Let the Dead Bury Their Dead


Week of May 12, 2019

The Point: Following Jesus takes priority over all other commitments.

The Cost of Following Jesus: Luke 9:57-62.

[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.” [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.” [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 and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” [ESV]

“Don’t Look Back [9:51-62]. Verse 51 marks a major turning point in the Gospel of Luke. To this point Jesus has been preaching the gospel of the kingdom and performing miracles of power in Galilee. He still has many more things to do and to teach; He has not yet completed His training of the twelve. But the end is near. As we know from Luke 9, Jesus must suffer many things, including the rejection of His people unto death. Soon He will have to carry the very cross that He has been preaching to His disciples. This was His destiny, and knowing this, Jesus made Jerusalem his destination. Jerusalem was the city of God’s king, and thus it was the place the Messiah went to receive His royal welcome. Jesus made His journey there over many months, leisurely making His way through the towns and villages where He still needed to preach the gospel. This journey – which was as much spiritual as it was geographic – runs all the way to chapter 19, where Jesus finally goes up to the great city on a donkey, weeping because He knows that Jerusalem has rejected God and will be destroyed. What did Jesus do when He arrived there? In Jerusalem He corrected the religious leaders for corrupting the temple and rejecting His authority. In Jerusalem He taught His last parables. In Jerusalem He prophesied the destruction of the temple, the overthrow of the city, and the end of the world. And in Jerusalem He celebrated His last Passover supper with His disciples before going up the Mount of Olives to pray. There was danger for Jesus in that great city. Jerusalem was the city where many prophets had gone to die. Thus for Jesus to go there was to face mortal danger. In Jerusalem people plotted against Him. In Jerusalem He was betrayed with a kiss, arrested by the temple police, and abused by soldiers. In Jerusalem Jesus was brought before the Jews on false charges, taken to Pilate the governor, and then on to Herod the king, before being sent back to Pilate. In Jerusalem an angry mob called for His crucifixion, until finally the governor gave in to their violent demands. In Jerusalem His disciples left Him. And in Jerusalem Jesus was stripped naked and nailed to a cursed tree – in Jerusalem He was dead and buried. Jesus knew all of this when He was still in Galilee, at least in general terms, if not in precise detail, and it was with all of this in mind that He set his face to go to Jerusalem [9:51]. This expression indicates firm resolution and complete fixity of purpose. Like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, who set his face like a flint [Isa. 50:7], Jesus was absolutely determined to go up to Jerusalem and do everything He was called to do for our salvation. What Jesus suffered was not some unfortunate accident, but the direct result of His deliberate obedience to His divine calling as the Savior of the world. It was not merely to die that Jesus went to Jerusalem, however. Luke reveals His deeper purpose and higher destiny by telling us when Jesus set His face towards the city. He did this when the days drew near for him to be taken up [9:51]. Luke tells us where Jesus was heading so we can see the whole of His saving work. Jesus was nearing the consummation of His saving work in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. He was moving towards the cross and beyond: to His resurrection from the dead and the glory that would follow forever. Jesus would reach this everlasting glory by way of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had to come first. There He would forgive His enemies, promise paradise to a dying thief, and make atonement for our sin. But after He completed His saving work, He would be raised from the dead and taken up to the glorious throne of God. When Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem, therefore, He was looking ahead to the cross and to the crown that He would gain by dying for sinners. Once He fixed His gaze in that direction, He would never look back. Nothing would deter Him or distract Him from doing what He was called to do, the work that was His everlasting destiny and that He desired to do for our salvation.

On the Road to the Cross [9:57-62]. Luke 9 ends with three brief encounters that Jesus had with three would-be disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Each of these encounters teaches us something about what it means to follow Jesus. In fact, follow is the key word in this section, occurring in verses 57, 59, and 61. All three of these people had every intention of following Jesus. Yet when we learn more about them, we have to wonder whether they really had what it took to follow Jesus all the way to Jerusalem which leads us to ask whether we ourselves are ready to follow Jesus all the way. The first encounter teaches us that if we want to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to give up everything, even the comforts of home. The person who learned this lesson was more than willing to follow Jesus. Luke tells us, As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go’ [9:57]. Here was someone who knew something about the demands of discipleship. He understood that following Jesus meant going wherever He went. Without raising any questions or making any conditions, this man volunteered to go anywhere and everywhere with Jesus. Yet for all his confidence, the man really had not counted the cost of discipleship. He spoke with so much self-confidence because he had no inkling of the way of sorrows and death which the Lord would yet follow and also because he did not realize his own weakness and instability. Before we say that we are ready and able to follow Jesus, we need to know where He is going, and what hardships we are likely to face along the way. Jesus never denied the more difficult aspects of discipleship, but always announced them in advance. He never presented the Christian life as a life of ease, but always of sacrifice. His message was, “I love you and have a difficult plan for your life.” So Jesus said to the first would-be disciple: Foxes have their holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head [9:58]. These famous words remind us of the many things that Jesus Himself gave up in becoming a man. He was the Son of Man, the glorious Lord who came down from heaven to bring salvation. From eternity past, He had lived in palaces of light, basking in the incandescent glow of His mutual love with the Father and the Spirit. Then He came down to this dark world, where He had scarcely a place to lay His head. This was true in Bethlehem, where there was no room for Him at the inn. It was true in Samaria, where people refused to put him up for the night. And it was true throughout His earthly ministry, when He traveled as a homeless evangelist. Even the animals have their homes, but Jesus had nowhere to live and nothing to call His own. When He said this, He was not complaining, but simply stating the facts: Jesus gave up everything to come and be our Savior. Now Jesus calls us to give up everything for Him. This does not mean that we are not allowed to own property. By His generous grace, God often blesses us with material possessions that we may use for His glory. But it does mean that we must never allow earthly things to get in the way of true discipleship. Jesus has not called us to a life of luxury, but to a life of suffering service. He is calling us to follow Him where He went: to Jerusalem and the cross. This means laying aside our earthly ambitions. It means letting go of creature comforts to make costly gifts to Christian ministry. For some it will mean giving up the security of our homes to follow God’s calling. James Boice writes: “It is true that Jesus may never ask us to break with our families for His sake or sell all we have and give to the poor in order to follow Him. Indeed, in the great majority of cases, this is not required at all. But we must be willing to obey in these or any other areas if Jesus asks it, and we must actually do it, if he does” (The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, p. 134). This can be very costly for us, as it was for Jesus. But, when God is our dwelling place, we can leave everything to follow Jesus, and still be at home with our Lord [Ps. 90:1]. The next encounter dealt not with the comforts of home, but with the claims of family. Jesus said to another would-be disciple, Follow me. But the man answered, Lord, let me first go and bury my father [9:59]. Rather than being too quick to promise, like the first would-be disciple, this man was too slow to perform. Here was someone else who wanted to follow Jesus, but first he wanted to negotiate the terms of his discipleship. The word first is important because it shows where the man’s priorities were. He wanted to honor a commitment to his family before he began to follow Jesus. Here it helps to know the cultural background. On a first reading, most people assume that this conversation took place sometime between the death of the man’s father and his proper burial. But in all likelihood, his father was not yet dead. In those days Jewish people buried their dead within twenty-four hours, and family members sat with the body of the deceased until it was laid to rest. If the father had died already, his son would not have been talking with Jesus at all, but sitting at home with his family in mourning. What, then, was the nature of the request? When the man asked for permission to bury his father, he was asking Jesus to let him care for his father during his declining years, until finally he died. Here the man had a strong claim. Honoring our parents is one of the Ten Commandments, and caring for them in old age is one of the best ways we can ever honor them. But Jesus discerned that this man was using his family situation as an excuse for delaying his discipleship. What hinders us from following Christ is not always something sinful; sometimes it is something good in itself that nevertheless gets in the way of what God really wants us to do. That must have been how it was for this man, because Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” [9:60]. If this statement sounds harsh, it may be because we still do not understand the demands of discipleship. There are many duties we can safely leave in the hands of unbelievers – people who are spiritually dead. Caring for an elderly parent is one example, or at least it was in that culture. Even people without deep spiritual insight have some idea how to take care of their own families. But who will go out and preach the kingdom of God? Only a true follower of Jesus Christ. So Jesus told this man to leave his family obligations in the hands of other relatives – letting the spiritually dead bury the naturally dead – while he himself went out to proclaim the good news. Maybe some of the first people who needed to hear his gospel were members of his own family, but even to do that effectively the man needed to see that his highest and most urgent duty was to follow Jesus. Unless he understood this, how could he minister effectively to his family’s deepest need? Do not put Jesus off even one more day; follow Him without delay. If this man waited until his father died, it might take him most of the rest of his life. Indeed, he might never get around to becoming a disciple. This is why Jesus never lets us put Him off. He always wants us to start following Him right away, and then for the rest of our lives, and for all eternity. A person who considers that he has a prior duty to fulfill before he is free to become a follower of Christ, has no concept of who Christ is. Nothing is more important than following Jesus, not even the claims of our own families, which are the strongest of all earthly claims. If it comes down to a choice – as it sometimes does – we must do what Jesus wants us to do, not what our family wants us to do. We need to be careful how we apply this principle, especially since elsewhere Jesus warned against making service to God an excuse for not caring for our parents [see Mark 7:9-13]. Of course there are times when caring for our families is the very way that Jesus wants us to follow Him. The claims of family have their God-given place in life, and honoring these claims is part of our service to God. Even missionaries may be called to set aside their work for a season so they can minister to a dying parent. But we must never let a false sense of duty get in the way of our real duty to Christ, whatever that is in our own particular situation. It was in this context that a third person spoke to Jesus on the Jerusalem road: Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home” [9:61]. In all likelihood, this man had heard what Jesus said about the dead burying the dead. He did not want to do that. He did not feel the need to wait around for the rest of his father’s life before he started to follow Jesus. He was willing to go much sooner. But first – there’s that word again – he wanted at least enough time to go and say good-bye. Once again, this may seem like a reasonable request. As a matter of common courtesy, surely it was appropriate for this man to go back home and say farewell to his family. Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” [9:62]. When He talked about putting one’s hand to the plow, Jesus was saying that the normal courtesies of family affection must give way to the overriding demands of the kingdom of God. The proverb He used to make this point came from the fields, where the best way to plow a straight furrow is to keep looking ahead at some fixed point in the distance. Farmers who keep looking backwards, trying to figure out if they are still lined up properly, end up zigzagging all over the countryside. Apparently if the man that Jesus met went back home, he would be tempted to stay. Something else was first in his heart, and knowing this, Jesus told him not to go back, even for a moment, but to follow Him right away. Sometimes we wrestle with the same temptation. We want to wait a little longer before embarking on our journey with Jesus, or before setting off on a new pathway in our pilgrimage. Once we start, we are tempted to look back at everything we used to love. If we keep second-guessing our decision for Christ, or looking back fondly on our old affections, or even worse, going back to the places where we used to sin, then we will never get anywhere with Jesus. If we want to be His disciples, we need to follow Him without any further delay. Disciples of Jesus do all the good they can, by all the means they can, in all the ways they can, starting as soon as they can.

I Will Follow. As we consider these three would-be disciples, it is hard not to wonder what became of them. Did they ever decide to follow Jesus? Was the first man willing to be homeless for the sake of the gospel? Did the second man let the dead bury their dead so that he could preach the gospel? Did the third man go home and say good-bye, or did he start following Jesus right away? It would be interesting to know what they all did, but Luke does not tell us. Maybe this is because his main concern was to help us write the ending to our own story – the story of our journey with Jesus. The one thing we do know is what Jesus did after this: He kept on going to Jerusalem. Having set His face toward that great city, nothing could deter Him from reaching His appointed destination. He had already given up all the things He was calling His disciples to give up as they followed Him. He had given up the comforts of home and the claims of family. More than that, He had given up the glories of heaven to suffer the indignities of earth. With single-minded, wholehearted devotion to the glory of God, Jesus made it to Jerusalem and the cross, before being taken up into glory. Now Jesus calls us to go where He has gone, to make whatever sacrifices He calls us to make, and to suffer the kinds of losses that He suffered. Are you ready to follow Jesus to the cross before going on to glory? Then you must be willing to leave the comforts of home and accept a lower standard of living, claiming nothing for yourself, but giving what you have for the gospel. Will you go anywhere and do anything for Jesus? In the same way that Jesus once set His face toward Jerusalem, God is calling us to set our hearts on Jesus and follow Him. Look to Jesus, the Scripture says, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God [Heb. 12:2]. Look to Jesus, and never look back.”  [Ryken, pp. 496-508]

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. Follow is the key word in our passage, repeated three times in these verses. Why the emphasis upon this word? What do each of the three encounters with Jesus tell us about the meaning of following Jesus? The context here is very important for understanding the significance of these encounters. What is going on in Jesus’ life at this time? Where is He headed? What will happen there? Yet, in spite of what was going to happen, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. Have you “set your face” to follow Jesus?
  2. This passage confronts every believer with the question: Are we following Jesus? Will we follow Jesus wherever He calls us to go and to do? Is our love for Jesus greater than our love for anything in this world? The underlying question in these three encounters is: Have you counted the cost of following Jesus before you agree to follow Him? Ryken writes: “Disciples of Jesus do all the good they can, by all the means they can, in all the ways they can, starting as soon as they can.” Is this true of you as a disciple of Jesus?


Luke 9:51 – 24:53, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

The Gospel According to Luke, James Edwards, Eerdmans.

Luke, David Garland, Zondervan (ebook).

Luke, vol. 1, Philip Ryken, REC, P & R Publishers.

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