Here is, I. Christ’s removing to the other side of the sea of Tiberias, and his ordering his disciples, whose boats attended him, to get their transport-vessels ready, in order to it, Matt. 8:18. The influences of this Sun of righteousness were not to be confined to one place, but diffused all the country over; he must go about to do good; the necessities of souls called to him, Come over, and help us (Acts 16:9); he removed when he saw great multitudes about him. Though by this it appeared that they were desirous to have him there, he knew there were others as desirous to have him with them, and they must have their share of him: his being acceptable and useful in one place was no objection against, but a reason for, his going to another. Thus he would try the multitudes that were about him, whether their zeal would carry them to follow him, and attend on him, when his preaching was removed to some distance. Many would be glad of such helps, if they could have them at next door, who will not be at the pains to follow them to the other side; and thus Christ shook off those who were less zealous, and the perfect were made manifest.
II. Christ’s communication with two, who, upon his remove to the other side, were loth to stay behind, and had a mind to follow him, not as others, who were his followers at large, but to come into close discipleship, which the most were shy of; for it carried such a face of strictness as they could not like, nor be well reconciled to; but here is an account of two who seemed desirous to come into communion, and yet were not right; which is here given as a specimen of the hindrances by which many are kept from closing with Christ, and cleaving to him; and a warning to us, to set out in following Christ, so as that we may not come short; to lay such a foundation, as that our building may stand.
We have here Christ’s managing of two different tempers, one quick and eager, the other dull and heavy; and his instructions are adapted to each of them, and designed for our use.
1. Here is one that was too hasty in promising; and he was a certain scribe (Matt. 8:19), a scholar, a learned man, one of those that studied and expounded the law; generally we find them in the gospels to be men of no good character; usually coupled with the Pharisees, as enemies to Christ and his doctrine. Where is the scribe? 1 Cor. 1:20. He is very seldom following Christ; yet here was one that bid pretty fair for discipleship, a Saul among the prophets. Now observe,
(1.) How he expressed his forwardness; Master, I will follow thee, whithersoever thou goest. I know not how any man could have spoken better. His profession of a self-dedication to Christ is, [1.] Very ready, and seems to be ex mero motu—from his unbiased inclination: he is not called to it by Christ, nor urged by any of the disciples, but, of his own accord, he proffers himself to be a close follower of Christ; he is not a pressed man, but a volunteer. [2.] Very resolute; he seems to be at a point in this matter; he does not say, “I have a mind to follow thee;” but, “I am determined, I will do it.” [3.] It was unlimited and without reserve; “I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest; not only to the other side of the country, but if it were to the utmost regions of the world.” Now we should think ourselves sure of such a man as this; and yet it appears, by Christ’s answer, that his resolution was rash, his ends low and carnal: either he did not consider at all, or not that which was to be considered; he saw the miracles Christ wrought, and hoped he would set up a temporal kingdom, and he wished to apply betimes for a share in it. Note, There are many resolutions for religion, produced by some sudden pangs of conviction, and taken up without due consideration, that prove abortive, and come to nothing: soon ripe, soon rotten.
(2.) How Christ tried his forwardness, whether it were sincere or not, Matt. 8:20. He let him know that this Son of man, whom he is so eager to follow, has not where to lay his head, Matt. 8:20. Now from this account of Christ’s deep poverty, we observe,
[1.] That it is strange in itself, that the Son of God, when he came into the world, should put himself into such a very low condition, as to want the convenience of a certain resting-place, which the meanest of the creatures have. If he would take our nature upon him, one would think, he should have taken it in its best estate and circumstances: no, he takes it in its worst. See here, First, How well provided for the inferior creatures are: The foxes have holes; though they are not only not useful, but hurtful, to man, yet God provides holes for them in which they are earthed: man endeavours to destroy them, but thus they are sheltered; their holes are their castles. The birds of the air, though they take no care for themselves, yet are taken care of, and have nests (Ps. 104:17); nests in the field; some of them nests in the house; in God’s courts, Ps. 84:3. Secondly, How poorly the Lord Jesus was provided for. It may encourage us to trust God for necessaries, that the beasts and birds have such good provision; and may comfort us, if we want necessaries, that our Master did so before us. Note, Our Lord Jesus, when he was here in the world, submitted to the disgraces and distresses of extreme poverty; for our sakes he became poor, very poor. He had not a settlement, had not a place of repose, not a house of his own, to put his head in, not a pillow of his own, to lay his head on. He and his disciples lived upon the charity of well-disposed people, that ministered to him of their substance, Luke 8:2. Christ submitted to this, not only that he might in all respects humble himself, and fulfil the scriptures, which spake of him as poor and needy, but that he might show us the vanity of worldly wealth, and teach us to look upon it with a holy contempt; that he might purchase better things for us, and so make us rich, 2 Cor. 8:9.
[2.] It is strange that such a declaration should be made on this occasion. When a scribe offered to follow Christ, one would think he would have encouraged him, and said, Come, and I will take care of thee; one scribe might be capable of doing him more credit and service than twelve fishermen: but Christ saw his heart, and answered to the thoughts of that, and therein teaches us all how to come to Christ. First, The scribe’s resolve seems to have been sudden; and Christ would have us, when we take upon us a profession of religion, to sit down and count the cost (Luke 14:28), to do it intelligently, and with consideration, and choose the way of godliness, not because we know no other, but because we know no better. It is no advantage to religion, to take men by surprise, ere they are aware. They that take up a profession in a pang, will throw it off again in a fret; let them, therefore, take time, and they will have done the sooner: let him that will follow Christ know the worst of it, and expect to lie hard, and fare hard. Secondly, His resolve seems to have been from a worldly, covetous principle. He saw what abundance of cures Christ wrought, and concluded that he had large fees, and would get an estate quickly, and therefore he would follow him in hopes of growing rich with him; but Christ rectifies his mistake, and tells him, he was so far from growing rich, that he had not a place to lay his head on; and that if he follow him, he cannot expect to fare better than he fared. Note, Christ will accept none for his followers that aim at worldly advantages in following him, or design to make any thing but heaven of their religion. We have reason to think that this scribe, hereupon, went away sorrowful, being disappointed in a bargain which he thought would turn to account; he is not for following Christ, unless he can get by him.
2. Here is another that was too slow in performing. Delay in execution is as bad, on the one hand, as precipitancy in resolution is on the other hand; when we have taken time to consider, and then have determined, let it never be said, we left that to be done to-morrow, which we could do to-day. This candidate for the ministry was one of Christ’s disciples already (Matt. 8:21), a follower of him at large. Clemens Alexandrinus tells us, from an ancient tradition, that this was Philip; he seems to be better qualified and disposed than the former; because not so confident and presumptuous: a bold, eager, over-forward temper is not the most promising in religion; sometimes the last are first, and the first last. Now observe here,
(1.) The excuse that this disciple made, to defer an immediate attendance on Christ (Matt. 8:21); “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Before I come to be a close and constant follower of thee, let me be allowed to perform this last office of respect to my father; and in the mean time, let it suffice to be a hearer of thee now and then, when I can spare time.” His father (some think) was now sick, or dying, or dead; others think, he was only aged, and not likely in a course of nature, to continue long; and he desired leave to attend upon him in his sickness, at his death, and to his grave, and then he would be at Christ’s service. This seemed a reasonable request, and yet it was not right. He had not the zeal he should have had for the work, and therefore pleaded this, because it seemed a plausible plea. Note, An unwilling mind never wants an excuse. The meaning of Non vacat is, Non placet—The want of leisure is the want of inclination. We will suppose it to come from a true filial affection and respect for his father, yet still the preference should have been given to Christ. Note, Many are hindered from and in the way of serious godliness, by an over-concern for their families and relations; these lawful things undo us all, and our duty to God is neglected, and postponed, under colour of discharging our debts to the world; here therefore we have need to double our guard.
(2.) Christ’s disallowing of this excuse (Matt. 8:22); Jesus said to him, Follow me; and, no doubt, power accompanied this word to him, as to others, and he did follow Christ, and cleaved to him, as Ruth to Naomi, when the scribe, in the Matt. 8:19, 20, like Orpah, took leave of him. That said, I will follow thee; to this Christ said, Follow me; comparing them together, it is intimated that we are brought to Christ by the force of his call to us, not of our promises to him; it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy; he calls whom he will, Rom. 9:16. And further, Note, Though chosen vessels may make excuses, and delay their compliance with divine calls a great while, yet Christ will at length answer their excuses, conquer their unwillingness, and bring them to his feet; when Christ calls, he will overcome, and make the call effectual, 1 Sam. 3:10. His excuse is laid aside as insufficient; Let the dead bury their dead. It is a proverbial expression; “Let one dead man bury another: rather let them lie unburied, than that the service of Christ should be neglected. Let the dead spiritually bury the dead corporally; let worldly offices be left to worldly people; do not thou encumber thyself with them. Burying the dead, and especially a dead father, is a good work, but it is not thy work at this time: it may be done as well by others, that are not called and qualified, as thou art, to be employed for Christ; thou hast something else to do, and must not defer that.” Note, Piety to God must be preferred before piety to parents, though that is a great and needful part of our religion. The Nazarites, under the law, were not to mourn for their own parents, because they were holy to the Lord (Num. 6:6-8); nor was the high priest to defile himself for the dead, no, not for his own father, Lev. 21:11, 12. And Christ requires of those who would follow him, that they hate father and mother (Luke 14:26); love them less than God; we must comparatively neglect and disesteem our nearest relations, when they come in competition with Christ, and either our doing for him, or our suffering for him.