Jesus—His Life and Message: Discipleship (Part 2)

September 19, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Earlier in this series, Jesus’ call to His first disciples was covered. Throughout the Gospels, there are references to some disciples by name: the brothers Peter and Andrew, and James and John; Philip, who was from Bethsaida—the same town as Peter and Andrew; Bartholomew; and Thomas, who was also referred to as “the Twin.” There was also Matthew, the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus; Thaddaeus/Judas—most likely he had two names, probably Judas was his given name and Thaddaeus a nickname or place name; Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.

These disciples were part of a larger body of Jesus’ disciples,1 and at some point in time Jesus chose these twelve men and named them apostles.

He went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles.2

These men whom He appointed were not only disciples (committed followers), but also apostles (commissioned representatives). They were trained as leaders within the fledgling movement that became known as the church.3

In the Gospels, we’re told that Jesus had quite a few disciples:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples.4

The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.5

When many of his disciples heard it…6 

We also read that women were part of His group of disciples, and some of them accompanied Jesus during His travels.

The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities.7

These women followed Jesus when He went to Jerusalem, were present at His crucifixion, and were the first to arrive at the empty tomb after His resurrection. In the book of Acts, we read of women having significant roles within the church. When a disciple named Tabitha is spoken of, the word disciple is given in the female form—affirming that both men and women were considered disciples.8

In the Gospel of John, we read of some disciples who had followed Jesus for a time, but left Him after He made a statement that was difficult for them to receive.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”9

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.10

While they had initially made some measure of commitment, they left Him. The phrase turned back indicates that they returned to the things they had left behind. They turned away from discipleship.

For the many who believed in and followed Jesus during His lifetime and beyond, the call to discipleship—to true belief in Jesus and a willingness to live His teaching—came at a steep personal cost. Being His follower required commitment, dedication, and self-sacrifice, and He made this quite clear in what He preached and taught. We will look at some of Jesus’ “hard” sayings about discipleship in this and upcoming articles.

One such teaching on discipleship is found in both Matthew11 and Luke. Luke’s account tells of three would-be disciples, two of whom express the desire to become Jesus’ followers and one whom Jesus calls.

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.”12

In Matthew’s Gospel, the man speaking is identified as a scribe.

Jesus’ response to the exuberant declaration that this person would follow Jesus wherever He went was a statement about the reality of what it meant to follow Him during His earthly ministry. Jesus describes what His followers could expect by stating His own situation, and pointed out that what was true of the Son of Man was true of His followers as well. As a carpenter, He most likely had a sufficient income to live modestly, but as He started His ministry, He left it behind. He moved to Capernaum, and while He had somewhere to stay while there, much of the time He and His disciples traveled and needed to depend on the hospitality of others. Presumably He and His disciples had to sleep beneath the stars a fair bit. Being a disciple could mean giving up one’s most basic security—a roof overhead and food on the table.

Jesus sent out His disciples with instructions to:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.13

This was a call to have complete trust in God for one’s needs.

Jesus was making the point that the choice to follow Him was not an easy one and that those considering it should count the cost. For while He was feeding the poor, healing the sick, and performing other miracles, in the end His ministry was one of suffering on the cross as He died for the sins of humanity. While most Christians don’t face martyrdom, we do face challenges and difficulty in our lives, so that we can say, as the apostle Paul did: I die daily.14

We’re not told how this person who was volunteering to follow Jesus responded to Jesus’ comment—whether he wholeheartedly followed regardless of hardship or shrank back into the crowd and departed. The message, though, is clear: those who wish to follow Jesus are called to understand that belief in the Lord and living for Him comes with a cost.

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.”15 

Jesus calls a man to follow Him, and unlike some of His other disciples who immediately left their nets and boats and jobs and followed Him,16 this man seeks to fulfill a family obligation before following Jesus. This seems like a legitimate request. Burying one’s parents was considered part of obeying the fifth commandment of honoring one’s father and mother. In Jewish literature, burying relatives is said to override other religious requirements and was held very strictly among Jews at the time of Jesus.17

Considering the importance placed on burying one’s parents, it’s most likely that this man’s father had not just died. At that time, when a death occurred, the person was buried within 24 hours. Had his father just died, he would have been keeping vigil and preparing for the funeral.18 Craig Keener explains that the man is probably not asking permission to attend his father’s funeral later that day. … When a person died, mourners would gather, the body would be prepared, and a funeral procession would take the body to the tomb immediately, leaving no time for family members to be away talking with rabbis; for a week afterward the family would remain mourning at home and not go out in public.19

Author Kenneth Bailey states:

The phrase “to bury one’s father” is a traditional idiom that refers specifically to the duty of the son to remain with and care for his parents until they are laid to rest respectfully.20

The man was saying that he had to do what his culture and community expected of him. He had to postpone his following Jesus until he had fulfilled his responsibility to his father for as long as his father was alive—which meant possibly for years or decades. He was putting family expectations as well as community expectations before his decision to follow Jesus.

Another possibility which Jesus could have been referring to was a custom of the time whereby the eldest son would return to a dead father’s tomb to “rebury” his father. The tradition was that a year after a person's death, the bones would be collected and placed in a small container called an ossuary, which would slide into a niche that had been carved in the wall of the tomb. If this man was referring to such a reburial, he was proposing to delay following Jesus for up to a year. Jesus’ rhetorical response to “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” is counsel to let others who do not have kingdom commitments—who are separated from God, and thus spiritually dead—take care of earthly things such as a burial. The point of Jesus’ statement is essentially “do not be excessively preoccupied with less important concerns” in comparison to proclaiming the kingdom of God.21

The point of this passage isn’t to denigrate familial obligations or relationships; elsewhere, Jesus called out the Pharisees for not honoring their parents.22 Rather, here He makes the point that following Him calls for a reframing of former allegiances, as we give God and His kingdom the highest place in our priorities. This doesn’t mean that our other allegiances—to family, friends, responsibilities, etc.—are unimportant, but that our allegiance to Christ outranks them all.

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.”23

Like the first man who claimed that he would follow, this one also declares his desire to follow Jesus; and like the man who wanted to first bury his father, he also has a precondition. This request also seems reasonable, especially if we have read Elisha’s response to Elijah’s call in the book of 1 Kings.24 When Elijah called him, Elisha responded: “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.”25 Elijah granted his request.

The Greek word translated as say farewell, or in some translations say goodbye, is apotassō, which can mean either “say goodbye” or “take leave of.” Four of the six times this word occurs in the New Testament, it is translated as “take leave of.” Kenneth Bailey explains that in Middle Eastern culture, the person who is leaving must request permission to leave from those who are staying … The one who is leaving requests permission to go.26 He makes the point that the man who wants to say farewell is actually saying that he needs to take leave of those back home, that he needs to ask his father for permission to follow Jesus. Bailey wrote:

In that cultural scene, he is clearly saying, “I will follow you, Lord, but of course the authority of my father is higher than your authority and I must have his permission before I venture out.”27

Jesus responds with an analogy that those in ancient Palestine would have clearly understood. In those times, when one used a plow, he had to focus straight ahead. The Palestinian plow was light and was guided with one hand, while the other hand would control and drive the oxen by means of a goad. The hand guiding the plow kept the plow upright, regulated its depth, and lifted it over rocks. Author Joachim Jeremias explains:

This primitive kind of plough needs dexterity and concentrated attention. If the ploughman looks round, the new furrow becomes crooked. Thus, whoever wishes to follow Jesus must be resolved to break every link with the past and fix his eye only on the coming Kingdom of God.28

Jesus points out what this volunteer’s commitment really requires—the call to God’s kingdom must take precedence over all other loyalties. It doesn’t mean there are no other loyalties, but service to God must be given the primary position.

In these three examples, we are told a few key things about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Serving the Lord comes at a personal cost, and disciples need to be willing to pay that cost. Some of that cost entails having our allegiances in the right priority, with our first allegiance ultimately being the Lord. This means that our cultural or community allegiances need to be subordinate to our allegiance to God. Being a disciple—someone who believes and applies the teachings of Jesus, whose goal is to walk with God—commits a person to reorient their life in a way that is in alignment with God’s priorities.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

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2 Luke 6:12–13.

3 Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 178.

4 Luke 6:17.

5 Luke 10:1.

6 John 6:60.

7 Luke 8:1–2.

8 Acts 9:36.

9 John 6:60.

10 John 6:66.

11 Matthew 8:19–22.

12 Luke 9:57–58.

13 Matthew 10:8–13.

14 1 Corinthians 15:31.

15 Luke 9:59–60.

16 Matthew 4:20, 22.

17 Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 253.

18 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 329.

19 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 275.

20 Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 26.

21 Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53, 981.

22 Matthew 15:3–9; Mark 7:8–13, 10:19.

23 Luke 9:61–62.

24 1 Kings 19:19–21.

25 1 Kings 19:20.

26 Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 29.

27 Ibid., 29.

28 Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1954), 195.