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Burn the Plows: What Surrender Looks Like in the Kingdom of God

There’s this crazy story at the end of 1 Kings, where God tells Elijah to name his successor in a guy named Elisha. The nearly identical names of these nearly identical prophets have confused centuries of Bible students, causing us to enunciate our “j’s” and “s’s” a little better!

Elijah had been Israel’s greatest prophet and would come to be seen as the “Father of the Prophets,” appearing at the Transfiguration with Moses, the “Father of the Law.” He left some pretty big shoes to fill.

Elisha was a wealthy and successful man with lots to lose and, on the surface of it, nothing to gain from saying yes to the dangerous and costly decision to follow Elijah. And yet…

“Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.” 1 Kings 19:19-20

Owning one pair of oxen in their day meant a family was well-off. We meet Elisha standing as a supervisor over 24 oxen and at least 11 servants. This was a farming enterprise and Elisha was the CEO. He had everything the people of his day would have considered “the life.” He was honored in his work, respected at home, and secure in his riches. Yet, when Elijah placed his cloak around him (a well known custom to denote a calling), Elisha ran to let it ALL go in spectacular fashion:

“Elisha took the yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.” 1 Kings 19:21

This is the equivalent of Jeff Bezos firing every Amazon affiliate and bulldozing his own warehouses. It is Bill Gates cashing out his $133.6 Billion net worth and hosting the world’s largest bonfire. Elisha took his whole life plan and torched it so there would be no turning back. What’s crazier is that he wasn’t weeping; he was throwing a party! Turns out, he’s in good company.

The disciples left their nets. 

Matthew closed up his tax collector booth. 

Cephas and Saul laid down their birth names to become who God created them to be. 

We don’t arrive at the Kingdom life by making tiny gradual tweaks to ‘our’ plans. To step into God’s coming purpose for us, we often need to burn our current plows!

What are Our Plows?

  • Everything we’ve studied and been “trained” to do (our expertise, gifting)

  • The places we turn to boost our confidence and worth

  • The ways we physically, emotionally, and spiritually provide for ourselves

Simply put, the plows are self-reliance. They are where I trust ME to secure what only GOD can do in my life. Sadly, we’ve got a lot of Christian plows. We keep seeking confidence…

in our disciplines and routines

in our job performance.

in our character.

in our work ethic

in being a good parent, spouse, neighbor, or friend.

in our appearance

in what we can control

in other people’s approval. 

in the things that are “expected” of us. 

in the things that are being applauded

In Luke 14, Jesus revealed three places we have to join Elisha and “burn the plows:”

“If anyone who 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

“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27

“Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:33

Before you think Jesus just got up on the “wrong side of the bed” that morning and mistake this for exasperated angst, it would help to read the whole passage. Context is king and keeps us from twisting isolated verses into something they never intended to say. 

In the middle of these “unless you ‘fill-in-the-blank,’ you cannot be my disciple” calls to action, Jesus compares following Him to the decision of building a house. If a builder refuses to “consider the cost,” he will lay a foundation and find himself “unable to finish,” with no place to dwell. Jesus wasn’t threatening us. He was stating reality. Unless we surrender “our rights" to call the shots for “our lives,” we won’t make it where He’s leading us. The call of the Cross is the burning of every self-protecting, self-promoting, self-supporting plow.

Sometimes, following Jesus will mean that people you love will not approve or applaud. Burn the plow. 

Sometimes, following Jesus will mean laying down the path or pace you want in order to go where He leads. Burn the plow. 

Sometimes, following Jesus will mean laying down position, possessions, prestige, predictability, and comfort for the sake of the Gospel. Burn the plow. 

Jesus isn’t calling you to literally hate your parents, to cause harm to yourself, or to jettison all you have to wander the desert as a nomad. But He IS calling you to unapologetically break up with every substitute savior. 

Jesus mentions “father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters,” because these are our closest relationships and the ones we give the most “say” in our lives. The God who made “loving your neighbor as yourself” the highest law isn’t now calling for hate. He is saying that, unless you “burn the plow” of requiring everyone else’s approval, you will trade authenticity for false allegiances when the path gets tough. You can’t serve two masters.

In calling you to bear your own cross, He isn’t asking you to be the Savior of anything. On the contrary, everything you think you can do to add to your worthiness or value needs to enter the Refiner’s fire. 

In calling you to renounce everything you own, Jesus isn’t cursing your home, livelihood, or possessions. He is removing their status as “necessary non-negotiable’s,” and returning them to His design as “beautiful blessings.” If you believe you need a certain standard of living in order to be happy, you won’t make it where His Kingdom is taking you. You will cling to your comfort, and when it fails (and it will), you will strive to get it back or curse whoever you feel is to blame.

Elisha and the disciples understood what we are prone to forget. Jesus is not another a la carte item to incorporate into the busy lives we lead. No. Coming to Him means surrendering the plows (especially our Christian plows) of self-rulership, and gaining intimacy with our Creator.

I imagine years later that Elisha looked back on his great “risk” to leave his empire and simply laughed. What seemed so radical in giving God complete control was now the most elementary and obvious of decisions. His life didn’t end at that bonfire. It ignited for the first time. Who is willing to light a match and follow him?

Reflection Questions:

Whose approval or applause do you chase?

What skills, roles, or titles do you look to in order to give you value?

What possessions or comforts do you believe you need to be happy?

What would it look like to burn your plows and trust Jesus alone?

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