(There is a further podcast set lower in the text)
The parables of the tower, the king going to war and the salt – continued
The parable of the king facing defeat, verses 31& 32
‘What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not first sit down and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand men to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And of not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.’
Of course, it is just counting the cost again – but is it? A.M. Hunter pinpoints a very subtle but significant difference between the two parables. The builder could choose whether to build or not to build his tower. He could freely choose when he made his decision. He could choose how large a tower to build and when it might be a good time to begin. But did this king have such freedom of choice? He has been informed that a conquering king with 20,000 armed men is advancing against him. What is he going to do? The situation is desperately serious. The king has no choice. He has got to make a decision, and to do so very speedily.
Our Lord shows us the gravity of the situation as he pictures him sitting down to consider and, perhaps, take council with his army chiefs and best advisors. His choice is very limited.
Firstly, he could dismiss the report; regarding it as the product of an over-active imagination. And yet if the report proves to be true, and he has taken no action, that would result in the total, overwhelming defeat of an unprepared people and certain death for himself and his subjects.
Secondly, he has only 10.000 men. Could he resist? Could he stand against a king coming to crush him with such overwhelming power and force? The advancing king would inflict terrible, devastating judgement on any resistance or refusal to submit that proved too feeble. He could expect no mercy.
Thirdly, if he believes the report to be true, and cannot stand against him, he has no choice at all, he must submit. While still at a safe distance, he must send and ask, ‘What are the terms of peace? What must I forfeit? What will peace cost?’
No wonder the king ‘sat down’ to consider and take advice!
Certainly the parable of the king is about ‘counting the cost’, but this time counting a different cost. Rather than addressing the over-eager disciples, is the Lord challenging those who had no intention of submitting to him and his ‘imperious claim’?
The crowds following Jesus contained people who were, mistakenly or unthinkingly, over-eager to count themselves his disciples. It also contained those who had no intention whatever of doing so. The Lord Jesus opened the eyes of the over-eager ones to the true cost of discipleship with the parable of the tower. Did he tell the parable of the king facing devastating defeat to open the eyes of those who were determined not to submit to him – such as the religious leaders, who were always present in the crowds? If so, to these he is putting the same challenge, ‘count the cost’. But this time, it is not the cost of submitting to him but the cost of not submitting to him; of refusing to become his disciples. The cost will prove to be absolutely devastating – they will perish – as he had warned them and would continue to warn them as he approached Jerusalem.
How does this touch us?
Centuries earlier, Matthew Henry had also taken note of this subtle difference and applied the Lord’s words very sharply. He notes that those who ignore the Lord God and his commands are in rebellion against him, and that, ‘even the proudest and most daring sinner is no equal match for God’. It is in our interest to make peace with him, and ‘to do so long before the day of terrible reckoning.’ We do not need to ‘send,’ his terms are plainly set out in both John 3:16 and in these parables. If we will not believe, if we will not submit – we perish.
Matthew Henry sees our Lord provoking each one of us to ask, not this time ‘Can I afford to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus’, but, ‘Can I afford not to be?’ Can I afford not to submit? Can I afford to live in God’s world as if there were no God? Can I afford to ignore the claims of the Lord God and his Son the Lord Jesus – to whom he has given all authority and who he has appointed both Lord and Judge. Can I afford to ignore him, recognising that he has made plain his promised return; not this time in humility but in great glory and power? We are plainly warned that on that day, to him every knee will bow.
In John Bunyan’s story, there is a price to pay. The cost of leaving the city of destruction and walking Christian’s pilgrim path is very great. But the cost of remaining in the city of destruction, although the world smiles on us, is ultimately far greater.
There is a day of judgement coming. As the apostle James puts it, ‘the judge stands at the door.’ The king is on his way, his authority is irresistible and power totally overwhelming. Before him, on his final word, hangs our eternal destiny. We live – glory, the celestial city, the everlasting favour of God, or . . . we perish. Can we afford not to bow the knee? Can we afford not to be a disciple?
Who can ‘consider’ such things as these without quaking? Yet many church leaders have followed the king’s first option. All warnings in scripture of ‘perishing,’ of ‘judgement,’ of ‘the wrath of God and of the Lamb’ are dismissed as the ‘products of the over-active imagination’ of a former ‘less enlightened’ generation. And the result? God’s people are not warned, and, on the great and terrible day of his return, will be found totally unprepared.
Painfully clearly, from this short parable, none can stand against the wrath of God or of his Son. It is only those willing to accept the apostolic witness to the necessity of following the king’s third option – of submitting and accepting the coming king’s terms – who will escape.
Again, ‘Extreme!’, I hear you say. Yes, to our modern ears, accustomed as we are to a very much watered-down, comfortable and self-centred version of Christianity, it most certainly is. And yet such warnings lie at the very heart of the authentic gospel. For example, Luke records our Lord’s direct warning of his sudden coming on an unprepared people, ‘As it was in the days of Noah . . .’ and, ‘As it was in the days of Lot . . . so it will be when the Son of man comes.’ People, going about in their ordinary God-ignoring ways, will be suddenly caught by overwhelming destruction. Or reflect on those terrifying words of our Lord from the Parable of the Pounds, ‘As for those enemies of mine who would not have me rule over them, bring them here and slay them before me.’
The apostle John warns, ‘. . . he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests on him.’ And, before the leading men of Athens, the apostle Paul proclaims, ‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17 30-31 rewrite in esv)
Like the king, when we ‘sit down and consider,’ see our true and desperate situation and recognise that we must bow the knee, what are his terms? What are his conditions? What must we do? Firstly, unlike the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we must accept him for who he truly is; the promised Messiah, the Son of God. The Lord God’s anointed judge, King of kings and Lord of all lords. Secondly, accept the amnesty, the free forgiveness of God, that he was on his way to Jerusalem to purchase for us by his precious death. Thirdly, out of wonder and gratitude, become, as he had just described to the great crowd following him, his true disciple; putting him first, totally submitting to him; laying our lives; our time, our money, our very selves at his feet; putting ourselves entirely and absolutely at his disposal.
For look, even now, he does not relax his terms. His imperious claim on our lives is absolute, ‘So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.’
Lest we modern ‘heralds of God’ become too harsh, and for the strong encouragement of all who have ears to hear, do note the re-assuring words found in the second letter of Peter, ‘It is not the will of God that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’.
Truly, God has so loved this world as to give his only Son, but, it is in order that those who believe in him, submit to him, might not perish. Only those who do are promised life that not even death can snatch away; life that is eternal.
If the parable of the tower challenged the over enthusiastic crowd and, as it would seem, this one was directed to the less-than-enthusiastic religious leaders, how encouraging to read in Luke’s account of the early church that, after Pentecost, ‘. . . the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great number of the priests were obedient to the faith.’
Pray earnestly that the Lord God, by his Holy Spirit, would do a work like that in our day. Pray for ourselves, that our discipleship might be real and not just in name only. Pray that at his coming, the Son of man may find a people prepared.
The parable of the tasteless salt verses 34&35
‘Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’
Salt in ancient Israel would almost certainly have been very impure. It may simply have been taken, sun-dried, from the shores of the Dead Sea. To use it you would simply add water, stir or shake the mixture and when it had settled use the salty water in cooking and throw away the grit that was left. You can see that it would be possible for the actual salt to have been naturally leached out before you came to use it and just the grit left. It would look much the same but for use in cooking or for preserving it would be totally useless. It could not even be used as a fertilizer to enrich the soil.
The Lord used this brief saying or parable several times in different settings during his ministry, but always with the same thrust: as a picture of disciples who begin well but, for one reason or another, become useless before Almighty God.
Luke, the gospel writer, concludes this section on the cost of discipleship with this tiny parable of useless, de-salted salt. It was a warning lest, before God, those who started full of promise as his disciples fall away. Down the centuries, it is a warning to us lest such a terrible fate should befall us . . . or our churches.
Although he was still addressing the great crowds who were following him, was this first a warning to his immediate disciples? They had been with him for nearly three years, heard so much of his teaching, witnessed the clear evidences of his being the Son of God, the long-promised Messiah, Emmanuel, God amongst us. Would they turn their backs on it all and prove useless before Almighty God?
Peter knew and publicly professed that the Lord Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God . . . and yet, on that terrible night when he denied his Lord, the cost was too great. His own life was on the line. To admit that he was a disciple could well have meant imprisonment or even death. That is why our Lord charged disciples to ‘count the cost’, to be prepared. Forgiven and restored Peter went on to be very far from useless . . .
It can happen very suddenly, as it did for the apostle Peter or it can happen over several years, as it did for both Thomas Bilney and Thomas Cranmer who each temporarily ‘crumpled’ under the prolonged and intolerable pressure put on them to renounce their biblical faith.
Would we do better? I very much doubt it. However, like each of these men, what cause we have to thank our gracious Lord that he was, and still is, ‘the God of the second chance’.
But, sadly, for Judas his fall was final, what came first, the utter loyalty of discipleship or thirty lovely pieces of silver? Or Demas, at one time a fellow partner in the gospel with the apostle Paul? The pull of this world proved too great and so, it seems, he gave up; salt that had lost its saltiness.
How should we apply this solemn warning to today’s disciples and today’s churches?
Sir Francis Drake wrote, ‘There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, yields the true glory.’ Like the undertaking of some great task, discipleship is not only a once in a lifetime profession of faith but a lifetime of glad and willing submission to the Lord Jesus; a constant seeking first of the kingdom of heaven and of righteousness.
Some examples may help. Having bowed the knee and made a profession of faith, you set out as a disciple on the pilgrim way. Ten or fifteen years later, you have done well in your job and gained more and more responsibility. But this has come at the cost of long hours, travelling and the job becoming far more demanding and stressful. On top of this, family commitments are crowding in; your wife and youngsters need your attention, your parents are getting older and needing more help. There just doesn’t seem to be time in the day or energy left for spiritual things.
Or, you’ve known it all for years and life goes on until you forget, or only remember with embarrassment, that youthful zeal and enthusiasm. You’ve drifted far from the joyful faith of earlier years. You’ve lost contact with the enthusiastic Christians with whom you used to meet and pray, and the Bible no longer thrills or speaks to you. Where you now live, the local church is not able to help you. It seems to be essentially a social gathering; very nice people whose priority is fund-raising for the church and the arranging of social activities in the community rather than the making and building-up of disciples.
That first public profession of faith and promise of lifelong loyalty has never been forgotten. But, having held fast to godly ways for fifty or sixty years, things are now becoming more difficult with loss of independence, failing eyesight, failing hearing and constant aches and pains. In some seeming ‘prison cell’ situation like this, will we be like John the Baptist, ‘Are you the one, or should we seek another?’ Have I got it wrong, is it all an illusion? – Or will we be like the equally imprisoned apostle Paul, ‘rejoicing in the Lord’, looking forward to being ‘with the Lord’ and seeking to encourage all around us to rejoice and to hold fast?
If such things can befall individuals, can they befall churches too?
The commentaries unite in applying these warnings to today’s individual disciples and to today’s churches and their leaders. But, before looking at that in detail, it is very challenging to look at the risen Lord’s words to the seven ministers and churches as recorded in the first chapters of the book of the Revelation. These were churches where the cost of true, single minded discipleship was proving to be very dear, where for one reason or another they were in great danger of losing their saltiness. Ephesus, ‘abandoned the love you had at first’; Smyrna, shaken by tribulation and poverty, subjected to slander and facing suffering; Thyatira, squeezed by society around them into creeping idolatry and immorality; Sardis, both minister and church ‘have the name of being alive, and you are dead,’ their works far from perfect in the sight of God; Philadelphia, with its challenge to hold fast; and Laodicea, claiming to be rich prosperous and in need of nothing, and yet, before God, found to be ‘wretched, poor, blind and naked;’ like lukewarm sea-water; fit only to be spewed out of the mouth.
Although we can visit the ruins of these cities today, there is not a hint of the churches left. Could that be the fate of so many of our churches today as we see true Christian discipleship, of the kind the apostles would recognise, all but evaporate around us? Or what of our Lord’s terrible question, ‘When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
Sadly, it is possible for both disciples and churches to cease to hold fast to and hold out the apostolic gospel and be salt and light in this world, and so before God to become useless. It was not for nothing that the old Reformers taught both minister and people to take pains to take good care of the heart. Not just the important physical one, but our inner, secret walk and fellowship with the Lord God and his Son, the Lord Jesus.
Here are three very demanding parables addressed to disciples who were too eager, too resistant or who gave up because of the pressures put on them. Is it surprising that they do not rate highly on the preacher’s list of favourite texts?
These are our Lord’s very serious words to his would-be followers.
To those too eager and unprepared – count the cost; the parable of the tower.
To those too reluctant or stubborn – count the cost; the parable of the kings.
To those who begin but fall short – take care, watch and pray; the parable of the salt.
James Steward wrote, ‘Preach Christ today in the total challenge of His high imperious claim’. Here, in these parables, that claim is plainly and painfully set before us.
They stand as a challenge to the modern church and its leaders. Have we failed our people by calling them to a ‘self-comforting level of belief’ – without ever telling them of, let alone challenging them with, the unsparing call to single-minded discipleship that Jesus demands in these parables?
Although many will have no time for such things, ‘He, who has ears to hear, let him hear.’
Heavenly Father, we acknowledge our weakness and vulnerability before you. In our own strength, we are bound to fall or be gently drawn away by the world the flesh or the devil. As only by grace we can enter, so only by your grace will we be able to stand. Keep us faithful, keep us watchful, keep us walking closely with yourself and, in your mercy, restore and revive your wonderful but faltering church.
Questions for group discussion or personal reflection
- Matthew Henry warns that those who ignore the Lord God and his commandments are in rebellion against him, yet, ‘even the proudest and most daring sinner is no match for God.’ Where does that leave us and those we know?
- Has all thought of ‘judgement,’ of ‘perishing,’ of ‘the wrath of God’ been air-brushed out of the thinking and preaching of almost all of our churches today? If so why?
- On his return, will the Lord Jesus find a people ready, about his business and prepared, or will many of us find ourselves totally unprepared?
- What are his terms of peace and how do we relate to them?
- Can you relate to any of the scenes described where, to say the least, faith has become a struggle?
- When compared with the message delivered by the apostles, is today’s church too often giving us short measure?
- Do you remain surprised that these parables are not every preacher’s favourite subject?
- Lord and judge; the judgement seat of Christ, 2 Corinthians 5:10
- Every knee, Philippians 2:9&10
- The judge stands at the door, James 5:9
- As it was in the days of Noah, Luke 17:26-30
- As for those enemies of mine, Luke 19:27
- He who does not obey the Son, John 3:36 (RSV)
- Judge the world, Acts 17:30&31 (RSV)
- Not the will of God that any should perish, 2 Peter 3:9 (RSV)
- God so loved, John 3:16
- Priests obedient to the faith, Acts 6:7 (RSV)
- The parable used in two other settings, Matthew 5:13 & Mark 9:50
- Peter’s denial, Luke 22:54-62
- Judas, Matthew 26:14-16
- Demas, Philemon 23&24 and 2 Timothy 4:10
- John the Baptist, Are you he? Luke 7:19
- Rejoicing in the Lord, Philippians 4:4-13
- Will the Son of man find faith on the earth? Luke 18:8
It makes a stirring baptismal anthem, yet, in the light of parables such as these, should comfortable Christians in the West, perhaps, take more note of the realty underlying the risen Lord’s words to the church in Smyna, some of whom were about to be thrown into prison and tested terribly, ‘Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life’? (Revelation 1:10)