33. Conflicting Commitments (Luke 9:57-62)
I once had a cow named Star. My family decided that Star was not going to produce milk, and so they decided to make hamburger of her. I planned to load Star up on the back of our unlicensed pickup and to run away from home with her. Incidentally, I was too young for a driver’s license at the time. I relented, and eventually even ate some of the hamburger, but I didn’t like losing Star.
Someone once wrote a book entitled, Sacred Cows Make Good Hamburger. I have never read the book, but I like the title. Sacred cows do may make good hamburger, but making hamburger of sacred cows isn’t a very popular thing to do. The fact is that every culture, even our Christian culture, has its “sacred cows.” And while such cows often need to become hamburger, those who try to make hamburger of them are often “slaughtered” for trying to do so. As I read through the Old Testament, I find that the prophets were always trying to make hamburger of Israel’s sacred cows, and they were constantly being slaughtered (at least persecuted) for it.
Sacred cows are hard to kill, precisely because they are sacred. A trip to India will bring this fact to life. It is one thing to hold some belief or to have some practice that we admit is wrong. But some of us have become quite skillful at practicing what is evil, and being commended for it because we have been able to convince others that this vice is actually a virtue. This enables us to cling to it vehemently and to practice it zealously, because in so doing (we think) we are doing that which is good. Our sacred cows may be evil, but if we can convince ourselves that they are really sacred, we can cling to them. Better yet, if we can convince others they are sacred, we will be praised for persisting at them.
I am convinced that one of the sacred cows of our Christian culture at this time is “the family.” Working hard to “get rich” is perhaps unacceptable, but working hard “to provide for one’s family” becomes a virtue for which one is praised. Self-indulgence may be considered a vice, but if I give my family a “much needed vacation” or I buy a “place on the lake” or a “condo in Colorado” so that I can spend “quality time with my family” I am a Christian hero, upheld by many as a model for others to imitate.
Please do not get me wrong. The family is a wonderful institution. God created the family, and it is a great blessing. We are to provide for our families. And we are living in a culture which is destructive to the family. Often it is because the family is under attack in our culture that we have sometimes overreacted, making the family the number one priority, and in so doing, we have made it a sacred cow.
When Jesus came to the earth, he angered many by exposing some of the “sacred cows” of His day. Jesus made it clear that these “sacred cows” had to be slaughtered if one were to be a follower of Christ. In the concluding verses of Luke chapter 9 our Lord has some very disturbing words for those who have made a sacred cow of the family. Let us listen well to these words of our Lord. Let us not take them beyond what He intended. But let us not fail to take them seriously enough, just because they attack one of the “sacred cows” of contemporary Christianity.
In the last message we dealt principally with our Lord’s teaching of His twelve disciples. There, we identified some of the problems that were plaguing them. We said they had a:
(1) Lack of power — the disciples could not cast a demon out of a boy.
(2) Lack of unity — the disciples could not be of one mind because they were each debating with each other about who would be the greatest in the kingdom.
(3) Lack of compassion — they wanted to use the power of God to torch a Samaritan town rather than to save it.
These problems reveal a failure on the part of the twelve disciples to truly understand discipleship as our Lord had been teaching it. The closing verses of chapter 9 involves discipleship too, but with a broader group of “disciples.” Here, our Lord’s focus is not merely on the twelve disciples, but on the larger group of “disciples” who had been following Him.
When we look at verse 1 of chapter 10, we realize that the Lord is going to send out 70 (or 72, depending upon how you read the original text) disciples184 to proclaim the gospel. Matthew 8:19-22 is the only parallel Gospel account. There, it is obvious that the person who offers to follow Jesus as one of His disciples is not one of the 12. And so we understand that in this text Jesus is addressing a broader group of disciples than just the 12. A man (Matthew tells us he is “a certain scribe” – 8:19) tells Jesus that he will follow Him, but first he needs to bury his father. If we have identified the earlier problems of the 12 disciples as a lack of power, a lack of unity, and a lack of compassion, the problem here would be a lack of commitment, for indeed, this man has a divided loyalty. The principle that underlies our Lord’s teaching in our text is:
Anything that competes with Christ for our loyalty must be forsaken as an idol.
I must admit that I become uneasy the more I begin to grasp what our Lord means by this. I suspect that it will make you uneasy as well, as we study this matter further.
In our Lord’s description of the three would-be disciples in our text, the commitment of each is faulty, because it has implied limits. Our Lord addresses the limits each has placed on his commitment; He calls our attention to the exception clauses – the fine print – of each person’s promise to follow Him. Notice that in none of these three cases are we told whether or not the person ultimately followed Christ. That is not the point Luke wants to get across to us. Rather, he wants us to begin to recognize some of those things that rival and thus hinder our commitment to Christ. Jesus is identifying those things that we love more than Christ, which undermine true discipleship. This is a critical text, one to which we must listen very carefully. Those things that Jesus identifies as hindrances to our commitment are what I am calling “sacred cows.”
The Three Volunteers
The final paragraph of Luke chapter 9 focuses on three “volunteer disciples.” Each of these men offers to follow Jesus. Luke has each man give us one statement regarding his commitment. He then reports to us what our Lord had to say to each man in response to his offer. There is something wrong with the commitment of each of these three men. The first of these appears to volunteer unconditionally. The second appears to have an emergency, which will delay his commitment, but just for a time. The third volunteer seems ready to follow Jesus immediately, but just wants to say good-bye to his family before he leaves. In each case, the commitment to follow Jesus seems sincere, and the level of commitment looks acceptable to the reader. I fear that I would have approved the “application” of each of these three men.
Jesus does not the way that I would have. His words in response to each volunteer surprise and even amaze us. It looks to us as though Jesus does not want volunteers at all, as though He is trying to drive people off, rather than to “attract” followers. Why is Jesus so discouraging to these volunteers? What kind of discipleship does Jesus require? In each case, the response of our Lord is instructive. Taken together, the commitments of these three volunteers and the correction of our Lord are very instructive concerning Christian discipleship. My approach will be to look at each volunteer, and especially the commitment that each would be willing to make as a follower of Jesus. I will then focus on our Lord’s response to each, and seek to learn what was wrong with the offer of each volunteer. We will seek to sum it all up, so that we can see how much of the discipleship of our Lord’s day was not good enough for the Master. Finally, we will consider how our Lord’s words on discipleship relate to Christians and non-believers today.
Unlimited Commitment? (9:57-58)
The first would-be disciple approaches Jesus with what appears to be a very simple and unlimited commitment: “I will follow You wherever You go” (verse 57). What could be more clear? How could our Lord hope for any better volunteer, any better “disciple” than this? Our Lord is obviously not satisfied, as we can see from His response: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (verse 58). We need to remember that we can only observe “outward appearance,” while our Lord “looks upon the heart” (see 1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus knows that this man cannot be a true disciple.
Our Lord could have corrected this man for what he did not say. He told Jesus that he would follow Him wherever He went. Jesus could have chastised him for not being more committed than this. This man’s commitment was geographical, that is he was willing to follow Jesus anywhere … the beaches of Hawaii, the slopes of Aspen, Colorado, anywhere, … or so he said. But would he have followed Jesus to Jerusalem, knowing that our Lord’s death was certain? I think not.
Even if this man’s commitment to Christ would have caused him to go anywhere Jesus went, is following Jesus only a matter of geography? This first volunteer is something like a man that is joining the army. He tells the recruiting sergeant that he will go anywhere the army will send him. But does this mean that the man is willing to give up his baggy pants for a neatly pressed uniform? Is he willing to exchange long, unkempt hair for a buz cut? Will he submit to the rigors of boot camp? Will he take orders? Will he risk his life in warfare? Will he shoot missiles or drop bombs that will take many lives?
Jesus takes this man’s offer at face value. Does the man say that he will follow Jesus wherever He goes? Jesus will now put this man’s commitment to the test. Jesus says to him in effect, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. You say you will follow Me anywhere. I do not own a home. I do not even have a place that I can call ‘home.’ I do not even own my own bed. Are you willing to follow Me under these conditions?”
One of our elders used to say that his version of “roughing it” when camping out was a Holiday Inn. Did this would-be disciple think that Jesus and His disciples were staying in a penthouse suite in the Hilton? Obviously this man’s commitment to follow Jesus “anywhere He went” had some limitations. His commitment was not unlimited at all, but very limited. He did promise to “follow Jesus” in every respect, but only to follow Him in terms of geography. And he did not at all mean to say that he would follow Jesus anywhere, if that meant living in sub-standard accommodations. What once looked like unconditional commitment now, under the scrutiny of our Lord’s questioning, looks very conditional and hardly acceptable.
This man’s focus is on where he would be willing to go; Jesus’ focus is on what one is willing to leave behind in order to go. Following Jesus requires leaving; specifically, it requires leaving home. Foxes have holes; that’s where they live. That’s where they have a foxy little fox and a little lair of foxes. Isn’t that what it’s all about for a fox? Birds have nests, and what is found in nests? Mamma birds, eggs, and then eventually little baby birds – that’s home. Jesus is saying to this man, “You don’t really understand what you’re saying. In order to follow Me you must be willing to leave everything behind, even what you call ‘home.’”
When this man talks about following Jesus, he is thinking about accompanying Him to this or that town. Jesus says, “No, following Me requires that you imitate Me in every aspect of My life and ministry. It is patterning your life after My life, and that means much more than just being willing to move from one place to another, as romantic as that sounds.” We don’t know how this man responded to our Lord’s amazing response. Certainly he was taken aback. After all, what up and coming religious leader turned away followers? We don’t know whether this man ever became a true disciple of our Lord. The impression we are left with is that he went away, shaking his head, something like the rich young ruler. The one thing this man did learn was that his idea of discipleship was a whole lot different than that of the Master.
“Delayed Commitments” (9:59-62)
The last two volunteers exemplify what I call “delayed commitments.” Notice that in both cases the key word each man uses is “first:” “Permit me first” (verse 59), and, “but first permit me … ” (verse 61).Notice also that in these instances nobody has said anything about not following Christ. What they are talking about is following Christ “when,” following Christ “if,” and following Christ “after.” These two men fully intend to be our Lord’s disciples sometime and somehow, but not immediately. Thus we have these two offers of delayed commitment.
The first delay looks like a perfect excuse for one’s absence, doesn’t it? Think back on your college days when your professor probably said something like this: “There is only one excuse for not being here to take this exam, and that’s death.” He would then pause for effect, and then add: “And I’m talking about your death.” We all know that a death in the family, especially the death of one’s father, is a valid reason for taking time off work or putting something off for a while. If you were to hear of the death of your father, would you not stop your work as quickly as possible, and go to attend to the needs of the family, and in particular to make arrangements for the funeral? Would you not be there as quickly as you could if it were possible? Of course you would. The death of one’s father is regarded as an acceptable excuse for putting some important obligations off for a little while.
Some students of the Bible tell us that this “father” has not really died yet. Therefore, what this “disciple” is saying is that he must stay home with his parents until that time when his father dies, which may be a number of years off. The text doesn’t really tell us this. Let’s give this would-be disciple the benefit of the doubt and suppose that his father died that morning, and that he’s going to be buried that night. Now suppose that this man to whom Jesus has just said, “Follow Me,”185 is the oldest son. As the oldest son, he would be expected to stop what he was doing and to handle all of the arrangements. It is regarded as his duty. In spite of all this, Jesus says to this volunteer, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
Isn’t Jesus being unduly demanding? Couldn’t Jesus have said to him, “I’ll tell you what, we’re going to go on. Why don’t you finish up with your father’s funeral and then catch up with us on our way to Jerusalem. We understand this is difficult for you, so just do what you’ve got to do. After all, it’s only 24 hours, so get your father buried, get your affairs in order, and then come join us.” Jesus does not say that. What Jesus says is rather shocking, and it flies in the face of what everybody expects. The man’s request for a delay seems reasonable until you begin to look at what Jesus says in response. Jesus’ response brings His divine insight to bear on the problem. If the man were in military service, we’d have flown him home. If your father is sick or dying, even if you are in prison, they’ll often let you out of prison to visit your dying father. When there is a death in the family, people are usually willing to set aside normal routines so that one’s family obligations can be fulfilled. Jesus challenges us on this point, “No, you must follow Me now, rather than to take the time to bury your father.” He now will tell us why. Ultimately, it all comes down to what is most important.
I want to be sensitive about this, but I also must get down to the basic realities of life. What does burying this man’s father entail? It involves preparing the body, securing a burial spot, putting the body in it, and covering (or sealing) it up. Burial is disposing of the dead body of the deceased. Is there some reason why the oldest son can do this better than anybody else? When our Lord says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” He is saying that that is a job anybody can do. More pointedly, an unbeliever (“the dead”) can handle a burial as well as a believer. In fact, our Lord indicates that it would be better if an unbeliever buried the dead, rather than one of His disciples.
Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that our Lord’s words here set down a hard and fast rule prohibiting Christians from being involved in funerals. I am saying that if I were forced to choose between following Jesus and burying my father, I would have to choose to follow Jesus to be a true disciple. Consider the eternal value of these two activities: (1) of burying the dead; or, (2) of preaching the gospel by which men can enter into eternal life. The former does nothing that others who are spiritually dead cannot do; the latter proclaims a message by which men can escape the bonds of death and receive the gift of eternal life. Is that not what the gospel is all about? From Abraham, who reasoned that God was able to raise men from the dead, and all the way through the Old Testament, this is what the gospel is about. Consider these words of Job: “And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth” (Job 19:25).
The gospel is the offer of the gift of eternal life, life that extends beyond the grave. If one must choose between the two activities of digging a grave, or of preaching the gospel, which is more important? Viewed from this perspective, the sobering words of our Lord make a great deal of sense, do they not? Doesn’t following Jesus now appear to be vastly more important than staying back to bury your father, if you must choose only one of the two? Obviously for most of us, we don’t have to make that choice. As part of our Christian responsibility to our family, we carry out such duties as burying the dead. But if we had to make the choice, as some people have, between following Christ and fulfilling our family duties, which would we choose? Jesus suggests that the answer to this question should be determined according to what is eternally more important.
The third man (whom the Gospel of Matthew does not mention) says, “I will follow you Lord, but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.” (Luke 9:61)
This requested delay, in contrast to the one above, seems so trivial, doesn’t it? Our response might be, “Well, sure why not, what’s another thirty minutes? No problem.” In the case of the second volunteer, there seem to be compelling reasons for a would-be disciple to wait to follow Jesus until after the dead have been buried. In the case of the third volunteer, the delay seems so minimal that it hardly appears to matter one way or the other. In fact, we find that when Elisha did just this, he was not condemned for doing so:
19 So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, while he was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth. And Elijah passed over to him and threw his mantle on him. 20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” 21 So he returned from following him, and took the pair of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the implements of the oxen, and gave it to the people and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah and ministered to him (1 Kings 19:19-21).
Jesus doesn’t see it that way. He says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)
Why does He say this when the man only wants to go back and say good-bye to his family? Jesus sets down a principle that every farmer would understand: You can’t plow a straight row looking backward.
If you want to plow a straight furrow, you must keep the plow lined up by fixing on some object ahead, and aiming toward it. Anyone who tries to plow while looking backward is in trouble. It would be similar to attempting to drive while looking only at the rear view mirror.
It is as though Jesus knows that if this man went back to his family to say good-bye, he would be talked out of following Him. His father might take him aside and remind him of his obligations to his family. His wife might remind him that she was pregnant, and that this was no time for reckless decisions. His mother might start sobbing uncontrollably. It was not his going back to say good-bye that was wrong; it was that doing so would keep him from following Christ.186 After the Israelites were delivered from their Egyptian slavery, when things got tough, some of the people began to “look back” to Egypt, as though returning to Egypt would be better than going on to the promised land. And so it was that they went so far as to talk of killing Moses, and of appointing another leader who would lead them back to Egypt. When they looked back, their hearts were not fully committed to going forward. And so Jesus seems to be saying that anything that turns our hearts from a full commitment to follow Christ should be avoided, even though it may seem insignificant, even though it may look like the proper thing to do. If going back to say good-bye to your family would lead you to turn from your commitment to Christ, it is something that should be avoided like a plague.
I believe our Lord knew that this man still had a yearning to stay home, rather than to follow Him. I see similar things happening over and over again today. I have dealt with a number of men who were involved in illicit and adulterous relationships. When confronted with their sin, they acknowledge it (often), and then they tend to say something like this: “Listen, just let me go back to my lover and explain to her why I can’t keep this up.” Do you know what I tell that person? “No, burn your bridges! Don’t go back, even to say good-bye.” In seeking to go back, we often want to savor our sin just a little bit longer, just one more time. Don’t do it, and don’t allow others to do it, either! Don’t go to the refrigerator and open the door if you’ve just committed yourself to a diet.
I believe that this also applies to substance abuse. Some people who are addicted to a particular substance just keep wandering back to that same old group of friends who abuse the same substance, to that same old place of failure. They go back to that same old environment, that same old place of temptation and failure. All they’re really doing is looking to rekindle the old fires again. You must not go back to those sins that enslave you, not if you are committed to follow another master (see Romans 6). You’ve got to burn your bridges. This applies to every one of us, in every area of our lives. We are tempted to keep going back to our old ways, to our old sins, but the Bible keeps saying to us, “Don’t go back.”
Hindrances to Following Christ
These, then, are three examples of conflicting commitments. Each one of these three men’s commitment to Christ is nullified or minimized by some other commitment. Each one professes a commitment to “follow Christ,” but only in a partial or restricted way.
Let me point out that every single excuse for not fully following Christ in our text is related to the home or to the family. Let me repeat this again. Every excuse for not following Christ in this text is due to a higher level of commitment to the home or the family. I think that is significant. The first man says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and Jesus says, “Following Me means having no place to call home.” “Oh,” the first man seems to say in response, “well that’s a different matter.” The second man says, “I will follow you, but first I have an obligation at home. I must first bury my father before I can follow You. My family must come first.” Jesus says, “No, I must come first, and the preaching of the gospel must take priority over burying the dead.” And the man seems to respond, “Oh, well that’s a different matter.” The third one says, “Jesus, I most certainly am going to follow You, but the least I can do for my family is to go say good-bye to them.” Our Lord seems to respond, “It’s them or Me.” Jesus says in response to all three, “You must choose Me, or them, but I will not be followed by half-hearted disciples.”
We see then that in all of these cases there is nothing intrinsically wrong with what these people propose. There is nothing wrong with having a commitment to one’s family; there is nothing wrong with having a home; there is nothing wrong with carrying out your responsibilities to your father; there is nothing wrong with saying good-bye—unless these are what keep you from wholeheartedly following Christ. Ultimately, Jesus is not talking about whether or not one ought to have a home. He is not talking about whether or not one ought to take care of the funeral arrangements for his father. He is not talking about whether or not one ought to go back and say good-bye to his family.
Jesus is talking about having the right priorities. Jesus is saying that those who would be His disciples – those who would follow Him – must be those who put Him first, above all things, including one’s family. We demonstrate our love for God, most often, by loving our fellow men. But we must never love men above God. We demonstrate our love for God, most often, when we love our family. But we must never put family above God. Our Lord said this in the clearest possible terms, not just in our text, but elsewhere as well:
34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 “For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; 36 and A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD. 37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:34-38).
25 Now great multitudes were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27 “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:25-27).
Our Lord is talking here about the priority of our love and commitment to Him over the love and affection which we have for our family. He is talking about Who must come first whenever these two loves (love for God, love for family) become competitive. Our love for God must always have a higher priority than our love for family.
But do you know what is interesting? What we believe in theory, we often do not practice. Our Lord is telling us something absolutely distressing because in our Christian culture we often say repeatedly and emphatically, “You serve Christ by serving your family, by ministering to your family.” I am not challenging this statement altogether. Usually it is true. But the words of our Lord in Luke chapter 9 should caution us that “love for family,” as good as it is, can become an evil if it diminishes our love for God, and our commitment to follow Him.
Many Christians have lost a biblical perspective on the relationship between following Christ and fulfilling family obligations. Quite frankly, I can understand why. Our culture has turned against the family. Same sex marriages are now socially acceptable, while questioning the morality of such relationships is politically incorrect. Divorce is rampant, as is sexual immorality. Marriage is viewed with disdain and thought unnecessary. Unborn children are being slaughtered by the thousands. The traditional family is under attack. And many faithful and concerned Christians have responded. Good for all of them! But let us not overcorrect here. Let us not emphasize the family so much that it is at the expense of discipleship. Let us not forget or set aside the sobering words of our Lord, cited above.
You can go into a Christian bookstore to look for a book on the subject of faith, and not find one recent book on a subject that is one the most important aspects of the Christian’s spiritual life. But there are countless books on the family, and new ones coming out every week. Do you know what many of these books are implying? “God can be used to make your family life better.” God has now become the means, and the family is the end. “This is absolutely, categorically wrong!” God is the end, and we and our families are the means. The family is the means by which we serve God. The family is not the only means. The family is one means by which we may serve God. This is why the single woman in 1 Corinthians 7 is encouraged to think about remaining single. A single woman doesn’t have to be married to be happy, but we often imply that one must be married to be happy. Paul suggests that by remaining single a woman may be better able to serve God and others, without the distractions of marriage.
We have come to the place where we have absolutely unrealistic and distorted expectations of marriage and the family, expectations that the Bible does not teach or support. Read the stories of Abraham and Sarah that give insight into their marriage. We find Abraham introducing Sarah as his sister, to save his own life, even though this puts her in the harem of foreign kings. And she is the woman through whom the promised Messiah will come!
Why are so many Christians walking away from their marriages? Because their marriage isn’t giving them what they have come to expect. Often, the trouble is that we are expecting far more from marriage than we have reason to expect. As a matter of fact, do you know what Paul said marriage would give you? He said it would bring you difficulty (read all of 1 Corinthians 7 again). We expect it to give us happiness, pleasure, and meaning. I love my wife and I love my family, but if my hopes are wrapped up in them, I am in trouble. I am in trouble because no family can every provide that which I can only find in Christ.
You remember the story of Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt (Genesis chapters 37 and following). When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt for grain the second time, they still did not know that Joseph was their brother. When Joseph had his silver cup hidden in Benjamin’s grain bag, he was destined to spend the rest of his life as a slave in Egypt. Do you remember what Judah said to Joseph as he pled with him to allow Benjamin to return to his father (by taking Judah as his slave)? He said, “his [i.e. Jacob’s] life is bound up in the lad’s life” (Genesis 44:30). That was the problem in a nutshell. Jacob’s life was wrapped up in his child’s life, which is why he was not able to let Joseph go earlier in his life, and Benjamin after the disappearance of his older brother. It was not until Jacob was willing to give up Benjamin (and Joseph) that he could serve God as he should. The same was true of Abraham and Isaac, and thus the agonizing account of the near sacrifice of Isaac (see Genesis 22). We can love our family more than God, and this is nothing less than idolatry.
What are some of the things that happen when our Christian environment places the family in such an elevated position that it takes priority over following and serving our Lord? First, it makes life without a family seem meaningless and insignificant. Have you noticed that some people who are widowed, or who have been deprived of children believe that life has lost its meaning? It may be because too much was invested in family. This can be corrected as we rearrange our priorities in accordance with our Lord’s teaching. Have you seen somebody whose marriage was terminated by divorce or death? Their whole life may be turned upside-down. But through their suffering they may find out that life can go on without one’s mate, especially as they follow Him. Have you seen people struggle with a so-called mid-life crisis? It may be because in mid-life they have discovered that the children, in whom they invested their life, are not bringing the fulfillment and meaning they expected. Dismay and depression are often the result of having placed too much importance on the family, thus expecting too much from it.
Second, it compels people toward marriage. People who feel they have to be married to be fulfilled, significant, and happy cannot seem to get to the marriage altar fast enough. Perhaps too many get married too quickly because they think marriage is the answer to their problems. They discover over and over and over again that it is not.
The Bible teaches us that the essence of life is not to be found apart from a living, saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I can delight in my relationship with God through Jesus Christ, without ever being married, and without ever having a family. It is possible that God may enable you to better serve Him through marriage and a family than by serving Him alone. But the ultimate issue is that we choose to follow Him.
What really frightens me is that the family is really just an extension of ourselves. Family interests are often really self-interests when you get right down to it. We see in our children our unfulfilled expectations, our desires, our aspirations. We see ourselves in our children, and that’s why we are tempted to make them our highest priority. We are really looking out for ourselves, and we find we can sanctify our self-service if we but talk about God wanting us to minister to our family. It sounds wonderful, but if we have placed family above Jesus Christ, it is wrong.
I know I’ve been talking as though I am talking only to you, but this text raises some serious questions. It raises questions for those of us whose children don’t go to a Christian school. Are we not sending our kids to a Christian school just because we want to spend the money on ourselves, rather than to invest in our children’s education? Then that’s a problem. Do not think that I am advocating that everyone needs to go to a Christian school, because I’m not. Actually, I’m just warming up for the rest of us.
My children have attended Christian schools. For those of us who send our children to a Christian school, I must ask some painful questions? Do any of us send our children to a Christian school to avoid a racially integrated public school? If so, is this Christian? Am I sending my children to a Christian school to isolate them from the world, and in the process depriving them of the opportunity to follow Jesus by proclaiming the gospel in a non-Christian school?
Homeschoolers also have some questions to ponder. Are we teaching our children at home because we are afraid God is not able to keep our children outside our homes, apart from the protection and instruction we can provide? By building fortress walls between society and our children, are we really saying we cannot or do not trust God to save and to sanctify our Children?
What I’m trying to say to all of us is that this text is loaded with painful, agonizing questions, but the ultimate principle is this: Nothing must be given priority over our commitment to Jesus Christ. Nothing!
Satan will always attempt to take those good things, like the family, and idolize it, making it the object of our affection, and our ultimate priority. If that happens, Satan has won a victory. He’s made what is good the enemy of what is best. Jesus Christ alone is life, not our family. We must follow Him at all cost.
I want to close by reading you some words from I Corinthians 7, uncomfortable words, words which we would probably tear out and say, “Well, in the context, of course, this applies to single women and not to us,” but it doesn’t. It applies to all of us:
“But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (I Corinthians 7:32-35).
There is a very important principle which is found throughout the Bible, and it can be summed up in these words:
The things that are temporal (temporary) are of less value than the things which are eternal.
Marriage and family are temporal. When we get to heaven, we will not live as husband and wife, as we now do. If the family is temporal, it is still important, but it is not as important as those things which are eternal. It is not as important as following Christ. Therefore, following Christ must always have priority, and family must always be subordinate.
Following Christ means putting everything—everything—aside which hinders our commitment to follow Him.
It does not mean throwing our marriages and children away. Please, if you are one who is neglecting your family, do not take this to be some kind of validation of your sin. It is not! I am not saying, “Let’s all go out to serve God while we neglect our families.” What one is willing to sacrifice, and what one is willing to make sacrifices for, tells us much about a person. I believe that the pagans who offered their children to Molech loved their children. I think they sacrificed their children with tears in their eyes, but there was something more important to them than their family. Tragically, it wasn’t God.
All of us must ask ourselves, “To whom are we making sacrifices, and what are we sacrificing, and for what are we sacrificing?” Some people sacrifice their families in the name of following God, and I fear that some of them are wrong. Ministry is not to be thought of as synonymous with discipleship or following Christ. Some people find their significance and status and fulfillment in what they call their ministry, and so they sacrifice everything that gets in their way, including their family. Self-serving ministry which sacrifices our families to obtain success and status is most likely sin. Paul says in I Timothy 5 that those who do not provide for their own family are worse than an unbeliever. The scribes and the Pharisees in Mark 7 use religious commitment as a pretext for not meeting the needs of their elderly parents. “Well, I’m sorry, Mom and Dad, I’d like to help you pay the utility bills, and I know they’re turning off the heat and the phone this week, and I know your table’s empty, but I have devoted my money to God; it is Corban.” Jesus called this hypocrisy and condemned it as sin. Some were using “religious commitment” as an excuse for ignoring and neglecting their families. Please understand that I am not advocating this. I am simply saying that in our culture, the movement is the other way, and oftentimes our commitment to our family hinders our commitment to Christ, and we may even be patting ourselves on the back for it.
This is a tough text, and I confess that I do not fully understand it. I am not certain that I know what it means for me at this point. But I understand one thing all too clearly: I dare not allow anything, no matter how good it might be, to come before my commitment to follow Christ. May God bring to our hearts and minds those things which mean so much to us that, while we may never say so with our mouths, with our lives, we will choose them above serving Christ.
I wish to make one last observation, for Christians and unbelievers alike. Do you notice that Jesus is not nearly as eager to attract or to accept followers as we are? Many of those who sincerely intended to follow Jesus went away, scratching their heads because Jesus did not enthusiastically accept them. Jesus wanted men to follow him whole-heartedly. He did not downplay or conceal the high cost of discipleship. Over and over again He spoke of the high cost of discipleship, and urged men not to follow Him if they had not counted the cost. It is not that Jesus wishes to discourage men from following Him. It is only that He wants those who follow Him to understand what discipleship is about. Following Jesus begins with trusting in Him as God’s promised Messiah, God’s only means of salvation. It is by faith in Him, in His life, in His substitutionary death for our sins, in His burial and resurrection, that men can have their sins forgiven and enter into eternal life. I urge you to “follow Him” who alone can save. Following Him is the greatest privilege ever offered to us. But it is not an easy path. Let us follow Him, having counted the cost, and let us proclaim the good news of the gospel, urging others to follow Him as well.
184 The actual term disciples may not be found here, but it is obvious in passages like John 6:66 that the term disciples is used more broadly than just the 12. In John 6, it refers to a large group of followers who ceased following Jesus.
186 In a similar way, eating certain foods or drinking wine or observing a certain day may not be so bad in and of themselves, but causing a weaker brother to stumble by so doing would make these acts a terrible offense (see Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8).