As we come to our text this morning we come to our final text in the first section of the gospel. At the conclusion of this section, Luke’s gospel takes a turn. Whereas from 1:1-9:50 Luke focuses much on the identity of Jesus (as Chad pointed out over the last two weeks), starting in 9:51, Luke focuses on Jesus’ mission as “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Therefore, in this final section of the first part of Luke’s gospel we see again just who Jesus is, as it is spoken from the mouth of one of his disciples. But we also see a few other things, namely, what kind of Messiah he will be, what it means for his followers, and how his disciples are struggling to understand how their lives must change.
This text is helpful for us as well. For one, it reminds us again of who Jesus is and what he set about to accomplish while he walked this earth. It is crucial that we understand who he is if we are to follow and worship him correctly. But it’s also helpful in that it reminds us of what following him means. We cannot read this text and think following Christ means merely coming to the same building every Sunday, shaking a few people’s hands, singing some songs, and then going back home. Following Christ means much more than that and affects every aspect of our lives, as we will see in this text. Finally, this text will serve us as well in helping us diagnose sin in our lives. It’s easy to see the disciples’ failures in the text at times and think we’re so different from them. However, I believe as we get into the details of their failures this morning, we’ll be able to identify sin in our own lives as well.
Interestingly, as Luke has focused his reader not only on the identity of Jesus but on the response of those around him, so this section alternates it’s focus between who Jesus is and what response is demanded of his followers. Therefore, let us now turn to this concluding text in Luke’s first section and see what it declares first about who Jesus is and how we must respond to him.
Jesus is the promised Christ who will suffer, die, and be raised (vv. 18-22)
Jesus’ miracles were no doubt generating buzz about who he could be. If Luke gives us these episodes in chronological order, then the feeding of the 5,000 has already happened. This is important because though there might have been other more impressive displays of power and authority, this miracle affected the greatest number of people. Over 5,000 people had been beneficiaries of Jesus’ miraculous work. Therefore, you can imagine that there was much conversation as to who Jesus is.
Jesus uses this opportunity to ask his disciples about these conversations. Luke tells us that he turned to his disciples and asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (v. 18). They tell him that some say he’s John the Baptist, others think he’s Elijah, and still others think that he is some other prophet of old who has risen from the dead.” Then he turns the question to them, asking, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 20). Peter answers, “The Christ of God” (v. 20).
Now, it’s helpful for us to ponder what Peter meant by this answer before moving on to Jesus’ response. At least as far back as God’s covenant with David, Israel had been looking for a descendant of David to come as a King who would establish his kingdom and reign forever. That is what they were looking for in the “Christ of God.” He would be one who would be indestructible. Now, can you imagine how Jesus’ fit this bill? If anyone could lead an Israelite army to overthrow the Romans, it would be Jesus. What could they do to him? Maybe they would barricade the Israelites and try to starve them. Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes. Maybe they could try to beat them on the water. Even the wind and the waves obey Jesus. Well, what if the Romans killed the Israelites? Jesus raises the dead. He was the perfect Messiah. How could he not be the indestructible Christ of God who would live forever and conquer his enemies? That is the picture, I believe Peter had in mind when he made this confession as to who Jesus is.
But Jesus’ answer puts a spin on it. After charging and commanding them to tell no one, Jesus declared, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (v. 22). Instantly Jesus puts an element in what the Christ is and must do that doesn’t compute with them. As they were looking for one who would be welcomed by all in Israel and crush Israel’s enemies, he tells them that he will suffer, be rejected by much of the religious community in Israel, and will be killed. The Messiah must suffer and die. In fact, that is probably why he charges them to tell no one that he is the Christ, possibly it is because they would misunderstand what is meant by the term and try to make him their king.
Thus, as we read through Luke’s gospel which constantly shows us who Jesus is, we find for the first time another element introduced to his identity. He is one who must suffer, be killed, and be raised from the dead. It is indeed true that he will conquer death, will be raised from the dead, and will live forever. The disciples should have heard that clearly. But he is also one who will die.
And we know why? It is because our chief enemy is sin. We live in a world where sin pervades God’s creation, we’re all subject to death, and all the world is under the power of the evil one. In addition, because of our sin we are under the wrath of God. So we are in need of the Christ to come, conquer our enemies, and save us. The disciples simply missed the manner in which he would do it. He would die and be raised so that he could pay the penalty for our sins, appeasing the wrath of God, and freeing us from condemnation. He would die so that through his death he might destroy the one who holds the power of death. He is the promised Son of David who lives and reigns forever and he is the one Isaiah 53 describes as the one who is pierced for our iniquities and crushed under the judgment of God.
This has implications for his disciples then and for us as his followers. If he is merely a King coming into the world to conquer others and reign as an earthly King, then perhaps they and we should take up our swords and destroy all those who oppose Christ, clearing the way for his reign. But because he is a Messiah who came and suffered and died, so his followers must be willing to do the same. We must lose our lives for the sake of our Christ.
Jesus’ followers must lose their lives for his sake (vv. 23-27)
After laying out to the disciples who he is and what the Christ must do, he then turns and tells them what is demanded of anyone who would follow him. He declares, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God” (vv. 23-27).
Being granted the gift of seeing clearly that Jesus is the Christ brings us responsibility. First, Jesus tells us what it means to follow him. If we want to follow him we must die daily. We must see our lives as nothing in comparison to following Christ. We must not seek our own gain but Christ’s glory. We must be willing to say, “This life that I live is Christ’s to do with whatever he wills.” To follow Christ means that you surrender any right to live to yourself and forfeit everything to Christ’s will, even your own life. That is not special Christianity. That’s not what it means to be a super-follower of Jesus. That’s what it means for anyone to follow Jesus. To follow one who suffered and died for us demands that we take up our own cross, surrendering our lives, and follow him.
One of the most weighty letters I’ve read that expresses this truth came from John Calvin as he wrote in 1553 to some men who were about to be executed for preaching the gospel. When it became clear that there was nothing that could prevent their deaths, Calvin wrote the following:
“Now, at this present hour, necessity itself exhorts you more than ever to turn your whole mind heavenward. As yet, we know not what will be the event. But since it appears as though God would use your blood to sign his truth, there is nothing better than for you to prepare yourselves to that end, beseeching him so to subdue you to his good pleasure, that nothing may hinder you from following whithersoever he shall call. … You know, however, in what strength you have to fight – a strength on which all those who trust, shall never be daunted, much less confounded. Even so, my brothers, be confident that you shall be strengthened, according to your need, by the Spirit of our Lord Jesus, so that you shall not faint under the load of temptations, however heavy it be, any more than he did who won so glorious a victory, that in the midst of our miseries it is an unfailing pledge of our triumph. Since it pleases him to employ you to the death in maintaining his quarrel, he will strengthen your hands in the fight, and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be spent in vain.”1
Jesus is telling his followers in Luke 9:23-27 that those kinds of conversations among his followers will not be exceptions. The situation here in our present day in the United States of America it feels like an exception, but we are such an anomaly in the history of the church that it’s embarrassing. That’s what it means to follow Christ. It means you saying, “I will follow him, and if he longs to use my blood to sign his truth, then may God aid my in following wherever he will call.” That’s the call for following this Messiah.
But there’s an encouragement here as well. It’s two-fold. First, the one who loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it. That is, that person may lose his life here and now, but he will know eternal life. How many of us would not give up short-lived gain for eternal pleasure? How many of us would not give up a few dollars for infinite wealth? How many of us would not give up a live that may comprise of seventy years for life that lasts eternity? That is what Jesus promises to those who will give up their lives and follow him.
The second encouragement to give up one’s life and follow Christ comes in the form of a warning. He tells us that if we don’t give up our lives and follow him but instead try to save this life and even gain the whole world, we will forfeit true life and Jesus will be ashamed of us when he comes in his glory. He will judge you on that day as one whom he did not know as his own.
So isn’t it so clear what we must do? All of us here today must respond, “God I leave everything and follow you. My life is yours to spend how you will. My goods and finances are yours to spend how you will. How I spend the seconds of my life are yours to do whatever you want done.” For what do you gain if you try to hold those things for yourself? You merit only God’s wrath on the day of judgment. And remember, this is not super-deluxe Christianity. This is what it means for all of us to follow this Christ. So let us remind ourselves of this today.
“But wait a second,” someone might say, “How can Jesus promises eternal life and eternal blessing if he’s going to suffer and die? Who is he to make such a promise and carry through on it?” The answer is that he is the Christ that Peter and the others anticipated, the one who will crush his enemies, and reign over this earth as King.
You see, this text doesn’t show us that the disciples were completely wrong in their perception of the Christ. They knew that Daniel 7 said that God’s Christ would come and set up a kingdom that would crush every kingdom of the earth. They missed that he would suffer and die, sure. And we have taken time to look at that. But he is nothing less than the conquering King, the Son of God who will come in his glory and establish his kingdom. In fact, he ends this section saying that some who heard his words would not die until they saw his kingdom. Therefore, as we focus again on Jesus’ identity, let us be reminded that the one who suffered and died is the one who was raised, is the one who is God’s Son, and is the one who will come in glory and reign as King forever.
Jesus is God’s Son who will come in glory and reign as King forever (vv. 28-36)
Only about eight days after Jesus made this declaration that there were some present who would not die until they saw the kingdom of God, Jesus gave three of them a glimpse of it. We read of this in verses 28-36.
Jesus went up onto a mountain to pray, and the disciples were sleeping. All of the sudden, however, Jesus’ glory was displayed. His clothing became dazzling white and the appearance of his face was altered. And even Moses and Elijah (who had long-since died) came and stood with him, talking to him, discussing the fact that he would go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and be raised. And when the disciples awoke they saw his glory, and Peter made an interesting declaration. He told Jesus that what was going on was good and that they should build three tents, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus.
And here’s the problem with that suggestion. It appeared that if anything Peter was excited that his master would be honored alongside such great men. But Jesus is not equal to Moses and Elijah; he is infinitely greater than they are. Peter did not know what he was saying. So even as he spoke a cloud came over them and a voice from heaven came, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen one; listen to him!” (v. 35). And when the voice had spoken and the cloud went away, Jesus was the only one of the three still there.
God made clear that only Jesus (i.e., not Moses or Elijah) was his Son. Only Jesus was God’s chosen one. It was Jesus to whom they should listen. God made clear that Jesus was the One who would be glorified and reign. God made clear that Jesus’ words that the son of man will come in his glory some day was no fantasy. God made clear that this was his chosen king of whom Psalm 2 says he will reign and possess the whole earth.
Yes, he is the one who suffered and died, but he is the one who was raised, who lives, and who is returning to reign forever. And so his promises to us, saying that if we lose our lives for him he will grant us eternal life, are promises that he is able to make and fulfill because of who he is.
Therefore, we see that Jesus is the Christ who must suffer and die and thus we must die to ourselves to follow him. And we see that he is the Christ who lives, reigns, and is able to fulfill his promises of blessing and judgment. But Luke gives us one more note of what who Jesus is means for his followers. He shows us in this final section of our text that Jesus’ followers must allow who Jesus is and what he taught to shape our lives.
Jesus’ followers must be shaped by who Jesus is and what he has taught (vv. 37-50)
We haven’t studied through Luke, seeing who Jesus is and what he has taught, simply so that we might perform well on a theology test or win a game of Bible Trivia. Luke has shown us who Jesus is and what he has taught so that it might shape us. However, he drives this home to us by highlighting the disciples’ failures in this final section. Perhaps it is because the lesson is sometimes driven home more deeply in our hearts by seeing the failures of others and being forced to examine them closely.
On March 13, 1964 Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old manager of a bar in Queens, New York came home and was walking to her apartment building when she saw a stranger approaching. Afraid, she began to run, but he caught her and stabbed her. As she knew she had been stabbed, she screamed, “He stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!” Lights went on, people looked out the window, and a man even yelled out, “Leave her alone!” But that was in. So the assailant merely turned and walked away. A few minutes later he returned to the victim again, stabbing her again, and she cried out, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” Again, lights came on (more this time), people looked out their windows, but no one did anything. The man left again. This time Kitty began to drag herself to her apartment. Yet the assailant returned again. He entered the apartment, found her at the foot of the stairs, and stabbed her again. This time he finally succeeded in killing her. From the first attack until the last, thirty-five minutes passed, during which time none of Kitty’s neighbor’s intervened at all. Not one person even called 911. When someone did call the police after Kitty had died the police arrived in five minutes. 2
I read that story in a book recently in which the author was seeking to expose sin in our lives. He could have written simply, there is a tendency in all of us to be cowardly and to lack compassion toward our neighbors. He could have written, “We can become so consumed with our own lives that we’re not even willing to help a neighbor in trouble.” But it’s likely that we could easily forget that declaration. It’s hard to ignore a story like the one we just heard though, isn’t it?
This may be why Luke ends this his first major unit in this gospel with stories of the disciples’ failures. It could be that Luke could write, “Now even though we see all these things about Jesus, it will still be tempting to sin in the following ways.” But I suppose that might not stick with us like these stories. For this reason, as we examine the disciples’ failures in this final section of our text this morning, let’s expose ourselves to the fullness of their failures, not so that we might see how evil they can be but so that we might expose our own hearts which so often repeat the failures of these men.
Luke begins with the nine disciples who had stayed behind when Jesus had ascended the Mount where he was transfigured with Peter, James, and John. When he comes down from the mountain, he receives a request from a man who asked Jesus to heal his son. His son had a spirit who seized him, made him cry out, convulse, and harm himself. The man also notes that he begged Jesus’ disciples to cast it out but they could not. And then we see Jesus’ response. Luke writes, “Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon threw him on the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God” (vv. 41-43).
I think what we’re to see in this story and those that follow are some of the disciples’ failures. Clearly Jesus is frustrated by his disciples response in this situation. But why could they not cast out the demon? After all, they had just been doing this. Well, I think Mark’s account of this story can help us. Mark notes that Jesus said that this kind could only come out by prayer.
What appears to be the case, then, is that the disciples did not lack enough faith. That is, the quantity of their faith was fine. Only the faith the size of a mustard seed would be required to move a mountain. Jesus’ didn’t rebuke the quantity of their faith when he said they had “little faith.” It appears that he is addressing the quality of their faith. It appears that they had begun to think in terms of their authority as some kind of “magic formula” where you can follow the steps and a miracle comes about.3 By noting prayer, however, it seems that Jesus is teaching them what true faith is. It’s not conjuring up certainty that you can pull something off. It is trust in God, nurtured by a relationship with him. They had removed God and a relationship with him from faith and turned it into some method to be followed.
This is a warning to us as well. It’s easy for us to discern failures in our lives, perhaps in our church even, and search for how we’re not following the right formula. Perhaps we need to change certain elements of our service and then we’ll know the Lord’s presence greatly. Perhaps we need to polish up our gospel presentation to make it a bit more slick and then we’ll see more converts. But Jesus shows his disciples that the key thing to be addressed is their relationship toward God. Have they nurtured a relationship with him? Is prayer common to them? Are they relying on God for their strength? Or have they reduced the Christian life to walking through a number of steps and believing good things will happen. To live by faith means that we live with our relationship with God being primary. The disciples had already failed in their focus.
Then Jesus again foretells his death. He declares, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (v. 44), and they did not understand. It was concealed from them that they might not understand it. Again, they fail to see exactly who Jesus is and what he will do. And they are embarrassed to ask him.
Now we might say, “But it was concealed from them,” and that is true. But God’s sovereignty never functions in such a way as to excuse moral responsibility in the Scripture. And so I think Luke includes this to display more failures of the disciples. How many times do we find ourselves in distress, even pitying ourselves, because we do not think biblically about who Christ is, what he has done, and what we are called to do. The disciples continue to fail to perceive who Jesus is and what that means for them.
Finally, in verses 46-50 we find two more of the disciples’ failures. First, their response to Jesus saying that he must suffer and die is to argue with one another about which one of them is the greatest. In the midst of Jesus showing them that he (who is clearly greater than them) will die (for their sakes), they are still striving for greatness in this world. Therefore, Jesus takes a child who would have been perceived of little value in society and says, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (v.48). They still misunderstand greatness, and so Jesus shows them that the one among them who is great is the one who will stoop to serve others and the one who doesn’t mind being the least among his brethren.
So I would ask all of us, “Do we long for true greatness or are we content seeking greatness in this world?” Why, when Christ has shown us greatness, do you fight for prestige and long to be honored above your brothers and sisters in Christ? Is not that disgusting? Sure, it’s easy for us to say, “What senseless and arrogant disciples.” But let us turn the mirror on ourselves. Are your ambitions and mine focused in this world or in the next? Greatness there means you are least here, serving others and stooping to minister to them.
And if we think we are not prone to this sin, Luke includes one more story. John comes to Jesus and tells him that they saw someone else casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but they stopped him because he wasn’t one of them. So Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (v. 50).
It appears that the disciples longed for such prestige that they wanted to be the exclusive group serving Christ and making war on the evil one. And doesn’t this reflect us? Isn’t this how we display our sinful hearts sometimes? It is not enough that we ace the tests. We are not satisfied unless we are the only one. It is not enough that we succeed; we want one who might rival us for honor to fail. It is not enough that Christ might lavish his grace on us; we want the church down the street to receive less grace, less honor, and stop their labors, lest we no longer be an exclusive group. That is what is reflected in the disciples in these verses, and it is sick. And yet it is real. We know it’s real because we’ve felt it in our own hearts.
And what do all of these failures have in common? They all stem from a high view of ourselves and a low view of our glorious Christ. He is glorious enough that we should pour our lives into a relationship with him. He is glorious enough that if he suffered and died then so that is a fitting road for us to travel. He is glorious enough that we should find it fitting to imitate him in serving others, even to our own humiliation. He is glorious enough that we should be willing for more and more people to join in displaying his glory, rejoicing in any way that we are not rivaling him for honor in this world.
Luke tells us in these verses who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. But are we following him as we should? If we are not, and this text convicts us of our sin, let us repent, rejoice in mercy and grace, delight in the forgiveness that he brought through his death, burial, and resurrection for us, and let us this moment surrender our lives fully unto him, living unto him by his grace. May that be our declaration as we come to the table. Amen.