True disciples of Christ may stumble, they may lose resolve from time to time, but their face is set in one direction: to finish the course of following Him. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his sermon series in the gospel of Luke to address the high calling of discipleship.
We are continuing our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. This morning’s text is Luke 9:49–62:
Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.”
But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him. For he who is not against us is on our side.”
Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans to prepare for Him, but they did not receive Him because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”
But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village.
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.”
And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
Then He said to another, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.”
And another also said, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.”
But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
You have just heard the Word of God in its unvarnished truth. Please receive it as such. Let us pray.
Father, some of the words that we have just heard from the lips of Jesus are hard for us to digest in their fullness, so we ask that You would temper our hearts and help our minds in understanding these things. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
John’s Attitude of Exclusivity
Luke tells us that immediately following the debate as to who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God, John changed the subject and said, “Master, we saw someone calling out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”
What was going on here? Some say that John offered this comment as a diversion to deflect the rebuke Jesus had just given them. Others say that it was an earnest concern. John saw somebody casting out demons and using the name of Jesus who was not one of the Twelve or of the seventy-two in the broader company of Jesus’ disciples. He was miffed at this and wanted Jesus to rebuke the man and stop him from carrying out the ministry he was doing in the name of Jesus. Jesus, however, saw in John a spirit contrary to authentic discipleship. He saw a narrow exclusiveness, a parochial attitude that said, “If he’s not part of our group in its purest form, then he has nothing whatsoever to do with us.”
Does that sound familiar? Do we not commit this same offense again and again? “He may claim to be a Christian, but he’s not really Reformed, so we can’t trust him,” or, “He’s not an Episcopalian or a Lutheran like we are, so we can’t trust him.”
I do not know of anybody who is a greater fan of Martin Luther than I am, but one of the low points of the Reformation took place in the 1520s during an attempt to create a unified front between the Reformers of Switzerland and the followers of Luther in Germany.
At Marburg, an important historic colloquy was held with representatives of both sides, including Ulrich Zwingli from Switzerland. They tried to hammer out a position of unity so they could stand together for the Reformation, but they could not agree on some points of understanding the Lord’s Supper and how Christ was present in it. Both sides believed that He was present, but the mode of that presence was a matter of dispute.
Luther insisted on the physical corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament. Like Nikita Khrushchev years ago at the United Nations when he slammed his shoe on the table, Luther pounded the table saying: “‘Hoc est corpus meum!’ ‘This is my body!’ The only way we can take Jesus’ words is in the fullest corporeal sense.”
Zwingli and the others responded: “Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, I am the door.’ Can’t the word ‘is’ be used in a way to represent something without an insistence on literalism?” They could not agree.
That was sad enough, but the saddest part was when Luther turned to Zwingli and said, “You are an andern Geist, a different spirit.” Luther questioned Zwingli’s Christianity altogether. Shame on you, Martin Luther. You were just like John: “If you don’t agree with us at every point, then you’re really not of Christ.” We should learn not only from that tragedy at Marburg, but also from this encounter in the Scriptures.
The Wrong Spirit
The spirit gets worse, for the narrative continues that Jesus set His face steadfastly toward Jerusalem but had to pass through Samaria on the way. So, He sent some of His disciples to the a of the Samaritans to prepare for Him, but they did not receive Him. Where did they receive Jesus? He was thrown out of Galilee, they would not accept Him in Judea, the Samaritans rejected Him, the Gadarenes expelled Him. Everywhere He went, He was treated as being unwelcome.
When James and John saw the rejection of the Samaritans, they said: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did? Remember the contest at Mount Carmel between the prophets of Baal and Elijah? Elijah called down fire that consumed the altar and the priests of Baal. Would You like that now, Jesus? These Samaritans haven’t been nice to us. The Samaritans have insulted us, so let’s give them a taste of the wrath of God they so richly deserve.”
Have you ever wanted God to pour down fire from heaven on somebody you knew who offended you? Is this not our nature, even as Christians, to flee from God’s wrath for ourselves but push our neighbor into the direct path of it?
Jesus turned and again rebuked them. He said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.” Our Lord was almost anticipating the words of Martin Luther: “You’re an andern Geist. You’re a different spirit. Don’t you know that the Son of Man came not to destroy people, but to save them? I have not come to be Jesus Christ the Destroyer, but Jesus Christ the Savior. James and John, I want you to point people to Me as their Savior. There’s time enough for wrath to come, but before that hour, we come to seek and to save those who are lost.”
Nowhere to Lay His Head
“Now it happened, as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.’” Do you hear what this man said? “Lord, my Sovereign One, the One who has absolute authority over me, whatever You say for me to do, I’ll do it. Wherever You tell me to go, I’ll go.”
I will never forget the first year of my Christian experience, right after my conversion, when I was welcomed into a small group of college men who regularly met one night during the week for prayer and Bible reading. We used to sing hymns I had never heard of before; hymns from Fanny Crosby, hymns from the roaring Methodists of the past that I had never experienced in my high Presbyterian background. One of my favorites was, “Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow.” I remember, as a young Christian, singing those words over and over again, and how my soul would be thrilled. But I would always have this question in the back of my mind: “Do I really mean this? Will I follow Him wherever that path takes me?”
I wanted so much to be sincere. I wanted so much to say, “Lord, You know me, that wherever you send me, I’ll go, I hope,” because I really did not know where He would lead me and where He would call me to follow Him. The man in this text had that kind of enthusiasm, and he said, “Lord, I’ll follow You wherever You go.”
Jesus did not say to him: “Really? Are you sure? Don’t be impetuous now.” Instead, He spoke to him using figures of speech. He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
Jesus was saying: “Go out and look in the fields. You can see the fox who raids the vineyards during the day, and when he wants rest and refuge, he returns to his hole. He crawls down, hides, and sleeps in that place until he is refreshed and strengthened once more to go out on the prowl. Or look at the birds of the air. How marvelous it is to watch them coast on the currents of the air without any labor. Other times they fly into the breeze, flapping their wings, working so hard to make progress against the wind. When they get tired, they fly back to their nests. They land in the nests and receive rest and refreshment until the morrow, and they take flight again. The Son of Man does not have a nest. He does not have a den. He does not have a house. He has nowhere to lay His head. If you want to follow me, don’t count on plush reservations at the next stop, because I don’t have any. Are you sure you want a life like that?” Jesus was saying to this man, “There’s not a lot of glamour in following after Me.”
A High, Holy Calling
Then Jesus said to another person, “Follow Me.” That person said, “Lord, of course I’ll follow You. I can’t wait to follow You. It’s my life’s ambition to follow You. But first, let me go and bury my father. I can’t start a ministry with You today. I must postpone it, ever so briefly, because of a family emergency. The family emergency is that my father died, and I must go bury him before I can follow You.”
In Jewish categories, if there ever was a legitimate excuse for avoiding service, it was to make certain that one of your loved ones, your father, received a proper burial. Among the rabbis, the need to give a burial for your father, which took place shortly after death, was reason to be excused from religious services and any other service requirement. To make sure that loved ones received a proper burial was seen as one of the highest priorities a Jewish person could have.
Surely Jesus did not despise the Jewish tradition. For Jesus to call somebody not to go home and bury their father would require a calling so high, so holy, and so important that it would make the burial of your own father pale into insignificance. So, He said: “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you, come. There’s something more important, and that is to preach the kingdom of God.”
The Chief Business of the Christian Life
Another also said: “Lord, I’ll follow You, but first let me go home and bid farewell to those who are at my house. I’m going to follow You with all my heart and all my soul, and where You lead me, I will follow You—tomorrow, but not now.”
Do you relate to this kind of thinking? “Someday, I will devote myself unequivocally to following Jesus. But first, I have other matters to attend to. I have other things to take care of. Following Jesus with all my heart and soul is something I would like to do, but at the moment it is not my top priority.”
Let me just say it like it is: if you do not want to follow Jesus as a top priority in your life, He does not want you as a disciple. Elsewhere, our Lord said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Jonathan Edwards said this: “The seeking after the kingdom of God is the chief business of the Christian life.” It is not a secondary endeavor. It is not a concluding unscientific postscript to your devotion.
The overwhelming majority of people who claim to be Christian follow Him with no more than half their hearts. It is a religious add-on, but it is not that which defines their lives. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to have your following of Jesus Christ define who you are as a person.
Do Not Look Back
Then Jesus said, finally, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” He drew an illustration from the agrarian culture of the day. He was saying, “What could be more absurd than a man going out to plow his field and, as he starts to plow the rows that he will soon plant, in the middle of steering the plow forward, he looks back over his shoulder to see how straight the furrows are? You cannot plow fields like that. If you are trying to plow straight ahead while your eyes are looking behind you, can you imagine where that plow is going to go? Once you start, you don’t turn your eyes backwards.”
Remember the beginning of this passage, which told us where the eyes of Jesus were set. His face was set like a flint, steadfastly pointing towards Jerusalem. He did not say, “Let’s go to Jerusalem, but wait a minute, first let’s go back to the Mount of Transfiguration.” Once He realized His vocation was to go to Jerusalem, He set out to go to Jerusalem, and there was no turning back.
This raises the theological question of the perseverance of the saints. Is it possible for a person to begin in grace and lose their salvation? I do not think so. There were those who joined Jesus’ group of disciples but then turned away. John said, “Those who went out from us were never really with us” (1 John 2:19). Once you sign up, you are in for the duration. You do not get a diploma from the “School of Jesus” until you are in heaven.
Once you set your hand to the plow, if you look back, like Lot’s wife at Sodom, you are liable to turn into a pillar of salt. Those who have been born of the Spirit of God, however, whose lives have been changed and are now walking with Jesus Christ—they may stumble, they may lose resolve from time to time, but their face is set in one direction: to finish the course of following Him.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.