Is Your Hand to the Plow?

Once you put your hand to the plow of following Jesus, if you look back, you will live a crooked, tentative life. Plowing requires a single-minded focus, and so does following Jesus.

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.”  Luke 9:61-62

When I was growing up, my grandpa and my dad did a bit of farming. I have fond memories of riding my grandpa’s mule between the fields. My family spent long hours with hand on the plow, preparing fields, and laying out rows. Great value was placed on the rows being straight, for as the crop came up, it had to be plowed again and again to keep it free of grass or weeds. As a young boy growing up in South Mississippi, I was blessed to have a few opportunities to hold the plow and do my best to keep in step with the mule. There is an art to guiding a mule. He will go where you want him to go, as long as you know where you are going. You can’t plow looking back over where you’ve been. You will plow a crooked row and perhaps damage existing plants. Once you put your hand to the plow of following Jesus, if you look back, you will live a crooked, tentative life. Plowing requires a single-minded focus, and so does following Jesus.

Since I was a young person, verse 62 has troubled me. It has been a plumb-line, hanging down beside my life, as a measure of my own personal commitment to Christ. I identify with this man’s own conflicts and commitments toward home. My life is not the only life measured by this verse. It measures all who hear the call of Christ to come and follow, or who have expressed some semblance of commitment to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I didn’t understand until recently that this verse is set in contrast to an earlier verse in the same chapter where it is said that Jesus’ face was steadfastly set to go to Jerusalem. He made that decisive decision to follow the will of God for his life, having counted the cost. He knew all it would mean, and he was making the journey. He refused to look back, even when facing the cross.

It was in the face of the divided commitment of a would-be disciple, that He contrasts it with His own absolute abandon to the will of God. But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9:62

Jesus was not suggesting it was a sin to have an affection for home or an obligation toward those at home. These people were not asking for a moment to take care of what was necessary—they were putting forward an excuse that would not allow them to follow. That excuse could have been anything. It could have been family, it could have been treasure, it could have been pleasure. If you will notice, the way this would-be disciple worded it said it all, “But first…”

Is there anything wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with having a priority higher than following Christ? YES! Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9: 62

This man had no intention of following Jesus. Saying “goodbye” meant finishing that phase of his life. In other words, he was saying, “Let me raise my children, then I will follow you.  Let me reach retirement, then I will follow you.” 

Is it not true that some of you made such a commitment? But now, time has come and gone since you made that promise. Since then, the children have been raised, and now there are grandchildren, and you still can’t follow. Retirement has come, and with it, other concerns, and you still can’t follow. Something always comes first. Something always will, until you determine that Christ will be first above all.

Jesus didn’t excuse this gentleman for his commitment to his family. He will not excuse me. He will not excuse you. “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9: 62

Follow Me!  This is the first step of the Christian life. To say you believe, but never begin to follow, is to prove your unbelief. Once you do begin following Jesus, living for Jesus and putting His will ahead of your own, must remain the focus of your life. 

There is a story in our Bible that is  a perfect illustration of the kind of commitment our Lord requires. It is the story of a young man named Elisha, who was led of God to follow Elijah the prophet, so that he too might become a prophet of God.  He was plowing a team of oxen. He had his hand on one plow, but God was calling him to lay hold of another. 

The Bible says, “He (Elisha) left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you.” And he (Elijah) said to him, “Go back again, for what have ai done to you?” So he returned from following him, and took the pair of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the implements of the oxen, and gave it to the people and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah and ministered to him.  1 Kings 19:20-21

Didn’t he do exactly what Jesus found unacceptable? Didn’t he say goodbye to those at home?  Yes! But it was a real goodbye. He made sure he put his hand to the plow of serving God and that he would never look back to plowing the field again. He cooked his animals and burned his plows and followed the plan of God for his life. He took care of the excuse so there would be no turning back. 

As a 17 year old boy, I sat in the office of Dr. William Clawson, a Bible Professor at William Carey College, who took time to guide me about ordering my life to pursue God’s calling. He urged me to so order my life that I would never be able to look back or go back. That is what I did, and I don’t regret it. I cherish his counsel to this very day!

So it was with Elisha. He could be one or the other. He could be a farmer, or he could be a prophet. He could not be both. The Lord required him to follow with absolute abandon. He requires the same from you and me. “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9: 62

There are no exceptions to this rule. That is why Jesus always laid out the true cost of discipleship. “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” Luke 14:33None of you means you. It means me. 

This is true at the very beginning of the Christian life. There can be no excuse for me not following Jesus… no “but first.” The priority of my life, the focus of my existence from that day forward, must be to follow Him. But don’t fail to understand the Lord’s emphasis here. This is not only the requirement as I begin to follow. This is the journey of the Christian life. There should never be an excuse for a delay in my obedience. My priority is absolute abandon to the Lordship of Christ. 

I should never be found saying: “Lord, I will follow, but first…” ” Lord, I will serve, but first…” “Lord, I will go be a  missionary, but first…” “Lord, I will forgive, but first…” The “FIRST” in your life is always to be following Christ. To excuse your way out of the obligations of following Him, at any point along the way, is to lose fellowship with Jesus from that moment forward.  

He is to be Lord of my heart and Lord of my home. He is to be Lord of my actions and Lord of my attitudes. Should I offer Him an excuse as to why my will, at some crossroad, cannot bow to His Own, then I will hear him say to me what he said to this gentleman in the book of Luke.“No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9:62

The standard, the plumb-line of my commitment, is my Lord’s commitment to go to the cross for me without looking back. He steadfastly set his face to follow God’s will for His life. I am to steadfastly set my face to follow His will for mine.

I understand this means something different for everyone who might read this. The cost of full surrender to Christ for you may be far different than it is for me. You may risk being excluded from your family. You may face physical suffering or imprisonment. You may lose your job or even your life! Nevertheless, the plumb-line remains: “No one, after putting HIs hand to the the plow and looking back, is for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62

I conclude with a final challenge from the author of the book of Hebrews, who, after he finished a list of those whose lives exemplified such absolute abandon, wrote the following:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1, 2 NASB)

Put your hand to the plow, keep your eyes on Jesus, and never look back!

A Highway in the Wilderness

Wandering in the strength of our own wisdom, we soon discover ourselves to be lost in a complex maze of our own decisions made without God’s leadership. Overwhelmed by the exhaustion of wilderness living, we lose heart and sink in despair. Do you know that feeling? Is there a word from God to those of us worn out by the wilderness of life?

The wilderness was a spiritual marker in the life of the children of Israel. The wilderness was a waterless, barren, exhausting place. From their perspective, the wilderness was an insurmountable obstacle.  It was the epitome of difficulty and danger, and it stood between them and their destiny.  Yet, in that place of testing, they learned much about themselves and about God.

Everybody has a wilderness that seems full of dangers and discouragements. Maybe you are walking through a wilderness time in your life.   It might be a time of fear and uncertainty. It might be a time of doubt and discouragement.  When you are in the wilderness, you find it to be a place where you have more questions than answers. How are you going to get from where you are to where God wants you to be?  

Does God have a plan? Does He have a plan in spite of your failures? Does He have a plan in spite of your disobedience? Does He have a plan to bring you to where He wants you to be, in spite of years of being out of His will? When I ponder my own journey of following God, I see that my life is also marked by seasons in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of wandering and searching for God’s will.  At times, I felt bewildered by the wilderness. With no guiding cloud and no pillar of fire, I was unsure whether or not I could find my way out.

Is there any encouragement from God for those of us who feel lost in the maze of some wilderness of life? There is! Please allow me to share some encouragement from Isaiah 35. It addresses God’s response to the needs of HIs people when they are overwhelmed by some wilderness of life. In those moments, God acts to make a way for His people.

When God Makes a Way in the Wilderness of Your Circumstances, It Is a Highway of Holiness.

A highway will be there, a roadway, and it will be called the Highway of Holiness.  The unclean will not travel on it, but it will be for him who walks that way, and fools will not wander on it. Isaiah 35:8

It leads only in one direction.  It leads to Him. That is God’s design in the wilderness. His purpose in the wilderness was to bring them to Himself. See Exodus 19:4 …I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.   That is also God’s design for you. In the process, He may allow you to be hungry. He may allow you to be thirsty. He may allow you to wander. But in those days of deprivation in the wilderness, you will learn to be dependent upon Him.

God’s Highway in the Wilderness is a Highway of Holiness because the One who made it is Himself Holy.  The Highway of Holiness is a way we can follow only with the clear vision imparted by a clean and holy life.  The unclean will not travel on it.  If you choose the way of sin, it will always lead deeper into the wilderness. The wilderness is the haunt of jackals.  The hounds of hell are there.  All you will see are mirages that promise happiness. If you move in that direction, you will find them to be nothing but a false oasis.  God’s Highway in the wilderness is the Highway of Holiness. Without Holiness no one will see the Lord. We will wander directionless in this life, and risk missing the glories of heaven.  Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification (holiness) without which no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

In the mid 1990’s, my life was deeply impacted by the study Experiencing God. One paragraph from that study changed the way I viewed my life journey from that day forward.

When you get to the place where you trust Jesus to guide you one step at a time you experience a new freedom.  If you don’t trust Jesus to guide you this way, what happens if you don’t know the way you are to go?  You worry every time you must make a turn.  You often freeze up and can’t make a decision.  This is not the way that God intends for  you to live your life.   Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God

Jesus is the Highway in the wilderness of life.  Not only is He the way to God, but only by following Him can we make it safely through the wilderness of life.  He has promised that if we follow Him, we will never walk in darkness but have the light of life.

It is a Highway of Refreshment Amidst the Rigors of Wilderness Living.

Do you remember how simple life was when you were a child?  It seemed you had no stress and no worries. Then, one day, all that changes. Life can quickly become a grueling desert. The daily routine can become a mind wearing rat race.  The myriad difficulties that beset us from day to day, sap the vitality and enthusiasm from the best of us. 

Wandering in the strength of our own wisdom, we soon discover ourselves to be lost in a complex maze of our own decisions made without God’s leadership.  Overwhelmed by the exhaustion of wilderness living, we lose heart and sink in despair. Do you know that feeling?  Is there a word from God to those of us worn out by the wilderness of life?

Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble.  Say to those with anxious heart, “Take courage, fear not. Behold your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.”  Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.  Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.  For the waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. The scorched land will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, its resting place, grass becomes reeds and rushes.   Isaiah 35:3-7

Do you think God can do that where you are? Can He rescue you from your circumstances? Can He turn your wilderness into the refreshing oasis of His presence? How is that possible? When will it happen? It happens when the wilderness has accomplished its purpose in your life, by bringing you to an awareness of your own weakness and your great need for God.

He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength;  They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.  Isaiah 40:29-31

Jesus said  “Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. Matthew 11: 28-29  

The Highway in the Wilderness is meant to lead you to the refreshment of the Lord’s own Presence.

The Highway in the Wilderness is a Place of Protection From Wilderness Dangers.

Notice the promise God makes for those who travel this Highway of Holiness in the wilderness. Although the wilderness is described in verse 7 as a haunt of jackals, along the highway of holiness, No lion will be there, nor will any vicious beast go up on it; these will not be found there.   Isaiah 35:9

Our enemy the devil roams the wilderness like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour.  His demons, like jackals, haunt every avenue of life seeking to lure us into one of his traps and deeper into the despair of the wilderness. 

The King Himself has promised never to leave us or forsake us. He has promised us that the angel of His presence will encamp around us.    See Psalm 91:1-12

I know what it is like to experience long periods in the wilderness.  All of us have to travel through some wilderness to get to the place God wants us to be. Some of us will even have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death.  But we need fear no evil.  For on this highway in the wilderness, we are promised protection from wilderness dangers. 

Say to those with anxious heart, “Take courage, fear not”.  Isaiah 35:4 The Lord is sovereign over your wilderness journey. You are not lost to His presence. He knows where you are and how to get you to where He wants you to be.

That Highway is a Place Where You Can Receive Heavenly Joy in the Midst of Wilderness Sorrows.  

But the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.       Isaiah 35:9-10

There is sorrow in the wilderness of life.  I have experienced some of it and so have you.  All of us have left fragments of hopes and dreams lying shattered in the dusty sands of some wilderness. If we live long enough, our faces bear lines etched by wilderness sorrows. Nevertheless, the wilderness has a purpose. Its design is to bring us into our Lord’s presence. In the wilderness, there is a Highway that leads to His feet. The wilderness experience of the children of Israel lasted forty years. How long will your season of wilderness-living last? I don’t know. But I know this, in your wilderness, there is a highway that leads to His presence. There you will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. 

There is a sense in which this points to our rendezvous with Him in heaven. But there is another sense in which heavenly joy can be ours when we experience His deliverance from difficulty or the comfort of His presence in sorrow. 

I am assuming one or more of you languishes in some wilderness? Hear your personal word from the Lord. Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble.  Say to those with anxious heart, “Take courage, fear not. Behold your God will come…

Photo by Francesco Ungaro