The Disciple’s Pledge of Allegiance
“Family is everything.” Have you ever heard or seen that phrase before? Maybe as a caption on a cheery Instagram shot? Maybe on a magnet for sale in a gift shop? Maybe in a cross-stitch that hung in your grandma’s kitchen, next to a Thomas Kincade print?
What do you think about that phrase? Do you think that family is everything?
There’s no doubt that, to many people in our world today, family is a really big deal—even, perhaps, “everything.” To many people, family relationships are the most important relationships, family ties are the tightest ties, and family loyalties are the strongest loyalties. For many people, being together as a family is one of the most important experiences in life, if not the most important, and much will be sacrificed in order to keep that family together in some form or another.
Family is everything.
Now, if this is true for some people in our world today, it was most definitely true for many people in Jesus’ day. Caryn Reeder writes that “In the worlds of Jesus and the Gospels, the family was a social, economic, political and theological cornerstone of life.” [C. Reeder, “Family,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition, ed. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; IVP, 2013), 262.]
This was true for the Roman world, but it was especially true for the Jewish world in which Jesus lived and ministered, where the family was the basic unit of Israel’s religion. Jewish people in the first century did not follow God as individuals as much as members of a family.
Their family connection to Abraham was, in the understanding of many, part and parcel of their connection to God. Their connection to their family, and through their family back to Abraham, was the basis for everything. And beyond this, every part of their society came down to the family. Even their their financial system was built upon family property and family inheritances. Loyalty to parents was, in the words of one commentator, “one of the most deep-seated convictions in the minds of Jesus’ hearers.” [Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 266–267.]
So, think of the most close-knit family you know—the kind of family who would hang a “family is everything” plaque on their living room wall. Now turn the notch up several more clicks, and perhaps that’s just approaching the level of how people in Jesus’ audience might have thought.
For them, in many respects, family was truly everything. And when we understand that, we’ll be able to glimpse just how radical and offensive and counter-cultural the words of Jesus we’ve just read together would have been to His first audience. And once we see that, perhaps we’ll be better able to hear what Jesus has to say to you and I today about family, and about Himself, and about what it truly means to be His disciple.
Let’s review for a moment where these words come. We’re finishing up a series today on Matthew 8-10 called “The Spread of the Kingdom.” Throughout chapters 8 and 9 we saw Jesus travelling around spreading the message of the kingdom in His words and giving a display of the kingdom in His actions. And through this time we saw mounting opposition to Jesus from the religious leaders.
Then, in chapter 10, Jesus began to prepare his twelve apostles for their first missionary trip. And much of the teaching in chapter 10 has revolved around the difficulty they are going to face as they go out preaching the gospel.
Beginning in verses 14 down to 25, they’ve been prepared for rejection and persecution. Verse 21 said that this persecution will even descend to the level of family, as “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:21–22). Jesus has not hid from them the difficulty that lies ahead.
But the point here has not been to make His disciples afraid of what’s coming. In fact, it’s the opposite. “So have no fear of them” He said in verse 26. Rather than fearing those who can do no worse than kill the body, Jesus’ disciples are to have a proper fear of God who can destroy the body and the soul, and are comforted by knowing that He knows and values His children dearly (vv. 28-31).
1. Not Peace, but a Sword
And with that all in the background, today we come to the final verses in this section, which opens with these words, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
We’ve heard Jesus use similar language before, haven’t we? “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
And just like when we studied that verse, when we come to verse 34 we should ask, “Why would Jesus need to say this? Why did Jesus need to tell people not to think this way? What would have made people think that Jesus had come to bring peace?”
Well, for starters, how about the Bible? The prophets had long foretold that the age of the Messiah would be an age of peace. Do you remember Isaiah 9 which we spent time in last spring? “For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire… and his name shall be called… Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end…” (Isaiah 9:5-7). Do you remember the angels at His birth, saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)?
Do you think the disciples were right to think that Jesus had come to bring peace? Wasn’t that the Messiah’s mission?
And yet, as He prepares them for their first major role in His mission here in chapter 10, it feels like it’s all about conflict. This chapter has been about persecution and rejection and having to stand alone for Jesus. And you can almost imagine the disciples—and Matthew’s readers—scratching their heads and saying, “What’s going on? I thought the days of peace were upon us. And instead, all he’s talking about is persecution.”
Let’s try to unpack what’s going on here. First, let’s remember that through Jesus, the kingdom of God was at hand. The reign of God was breaking into the world. But, unlike many people were expecting, this wasn’t happening all at once. For a season, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man exist side-by-side in this world.
One day, Jesus will be the only king. There will be no opposition to His rule. And when that day comes, when that kingdom has fully come, it will be a reign of peace. All of the prophecies will be fulfilled, completely.
But until then, not everybody acknowledges Jesus’ kingship. In fact, in this season, many people are opposed—violently opposed—to God’s kingdom, to God’s reign. And that’s where the conflict comes from.
The conflict comes not because Jesus’ disciples aren’t peaceful people. Jesus’ disciples are meek and merciful and peacemakers, after all (Matthew 5:5, 7, 9)!
The conflict comes because the kingdom of God is a threat to the kingdoms of men. People don’t want Jesus to reign over them. They want their own kingdoms. And so they react, often violently, against those who are a part of Jesus’ kingdom.
And that’s why Jesus can say “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). The sword isn’t a sword of violence that His disciples use against others. Rather, it’s the sword of division that separates those who give their allegiance to Jesus, and those who won’t.
As He explains, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:35–36).
This is startling language, but again, we’ve already been warned about this. “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:21–22).
Hated by all—including our closest family connections. When we give our allegiance to Jesus and bow our knees to His reign, this will provoke hatred and even violence from those humanly closest to us. Fathers will have their sons turn against them. Mothers will have their daughters, who they raised and spent years nurturing, turn on them. People’s homes will be turned into battlegrounds as their own family become their enemies.
2. Jesus or Family
“So,” you might be thinking, “is Jesus saying that I might have to pick between following Him and having a good relationship with my family?”
And the answer is, “that’s exactly what He’s saying.” Look at what Jesus says in verse 37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Do you hear what Jesus is saying here? If you love your mom or dad more than you love Jesus, then you don’t have what it takes to be a follower of Jesus. If you love your son or your daughter more than you love Jesus, then you don’t have what it take to be a Christian.
This is a hard pill to swallow. For many of us evangelical Christians, “following Jesus” and “having a good family life” are basically one and the same. Sometimes, we do get to follow God with our families, and we should praise God for that. But I wonder how much of the time Jesus is just something that we add on just to make our family lives better. How many families come to church not because the parents love God, but because they think a bit of Jesus is good for their kids? And how many of those families will leave church when their kids become teenagers and the church tries to actually hold them accountable for their sinful behaviour?
But if this is a hard pill for us to swallow, think of how much harder it would have been for Jesus’ original hearers. And yet Jesus says to them, “Me first. If you want to be my disciple, I come first. I come before your family—before your mother and father, and even before your children. Your allegiance to me comes first and displaces all other allegiances.”
It’s hard for us to fathom just how radical this teaching would have been to those first people. But perhaps some of you might be able to taste this. You might be swallowing right now and thinking of what it might mean to truly love Jesus more than your family. To truly give Jesus all of your allegiance, and to follow Him whole-heartedly even if that means a painful break in relationships with the people you are closest with.
To some of you, what I’m describing might feel not so much like a way of living—it might feel more like dying. Choosing Jesus over your family might feel like death.
And so is it any surprise to see what Jesus says next?
3. Jesus or Life
“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).
I don’t think we should miss how seamlessly these two verses move from a discussion on loving Jesus more than your family to a discussion on death.
And yes, verse 38 is about death. Jesus’ audience knew what “taking up your cross” meant. They had seen people take up their crosses, multiple times, in real life. They knew that people took up their crosses when they were walking out to be killed on those crosses.
Sadly, we’re so used to seeing crosses all around us, even like this cross up over here today, and we’re used to shallow language about “that’s my cross to bear.” And in all of this it’s easy to miss how horrific and shudder-inducing this language truly is.
Crucifixion was the most painful and agonizing and cruel and shameful form of death ever invented. It left a stain on a family’s reputation that could never be erased. Dying on a cross was the worst thing that could happen to anybody, ever.
And Jesus says that His disciples are those who will carry their crosses and follow Him. It’s not just about choosing Jesus over your family. It’s about choosing Jesus over life. Discipleship is about dying.
Now, we might ask, is Jesus talking about real death here? And the answer is surely yes. Crosses were for killing. This is the first indication in Matthew’s gospel of the way in which Jesus would be killed as a sacrifice for His people. Jesus was killed for us on a real cross, and history suggests that most of the 12 apostles died in the same way. Throughout the past 2,000 years, millions of Christians have died for their faith in Jesus, many in extremely painful ways, and many by literal crucifixion.
And there is no question that Jesus is telling His followers that if they are not willing to follow Him that far—if they are not willing to follow Him to a literal cross—then they are not able to be His disciples.
As Richard France wrote about this verse, this “is the prospect Jesus holds out before any ‘worthy’ disciple: a savage death and public disgrace. Jesus Himself will literally go through that experience, and he offers his followers the prospect of the same.” [R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 411.]
But Jesus is not just telling His followers that they might die for Him, and that they need to be willing to do that, and that’s it. I’ve heard this passage taught this way before: “you have to be willing for martyrdom.” That’s certainly true, but there’s so much more than that.
Jesus’ audience knew that when someone took up their cross, their life was effectively over. There was no going back. The public shame and the physical pain had already begun as the condemned person walked through the jeering crowd, carrying the heavy cross-piece, already less than a human as they marched to die.
And hasn’t the context of the previous verses been all about surrendering our closest and most precious relationships to Jesus as we walk the road of discipleship behind Him?
So, in other words, Jesus is calling us to more than just a willingness to die for Him—as important as that is. He’s calling us to a life of dying. He’s calling us, in the language of verse 39, to lose our lives for His sake. To lay down our lives and our closest relationships and follow Him on the death-march of discipleship, exposed on all sides to the ridicule and shame of the world.
That’s what it means to follow Jesus.
4. Jesus or Eternal Loss
Now at this point, it’s not hard to imagine someone saying, “I’m not so sure I’m into that. This sounds pretty terrible to me. I’m not sure a life of death is what I signed up for.”
Perhaps you’re thinking the same thing. Perhaps, when you were first introduced to Jesus, someone told you about all the wonderful things Jesus would bring into your life. Nobody told you about crosses and death and leaving your family behind for Jesus. Maybe these words make you reconsider whether you’re into all this in the first place.
And if that’s the case, then please hear the next words of Jesus in our passage today. In verse 39, Jesus offers us a warning and a promise, and what He says here brings the whole passage into focus. We can’t miss this.
First, let’s hear the warning: “Whoever finds his life will lose it.” If we reject all of this talk about death and crosses and loosing our lives, and we turn aside from Jesus to go find a life for ourselves somewhere else, it’s not going to last. We’re going to end up losing our lives.
Jesus has already warned us up in verse 33 that our eternal destiny hinges on our response to Him. And He’s pointing in the same direction here in verse 39. Whatever life we find apart from Jesus will end up slipping through our fingers. It’s not going to last, we’re going to lose it, and whenever our short life here on earth is over, we will face an eternity of loss apart from Jesus.
But—but!—there’s a promise here, in the second half of our verse. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” When we pledge our allegiance to Jesus, choosing to love Him more than our closest relationships, when we pick up our crosses and follow Him, enduring pain and public shame as we walk behind Him on the death-march of discipleship, we will find life. We will find our true and real and lasting life.
And perhaps you’re wondering, “What does that mean? How can life be found in death?”
And there’s at least two ways we can answer that question. The first is to consider what Jesus is saying about eternal life. All throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been pointing us to this idea of “our best life later.” It was there in the Beatitudes. It was there in the words about storing up treasures in heaven. It’s been here in chapter 10 in Jesus’ teaching about fear and final judgement.
There is a Judgement Day coming. On the other side of that Judgement Day, we will face either eternal reward or eternal punishment. And over and over again Jesus has been calling us to live our lives in the light of those eternal realities. To spend our lives now on what will matter then.
And so that’s surely what Jesus is pointing to here in verse 39. Rejecting Jesus now will mean eternal loss then. Losing our lives for Jesus’ sake now will mean eternal gain then.
This is the same direction that the final verses in our passage point us towards: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:40–42).
There is a reward coming for Jesus’ disciples and those who show them hospitality. That reward is not an earthly reward, because the righteous and the prophets were often treated terribly. Rather, it’s an eternal reward that will make all of the difficulty we experience as we show solidarity to Jesus totally worth it.
And so Jesus is asking us to make the calculus: what would we rather have? A little bit of “life” now, only to lose it all for eternity, or a little bit of death now, only to gain true life in Christ forever?
Do you notice how high the stakes are here? We are talking about forever: eternal gain verses eternal loss. As France put it, “Discipleship… is not a matter of life and death—it is much more serious than that.” (France, 411). Discipleship is about our eternity.
But it’s not just about our eternity, is it? It’s not like we can say, “Ok, I want to live forever, so I’ll grit my teeth and get this ‘following Jesus’ business over with so that I can have a good chance at a good afterlife.”
No, this is all about Jesus. We follow Jesus because He is the bridegroom in whose presence we rejoice and celebrate (9:15). He is our teacher and our master (10:25). We’ve chosen to bear His name (v. 22) and acknowledge Him before people (v. 32). We follow Him because we love Him more than anybody else—including those most closest to us (v. 37).
So this is not about gritting our teeth and bearing it. This is about finding a treasure so valuable that we gladly lose everything to gain it (Matthew 13:44).
a. The Big Picture
Now as we get into some really focused application, I wondered if I needed to give some examples of what all of this might practically look like. Practically, what it looks like to choose Jesus over your family. But as I thought about it some more, I’m pretty sure that most of us will be able, fairly easily, to think about situations where our family wants us to do one thing, and Jesus, through His word, has told us to do something else. Situations where our family has expectations for us that are out-of-sync with the expectations Jesus has for us. Where we have to choose between doing what our family wants and doing what Jesus wants. Between making our family happy and pleasing the Lord
And so instead of giving a bunch of examples that we can probably fill in ourselves, it might be more important for us to pause at the end of this message and the end of this series to make sure that we really understand the big picture that Jesus is teaching us here, and has been teaching us in these various passages all throughout Matthew chapters 8-10.
Being a disciple of Jesus is everything. It’s not just something. Something important to you. Your faith being meaningful to you. Not even having a relationship with Jesus alongside of some other relationships. None of that.
Being a disciple of Jesus is everything. When we become a disciple of Jesus, our entire identity becomes Him. We pledge Him our allegiance, and nothing else can compete with that—not even our relationships with our family. We follow King Jesus even if that creates division, opposition and even violence from those with whom we have the most in common.
And this level of commitment to Jesus isn’t something that a few really radical Christians ascend to. This is something Jesus demands from His disciples at the very moment of following Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Discipleship, “Jesus’ call itself already breaks the ties with the naturally given surroundings in which a person lives. It is not the disciple who breaks them; Christ himself broke them as soon as he called. Christ has untied the person’s immediate connections with the world and bound the person immediately to himself. No one can follow Christ without recognizing and affirming that that break is already complete.” [Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship DBW Vol 4 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works) (p. 93). Fortress Press.]
Do you hear what Bonhoeffer is saying? It’s not like we have a connection to Jesus and a connection to our family. We only have a connection to Jesus, and we show love to our families as a part of our love for Jesus.
That’s why Paul said that a woman was “free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). You’re not allowed to have relationships outside of your relationship to Jesus. This is even why children are told to “obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1). Even children are not to have a relationship with their parents over here, and a relationship with Jesus over there. They are to have an all-encompassing relationship with Jesus, and they obey their parents as a part of that relationship.
That’s what Jesus is saying in this passage and throughout these chapters. He is everything.
b. Making It Personal
And as we draw this all to a close here, let’s make this really personal. In this passage, Jesus has made a number of “whoever” statements. And that “whoever” includes us. So let’s make sure that we don’t miss hearing these passages speak to us in the way they were intended to.
- Do you love your mother or father more than Jesus? If so, then Jesus says you are not worthy of Him. You don’t have what it takes to be His follower.
- Do you love your son or daughter more than Jesus? If so, then Jesus says you are not worthy of Him.
- And let’s remember that this “love” is not just a warm feeling but is revealed by the practical decisions you make when your loyalty to Jesus collides with your loyalty to Jesus. When Jesus and your family each want something different, who wins?
- Have you taken your cross and followed Jesus? If not, then Jesus says you are not worthy of Him.
- Have you “found your life”? If so, then Jesus says you’re going to lose it.
- But… have you lost your life for Jesus? If so, then Jesus says you’re going to find it. Real life awaits you.
I hope we can feel the potent force in Christ’s words this morning. And I hope we can hear that this is for all of us. This is ground-level Christianity 101. To be a disciple of Jesus is to pledge unconditional allegiance to Him, such that nothing else gets in the way.
Please understand that this is not about salvation by works. This is not about earning our way to heaven. “Salvation is a free gift,” as A. W. Pink once said, “but an empty hand must receive it, and not a hand which still tightly grasps the world.” [A.W. Pink, "Signs of the Times," Studies in the Scriptures, 16:373-375.]
Jesus offers us Himself for all of eternity, and so we gladly receive that gift. And from that point on, all of reality, all of our relationships, all of our interests—everything flows through Jesus.
c. Our Response
Now, I wonder how you respond to this today?
1) Some of you may be wondering, “If the terms are set like this, am I even a follower of Christ in the first place?” And I want you to know that I am not going to rush to give you a pat answer to that question.
2 Corinthians 13:5 says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
It is not bad to ask the question, “Do I really know Christ?” We should not assume for a minute that just because we come to church, and are involved in church activities, then we must be a Christian. Perhaps, even though you’ve been a religious person, Jesus Himself is calling you today to lay down your life for Him for the first time.
If you hear that call, please don’t hesitate. Come to Jesus! Lose your life for Him. Pledge your allegiance to Him and Him alone. Repent and receive Christ, your Saviour and your Lord, your Master and your Teacher and your Treasure.
2) Now, there’s another possible response today. Perhaps you hear these words, and although you are confident that you know Christ, you are convicted, because the words of Jesus have revealed ways in which you’ve allowed other interests, other allegiances, other loyalties to spring up and compete with Him. You know there’s times when you’ve tried to hide your cross, when you’ve tried to have other connections besides your connection to Jesus. And you’re feeling the pangs of conscience now.
Don’t be discouraged by this. It is a mercy to experience Jesus calling you back to Himself, back to your first love, back to following Him. Be encouraged that He loves you and is drawing you back to Himself. Confess your confused loyalties to Him, repent of your sin, receive the forgiveness He died for, and keep enjoying the fullness of life that is only found in Him.
3) Perhaps there’s a third way you could respond to this passage today. Maybe you’ve heard all of these words and you’re still thinking, “No way. That is not for me. I don’t mind a little bit of Jesus on Sunday mornings, but I am not interested in dying for anybody.” Maybe that’s you today. Nobody, not even Jesus, is going to come between you and your family or whatever other little part of “life” you’ve tried to find for yourself.
If that’s you, then please hear the warning of Jesus. You will lose whatever life you’ve found apart from Him. It will happen. There is no life apart from Jesus.
So would you ask God to open your eyes to the worth of Jesus? Ask God to help you see Jesus as supremely valuable, worthy of all of your faith and trust and love and obedience and loyalty? Worth losing your life for?
Can you imagine God not wanting to hear that prayer, and not wanting to answer it?
4) A fourth response is encouragement. You know that you have nothing, and Jesus is your everything. You’ve known the pain of death for Jesus. You’ve faced the rejection of your friends, you’ve had to stand alone in the crowd, you’ve been excluded from the inner circle in your workplace, you’ve felt like a stranger among your own flesh and blood. But in all of this living death, you’ve tasted the joy of fellowship with Jesus, and a deepening relationship with His people, and you know the hope of your heavenly reward, and you’ve found these to be better than anything you’ve had to give up for the sake of Christ.
So be encouraged, and press in to Christ even further. Farther up and farther in.
Let’s take a moment now, in the quiet, to ask Him to help us see Jesus this way, that we might joyfully and willingly obey His words and lose our lives for His sake.