If you’ve ever walked through a Christian bookstore or a place like Hobby Lobby or if you browse around on Facebook or Pinterest, you have surely seen all sorts of decorative items with scripture verses emblazoned across them: magnets, signs, posters, bumper stickers, etc. If you’re like our family, you may even have some of these items around your house; they are good reminders of some of the truths of Scripture.
I have noticed that there are only certain types of verses that typically get made into decorative pieces. Usually they are verses that contain promises of protection, or strength, or something else in that vein. As you read through the Bible, however, there are lots of passages that aren’t like that. These are verses you just can’t see being put on a poster or embroidered on a pillow. Our passage this morning is one of those passages.
This is not a “warm-fuzzy” passage of scripture, but that doesn’t make it any less true. As a matter of fact, I think we would do well to remind ourselves of the truths contained in these “non-poster-worthy” passages, because they call us to see things differently, meaning these verses may be even more important than the feel-good passages. I hope you’ll see today that while this is a difficult passage of scripture, what Jesus tells us is vitally important and incredibly relevant to how we live each day.
In our passage this morning Jesus reminds us that the gospel message is an all-or-nothing proposition. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just get a little dose of Jesus and be all right. Either we are all in with Jesus or we aren’t with him at all.
The Gospel Brings Division
We turn our attention first to verses 34-36 of Matthew 10, where we read these words,
34 “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. 35 ‘I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 Your enemies will be right in your own household!’ (Matthew 10:34-36, NLT)
These words are jarring to us, especially after Christmas. At Christmastime we often find ourselves talking about peace on earth and how Jesus makes that possible. Now we read Jesus saying that he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword, and to divide even families? How do we reconcile these two understandings?
Jesus’ coming to earth does in fact bring peace…but only to those who submit their lives to Him. We won’t enjoy the full measure of that peace until Jesus returns and abolishes sin once and for all. The other side of the coin is that Jesus’ coming also brings division, because there are many who will refuse to submit to Him.
Jesus draws a line in the sand—He says there are two groups of people, the followers of Christ and the enemies of Christ. There isn’t some sort of middle ground, where people can like Jesus, or agree with Jesus on some things. It’s an all or nothing proposition. And that kind of proposition, by definition, creates division.
In our society people don’t like the idea of absolute truth, or anything that definitively says that one group or idea is right and another is wrong. We are always looking for some sort of middle ground that will allow both sides to be right, but the nature of truth is that only one answer can be right, and all others are wrong. If I say that 2+2=5, I don’t simply subscribe to a different mathematical viewpoint, I’m wrong! The right answer is that 2+2=4—it doesn’t matter how I feel about that truth or whether I like it or not. Any other answer is wrong. The same is true of the gospel message. Either Jesus was and is the Lord of all and thus is worthy of our allegiance, worship, and submission, or He is not. Those are really the only two options available to us.
Now don’t misunderstand what Jesus is telling us. He is saying that the message of the gospel is divisive, not that Christians are supposed to be divisive. Unfortunately there are many people who reject Christianity not because of what Jesus has said and done, but because of what people who call themselves Christians say and do. Sometimes we take verses like this and see them as justification for making people mad at us. This verse is to be a comfort to us when there is division because of the gospel, but if we are causing division because we are mean, or harsh, or bullies, we are missing the point.
Christians can still have real and meaningful relationships with non-Christian people. We have to have those kinds of relationships in order to help others see their need to follow Jesus. There is no middle ground when it comes to the gospel message. Either Jesus was and is the One true God and we must worship Him or He is not. But just because there is no middle ground on the gospel message doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground with non-believers. We can find areas where we agree and build from there. Similarly, not every difference of opinion has to cause division. There are many things that we can agree to disagree on (things like politics, child rearing, popular culture, etc.), but we must not compromise on the truth that Jesus is our only hope and the only way of salvation and that He alone is the One we should follow in life. We don’t have to be mean about it, but we must draw a line in the sand on the nature of the gospel. And sometimes despite our best efforts to avoid conflict, and doing the best we can to be kind and gentle in expressing the gospel, that line in the sand will cause division, even in our closest relationships. So don’t be surprised when it happens—Jesus said it would.
These first verses are hard enough, because quite frankly most of us want to be at peace with others. If you’re like me, you hate confrontation and really want to have good relationships with everyone. But Jesus brings the issue into sharp focus for us in the next couple of verses,
37 “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. 38 If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. 39 If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39, NLT)
In these verses Jesus tells us what it means to make Him Lord of all. If Jesus is truly the Lord of our lives, it means our first allegiance is to Him. He explains that a little further by telling us that if we love our parents, our children, or anything else more than we love Him, then we really don’t trust Him as Lord. These other things have become idols.
Again, this is not a popular message in America today. If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on it is that our families are of supreme importance, so for Jesus to say that anything is more important than our family relationships is scandalous. But He’s right. If we love our parents, our spouse, our kids, our jobs, our position, our money, or even ourselves more than we love Him then we are chasing after idols, and we are treating Him as less than He deserves.
He goes further in verse 38, saying that if we refuse to take up our cross and follow Him we aren’t worthy of being His. This was a picture that would have been incredibly vivid to his listeners, because crucifixion had been common in that region for hundreds of years. During the Maccabean revolt (200 years before Jesus, and a significant time in Jewish history and the origin of the Jewish Hanukkah celebration), hundreds of Jews were crucified along the roads and left hanging there to serve as a grim reminder of the cost of rebellion. Even in Jesus’ day it was not uncommon to see a person condemned to death by crucifixion being forced to carry the crossbeam to which they would be nailed as they were led to their death. Jesus’ hearers were familiar with this image so when Jesus told them that if they refused to take up their cross, they were not worthy of Him, they knew that He was calling them to be willing to give up anything, even their lives for Him.
Though the picture is still vivid even today, it is a phrase that has become so common to us that we can easily miss its meaning. Essentially Jesus is saying that unless we are willing to give up everything for Him, and to endure whatever hardship may come our way we are not truly His followers. This is hard, because there are lots of things that we would struggle to give up for any reason, even for Jesus.
- Our job, source of income, or security
- Our families, friends, or other relationships we enjoy
- Our money, house, or possessions
- Our freedom to do, say, wear, and spend what we want
- Our comfort, or the comfort of those we love
- Our time, our status, our popularity, or our “happiness”
All of these are things that we are tempted to try to fudge on. But sometimes we are forced to make a choice—we can either be obedient to the Lord or we can have these other things we desire. Sometimes we can have both—other times we can’t. Jesus tells us that our choices show us what we really value most.
I believe this is a genuine problem in churches across America today. Without fail, every pastor I talk to says the same thing to me—they have seen a trend of their attendance dwindling not because fewer people are coming to their churches, but because they are coming less often. The average attendance used to be 2-3 Sundays a month for many families, but now it is more like 1-2. The same goes with the programs in churches. Time and time again pastors tell me that they are having trouble getting help with the ministries of the Church because people don’t want to make any kind of commitment. They are afraid of what they might have to give up in order to serve the Lord.
My fear is that we, as American Christians have become the kind of people who want God to bless us, but don’t want to do any work. We want a one-sided relationship. We want the blessings of being a follower of Jesus without actually following Him. Jesus tells us that it doesn’t work that way. Either He is most important, or He is not.
This all sounds very negative, but it really isn’t. Jesus reminds us of why He wants us to put Him first.
If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matthew 10:39, NLT)
The world may look at us and think we are crazy to give up the things that seem so important in service of the Lord, but they don’t know what we do. We know that God’s way really is best. God doesn’t tell us to give up things because He’s mean—rather he tells us to give up certain things because He wants better for us. It’s kind of like a parent who tells their child that they can’t have Oreos for breakfast. The child may not understand why the parent is being so mean, but the parent is not trying to deprive their child, they are simply trying to give the child something that, while maybe not as pleasant in the moment, is really better in the long run.
This is what Jesus does with us. He tells us that we must be willing to sacrifice anything and everything we have in order to be obedient to Him. But when we do that we see that He has something even better for us. It is only when we are obedient to God that we can begin to have peace, patience, self-control, and genuine faith. It isn’t until we actually trust Him more than we trust our own judgment that we will begin to really grow in faith. These are things money, fame, and success can’t get us, only obedience to Jesus can. If we love the things of this world more than we love the Lord, we will never experience the greater blessings that He has for us.
The Good News
Verses 40-42 seem almost out of place here, but they serve as an important reminder as we think about sacrificing things for the Lord.
40 “Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me. 41 If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God,* you will be given the same reward as a prophet. And if you receive righteous people because of their righteousness, you will be given a reward like theirs. 42 And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” (Matthew 10:40-42, NLT)
These verses are good news for us as we labor for the Lord; what we do does not go unnoticed. Jesus says that the person who blesses and honors a servant of the Lord will be rewarded just as that servant would be. He says that if we give even a cup of cold water to the least of His followers we will be rewarded.
This is another motivation for us to be obedient. It is a reminder that God does not ask us to do things because He wants to make us miserable. He loves us and wants what is best for us. These verses remind us that our service to the Lord does not go unnoticed by Him. The people around us may not see what we do; they may not think that we have any value at all. Other people may not reward us for doing what God has called us to do, but we are reminded that God will reward us for our faithfulness and our obedience.
So practically speaking this means we should continue to be faithful; in the big things, and even in the little things. It’s tempting to conclude that no one will notice the efforts we put into being obedient in little things, but we need to remember that God does! So we should continue to try to care for and encourage other believers when we see them living faithfully. We should support those who are working to share the gospel with others. And we should look for simple ways we can meet the needs of people around us. Jesus talks about a cup of cold water, but it could be anything:
- Offering to help someone whose hands are full with the door or with their bags
- Cleaning up a mess you didn’t make (without complaining!)
- Making the effort to connect with the person who feels overlooked by the world
- Sending a text message or making a phone call just to tell someone something we admire about them
- Trying to lovingly explain to someone the gospel message
All of these are things you can do without anyone else ever knowing. I hope there are lots of things like this that you do every day. Keep doing them! Look for ways to serve others. It’s tempting sometimes to give up doing these things when it doesn’t seem like it’s getting us anywhere—when no one seems to notice and when it doesn’t seem to make any difference what we do. But remember, God takes notice of our obedience even when no one else does, and He says we will be rewarded for our service to others on His behalf. So don’t grow weary in serving Him—whether we see it or not, it makes a difference.
This is not one of those passages of scripture that lots of people like to memorize and quote and hang on their refrigerator, but maybe we should. This passage reminds us to keep our priorities in check, to make sure that we aren’t compromising on the gospel and that we are willing to take up our cross (whatever that may be) and follow Jesus without reservation, regardless of the cost.
The temptation with this message is to hear what Jesus said, to agree that it’s important to put Him first, and then to simply walk out of this place and resume life as usual. But if we do that, we have simply wasted our time. So let me challenge you to do something. Right now, ask God what He wants you to do. If you’re like me, there is probably some area of your life, some sin you’ve been struggling with, some decision that you’ve been putting off that will immediately come to mind. Ask yourself what is keeping you from being obedient to God? Is it because you’re scared that doing what He asks is going to cause you to miss out on something? Is it because you value something else more than you value your relationship with the Lord? Is it simply because you don’t trust Him? Remember what Jesus said: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.”
Imagine you decided to have a fun day with your child, so you take them to a park, and the park has a massive sandbox. The child loves playing in the sandbox and has a blast doing so. As the parent, you are pleased, but you have more planned for the day than just the sandbox. So you tell your child that it’s time to go, but the child refuses. When you finally pick them up and put them in the car, they grab two handfuls of sand and hold onto them with all their might. The next stop on the trip is the ice cream store, where you want to get your child an ice cream cone, but the child is still clinging so tightly onto the sand that they can’t grab the ice cream. They refuse to let go of the sand, and so they miss out on the ice cream. Here’s the rub. By the time they get home, how much sand do they still have in their hands? Almost none. By stubbornly holding onto the thing that seemed so important they have missed out on both the sand and the ice cream.
Friends, Jesus reminds us that He knows what’s best, but if we continue to try to hold onto the sand we will miss out on the even better things He has for us while even the sand slips right through our fingers. Despite our best efforts we will still have nothing.
So be honest with yourself and with the Lord. Look for areas where you are putting other things before Him. Look for areas of compromise in your life. And then choose to truly make Him the Lord of your life. Make the tough decision to follow Christ, to obey Him, and to serve Him. Choose to make Him your top priority. It’s scary to open our hands and stop trying to hold on to the things of this world; but it’s only when we open our hands that God can begin to give us much better things—things we didn’t even know we wanted; the things that can truly satisfy. There really is no middle ground—either Jesus is Lord or He isn’t. So choose wisely.