Two Important Lessons for Disciples to Remember (Matthew 8:18–22)

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It’s wise to, once-in-a-while, be reminded of what we already know so as to make sure we’re still moving in the right direction. It’s why a student will return to their course syllabus, why a traveller will recheck their compass, why a chef reviews their recipe, and why a contractor revisits their blueprints. These actions are rarely taken with the intention of learning something new but, rather, to be reminded of what’s expected, what lays ahead, and what they’re supposed to be doing.

Matthew 8:18–22 records Jesus teaching on a familiar subject: discipleship. For most of us, following Jesus isn’t a novel concept and, so, we come to this short paragraph less to learn something fresh and more to be reminded of what’s expected of us, what lays ahead, and what we’re supposed to be doing to follow well.

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It’s wise to, once-in-a-while, be reminded of what we already know so as to make sure we’re still moving in the right direction.

It’s why a student returns to their course syllabus: To be reminded of what’s expected of them and to make sure they’re on the right track. It’s why a traveller will recheck their compass, why a chef reviews their recipe, and why a contractor revisits their blueprints. It’s not to learn something new, necessarily, but to be reminded of what’s expected, what lays ahead, and what they’re supposed to be doing.

This morning, as we come to Matthew 8:18–22, we’re going to find Jesus teaching on a familiar subject: discipleship. Most of us here today don’t need convincing that following Jesus is an important and blessed endeavour. We’re already striving to do that. And so, we come to this paragraph not to learn something new, necessarily, but to be reminded of what’s expected of us, what lays ahead, and what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re rechecking the compass, reviewing the recipe, and revisiting the blueprint.

Our passage today is comprised of two lessons on discipleship that Jesus gives in response to two requests made by two disciples. The first is a lesson on expectations and, the second, on hesitations.

Matthew sets the context for the two lessons in verse 18: “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea.”

At this point of his ministry, Jesus had attracted a following. He’s been making bold claims, teaching with amazing authority, and performing authenticating miracles. Here he looks up, sees the swelling crowds, and instructs his disciples to take him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, apparently, to find some privacy.

A Lesson on Expectations 

But before they can get him into the boat, someone approaches with a request for Jesus and, with it, we find our first lesson, a lesson on expectations.

Then a scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.”

Matthew 8:19

The scribes were a group of experts in the Jewish law and, in the gospel accounts, are sometimes mentioned alongside the high priests as opponents of Jesus.

This scribe, however, isn’t against Jesus, but totally with him. In fact, his request is to join Jesus on his trip across the lake. He’s volunteering to leave his home and work and become a full-time follower like Peter and the other eleven. The text gives us no indication that this request is anything but sincere. 

Jesus responds to the scribe: “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'” (8:20).

It’s an odd response, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t praise the man’s willingness nor question the man’s sincerity. Instead, he describes the unglamorous and uncomfortable conditions involved in following him.

Unlike foxes and birds, Jesus has no place to call his own, nowhere to sleep that’s his, nowhere to hang his hat. The implication is that goes for those who follow him as well. Disciples of Jesus—people who do what this scribe is requesting—may likewise sacrifice the creature comforts of this world. It’s a lesson on expectations.

Following Jesus may mean that we sacrifice things the world around us seems to enjoy. Whether it be certain media content recreational activities, ways of speaking, certain rights, relationships, and social credibility. Following Jesus challenges the comforts of materialism, hedonism, and professionalism. It challenges the comfort of family, vocation, and personal autonomy. In many parts of the world, following Jesus means giving up the comfort of employment, family safety, and even life itself.

As followers of Jesus living in a world of people who are not, there are going to be moments of potential sacrifice where we must chose faithfulness to our Saviour over the promises of worldly comfort. We can expect that.

It’s been said that between expectation and reality lives disappointment. Well, when it comes to discipleship, Jesus doesn’t want us disappointed. He wants our expectations and reality to align.

Jesus doesn’t use bait-and-switch recruitment tactics. There isn’t a long “Terms of Service” agreement to become a disciple, one Jesus hopes we click “accept” without reading closely. There’s no fine print, hidden clauses, or over-selling and under-delivering.

Jesus here gives a lesson on exceptions. Those desiring to follow Jesus must grow in their willingness to temporarily forego the creature comforts of this world. 

I say “temporarily” for a reason. Notice what Jesus calls himself in his response to this scribe: “The Son of Man.” It’s one of Jesus’s favourite titles for himself, certainly referencing his humanity, but also his divinity. The title has its origin in the book of Daniel.

I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13–14

Jesus takes that title, and everything associated with it, and says, that’s me. So, while explaining that those who follow him have to be willing to endure discomfort, he is, at the very same time, saying it will be temporary. Why? Because he’s the Son of Man, the one who is going to be given dominion, glory, and an eternal kingdom. 

Yes, right now, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” But that will not always be the case and the same is true for those who follow him. Here’s the expectation for all those who, like this scribe, want to walk in the footsteps of Christ: You may have to lay down creature comforts for a season, but you can expect that it won’t always be so.

A Lesson on Hesitations

The lesson on expectations is followed by a lesson on hesitations. 

Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.”

Matthew 8:21

Notice Matthew calls this second man “another of the disciples,” highlighting that the scribe too was a disciple of Jesus. This second man, like the first, has what seems to be a reasonable request. He wants to follow Jesus closely—like the twelve—but he wants to deal first with a domestic issue. Jesus responds, again, in a surprising way.

But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”

Matthew 8:22

That seems harsh, doesn’t it? Well, I think when it’s understood in light of Jewish burial and mourning practices of the time, Jesus’s response isn’t harsh at all. Let me try and explain.

In Jewish culture there was something called the second burial in which the surviving family members would rebury the bones of the dead after the flesh had decomposed. So, a loved one would die and be immediately laid in a family tomb (like Jesus was) on a shelf-like structure where they would stay for months. After the decomposition had taken place, the bones would be collected and reburied often in an ossuary, or box, and moved to a different part of the tomb.

Listen to how one author describes the mourning process around this practice:

Rabbinic literature indicates that secondary burial was the final Jewish ritual of mourning for the dead. The rabbis stipulated that a death in the family was to be immediately followed by seven days of intense mourning during which the family of the deceased was effectively separated from society. … This 7-day period was followed by 30-days of less severe mourning during which family members could not leave town, cut their hair, or attend social gatherings. In case of a parent’s death, however, restrictions on certain kinds of behaviour persisted even beyond the 30-days. Normal life did not resume until a full year had passed, and it appears that secondary burial was the ritual that marked the end of mourning and the return to everyday life.

Bryon R. McCane, “Let the Dead Bury their Own Dead,” HTR 83 no. 1, 34–35. 

I think this man is following Jesus during the latter parts of that year of mourning. He’s asking permission to go home and rebury his father’s bones as the last act of grief. He was a disciple and he genuinely wanted to come back and commit to Jesus after he had participated in a father-honouring culturally-practiced mourning ritual.

Jesus’s response then isn’t so much harsh as it is ironic and punchy: “Let the dead (the rest of the bodies in that tomb) take care of the dead. You, follow me now. Don’t wait.” It’s a lesson on hesitations.

For us, he may say: don’t wait until you graduate, until you’re married, until you’re financially secure, until you have kids, until this storm passes, until it’s convenient. Don’t wait until life gets tough, your faced with your mortality, or things feel hopeless. Don’t hesitate. Follow me now.

The story is told of three apprentice devils being trained by Satan. “What are you going to try today?” asks the leader. The first apprentice replies, “I’m going to tell them that there’s no God.” “Well,” says Satan, “you can try. A few fools will believe you. But the universe shouts the existence of God. There is evidence all around and you’ll not do very well. Indeed, even in the secular 21st-century you may find yourself witnessing the slow death of atheism. Any other ideas?” The second apprentice tries this: “I’m going to tell them that there’s no judgement.” “That’s a better idea,” says Satan. “You will persuade more people of that, especially some of the clergy. But human beings have a gut sense of accountability, that actions have consequences. They know what it is to feel guilty even when their therapists tell them not to. So I think you’ll find it an uphill struggle. Anyone else have an idea?” The third apprentice pipes up, “I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” “Brilliant,’ says Satan. “That is just what you want to say. You will have a great success. Let them listen to the word of God and whisper in their ears, ‘This is good stuff. One day you ought to do something about this. But tomorrow will do’” (Christopher Ash, The Priority of Preaching, 65).

Don’t hesitate, Jesus says. Just follow him.

This little paragraph in Matthew 8 isn’t telling most of us anything new. But it’s forcing us to recheck the compass, review the recipe, and revisit the blueprint. It’s reminding us of what we’re to be about as God’s people. Jesus here gives us a lesson on expectations—we’re to go all-in knowing it may mean sacrificing comfort—and a lesson on hesitations—we’re to do it now.

Commit to Christ today!

To say it simply, we’re to commit to Christ today! Go all-in without hesitation. Commit to Christ today. I want to talk specifically to four groups of people as we close.

First, to the non-disciple. If you’re here today or watching online and you’ve never trusted Christ for salvation, commit to Christ today. What are you waiting for? You know you’re not perfect. Your conscience is testifying to that fact right now. That’s the Holy Spirit calling to you. Stop putting this off, recognize that you are a sinner and you need a Redeemer, a Saviour, and Jesus is just that. He died on the cross for you because he loves you, and rose from the dead proving his sacrifice was perfect. Eternal life is a gift waiting for you to unwrap by believe in Jesus. Don’t hesitate. Commit to Christ today.

Second, to the would-be disciple. Maybe you’ve trusted Jesus in the past, but you’ve never really stepped out of the crowd and sought to get on the boat—you’ve never been intentional about your relationship with Christ. Commit to Christ today. Today, become a disciple, a follower of the one who saved you. Get off the bench and join the greatest adventure there is. Yes, you may have to sacrifice some comforts, but the rewards far, far outpace the cost. Ask anyone who’s actually following Christ. Commit to Christ today.

Third, to the wandering disciple. Maybe you’ve followed Jesus in the past but, if you’re honest, you’ve taken a siesta as of late. You’ve become entangled in the comforts of the world instead of those God offers in Christ. If that’s you the same applies, commit to Christ today. Recognize that you’re never too far gone, you’ve never out run his forgiveness and grace, you can’t undo the spiritual heart surgery that God in Christ accomplished at your conversion. There is forgiveness and restoration and blessing waiting for you. Commit to Christ today.

Finally, to the faithful disciple, those excitable followers of Jesus: be encouraged and renewed. Commit to Christ today!

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