A Lesson On Discipleship
A sermon preached by Pastor Alan Redpath on Sunday, March 29, 1959.
In this passage from the Word of God, we find three very interesting people who are brought face to face with the challenge of discipleship. We have no business to assume that each of them responded negatively, but we are not told what happened.
The first man is described in Luke 9:57 and Matthew 8:19, where we are told he was a scribe. That means he occupied a place in the official life of the Jewish people, and was presumably a man of outstanding capabilities. He came from a group of people who were increasingly antagonistic to our Lord. So far as we can gather, this incident took place soon after the transfiguration, and after the question of the Lord at Caesarea Philippi, “Whom say ye that I am?” (Luke 9:20). It also followed the challenge to discipleship which He brought to His disciples then, “If any man come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (v. 23). From that moment the Lord Jesus was right on towards the Cross.
Against that background this man came to meet the Lord, and, no doubt stirred to the depths of his heart by the teaching and challenge of the Lord Jesus Christ, he said, “Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.” I wish I could have heard him say that. It is difficult to interpret the meaning of a statement unless one can catch the tone, but somehow I sense a happy, carefree spirit of abandonment to the Lord. It was a great thing for this man to say. He had no question about Christ, no criticism of His ministry. Perhaps he was an impulsive man, but then most of us have a bit of that about us! Here was a man who had admired the teaching of the Lord, and felt He was someone in Whom he could place absolute confidence and follow Him everywhere. Some people would say that this man wore his heart on his sleeve. Perhaps he did, but at least he had a heart, and he opened it to Christ at that moment when he said, “Lord, I will go wherever you want me to go.” I wonder how many people have responded to Christ just like that? So happy and carefree, with a sense of absolute, glad, happy, unreserved surrender outwardly at least, though perhaps not realizing the implications of what it would mean.
What does Jesus Christ say to a man like that? “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). There again, I wish I could have listened to the Lord saying that. I am confident there was no thought or sound of self-pity, sorrow or regret. I believe that when the Lord Jesus said it, there was a sense of praise and thankfulness and gladness that He was free from every possible entanglement that would hinder the purpose for which He came. I believe that is suggested by the language of verse 51, against which setting this particular incident took place, because we read there that the Lord “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”
It is a wonderful thing that the Lord hides the future from His people. We do not know what today, tomorrow, or the next day may bring, and how grateful we should be for that. How often we go through experiences in life, and say as we pass through them, “If I had known that was coming, I never could have taken it.” But we did not know, and the Lord gave grace to go through day by day. But He knew what the future held for Him. He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and He knew what awaited Him there—the suffering, the mocking, the rejection, the denial, the betrayal of Judas, the Cross. He knew everything that was going to happen, and He said, “The Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.” There was no self-pity.
When the Lord spoke about Jerusalem and set His face to go there, I believe He saw far beyond that to a day in the glory that is yet to be, when He will sit on His throne. Around Him will be a great company whom no man can number, thousands upon thousands, who have been washed in His blood, redeemed, healed, forgiven, restored, and brought by grace and by the power of His blood into His presence. As the Lord Jesus saw the travail of His soul, He had in mind not simply a cross of rejection, but a glory, a resurrection, a triumph, and that great day when every knee shall bow before Him. So for the joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross, despising the shame.
In the tremendous plan of the Master for our salvation He would not permit a single thing to detain Him, or to deter Him, or to entangle Him. “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but I have no counter-attraction whatsoever.” There was one supreme, consuming purpose in the mind and heart of the Lord, and that absolutely carried Him through the cross, the burial, up to the throne of glory. “Now,” He says in effect, “if you are coming after Me and desire to be My disciple, and you come and glibly say, ‘I will follow you whithersoever thou goest,’ I want to say firmly, earnestly, lovingly to you that if you would follow Me, then the same spirit of detachment from everything that would entangle your progress toward God, heaven and glory must be put aside.”
Now I find that to be very searching. When we talk about separation today, we discuss it in terms of the thing from which I must be separated—am I permitted to do this or that? Are such things in the Christian life taboo? Have they to be counted out? How far can I go in this matter? Are there some things I can retain, and are there some things that I cannot retain? This is not the issue at all. If you would be a disciple of Jesus Christ there is just one simple test. Whatever there may be in relationships, friendships, habits, customs, pleasures, indulgences or amusements; whatever things there are which entangle you and hinder your walk with God, make the reading of the Bible more dull and your prayer life more dead, and the reality of eternity somehow to grow dim while the Earth and this world will all its immediate fun becomes more attractive, that thing has to be cut out of your life right now. That is the principle of separation. There is no such thing as “how far” or “what” or “which must go”; it is simply the basic, honest test that every one of us as God’s children can make in the presence of the Lord at the throne of grace. He challenges us by seeing how far we are prepared to apply that principle, and to discount, refuse and reject anything or any one who would hinder our walk with Him and our progress to glory. If we thought about that more carefully, there would be less hasty professions or decisions for Christ which, in the light of the testing of time, have proved to be absolutely worthless. I would ask you in His presence to answer this simple question: if you profess your desire to follow the Lord, are you prepared to come out from every entanglement that would hinder your progress?
The second man is spoken of in Luke 9:59 and Matthew 8:21, where we read that he is already a disciple. Now that is interesting, for here is one who, in some measure at least, had already followed the Lord, and now Jesus challenges him to a deeper, closer relationship. Apparently the Lord was not satisfied with this man, who was in danger of settling for some second-best experience in Christian things. He did not wait for this man to say anything, but first said to him, “Follow Me.” He knew that somewhere in this man’s life there was breakdown. How true that can be of us, for it is so easy for any of us to settle down in the Christian life. We can never say in Christian experience that we have “arrived” until we get to heaven. The language of the child of God is always that of the apostle Paul, who said, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect…but this one thing I do…I press toward the mark” (Philippians 3:12–14).
There may be someone reading this who is not pressing on with the Lord. You have become a little slack and careless about your attendance at the weekly prayer meeting, and perhaps also at the worship services of the church. You are careless about your own personal devotional life, a little slipshod in your discipleship. It does not take much for a child of God to cool off spiritually, especially, if I may say so, in hot weather; that is a time of great danger for a Christian. While he may be very hot physically, he can easily cool off spiritually. If you know in your heart that this is true of you in some measure, the Lord can come to you afresh, as He did to this man, and say to you individually, “Follow Me.”
When He said that to the man, there is exposed by his reaction the fact that he had cooled off, and the reason for it. “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.” In terms of western civilization that would be quite a normal thing to do, but remember the Bible is an eastern book, and that statement does not mean that the man’s father was even dead. To paraphrase, the man meant, “Lord, I will come, but I have many earthly ties to which I am very devoted. We have a happy family circle, and I love them so dearly that I will come when they are dead.” How often we bargain with the Lord like that! “When it is more convenient, and when the parents who oppose so bitterly my stand for Christ, have died, then…” “A particular situation at home makes it very difficult for me to follow, and I really do not see how it can all be sorted out.” “My own personal family circumstances make it very difficult, and I love them all so dearly that I do not want to do anything to hurt them. Lord, I will follow you when that point of difficulty is ended.”
My heart goes out to people who talk like that, for I did once, and I imagine that most of us have. What did Jesus say to a man who obviously had a high sense of devotion and loyalty to his family and was very capable of loving them, but who wanted to postpone this deeper walk, this closer discipleship? His reply sounds very shattering: “Let the dead bury the dead, but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” Does that sound merciless and cold? It isn’t. Do you tell me that the Lord Jesus was not as much concerned for the blessing of that man’s father as the man was himself? Do you say that Christ does not care as much as you do for your family circumstance, for your husband or wife or children or parents who are not saved? The Lord wanted this man immediately to preach the Gospel. The time was too urgent and the days too important to brook any possibility of delay. He called this man to abandon and give up the closest earthly tie for His sake and the message of the Word of God.
Millions have had to face that very challenge, and perhaps some of you are facing that very same thing in your own life. If you would be a disciple of the Master, you cannot go through life without facing friction, opposition, unrest, problems, or difficulties. You will either have that friction in relation to the Lord, or you will have it in your relationship with people down here whom you love dearly. It will be one or the other, and you have the right to choose. You may choose to say “No” to the Master when He pleads with you for a closer walk with God, and your motive in doing so will be that in refusing to follow Him, you can stay beside your family, because you think you can help them all the more if you do not cause them any suffering because of your discipleship. That is false reasoning. The result of refusing the challenge of Jesus Christ is always the same. It is not simply that there is friction with God, but you are out of His will, and if you are in that position you can never be a blessing to another person. You grow cold spiritually. Because you are out of God’s will, instead of helping your loved ones, you are only confirming them in their rejection of Christ and leading them further down the hill, and you are going with them. If, by the grace of God, you are brave enough to follow the Master irrespective of the suffering and rejection, the opposition and criticism of those you love, the outcome is that you are in God’s will, and obedient to Him, and therefore through you all the power of the Spirit reaches out to them. It will not be long then before they too are faced with the same challenge of discipleship, and in that way brought to Christ.
I trust that this principle of Christian living will grip your heart, because the Lord said “He that would save his life shall lose it,” and to say “NO” to His claims of total sovereignity means that you will lose out with Him, and others lose out too. God is faithful to the promise of Matthew 19:29. It is either onwards or backwards. It is either obedience that brings manifold blessings through you to others; or it is disobedience and losing out before God, as well as others whom you thought you could influence for Christ losing out too. The Lord cares for your loved ones far more than you do, and He longs for their salvation. “Follow Me,” the Master still challenges us, and let those who are dead to the things of eternity deal with the situation when the time comes, but here and now the Lord demands every bit of you, and your unreserved, immediate, complete obedience.
The third man is referred to in Luke 9:61–62. He was attracted to Christ, and intended to go after Him, for he affirms that was his intention when he said, “Lord, I will follow Thee, but…” How many of us make similar mental reservations: “I will follow Christ, but…” What is the “but” here? “Let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.” Again interpreted from our angle, that would be a very reasonable thing to do. Indeed to such a person we would be glad to give a valedictory service, and we would ask them not to go until they had had one because we want them to say goodbye. Ah, but that is not what it means. The whole eastern custom of such a situation would involve this man in long delay, and a great deal of revelry and fun, and a great deal of unnecessary amusement and pleasure—a sort of final fling, if you like. The Lord looked at this man who wanted to put off decision so that he may enjoy himself a bit longer, and not cut the ties immediately, and said, “No man, having put his hand upon the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
To understand this we must interpret it in the light of Palestine custom. Between the months of May and October there is scarcely any rain at all and the ground becomes dry and hard. Everyone is waiting for the early rains that come somewhere at the end of September or the beginning of October, and continue through the winter until April, when there is the latter rain of which the Scripture speaks. The ploughman is eagerly awaiting the moment the early rain comes. He cannot touch the ground till the rain has fallen, as it is too hard. Without a moment’s delay, when the rain begins to fall he gets his hand on the plough, and he never looks back. His eye is on the furrow all the time. That is the picture the Lord draws. Everything in terms of harvest depends upon this man’s immediate response to the rain. He must plough, he must sow, and he must reap if he is going to glean a harvest when the time comes. He cannot discuss it on committee; he cannot make up his mind after a long period of delay or there will be no harvest.
The man in Luke 9 is saying in effect, “I want to put off any decision for a little while so that I can have a good time and enjoy myself, then I will follow you, Lord. At the moment, however, it is not convenient. I will be a disciple and even a missionary. I will follow Christ without reserve, but first let me have just a little more time for fun. I want to enjoy myself for a few more days with my old friends, and then I will come.”
To bring this picture into focus for today, I believe the rain is beginning to fall. I believe the rain of the Holy Spirit is blessing hearts, and lives that have been unresponsive and unblessed are beginning, as it were, to turn up their roots, and are looking for the rain of God to fall upon them. There is a sense of the melting of heart and a yieldedness of spirit to Jesus Christ. There are fellows and girls, men and women who are putting their hands to the plough and are looking on towards the goal. We cannot afford to delay one minute, because according to the ploughing and the sowing, so one day there will be a harvest from each life. Is your hand on the plough today for Jesus, for souls, for blessing and revival? Or have you delayed by saying, “Well, I see other people getting blessed and helped, but I will come some other time. Just one more week…”
Notice in closing these three challenges of discipleship from this precious portion of God’s Word. To one man the Lord Jesus said, “I demand detachment from every earthly entanglement that would prevent your walk with Me and hinder your progress toward the kingdom. All must be dropped.” To another man He said, “I expect you to abandon every earthly tie where that tie is in conflict with My will for your life, because in so doing I will take care of that situation, and you will receive a hundredfold.” To a third He said, “If you put your hand on the plough and look back you are not fit for the kingdom.” You notice the alternatives these men faced. To one man it was either to go back to his home, or to go right out on the highway of blessing with Jesus. To another it meant what he thought would be loyalty to earthly ties, or obedience to the King of kings. To the third it was deserting the plough altogether and turning back, or going on in the path of faithfulness.
We meet in the presence of a risen, triumphant Lord Who alone has the right to govern each of our lives by virtue of His cross and resurrection and His soon coming. In the demands that He made upon other people He Himself was the living example of everything that He asks of us. There was no entanglement with earthly things in His life. Not for one moment did He allow any earthly hindrance to progress. He knew no drag of earthly ties or human relationships. He once said to His mother, “Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?” On another occasion, when the Pharisees told Him that His mother and Joseph were waiting, He said, “Who is My mother? He that doeth the will of God is My mother, My father, My brother, My sister.” No earthly relationship ever impeded Him, His hand was ever on the plough, and there was no looking back, for “He steadfastly set His face toward Jerusalem.”
Almost two thousand years have gone by, and the nail-pierced hand of Jesus is on the plough even yet. It has never been withdrawn, and it never will be until all His purposes of salvation have been completed, and He sits down in glory with His bride. What a day that will be!
The burden of this message is not only that you would put your hand on the plough, but that you put your hand in the nail-pierced hand of Jesus that is already on the plough, and allow Him by His living power in your life to fulfill everyone of these conditions through you. “I will follow thee, but…” God grant that there may not be a single “but” in anyone’s life, but that all may gladly say, “Lord Jesus, I will follow thee NOW. By the grace of God, my hand—if it has ever been off—is on the plough again. In spite of every earthly entanglement or human relationship I am not going to say any more ‘next week, next year, next month, or in five years,’ but from this very moment I am yours, dear Lord, without reserve.” That is the response that Christ is asking from you. Nothing less than that is worthy of the hand that was pierced by nails which is on the plough now, and is waiting to feel the clasp of your hand today.