intends to live for Christ and do his will in a sinful, unwelcoming world. He expects them to know this must be so and not to want it to be otherwise. He wants there to be the heroic element to their lives, the evidence that they are involved in a great struggle, that life and death are at stake, and that this struggle deserves and will have everything they have to give and have it without reservation, hesitation, or qualification. And real Christians want the same for themselves.
And the crick in their neck and the ache in their back for having to sleep in the open air and having no pillow upon which to lay their head they will bind to themselves as a badge of honor.
Some of you were, just a few days ago, in Elstow and Bedford, John Bunyan country. And perhaps you have been reading Pilgrim’s Progress once again, now that the scenes that inspired his description of the Christian pilgrimage is still fresh in your mind’s eye.
You remember Mr. Valiant-for-truth from the second part of Bunyan’s immortal allegory of the Christian life. After all that he had so faithfully done in the service of his master, it came time for him to cross the river.
“Then, said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great
difficulty I am got higher, yet now I do not repent me of all the
trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to
him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and
skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me,
to be a witness for me, that I have fought his battles, who now
will be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was
come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as
he went, he said, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went
down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?’ So he
passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other
“My marks and scars I carry with me…” You parents, is this not what you want you children to see in you and admire you for when you are gone. Is this not what, above all things, you want them to say about you when you are gone and to love you for when you are no longer in the world? He stood up and was counted for the Lord when others would not; she made the sacrifices that others did not. He went into the river covered with the scars that proved that he had fought the Lord’s battles.
See the Lord Jesus here and listen carefully to what he says. Not for us the easy, ordinary way of life. Not for us the dutiful round of simple chores. No. For us following in Christ’s steps. For us making the sacrifices the battle requires. For us not flinching when the way of Christ becomes difficult but squaring our shoulders and taking up his cross and following him with love and with zeal. William Wilberforce warned his son Samuel of the “dread of ridicule” and the “fear of singularity” [the fear of being different] as things that would greatly injure his advance in the Christian life. Sacrifices to make those. For others it maybe such things as the weariness and frustration and thanklessness of the tasks appointed for us. But whatever; it is not for us. Not “spare me,” Lord, the troubles of life,” but “keep me, Lord, from indolence and a life of doing little or nothing; keep me far from the life of the dead who have nothing more to do than bury their dead. Make me faithful in the fight. Do not spare me the difficulties and the sacrifices. Rather make me ready to meet them with faith and love and do something great for Jesus Christ, many somethings, before I die!”
Has Thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail Thy bright, ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?
Hast Thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent,
Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole: can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar? [Amy Carmichael]
No Lord! Never! For us the wound and the scar! Always the scar!