Don’t Look Back
We’ve all had those conversations where someone begins by saying, “Okay—I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news.” And one of two things happens: either you start with the good news, so that the bad news won’t seem so bad, or you start with the bad news, because the good news isn’t all that good, but in comparison with the bad news it sounds a lot better.
Despite all appearances, that’s not what happens in this text.
Jesus is going to say some pretty shocking things in these verses, but he’s not giving bad news to lead in to good news, or good news to soften the bad. When you first read this text, it seems that Jesus only gives bad news. But appearances are deceiving: that’s not what’s going on here.
So what is going on? To begin with, we have a kind of a prologue to the main section.
Read with me starting at v. 51.
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up [taken back into heaven after his crucifixion and resurrection], he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.
So we saw before that Jesus, after coming down from the mountain, knows what’s coming. He spoke about it with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, and now he starts heading towards his fate—as Luke says (v. 51), he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
To get to Jerusalem, they have to travel, of course, and they plan on going into a Samaritan town, presumably to stay for a night or a few days. There was a lot of animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews, but Jesus isn’t worried about that: we see in John’s gospel that the first person to whom he revealed his identity was a Samaritan woman, and in this woman’s town many people believed that he was the Messiah. So this was no new thing.
But this time, in this Samaritan town, they will not let Jesus come in. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but apparently it rubbed the disciples the wrong way, because here we see James and John (surprisingly, not Peter) offer to call fire down from heaven to burn up the village in retribution for their rudeness.
And in v. 55 we see Jesus’s response: But he turned and rebuked them.
I would have loved to hear what that rebuke contained. Just last week we saw Jesus telling his disciples what it looks like to be a follower of Christ: it is not about affirming superiority over others, but about humbly serving others—whoever they may be, and whether or not they can serve us back.
And we do that because that’s what Jesus did for us: the Son of Man came to the lowest place, suffered the confinement of a human body, suffered rejection and torture and death. And his followers should be willing do the same. There are ample promises in the Bible of God’s wrath against those who reject his Son; but we, his children, are never called to exercise that wrath ourselves.
It was wrong of the Samartians in this village to reject Jesus, certainly, and unless they repented, they were judged for that rejection—but it is God who exercises judgment, not his followers. The point is that being a follower of Christ will sometimes mean denying impulses that seem right at the time.
And that self-denial is the theme that continues through the rest of the passage.
In v. 56 we see that they move on to another village, and as they are traveling they meet three anonymous people who speak to Jesus. And in each case, the theme is the same—Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, it will cost you.”
Jesus is going to say some pretty shocking things in these verses. So we’re going to look at what he says first, and then take a step back and ask why he says them.
Following Jesus Will Cost You Comfort (v. 57-58)
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 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.”
One of the most easily forgotten facts about Jesus is that for the three years of his ministry, he was homeless. He traveled from town to town, preaching the gospel and never stable. There were times when he was invited into people’s homes, sure; but oftentimes he had to sleep outside. At one point his bed was the bough of a boat in the middle of a huge storm.
Now there are some people who like that. I have a lot of friends in Colorado for whom a night in the woods under the stars, sleeping on the ground, is heaven. The point is not, If you follow me you’ll have to leave your favorite pillow at home.
The point is, If you follow me, you won’t have what you think you need.
Following Christ may mean giving up those things which you see as elementary—basic human needs. A roof over your head. Financial security. Entertainment. Proximity to loved ones. Access to easy medical care. I know a missionary in the Ivory Coast whose baby daughter caught yellow fever and malaria at the same time; it’s a miracle she’s still alive, because they are hours away from the nearest hospital, and that hospital wasn’t equipped to properly care for her. And they were only there, miles away from the care his little girl needed, because he had chosen to leave home and live among an unreached people group, so that they might hear the gospel.
It’s different for all of us, but each one of us has a list of things we think we need to survive. And Jesus says that whatever it is that we think we need to be comfortable and assure our well-being, it’s that very thing that we may need to give up. There will be times when we look around and we think that even animals have it better than we do. Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Jesus Christ, God himself, gave up the exquisite comfort of heaven to lay on the dirt night after night, in order to save us. How can we expect his followers to have it any better?
But that’s a fairly light example. After this, Jesus will speak with two more people. And these next two examples are a good deal more extreme than the first. Following Jesus will cost us our comfort; and next we’ll see that it will also cost us our priorities.
Following Jesus Will Cost You Your Priorities (v. 59-60)
59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
We often sweeten the gospel message to say that if you follow Christ, your life will be better. And that is absolutely, gloriously true…but it’s not always true in the way we think it is.
For some reason we’ve got this idea that when God promises “abundant life” in Christ (John 10.10), he means that our lives will be like the lives of everyone else around us, only better. We’ve somehow understood that the things that are important for everyone else will still be there for us, but even better.
But that’s just not the case. Not only does God never promise to give us everything we always wanted; he promises that many of the things we always wanted are things we’ll have to let go of.
Now that doesn’t shock us too much in theory; but when we’re faced with actually having to give up something like that, it’s a very different matter. No matter how far we think our sacrifice will go, it will have to go even farther. People often talk about the Bible as if it contains two different Gods: the cruel God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New. They read stories—like, for example, God telling Abraham to sacrifice his only son—and they think, Well that’s the OLD Testament. JESUS would never say anything like that.
I’m sorry, but he does right here.
This man has just lost his father. Jesus calls him to follow him. And he says, “Absolutely, but I have to bury my dad first.” And Jesus says, essentially, “Why? He’s dead. Leave him. You have more important things to do.”
Different countries have different rituals for burial when someone dies. In France the immediate family of the deceased is given little metal caps to fit over the screws which hold the lid down on the coffin; visitors are given flowers to place on the coffin. (Or in America, people let a handful of dirt fall on the coffin that’s been lowered into the ground.) The ritual itself isn’t important; it’s the process that’s important. The process of burial is a sign of respect for the dead, and an emotional aid for the grieving, to help them come to grips with the finality of what has happened.
That is why what he says here seems so very extreme. This is something that nearly all people, from all cultures, see as a prioritary need after losing a loved one. But Jesus says that even in such a difficult moment, the priorities of his followers are not the same.
When we are in Christ, our priorities will undergo a shift that is far more radical than we may imagine. Don’t just think comfort and well-being: think of the things which are the most important for you. The rituals that help you cope. The things you value. The convictions you held before. All of these take second place in our priorities. That which matters most of all now is him. It is his kingdom. It is his gospel. It is his life.
So following Christ will cost us our comfort; it will cost us our priorities; and finally, it will cost us the people and things that we love.
Following Jesus Will Cost You What You Love (v. 61-62)
61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow [to go to work] and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This last person wants to follow Jesus, but first wants to say goodbye to the people he loves—people who are still alive. These are people to whom he still has attachments, whom he will miss when he’s gone, and who will miss him.
And Jesus says, “No—leave now, and don’t look back.”
Again, this sounds absolutely brutal. But again, he’s making a point.
When we are in Christ, not only our comfort; not only our priorities; but even the people we love the most take second place.
I love my family more than anything in the world. I love my wife, and my son, and my unborn daughter, so much it hurts sometimes. But Jesus says if I am to love God, I have to love him more. That if he is not more important to me than they are, I’m not fit to belong to him.
Do you see how far removed the picture he paints here is from the way we often imagine the Christian life? How God’s intention for our lives is so different from “just like now, only better”? The Christian life is wholly different than it was before—it is characterized by an entirely new set of priorities and loves.
And there is no looking back.
And if you’ll notice, in the case of these three potential disciples, there is no mention of any of them actually accepting Jesus’s call and following him. That’s how hard it is—although they felt absolutely ready to drop everything and follow him, when they saw just what that would mean to leave everything, it was presumably too much.
Many people who claim to be Christians give up after a certain amount of time, and prove they never really were Christians to begin with. And part of the problem, I’d wager, is that no one ever told them exactly what it would cost them—namely, everything.
Why? (A Lesser-to-Greater Scenario)
Now that we’ve seen what Jesus said—these three shocking statements—we need to ask ourselves why he said them. Is he just that cruel? Is everything I heard about God being a God of love untrue? Would a God of love really give his children news which is this bad?
And the answer is surprising, as answers in the Bible often are. And it helps me to think of them in terms of music—major keys and minor keys. (I heard Florent Varak use these terms in relation to the Bible—he used them differently than I’m going to, but this idea, which I find really helpful, came from him.)
In music, we have major keys and minor keys. Major keys sound happy; minor keys sound sad. If you have nothing but minor keys, the song may be beautiful, but it will be depressing; if you have nothing but major keys, the song will sound happy, but it will probably be shallow and uninteresting.
The best songs know how to use both major keys and minor keys to make something better. The sad songs gain hopefulness; and the happy songs gain weight.
There are a lot of minor-key texts in the Bible: texts which are difficult and heavy and challenging. But “minor-key texts” are not bad texts. They rather help us to understand why the major-key texts, which give us what we immediately think of as “good news,” are as good as they are.
This is a minor-key text. It is heavy, and hard, and a bit unsettling…but it is vital. Because what Jesus says here, if we apply it, proves just how good the “good news” really is.
Let me put it another way. In everything Jesus has said here—that following him will cost us our comfort, our priorities, and everything we love—there is no bad news. And we have a clue that this is the case in v. 62:
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow...and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
In other words, rather than looking back, we should be looking forward, because what we are looking forward to is far better.
Jesus’s description—of someone putting his hand to the plow and looking back—so accurately describes a lot of Christians! They are happy to be saved; they are happy at the idea that they are no longer under God’s wrath. But they still think back on their past lives, their lives before Jesus, with a bit of nostalgia. They think back on the pleasures of sin they have to give up, and they miss them.
Is it any wonder that we are tempted by the same things, over and over again? Is it any wonder that we tend to fall into the same sins, over and over again?
Of course it isn’t. Because we think back on those sins with longing rather than disgust. We look back on the things we have left behind.
And, far too often, we show that we never really left them behind at all. We just love them too much.
Or, to use a different example, we look back on things that aren’t sinful, but that we’ve still had to give up for Christ. We look back on the comfort we used to have. On the extra money in our bank account before we started giving. On the free time we had on Sundays. On the lack of responsibilities we had toward our brothers and sisters. On the time we didn’t have to spend reading our Bibles.
Same thing. We put our hand to the plow—we begin to work for the kingdom of God—and then we look back. We’re happy to be saved…but we still miss the life we had before.
Now, why would this make us “unfit” for the kingdom of God?
There is one simple answer: looking back on our past lives makes us unfit for God’s kingdom because the new life in his kingdom, which we should be looking forward to, is infinitely better.
One of the criticisms you often hear leveled toward Jesus in this passage—one of the things I thought about when I first read it—is that he seems to be discouraging these three men from following him, by telling them how impossibly hard it will be. And that has been the experience for a lot of Christians: they are told that Jesus will make everything better, then they start following him, and everything seems to get harder. They leave feeling deceived.
But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus isn’t discouraging these guys from following him—and you’ll know that if you read the rest of the Bible, and see how God affirms the importance of family, and proper grief, and material provision.
No—Jesus is using these extreme circumstances—a life without a home, the burial of a father, proper goodbyes to loved ones—to show that as good and proper and important as these things are, the kingdom of God is infinitely more important.
That the kingdom of God is so much better than having a roof over your head, and a pillow under it.
That belonging to God is so much more healing than the process of burying your father.
That loving Christ is so much fuller than loving your wife or your kids.
This is a lesser-to-greater scenario: it’s not that these things aren’t important and good, but rather, as good and important as these things are, here is something infinitely greater.
Don’t Look Back.
So here’s the question: why have so many Christians not had this experience? Why do so many Christians like the idea of what they have in Christ, but really, empirically, they actually enjoy the same old pleasures and comforts of this life more than him?
I would submit that this has not been their experience of the Christian life because they haven’t poured as much effort and time and resource into knowing and delighting in God as they have poured into all these other things they love.
Now thankfully, God will call very few of us to do something as extreme as what Jesus calls these men to do. Most of us won’t have to leave our loved ones behind, or leave our dead parents unburied, or sleep on the ground, to do what God has called us to do. That’s not the point.
Jesus isn’t saying we’ll all have to do this. Jesus is saying that we should all know that the kingdom of God is better than the things we love the most, and we should know it so fully that if he ever called us to give them up, we wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.
So how do we do that? How do we get to that kind of profound, gut-level understanding of how good he is? Well, Jesus tells us how, as he told them. He says, “Follow me. Go and proclaim the kingdom of God. Put your hand to the plow, and don’t look back.”
At the time, following Jesus meant physically following him. But now, Jesus has given us something better. He lived the perfect life we should have lived, and he died the death that we deserved, and he rose again from the dead and gave us his perfect life and death; he gave us his Spirit, to actually live in all of his children; and he has given us his Word, which we can literally carry around in our pockets wherever we go—which we can memorize and meditate on and put into practice.
We must know that the kingdom of God is better than the things that we love, and know it so completely that when he calls us to give something up—whatever that may be—we won’t hesitate.
And we do that—we grow in that knowledge—by every day depending on his life and death and resurrection for us; by depending on his Spirit to reveal God to us; by reading and memorizing and studying the Word that he left us; and by putting the Word into practice. By doing what he tells us to do.
The letter to the Hebrews says a lot about rest, and this rest it speaks of is the culmination of our joy in Christ: it’s the picture of a life entirely satisfied in Jesus. And the author of this letter says in chapter 4, verse 11:
11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest [so that’s the goal], so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. [And how do we do that?] 12 FOR the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
The psalmist said it more succinctly when he said (Psalm 34.8):
Oh, TASTE and SEE that the Lord is good!
Many of us live our Christian lives like someone trying to live off of cooking tutorials on YouTube. They watch the food, it looks good, it makes them hungry…but they watch it from a distance. They can’t taste the food, because it’s on the screen. If you want to taste it, you have to go to the market, get the ingredients you need, follow the instructions, and EAT.
If you don’t taste—if you never actually do what he calls you to do—you’ll never see how good he really is.
And when the time comes for you to actually sacrifice something you feel you need, or something you love, you won’t do it, because you won’t be convinced the trade-off is worth it.
That may be safer, in the short term. But it is also the best way to never see that he is better than you imagined.
You’ll never give up anything you feel is essential…and find that God is enough to provide for you.
You’ll never lose anything you love…and find that God is enough to sustain you.
You’ll never sacrifice anything you feel you can’t live without…and find that what you have in Christ is actually better than what you sacrificed.
So here’s Jesus’s call to us in this text.
Think of what you love. Think of what you value the most. Hold it up in your mind, see it clearly, and feel why you love it.
If it is sin that you love, then the call is simple: throw it away with all the violence you can muster, repent of that sin, and ask God to show you how good he is for allowing you to escape it.
If it’s not sinful, it’s more of a challenge—but the call remains. Think of what you love. Hold it up in your mind, feel why you love it. Then, with that your love for this good thing still firm in your mind, turn to the Word, and learn it, and know it, and live it. Keep what you love in your mind all the while, and ask God to show you in his Word that, as much you love this thing, or this person, he is infinitely better. Ask him to show you, through your obedience, why as much as you love this thing, or this person, he is infinitely better. Ask him to help you feel, through the experience of following him, that as much as you love this thing, or this person, he is infinitely better.
“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Follow him. Put your hand to the plow, and don’t look back.