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Bible oldThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 8:18-22

The Cost of Following Jesus

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 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.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”


The events in Matthew 8 take place following our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.

We have read of His cleansing of the leper, healing of the centurion’s servant from a distance, curing Peter’s mother-in-law of fever, followed by healing people of demon possession and disease.

It is difficult to imagine just how intense this time — indeed, the whole of Jesus’s ministry — was. Clamouring crowds, pleading, exclaiming and, among them, those who would profess to follow Him.

We have two such men in this passage.

First, Jesus was preparing to go ‘to the other side’ of what Matthew Henry calls the Sea of Tiberias (verse 18):

… his ordering his disciples, whose boats attended him, to get their transport-vessels ready, in order to it, Matthew 8:18. The influences of this Sun of righteousness were not to be confined to one place, but diffused all the country over he must go about to do good the necessities of souls called to him …

Then a scribe approached Him, pledging his unqualified allegiance (verse 19). Henry surmises the man was wrapped up in the moment or, possibly, thought this was the coming of the great temporal kingdom of Israel ruled by the Messiah (emphases mine below):

either he did not consider at all, or not that which was to be considered he saw the miracles Christ wrought, and hoped he would set up a temporal kingdom, and he wished to apply betimes for a share in it. Note, There are many resolutions for religion, produced by some sudden pangs of conviction, and taken up without due consideration, that prove abortive, and come to nothing: soon ripe, soon rotten.

Jesus saw through this man, attached to comforts, and gave him a fitting rebuke by describing His own way of life (verse 20): with nothing, not even a regular bed at night. Even nature had more shelter than He.

John MacArthur says the man only wanted to add Jesus as a bolt-on — as do many notional Christians, let’s be honest:

He could read his mind and He knew what the guy’s hang-up was.  The guy was saying, “Man, my life is full and rich and I got all I want and my lifestyle satisfies me and I just want to add you to my lifestyle.  I just want to take my whole gig and drag it along and follow you.”  Jesus refuses to cash in on a moment’s popularity.

As students of the New Testament know, Jesus did not need a fickle follower. He knew that He had many already. He also had Judas. With friends like that …

MacArthur paraphrases a quote from the Lutheran theologian Richard C H Lenski which describes the scribe’s state of mind:

He sees the soldiers on parade.  He sees the fine uniforms.  He sees the glittering arms and he’s eager to join; and he forgets the exhausting marches, the bloody battles, the graves, perhaps unmarked.

Afterward, a notional disciple asks Jesus for permission to bury his father (verse 21). This is a confusing verse, because we wonder why He would not allow that. However, MacArthur explains that ‘burying the father’ was a euphemism in the Middle East which meant staying at home until one’s father died and receiving the subsequent inheritance.

MacArthur says the expression is still used in some Arabic-speaking and Muslim societies:

Recently a Doctor Waldmeyer was conversing with a Turk— Waldmeyer is a missionary in the Middle East—and he was talking with a rich, young Turk and he advised this Turk to go on a certain trip to Europe, and along with him, the missionary. And he thought he could disciple him and accomplish certain things with him, and after he finished his education, to go along, to which the Turk replied, “I must first of all bury my father.”  And the missionary Waldmeyer said, “Oh, young man, I had no idea he’d died.  I just am so sorry.  I hope I wasn’t insensitive.”  He said, “Oh no.”  He said, “He isn’t dead.  He’s not dead.  That’s just a phrase we use.  My father is very much alive.  I just have to stick around and fulfill my responsibility till he passes on.  And then, of course, I will receive my inheritance.”  Oh, I see.  “I must first go and bury my father who isn’t even dead” means, “I’ve been waiting a long time for my inheritance.  Can I just hang around?  The guy is tottering at this point and [“]when I get it all, think of how I can be used in the movement.” See?  The guy had the money on his mind.  He was playing with trivia and it took the courage and commitment out of his discipleship.  His father wasn’t even dead.

This is why Jesus dismisses the young man with what appears to be a perfunctory statement: ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’ (verse 22). MacArthur explains that Jesus meant it was more important to follow Him than to worry about the eventuality of burying one’s own parent:

this is a proverb again just like the one about the foxes and birds.  The first one meant, “Look I don’t have any personal comforts.”  This one means, “Let spiritually dead people bury their dead.  Let the secular world take care of its own issues.  You have been called to the kingdom of God.”  See the difference?  What he’s saying is, “You are functioning on the wrong level.”  In other words let the system take care of itself.

He’s not saying Christians are forbidden to go to funerals.  He’s not saying if you’re a Christian you’re not supposed to make sure your father or mother gets buried.  It’s a proverb, and what he means is the world’s passing affairs, the coming and going of people, the passing of fortunes from one to another is all part of a dead system.  You are called to a living kingdom; go and preach the kingdom.  You see the man’s priorities are fouled up.  Secular matters belong to the people who are secular.  The human system takes care of itself. But this man, what does it say he did?  It’s not there either.  He left somewhere between verse 22 and 23.  He disappeared.  Why?  Personal possessions were the big thing to him.  He had waited a long time for his piece of the action.  He wasn’t bailing out now.  Hey, he liked the thrill and the charisma and the wonder and the miracles, and this was fabulous stuff and he wanted to get on the bandwagon, but there was no commitment there.  He wanted his money.

The New Testament has many references to the hardships that His true followers would encounter. MacArthur shares some of these verses and their meanings:

In Matthew 10:16, He said, “Now I’m going to send you forth.”  Later on He tells His apostles, “I’m going to send you forth.  I’m going to send you like sheep in the midst of wolves.”  Now that’s not a very inviting thing, is it?  You’re going to send us out like sheep in the midst of wolves?   “And just remember, beware of menThey’re going to deliver you up in councils, and scourge you in synagogues, you’ll be brought before governors and kings, and they’ll deliver you.  Don’t worry I’ll give you [the words] to say.” Verse 22: “You’ll be hated of all men for my name’s sake.”  Verse 23:  “You’ll be persecuted.”  Verse 24: “And don’t think you’re going to be above your teacher.  I’ve been getting it and you’re going to get it.”  In John 15, He said, “Don’t be surprised when men hate you.  They hate me.”  “Don’t be surprised when they kill you and think they’re doing God’s service.”  Persecution: “In this world you shall have tribulation.”  He said it to them:  “All that will live godly…” II Timothy 3:12: “All that will live godly in this present age will suffer persecution.” Matthew 5: “Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake.” Hebrews 11: They just suffered and suffered, all those heroes of the faith, and at the end it says, “of whom the world was not worthy.”

To end on possessions and money, some might draw the conclusion that all Christians should adopt our Lord’s way of life. MacArthur says that we should not make that assumption except in the sense where we might one day be required to do so:

You see the Lord may not want to take away your personal comforts.  He may not want to take away your personal possessions.  He may not want to take away your personal relationships.  But you have to be willing to let him if He wanted to, you see?  That’s the affirmation of His Lordship in your life.  If you come, saying, “I’ll come, but I’m hanging on to this, I’m hanging on to this, I’m hanging on to this,” and you give Him half a heart, you get nothing.  If you offer Him everything, He may allow you to keep the portion.  He may give you more than you have.  It’s the willingness that is the issue.

MacArthur also quoted the Anglican Archbishop of Liverpool, J C Ryle, who lived during the 19th century. What Ryle said then is every bit as true today:

The saddest road to hell is the one that runs under the pulpit, past the Bible, and through the middle of warnings and invitations.

Therefore, when we devote ourselves to Christ may we not do so half-heartedly with excessive ties to family or possessions, such that we cannot give them up. May we give Him — our Saviour, our only Mediator and Advocate — our full attention and obedience, come what may in this transient life.

Next time: Matthew 8:23-27

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