Throughout this gospel, we have seen that Luke’s main purpose is to hold out in front of his readers the person of Jesus. Luke wants to demonstrate who Jesus Christ is as a person. This theme continues in our text today. The text is centered on an interesting discussion between John the Baptist’s disciples and Jesus in which Jesus declares, in a semi-obscure way, who he really is. Surrounding this declaration of Christ are a number of stories that serve to elaborate the general answer that Christ gives to John’s disciples when they ask, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” Luke is elaborating, once again, in our text on the identity of Jesus Christ. It is clear that he wants the reader of his gospel to understand this identity well. That said, it also seems that s Luke gets deeper and deeper into his gospel, he further elaborates on this identity. Like the gradual unwrapping of a birthday present, Luke presents his readers with a bit more detailed picture of Jesus’ identity. Having studied the background of Jesus’ birth and early life in chapters 1-3, we saw a few weeks ago that Luke demonstrates Jesus’ position as the true King that brings in the Kingdom of God as he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue. Then we saw Jesus call a group of disciples to himself – disciples who recognized that he was worthy of being followed. Then, last week, Luke records Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – a sermon that lays out some of the things that are expected of one who follows Jesus. Having read the text last week, the reader could come away with the view that to follow Jesus is to follow certain commands. It would be easy to think, “If I do these things that Jesus laid out in chapter 6, then I am responding rightly to Jesus.” However, it is interesting that Luke follows the teaching in chapter 6 with our text this morning. As we will see, Luke continues to lay out exactly who Jesus is, but he does it with a bit more elaboration. Specifically, Luke lays out in these passages what a right response to Jesus looks like. As we look at the stories that make up our text this morning, two themes will continue to manifest themselves in each story. First, we will see answers to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Second, we will see answers to the question, “What is the right response to him?” So with that structure in mind, let’s examine the stories as we come to them.
Responding to Authority with Humble Faith (7:1-10)
The first story that we come to involves a Roman centurion whose servant is terribly ill. Upon hearing that Jesus is in the area, the centurion sends some Jews to persuade Jesus to come heal this servant whom he cares for so much. It is interesting to note the Jews’ words as they speak to Jesus – they speak extremely well of this centurion. This is a man who is highly respected by the Jews and well thought of by those around him. However, as Jesus is on his way to the centurion’s house, the centurion sends more servants to make clear that he does not expect Jesus to come to his house for two reasons: 1) despite what the Jews said, the centurion feels unworthy to have Jesus in his home and 2) he realizes, from his own experience, that Jesus does not need to come to the house – he can just speak and heal his servant. This response causes even Jesus to be amazed – here is a Gentile expressing a level of faith and trust that Jesus has not even seen in all of Israel! In response to such faith, Jesus validates what the centurion has said by making the servant well – and doing so without even seeing or touching the servant.
So, as mentioned earlier, we see two clear themes in this story. First, regarding the identity of Jesus Christ, this story clearly demonstrates Jesus’ authority over sickness. It is no difficult thing for Jesus to heal the body. And we might say, “But we have already seen that, why is this important?” In answer to that, we see here an exalted level of authority because Jesus is not even in the same proximity with the sick servant. His authority is vast and is not limited by the constraints of proximity. So we clearly see the authority of Jesus exalted once again.
The second, and more foundational, theme in the story is the response of the centurion. Actually, Luke spends relatively little time describing the actual healing and, at least comparatively, a large amount of time describing the reaction of the centurion. So what are we to see about the reaction? First, the centurion recognizes his own unworthiness in relation to Christ. This is a humble man admitting his vast inferiority to Jesus. He does not pretend to command Jesus as he does those under his authority, but he acts as one who is under the authority of Jesus and must submit to him. Second, he expresses great faith in Jesus. This twofold response, humility and faith, are at the center of Luke’s account, and it is clear from Jesus’ response that this response is the right response – it is one to be imitated.
Responding to Compassion with Praise and Proclamation (7:11-17)
An interesting aspect of our text today is that the four stories we are looking at all seem to gradually ramp up in intensity – at least in their declaration of Jesus’ identity. The four stories themselves center on the encounter with John’s disciples, but as we look at the stories, we will notice that the declarations about Jesus become a bit stronger with each story while the pictures of right response become more detailed.
The next story Luke gives is that of the death of a widow’s only son. Jesus seems to meet this funeral procession – which appears to include a good number of people – as he is entering the city of Nain and the procession is exiting the city to bury the dead man. Upon seeing what is happening, Jesus is moved with compassion for this widow – no doubt because her status as a widow meant that she had already lost the husband who was supposed to care for her and now she had lost the next closest thing she had to this sort of protector in losing her only son. Jesus is moved with compassion for this woman and approaches the bier on which the body rests. He touches the bier, causing its carriers to stop, and he tells the young man to arise and the young man does so. This glorious miracle causes great fear in the people there, but this fear soon turns into exaltation of Jesus and of God. The people recognize that a great prophet is in their midst, and even more than that, they recognize that God himself is in their midst.
So, keeping in mind our common themes, what do we see about Jesus in this text. As mentioned earlier, the picture of his identity gets a bit more detailed with each story. So, in this story – as in the last story – we see Jesus exerting authority over a particular area of life. However, this time, instead of just exerting authority over sickness, he is demonstrating his power even over death! This is not just the fixing of something that was wrong, but the granting of something that had ceased to exist. This is authority elevated to an entirely different level. But, it seems that Luke wants us to see even something more about Jesus and that is his great compassion. One of the major differences between the centurion story and this story is that no one actually seeks Jesus’ assistance here – he takes the initiative in this instance. He demonstrates compassion to one who has no authoritative claim on it. Widows were seen as lower in society, and yet Jesus seeks out how to help this widow. So here we have an even clearer picture of Jesus’ identity.
But Luke also returns back to our second theme by demonstrating the right response of those who were there – they praised Jesus and declared, rightly, Jesus exalted status as God himself. The amazing transformation that they had seen in the young man caused an intense reaction – first fear, and then humble praise to and exaltation of Jesus Christ. The people rightly understood that the action they had seen could not be separated from the one who had performed the action. It was Jesus who had caused the man to be raised and it was Jesus who deserved all praise for the action.
Responding to the Messiah with Faith (7:18-35)
This section stands as the crux of our passage. The themes laid out in this section are the themes that permeate the stories surrounding this one. Indeed, in this section, we have the high point of our text this morning. This begins with John, having heard of the works Jesus has done – possibly even including raising this young man from the dead, sending disciples to Jesus to see if he is the one to come (i.e. the Messiah) or if they should look for another. Though John has been bold in his proclamation of Jesus’ identity, this questioning most likely arises from the mind of one who is sitting in prison wondering where the judging of God’s enemies was and wondering if perhaps he had misidentified Israel’s deliverer. Jesus’ response assuages these fears as he quotes to John’s disciples Isaiah 35 – a text that is meant to encourage the people of God to persevere in their faith because they know that God is coming to deliver his people and judge his enemies. Jesus refers to verses 5&6 of that chapter specifically to make clear to John that those things are indeed happening. John can be sure that he is the one to come because salvation and deliverance are coming to the people. Jesus closes by exhorting John not to be offended by him because those who are not offended will be blessed. Those who trust him will be blessed. After John’s disciples depart, Jesus addresses the crowd concerning John and points out to them that John was indeed great, greater even than all the rest of the prophets, because he got to point out Christ. But then Christ points out to the people that the one who is least in the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing is greater than John the Baptist. This is referring to us – those who are part of the Kingdom far surpass even the prophets. Why? It is not because of their own inherent worthiness, but because they are able to better exalt the greatness of the King. We stand on this side of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus and we know how salvation comes. The prophets – including John – looked forward to God’s salvation, but they did not know how it would be accomplished. We know how it happened and we can declare it to the world.
Again, the two themes of Luke are fleshed out here. As we just saw, Jesus makes clear his identity as the Messiah and as the inaugurator of God’s sovereign rule on the earth. He is the Messianic King. The greatness of this claim can be lost on us, but Jesus is making clear his exalted status as the center of all of human history. John was great, Jesus says, because he got to point to Jesus. We are greater, Jesus says, because we get to point to Jesus in a greater way. If we come away from this text without seeing Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners, then we have missed Luke’s point.
But I also think we miss Luke’s point if we come away from this text without submitting to this Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Luke makes clear that the sinners and tax collectors rejoiced at the statement of Jesus because they had been baptized with the baptism of John – that is, they had undergone the baptism of repentance for sins. They declared God just because they had recognized that his demand for repentance (as seen in John’s message) was entirely right because God is holy. They recognized that his demand of submission to the sovereign Lord was entirely right because He was their Creator and Judge. They rejoiced because they had repented and knew that their submission was right. Their exaltation of Christ was correct because He is the only one worthy of being exalted. On the other hand, the negative response of the Pharisees is highlighted because they had not recognized their need for repentance. Jesus condemns them with a story about children who are not satisfied no matter what music is played. John the Baptist lived a very ascetic life and demanded repentance and they thought he was crazy. Jesus ate and drank and interacted with all sorts of people while promising life and they thought he was a lawbreaker. Nothing was good enough for them. Their rejection of both signified their refusal to repent. And their refusal to repent justified their condemnation. May our response be the joyful faith of the sinners who are not offended by Christ and not the prideful refusal to bow the knee of the Pharisees whose condemnation is just.
Responding to Forgiveness with Submission and Sacrifice (7:36-50)
The next story that we come to is the story of a sinful woman anointing Jesus feet. The setting is the house of a Pharisee named Simon who has invited Jesus over for a meal. As they are reclining at the meal, a sinful woman (the text does not elaborate on what “sinful” refers to because there is no need) enters the house and begins to wet Jesus feet with her tears. She then wipes the tears with her hair and proceeds to anoint Jesus’ feet with ointment that she has brought. While this is happening, the Pharisee begins condemning Jesus in his heart, wondering why he – if he really is a prophet – is allowing such a sinful woman to touch him. Jesus then exposes the Pharisee’s thoughts and uses the incident to tell the Pharisee a parable and point out to the Pharisee that forgiveness – as this woman has experienced – naturally begets great love. And greater forgiveness just as naturally begets greater love. In Jesus’ parable and explanation, he highlights the hardness and legalism of the Pharisee while also highlighting his own compassion and power along with the woman’s penitence and devotion. Jesus dismisses the woman by assuring her that her sins are indeed forgiven and that she can go in peace.
So what do we see her about Christ? The first thing we see is once again his authority, but once again the authority is ratcheted up a notch. We have seen his authority to heal the sick and even to raise the dead. But there are other instances in Scripture of people healing the sick, and there are even other instances of people raising the dead. But the forgiving of sins is solely the prerogative of God. This is highlighted by the Pharisees’ reaction in this story - they wonder that Jesus would claim such authority because such authority belongs only to God. Jesus claims this authority for himself, because he himself is God. Alongside this issue of authority – like in the story of the widow’s son – we see Jesus’ incredible compassion highlighted once again. Here we see mercy incarnate as Jesus welcomes this penitent sinner, making clear to her that her sins are forgiven. The centurion, though recognizing his own unworthiness, is still well thought of by outsiders, and the widow, though widows occupy a low place in society, still seems to be at very least well-respected because there are a number of people at her son’s funeral. But the woman in this story has no one on her side. If ever there was a person deserving of rejection by the holy and righteous God, it was this woman, but Jesus did not come to call the righteous; he came to call sinners to repentance. This woman is repentant and she is accepted. Jesus is powerful – even powerful enough to forgive sins.
Again we see Luke’s focus on the issue of our response. Here it is a bit more detailed, though, because we see both a negative and a positive response. In the sinful woman, we see a right response of humble repentance. We see an attitude that says – to morph the words of a famous hymn, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy mercy I cling.” This woman knows she has no hope but to throw herself on mercy itself, and what she finds is that all mercy demands is a recognition of inability. The woman knows she has no hope but mercy. And this should be our response as well. Further, the acceptance she experiences in the Lord drives her to serve him. The woman comes to Jesus because she has been forgiven and ministers to him by washing his feet and anointing them with expensive oil. Her forgiveness drives her to action. Likewise, our response should be humble repentance for our sins followed by humble service to the God who has forgiven us. On the other hand, in this particular story, we are also provided with a negative example in the person of the Pharisee. How should we not respond to Jesus and others? We should not respond to Jesus as if he must explain himself to us. Jesus is the authority and we are to recognize that. Likewise, we are not to condemn those whom Jesus accepts. If we are sinners ourselves, can we condemn those who are like us? What do we have that has not been given to us? The Pharisee is clearly indicted in the passage by his condescending rejection of a fellow sinner because he wrongly assumes his own righteousness.
Responding to the King with Loyalty and Love (8:1-3)
The verses that close our text are not so much a story as a general description of circumstances. That being the case, however, Luke two main themes come forth again. In these three verses, Luke makes clear that Jesus traveled around proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God. While he was doing this, Luke mentions a group of women who traveled with Jesus and ministered to him and his disciples out of their means. From the description of the women, it seems that they were women who had experienced the kingdom themselves. Much like the disciples, they had seen what Jesus had done and “left their nets and followed him.”
Again, in these few verses, we see clearly Luke’s further identification of Jesus: he is the one who both proclaims and brings the Kingdom of God because he is the King. Much like the text in Luke 4:14-44, Luke wants to make clear that this is the King himself stepping onto the scene to reclaim his Kingdom from the hands of the evil one.
In response to this recognition of Jesus as the King, Luke offers up the picture of three specific women, along with many other unnamed people, who recognize who Jesus is and rightly respond by joining themselves to him – following him wherever he leads. Again, the response mentioned here is meant to be prototypical – those who follow the King should follow him wherever he leads, putting all their resources at his disposal. Such is the right response of Christ’s true disciples – lives of loyalty to the King and love both to him and, in turn, to neighbors, as described in last week’s text.