Note—This article is part of a series entitled “In Search of Church.” To go to the beginning of the series, click here.
In our search for the church of the New Testament, we have returned to the beginning of the church to examine the foundation upon which it was built, and have discovered that it is Jesus, the Christ—He is the foundation. As the Christ, He has been given supreme authority so that He might reconcile men to God and restore them to Life, and it is upon Him that the church is built, as individuals believe in Him as the Christ.
And we found that this belief has reasonable, logical implications—namely, this—if I believe that, as the Christ, Jesus has been given supreme authority, and that He will use that authority to restore me to Life, my only appropriate response is complete and unconditional submission, regardless of the cost.
At this point, an observation comes to mind regarding the disconnect I experience with the church of the 1st Century—For much of my Christian life, I didn’t hear a clear emphasis on what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. His suffering was emphasized almost to the exclusion of His authority as the Christ. Obedience was emotionally motivated, driven by gratitude for all He has done, not in the recognition that He alone, as the Christ, has supreme authority, and desires to use that authority to restore us to Life. Such obedience to the Savior, in the way I have seen it practiced, is very different from submission to the Christ.
It’s not that obedience is unimportant, but obedience that doesn’t flow out of total submission tends to be behavior oriented and focus on select commands and responsibilities—
“Thou shalt not murder. Check. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Check. Thou shalt not steal. Che…uh,well, at least not in a long time. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Uhhh, for the most part… Thou shalt not covet. Well, I don’t actually want the things my neighbor has, I just want things like theirs, so, that’s not really coveting. And, I’m working hard to take care of my family, we’re faithful at church, and active in the community. All in all, we’re doing about as good as can be expected.”
Such an obedience orientation makes it easy to score ourselves pretty high. Contrast this with the kind of committed submission Jesus, the Christ, requires of those who would follow Him.
As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 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.”
And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” — (Luke 9:57–62 NAS95)
Jesus is in the last year of His time on earth, and headed toward Jerusalem. At this point, He has quite a number of committed disciples, because immediately following this account, Luke is going to tell of the 70 disciples that Jesus sends as forerunners to announce that the Kingdom has come near them—that is, that the King who will establish the Kingdom is present. He sends these disciples out with no personal provisions—not a change of clothes, no backpack, not even a wallet. They are completely dependent upon God’s provision. As they go, they should be looking for those who respond favorably to their message, but they should also expect to be rejected in many places.
Consider the kind of commitment necessary for them to complete their mission—what’s it going to take?
It’s going to take unconditional submission to Jesus—submission so complete they are willing to suffer any hardship—no guarantee of a meal, or even a place to sleep. They will need to have denied themselves, taken up their crosses, and committed to follow Christ.
But before Luke gets to the story of those 70, he tells us about three other candidates, described above. These three have conditions, either expressed or implied, attached to their commitment to follow Jesus as His disciples.
The first one volunteers to follow Jesus, and Jesus responds by describing the hardship he can expect. This response seems a bit curious to us. To our way of thinking, if you have someone who volunteers to serve, you don’t delve into the difficulties they will face, you put them to work before they change their mind. So, why did Jesus respond the way He did?
Well, remember Peter’s concept of the Christ—how he expressly rejected any notion of suffering related to the Christ (Matthew 16:22)? Peter was not unique. The common expectation in Israel was that when the Christ appeared, He would immediately establish the Kingdom, freeing Israel from the domination of the Romans (e.g., John 6:15; Luke 19:11-27).
So, following Jesus as the Christ Who is on His way to conquer the Romans is very different from following the Christ Who is headed to Jerusalem to be crucified. This first candidate seems to have been ready to follow the Christ headed for the palace; Jesus informs Him that he needs to be ready to follow the Christ who has nowhere to lay His head. If he wants to follow Jesus, he must be prepared to take up His cross—to suffer if he wants to follow Jesus as the Christ.
Which brings us to the second candidate. Jesus initiates, commanding him to follow. In response, this guy seems willing enough. But he has this one important responsibility that complicates things—he has a father who is getting along in years, and needs to be taken care of. When the son has fulfilled that responsibility, and the father has been buried, then he’ll follow Jesus.
This is a great example of the obedience orientation that seems so reasonable. It sees our relationship with God as revolving around a set of duties and responsibilities—walk with God, work to provide for my family, love my spouse, parent my children, care about my neighbors, etc. In this particular situation, this man feels the need to make caring for his father—a seemingly legitimate, godly concern—the top priority in his life.
And, in this situation, we see the problem with a purely “obedience” oriented approach, when contrasted with the submission approach. When we consider the responsibilities we have, we feel overwhelmed. There’s more than I can get done today, so I have to prioritize. I conclude that in the given situation I face, the “best” thing for me to do is to focus on one or two of those responsibilities. For this candidate, the “best” thing seemed to be to care for his aging father.
But isn’t this a good thing?
Not when it leads him to tell Jesus, the Christ, “wait a minute.”
Which is, in effect, subordinating Jesus’ agenda to his own priorities—his own sense of what is “good.” There are conditions to his submission. It is not unconditional.
See, when “good things” keep us from following Christ, they cease to be “good things.” The dynamic depicted here is a remnant of the decision we made way back in the Garden. Our idea of “good” differs from God’s, and we chose to follow it rather than Him. When we do this, we are living independently of Him.
This is unacceptable to Jesus—“Let the (spiritually) dead bury the dead. You go and proclaim the Kingdom of God everywhere.”
In effect, Jesus says, “No, taking care of your father is not more important than following Me.”
If this response baffles us, Jesus’ handling of the third candidate is even more puzzling. This guy is ready to go immediately. He just needs to run home and tell his friends and family, “bye.”
But, even this seemingly small delay still reflects a competing agenda—something to be done before he can follow Jesus. And this is unacceptable to Jesus—“No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
We need to pause and note that Jesus is not addressing the issue of justification here. Being “fit of the kingdom of God” is not about getting into heaven. This follower believes that Jesus is the Christ, and, so, is justified. The issue here is one of service—of “putting his hand to the plow.” A man who looks back while plowing is going to drift—his rows will wander. To be effective he must be focused on the task at hand. Likewise, one who wants to serve Christ as King—that is, to be a part of the Kingdom—must be undistracted in his service of Christ. If other things—even seemingly good things, like family—compete for his loyalty, they leave him with a divided heart. This is not the unconditional submission Jesus requires, and hinders his ability to function in the Kingdom. We need to have a longer discussion about this—we’ll do that soon.
Taken together, these three guys exemplify a kind of incomplete discipleship that is so common. They seem willing enough, and their responses seem perfectly reasonable to us. But they are inadequate.
The first guy’s expectations don’t include any notion of suffering—an essential dimension of the reality that followers of Christ experience. Much of the world will reject Christ, and they will reject His followers as well. Through this suffering followers will be refined, and their faith purified. As a result of their faithfulness in spite of suffering, they can anticipate hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Suffering is essential. We must expect it.
The last two guys want to fit Jesus into their agendas—work Him in with their other priorities. They have not yet “denied themselves.” They still want their sense of what is right and important—of what is good—to influence their priorities. But that is continuing to live in the decision made in the Garden—the decision that brought our death. We can’t continue to live in that decision and find life. We must completely deny our sense of right and wrong—of good and evil. Only then are we able to follow Jesus in the way that will be required.
In Jesus’ dealing with these three guys, I find another disconnect between the 1st Century church and my experience of the last 40 years— Jesus accommodates none of these seemingly legitimate notions. By contrast, we have tended to appeal to them.