The Cost of Discipleship
It’s rumoured that when Ernest Shackleton was recruiting a crew for his planned expedition across Antarctica, he posted a newspaper ad that said this: “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton.”
And apparently, 5,000 people responded and applied to be on his crew.
Now, in the years since, no original advertisement has been found, and many question whether things actually happened this way. But the fact that story itself got passed around so much tells us that there’s something important about it. There’s something that stirs up in people’s hearts when they consider an invitation to something hard and dangerous and historic and important.
But not everyone’s hearts. If 5,000 people responded to that advertisement, how many more read it and thought “No thanks; that’s not for me.” Many people prefer that which is easy and comfortable to that which is important.
Today we come to one of the passages in Matthew 8-9 that shows us how people were responding to Jesus and the spreading message of the kingdom. This passage shows four characters, or groups of characters, responding to Jesus. And, particularly with the middle two characters, we’ll hear Jesus give a call that sounds like his version of Shackleton’s advertisement—hard and challenging and important.
And we’re going to see how this account helps us understand the nature of following Jesus today, and what kinds of questions we should be asking in response to Jesus’ words.
1. The Crowds
But let’s pick up where we left off last week in verse 16 and 17, where Jesus was ministering to a group of people who had gathered outside of Peter’s door. “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick” (Matthew 8:16).
And in verse 18, we read, “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side” (Matthew 8:18).
The sense Matthew seems to give us is that the crowd grows around Jesus to the point where He needs to get away from them, and so he gives orders to get in the boat and go over to the other side of the lake. This is not the only time where Jesus used a boat to get away from the crowds. It made me realize this week that this was one of the big benefits of ministering around the Sea of Galilee. There was always a quick getaway.
It should make us ask why He needed to get away from the crowds. And that brings up the tension in the relationship that Jesus had with crowds.
We know that Jesus was not anti-crowd. We’re going to read in chapter 9 that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus often taught, healed, and even fed the crowds.
And yet today’s passage shows a growing difference between “the crowds” and Jesus’ true followers. The crowds contained all kinds of people who were interested in Jesus for all kinds of reasons. And numbers of times in the gospels we see that the crowds could cause real problems for Jesus. And so many times we see Jesus get away from the crowd in order to spend time with His disciples.
See, Jesus needed the space and time to deliberately teach and train those who were committed to Him, especially the 12 apostles who would carry on his mission after he was gone.
So Jesus couldn’t be with the crowds all the time. And so here He is in verse 18, with the crowd around him, deciding to get away from them, by boat, to the other side of the lake—which, as we’ll see, was a gentile region where the large crowds wouldn’t be.
And the picture we get is that as Jesus gets ready to leave, some people see this happening and they want to come with him. And Matthew records two of these interactions.
2. The Scribe
The first is the scribe. “And a scribe came up” says verse 19. Scribes were professional scholars of the law, and were responsible for reading and interpreting and teaching the law of Moses to the people.
Scribes were a part of the religious ruling class in Israel. In Matthew 2:4, they were associated with the chief priests, and Jesus connected them with the Pharisees in 5:20 when he said that unless our “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” we “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
So the scribes were powerful and very influential, and not always in Jesus’ good books. Knowing that, how would you respond seeing a scribe come up to Jesus and make this confident declaration?
a. His confident declaration (v. 19)
“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (Matthew 8:19). That sounds amazing, doesn’t it? That sounds like is scoring a big breakthrough with the religious leaders. And how many of us would be ready to start celebrating right away?
You know, the same way we do when some celebrity goes on a talk show and says nice things about Jesus. We ignore everything else they’ve ever said or done because we’re just so excited that a famous person is giving Jesus some attention.
I wonder if some of the people around Jesus were feeling the same way that day. A scribe wants to be on our team! Yes!
But maybe not so fast. Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to be pumping his fist. And Matthew helps us see a few aspects of he scribe’s statement that should give us pause before we party.
First, notice what he calls Jesus: “Teacher.” That sounds great. The problem is that there were many teachers and many rabbis in that day. And it’s important to see that the rabbis never did what Jesus did: they never told people to follow them. They waited for the scribes to like what they said and choose to become their disciple and follow them around.
It’s also interesting that in all the rest of the book of Matthew, “teacher” is never a term used by Jesus’ true followers. It’s always used by the Pharisees or others who don’t really believe in Him, and think that He’s just another rabbi, at best.
And so that seems to be what’s going on here. This scribe seems to think Jesus is just a teacher, and he gets to choose to follow Jesus just like he’d follow any other teacher. “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
b. Jesus’ response (v. 20)
And how many of us would think, “Oh, this guy might not get it, but let’s get him on the team. Might even give us a good image to have a scribe come with us!”
But that’s not how Jesus thinks. Jesus knows that this prospective follower doesn’t understand who He is, and he doesn’t know what he’s signing up for. And so Jesus splashes the cold water of reality in his face when He says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” (Matthew 8:20).
Foxes have a hole that is theirs which they can return to, night after night. Birds have a nest which they can return to, day after day. But following Jesus at that point meant that you might never be certain of where you’d be sleeping from one day to the next. Jesus was an itinerant minister, out with the people, always on the move, and he didn’t have a place to call home.
And we get a clear sense of that in the very next part of Matthew which finds Jesus asleep in a boat in the middle of the lake (8:24). That’s where he lay His head next. And when he gets to land, he doesn’t stay long because He’s quickly asked to leave that region (8:34).
Isn’t that ironic? Jesus, with so much power and authority, the man who can cleanse lepers and who is too worthy to enter the centurion’s house, is homeless. And Jesus draws out this irony even more by referring to Himself in verse 20 as “the Son of Man.”
This is the first of 30 times that Jesus will use this phrase to refer to Himself in the book of Matthew, and all throughout all the four gospels, “Son of Man” is Jesus’ favourite way to refer to Himself. And it’s such an important phrase because it refers back to a prophecy in Daniel chapter 7.
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And 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 one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13–14).
The more that Jesus uses this phrase in Matthew, the more it becomes clear that this prophecy is what He has in mind. Jesus is that Son of Man—riding on the clouds of heaven like only God can, and yet appearing like a son of man, in a human form. Jesus is God and man, And He is the one who will receive all authority in heaven and on earth, and who will be served by all nations, and who will never leave His disciples until the end of the age.
So that’s the direction that this phrase “Son of Man” points to. And so can you see the irony here in verse 20? The Son of Man now lives on earth as a real son of man, a human, in humility and poverty. Though He will rule the nations forever, He has no home.
And those who follow Him must be prepared for the same lifestyle. That’s the point of what Jesus is saying here to this would-be disciple: “Are you sure you know what you’re getting in to? Do you know how hard and difficult this life of following me will be? Are you ready to count the cost?”
What do you think? Is this scribe really up for that? Is he willing to follow Jesus whatever the cost, or does he just want the prestige of being in on the latest thing? How do you think he answered?
Hang on to that answer, because we’re going to come back to that. But before we get there, another man bursts onto the scene with a request before Jesus gets into the boat.
3. The Son
Verse 21 says, “Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’” There’s a lot of really important material here that we need to unpack.
First, we should notice that this man is referred to as one of Jesus’ disciples. And that makes us ask a question. On the one hand, the word “another” might suggest that this man and the scribe are both disciples of Jesus in the broad sense of people who were following Him around.
But on the other hand, there are some hints that this man is in a different category than the scribe. First, he’s actually called one of Jesus’ disciples, whereas the scribe isn’t. Second, he refers to Jesus as “Lord.” Remember how “teacher” is only used by those who are not Jesus’ true followers? “Lord” is just about the opposite—it’s a phrase that’s used by those coming to Jesus in faith.
And then, as we’ll see in verse 22, Jesus actually commands this man to follow Him, which is not something He did for the scribe. So these are some sable clues that this man is in a different category than the scribe.
We can think of it this way: the scribe wanted to start following Jesus, but had no idea what He was getting in to, and so Jesus helped Him see the cost of beginning to follow Jesus.
It seems like this second man has already been following Jesus, and now He’s asking for some time off to take care of some family matters, and Jesus helps Him see the ongoing cost of continuing to follow Him.
a. His uncertain request (v. 21)
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let’s consider this man’s uncertain request in verse 21: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” In other words, “I want to go with you, Lord, but is it okay if I go bury my father first?”
Something we need to understand is that to a 1st century Jew, family responsibilities were a big deal. A really big deal. And few family responsibilities were as important than burying your father. Burying your parents was the capstone of all of your duties as a child. It was a sacred responsibility, and a crucial way to obey the fifth commandment to honour their father and their mother.
And in fact, Jewish teaching taught that when you had to take care of a dead relative, you got a temporary exemption from obeying all of the commands of the law.1m. Ber 3.1, cited in Hengel, Martin. The Charismatic Leader and His Followers. Translated by James C. G. Greig. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1981.
So in other words, to the Jews, if you had to bury a parent, nothing else—not even obeying the Torah—got in the way of that.
So this man isn’t asking for a Friday off to go fishing with his buddies. This is more like a dad asking to go walk his daughter down the aisle, and probably even more important than that.
We can only guess why this request comes up now. It could be that he just received news that his dad had died. It could be that his father was near death and he wanted to stick around to make sure that he got to bury him. We’re not totally sure, but in any scenario, his request would have been totally reasonable to anybody standing there. Everyone would have understood this.
b. Jesus’ response (v. 22)
And so nobody could have been prepared for Jesus’ response. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” (Matthew 8:22).
First, notice the command. “Follow me.” Remember the scribe, and how he thought he got to pick whom he followed? Jesus has the authority to look at people and tell them, “You follow me.” And He expects them to obey.
Second, do you notice how the command to “follow me” just ends there? Jesus doesn’t say “follow me across the lake.” He doesn’t say “follow me for 2 years.” All he says is “follow me.” Period.
In other words, disciples of Jesus don’t ask where they’re going, or for how long. All they need to care about is who they are following. And then they go with Him, wherever, whenever. All that matters is being with Jesus.
And no other priority gets in the way of following Jesus. Not even the most sacred priority in Jewish culture. “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). In other words, “Follow me, and let the spiritually dead bury their own physically dead. Your father can be buried by those who aren’t interested in me. But you follow me.”
Loyalty to Jesus must have the highest place in the disciple’s life. Higher than any other attachment, any other allegiance, any other relationship, any other responsibility. Nothing is allowed to compete with Jesus.
And Jesus holds this line even if it means having fewer followers. I mean, doesn’t it sound like Jesus is trying to chase these two disciples away? He’s certainly trying to avoid the crowds. And all of this shows that Jesus is not interested in lots of half-hearted followers, like we so often are here in North America. Jesus wants disciples who are all-in and fully-devoted, even if that means there aren’t many of them.
Now I think we all know this, but just in case, let’s remember that none of this has anything to do with earning our salvation or being good enough for Jesus. We’re justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But the Jesus in whom we believe is the Lord. The Lord who requires absolute allegiance from His people.
So in the end there’s no such thing as a half-hearted disciple. As Bob Hartman once wrote, we’re either out, or we’re in all the way. Jesus gets everything or nothing at all.
4. The Disciples
And so we’re just about to ask some important questions of ourselves, but first we need to see how verse 23 ties in to this account. “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him” (Matthew 8:23). Notice the progression in the passage. We’ve moved from the crowds, to a scribe who wanted to start following Jesus, to the man who needed to keep following Jesus, to the disciples who just do follow Jesus. Because that’s what disciples do. They follow Jesus. Wherever, whenever, no questions asked. They just follow Jesus.
And we know that the disciples had a rough trip across the lake. They almost died. They quickly got kicked out of the region where they landed. Discipleship was not an easy road. But disciples follow Jesus.
5. …And You?
So what about you?
And you might ask, “What do you mean, ‘what about me’? This is a story about some other people following Jesus when he was an intolerant preacher. This has nothing to do with us, today.”
But we need to notice how this all is written. Did you notice that Matthew doesn’t record the response of either the scribe or the son? We don’t know how they answered Jesus. We don’t know whether they went with Jesus or not. We don’t know whether the cost of homelessness and missing your father’s burial was too much for them or not.
And Matthew leaves it hanging on purpose, because it invites us to finish the story. It invites us, as Daniel Doriani wrote, to “slip into the gap created by silence and decide how [we] would finish the story.”2Daniel M. Doriani, “Matthew,” in Matthew–Luke, ed. Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar, vol. VIII, ESV Expository Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 138.
So how would you finish the story? Please understand that this is more than just an interesting question. We’re invited to reflect on our response because we have also been summoned to follow Jesus.
Now, yes, our following of Jesus is different than the people in this passage. For them, Jesus was there in the flesh, literally travelling around from one place to the next. Following Jesus meant literally following Him and Going where He went.
But you and I today are still called to be disciples of Jesus, to be bound to Him and to give Him all of our loyalty. And the primary way that we follow Jesus today is by following His teaching.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20). Disciples of Jesus keep Jesus’ teaching.
That’s the sense behind John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” We follow the teaching of Jesus, even if that teaching brings hardship and pain into our lives. Following Jesus also means that we’ll follow His example: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
And we can’t forget that, because of the Holy Spirit, there is a very personal element to all of this. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He’s still with us, by His Spirit. And the book of Acts shows us how Jesus, through the Spirit, is very personally involved in the lives of His disciples.
So, are we called to follow Jesus? The answer is yes. We don’t follow in the exact same way that the people in this passage did, but yes in the sense that Jesus must have our complete loyalty, our complete allegiance, our complete obedience. No less are we completely bound to Him and no less are our lives completely devoted to His purposes.
And that means that there will be times, just like with the two men in this story, where our loyalty to Jesus is going to collide with our desire to have a comfortable, stable life, where our loyalty to Jesus is going to collide with our sense of responsibility to our family, and where we’re going to have to choose between Jesus or something other than Jesus.
I can think of many times in my life where I’ve had to choose between money and Jesus, between success and Jesus, and even between family and Jesus.
Family is where things get really tough, don’t they? Even good Christians seem to have this idea that the rules don’t apply when it comes to our family.
A number of years ago someone in our extended family came out and publicly embraced an openly sinful identity and lifestyle, and at the same time, just as publicly maintained that they were a Christian who knew Christ. We had coffee and they told me, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, and I’m doing it anyways, and I know Christ, and He’s okay with this.”
And God’s word is crystal clear on what to do in those situations. 1 Corinthians 5:11 says, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” Whether we like it or not, that’s what God has told us.
And so as that first first big family celebration approached—it might have even been Thanksgiving—knowing that this person was invited, several of us informed the rest of the group that we were not going to be there, and we explained why as best as we could.
And you can imagine the kinds of responses we got. “Obviously, 1 Corinthians 5 isn’t talking about meals like Thanksgiving, right?” Or, “Those passages are for other people in the church, but not your own family.” Most people seemed to think like 1st century Jews, assuming that family was more important than obeying God’s word, because, well, they’re family.
But that’s not how Jesus thinks, is it? “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Jesus gets first place. There is no higher allegiance. Everything else, including family loyalty, comes after obeying Christ. Following Jesus and doing what He said trumps even the most sacred family obligation.
Now, we know that we don’t always have to choose between following Jesus and having a home. We don’t always have to choose between following Jesus and caring for our families. In fact, often following Jesus will include caring for our families, and that’s especially true if you’re a parent of children (see also John 19:26-27, 1 Timothy 5:8).
But even when following Jesus means that we have a home to call our own, even when following Jesus means we take care of our family, we need to keep it straight: we do these things because it’s what Jesus wants. And if and when our loyalty to Jesus collides with our money, our possessions, or the the expectations of our extended family, Jesus will win every time because He holds the highest place in our hearts.
Is Jesus Cruel?
So let’s end on a very important question. Is Jesus a monster for making demands like this on His disciples? “Follow me, even though you might end up homeless and alienated from your family.” Is this a cruel and a heartless command?
It would be, if Jesus were just an ordinary man. But Jesus is not an ordinary man. He is the Son of God, and following Him is the path to joy that nothing on this earth can hold a candle to. And that’s why the Apostle Paul could say that “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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” (Philippians 3:7–9a).
We gladly give up everything to follow Jesus because Jesus Himself is the treasure that we want more than anything else. As Jesus Himself will explain in a few chapters, ““The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
We would gladly give up everything, because Jesus is the treasure worth more than anything else.
Centuries before, David celebrated these same truths when He said, in Psalm 16:5, “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup” (Psalm 16:5). People in those days wanted to have a good portion, an inheritance in the land. And David says, “The Lord is my chosen portion. He’s what I want.”
And then He concluded the song in the words we opened our service with this morning: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). And that path of life is found for us in following Jesus. Through knowing Him, we find the fullness of joy and the endless pleasures that our hearts seek.
Isn’t that an important reminder today, on Thanksgiving Sunday? This is a day when we thank God for all the gifts that He’s given us. But would we gladly give up every lesser gift for the surpassing treasure of Christ?
All our our dilemmas and struggles with a passage like this will melt away when we grasp just how valuable Jesus is, and how worth it it will be to know Him for all eternity.
We’ll see the hard call of discipleship is a mercy, breaking us free from being satisfied with lesser things and freeing us to treasure the most valuable person in the universe.
And that’s why we’re going to end this morning with a couple of songs. We’re going to sing a song for you, a song that celebrates the treasure that Christ is. And then we’re going to sing together that we’d rather have Jesus than anything else we can find in this world.
Maybe that’s not true for you this morning. But don’t you want it to be? Don’t you want to know Jesus as a life-giving treasure worth more than anything else?
So make the words of these songs a prayer to the Lord to help you know Jesus in this way.