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.”
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.” 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. 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.” 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!
 From his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew (8:16-27). See http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/expository_web.html#mattc8
 D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 209.