Remember, all of this material in chapters 11 and 12 has been concerned with various responses made to Jesus and his ministry. Most of those responses have been negative and unbelieving. But the section concludes with a statement about what constitutes a true and faithful response to Jesus, the response he was looking and hoping for. I remember once at our family table my father saying that he had always wondered about the test we are about to read because it seemed to him that the Lord was not properly respectful of his mother on this occasion. Well, that impression is no doubt what the Lord was after. He wanted us to be arrested by what he said.
v.46 Matthew says nothing specifically about the attitude taken to Jesus by his family but Mark says that on one occasion his family actually tried to seize him and take him home because they thought he was out of his mind. [Mark 3:20-21] We do know, from the testimony of John [7:5] that his brothers and sisters did not believe in him during the time of the public ministry. We don’t know what they wanted to talk to Jesus about on this occasion, but knowing what we know from the other Gospels, it may well have been that they were concerned for him and wanted to prevent him from bringing more trouble on himself. We are never told precisely what the Lord’s mother, Mary, thought about his public ministry. We know from the Gospel record that she was one of his followers and that she was present at his crucifixion. We are never given to believe that she did not believe in him. Given the remarkable circumstances of his birth we can well imagine that she remained loyal to her son as a man sent from God even if, as was the case with every pious man or woman of the time, she was confused by what her son said and did. This is, by the way, the first mention of the Lord’s mother since chapter 2. The Lord’s family are mentioned again and by name in 13:55-56.
v.47 A number of important early manuscripts do not have v. 47. It is largely a repetition of v. 46 and so it may have been added to provide a reference to the man to whom Jesus makes a reply in v. 48. Contrarily, and perhaps more likely, it may have been accidentally omitted from some early manuscript when the eye of a scribe copying it passed from the last Greek word of v. 46 to the identical word that ends v. 47 and accidentally omitted everything between. In either case, the impression seems to be that the Lord’s family seemed to feel that they had some special claim to his attention, so that he should interrupt his teaching in order to talk to them.
v.48 The fact that there is no reference to a father confirms the impression of the Gospels as a whole that by the time of the Lord’s adulthood Joseph was already dead. In any case Jesus uses the interruption to raise a question and so make a point.
v.50 This passage is very like the one in the Sermon on the Mount, 7:21-23. There also he emphasized that practical obedience was the essence of discipleship. Faith is not merely intellectual assent. It is such a commitment as leads to the personal loyalty of one’s life.
The addition of “sister” in v. 50 is important. There is a deliberate broadening of the previous statement, a broadening that further emphasizes the full participation of women in the community of his disciples (contrary to the Jewish perspective of the time in which women were not considered equal partners in the religious community).
No book so exalts the family as does Holy Scripture. No religion places greater weight on the spiritual importance of the family as does that taught in the Bible. Scripture begins with the creation of a family. The history of salvation is, in many important respects, a family history. Fathers and mothers and their children play a great role in the unfolding plan of divine grace, from Adam and Eve and their descendants, to Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac, to David and his progeny, including the Savior of the World himself. Marriage and family are not only sacred institutions in the teaching of the Bible but vehicles of divine grace to those who are being saved. It is not for nothing that marriage and family become some of the most important metaphors by which the Lord reveals the nature of his relationship to his people. God is our father and we are children; Christ is our bridegroom and we are his bride; the Lord Jesus is our brother; and so on.
I have just finished reading a fascinating book by the eminent historian Eugene Genovese: A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. It is a study of the divided mind of Christian, biblically minded apologists for slavery in the South before and after the Civil War. The great Presbyterians make their appearance in Genovese’s study – James Henley Thornwell and Robert Dabney – but so also Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, and even Roman Catholic clerics and leaders. These men had no doubt that slavery could be defended on biblical grounds. They argued as much. But they also openly acknowledged that slavery, as it was then practiced in the South, fell far short of the ethical standards set in Holy Scripture. They often wondered aloud what God would do to the South because she did not treat her slaves in that way required in the Word of God. And what was the worst sin that the slave-holders committed? It was their offenses against the slave family. The selling of husbands and wives to different buyers, the separation of parents and children. This they all agreed was a high crime against God and man and invited divine judgment. They were unsparing in their condemnation of those practices that divided slave households.
Isn’t that interesting. They were willing to defend slavery as an institution, but they had no doubt that the sanctity of the family trumped the rights of slave-holders. Christians know how sacred an institution the family is; how important to everything good and right in human life; how fundamental to the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes in the world.
Well that only makes the more striking the Lord’s words here where he places the obligation of believers to him above the obligations of family. Here, very obviously he teaches that the kingdom of God and its demands take priority over even the most intimate and sacred of human relationships. It did in his case and it does in ours. And, of course, it is not only here that he says such a thing. The same thing is said in other ways in other places in the Gospels.
Think of the still stronger expressions Jesus used to make the same point on another occasion.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother,
his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes even his own
life – he cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]
Matthew has already given us a slightly different form of that utterance of the Lord in 10:37. Whatever those stupendous words mean, they certainly mean that a person’s relationship to Christ takes precedence over any and every other human relationship, even the most holy of those relationships. [Cf. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 151-152]
And those words were uttered by a man who was an ardent defender of the family and the sacred obligations of family life. One of his sternest criticisms of the Pharisees was that they found ways to use religious obligations as a way of getting round their obligations to their parents. They would formally devote some of their money or property to God – not that they ever lost control of it, but now it was devoted – and by that means were excused from using it to care for their aged and infirm parents. “Sorry; we’d love to help you; but our money has been devoted to God.” No, said the Lord Jesus, your obligation to your parents is sacred and inviolable and God will not be used as an excuse for you not to meet them.
And we know of the care he took of his mother. At his crucifixion, as life was ebbing from him, he took pains to provide for Mary by committing her and her welfare to his disciple John. He wanted to be sure that someone who understood would be looking after her. We have only these glimpses, but they are sufficient to tell us how committed he was to his family and how much he loved them.
One of the stories we all want to hear told, I’m sure, is that of the first meeting between Jesus and his younger siblings during the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension to heaven. They had not believed in him during his young adulthood and the three years of his ministry. We can’t help but wonder about that. What had Joseph said to his children about their eldest brother and the circumstances of his birth? What did they know about what the angel had said to their father and to their mother, about the appearance of the angels to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, about the prophesies of Anna and Simeon in the temple, about the appearance of the magi? What was it like growing up in the same household with a boy and then a young man who never sinned. Sometimes virtue is a great offense to sinners. Was it in that household? How did Joseph and then Mary manage a family composed of a group of sinful children and one sinless child who had come from heaven? It is mind-boggling even to think about it. And then what did they think when the ministry began and when the astonishing reports of his miracles began to reach them?
Through the three years they managed, like so many other Jews of the time, to see and to hear what they had seen and heard without recognizing the presence of the Son of God. But by the first chapter of Acts the Lord’s siblings are now believers in him and numbered among the disciples who are awaiting the promised descent of the Holy Spirit.
We can only assume that remarkable change to have been the product of an appearance on the risen Lord’s part to the members of his own family. And is this not, perhaps, the most likely explanation for their blinded eyes and unyielding hearts during the time of the ministry? Who better to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who better to say that the one who lives is the very one who died on Calvary than the immediate members of his family? And what would give power to that witness more than the general knowledge that they had not believed in him before? But what a first meeting between Jesus and his brothers and sisters that must have been! What an astonishment, what a bitter realization of their gigantic mistake, and what a joyful reunion and discovery of new life all at once that must have been.
The family circle whole and entire for the first time. And out of that family, what would have seemed so unlikely for so long a time, would come two great leaders of the church: James, later to be known as James the Just, who would lead the Jerusalem church for many years and write the book of the New Testament that bears his name, and his brother Jude who would write a short New Testament book as well.
In the Lord’s happy case, the point he made on this occasion about the obligations of Christian discipleship surpassing those of home and family did not finally require a choosing between them. But they often have, as we well know. I have a book on my shelf that was given me by David and Eleanor Fiol. Entitled The Death of a Guru it is the story of the life of Rabi Maharaj, who descended from a long line of Hindu Brahmin priests and gurus, and became one himself. After years spent in the pursuit of enlightenment the Hindu way, Rabi found Christ and was powerfully converted. Many of his family members became Christians as well, but all did not and the early years of his Christian life were a time of intense opposition and persecution from his extended family and the breaking of what had been close and affectionate ties with people he loved.
Or take the case of Sadhu Sundar Singh, surely one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century, one of the most remarkable conversions in Christian history, and one of the most faithful Christian lives of our own or any time. Sundar Singh was raised a Sikh in a family of devout Sikhs. From his early days he learned, no, he devoured the writings and traditions of Hinduism and Sikhism. He was pointed toward a life as a Sadhu, a teacher. But as a teenager, disillusioned in his search for truth and spiritual peace, he cried out to God and found, much to his surprise, Jesus Christ. He became an ardent Christian and then a travelling Christian missionary, spending his life in journeys by foot over India, Nepal, and Tibet bringing the good news of salvation in Christ to multitudes of people who would otherwise never have heard it. “I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord,” he said, “but like Him, I want no home, no possessions. Like Him I will belong to the road, sharing the suffering of my people, eating with those who will give me shelter, and telling all people of the love of God.” He carried no money or other possessions, only a New Testament.
But the cost of his coming to faith in Christ and following him was very great. His family was wealthy. They were also close-knit. Upon his becoming a Christian, Sundar Singh was renounced by his father and ostracized by his family. Being unwilling to denounce his Master in the face of his family’s rejection, Sundar took the saffron robes of the sadhu and began a life of spreading the simple message of salvation through Jesus. He often went to Tibet precisely because it was so resistant to the gospel. He left for Tibet again in the summer of 1929 and was never seen again. He was remarkably fruitful as an evangelist and as a spokesman for biblical Christianity. His life was so much a recommendation of his message that by the end of it his father had repented and become a Christian himself. But, it was a life that had had to be lived largely apart from his family because Christ had come between him and them and, as Christ says here, and as Sundar Singh realized, Christ must come first.
And how many Christians through the ages have had to face that fact and have nobly faced it at great cost to themselves. Christian wives through the ages and today living with unsaved husbands and constantly aware that they have another family and another husband that they must serve first and foremost, even in the dutiful love and service that, as Christian women, they render to their husbands. Christian young people who face the wrath of their parents to follow Christ. It was so in the beginning and has been so ever since.
And what does this teach us? What is Christ saying when he says in what seems to us to be almost peremptory way, that the obligations of spiritual discipleship outweigh those we bear to the members of our own family; that our relationship to him must come first?
Well, surely he is saying that it is a very great thing to become and to be a Christian. He is saying that it must be a very great change that comes over a man or woman, a boy or girl, that it so completely replaces the first loves and the first loyalties of one’s life. Surely he is saying that being a Christian differentiates us entirely from those who are not Christians and do not have this loyalty to Christ, even if they are in our own family, even if we share with these other people so much of who and what we are. Being a Christian makes us very different even from people whom in other ways are closest to us in all the world. And surely he is saying that there is something in following Christ, something that we find and that we receive, that is more valuable, more precious, more to be prized even than the love and approval of the people who are closest to us.
Christ surely does not mean that he takes any delight in the rending of families, the dividing of loved ones from one another. But he surely does mean that there is something in his salvation that makes such a division absolutely necessary and absolutely worth the cost if one cannot follow Christ without breaking the tie with his or her family.
Thanks be to God that so often the family bond is strengthened rather than weakened when people become faithful followers of Jesus. Loving him they love one another more, not less. But thanks be to God as well that he is offering to us in the Gospel something of such transcendent value and such eternal worth that, if it must be, it is worth the loss of even the most precious human association to obtain and to preserve it.
But the Lord, in this striking remark about who his true mother, brother, and sister are, is also telling us that it is not enough simply to confess Christ. Your loyalty to him as his follower, your commitment to his service, the surrender of yourself to his cause, the extent of your love for him, must be such that it is perfectly obvious to everyone, including those who are closest to you and who know you best that Jesus Christ comes first. That he does, that he always will, and that serving him faithfully – no matter his demands – is the glad purpose of your life.
When the Lord, who made the family, who loves the family, who requires his people to hold the family bond sacred, who himself honored his own mother and father, sisters and brothers and was careful to see to their salvation; when he who made the family one of the primary instruments of his saving grace and a foundation of all that is good in human life, nevertheless says that he must come before the family and that the family created by the bond that links those who believe in him is superior to the family in which we were given birth and nurtured to adulthood, he is saying a great deal about what a fabulously important thing the true commitment of one’s life to Jesus really is. He is saying something immeasurably emphatic about how we must permit nothing, nothing, to stand in the way of our unqualified loyalty to him and the practice of that loyalty in our daily life.
When Jesus says that if living as a faithful Christian means that you must forsake your father, your mother, and your sisters and brothers, then you must forsake them, he is saying in the clearest and most unmistakable way that nothing is so important to you, nothing so vital to your own interest, nothing so certain to bear on your eternal happiness as that you really follow him; that you really serve him; that you really obey him.
We are all tempted to do lip service to the radical demand of Christian discipleship as we read it time and time again in the Bible. We can hear so often about taking up our cross and following the Lord, about loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, about fighting the good fight, about suffering the loss of all things for the sake of Christ, and all the rest, that we can grow complacent about this language. We can incorporate it into a way of life that is, frankly, much less than what Christ has described and what the Bible demands of those who believe in Jesus Christ. That has happened times without number in Christian history. People hear or recite texts about forsaking all to follow Christ and then comfortably leave the church with no intention to do any such thing.
But it is revealing that when the gospel is reborn in the church and among a people it always provokes an outrage among those who do not believe precisely because real Christians begin to take it so seriously. They become an affront, an offense to the Christians who do not and to the unbelievers who have learned to be comfortable around Christians who don’t take their faith too seriously. In the days of the Great Awakening, Whitefield said, “In our days to be a true Christian, is really to become a scandal.” [Journals, 203-204] Well, that is what Christ is calling us to be, a scandal. People so devout, so committed to Jesus that the obligations of polite society cannot stand before this commitment.
When we hear the Lord say that such a life may require us to leave our family behind, or to set them to the side because they are unwilling for Christ to be in the center, and when we see other believers having to do that, we are forced to realize that Christ is not asking of us anything less than the total commitment of our hearts and our lives, no matter how much that should scandalize others. He was a scandal. They hated him for his radicalism. As the master, so shall the servant be.
It is ours now to live out that commitment. If we can do that in the bosom of our family, thanks be to God. If we can be everything we ought to be as the followers of Christ, make every sacrifice, offer him our time and our talents, our gifts and our zeal, and be cheered on in this by our parents and our siblings, then God be praised. But if, in God’s all wise providence, that should not be the case, then it is ours to show our loved ones and the Christian brotherhood and the rest of the world that Christ comes first in our hearts and that the salvation he offers to those who trust in him is worth every sacrifice that can conceivably be made to obtain it.
And if we suffer loss for that commitment, we do not do so without a great reward: for now we belong to a family in which God is our father, Jesus Christ is our brother, and all the best people in the world are our siblings and shall be forever.