Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Christ who is not Safe -- Matthew 8:23-34




There has always been a tendency among religious people, including Christians, to emphasize technique in order to achieve a certain spiritual end.  It might involve technique in order to achieve a better prayer life, better meditation, more peace and serenity, a more productive quiet time or Bible study, or any number of things.  Each of these things are worthy goals and technique is not necessarily bad.  But they are not ultimate goals.  A better prayer life is meaningless unless it brings you before God.  It doesn’t really matter how much or how long or how eloquent your prayer life is – or even how personally satisfying – if it doesn’t bring you personally before the living God.  There are plenty of people who have developed techniques to achieve a more peaceful spirit, but they may know little about the true God.  You see, the danger is to take a technique and replace God with the technique.  You can have a very robust spiritual life without God, and the danger is to miss that because the technique you use to achieve a spiritual life is so seemingly successful.  Another way to put this is that it is so easy to mistake religion for true and real godliness.  I’m not saying that either religion or spirituality is bad – but I am saying that they are equally useless if they leave us without a knowledge of the God who is Holy.  And I think one of the telltale signs of this is an overemphasis on technique.

And we emphasize technique because we can control a technique.  A technique is a procedure, a method; it is something that we can manage.  We like to be in control and to call the shots, even in the religious realm.  It is part of our sinful human nature.  But the problem is that you cannot control God, and if you try you will inevitably fail.  You cannot tame him.  In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, someone asks whether Aslan the lion is safe, and the reply is, “Safe? . . . Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”  Aslan is the Christ-figure in Lewis’ books, and he was trying to communicate a very important truth about him.  He isn’t safe; he isn’t under your thumb.  But he’s good!

Any religion that overemphasizes technique has a domesticated god.  He has been tamed.  You have put him on the leash of your religious performances.  But the God of the Bible is not tame.  He is not safe.  He is the sovereign King of the universe.

I think the Evangelist Matthew would be disappointed with us if we looked at this narrative about our Lord and just looked for techniques to have a better spiritual life.  I don’t think the point of either the story about the boat in the storm or about the demon-possessed man, is how to have a more peaceful life.  The point is the authority and power of Jesus Christ.  The reason Matthew wrote these stories down for us – the reason why the Holy Spirit inspired these stories about our Lord – is to cause us to look to him.  The main thing you need is not peace, or courage, or strength to endure temptation.  You and I need these of course, but these are not the main things that we need.  Our greatest need is to know Christ.  And if we know him, we will have peace and courage and strength to endure temptation.

This was the apostle John’s reason for writing his epistle, and I think it applies equally to the Synoptics as well: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn. 20:30-31).  So why did Matthew write these things in Mt. 8:23-34?  “That ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  This is the most important thing for any person.  Knowing Christ is essential because you cannot have eternal life apart from it: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (Jn. 17:3).  To know God truly is to be known by him (cf. Gal. 4:9), and I cannot think of anything better than that, for to be known by God is to be loved by him and to be cared for by him.

So what I want to do this morning is to let Matthew turn our eyes toward Jesus, and to meditate with him on the power of God demonstrated in two events.  I chose to consider these two events together because they are so complimentary and I don’t think it was by accident that Matthew put them together.  Of course, in the narrative one event follows the other.  Jesus has embarked on a boat to get away from the crowds (ver. 18).  As they travel across the Sea of Galilee, they encounter this storm (ver. 23-27).  When they get to the other side, they then encounter two demon-possessed men (ver. 28-34).  Jesus stills the storm and delivers the demoniac men from the legion of devils that possessed them.  But both events demonstrate in a remarkable way our Lord’s authority, first over the natural and then over the supernatural.  The power of Christ!

These events are also tied together in the way people responded to his power.  You see this more clearly in Mark’s account (Mk. 4:35-5:20).  When Christ stilled the storm, we read in Matthew that “the men marveled” (ver. 27), but Mark says that the response of the disciples was that “they feared exceedingly” (Mk. 4:41).  R. C. Sproul points out that Mark has used the term “great” (Gk. mega) three times in this story: once with reference to the storm (ver. 37), second with reference to the peace that followed (ver. 39), and lastly with reference to the fear of the disciples.  But you also see this response of fear following our Lord’s healing of the demoniac: “And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid” (Mk. 5:15).

Here we have the Gospel’s witness to the fact that our Lord is not like us.  People are scared by people who are not like them.  They are afraid of people who don’t act like them or who don’t know their customs or culture.  It’s why it is so easy to fall into xenophobia – the fear of strangers.  There is an Andy Griffith Show episode where a stranger comes into town who has never been there before and who is recognized by nobody, but who knows all sorts of detailed information about the townspeople.  He knows their names, their professions, their likes and dislikes, and so on.  It scares the people of Mayberry that he knows so much about them when they know nothing about him.  And they try to run him out of town.  So you can understand why the disciples were frightened.  Here was a man – a man who could speak and stop the wind from blowing and the sea from raging.  Here was a man – a man who could take two men who were completely uncontrollable from a human standpoint and put them in their right mind and bring them from insanity to sanity, from being demon-possessed to wanting to follow Christ (cf. Mk. 5:18).  And they understandably became afraid.  Here is a man who is not like us.

And we probably have never really come to grips with who Jesus is if we haven’t known a little of this fear that the disciples experienced.  Before a person will ever come to grips with his/her need for Christ, he or she must see that Christ is infinitely great – great in majesty, great in holiness, great in power.  You will never think sin is that big of a deal if you don’t realize that the Lord whom you have offended is indescribably great.  And when you see this, there will inevitably be a healthy fear in your heart.  It’s a healthy fear because it leads to repentance and faith.  It’s the fear that Isaiah experienced when he encountered God (Isa. 6:1-8).  It’s the fear that the apostle Peter experienced in another episode involving Jesus’ presence in his fishing boat, and that led him to cry out, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:1-10, ver. 8). 

Jesus isn’t safe because he isn’t like us.  And that provokes fear.  But he is also good.  Power apart from goodness is an awful thing to contemplate.  We see what happens every time evil men get control of a government.  With sinful human beings it is a truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  But Jesus is not a sinful human being.  He is powerful and good.  He is not like us, and that is what makes him the perfect Savior for sinful men and women.  Should we fear him?  Yes.  But we should also trust in him and love him.

So let’s consider how our Lord’s power is demonstrated first in the storm on the sea in verses 23-27. 

In verse 23, we are told that he “entered into a ship.”  Several of the disciples were fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, and so there would naturally have been a boat available for our Lord’s use.  This boat was probably about 27 feet long[1], big enough for all the disciples and our Lord, but not too large and “without sails.”[2] 

They began to sail across the Sea of Galilee.  It is well-known that storms can arise very suddenly on this body of water.  This is because the Sea of Galilee sits at 700 feet below sea-level, making it the lowest body of fresh water on the earth, and it is surrounded by tall cliffs and mountains.  Valleys and gorges that lead to the sea funnel winds that come west from the Mediterranean Sea or east from the desert.  Evidently, normally these sudden storms usually happen during the day, so that fishing was done at night (cf. Luke 5:5), and if you wanted to cross night was the best time to do it.  We are told by Mark that this was precisely when they chose to cross, “when even was come” (Mk. 4:35).  Thus, they would not have expected to encounter the storm that they did.

Our Lord went to sleep (ver. 24).  Mark adds the detail that he was asleep on a pillow (Mk. 4:38).  I think it is interesting to ponder the strange juxtaposition of our Lord’s weariness and need of rest and his subsequent demonstration of power over the elements.  If the disciples had just made up this story, would they have included this detail?  How strange is it that Jesus who is Lord of heaven and earth was so exhausted that he not only fell asleep, but would have slept through this terrific storm had not the disciples awakened him!  I once saw a photograph of an American GI during the Vietnam War sleeping on a pile of firewood in pouring rain.  I can’t imagine being that tired.  But our Lord’s situation wasn’t that much different.  Matthew tells us that “there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves” (ver. 24).  Water was filling the boat and they were in danger of sinking.  The disciples were terrified, but our Lord was asleep.

The disciples figure that they are about to die, so they wake up Jesus: “And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish” (ver. 25).  According to Mark, they added, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” (Mk. 4:38).  They were obviously scared.  They thought they were about to die.  And yet, they had enough faith to ask Jesus to save them.  I think that’s important – they could have handed Jesus a bucket and told him to get busy.  But they are not looking for another hand.  They aren’t looking for someone to augment their own efforts.  They are at the end of their tether.  They’ve got nothing at this point.  Jesus must save them or they will perish.  In the same way, if you would come to Jesus, you have to come to him, as the hymn puts it, with “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”  That’s the kind of faith that our Lord responds to.  Faith recognizes that I am powerless and the Christ is powerful.

But Jesus then delivers two rebukes.  First, he rebukes the disciples (ver. 26a): “And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”  Notice that he calls them “ye of little faith.”  They had faith in him and demonstrated that in reaching out to him to save them.  They believed to some extent in his power.  But it was “little” faith because they had doubted his care for them.  “Carest thou not that we perish?”  True faith not only trusts in God’s goodness and protection when the seas of life are still but also in the midst of storms.  Their faith was mixed with sinful fear.  It was also “little” because they didn’t understand fully the power of Christ.

And yet, our Lord responds to their “little faith”!  Thank God that he is like that.  God may rebuke us, but he is gentle towards us, and responds even to defective and little faith.  “Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm” (ver. 26b).  He simply speaks a word and the winds and the waves obey his voice.

There is no one besides Jesus Christ that has this kind of power.  Men are constantly trying to figure out ways to harness the power that is in nature.  We have power plants to harness the power of water and wind.  But in the end, men cannot completely control either wind or water and we see this constantly with tornadoes and hurricanes.  Our Lord, however, is in complete control.  As it has been said, there is not a maverick molecule in the universe.  All bow to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

Paul put it this way, speaking of our Lord: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Col. 1:16-17).  In other words, Jesus didn’t just create the universe; he also holds it together.  In the same way, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus as the Son of God, “whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:2-3).  He is still sovereign over nature with his word.

Do you believe that?  Whatever the disciples thought or believed about Jesus, this event must have led to an immediate reordering of their thinking about the Christ.  “But the men marveled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!” (ver. 27).  They were afraid.  Even though they had been terrified of the powerful storm that had nearly destroyed their boat and their lives, they now realized that they were standing in the presence of someone who was more powerful than the storm of which just seconds ago they had stood in awe.  This is the Lord we serve!

But our Lord is not just sovereign over nature.  He is also sovereign over the supernatural realm, and that is what is demonstrated in the next event narrated in verses 28-34. 

When they made it over to the other, eastern, side of the Sea of Galilee, they were in a region known as Gadara.  This was a Gentile region, as can be seen by the presence of a herd of several thousand pigs.  Jesus had gone there ostensibly to get some rest from the crowds, but he is immediately confronted by two demon-possessed men.

Interestingly, Matthew mentions two men here; Mark mentions only one.  But this is probably because subsequently one of the two became more well-known among the Christian community and therefore was the one most people remembered.  In any case, there is no discrepancy here; it is like when people tell you that they had seen a friend they hadn’t seen in a long time without mentioning the fact that their spouse was there as well.  The fact that Mark mentions one doesn’t mean that the other wasn’t present!

Now consider what Jesus was confronted with here.  First of all, these men were demon-possessed (ver. 28).  Mark says that at least one of them was named Legion because he was possessed by man demons (Mk. 5:9).  In the Roman army, a legion consisted of about 6500 men.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that there were exactly 6500 demons in the man; people used that word to denote any sufficiently large group of things (even as we do today).  So not only were they demon-possessed, they were inhabited by a multitude of devils. 

Let me just say now that though we don’t need to attribute every bad thing that someone does to the devil, neither should we deny the reality of Satan or demons.  They are real.  They can hurt people.  Demon possession is a real thing.  Paul refers to demons as the “rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12).  Peter refers to the Devil as our adversary who goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8).  The Bible begins with the Devil’s tempting mankind to rebellion and it ends with his overthrow in a lake of fire.  So it’s obvious that to deny his existence is to fail to take God’s word seriously.  These two men didn’t just have a mental illness.  This was not just a matter of a chemical imbalance in the brain.  They were controlled and inhabited by supernatural evil spirits who hate God and hate people who are made in the image of God.

And they tried to make life as miserable for these men as they possibly could: these men were “exceeding fierce, so that no man could pass by that way” (ver. 28).  Mark adds: “And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit” (Mk. 5:2) – remember tombs in Roman Palestine were not holes in the ground but caves in the sides of hills, and probably it was in these caves where these two men dwelt.  It also meant that they were unclean, on account of their living with the dead.  But more than this, “no man could bind him, no, not with chains: because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones” (Mk. 5:3-5).  Can you imagine a life more unbearable, more miserable?

Note that no man could help this person.  No one could tame him.  And when they failed to do that, no one could imprison him.  He was uncontrollable and inconsolable and unsavable.  This sets the stage for our Lord to again exert his power over a situation that no mere man could control.

Mark says that “when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him” (Mk. 5:6).  Now we shouldn’t read too much into that word “worshipped” (Gk. proskuneo).  It doesn’t necessarily carry all the connotations that we normally associate with it.  Literally, it means to kneel in obeisance, which sometimes even rebels are compelled to do in the presence of their sovereign.  One reason we know this is what is happening here is because of what the Legion says.  The text says that he “cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?  I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not” (Mk. 5:6-7).  Now Matthew makes it clear that the demoniac was speaking these words under the influence of the demons: “And behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come to torment us before the time?” (ver. 29).  They weren’t about to call out a hymn; they were simply terrified about the possibility that Jesus had come to send them to hell before the appointed time.  Though many men do not realize this, these demons knew that the fact of the matter is that Jesus Christ is the judge of all and that all will give an account to him and that there is no power in heaven or hell that can deliver you from his sovereign rule.

As with the storm, Jesus heals these two men with a word: “Go” (ver. 32).  We are told in the previous two verses of a herd of pigs (Mark says that there were 2000 of them, Mk. 5:13) and the demons’ request to be sent into the pigs.  Our Lord allows them to do so.  Here we see the power and authority of Christ in two ways: first, in that by a word he heals the demon-possessed; second, in that not even demons can move from Point A to Point B without his permission.  As Martin Luther put it, God has the devil on a leash.

Now this sets up a problem: why did Jesus let the demons go into the herd of pigs?  Wasn’t this unkind to the men to whom they belonged?  (Better yet, wasn’t it unkind to the pigs?)  After all, as soon as the demons entered the pigs, “behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters” (ver. 32).  Why did our Lord do this?

I think D. A. Carson is right when he suggests that there are a number of reasons why Jesus might have allowed the demons to do this.  First, the fact of the matter is that Jesus is Lord over nature and therefore its proper owner.  The ultimate owner of the pigs was not the men who tended them but Jesus Christ.  And he can do with his own what he wills.  Second, the fact that he allowed the pigs to be handed over to the demons illustrated to all that he had delivered the demoniacs from the grip of the devils.  It might have been hard for people to believe that they had changed, but after such a dramatic display, it would be even harder for people to deny it.  Third, it could be that in allowing this, “the loss of the herd became a way of exposing the real values of the people in the vicinity.  They preferred pigs to persons, swine to the Savior.”[3]  Far from rejoicing it the deliverance of these two men, the whole city came out and “besought him that he would depart out of their coasts” (ver. 34). 

But again, the most amazing thing here is the change that happened to these men.  Jesus got back into the boat in response to the people’s plea to leave, but at least one of the former demoniacs wanted to go with Jesus: “And when he was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him.  Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.  And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel” (Mk. 5:18-19).

This is the power of Christ.  These men didn’t ask Christ to save them; the demons completely controlled them and all they were worried about was their own skins – they didn’t want to be sent to hell right away.  But Jesus, seeing their miserable condition, threw the demons out and not only gave them back their sanity but also a love for the Son of God and a desire to be with him.  He saved them not only from demons but from their sins – which as the next chapter will demonstrate is really the greater miracle.

Later in the Matthew’s gospel, we read of another time when the disciples marveled.  It was when the rich young ruler walked away from our Lord’s call to follow him.  We read: “When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?  But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men it is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:25-26).  Even so, our Lord is the one who can do the impossible because he is the Son of God.  He can calm the sea, he can cast out devils, and he can save sinners who deserve nothing less than hell.  He can take the blackest heart and make it clean.

What should be our response?  Simply this: to recognize Jesus for who he is.  He is good and he is powerful.  And to recognize us for who we are: we have nothing.  Don’t hand Jesus a bucket and ask him to help you to bail out your sinking ship.  That’s not what he came for.  He came to seek and to save those who are lost.  Look to him, find life in him, the Son of God!



[1] R. C. Sproul, Mark (St Andrew’s Expositional Commentary), p. 90.
[2] D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 214.
[3] Carson, p. 219.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Cost of Discipleship: Matthew 8:18-22


Last time, we noted that people have often used Matthew 8:17 as a justification for expecting God to make our life in the here and now comfortable.  And we tried to show that Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 53 was not meant to imply that every Christian can expect immediate physical healing as long as they have enough faith.  It is true that our Lord’s coming into the world gave us a preview of his second coming when he will do away with all sickness and pain and crying.  But as we live in the time between the first and second comings of our Lord, we can expect to endure sickness, pain, and suffering.  Our Lord himself said to his disciples just before he was crucified: “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33).

I also almost included this text in last Sunday’s message because our Lord’s words about discipleship in these verses provide a stark contrast with the health-wealth-prosperity gospel that many in our day preach.  How could someone promise in Christ’s name better health, or riches, or ease, when our Lord himself told a would-be follower, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head”? 

Nevertheless, it was easy for people who followed this strange and wonderful man from Galilee to mistake the purpose of his coming and to interpret it in terms of material and physical blessing.  Perhaps this is the reason we read in verse 18 that our Lord wanted to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee: “Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart to the other side.”  That seems strange, doesn’t it?  The reason he wanted to leave was because he “saw great multitudes about him.”  Normally, people in ministry get excited about great crowds.  But not our Lord.  And comparing this to John 6:15, I think I know the reason why.  In John 6, just after our Lord had fed five thousand people, we read, “When Jesus therefore perceived that they would take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.”  In other words, these people misunderstood the mission of Jesus, interpreting it purely in terms of a temporal kingdom, and he was determined not to allow them to get him off track.  Moreover, as we read later in John 6, we discover that these people were more interested in food than they were in seeking the preeminence of Jesus.  When they finally caught up with him in verse 25, they ask him, “Rabbi, when camest thou hither?”  This seems to indicate that they were really interested in following Jesus, but our Lord, who knows the hearts of all, responds, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.  Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed” (Jn. 6:26-27).

I think something very similar is going on in the background of Matthew 8:18.  Jesus leaves because he knows that there are many in this crowd who just have the wrong idea of what his ministry is all about.  And thus they inevitably also have the wrong idea of what discipleship is all about, as well.  And this is what verses 19-22 tell us.  Here are two individuals, one who asks to be a disciple of Jesus, and another who is called to be a disciple of Jesus.  Our Lord’s interaction with these two men illustrates the misunderstanding that many in Jesus’ day had of discipleship.

But not just in Jesus’ day, in our day as well many people still misunderstand what it means to follow Jesus.  Some of you may remember the firestorm that broke out over John MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus.  The basic premise of the book was that you can’t claim to be a follower of Jesus if you are not walking in some degree of holiness and obedience.  He was fighting against what is sometimes called “easy-believism,” the idea that saving faith does not necessarily produce good works in the believer’s life. Sadly, even though MacArthur’s position is easily seen to be backed by the Bible, there were many Christians here in the U.S. who strongly objected to it, claiming that his position somehow violated the Biblical principle of salvation by grace (it doesn’t).

J. C. Ryle made a similar observation in his day.  He wrote, “It may well be feared . . . that thousands are admitted to full communion, who are never warned to ‘count the cost.’ 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, and talk fluently of his experience. It has been painfully forgotten that numbers alone do not make strength, and that there may be a great quantity of mere outward religion, while there is very little real grace.”[1]

Why is this so?  Well, I don’t think things have changed that much: I think the reasons then are often the reasons now.  People in Jesus’ day didn’t understand the full meaning of what it meant to be his disciple because they didn’t understand who Jesus was.  Again, referring back to John 6, we see that when Jesus pressed them with the reality that he is the bread and water of life, many turned back and walked no more with him (ver. 66).  They wanted a miracle-worker who could fill their bellies, but not a Lord who demanded their all.  On the other hand, Peter’s answer to Jesus why he and the other apostles didn’t leave is instructive: “And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (ver. 69).  It was precisely because they understood who Jesus was that they were unwilling to turn their back on him.

We see this same connection between a true knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God and discipleship in Mark 8:27-38.  In verses 27-33, Jesus has this conversation with his disciples about the local gossip concerning his identity.  Some said that he was John the Baptist, some the prophet Elijah, some one of the other prophets.  When Jesus asks them who they think he is, Peter replies, “Thou are the Christ” (ver. 29).  Then, in verses 34-38, we have this exhortation from our Lord to his disciples about denying oneself and taking up the cross.  I don’t think it is an accident that Jesus speaks of discipleship immediately after speaking of his identity.  And the reason is that you can’t be a disciple of Jesus in terms of denying yourself and taking up your cross if you don’t really believe that he is the Christ.

For many in his day, Jesus was a miracle-worker and truth-speaker, but that was all.  And because that’s all he was to them, they were not willing to give up everything if that’s what it meant to follow Jesus.  They saw him as a “son of man” but not the “Son of God.”

In our day, you see the same thing.  As fewer and fewer people in our culture recognize Jesus for who he is, our culture is becoming more and more pagan and godless.  Unfortunately, there is also confusion about discipleship even in the church where people are supposed to recognize Jesus for who he is.  This is because in the church many have redefined the purpose of the death of the Son of God.  To many, Jesus does not demand our obedience as Lord; rather, he just wants us to be forgiven and to have a good life after we die.  But this is not the Biblical portrait of the demands of Jesus.  He is presented to us in the gospel not only as Savior but also as Lord.  As Paul put it, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

But the fact that many claim to believe that Jesus is the Son of God yet do not lead lives of obedience to him just shows that their claim to believe in him is nothing more than an intellectual acknowledgement.  Their allegiance is not real, after all.  If you really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then how can you not give your life up to him?  How can you retain any sovereignty over your own life, when you know it really belongs to him?  As the psalmist put it: “Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.  Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:2-3).  If you know that the Lord is God, you are going to serve him. 

I think this is at the root of everything.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reasons why people don’t truly follow Christ when they profess to be his followers.  These reasons stem from a failure to truly embrace Christ for who he is.  But they are deadly in their own right and need to be repented of, as well.  We see some of these reasons in the examples of the two would-be disciples in our text.

The first guy comes to Jesus and asks to be a disciple (ver. 19).  The interesting thing is that this guy is also a scribe.  Now remember that scribes were respectable, learned religious men.  They were responsible for teaching the Law of God to the people.  So they knew the Bible.  The fact that one of them wanted to follow Christ would have been seen to many as a great compliment and as proof that Jesus’ ministry might mean even get the approval of the religious leaders of the day.

In fact, he does more than just was to be his follower.  He says rather emphatically, “Master [Teacher, Didaskale], I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.”  He doesn’t want to be a distance learner, he wants to be a real disciple, he wants to follow Jesus everywhere he goes.  He sounds like a real and genuine person who is interested in learning from Jesus.  And, in fact, we have no reason to believe otherwise.  In his own mind, he must have been convinced that this was the good and right thing to do.

However, Jesus does not just receive him with open arms.  He responds in verse 20: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”  Our Lord knows the hearts of men.  And his response must have been calculated to address this man’s heart.  Even though this man seemed eager to follow Jesus and to learn from him, he did not realize what that would entail.  He hadn’t counted the cost of following Jesus.  That was the problem.

What our Lord is telling this man is that discipleship does not come with the promise of a comfortable life.  On one level, this man seemed eager to follow Jesus.  But his heart was still in love with the things of this world to really give himself to true discipleship.

This is a lesson we all need to remember.  Jesus does not promise those who follow him a comfortable or secure life.  Faith in Jesus does not make the believer immune from trials and trouble.  We are constantly reminded of this throughout God’s word.  Paul told Timothy to “endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3) and to “endure afflictions” as a minister of the gospel (2 Tim. 4:5).  He told the believers in the church at Philippi, “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).  The apostle Peter told his readers, “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Pet. 4:19).  He ends his epistle with these words: “But the God of grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (1 Pet. 5:10).  It seems that Peter sums up the Christian’s life in this world by the phrase “after that ye have suffered a while.”  We’ve already seen how Jesus in the Beatitudes tells us that persecution is something his followers should expect (Mt. 5:10-12).

This is important to remember because I think we are all prone – especially here in the West – to think that if God loves us and we are faithful to him, then we will not have to worry about anything.  But Scripture and church history tell a very different story.  Yes, it is true that there is a happy ending; but not in this world and not in this age.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the images of the dead bodies of John and Betty Stam, missionaries in China who were murdered by the communists in 1934.  I’ve often thought about those pictures, and how it illustrates the cost of discipleship.  The fact of the matter is that the Christian is not meant to look for heaven on earth now; we are to look for it in the age to come.

We therefore need to ask ourselves if we have considered this?  Am I willing to follow in the footsteps of the apostle Paul, who was another scribe, but who gave up everything for Christ?  As he puts it to the Philippian Christians: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil. 3:8-9).

But how do you do this?  Paul’s words let us into the secret of enduring trial and suffering.  It is the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  It was because of him that the loss of all things was nothing more than “rubbish” to him.  So just as a failure to truly know Christ leads to a failure of discipleship; even so, it is knowing in a real and personal way the Son of God that is the key to enduring suffering.  Betty Stam understood this truth as well.  She wrote, “When we consecrate ourselves to God, we think we are making a great sacrifice, and doing lots for Him, when really we are only letting go some little, bitsie trinkets we have been grabbing, and when our hands are empty, He fills them full of His treasures.”[2]  We don’t need to hold on to this life; we need to hold on to Christ.

We don’t know what happened to the would-be disciple.  One expositor has suggested that he left in the white space between verses 20 and 21.  But whether he counted the cost and stayed or whether, like the rich young ruler, he left, I am glad that our Lord is honest with us about discipleship and what it means to follow him.  He does not fill us with false expectations.  Rather, he wants our expectations to be filled up in him.  And if we do that, we will be his disciples indeed.

In verse 21, we come to a different would-be follower.  Except this time he did not offer himself for discipleship, but Jesus called him to discipleship.  In fact, in Luke 9:59, his request to go and bury his father is a response to our Lord’s call to follow him.  Now some might wonder why he is called a “disciple” when our Lord is calling him to follow him.  I think the answer is that “disciple” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean someone who is converted and saved, but rather someone who is loosely attached to Jesus in the sense of following him around from place to place to hear his teaching and watch the miracles he performed.  Jesus is calling him from a half-way and part-time commitment to a full and complete commitment in following him.

Whereas the previous man was perhaps too eager to be a disciple and hadn’t counted the cost, this man had the opposite problem.  He was too slow in obeying our Lord’s command to follow him.  Instead of obeying immediately like Matthew the tax-collector (9:9), this man makes an excuse to delay obeying our Lord’s command to follow him: “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father” (ver. 21).

Now there is some debate as to what this guy meant by that.  One problem is that it is hard to see why Jesus would forbid a man from burying his father.  After all, this was seen, especially in that culture, as part of one’s duty to honor their parents.  I read a story of a missionary in Somalia who was doing relief work there in the 90’s.  Thousands of people were dying from starvation every day.  He and his fellow-workers therefore wondered why the first thing many wanted from them was not food and water but white linen cloth.  It didn’t take them long to realize that what these people wanted was something to bury their dead in.  That evidently was more important to them than eating – their first priority was to bury their dead properly and then they would worry about their own dire need of food.  Even so, in Jewish culture in Jesus’ day, it was a big thing to properly bury your dead.

Jesus’ response is therefore surprising: “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (ver. 22).  Why would Jesus say that?  Especially when he was so emphatic about keeping the fifth commandment (cf. Matt. 15:3-9).  Some have suggested that what the disciple meant was that he wanted to stay close to home until his father died.  John MacArthur tells a story of a Dr. Waldmeyer, a missionary to the Middle East, who was trying to get a rich, young Turk to accompany him on his travels so that he could disciple him.  To which the guy responded, “I must first of all bury my father.”  This surprised the missionary, who apologized and said that he hadn’t realized that his father had passed away.  But then the guy said this, “He's not dead.  That's just a phrase we use.  My father is very much alive.  I just have to stick around and fulfill my responsibility till he passes on.  And then, of course, I will receive my inheritance.”  So what he meant by this phrase was not that his father was dead but that he needed to stick around long enough to make sure that he received his inheritance.[3]  In other words, this man was putting the things of this world – riches, earthly security, perhaps family connections – before Christ.  It made him hesitate.  In some sense, he had counted the cost, and he didn’t like what he saw! 

However, our Lord’s response indicates that this man’s father probably really was dead.  He says, “Let the dead bury their dead.”  In other words, let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.  Jesus is saying that this man has higher priorities.  His dad will get buried, so his excuse is just an excuse.  There are plenty of people who can and will take care of that.  But there are not that many people who have God’s call and gifting on their lives like this man, and he needs to use them for the glory of God.  Luke adds, “But go thou and preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).

However you take it, the point in either case is the same.  Whether he was just waiting around to receive his inheritance or whether he is just procrastinating because he doesn’t understand the urgency of obeying the call of Christ on his life, either way the point is that Christ did not yet have the preeminence in this man’s life.  I think D. A. Carson is right when he comments, “In actuality we may well question whether Jesus was really forbidding attendance at the father’s funeral, any more than he was really advocating self-castration in 5:27-30.  In this inquirer he detected insincerity, a qualified acceptance of Jesus’ lordship.  And that was not good enough.  Commitment to Jesus must be without reservation.  Such is the importance Jesus himself attached to his own person and mission.”[4]  In other words, our Lord knew this man’s heart.  He saw through the request to go and bury his father, that it was not put there out of a desire to honor his father, but because he wanted to put Jesus off.  He wasn’t ready to give it his all.  This is what Jesus confronts.

And in this text he is confronting this in all of us.  Am I putting Jesus off?  He calls every one of us to follow him.  He may not be calling us to go and preach the gospel as a vocation, but he is calling every one of us to follow him, trust in him, and obey him and to preach him with our lips and lives.  And what could actually be more freeing than to be called by Christ!  What great grace that he would condescend to sinners and invite them to follow him! 

So there are two things we need to do.  First, we need to count the cost.  We need to be sure that we have not misunderstood what Jesus is calling us to do.  Make no mistake, he is calling us to deny ourselves, take up our cross.  Are you willing to do that?  But then, secondly, we need to understand that this call is not optional.  It is not something we put in our calendar as a reminder for the future sometime.  Jesus’ call is urgent, and it is preeminent.  It is the call of the Son of God.  May God by his Spirit draw us to himself in complete and full obedience this very morning!




[1] From his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew (8:16-27).  See http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/expository_web.html#mattc8
[2] http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1901-2000/betty-and-john-stam-martyred-11630759.html
[3] http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/2259/what-keeps-men-from-christ
[4] D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 209.

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