(Tracy and his wife Brenda have five children and have been serving in Bratislava, Slovakia with UFM International since 1996. Tracy has written several evangelistic tracts in Slovak and preaches regularly on city streets with a sketchboard. Together with 3 other couples they have started a small church, Spolocenstvo Milost (Grace Fellowship), which they would like to see grow and multiply to the glory of God. Tracy attended Dallas Seminaryin the early ’90s and came to understand the uniqueness of Paul’s gospel through a fellow seminary student and also through some books by C. R. Stam which were in the seminary library.)
Jesus Christ’s statements about how He came to divide families have to be one of the most difficult parts of the entire Bible. He said:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matthew 10:34-37; see Luke 12:49-53).
Elsewhere He adds, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).
Two real-life situations demonstrate well the kind of devotion Jesus was calling for. One man whom Jesus had called to follow Him asked Jesus for permission to “bury [his] father” first, to which Jesus replied, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60). A second man declared to Jesus his resolve to follow but then asked for permission to first “say good-bye to those at home”. Jesus’ response was shocking, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 61-62).
“REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM IS AT HAND!”
As is clear from the preceding verses, Christ’s teachings about “discipleship” in general and about “hating” and leaving family in particular all have to do with “the kingdom of God”. Numerous times the prophets of the Old Testament spoke about a future day when a descendant of David would set up a great kingdom of righteousness and peace on earth in which God’s chosen people, Israel, would be specially blessed in their land and be a channel of blessing to all other nations (for example, see Isaiah 11:1-10; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ezekiel 37:1-28; Joel 2:12-27; Micah 4:1-8; Zechariah 8:1-23). Centuries later John the Baptist, Christ, and the twelve apostles in their respective ministries to the Jews all proclaimed “the gospel of the kingdom”, the good news that this kingdom promised by the prophets was finally “at hand” or very close to being established (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7) because Jesus, the promised King, was present on the earth to get everything prepared for it. Even after His resurrection Christ taught the apostles for 40 days about this kingdom, and the apostles were eagerly anticipating its “restoration” (Acts 1:1-6).
In order to be accepted as Christ’s disciples and enter the kingdom, the Jews at that time needed to turn back to God in repentance (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 6:7-12) and make some challenging acts of commitment. Christ called on the people to obey the Mosaic Law, even “the least” of the commandments, so that their righteousness would “surpass” that of the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees whom God had rejected (Matthew 5:17-20; 23:23-27; see 19:16-19; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). He also commanded His followers to sell their possessions: “So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33); “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity” (12:29-33). To leave one’s family, if the family rejected the kingdom call, was another necessary commitment.
Most Christians are in agreement that these teachings of Christ apply to us today and need to be obeyed. Yet at the same time they sense the obvious difficulty of obeying them literally, so they say that we need to “balance” what these verses say with what other verses in the Bible say. They then conclude that Jesus must have just meant that we need to be willing to do those things. Jesus does not require us to actually sell our possessions and leave our families, it is commonly explained, but He wants us to be willing to do so and, especially, to not value such things more than Him.
I admit that such an interpretation sounds good and would definitely make Jesus’ commands much easier to obey. The only problem is that this is not at all what Jesus said. There is no hint in those verses that mere willingness was all that was necessary. The two men referred to above who were not allowed to part with their families before coming to follow Christ certainly could not have applied Christ’s commands so loosely. We must let the verses say what they clearly say. There is nothing to “balance”. We can accept them or reject them, but we don’t have the right to change them so that they say what we want them to say.
Taking His words at face value, it is clear that Christ expected His listeners to do exactly what He said. That is why the first disciples in Jerusalem really did leave their families and possessions to follow Christ (Matthew 19:27; Luke 19:1-10; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32). They could not let any person or thing on earth hinder them from entering the kingdom which, at that time, was so near. And to encourage His disciples in their commitment Christ promised that, when the kingdom will be established, “all these things” [i.e. food, clothes, houses, and family] and “many times as much” will be awarded to those who will have sacrificed all to enter it (Matthew 6:33; 19:28-29; Luke 12:31).
After Jesus’ death and resurrection which had to take place before the kingdom could come (Luke 24:25-26; see 1 Peter 1:11), the twelve apostles were given the authority to offer the kingdom to Israel. They promised that, if the Jews would repent, Jesus would then return to earth from heaven and bring in “the times of refreshing” and the “period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3:17-21). In other words, if Israel as a nation would turn back to God and choose to follow their resurrected Messiah and King, they would finally receive their promised kingdom with its glorious blessings. It was a time of great anticipation and urgency. Everything depended on the nation’s response.
A CHANGE IN GOD’S PLAN
As we know from the Book of Acts the Jews as a whole continually rejected this final call to repentance. As a result Christ did not return to earth, and the promised kingdom did not come. Then an important change took place. Instead of blessing His chosen nation, God chose to turn away from them in judgment and sent the apostle Paul to inform them that God was “turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:44-49; 18:5-6; 28:23-28). In the present age since Israel’s “fall” (Romans 11:11) God has been doing a new work with a new group of people—the Church, the body of Christ, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). This is the group to which all Christians belong today. Christ will, indeed, establish the prophesied kingdom and fulfill all God’s promises to Israel in the future after He returns to the earth (Matthew 19:27-30; 25:31). But at the present time He has a different plan and a different set of promises for us.
Because of this change in God’s program from Israel to the “Church which is His body”, some of the things Christ taught while He was on earth have also changed and, therefore, do not apply to us today. Christ Himself made these changes known through Paul, the “apostle of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13; see 15:15-16). In Paul’s letters we read about several “mysteries”, truths concerning the new Church which had been previously “kept secret” and “hidden in God” until Christ revealed them directly to Paul from heaven. Even “the word of God” or “gospel” which Paul preached was a “mystery” (Romans 16:25-27; Colossians 1:24-29; Ephesians 6:19; see Titus 1:1-3) which the risen Christ gave to Paul so that he could proclaim it to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:6-2:10).
One of the new features of Paul’s gospel has to do with the Mosaic Law. Though the Law used to be the absolute standard of God’s righteousness, Paul explains that God is “now” (don’t miss that important little word!) offering people a new kind of righteousness which is “apart from the Law” (Romans 3:21). On the basis of Christ’s death for our sins and resurrection, God is willing to accept as righteous all those who do nothing more than believe in Christ and in the good work which He has done. Our own good works in obedience to the Mosaic Law or any other legalistic system are wholly excluded from salvation (Romans 3:19_4:5; Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-7). Also, those who have been saved through faith in this gospel or good news are not “under” the Mosaic Law in the sense that they must obey all its commands. Instead, they are “under grace” and are to follow a new set of commands and teachings (Romans 6:14; 7:1-6; see Galatians 3:23-26; Ephesians 2:11-16; Titus 2:11-12).
God’s instructions regarding family relationships have changed as well. Far from exhorting Christians to leave their families, Paul teaches them to stay with and be devoted to their families. Husbands must “love [their] wives just as Christ also loved the church”, and wives are to be “subject” to their husbands “as the church is subject to Christ” (Ephesians 5:22-25; see Colossians 3:18-19). Men who desire to be elders in the local church must “manage [their] own household well” (1 Timothy 3:4-5; see Titus 1:6). Young women are to “love their husbands…[and] children” and to be “workers at home” (Titus 2:5). Young widows should “get married, bear children, [and] keep house” (1 Timothy 5:14). Even Christians with unsaved spouses are to remain with their partners with the goal of leading them to salvation (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Paul also commands Christians to provide for their families financially (1 Timothy 5:3-4, 8,16), which clearly requires that they not leave their families and not give all they have to charity!
THE DANGERS OF CONFUSION
Most Christians since the first century, probably without even thinking about it, have accepted Paul’s teachings on family life as the basic biblical standard. That is good! Certain individuals and groups, however, have put more emphasis on Christ’s teachings on discipleship and have tried in varying degrees to apply them literally. I met some members of such a group a year ago during one of our regular evangelistic outreaches on the street. They called themselves “disciples” and drew their whole theology of sacrificing possessions and family relationships from Jesus’ teachings in the gospels. I had some long conversations with them, and it was in response to them that I originally wrote this article.
In their desire to be true “disciples of Christ” these and other well-meaning people over the years have actually sold their possessions and abandoned parents, spouses, and children. Others have resolved to join a monastery or to never save money. Worst of all, some people, including the “disciples” I met, actually believe that such acts of commitment are necessary for salvation.
We should appreciate these people for their fervor and zeal. They have a sincere love for God and desire to please Him. They are willing to do almost anything “for the sake of the kingdom”. Yet at the same time we should say that their actions are wrong because they are out of line with the Bible’s commands for God’s people today. And those who require acts of commitment to Christ for salvation are proclaiming a false gospel of faith and good works combined and are, therefore, under a curse (Galatians 1:8-9).
This issue is a good example of how proper interpretation and application of the Bible is not just something for “theologians” in seminary classrooms to be concerned about. It’s absolutely crucial for all of us and for every area of our lives! Zeal is important, but it must be “in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:1-5), in accordance with God’s plan for the present age as He revealed it to and through the apostle Paul. Mixing the teachings God intended for us today with teachings intended for others of a different era has lead to much confusion in the body of Christ and, sadly, to much hardship and strife as well.
SERVING GOD IN THE FAMILY
Does this mean that we Christians today have it easy compared to the faithful Jewish disciples in the first century? Are we free to just “eat, drink, and be merry” and live however we please? No way! God does not want us to be consumed with sinful pleasures and passions “that are on earth” but to be focused on “the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1-4; see Philippians 3:17-21). God does not want us to seek earthly possessions and riches but to be “content” with the most basic provisions of “food and covering” (1 Timothy 6:6-10; see Philippians 4:10-13).
Of course, God wants us now to be wholly devoted to Him just as He wanted the Jews 2000 years ago to be wholly devoted to Him. But our situation is entirely different. God is not now working to fulfill His promises regarding the earthly kingdom like He was then. That kingdom is not “near” now like it was then. It is not surprising, therefore, that God wants us to show our devotion to Him in an entirely different way.
So don’t sell all your possessions! And whatever you do, don’t abandon your family! To do so would be to “deny the faith” and be “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8)! Rather, let us serve Christ by being wise and generous with our possessions and, especially, by serving our family. To be devoted to our spouses and children and parents in obedience to Paul’s teachings is one of the most important ways we can “honor” God and His word today (Titus 2:5).