Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”
– Matt 8.21-22
There once was a man who was following Jesus who asked permission to go home and bury his father before joining the disciples in following Jesus. Now, scholars have argued and hypothesized over the meaning of this request for years: was the father dead? Did the man need to go just for the funeral? Or did he want to go home and take care of his father who was elderly until he died? Or did he want to be there to collect his inheritance?
Regardless of what the man’s intentions and meaning, Jesus’ response was crystal clear. No. What did He mean, however, by “let the dead bury their own dead”? Scripture teaches a terrifying, confusing, and difficult truth: apart from Christ, we are Spiritually dead.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
– Eph 2.1-7
Jesus also taught that in order to be alive Spiritually, we must be born Spiritually.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
– John 3.3-6
We are alive physically because we have been born physically. All of us have a mother, all of us were conceived, and all of us were born – one way or another. Spiritual life is the same. We are all Spiritually dead or non-existent until we have been born. This is what Jesus means by, “let the dead bury their own dead”. Those who have not been spiritually born are dead – dead in their trespasses – and Jesus instructed this would-be disciple to let those take care of their own dead. This should not be something that hinders our relationship with and following of Jesus. Apart from Jesus, we are Spiritually dead. We do not have the Holy Spirit.
“But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.”
– 1 Tim 5.6
What, then, is new birth? What does it mean, what does it look like to be made alive?
“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
– Ez 36.26
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
– 2 Cor 5.17
It starts with the core. The heart. God has to give us a new heart. We cannot get a new heart for ourselves. We can certainly learn a level of morality, but it is not based on our works; only evidenced by them. Notice that Paul says we should be diligent to put away the old person with its practices.
But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.
– Col 3.8-11
The old self, the dead self, is not simply the evil practices. It is the being who revels in those practices, who is Spiritually dead, who values things of this world. The new self is that being who is renewed by knowledge of God, who is refreshed by being with Jesus, who glories in the things of the Lord and all of this is exemplified by good deeds. Remember the parable of the wedding feast?
“The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests. But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
– Matt 22.2-13
When we are Spiritually born, we are given a new heart and a new mind. We are transformed into a new creature and the old things have passed away. We must put on the new self, and all of it’s deeds. We must put on the wedding clothes. We cannot just iron our old shirt and tuck it in. We cannot just polish our old shoes and comb our old hair. We must be transformed and made new. And we only do that by faith.
Are you Spiritually dead or are you Spiritually alive? You can dress up a corpse as much as you want, but unless he is born of the Spirit, He will never have life. He will never produce God-honoring deeds. He will never be saved. So let us check ourselves today, look for that Spiritual heartbeat. Actions and obedience are the outpouring of the new creation who is putting away the old self, who is changing his clothes. But let us check our motives and be confident that we are alive.