DISCIPLESHIP DEMANDS RADICAL COMMITMENT
Grant Osborne: Shallow Christians are not accepted by Jesus as disciples until they have counted the cost and deepened their commitment. Both of these men are more sincere than many who attend church regularly but are unwilling to get involved. Yet Jesus still sends them away with a curt, startling demand for a deeper surrender to him. Too many think they can get into heaven on the basis of a basic “faith” while clinging to the world. Yet James says clearly that “faith without deeds is dead” (Jas 2:26); unless we show by the way we live our lives that Christ is first, we are not disciples. We are saved by grace apart from works (Eph 2:8–9), but our good works are a necessary proof that we have found faith.
R. T. France: In this situation two potential followers declare their intention to go with him. But the interest of the story is not in these two men in themselves (we are told nothing about them, not even whether they in fact joined Jesus or not), but in Jesus’ remarkable responses to them both which raise an abrupt challenge to any easy understanding of discipleship. They express both the uncompromising authority of the demand Jesus makes on his followers and also the radical change of life-style which such following must involve.
Van Parunak: So in these two individuals, the Lord warns us against two errors of discipleship:
- premature enthusiasm, and
- distraction by the cares of the world.
Charles Swindoll: Because of His supernatural discernment, Jesus often responded to people in ways that seem strange to us at first glance. As we journey with Jesus through this section of Matthew’s account of His earthly ministry, we’ll be able to see how He responded to people in four separate settings. If we pay close attention along the way, we’ll learn how not to follow Jesus.
Leon Morris: The paragraph brings out the necessity of wholeheartedness in following Jesus. There were people who were well disposed to him and apparently recognized that his teaching was outstanding, but who were not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to be real disciples. Matthew leaves his readers in no doubt that Jesus demanded wholehearted loyalty.
William Barclay: Jesus did not want followers who were swept away by a moment of emotion, which quickly blazed and just as quickly died. He did not want those who were carried away by a tide of mere feeling, which quickly flowed and just as quickly ebbed. He wanted disciples who knew what they were doing. He talked about taking up a cross (Matthew 10:38). He talked about setting himself above the dearest relationships in life (Luke 14:26); he talked about giving away everything to the poor (Matthew 19:21). He was always saying: ‘Yes, I know that your heart is running out to me, but – do you love me enough for that?’
John MacArthur: Impressive words of affirmation are easy to make, especially when one does not know the cost of commitment involved. The Lord knew that the initial declared faith of many of His followers was shallow and superficial. When Jesus was in Jerusalem during the first Passover after He began His ministry, “many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing.” Yet, John goes on to say, “Jesus on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23–25). The Lord had no faith in their faith because He knew it was not genuine. Those people were only committed to the wonder and excitement that accompanied His work, not to Him as Lord or to the work of the gospel itself. Jesus repeatedly refused to take advantage of temporary popularity, which He knew would soon turn to permanent rejection.
- First, following Jesus may cost a disciple even the most basic security such as a place to live (8:18–20). …
- Second, following Jesus takes precedence over all social obligations, even those family obligations one’s society and religion declare to be ultimate (8:21–22).
“Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him,
He gave orders to depart to the other side.”
D. A. Carson: Perhaps Jesus’ imminent departure to the east side of the lake prompted certain people to beg him to include them in the circle of disciples going with him. Discipleship in the strict sense required close attachment to the master’s person.
J. Ligon Duncan: We don’t know exactly why the Lord Jesus determined at that point to cross to the other side of the sea and continue His ministry there, but it may well be like in other places; He wanted a break from the attention. We know times in which the crowds pressed around Him, and the Lord Jesus would withdraw to a solitary place, sometimes to pray. It may well be that He wanted a solitary time on that boat crossing to the other side so that the crowds couldn’t be pressing in on Him. There could have been other reasons. It may well have been to keep the enthusiasm of these crowds who had already seen His miracles from going too high. The Lord Jesus knew that He had certain things that He had to accomplish during His ministry, and these people had seen Him perform miracles, and no doubt their enthusiasm for His message and His work would have been spreading around Galilee by this time, and it may well be that the Lord Jesus didn’t want that enthusiasm to get out of hand, and so He withdrew to another place to minister. It could have been that He withdrew in order to test the zeal of the more faithful of those who were following and listening to Him. We know that huge crowds gathered and listened to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, but it would have been relatively easy to walk outside of one’s village and hear Him preach just outside of that village. It would have been rather more difficult to follow Him when he had gone to the other side of Galilee, into the land of Gad, to preach. You would really have had to be a devoted follower of the Lord Jesus Christ to make that hike to hear Him preach! He may well have intended that as a test of those who were truly committed to Him, to see if they would follow. Or, it may simply have been that it was the Lord Jesus’ job to preach the gospel in all the land, and as He had preached on that side of Galilee, now he was going to Gad, on the other side, so that the word of God would have been heard at every place throughout the land of Israel. We don’t know exactly why. The text doesn’t give us anything, but to tell us that when that crowd crushed in on Christ, He told the disciples to ‘get in the boats, we’re going to the other side.’ And so they began to make their way.
I. (:19-20) DISCIPLESHIP DEMANDS COSTLY COMMITMENT AND FORSAKING OF EARTHLY COMFORTS AND SECURITY
A. (:19) A Scribe Volunteers for Discipleship
“And a certain scribe came and said to Him,
‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’”
E. Michael Green: In response to the enthusiastic ‘I will follow you wherever you go’ (19), Jesus points out the cost of commitment. To follow him will involve hardship, insecurity and homelessness. That was his lot. It would be the lot of his disciples too. It is remarkable that a teacher of the law should honour Jesus as highly as is reported here, for Jesus had not been educated at the scribal schools. But admiration will not suffice. Discipleship demands sterner stuff: blood, toil, tears, sweat. Is he prepared for the cost?
B. (:20) Jesus Confronts Him with Discipleship Demands
“And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests;
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’”
Walter Wilson: During his time on earth, this exalted figure lacks the sort of refuge available even to humble creatures such as birds and foxes (cf. Ps 84:3), his existence being defined instead by displacement and deprivation. To be a disciple, then, entails more than an initial decision to follow Jesus. It entails also a willingness to follow him specifically in his capacity as the Son of Man (cf. 20:28), the assumption being that Jesus’s vagrant existence establishes a pattern for those who would follow him. Accordingly, his disciples will have to substitute conventional sources of human security with Christ’s protection (cf. 23:37, also with avian imagery).
Grant Osborne: Jesus speaks of his itinerant ministry and lifestyle (cf. 2:13–14; 12:15; 15:21; 16:1–5), as does Paul when he notes the “homeless” nature of the apostolic ministry (1 Cor 4:11, cf. Heb 11:13–16). There will be no comfortable, settled life for one who truly follows Jesus. To the man’s “wherever you go” Jesus adds, “OK, will you go this far?” Jesus does not want shallow commitments but demands that the one who truly “follows” him count the cost (cf. Luke 14:25–35) and make a radical commitment.
R. T. France: Here in 8:20 the reference [“Son of Man”] is to Jesus’ current status, but whereas in 9:6 and 12:8 the title will denote a figure of unique authority, here it speaks paradoxically of a state of earthly deprivation which is sharply contrasted with the heavenly glory of Dan 7:13–14. As Matthew’s gospel progresses it will be the future, heavenly authority of the Son of Man which will be increasingly in focus, but this first use of the title brings out the contrast between its literal meaning and its specifically Danielic connotations: the one who is to rule over all first shares with his disciples in all the insecurity of their human condition.
Charles Swindoll: Jesus called the scribe’s bluff. He was all talk but no follow-through. The principle here is again simple: Don’t follow Jesus full of yourself. Don’t be a person with lots of words but who’s short on humility. There’s a saying among the seasoned ranchers in West Texas when they meet up with a kid with a big mouth and a lot of ambition but no scars or experience —“The kid’s all hat and no horse.” That was the scribe. He was all books, but no wisdom; all knowledge, but no courage.
John Nolland: Thus far in Matthew’s story all that offers itself is the leaving behind involved in the call of the four fishermen in 4:18-22 and the pattern of itineration in 4:23. But as the story unfolds, Jesus will soon be unwelcome in “the country of the Gerasenes” (8:33), and the disciples will be warned to anticipate (sometimes) not being welcomed (10:14), judicial persecution (vv. 16-20), and family and wider hostility (vv. 21-22, 34-36) and will be advised to flee from their persecutors (v. 23). And these isolating experiences are to be linked with taking up the cross and following Jesus (v. 38), a concept which will gradually become clear as Jesus announces his coming Passion and then goes through the experience (chaps. 26–27). Deprivation plays its part in what Jesus is speaking of, but the main focus is on being made unwelcome by others. The scribe is offering to join what is to become an outcast group.
S. Lewis Johnson: Since we have become believers, this world is not our home. The foxes have holes. The birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head. And the disciple of Jesus Christ, who intends to truly follow him wherever he goes, can never be at home in this world. The world is not my home. We are passing through, on the way, to our true home, for our citizenship is in heaven.
Donald Hagner: Discipleship, as Jesus will suggest, involves more than just willingness to follow in the sense of accompanying someone, or even willingness to listen to and learn from someone and to live with that person as did students with their rabbis; it involves at bottom a total lifestyle. It is important to note (with Kingsbury, NTS 34  45–59) that although the scribe reflects good Jewish practice in choosing his teacher, in the Gospel narrative it is consistently Jesus who initiates the disciple-master relationship by his sovereign choice of disciples. This perhaps explains the coolness of Jesus’ response in the next verse.
Leon Morris: “Laying the head” here stands for owning a place where one may rest; Jesus cannot claim a place of his own where he can sleep. As Schweizer puts it, he was “devoid of all middle-class security.” If the scribe wished to follow him, he must bear this in mind. Jesus sat loose to possessions, he had no secure job, and he owned very little. To be the disciple of such a man might well be interesting, but it would be far from comfortable. The scribe’s reaction is not given, but certainly the cost of discipleship is brought clearly before him. . .
“Son of Man” — Why did Jesus use the term? I have suggested elsewhere that that was
- firstly because it was a rare term and one without nationalistic associations. It would lead to no political complications….
- Secondly, because it had overtones of divinity….
- Thirdly, because of its societary implications. The Son of man implies the redeemed people of God.
- Fourthly, because it had undertones of humanity. He took upon Him our weakness.
John Broadus: Frequently journeying far and wide over the country, even as now he was about to cross the lake into a wild, inhospitable region, his life was one of peculiar trial and self-denying toil, and if the Scribe proposed to follow him wherever he went, he must make up his mind to follow a homeless wanderer, and so to endure many hardships….We see from this incident how careful our Lord was to warn men beforehand what they were to expect in entering upon his service as in Luke 14. And although it is not now the duty of all his followers to spend their lives in wandering labors, it is still the duty of every one to “renounce himself, and take up his cross,” and in the highest sense to “follow” Jesus
II. (:21-22) DISCIPLESHIP DEMANDS URGENCY OF COMMITMENT AND PRIMACY OF ALLEGIANCE IN PURSUING KINGDOM PRIORITIES
A. (:21) A Potential Disciple Volunteers for Discipleship
“And another of the disciples said to Him,
‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’”
R. T. France: The potential disciple’s words are usually understood of the immediate and pressing responsibility of arranging the funeral for his father who had just died. Burial took place within 24 hours of the death, so he would not be asking for a long postponement, though subsequent ceremonies could last up to a week. The arrangements were the responsibility of the eldest son (Gen 50:5–7; Tob 4:3; 6:15; 14:11–12; Sir 38:16), and Jewish custom and piety demanded that they take priority over all other commitments, even the most essential prayers (Lev 21:1–3; m. Ber. 3:1). The request would thus be entirely reasonable, indeed essential. If his filial duties prevented him from joining the group in the boat just now, he could catch up with Jesus as soon as his responsibilities had been discharged; the word “first” implies that was his intention. No Jew, especially one who took religious obligations seriously, could have expected him to do otherwise. Jesus’ refusal to allow so essential a filial duty would then be profoundly shocking.
But K. E. Bailey, drawing on the insight of Arabic commentators and on his own experience of cultures and idioms of the Middle East, insists that such a scenario results from a “western” reading of the text and is culturally impossible. If the father had just died, the son could hardly be out at the roadside with Jesus; his place was to be keeping vigil and preparing for the funeral. Rather, to “bury one’s father” is standard idiom for fulfilling one’s filial responsibilities for the remainder of the father’s lifetime, with no prospect of his imminent death. This would then be a request for indefinite postponement of discipleship, likely to be for years rather than days. In that case Jesus’ reply would be less immediately shocking—the man’s proposed “discipleship” was apparently not very serious.
Charles Swindoll: The man had a situation at home regarding his aging father. Evidently, he was the eldest son of his family, and thus responsible for his father’s eventual burial. Contrary to what many readers assume, the father was not dead yet. If the man’s father had already died and was awaiting burial, it’s highly doubtful the son would have been out among the crowd of Jesus’ followers, especially since burial generally took place the same day a death occurred. The expression “bury my father” (8:21) thus likely referred to staying at home for the remainder of his parent’s life so he could settle the family estate. The man hoped that he could indefinitely defer enlistment among the ranks of Jesus’ close disciples until his father died and he received his inheritance. Perhaps then, being fully funded from his family estate, he would be able to provide for himself and serve Jesus in style. . . The only reason the man wanted a rain check from discipleship was because he wanted a piece of the pie back home!
B. (:22) Jesus Confronts Him with Discipleship Demands
“But Jesus said to him,
‘Follow Me; and allow the dead to bury their own dead.’”
Michael Wilkins: Jesus will later rebuke the Pharisees and teachers of the law for not rightly honoring father and mother (15:1–9), so he is not advocating the contravening of the Old Testament prescription. Trying to understand Jesus’ response has led to a number of explanations.
- Some think that the person’s father has not yet died and that he wants to stay with him until then.
- Or perhaps he is returning to fulfill the second stage of burial by the transfer of the bones of his father a year after death to an ossuary.
- Others look for explanation in a metaphorical allusion in Jesus’ language, so that he intends to mean something like “let those who are spiritually dead bury the physically dead.”
In any case, Jesus perceives the real problem with this disciple: He had not yet understood clearly the place that Jesus must have as the primary allegiance of his life.
Allen Browne: So, did Jesus lose this disciple? Probably. Surely we could do a better job of selling people the gospel message. How about some popular music, with a good light show to load up people’s senses? Then get a motivational speaker to convince them they could fulfil their potential much better with faith. Then reel ’em in with a moment of decision, where they can buy in simply by raising their hand. We could make it so easy, with no expectations or demands on their life. We could even ask the crowd to close their eyes, since it’s just a personal decision and we wouldn’t want them publicly embarrassed.
Yep. In the last 200 years, we’ve finally developed what Jesus was missing: a response mechanism that’s sophisticated, slick and sensitive. It’s so much easier to get results now than with his approach.
I mean, we wouldn’t want people to go away with the idea that following Jesus would so change their priorities that they could end up homeless. We wouldn’t want people to think following Jesus would take priority over every other duty in life.
When Jesus spoke of lacking accommodation, he meant it literally: he and his followers slept rough as they travelled from place to place. Perhaps his comments about death also reflected awareness of the final battle they would face in Jerusalem.
There’s something honest about Jesus’ picture of discipleship as suffering and struggle. He called people to give their lives for the kingdom of God.
Robert Gundry: False disciples find supposedly legitimate reasons not to meet the rigorous demands that Jesus makes. Again the present tense in “Jesus says to him” underlines Jesus’ command to follow him and to let the dead bury their own dead, which probably refers to secondary burial, the custom of boxing up the bones of dead people after the decomposition of their flesh. The custom made room for further corpses on burial shelves in tombs. In the present passage, if the father had just died his son would have been already engaged in the initial burial of his father rather than talking to Jesus. But if the father was already buried, his son might want to delay following Jesus till the father’s remains were ready for secondary burial, a filial duty just as the initial burial was. “The dead” who should “bury their own dead” then refers to family members already dead and secondarily buried in the same tomb with the father: they should take care of his secondary burial since he’s already in their midst. As though they could! But Jesus is speaking ironically. His point is that an immediate following of him takes precedence over all else, even over the duty of a son to take care of his father’s bones (compare 1 Kings 19:19–21).
S. Lewis Johnson: Isn’t this an outrageous claim? The Lord Jesus claiming that he himself should have implicit obedience even above our responsibilities to our families? Why if he were only a man, this is an outrageous claim. But if he is more than a man, then it’s the only wise and right claim for God to make.
E. Michael Green: At all events it is a warning against missing the boat, and a challenge to respond and begin discipleship while opportunity knocks.
D. A. Carson: In this inquirer he detected insincerity, a qualified acceptance of Jesus’ lordship. And that was not good enough. Commitment to Jesus must be without reservation. Such is the importance Jesus himself attached to his own person and mission.
Daniel Doriani: Jesus replies, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (8:22). This is a metaphor. The dead, by definition, cannot do anything. He means let the spiritually dead care for the spiritually dead, for matters of this world, such as burials and aging parents. True disciples follow Jesus now.
In a way, therefore, Jesus’ challenge is milder than it initially seems. He is not interrupting funeral proceedings. Yet in a way the challenge is stronger than it seems. For Jesus is asking the man to give him greater honor and service than his parents. There is only one person, in that culture, who deserves greater honor than our parents: God. Jesus is telling the man, “I deserve your supreme honor and attention.” In our culture, self-development commands supreme loyalty for many of us. Jesus tells us the same thing: “I deserve your supreme loyalty and attention.”
Donald Hagner: Disciples are therefore in a sense always learners who are discovering more about discipleship as they attempt to live in obedience to Jesus. But the key point is that the call is radical; so too must the responding commitment be radical. It would be as much a mistake to take the statement of v 22 quite literally (unless in fact the proposed delay was to be a long one) as it would be to dismember oneself for the sake of righteousness (thus Carson rightly). But, despite the hyperbole, there is a fundamental principle here about the radical character, urgency, and uncompromising nature of discipleship that is to be heard with every invitation to, or volunteering of, discipleship to Jesus and the cause of the kingdom.
William Barclay: The tragedy of life is so often the tragedy of the unseized moment. We are moved to some fine action, we are moved to the abandoning of some weakness or habit, we are moved to say something to someone, some word of sympathy, or warning, or encouragement; but the moment passes, and the thing is never done, the evil thing is never conquered, the word is never spoken. In the best of us, there is a certain lethargy and inertia; there is a certain habit of procrastination, there is a certain fear and indecision; and often the moment of fine impulse is never turned into action and into fact.
Jesus was saying to this man: ‘You are feeling at the moment that you must get out of that dead society in which you move; you say you will get out when the years have passed and your father has died; get out now – or you will never get out at all.’