What Does Jesus Mean By Saying, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead?

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

What did Jesus mean when he said, “Let the dead bury their dead?”

Burying the Dead

What did Jesus mean when he said, “Let the dead bury their dead?” Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead?” It was in direct response to a disciple who wanted to spend time at home before committing himself to the Lord Jesus Christ. He had said, “‘Follow me.’ But the man replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:59-60). This man may have wanted to fulfill the oldest son’s duty to bury the father, to be near the father in order to obtain an inheritance, or to remain near the body of his father for up to one year to rebury the bones, a practice of some Jews practiced in the first century. Jesus’ answer makes clear that this request would have involved putting tradition or the disciple’s own desires ahead of serving Jesus.

We Were Dead

In the account in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (v 22). He was responding to a request from one of His followers who asked to be excused from his responsibilities to “go and bury [his] father” (Matthew 8:21), just as Luke described in his gospel account. It seems clear that this man was trying to avoid his spiritual calling but still wanted Christ’s blessing. The Bible says that before our conversion, we were dead in our sins and trespasses and it took a supernatural act of God by His Spirit to quicken us to eternal life (Eph 2:1-5). Another point is, to be dead to the law (Rom 7:4) is to be dead to sin (Rom 6:11). We were as dead as Lazarus; four-day’s dead, and all unsaved people are dead…so Jesus may have been saying, let those who will not follow Me take care of that…as for you, you follow Me!

Our High Calling

Christ told this man to focus on his calling but he was more preoccupied with things at home. Perhaps he knew it would be hard following Jesus because many would ridicule him and perhaps he would be cast out of the synagogue and his family disowns him. A better sense of Jesus’ statement would be, “Don’t neglect the high spiritual calling I’ve given you; let the spiritually dead attend to the routine tasks of life.” Jesus is not commanding him to not take care of funeral arrangements for his father. Our high calling by God is not a part-time job or one that we can squeeze into our busy schedule. Jesus must be on the throne of our hearts and we must resign as our own chairman of the board and let Jesus rule in our hearts and minds. We must follow Him and not the things of the world.

Fit for the Kingdom?

It is so easy to say, “I will follow you Jesus,” but it is still yet another thing to actually do it. Words are cheap but action bears evidence. Jesus wanted them to know it would not be easy, but one man said, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Luke 9:57). That’s when Jesus responded by saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), meaning you might have to sleep out on a mountain sometime or be exposed to the elements, having no home to run to for shelter. When the man made the excuse about waiting to bury his father first, that’s when Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God (Luke 9:60). It’s just so easy to say, I believe in Jesus, but an altogether different thing to follow Him. When “Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home” (Luke 9:61). Once more, we are hearing more excuses so they won’t have to follow Jesus. It’s just too costly. And this explains why Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). You cannot serve two masters…you can’t live for the world and live for God because they’re not compatible.

Follow Him

When we first read Jesus response of, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22), at first glance, this might seem rather cold and uncaring, but remember, this man’s father was not even dead yet. He wanted to wait until his father died, waiting to receive his father’s inheritance. Jesus may have also been speaking figuratively because those who are not saved are actually spiritually dead…dead in their sins (Eph 2:1; Col 2:13). Whoever does not go “full in” to following Jesus is not worthy to be His disciple. It is very costly to follow Jesus because you have to forsake this world, maybe even forsaking an inheritance, because truly, Jesus is most precious and above all importance.

A Dividing Sword

In Matthew 10:34 Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” but wait, didn’t Jesus say in John 14:27a “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you?” Yes He did, so what did He mean by saying that He didn’t come to bring peace but a sword? Jesus was surely not advocating a violent overthrow of the Roman government. No. We must always look at context because context is always king. Jesus explains what He means in the following verses “I have come 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 person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matt 10:35-36). This proved to be true as many would not accept their family member’s faith in Christ and their family rejected them, even disinheriting them. Today, we are members of the Body of Christ who are united, but in some families, because of their faith in Jesus, there is division between a husband and his wife, a wife from her husband, a father from his daughter and a daughter from her mother. It will not be easy to follow Jesus.


I pray you have put your trust in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, because if you have not, you are still dead in your sins and you will die in your sins. You need to have the righteousness of Christ imputed to you on His behalf (2 Cor 5:21), and that comes by repentance and faith in Christ (Mark 1:15; Eph 2:8-9). If that has not happened yet, you are in real, mortal danger of hell fire. You and the unsaved are only one breath, one heartbeat…one accident away from eternity, when it will be too late to repent. Today is the best of days to believe (2 Cor 6:2) because no one has any guarantee tomorrow will come. This is the reason why I plead with you, as you read this, repent today and put your trust in Jesus Christ. If you do not, you will certainly face God’s judgment after death (Heb 9:27), or at Jesus Christ’s appearance (Rev 20:12-15), whichever comes first…and He could come at any moment! Be warned.

Here is some related reading for you: What is the Greatest Miracle in the Bible?

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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