"It Costs to Follow!"
(Delivered Sunday, August 21, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
This morning, the word of God compels me to tell you something that - I'm sorry to say - you probably won't hear in very many churches nowadays. It's going to sound as if I'm making a mistake in saying it - as if I was discouraging people from doing the very thing that I ought to be encouraging them to do. But what I'm going to say is nevertheless true; and faithfulness to God's word demands that I say it.
It's this: If you are thinking at all of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, you must think carefully first about whether or not you are really committed to follow through with it. It costs more to be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ than you may be prepared to pay; and you should only begin to follow if you are committed to pay the price.
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Now, I hasten to add that I hope you WILL choose to be a true follower of Jesus; or that, if you have already been follower of Jesus, you WILL choose to continue to follow faithfully - no matter where He leads. It's a wonderful thing to be a follower of Jesus. The greatest and most joyful experience you can have on earth comes from being in daily fellowship with Him. To follow Jesus faithfully is to tread a path that leads to heaven, and that results in eternal life with Him.
But let's not kid ourselves. Let's not engage in any false advertising. To follow Jesus is also to tread the hardest path on earth you could ever take. He leads you to places that you don't want to go. He'll show you the truth about yourself; and will call you to deal with some very ugly things in your life. He'll demand more of you along the way than you'll believe you could possibly give. He'll call you to stand with Him alone against the tide of this world; and to walk in a direction that is contrary to the direction everyone else is walking. He'll press you to change from what you are to what He wants you to be. He'll demand that you surrender all to Him and His cause. And He will not tolerate you being merely a 'part-timer' or 'partial-follower'. To follow Jesus is either a total, whole-life commitment; or as far as He's concerned, its not a commitment to follow at all.
And lest you think that I'm exaggerating, let's let Jesus speak for Himself. Hear what He Himself says about the commitment level that's required. He turned to many who wanted to be His followers - a great multitude, in fact - and told them plainly,
"If anyone comes to Me and does not hate His father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear His cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it - lest, after 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.' Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26-33).
Did you notice that, three times, He used that important phrase "cannot be My disciple"? He wasn't saying that you or I will merely have a "hard time" being His disciple if our commitment isn't total. He wasn't saying that we would merely be a "second-level" disciple. He said - as plainly as a thing can be said - that unless our commitment is to the level of loving Him above all other loves, of being willing to die to ourselves, and of forsaking all that we have in order to follow Him, we CANNOT be His disciple at all.
Strong words; aren't they? But they aren't my words; they are the Lord's. And yet, if taken seriously, they would suggest that there are many people in church today who are confident that they are followers of Jesus; but who - in actual fact - have not yet counted the cost of following, and who will easily fall away from their profession of faith in Christ when the going gets tough.
Bishop J.C. Ryle of Liverpool, writing one hundred and fifty years ago, said this about such hard words from our Savior;
It would be well for the churches of Christ, if these sayings of our Lord were more remembered than they are. It may well be feared, that the lesson they contain is too often overlooked by the ministers of the Gospel, and 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 of real grace. Let us all remember this. Let us keep back nothing from young professors and inquirers after Christ. Let us not enlist them on false pretenses. Let us tell them plainly that there is a crown of glory at the end. But let us tell them no less plainly, that there is a daily cross in the way.1
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Now, please understand: Jesus will never turn away anyone who genuinely seeks to be saved by Him and to follow Him. He promises, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37). No one ever has to worry that they must first become "perfect" before they can come to the Savior. Anyone can come to Him right this minute - just as they are.
But also please understand: Once they come, they must not expect to stay as they are. Everyone who seeks to be a follower of Jesus must be totally committed to paying the price of following Him; or they cannot be a 'follower' of Jesus at all.
As you can see, then, it's hard to be a follower of Jesus! It's far harder than people realize. And that's why it is essential that, before anyone comes to Him for salvation and seeks to become one of His followers, they must first be made to understand the price of following Him, and be helped to count the cost.
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With all this in mind, please look with me at this morning's passage. It's found in Matthew 8:18-22. It speaks of a time in which Jesus had been increasingly revealing His true identity; and after He had performed many miracles in the sight of the crowds. Many people were seeking to be His followers.
Matthew tells us,
And when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side. Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, 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." Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
Here are two different stories of two different men who wanted to be followers of Jesus. Their stories were given to teach us that becoming one of His followers is to choose a hard path; and that we should be sure that we have counted the cost of becoming one of His followers before we begin.
Let's look at the stories of these two men in greater detail; and from them, let's learn about what it costs to truly follow Jesus. From the first man, we learn that . . .
1. IT COSTS US IN OUR WORLDLY EXPECTATIONS (vv. 18-20).
Jesus had just performed a series of very great miracles. He had healed a leprous man in verses 1-4; and then he healed a centurion's servant in verses 5-13. He then went to Peter's home, by the shores of the Sea of Galilee; and healed Peter's sick mother-in-law in verses 14-15. And as all these things happened, the crowds around Him grew greater and greater. By verses 16-17, we read that
When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: 'He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses'" (vv. 16-17).
People were increasingly recognizing Him for who He truly was! Vast multitudes were pressing in on Him. If it had been His desire to stack-up as many followers as He could, then He would have only had to stay where He was - in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee - and the vast mobs of eager followers would come to Him. And so, it's fascinating that, at this peak moment, we're told,
And when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side (Matthew 8:18).
In the original language of this passage, when we're told that Jesus "saw" great multitudes about Him, the word that is used suggests far more than a mere passing glance. It suggests a careful, reflective kind of look. He saw the crowd, evaluated what He saw, then gave orders to depart to the other side of the lake. Why on earth, at such a time of great popularity, would He leave great crowds of people who wanted to be with Him?
It may be, as some have suggested, that He was simply very tired; and the limitations of humanity demanded that He get away from the crowds and rest. (And after all, we're told in the next passage, in verse 24, that He fell asleep in the boat.) But my suspicion is that more was involved than mere exhaustion. I believe that He sought to get away because He wasn't interested in merely having great crowds around Him as an end in and of itself.
If you are familiar with the Gospels, you' ll remember that there were lots of times in which He simply turned great crowds away that weren't truly committed to follow Him. John tells us, for example,
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man (John 2:23-25).
Or there was the time when He fed five thousand people with a few fish and a few loaves of bread. The crowds of people were ready to take Him by force then and there, and make Him their king (John 6:15). And yet, He departed from them. And when they found Him, He told them,
"Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled" (v. 26).
The Bible even tells that a large number of people followed Him until He taught truths about Himself that offended them. And when they heard these 'hard sayings' about Himself, all but the twelve left Him and walked with Him no more (John 6:60-66). If He had wanted great crowds to mob around Him, He wouldn't have said things about Himself that drove them away. But the fact is that He wasn't interested in becoming popular with the crowds. He was only interested in building His life into devoted disciples who would follow and obey Him with complete commitment and devotion - and who would then go on to change the world in His name.
Personally, I have come to believe that Jesus was not as 'desperate' and 'eager' for large crowds to sign up as His followers as we in His churches tend to be today. We tend to make it all out to be as easy as possible to become disciples of Jesus Christ, so we can draw in as many as we can; while Jesus Himself seemed to make discipleship out to be the hardest thing in the world. The Bible presents more of His 'would-be' followers walking away and leaving Him, than who actually remain committed and go on to follow Him.
I conclude from this that, when it comes to His followers, Jesus is not after quantity of numbers as much as quality of commitment. The New Testament - as well as the history of the church itself - seems to teach us that Jesus is able to do far more through one man or woman who is 100% committed to following Him, than through 100 men and women who are only 99% committed to following Him.
May it be that we, in this church family, would grow to be such 100%-committed followers of Jesus - and not just a part of the admiring crowd that tags along!
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So, Jesus was leaving. His departure put those who would be His followers into the position of making difficult choices; and thus, of proving their own faithfulness to Him by their actions. And it was right then that the first man came along:
Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go" (Matthew 8:19).
In the culture in which Jesus lived, a scribe was a very significant man. He was a scholar - an educated man who was skilled in studying and teaching the Jewish law given by Moses. A scribe was a respected religious authority. And I note that we're told that it was "a certain scribe" - literally, "a certain one". It may have even been a scribe of particular notoriety. As I read this, I can't help but think that - on a purely human level - this man's offer to be a follower of Jesus would have been a great boost to our Savior's ministry. It would become apparent that Jesus was beginning to gather, as His followers, even the scholars and intellectual leaders. What an exciting thing it would be to have him join the team! In fact, his offer seemed like a remarkable one: that He would follow Jesus "wherever" He would go. It was a wide-open offer by a scholar of significance.
And yet, Jesus did not seem to be very impressed with this man's offer at all. In fact, what He said to the scribe seemed designed to discourage him from going on any further with Him:
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" (v. 20).
Think of what Jesus was telling the man. Even the humble creatures of nature have a place to lay their head at night. But Jesus - who designated Himself to the scribe as something far higher than any earthly creature; that is, as "the Son of Man" - had no such creaturely comforts upon the earth. He didn't have a place to lay His head at night. And I believe that His having told the scribe this was particularly designed to bring him to a crisis point in his following. I even believe that Jesus chose the name "the Son of Man" for that particular reason.
You see; as a scribe, the man would have been very familiar with the passages in the Scriptures that spoke of the Messiah. He would have been remarkably equipped to see that Jesus was fulfilling the prophecies about the Messiah before his very eyes; and he would have realized, more than most people, that all that the Scriptures promised about the Messiah's earthly kingdom would thus be fulfilled in Jesus. I even suspect that the man would have thought about what it says in Daniel 7:13-14 about the Messiah; where it reads,
I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14).
And so, I believe that the scribe realized that the Man standing before Him is that very same "Son of Man" spoken of in Daniel - that He was the Messiah to whom all the kingdoms of this world are destined to be given. And knowing this, the scribe then realized that the closer he was to this Man, the greater access he would have to the glories of the coming Kingdom. And so, He in effect said, "Teacher, I know who You are! I know the glorious Kingdom that You are destined to receive! And so, I will follow You wherever You go."
The man, you see, wanted to be on the inside track of a glorious earthly Kingdom! But in telling the man that He - the Son of Man - didn't even yet have a place to lay His head, He was letting the man know that before the riches of the Kingdom would be realized, the sufferings and trials of the cross would have to be experienced. As Jesus says elsewhere;
For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day. But first, He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation (Luke 17:24-25).
The scribe was looking at Jesus as the fast-track to the glories of the Kingdom. But Jesus was letting the man know that his immediate worldly expectations of comfort and exaltation would not be fulfilled by following Him. The glories would come; but the cross comes first.
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So then; this man had untrue expectations of what would happen if He followed Jesus. He expected that he would soon receive an exalted position; and a glorious palace; and many of the comforts and treasures that would belong to those who are associated with the King. But Jesus was letting him know that following Him would not lead to the worldly things that He expected. He let him know that following Jesus was to take the hard path.
Similarly, I suspect that many start to follow Jesus with the same sort of worldly expectations. Perhaps they don't seek a position in an earthly kingdom; but they expect that, if they follow Jesus, they won't have any more problems. Some folks are even taught that following Jesus will lead to financial and material blessings. Others expect that following Jesus will mean that they wont have as many trials and tribulations in life. And the actual fact is that following Jesus just may very well lead to more trials in life than you would have had otherwise!
Think of it! Jesus spoke of those who would be His followers, and said, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake" (Matthew 5:11). He told His twelve disciples, "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20). He said to them, "In the world you will have tribulation" (John 16:33). He said of Paul, "For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:16). And even Paul himself said, "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12).
Now, the eternal blessing that result from following Jesus WILL come! And in the temporal, the blessings that come from following Jesus far outweigh the trials that following brings. We must keep in mind that "our light affliction, which is for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen" (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). But make no mistake about it: Following Jesus is not the pathway to temporal worldly comforts. It's the 'narrow gate' and the 'difficult way' that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
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So; that's what we learn from the first man about what it costs to follow Jesus. It will cost us in our worldly expectations of comfort and ease.
Now before we look at the second man, let me offer an illustration of how I think that the two men's stories are meant to be related. It's a strange sort of illustration; but I hope you'll bear with me.
Suppose we look at following Jesus as a physical "walk". Jesus calls us to follow Him; and such a call requires that we put our first foot foreword and place it where He says to place it. We may have some expectations that the place He calls us to place our foot will be a comfortable place. And in our ignorance, we may be far too eager to place our foot foreword, not having realized what it will mean. And then, when we find - to our shock - that He calls us to place our foot in the pathways of suffering for His name's sake, we hesitate to put our foot out at all!
That's what the first man's experience teaches us. If we're going to follow Jesus, it's going to cost us our worldly expectations of comfort and prosperity; because He may call us to put our foot in hard places. And until we let go of our expectations of worldly comfort, and lift that first foot up to place it where He says, we cannot begin to follow foreword with Him.
Now; think of that second foot - the one that's still behind us. Even though we have begun to follow Jesus with our first foot, that second one is still back there, waiting to be lifted up. But in order to lift it up and move foreword, I will have to separate it from the things that now hold it in place. I have to forsake life as I knew it. The first foot involves a commitment to say 'hello' to places and commitments I don't yet know; and the second foot involves a commitment to say 'good-bye' to places and commitments that I know well.
If I am willing to go foreword to places Jesus calls me TOWARD; but I am not completely willing to make a complete break with the places He calls me FROM; then I'm going to experience yet another crisis in following. That describes the predicament of the second man. He teaches us yet another truth about the cost of following Jesus; that . . .
2. IT COSTS US IN OUR EARTHLY CONNECTIONS (vv. 21-22).
Matthew tells us,
Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father" (v. 21).
Commentators disagree over what this man's comment meant. It may, as some say, mean that his father had just died; and that he needed to go and attend to his burial. Others have suggested that his father was sick and was in the process of dying; and that he needed to stay at hand and attend to him until the time that his process of dying was completed. Others suggest that it was a reference, not only to care for the man's father, but also to the estate that needed to be settled and the inheritance that needed to be distributed.
I even read the report of a traveler to an eastern nation who sought to hire a guide for his journeys. One man he sought to hire said that he would make the trip, but first had to wait until he buried his father - then pointed to the old man who as sitting in the doorway to his home, as healthy and as happy as can be! And if that's the case, then it was a way of expressing that the man's father was of the utmost importance to him; and that he needed to care for him until the time of his burial - whenever that time may come.
Now; on the surface, it seems like a noble concern. After all, who is more excusable from a duty than a man who needs to attend to the needs of his father? But Jesus would not except the man's excuse! Jesus said something that, again on the surface, seems cruel and insensitive:
But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead" (v. 22).
But consider some of the details. For one thing, the man was called "another of His disciples". He had already made the commitment to follow. Second, Jesus' command to "Follow Me" was given as a present tense command; and can be translated, "Keep following Me". It was as if the man was already a follower who was confronted with the fact that Jesus was about to leave; and that he himself was about to stop following for a while in order to attend to his father. And third, the man used a key word that pointed out the whole nature of his problem. The word was "first": "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Put all together, the man had already begun to follow; but was about to stop following because he had a greater priority than following Jesus at the moment - that of attending to his father's demands.
Jesus' answer suggests that other people could have attended to the man's father - whatever the concerns of his father might have been. But the man's divided loyalties, and his failure to make a break from the earthly concerns that held him, brought him to another crises of following.
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This man had begun to follow Jesus; but he hadn't realize that following Jesus meant placing His call and His priorities above all others. He didn't realize that to follow Jesus meant loving Jesus more than loving his own father, and to place Jesus' concerns over all other earthly commitments.
Similarly, many begin to follow Jesus; only to find out along the way that following Jesus conflicts with other secular demands of life - even some of the most basic of secular demands. Jesus may not call everyone to forsake such earthly concerns, in so radical a way, as He did this man. But then again, He just might; and that's the cost of following Jesus. He said,
"Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'; and 'a man's enemies will be those of his own household.' 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. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me" (Matthew 10:34-39).
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The first man, then, was too eager to place his first foot foreword - not having counted the cost. And the second man was too hesitant to lift his second foot up off the ground - again, not having counted the cost.
But I can't help noticing that we're not told what happened to either of them. We're not told if either responded by walking away in discouragement; or if either eventually repented, and paid the price, and became devoted followers from then on. Their stories are left open-ended - like our own personal stories are today! We're left to wonder what they did with Jesus' high call for total devotion - just as it now waits to be seen what we will do with it!
And so; what kind of a follower are you right now? Have you been thinking that all that was required to become one of His followers was that you simply profess a faith in Him; and that no life change was really required? Have you been thinking that, to be one of His followers, it wasn't really necessary to "follow"?
Clearly, it costs to follow Jesus! It costs everything! But by God's grace, may the Holy Spirit deal with each of us uniquely this morning; and may we count the cost, become willing to pay the price, and to present ourselves to Jesus as completely committed followers - the only kind of followers our Savior is willing to accept; the kind that He uses to change the world.
1J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), vol. 1, pp. 78-9.
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