The Cost of Discipleship

by Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

The Lord’s Day Morning
March 28, 2010
Palm Sunday
Luke 9:57-62


If you want to take your hymnals in hand you can turn to number 97 because our opening song of praise is “We Praise You O God, Our Redeemer, Creator” and you may want to use those words as we prepare for worship.  Let me mention two other things about the songs that we’ll sing today.  We’ll sing Theodulph of Orlean’s hymn, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.”  This is a Palm Sunday hymn and for those of you who are familiar with the liturgical calendar today is a day that many churches call Palm Sunday in remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and when the crowds, and even the children, were waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!”  Well, this song was written for that occasion.  We’ll sing it today.  And then the final song of the service really sums up everything that I’m going to, by God’s grace, attempt to press home in the message this morning by way of application. So as we sing “As Jesus Calls Us” and that’s an old hymn that many, many of you have been singing for a long, long time and you could probably sing it with your eyes closed never looking at a word and maybe not even thinking about what you’re singing, let me just encourage you as we sing it to think very closely about what you’re singing because each of the stanzas will help apply the truth that we’ll be studying together in the Word this morning.

            Now just one little tidbit to wet your spiritual appetite as we prepare for worship this morning -   Leon Morris, in his commentary on Luke on the passage that we’re about to study today says this, “Regularly God tests the earnestness of our hearts by bringing them to a fork in the road.  When it becomes necessary to choose between two ways, which way do we follow - comfort, custom, convention, or Christ?  The test from the very outset of discipleship has been” – and then he quotes Jesus’ words in the very passage we’re going to read this morning – “The test from the very outset has been, ‘Follow Me.’”  Think about that as we prepare to worship the living God.


O come, let us sing unto the Lord, let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.  Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving and enter into His courts with praise, for the Lord our God is a great God, a great King above all gods, in His hands are the depths of the earth.  The heights of the mountains are His.  The sea is His for He has made it, and the dry land is the work of His hands.  Let us worship Him.


If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 9.  We’ll be looking at verses 57 to 62.  As you turn there, note that there are three conversations that are briefly recorded.  Luke does not identify the persons who ask these questions or make these statements or to whom Jesus replies.  He simply indicates that someone and another and another says these things to Him and Jesus replies to these unidentified persons.  Now in the parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew, Matthew tells us that the first person who speaks to Jesus is a scribe and the second person who speaks to Jesus is a disciple.  But even those are not any further identified.  As far as Luke is concerned, all he wants you to concentrate on is what is said rather than who says it to Jesus.  But you’ll see these three conversations.  The first is found in verses 57 and 58.  The second is found in verses 59 and 60, and the third is found in verses 61 and 62. 

Now each of these three conversations are on the same subject and this is one reason why Luke has pulled them together and put them side by side here because they’re all pressing toward the same issue, the same subject, the same topic, and that is the question of discipleship.  In many of your Bibles the heading over this paragraph will be something like, “The Cost of Discipleship” or “The Cost of Following Jesus” and that’s correct.  As you think about that question, let me say ahead of time that the issue of the cost of discipleship boils down to how important you think Jesus is.  How significant He is to you – that is the ultimate question of the cost of discipleship.  It’s not even so much what you have to give up in order to follow Jesus as it is how important is Jesus to you.  Is He more important than anyone and anything in this world?  Each of these questions in different ways focuses us on that issue and that’s the pastoral, the spiritual issue, that we’ll wrestle with together today. 

So let’s pray and hear God’s Word.


Heavenly Father, we thank You for the Scriptures.  The way the Scriptures uncover our sins and reveal our struggles testifies to us that they are true and that You are God for this book reveals the struggles and the temptations of our hearts like no other book ever written.  We ask that You would enable us to hear Your Word today with believing ears, humble ears, sitting under it’s judgment.  We ask that by Your Holy Spirit we would see how Your truth is meant to address us, to rebuke us, and to correct us and to edify us and to equip us for the living of the Christian life.  And we ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Let us hear God’s Word:


“As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’  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.’  To another He said, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead.  But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’  Yet another said, ‘I will follow You, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’  Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”


Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.


In 1941, Winston Churchill took the airways of the BBC to deliver a radio address to the people of Britain who were in the midst of literally a fight for their lives.  It was, I think, before the United States had come into the war so it would have been earlier in ’41 than December 7.  I’m told of Churchill, by the way, who was not a praying man, on December 7 of 1941, the day we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, rendered up a prayer to the Lord.  “Lord, Thou hast heard our prayers and hast delivered us.”  But this was earlier in 1941, when Britain was still very much in the balance fighting her own battle in Europe.  He said to the people of Britain, “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire.  Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”  Now history records that Churchill’s people did just that.  They did not fail or falter; they did not weaken or tire.  They were given the tools and they did finish the job. 

Scroll forward sixty years and President George W. Bush addressed the Congress and the American people after 9-11, after the attacks on the United States in September of 2001.  And before the beginning of war against Iraq and Afghanistan he said, “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”

 Now one has immediate different responses to those words in the wake of the history that we’re living in right now than you have to the words that Winston Churchill spoke to the British people.  Then of course there’re lots of differences.  The war that he asked his people to fight was a shorter war than George Bush was asking his people to fight, but you can argue that there were times when George Bush and our armed forces were about the only people around who continued to believe what he said in that address to Congress in September of 2001. 

Apart from the other differences that I think about those two addresses, maybe the biggest difference was the British people as a whole sensed the importance of the fight they were in.  That is, they understood that if we lose this fight, we lose our freedom.  And I think on the whole it’s fair to say that our own fellow countrymen don’t feel that way about the fight that we are in and have been in.  That is, that they really don’t believe that freedom is at stake. And consequently there have been many voices who have called up a wholesale disengagement and retreat. 

Now, totally apart from your politics, I’m not pressing any particular political view upon you, I’m simply asking you because I remember when Bush said that, I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder if we’ll believe that five years from now that we will not tire and we will not falter and we will not fail and we will not waver.  I wonder if we’ll really believe that five years from now.”  I can remember thinking that when I heard him say it.  Well, there was a cost that in large quadrants of our political community and amongst the population of the United States that had not been calculated and the more the costs ran up, the less willing to bear those costs we were. 


There is a cost that has to be calculated in following Jesus as well because Jesus is not calling us to a life of ease but to a life of warfare.  Jesus is not calling us to a life in which our happiness is undisturbed.  He’s calling us to a fight of faith in which we may and will lose much.  And in each of these three passages before us today Luke shows us an encounter between Jesus and a would-be disciple in which Jesus is very concerned to say when a person says, “Yes Lord, I will follow Your call to ‘Follow Me.’”  Jesus is very concerned to say, “Are you sure?  Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? Do you realize what this is going to mean for you?”  In other words, Jesus is not ready simply to accept the  momentary expression of a person’s desire to follow Him as an indication that they are rightly set out on a sure-footed path to discipleship.  He wants to test their hearts.  He wants to make sure that they understand what they’re getting themselves into.  And I want to look at these things with you together today as we consider the cost of following Jesus, as we consider the cost of discipleship and as we consider what it means to us in terms of our own losses and trials to say that we’re going to follow Jesus.


I. To follow Jesus at the expense of our own comfort.

The first story is of this person who comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow You wherever You go.”  In verse 57 Jesus responses and in verse 58 is that “foxes have holes and birds have nests, but I don’t even have a place where I can lay My head.  I don’t have My own home.  I don’t have My own bed.  I’m dependent entirely upon the hospitality of others.  I don’t even have what many people who live in poverty in my country have – a home with a roof over their heads and a bed that they can call their own.”  What Jesus is saying to that disciple is, “Following Me will not mean comfort, ease, and wealth.  That is not the way that I am going myself.  If you are going to follow Me, it will not entail comfort, ease and wealth.”  Jesus knows the hearts of His people and He knows the heart of this person who said he will follow Him and He is identifying a spiritual struggle that this man will have and He’s asking him to count the costs.  Now it’s different for every one of us, isn’t it?  Some of us are called to follow Jesus regardless of the fact that God has given us, relatively speaking, lives of comfort, ease, and wealth. Others of us are called to give that us for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’ve been reading the last two weeks The Life of John Newton and it has been gripping.  I commend to you Jonathan Aiken’s book From Disgrace to Amazing Grace – the Life of John Newton.  John Newton, of course, is the author of the best loved hymn in the English language, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”  And you will never so appreciate that hymn until you’ve read The Life of John Newton.  When he said that he was a wretch that was not an overstatement, it was almost a euphemism and the Lord gloriously saved him.  But you know as a slave-ship captain and then as the tide surveyor in the Port of Liverpool John Newton made a lot of money and following Jesus into the ministry into the Church of England meant that he had to give up a life of relative comfort, ease, and wealth.  He went from making 200 pounds a year to 40 pounds a year.  His income was cut to a fifth of its former size in following Jesus.  Some of you are called to do that. Others of you are called to keep your eye on Jesus even though you haven’t given up that income, but following Jesus costs. 

I wonder if you are bearing any costs in your discipleship in following Jesus?  I wonder if you have tried to continue your life of comfort, ease, and wealth at the expense of following Jesus? Let me address two areas, especially in our congregation, that I think are a concern. 

One is, despite the fact that all of us and some of us more acutely than others, are feeling the effects of a significant economic downturn.  Now I don’t discount the significance of that.  We are still better off than most people who have ever lived in the history of this world and those people in the world today.  And what we have, I suspect, and I’m judging simply my own heart, I am not like Jesus, I don’t know your hearts and I don’t know your struggles but I know my own heart - I wonder how much our desire to stay comfortable and at ease and to enjoy the wealth that we do possess keeps us off from throwing ourselves wholly into the work of the kingdom and following after Christ.  I ask you to look at that with regard to the way you use your income.  How much of your income can you really say, how much of your wealth, how much of your resources can you really say is devoted to the work of the kingdom?  I do know that statistically Christians today in the United States give to the work of the kingdom far less than Christians did sixty, seventy, eighty years ago.  We give less to the work of the kingdom than Christians did during the Great Depression.  Now that says to me something’s wrong.  And I would ask you, does the way that you use what you have indicate that you are a disciple who has truly counted the cost of following Jesus?

Secondly, with regard to our own giving in the congregation I want to make this challenge – and I want to speak especially to those of you, me, who are under the age of sixty – the people who are sixty years and older in this congregation have for many years carried the great burden, before they were even sixty, they were carrying the great burden of the budgetary needs of this congregation, and I am wondering if those of us who are under sixty are ready to pick up the slack that they will one day leave off when they leave this congregation and are promoted to glory.  I wonder that especially in the area of missions.  You know, as we look at what has been given and committed to the work of missions this year we see a continual decline in what is committed from the congregation to the work of missions, both in terms of the number of people who are committing themselves to give to the work of missions and to the amount that are pledged to give to missions.  I do not think that should be.  I think all you would have to do is look at the economic growth of us individually and collectively in the congregation to say that our giving to missions ought to be increasing.  And I want to suggest to you, my friends, that our decrease in that area is an indication of spiritual sloth, pure and simple. 

I do not mean to pile on to those of you who are in the midst of economic difficulty.   I minister to many in this congregation on a weekly basis who are in very, very difficult straights.  I am not picking on you.  I’m picking on the rest of us who are not in the same place but who desire to stay comfortable at the expense of costly giving to the kingdom.  To whom much is given much is required and much has been given to this congregation.  I could take six hundred families in this congregation and I’d put you up against any congregation in the world for your giving, but there are many others of us who have a long way to grow in our use of what the Lord has given to us in the giving to the work of His kingdom.  Whether it’s the church budget of whether it’s missions or whether it’s supporting other worthy Christian ministries and agencies, the Lord has given us much.  Have we counted the cost as disciples or are we trying to be comfortable disciples at ease while claiming to follow Jesus?  Jesus says to this man, “Count the cost.”  I think He does that because this man is a wealthy, respected man, used to comfort and ease.  And because Jesus loves him, He says, “Before you say you’re going to follow Me, make sure you know what that entails.”  I believe that Jesus is saying that to you and me today.


2. To follow Jesus at the expense of our earthly commitments.

The second story is a story of a disciple who comes to Jesus and responds to Jesus’ call to “Follow Me.”  And he says, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”  Now you need to understand that in Jesus’ day, burial was a process that could take about a year.  What happened was first, after a person died and after the funeral celebrations had taken place and the body had been prepared and placed in an open tomb, the body would be allowed to decompose over about a year and then the eldest son had the responsibility of going and taking what was left of that decomposed body – by that time just the bones – and placing the bones of his father or mother, his parents, into an ossuary, a box in which the bones of the person would be more permanently laid in a tomb.  And this was considered to be part of honoring your father and your mother.  This was part of fulfilling the command that you were going to care for your parents all the way up to and even after death.  And this disciple says to Jesus, “I’m going to follow You, Jesus, but first let me bury my father.”  Now that could have been a process that led all the way up to a year’s delay in this disciple’s following of Jesus.  So Jesus says to him something that would have absolutely shocked everyone who was hearing Jesus, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

I’m not sure that I can even convey to you how shocking this statement of Jesus would have been to His contemporaries.  I think the only thing that I can imagine that would be as shocking as this would be if you could imagine yourself going to the funeral visitation of a friend who had just lost his father and saying to him as you were going through the line of the funeral visitation, “You know, you really ought to let someone else take care of the burial of your father.  You ought to be about the work of the kingdom.  You ought not be at that funeral tomorrow.”  Jesus deliberately means to shake up this disciple, not because Jesus doesn’t want us to care about our families or go to funerals or go to weddings or go to baptisms, but because He’s emphasizing that one of the things that need to count the cost of in discipleship is just how important He is.  Jesus is saying to this disciple, “Is your father more important to you than I am important to you?  And if he is, then let the dead bury their dead.”  You understand that sometimes in following Jesus it means giving ourselves more to our families than we have been giving them, but sometimes it means not listening to our families when they are calling us to compromise our fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

But in whichever case the issue is, who’s most important to us – our families or Jesus?  Counting the cost of discipleship is about saying that Jesus is more important than anything else in my life. And Jesus is ready to say to this disciple, “I’m more important than your father.”  That’s what Morris was saying is that we come to certain forks in the road in life and in those forks in the road we’re asked – Are we going to follow comfort or custom or convention or are we going to follow Jesus?  Are we going to follow Christ?  This is one of those forks in the road that this man had encountered.  “Am I important to you, more important than your father?”


3. To follow Jesus at the expense of everything else in life.

And then there’s this third story.  This man says, “I will follow you Lord, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.  Let me go back and say goodbye to my mother and my father.”  Now you’ll notice that this story is not recounted in Matthew’s parallel passage, but perhaps if you’re a good Bible student and you have a good memory you remember another story like this.  Does anyone remember another story like this in the Bible?  It’s back in 1 Kings chapter 19.  You remember when Elijah went to call Elisha to follow him, his understudy, so that Elijah was going to mentor Elisha.  Elisha was going to become a disciple of Elijah and be prepared to take his job – that Elisha was doing what when Elijah found him?  He was out plowing; he was out with his oxen plowing the field.  And Elijah passed by him and waved his mantle in front of him -  that was his way of saying, “Come follow me.  You’re going to be my disciple.”  And Elisha, the  younger man, says what to Elijah?  “Okay Elijah, I’ll follow you, but first let me go kiss my father and my mother goodbye.”  And Elijah says to him what?  “Fine.  No problem.  Go do it.  Perfectly reasonable request.  Go kiss mom and dad goodbye.”  “I may never seen them again.  I’m getting ready to follow you.”  In fact, Elisha is so committed what does he do?  He slaughters his team of oxen and he boils them along with the other implement that he used to plow with.  In other words, “I’m making a clean break with my vocation.  I was a farm boy out plowing the fields and my team of oxen has now been sacrificed and boiled and even the implements that I plow with has been destroyed so I’ve made a clean break with my past.”  It’s a dramatic tale of what it meant to follow. 


But Jesus is saying, “Don’t even go tell your parents goodbye” to this disciple.  Why?  “I’m more important.  I am God in the flesh.  I am the Messiah.  I am the Savior.”  While it was perfectly appropriate for Elisha to go back and say goodbye to his parents - someone greater than Elijah.  Have you realized that in your relationship with Jesus?  Or, when trial and trouble comes into your experience – is your reaction, “Lord, what’s going on?  This wasn’t supposed to happen!”  And Jesus’ response is, “I told you that the foxes have holes and the birds have nests but the Son of Man doesn’t have a place to lay his head.  I told you I wasn’t calling you to comfort and ease and now you’re crying out to Me and you’re saying, ‘Where did my comfort and ease go?  I’m in a trial!’”  But Jesus is saying, “I’m worth it.  I’m greater than Elijah.  I’m greater than anything you can give up.  I’m greater than your mother or your father.  I’m greater than anything in life, everything in life that you treasure the most.  I’m worth it all.”


Now I want to say very quickly "this is not a call to asceticism" because Jesus does not intend us be the losers in the following that He calls us to.  End of the story of the rich young ruler, Luke 18:29, Jesus says to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive many times more in this time and in the age to come.”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “You can’t give up more than I am going to give you but you must be ready to give up everything that you hold dear.  I will give it back to you a hundred times over, but if you’re not ready to give it up, those words in verse 62 of Luke 9, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” 

Jesus is talking in this passage, not so much about our giving up sin, which of course we have to do in the process of following Him, but He’s talking about our giving up things, things that in and of themselves are wonderful and fine and right and well for us to appreciate and desire.  This is a very important lesson for us as a congregation. 

Salvation is the free gift that costs you everything.  To be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ means giving up everything because you treasure him above everything else. He will not allow you to give up more for Him than He gives back to you, but what you desired on the other side of discipleship may be very different from the gifts He gives back to you on this side of discipleship.  The gifts that He gives back as a disciple you will treasure, but chances are they will be very different from the things you desired before you became His disciple. Now, there’s an important message, my friends, in how we make disciples. You know if someone had come to us and said, “I’ve decided to follow Jesus.”  Chances are our response would be, “Wonderful!  Welcome to the kingdom!”   Jesus’ response would be, “Have you really desired to follow Me?  Have you really decided to follow Me?  Do you know what’s entailed in following Me?”  So before we’re too quick to declare, “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter,” let’s remember what’s entailed in following Jesus and ask ourselves one simple question: “Is Jesus my treasure?”  If He is your treasure then you won’t mind giving up anything and everything else that’s not your treasure.  But, if you find yourself having it hard in giving up your other treasures, chances are that He’s not the treasure to you that He ought to be. Chances are your heart is divided and that’s what Jesus is getting at here.  He wants disciples whose hearts are not divided.  They’ve already decided that He’s more important than anyone else and so they’re ready to give up everything and follow Him.  God is calling us to do that in this congregation and we’ve got a long way to go. And the only way we’ll get there is by God’s grace.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word.  We ask that You would speak to our hearts and lives about this very issue.  We find ourselves halting between two opinions and trying to serve two masters and trying to continue our comfort and our ease while professing to follow Jesus.  We would not be this way, O Lord, we would follow after You.  So change our hearts, fix our eyes on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith and enable us to follow Him.  This we ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen.  

Now will you take your hymnals out and turn to number 591 and let’s sing it.  

To the One who calls you and says, “Follow Me.  Take up your cross and die daily,” gives back to you a hundred more times more, He gives you this blessing - Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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