May 23 – No Secret to Success

No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

Luke 9:62

I have never met a successful, influential person in any realm of enterprise who was not committed to reaching goals. The people who influence the world are pursuers, competitors, and winners, preoccupied with goals rather than having their own needs met. All I have learned about the lives of great Christian leaders has made one thing clear: there is no secret to success—they all put out maximum effort to reach spiritual goals and ignore personal satisfaction during the process.

It’s amazing to discover what great preachers, theologians, and missionaries have suffered in the process of reaching their goals. They were far more concerned with following Christ than with their own condition. Can you say the same about your own commitment to Christ?[1]

Desire for Personal Relations

Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (9:61–62)

Another man, probably following up on the Lord’s discussion with the previous individual, also volunteered to follow Jesus. “I will follow You, Lord” he promised, “but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” Unlike the man the Lord had just spoken with, this third individual was willing to leave his inheritance behind. He had only one request, which seemed reasonable enough: He wanted to delay joining Christ long enough to go home and say good-by to his loved ones.

But as was the case with the other two, the Lord, knowing what was in his heart, rejected this man’s proposal. Perhaps he wanted to do a little quick fundraising among his family and friends before leaving on his mission trip with Jesus. More likely, however, there was a deeper issue involved. His words revealed that his family ties were too strong for him to break away from them. Jesus knew that if he returned home, the impulse of the moment would die and he would never be able to leave. Like many people, fear of being away from or ostracized by his family would keep him from following the Lord. That is why Jesus cautioned the crowds that followed Him, “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” (Luke 14:26).

Jesus replied by adapting a popular proverb that dates back to the eighth-century b.c. Greek poet Hesiod: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, He declared, is fit for the kingdom of God.” This saying pictures complete dedication to the task at hand, since one could hardly plow a straight furrow while looking backwards. It is impossible to follow Christ with a divided heart, as this man’s was. He was not fit for the kingdom of God because he was holding on to the kingdom of this world. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?” James asked. “Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4; cf. 1 John 2:15–17).

Though the text does not describe what ultimately became of these three men it is obvious that they, like the rich young ruler, abandoned Christ to hold on to earthly things. The issue in view in all three of these encounters was not fitness for service by those in the kingdom, but saving faith by which one enters the kingdom. Those unwilling to part with something—comfort, riches, relationships, or anything else—cannot enter the kingdom of God; salvation is for those who have come to complete self-denial. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me,” Jesus declared, because “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:23–24).[2]

  1. Jesus replied, No one who has just put his hand to a plow and (then) continues to look back is fit for the kingdom of God.

The fact that this proverb was not original with Jesus but can be traced back to Hesiod (fl. about 800 b.c.) does not make it any less appropriate. The man who puts his hand to a plow and starts plowing forward, but then immediately looks back and continues to do so, constantly trying to plow forward while he looks behind him, cannot run a straight furrow. It is entirely proper for him to stop his plow and then, while standing still, to view what he has done, in order to correct mistakes. But to plow in one direction while looking in the opposite direction will never do.

This man’s heart was divided. He should stop following the example of the Israelites (1 Kings 18:21), and instead should follow in Paul’s footsteps (Phil. 3:13, 14). Then, by God’s grace and power, he will be “fit” for the kingdom of God, “very useful to the Master” (2 Tim. 2:21). He must learn to say, and to mean it:

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,

One holy passion filling all my frame—

The baptism of the heaven-descended Dove;

My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.

—George Croly[3]

9:62 Jesus told him that once he put his hand to the plow of discipleship, he must not look back; otherwise he was not fit for the kingdom of God. Christ’s followers are not made of half-hearted stuff or dreamy sentimentality. No considerations of family or friends, though lawful in themselves, must be allowed to turn them aside from utter and complete abandonment to Him. The expression not “fit for the kingdom” does not refer to salvation but to service. It is not at all a question of entrance into the kingdom but of service in the kingdom after entering it. Our fitness for entering into the kingdom is in the Person and work of the Lord Jesus. It becomes ours through faith in Him.

And so we have three cardinal hindrances to discipleship illustrated in the experience of these men:

  1. Material comforts.
  2. A job or an occupation.
  3. Family and friends.

Christ must reign in the heart without a rival. All other loves and all other loyalties must be secondary.[4]

61–62 Though to “say good-by” (apotaxasthai, GK 698) is not at all the emotional equivalent of a funeral (cf. vv. 59–60), it still represents family duty that must be forsaken for service to Jesus. Danker, 125, sees here an allusion to the call of Elisha while plowing and his request to say good-by to his family (1 Ki 19:19–21, cf. Marshall, 412). A further illustration of discipleship is keeping the hand on the plow. Jeremias, 195, describes the plowman concentrating on the furrow before him, guiding the light plow with his left hand while goading the oxen with the right. Looking away would result in a crooked furrow.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 160). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. (2011). Luke 6–10 (pp. 320–321). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke (Vol. 11, p. 563). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1407). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[5] Liefeld, W. L., & Pao, D. W. (2007). Luke. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 190). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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