Passage: Luke 9:51–9:62
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Those words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who, in the 1940s, stood firm against the Nazi Third Reich. Listen to that again: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
As we hear that statement, our initial thought might be one of skepticism. Come and die? Really? That seems a little extreme. Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s perspective was shaped too much by the times in which he lived. Bonhoeffer did, in fact, lose his life at the hands of the Nazis, so maybe we should take his view of discipleship with a grain of salt. Perhaps he overstated the case.
But then we read passages like the one before us today in Luke 9, and we recognize – or at least we should – that Bonhoeffer wasn’t saying anything new. He was simply teaching what Jesus taught. According to Jesus, there is a cost to discipleship. That cost may be something difficult that we have to endure, or it may be something worthwhile that we have to pursue. But either way, discipleship comes at a cost. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die, that is, he bids him to count the cost. This call comes from Jesus himself.
At the same time, honesty compels us to admit that this does sound strange to our 21st century ears. For decades now, churches have made it their aim to make discipleship easier, to lower the barriers to entry, so to speak, so that more people will make a decision for Christ. And while the motive may have been commendable – we certainly want to see more people saved by grace through faith – the pursuit of that goal has, at times, dulled our ears to the Scriptures. We struggle to hear what Jesus said about following him.
What do you mean I have to deny myself to be a Christian? I thought believing in God would make my life better. What do you mean if my eye causes me to sin, I ought to tear it out? That sounds like my hang-ups are my fault or something. It is no wonder, then, that when it comes to Christian discipleship, the one person who is most challenging to the church today is Jesus. His teaching on discipleship is sadly much different than how we are often taught to think
And that’s why we need to hear the Word of God. People sometimes ask me, “Why put so much stock in preaching the Bible? There are other ways to do ministry, you know.” But, this is the reason why – it’s because we always stand in need of transformation. We always need our hearts and minds to be renewed by the Word of God. And that’s why we need passages like the one before us today in Luke 9. Make no mistake, Jesus challenges us in this text. He challenges much of what passes for discipleship in the contemporary church. And that’s precisely why we need to listen. Here we find the Lord Jesus correcting our perspective on discipleship and calling us, once again, to bear the cost of following him.
As we look at the text we should note that v51 marks a new section in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, where the cross awaits him. Everything is now running to Calvary. And yet, notice how v51 begins – “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up.” What does that mean – to be taken up? It’s a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. That’s where the cross leads – not merely to suffering and death, but ultimately to life and victory for Jesus Christ. Catch the theme that is laid out here at the start. Yes, things are headed toward the cross, but amazingly, the cross is also the pathway to Jesus’ triumph.
And that theme frames this entire passage. Jesus calls his disciples to bear the cost of discipleship, but one of the things they will learn in this process is that while the cost is high, it’s also worth it. Following Jesus demands your life, but in the end, it leads to life as well.
Let’s learn from the Lord Jesus what we can expect on the road of discipleship. This passage presents three costs that disciples should expect to encounter as they seek to follow Jesus by faith. Some are difficult things we have to endure, while the last is a worthwhile calling disciples must pursue. Three costs.
The Cost of Worldly Rejection
The first comes in vv51-56. It’s the Cost of Worldly Rejection. We just noted that Jesus turns for Jerusalem in v51, but to get from Galilee to Jerusalem, the shortest route was to go through Samaria, which is where Jesus goes, v52. Now, you may know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t always get along, and the conflict was so intense that most Jews would travel around Samaria ran through it. But that’s not what Jesus does. That fact alone is pretty striking. Jesus is focused on taking the good news of the kingdom to all kinds of people, so he sends messengers ahead, v52, to get things ready.
But the Samaritans, at least in this village, don’t want to hear what Jesus has to say. V53, they reject Jesus and, by extension, his message. But catch the reason for their rejection – “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” One of the things Jews and Samaritans argued about was the proper place for worshipping God. The Jews said Jerusalem was the right place, while the Samaritans believed Mt. Gerizim in Samaria was the acceptable site. But Luke’s description here is very revealing and goes deeper than that religious controversy. Notice the phrase Luke uses – Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem. He actually says it twice – v51 and here in v53. What is the point?
The point is that Jesus will not be deterred from the cross. He’s not going to get drawn into religious squabbles. Perhaps the Samaritans wanted him to pick a side, but Jesus isn’t coming to settle an argument. No, Jesus is dead-set on going to Jerusalem in order to do his Father’s will. He will not be deterred from his mission. His face is set toward the cross because the cross is the reason he has come.
And therefore, the Samaritans reject him. This is a small but important reminder. In order to come to Jesus, you have to come on his terms, not yours. This is part of the cost of discipleship. Jesus doesn’t conform to what you want or expect a Savior to be. The gospel is not Jesus’ promise to fit into your religious framework. Jesus has his mission from the Father, and that mission is to shed his blood for the salvation of his people. If you want to follow him, then you’ve got to follow him on his terms, which means embracing him, by faith, as the Savior who suffered for you, in your place, achieving the salvation you could never achieve on your own. That’s part of the picture in v53. This Samaritan village rejects Jesus because they want a Savior who fits their expectation, not one who came to bear the cross.
Of course, this is a tragic decision, isn’t it? When faced with the Author of Life, these Samaritans foolishly turn him away. Considering who Jesus is, this is a reason for divine judgment. And in fact, that’s exactly what James and John decide. They jump straight to judgment, v54 – “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’” James and John cannot fathom that Samaritans, of all people, would get away with mistreating and rejecting Jesus. So, they ask, “Do you want us to handle this, Jesus? How dare they reject you. We can call down fire and wipe these fools out. Just say the word.” They’re eager to inflict judgment.
Now before we jump on the disciples at this point, remember back in v5 of chapter 9, how Jesus told the disciples to shake the dust off their feet when any town refused their message. Do you remember that? What did that act symbolize? It symbolized that the judgment of God now rested on that town. James and John probably have that in mind when they ask Jesus about nuking this village. Rejecting Jesus does invite the judgment of God.
But that’s also where they cross the line. There’s a difference between shaking the dust off your feet, which is a warning of judgment, and calling down fire from heaven, which is an outpouring of judgment. That’s what James and John miss, and that’s why Jesus rebukes them, v55. Jesus wants them to understand that now is not the time for judgment. That day is coming, but it’s not today, Jesus says. Today is the day for preaching good news. Today is the day for declaring God’s kindness, so that sinners might come to repentance.
In fact, notice what Jesus does in v56. He simply goes on to the next village. Don’t overlook that. It’s not that Jesus takes rejection lightly. It’s not that Jesus minimizes the judgment of God. Far from it. No one is clearer on the danger of unbelief than Jesus. No one preached the reality of hell more than Jesus. But Jesus also understands that today is not the day for that final judgment to come. In that sense, Jesus is teaching his disciples – both with his words and with his example – to expect rejection but then to keep going with the work. People will refuse to hear the gospel, the world will reject you, so what do you do? Look for the next person, the next opportunity, and make Christ known.
Brothers and Sisters, this is one of the costs of discipleship – people will reject the gospel of Christ. And in response, we have to leave their rejection in God’s hands and remain focused on the mission. Listen, as the culture’s rejection of the gospel intensifies, this is a reminder we need, and here’s why. It is very easy to drift into the James and John mindset – where the desire for vindication and a right belief in God’s judgment can actually obscure our task. We can get so worked up about how despicable the world is and how deeply our culture deserves the judgment of God that we end up losing sight of the mission.
Let’s remember, brothers and sisters, that we are not called to be the instruments of God’s judgment. We are called to proclaim the good news that Christ saves sinners like us from the judgment that is surely to come. I’ll put it very plainly. It is not Christ-like to burst out in anger against those who reject the Lord. It is Christ-like to follow Paul’s example that we read in Philippians 3, where he was moved to tears over those who walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. When the world rejects the gospel, which are you more inclined to display – anger or tears?
This is one of those costs we endure in following Jesus. The world will reject us, just as the world rejected the Lord, and still, we go to the next village, the next situation, the next person, and we proclaim the good news of Christ.
The Cost of Earthly Hardship
Jesus describes a second cost of discipleship in vv57-58, and it is the Cost of Earthly Hardship. Beginning in v57, Jesus has three brief conversations with potential disciples. Luke doesn’t provide the outcome to any of these conversations, and that’s significant. It puts the burden of response on us. These conversations are meant to provoke reflection and response on our part. Will we bear the cost that Jesus describes?
In this first instance, Jesus is approached by a man who professes his readiness to follow the Lord no matter what. Notice v57 – “someone said to [Jesus], ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’” Now, that sounds like a high level of commitment, doesn’t it? This guy is ready to go, just say the word. He sounds like a disciple who is prepared to bear the cost.
But words are easier than actions, and professing commitment is different than displaying commitment. Notice Jesus’ response, v58, where he presses the man to see the reality of discipleship – “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’” Now, that’s an alarming statement. The wild animals, Jesus says, are better off than me. Jesus doesn’t even have a place to lay his head. This world is not his home, in other words. He enjoys little comfort, he receives little honor, and he often finds little reception.
In fact, think about what he just endured in Samaria, back in v52. The messengers went ahead, at least in part, to seek out accommodations for Jesus, so that he could carry on his ministry. But there was no welcome given, remember? That’s the tenor of Jesus’ life, from start to finish. He was born in a borrowed stable, and now he has no place to lay his head. He is a stranger in this world.
And that means the man in v57 should expect the same. He should expect earthly hardship as he follows Jesus. Now, let’s be clear at this point. To follow the Lord Jesus means first and foremost that you trust his life, death, and resurrection to save you from your sins. That’s foundational because that’s the gospel. Christ died to redeem us from the curse of the law, so that the cost of our salvation was paid in full by Jesus Christ.
But at the same time, to follow the Lord Jesus also means that you walk in his footsteps, enduring the same kinds of hardship that he endured, all for the sake of his name. And that is true here in Luke 9. To follow the Lord means we endure the cost of earthly hardship, and we do so because we belong to Jesus.
Brothers and Sisters, what I want us to see here is that Jesus’ point is not so much about your material status – whether or not you are well off, whether you have a little or a lot. Jesus has a lot to say about our possessions; he has a lot to say about money. But the primary point here is not really about possessions. You don’t have to literally be homeless to follow Jesus.
Rather, Jesus’ point is much more pressing. His concern is that we not be at home in this world. As Christians, we should expect to be out of step with the world, to endure hardship, as we seek to follow Jesus. There are some levels of comfort the world offers that we will not experience. There are certain kinds of prestige and acceptance that we will not receive in this life. If you follow Jesus and stand firm on what his Word teaches about human sexuality, for example, you will be out of step with the world. If you follow Jesus and insist, as his Word does, that he is the only Savior, you will not receive the world’s acceptance. You’ll be “homeless,” so to speak, in the economy of this age. Like the Lord Jesus himself, we should expect to be sojourners and strangers in this world.
To put it another way, brothers and sisters, being a Christian is not about winning friends and influencing people. Following Jesus is not a recipe for upward social mobility, and we should be wary of every confusing the two. Are we mindful of this cost, brothers and sisters? Are we seeking, everyday, to mature in God’s Word, to grow stronger in faith, so that we might endure earthly hardship in faithfulness to Jesus? Or, have we begun to believe that our lives as Christians ought to be easy and free of difficulty? Have we become too comfortable with the world? Listen, I am alarmed sometimes at the level of worldliness that still resides in my heart. I am alarmed at how deeply I want what the world has to offer, and maybe you feel the same way. If so, then let’s listen to the Lord Jesus here in v58, and let’s pray for the grace to live as the sojourners and strangers that we are. To follow Christ is to endure earthly hardship, and we see that in the life of Jesus himself.
The Cost of Kingdom Priorities
The third and final cost comes in the last two conversations, vv59-62, and the focus shifts from what disciples must endure to what we must pursue. Discipleship comes with the Cost of Kingdom Priorities. This time, Jesus initiates the conversation, v59, and he commands a man to follow him. The man is willing, Luke tells us, but he first asks Jesus for time to bury his father. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Perhaps the man’s father has already died or is about to die. Whatever the specifics, the man is willing, but not yet. He needs to tend to this other responsibility.
Jesus’ response, however, is stunning. V60 – “Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’” If you find that statement shocking, that’s because Jesus intends it to be. Jesus is saying that in the course of life, nothing is as urgent or necessary as devoting oneself to Christ and to his kingdom. Even family obligations that are good and right must be seen in light of Jesus Christ.
Understand, in Jesus’ day, the funeral process was lengthy and quite involved. The delay this man asks for is probably not a day or two. It could be awhile. But that’s just it, Jesus says. If the man waits to follow Jesus until after he buries his father, who’s to say there won’t be another urgent need that demands his attention? If he delays now, why not delay then? And over time, what happens is that the man never starts to follow Jesus by faith. There’s always something more urgent, something more pressing that I have to take care of.
Do you see the problem? If the kingdom of God is not first in priority, then it will never be a priority. You’ll always be pushing the start date back, until one day there’s no time left to start.
That same sense of kingdom urgency also show up in the final conversation, vv61-62. Again, a man declares his willingness to follow Jesus, v61, but he too needs a delay. He needs to say farewell to his family. It’s like the previous situation, isn’t it? “I’m ready, Jesus, but first let me take care of this.”
But again, Jesus’ emphasizes the immediateness, the urgency of living for God’s kingdom. V62 – “Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts the hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” Now, Jesus is using two illustrations here. The first is clearly from the world of farming. In Jesus’ day, if you were plowing with a team of oxen and you looked back over your shoulder, chances are your rows of crops would not be straight. And if your rows aren’t straight, you don’t make the best use of your field or your labor. Looking back, in other words, is not a recipe for fruitful farming.
The second illustration, however, is the more powerful one. In the OT, the experience of looking back was a picture of divided loyalty leading to unfaithfulness. Think about Israel in the wilderness, Exodus 16. They looked back on their life in Egypt, where they had food and bread to the full, and they grumbled against God. Their looking back led to unfaithfulness. Or, think about Lot’s wife, Genesis 19. She looked back on Sodom because that’s where her heart was. That’s where her allegiance was, and in looking back, she fell short of trusting the Lord.
That’s what Jesus is getting at here. Jesus is not opposed to the family – far from it! What Jesus warns against is a divided loyalty, a disposition of the heart that is attached to the things of this world above all else. In that sense, Jesus is redefining how we think about our lives, and that redefinition is costly. Like everything else with the kingdom of God, this turns our perspective upside down. I love my family the best by loving the Lord Jesus the most. I serve my neighbor the best by serving the Lord Jesus first and foremost. And I minister to the world most effectively by focusing, with all my strength, on the good news of Christ and what God has done in and through him. Divided loyalties don’t lead to faithfulness. If we want to live with kingdom priorities, then Jesus demands our absolute allegiance.
Listen, I don’t know any believer who would say he doesn’t want to grow in his commitment to Christ and to his kingdom. I don’t know any Christian would say she doesn’t want to be more devoted in her allegiance to the Lord. But here’s the truth. When the time comes to make that commitment and endure that cost, I do know many believers who say like the man in v59, “Hold on, Jesus – let me do this other thing first. Let me attend to this other priority, and then I’ll focus on the Lord and on his kingdom.”
I know Christians like that because I am one. I’d prefer discipleship to be easy. I often find myself saying, “Well, when the kids are older – when the church is in a more stable place – when I’m in a better frame of mind – then I’ll press into those kingdom priorities. Then, I’ll go deeper in my allegiance to the gospel.”
But do you know what happens with that mindset? It just keeps pushing absolute allegiance farther down the road. There’s always another priority, isn’t there? There’s always another good thing that demands my attention, and that means the absolute allegiance Jesus calls is left in the category of “Well, maybe one day.”
What about you, brothers and sisters? Can you relate to that “maybe one day” mindset? If so, then perhaps today is the day that you hear afresh the words of the Savior – “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Discipleship is costly, but the end of the road is life with the Lord Jesus himself.
Where is he calling you to take up the cross today? It could be a renewed commitment to take in his Word, day by day: studying, reading, meditating, and obeying what God has said. It could be a renewed focus on prayer, where you commune with the heavenly Father and bear the burdens of others in his presence. It could be a deepened commitment to the life of the church body, aiming to regularly encourage fellow members and be a means of grace in their lives. It could be the humble boldness to continue pursuing your neighbor or co-worker, praying that God would open the door for the gospel and give them faith. That’s the stuff of the Christian life. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t generate headlines, and it’s costly. But it does lead to life. Where is God calling you to take up the cross?
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. And I would add, “he bids him come and die so that he might live.” Brothers and Sisters, let’s take up the cross with the Lord Jesus. Let’s rejoice in his blood shed for us, and then let’s live, each day, bearing the cost, knowing that life is found in and with Jesus Christ. Amen.