Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 8:22b “. . .and let the dead bury their dead.”
In other words, let the spiritually dead bury their physically dead. This harsh word reminds us, existence outside a personal relationship with Christ does not deserve to be called life. Unbelievers are breathing ghosts. “Their bodies are but living coffins to carry a dead soul up and down in” (Trapp). The focus of believers in Jesus is life more abundant and everlasting. Prechristians are aimed toward death. Their lives are a constant burial of death: dead dreams, dead hopes.
“Whatever withdraws us from the right course, or retards us in it, deserves no other name than death” (Calvin). The only thing worth being labeled as real life is when all motives, thoughts, and deeds are yielded in obedience to Christ. All else is idle uselessness, as unproductive as concentrating on care for the dead.
We must be careful how we apply Christ’s stern rejoinder. He was not commanding neglect for parents. The way He cared for His mother at Calvary proved He was not callused toward parents. His command to this reluctant follower no more applied to all than did His command to the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor. The latter applies only to those who worship stuff; the former applies to those who worship their family. This man’s sin was family idolatry.
John Phillips says the problem is capsulized in the interesting juxtaposition in our English text of two key words in verse 21, “me first.” We can never say, I’ll do what is important to “me first,” and then do second what matters to Jesus first.
Family first is certainly the politically correct ideology in evangelical circles today. Unfortunately, many Bible-believers take this philosophy to the extreme of letting family events be an always-okay excuse for avoiding one’s spiritual duties.
Jesus knew family would often be a barrier to serving Him. He dealt with this issue often, and left no doubt as to where family was to be set in the spiritual pecking order. “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (MT 19:37).
This man’s desire to go take care of his parents was unto itself a worthy ambition. But when set in competition with affection for Christ, it became an unworthy goal, a sin. We do not have to be atheists or throw away our Bibles to err grievously. We can sell our souls to good things which supplant the best thing.
Honoring family is good, but not as vital as honoring God. In times of war, a nation has to draft its citizens. They are required to leave parents, spouse, and children. Every earthly tie has to yield to the call of duty. My Grandpa Hill, having already served in World War I, volunteered again later to serve his country. At age 47 he left his wife and four children to serve as a chaplain in World War II. Dare we give God’s kingdom less allegiance than we give our earthly kingdoms?
Jesus forbids competition to Himself in our affections. He is to be number one, and nothing else should even be a close second. “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (LK 14:26 NAS).
Our love for Him is to be so great that in comparison to it our affection for family is seemingly as far away as hate. When God struck down Nadab and Abihu for their horribly affronting sin, Aaron was forbidden to grieve. He was to show deeper sadness over his two sons’ rebellion against God than over their deaths.
Christ first sometimes means Christ only. There may be times when we have to walk the path of duty alone, with no one else, including family, agreeing with our actions. For following Jesus, countless millions through the ages have been ridiculed, ostracized, disinherited, or counted as dead, by their families.
Jesus looked deep into this man’s heart, and saw there a parent being loved dearer and hugged tighter than Himself. Our Lord could not allow such idolatry.
This man feared his parents would be the losers if he put Jesus first. My dear people, never fear putting Christ first in your home. No family is ever a loser for fully obeying Christ. Our Master promised, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life” (MT 19:29 NAS).
To follow Christ is to fulfill all righteousness. Real duties are not contradictory. They are rather tasks needing to be prioritized. As we take care of God first, He will make sure we take care of all our other duties in proper sequence.
In calling us to love Him most, Christ is not denigrating human affection. He is instead exalting divine affection, and as the latter is lifted higher and higher, the former rises with it. Many years ago, our church decided to hire professional musicians for our orchestra. This decision did not thwart the rest of our music program, but rather became the high benchmark to which all our music has risen. Everything was enhanced, not hurt. Similarly, serving Christ first exalts all other duties and ennobles them. If we love others first, our love for them is lowered, not elevated. Our affections for others are always enhanced when second to Christ.
Ruth knows I love her, but also knows I love Jesus more, and my love for Him multiplies my love for her. My children know I love them, but also know I love God and Ruth more. This greater love uplifts my love for John, Jana, and Rebekah. Does your family know for sure who the number one love is in your life?
Don’t be afraid to love God first. My uneasiness with our generation’s possible hyper-sensitivity to family concerns began years ago. Our St. Louis church once called a young man to come as Minister of Education. All seemed to be going well, but at the last moment, he declined, stating in essence as his reason, “I’m afraid to risk raising my children in an ungodly city like St. Louis.” I graciously accepted his decision, but felt something was intrinsically wrong in his reasoning.
There is no evidence to prove Christians living in the Bible Belt do a better job of raising their children for God than do Christian parents in the heart of New York City. Adam fell in Paradise, not in a slum. Joseph stayed true in Egypt; Peter denied in the holy city. Daniel remained faithful amidst Babylonians; Judas Iscariot committed treachery though near Jesus and the disciples.
The only safe place to raise a family is smack-dab in the middle of God’s will. Anywhere else is a danger zone. Always go wherever God leads. Do not let family keep us from following the Master. This is no small concern. Family ties still hinder many from following Jesus. For instance, the main problem facing our International Mission Board is resistant family members of potential appointees.
Opposition to God’s call often comes from our own family. We all want a loving family, but close-knit can be a euphemism for spiritually bound. Close-knit is good, but close to God is more important. Our symbol of a house, a roof-line atop two vertical lines, speaks volumes. As an arrow pointing upward, it reminds us the main purpose of family life is to point us not to one another, but to God.
What good is it to have college-educated, self-respecting, upstanding children if they raise our grandchildren as pagans, without reference to God? I am sure my children grew tired of hearing me say, “If you grow up and become President of the United States, or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, if you don’t serve Jesus, we will have precious little to talk about.” I meant it then, and still mean it.
Allow me a moment to discourage a judgmental spirit. I fear a part of my generation’s hyper-sensitivity to the family is a reaction to what we perceived as the former generation’s shortage of attention and affection at home. Beware.
There is no proof we did a better job of raising our children for God than our parents did in raising us. Dad would not let me play Little League ball on Wednesday night due to prayer meeting, and did not let me travel with my team to go see a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game on a Sunday. Too strict? Probably, but neither is it right to always let recreation events be an acceptable excuse for missing spiritual events. Dad was gone essentially every night on church visitation. Not good, but it is no better to be home every night if no spiritual talk is going on.