WHO WILL FOLLOW JESUS?
November 21, 2004
In order to get the setting and the flavoring of the episode we are going to study this morning, I would like to begin reading at Luke 9:51. We will study mostly 57-62. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. (Some manuscripts add here that he said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of for the son of man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them”) and they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Yet another said, ‘I will follow you Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who outs his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
This passage is about people who are having trouble with what it means to follow Jesus. Here is Jesus with his face set toward Jerusalem. The time when he is to be taken up is near. As he goes along, conversations take place. On the one hand, some people who don’t receive him are thought by at least two of his disciples to be worthy of fire coming down from heaven. But Jesus has to explain that that is not the spirit that he came with, and consequently, it is not the spirit that people who are following him are to have.
As they go along from there we meet others who make comments relative to following Jesus, and Jesus answers them. His answers make us wonder, “Does he want followers or not? Is he trying to talk people into following him or not?” What are we to make of these answers of Jesus to these possible followers? Following Jesus is so important and so crucial. That is what we are interested in this morning. That is why we are here. We need to listen in on the conversations that take place here.
All of these back-and-forths together really are all emphasizing one great truth, and it is that following Jesus involves a once-for-all commitment to him. Following Jesus is really the open-eyed choice to make him the priority in our lives in all circumstances regardless of what the costs might be. You will see that as we study along this morning.
Three Prospective Followers
Let’s look first at these three prospective followers of Jesus. The first one of these men was shallow in his thinking about life and about the Lord. It is not that his intentions are less than noble. It is just that he thinks too highly of his own abilities, and he has no inkling of what Jesus is about to face when he goes to Jerusalem. Here is a fellow who comes up to the man who is nearly to the point where he is going to be taken up, and he says as if it is something that won’t take much, “I will follow you wherever you go.” It reminds me of Peter that night when Jesus was arrested and crucified. Jesus tried to tell him that all of these disciples were going to be offended at him, and they were all going to scatter. But Peter insisted in his own ability to stay with the Lord even if everybody else were to forsake him.
Jesus’ answer to him is that while the foxes and birds have places they can go to, he has nowhere to lay his head. It is interested that the phrase for “lay his head” is the same one which is used in John 19:30 where it says that Jesus on the cross bowed his head and gave up his spirit. There are some people who believe that when Jesus said what he did to this first fellow he was saying, “The son of man is not received by people. People reject him. In fact, there are those who are trying to destroy him.” And if that were the case, he would be saying to this man that he needed to think over the depth of the commitment he was making and that he needed to consider the implications of it. On the other hand, Jesus may be simply saying in this statement that he has made such a commitment to the heavenly Father that there is nothing that holds him back from full and complete commitment to his Father’s will. He may be saying that while a bird has a nest he has to pay attention to, and while a fox has a den, the son of man is not so tied to anything in this world but what he can devote himself totally to the Father’s will. Either way, he is saying to this fellow, “You can’t just be such an impulsive and shallow thinker. You can’t be like the rocky ground in the parable of the sower which receives the word gladly and says ‘yes, I want to do it’ but has no depth to it and at the first trial or temptation just gives up.” You can’t be a person who just says, “I want to obey the gospel. I want to go to church” and then not intend to have any depth of spirituality to that choice.
The second fellow in our story is reluctant about doing what Jesus tells him to do. Notice that this time Jesus goes to the fellow and says, “Follow me.” I can’t help but be reminded when I read that of the times in the gospel accounts when Jesus called his first disciples. He would go to fishermen like Peter and Andrew and James and John and say “follow me” and they would leave their boat, their nets, and their father and follow him without hesitation. Or he went to Levi (who we also know as Matthew), a man who was a tax collector. He went to him at his business place and said, “Follow me.” And Matthew just got up and followed him immediately.
This fellow, though, in this story says, “Lord, let me first go bury my father.” That looks to us like a perfectly reasonable request until we stop and consider the possibilities here. In the customs of the Jewish people in the ancient Near East, burial was not something that happened like it does in our time. You didn’t lose someone and then plan a memorial service three or four days later and then take care of the burial. In their time you did it that day. If this man’s father had been dead, he would have been there when this event took place taking care of that duty. Instead, this fellow is using this excuse as a means of delaying his answering the call of Christ. William Barclay tells of a young Arab man who lived in the Middle East who was offered a scholarship to Cambridge University. He was a brilliant young man. His response was, “I’ll do it when I bury my father.” And the boy’s father was barely over 40 years old! For all we know, some sort of situation like that could have been here. Jesus’ answer to him is to the effect that he ought to let the spiritually dead take care of the things they can take care of while he on the other hand ought to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. He ought to accept the responsibility which the Lord is giving to him, and then let that be something that he devotes himself to.
The third man is not merely shallow or reluctant. The third individual is what I will call “conflicted.” By that I mean his affections and loyalties are divided. His heart is in two different places. If you look at the story, you can see what we are saying. He says, “I’ll follow you Lord, but let me first say farewell to those who are at my home.” That again seems like a noble intention, doesn’t it? Notice carefully that Jesus does not tell this man, “No, you can’t tell your family goodbye.” What he says to him is, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom.” He is cautioning the fellow about allegiance to two things at one time. Suppose this fellow goes home and his mama tries to talk him out of leaving with Jesus right now. Suppose the farewells are quite emotional, and mom and dad say, “Wait just a day or so and let me have grandma and grandpa come over so you can bid them farewell.” Suppose by that time this fellow changes his mind about wanting to follow Jesus or suppose Jesus has already moved on, and he is not there to follow anymore. You can see why Jesus is saying here that you have to make up your mind in one direction or the other. “I won’t have followers whose faces are headed in one direction while their feet are pointed in the other direction.”
Five Principles About Following
So here we have three potential followers. One is shallow, one is reluctant, and one is conflicted. From these three stories we begin to draw some principles about following Jesus. I would like to call your attention to five truths.
What is it that the Lord really wants of people who are going to follow him? What is really involved? What does it mean to follow Jesus? First, the Lord wants his followers to have counted the cost. He wants us in an open-eyed way to have considered the implications, and to have decided that Jesus is the best deal and that we are willing to follow him whatever is required.
I read an article some time ago by a gospel preacher in Tennessee. He had gone to a friend who was an artist and had asked this friend to paint him a picture with the three crosses that were on Calvary in it. She agreed, and after a few days she called him and told him the painting was done, and he could come over to look at it. He went over and he walked in and it just hit him, “This is not what I really had in mind.” It was a picture which had an awesome, threatening sky as a foreboding background. It had the three crosses there. The middle one was bigger and looked like it was going to fall off the canvas onto him, he said. And all three of them had red streaks down them to the ground. The fellow was just taken aback. It was not what he intended at all, and he was trying to think of some way to thank the artist who had painted it for him without embracing the result. He finally said to her, “What are the red streaks down there?” She looked at him and said, “You wanted crosses, didn’t you?”
Sometimes we find ourselves wanting to follow Jesus but not being interested in crosses. That is not what we had in mind. I hear us talking a lot more about what we want and whether our needs are met and how comfortable we are than I do about following the one who gave himself up for us on the cross.
In Luke 14 beginning at verse 27, Jesus emphasized that he wanted us to count the cost. He said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you desiring to build a tower does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it. Otherwise, when he has laid the foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him saying this man began to build and was not able to finish.” Somebody reads that and says, “Well, I can’t be a Christian. I am not good enough to be a Christian.” Friends, that is not the point Jesus is addressing here. The Lord is instead saying to us that we have to realize that when we make a commitment to him, there will be implications in our everyday lives. Someone said, “It doesn’t take much of a man to be a Christian, but it does take all of him there is.” Jesus wants us to know that and to have counted the cost.
Secondly, the Lord expects his followers to come on his terms, not their own. Two of these potential followers in our passage here had their own way in mind. They had “buts” and “ifs” in their commitment to follow Jesus: “but” let me go tell my family farewell; “but” let me first bury my father. There are no “ifs” or “buts” in following Jesus. It is either follow him or not. In Matthew 26:42 when Jesus prayed in the garden, he prayed that if it be possible the cup might pass from him. Then he said, “if it can’t pass from me except I drink it, your will be done.” There was not an escape clause to the Lord’s intention to do his Father’s will. In Acts 9:6 when the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is recorded, Saul doesn’t say to Jesus, “I’ll follow you but let me go back to Jerusalem and straighten some things out there.” No. He just says, “What shall I do Lord?” And Jesus tells him to go on into Damascus and there it will be told him what he is to do. The nature of following Jesus is such that he does the telling and we do the following.
A third principle that is here is that the Lord requires his followers to put him first. You know, don’t you, that the quality of our lives is so much determined by what it is that we give first place. Life is so often a matter of priorities, and there is the difficulty. Priorities are hard to set. When you have two things begging for your attention, sometimes it is a hard choice about which comes first. But what Jesus is saying in this passage is that God never comes next. God always comes first. And so in verse 61 when the one fellow says, “but let me first say farewell,” there was his problem. What comes first? Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” That means there can be no higher priority in our affections or our loyalties or our commitments than Jesus if we are followers of Jesus.
The fourth principle is that the Lord urges his followers not to delay, not to put it off. Here are fellows who try to put it off for awhile. The problem with that is that the door may be shut by some circumstance or some change in life. Some things have to be done immediately or they are not likely to get done at all. You can take any fine feeling or good intention that we may have in our lives, and we will discover that if we don’t act on them, if we delay, then those good intentions don’t get turned into actions. This week is Thanksgiving. Most everybody here can identify a time in your life when you really felt good about something someone had done for you, and you intended to write them a note of thanks. I wonder how many of us didn’t do it right then, so we didn’t do it. There is never a case in the New Testament that I can find where someone who was interested in following Jesus determined that he might do it later and then actually did it. There may be cases where that happens today, but my guess is they are quite rare. If circumstances in our lives lead us to the point where we have those good intentions, then the time is now. This is the day when those things need to be done.
Fifth, the Lord demands that his followers not look back. Someone paraphrased Jesus’ statement in verse 62 this way, “I am not taking people to heaven backwards.” There is no turning back in the service to Jesus because it takes full intention. In working on this lesson I was reminded of that time in I Kings 19 where the great prophet Elijah is ready to cast his mantle on someone else who will take up the job and fill his role. God chooses Elisha for that task. But when we meet Elisha, he is plowing with 12 yoke of oxen. If a yoke is 2, then that would mean 24 oxen. Elijah calls Elisha to the service of God, and the Bible says that Elisha sacrificed the oxen and followed him. You can’t let something hold you back. When Jesus says in Luke 14:33, “So therefore anyone of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple,” the Lord is not saying that a Christian cannot own private property. He is saying, instead, that he has to come first. His ownership of that must be recognized in our lives. There is nothing more important than following Jesus.
One statement that I read in working on this that impressed me was someone’s observation that Jesus did not ask anything of any of us in this entire passage that he was not willing to do first himself. He is the one first who decided that he would do the Father’s will no matter what. He is the one who made that his priority. He is the one who set his face to go to Jerusalem and did not look back. No wonder following him means doing those same types of things.
In becoming a Christian, nobody confesses or says that he is perfect and he knows he can do it. What he does say is “I believe Jesus has done it for me and I am willing to commit myself to following him. I have thought it over and I realize it may be difficult, but I am willing to follow him.”