The idea that Jesus had nowhere to lay His head comes directly from a conversation recorded in the book of Matthew and again in the book of Luke. Jesus was talking to a scribe who wished to follow Jesus and become a disciple. In fact, the scribe boasted, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19–20; Luke 9:57–58).
These same passages mention two others who had similar discussions with Jesus. In each case, Jesus made the point that there is a cost to following Him. The scribe who said he wanted to follow Jesus wherever He went was not considering the lifestyle Jesus led. Our Lord was functionally homeless; He and His disciples stayed in the homes of those who would take them in (see Luke 10:6–8). The scribes were among the wealthier citizens. It was as if Jesus were saying, “Are you sure you want to be homeless with Me?” Even the animals have a place to stay—foxes have holes and the birds have nests—but Jesus literally had “nowhere to lay his head.” He wanted the scribe to truly count the cost of what he was proposing. It is always wise to count the cost (Luke 14:28).
Many would-be followers of Christ expected that He would soon set up His kingdom, and they wanted to be on the winning side to partake of the glorious victory (see Luke 19:11). The scribe in Matthew 8 was probably looking to follow Jesus straight into the kingdom, where he would share in ruling the world. But Jesus wanted the scribe to understand that to follow Him is not to find earthly glory; it is to share in earthly suffering. There was no golden throne awaiting His disciples but only privation and poverty. The King was homeless.
The fact that Jesus had nowhere to lay His head does not mean that every Christian today is called to live a life of poverty or forsake family and friends. Even in Jesus’ day, some of His followers were wealthy (Joseph of Arimathea, for example, in Matthew 27:57). But every Christian should be willing to forsake all. Every believer is called to give up any idol that stands in the way of following Christ wholeheartedly. Each of us knows what that thing is and how difficult it is to say goodbye to it. But, in the end, the heart that loves Christ will dispose of that competing love, despite the very real pain and anguish of doing so. We are all like the merchant who found that pearl of great price and sold everything he had to possess it (Matthew 13:45–46). Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but in this world we may have to do without, for we look for “a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1). There we will find a place to lay our head.