Before John the Baptist was conceived an angel named Gabriel told his father, "He will be great."
When John died a reporter might have written: "Well, Gabriel, you missed it. John didn't make it."
To the world a man is great if he amasses wealth, or if he excels at war or sports or literature, or if he controls the lives and destinies of many other people. Judged by such criteria, John never fulfilled the promise of greatness. While still a young man he was beheaded on the order of a drunken ruler. At the time of his execution he had no money, no social status, and no political clout. The longer he had preached the smaller his group of followers had become.
But Gabriel didn't say, "He will be great in the eyes of men." The angel said, "He will be great before the Lord." The Lord measures greatness by a different yardstick. A man who is great in his own eyes, and in the esteem of the world, may be a wretched failure in God's view. Luke 12 tells of a man who planned early retirement to what the world calls "the good life."God called the man "Fool"!
John was great where greatness really matters—“before the Lord.”
1. John honored a great heritage.
His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are described as "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." Such a godly example is a better legacy than money and property. Some parents have blessed their children with wealth and cursed them with wickedness. If your father and mother were honest, God-fearing, churchgoing people you have a priceless heritage.
Some have received a great heritage only to squander and destroy it by their own wickedness. Some have broken the hearts of Christian parents by despising the Lord and wallowing in sin. Not John. He was "filled with the Holy Spirit" and devoted to God "even from his mother's womb." When grown to manhood and called to preach, he could rebuke the nation's sins without hypocrisy or embarrassment because he did not indulge himself in those sins. He followed instead the counsel and example of his devout parents. He honored a great heritage.
2. John exercised a great influence.
He functioned in Israel as a converter, a change-agent. Gabriel said, "He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord," and this he did. The Holy Spirit will not allow a dedicated life to be wasted. John became the forerunner and introducer of Jesus Christ. His message of repentance, forgiveness and cleansing drew enormous crowds and made many converts. He spent his days pointing sinners to "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."
A great life is not one that stacks people behind itself, but one whose impact brings others to Jesus.
Those who were at first disciples of John became followers of Jesus. So far from being envious, John rejoiced. He could say with deep satisfaction, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John exercised a powerful influence for good.
3. John demonstrated a great courage.
According to the angel's announcement, John's life and work were to be marked by
"the spirit and power of Elijah." Elijah was celebrated in Jewish history for the courage with which he opposed popular idolatry and rebuked the sins of a royal family. John, in turn, was jailed and killed because he dared to reprove the adulterous alliance of Herod and Herodias.
Anyone can give lip service to the truth. The test of our commitment to the truth is our willingness to live and die for it in the face of widespread and ruling evil. To bind one's conscience to the word of God, even at the cost of martyrdom, is a hallmark of genuine greatness.
John demonstrated true greatness. He was not a moneymaker or a record-setter, but he lived for Christ, for truth and for others. Here is our Lord's own verdict upon John the Baptist: "Among those born of women none is greater than John."
Self-esteem is important. The opinion of others cannot be wisely disregarded. But more important than what we think of ourselves, or what others think of us, is what the Lord thinks of us. You can be great in your own eyes and a failure in his. You can be great in the eyes of contemporaries and historians but a tragic failure in his. His judgment is all that finally matters, and this is his criterion of greatness: "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant."
Before Jesus was born His mother was told by the angel Gabriel, "He shall be great." What was affirmed as prophecy was confirmed by history. Over 2,000 years after his death, Jesus is the subject of more writing, speaking and learning than is any other person of all time. More people love him, live for him, and are willing to die for him than for all leaders and rulers of the ages. Why? Because his greatness is unlike that of other "movers and shakers." This section of Luke's Gospel tells us in what ways Jesus is great. In so doing it brands all other so-called greatness as false and illusory.
In Gabriel's speech greatness is associated, as it often is in men's thinking, with names and a throne.
1. Jesus bears great names.
"You shall call his name Jesus." "The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God."
The first name, Jesus, identifies him with us. It is a human name and others bore it before he came and have borne it since he came. The second name, the Son of God, identifies him with God. It is a divine title. In his one person Jesus unites man and God. This is the mystery that we confess in faith when we celebrate his incarnation and our redemption.
His name stands for the loving, costly, redemptive involvement of the holy God with sinful mankind.
Measured by this criterion, no man's name is great who does not live to serve and save others. Within recent years I read biographies of Alexander the Great and Peter the Great. Stacked alongside Jesus they were not truly great, they were merely famous. If you want a great name yourself, bear the name of Christ genuinely—be a real Christian.
"Jesus...the Son of God." He is the sovereign who stooped to save his subjects. That is God's definition of greatness. That definition of greatness will judge every human life at last. Jesus bears great names, and
2. Jesus occupies a great throne.
The angel said, "The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David." He also said,"Of his kingdom there will be no end."
The first statement marks Jesus as a ruler. The second statement indicates the unchanging nature of his rule. He whose very name means self-giving love always rules in humility and service, not in pomp and not by force.
Jesus redeems as a ruler. He brings "the kingdom of God" to people by shattering the power of sin and death over their lives. This he does, not by waving a magic wand over their situation of slavery, but through his death on the cross and his triumph over the grave.
Jesus rules as a redeemer. He brings his deliverance and exercises his dominion, not by lording it over the oppressed, but by sacrificing himself for the helpless. His palace was a cattle-stall, His throne was a cross, and his rule is love.
This is what greatness really means. Greatness is not measured by the power you exercise over others. It is measured by the power you exercise to benefit others. Greatness is not measured by the number of servants a man employs, but by the number of persons he serves.
In the upper room, at the Last Supper, the disciples quarreled about "which of them was to be regarded as the greatest." Jesus branded their dispute as pagan, saying, "I am among you as one who serves." Greatness lies in service, not in coercion.
The world has never been willing to accept God's definition of greatness. This refusal is precisely the root of our wars, riots and crimes today. The crucifixion expressed the world's contempt for Jesus as the definition of greatness. But by his resurrection God rejected man's wicked norms and intruded his own standard of greatness into human affairs.
Let me tell you of a great man. The Salvation Army rescued him from skid row. He came to our town, when I pastored in South Georgia, to lead the Army's work among us. He stood in our churches and civic clubs to tell how Jesus had saved him, and to offer himself in ministry to human needs. He patiently fed and sheltered and nursed and evangelized the destitute of our community. In the worst of weather, but in the best of spirits, he tramped the streets bearing food, clothes, medicines and the gospel, although he was crippled with arthritis.
His heart failed one day. At his funeral sat all the ministers, the mayor, the city council, the business leaders, and as many of the poor that he had served as could crowd into the church. I looked at the titled, the moneyed, the honored who were present, and I knew that the man in the casket was the greatest of them all, for he was the most like Jesus Christ.
Zechariah exclaimed, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel." There is danger in praising one's god. The character of his God shapes the character of the worshiper. Devotees of Mars become violent; those of Bacchus become alcoholics; those of Aphrodite become sensualists. Before a man gives his praise (and with it his life) to any god, he needs to inquire into the character of that God.
What is "the Lord God of Israel" like?
1. The Lord God of Israel is a God who visits the earth.
"He has visited and redeemed his people." Other gods are either locked in or locked out of this world. They are either aloof and uncaring or they are prisoners themselves of the moral chaos of the times, as were the Olympian deities. Israel's God was distinct from the world but concerned about it. He is the creator, sustainer, redeemer and judge of all the earth.
God is continuous with the world, but he is not identical with it. He transcends it, yet he does not abandon it. Not even the sin of the world can persuade God to forsake the world. God is free to visit the world and he does, for he cares deeply for his fallen creation.
2. The Lord God of Israel is a God who redeems his people.
“He has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us." The purpose of His coming in Jesus Christ is found in his saving acts.
"Redeem" describes the action of one who delivers another from slavery or captivity by payment of a ransom. In Jesus Christ, God was both payer and price, ransoming us from sin and death. His atoning death "delivered [us] from the hand of our enemies" and transforms our lives so that we "might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness."
To pious Jews the words of Zechariah would recall the Exodus. To the church they recall Calvary and Easter. There God came to us; there Christ died for us and rose again "to give knowledge of salvation...in the forgiveness of...sins." What a God!
3. The Lord God of Israel is a God who keeps his promise.
"He has visited and redeemed His people...to perform the mercy promised to our fathers." God made a covenant with Abraham and sustained the hopes of Israel with promises of salvation delivered by "his holy prophets from of old." Centuries elapsed, but God did not forget his word. The Advent witnesses to the unimpeachable veracity of God.
The Church lives by some old and precious promises too. One is the promise of the Second Advent. "I will come again," said Jesus, and he will. Another is the promise of his abiding presence: "Lo, I am with you always," Jesus pledged, and he is. By these promises we live, awaiting the future with hope and serving the present in love. Skeptics mock and evils abound, but we clutch these promises to our hearts, confident of their fulfillment. In the strength and peace of his words we overcome all the forces of evil that militate against our faith.
The prophet cried, "Behold your God!" Behold his love as he visits the earth! Behold his power as he redeems his people! Behold his truth as he fulfills his word!
Well may such a God claim our devotion, our faith, our lives and our all. This is what worship is all about—to behold our God, to bless his name, to become more like him.
We ought to go from worship, therefore, to visit, to rescue, to keep covenant—and thus to represent among the people of earth our Father in heaven.
Luke 2 1-14.
A certain national magazine featured unusual birth announcements for many years. Readers reported the clever ways by which they have informed friends about their new arrivals. No one can upstage God, however. Imagine! The sky was crowded with angels, and their spokesman said, "Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!"
Not every birth is good news for the world. Adolph Hitler's was not, to cite a single conspicuous example. But the birth of Jesus was announced as a gospel, as tidings of great joy.
1. The birth of Jesus proclaimed the good news that God can be trusted.
Mark the phrase, “in the city of David." To the God-fearing shepherds, who shared Israel's hope of a coming Messiah, the angel's words would recall ancient promises. Centuries before, God had made a covenant with David, promising him a son who would occupy his throne forever. And a prophet had pinpointed Bethlehem as the place of that future ruler's birth. Centuries had passed. Empires had emerged and disappeared. Social conditions and political fortunes had changed radically in Israel. But now, at last, the promise was fulfilled. God had honored his covenant. He had kept his word.
In the ancient world, where gods abounded, a God who could be trusted was unique. Pagan gods were as capricious and evil as were their devotees. Gods made in the image of man were cruel, lustful and unreliable. But nothing deterred the God of Israel from keeping faith with his people—not passing time, not changing conditions, not human wickedness—nothing.
In our own day, when lying is a way of life in business, politics and even religion, it is a comfort to know that "God cannot lie." We can cling in hope to every promise he makes to us in his word. God can be trusted.
2. The birth of Jesus proclaimed the good news that people can be saved.
"To you is born...a Savior." Jesus was born to meet the deepest need of mankind, the need to be delivered from sin and death.
Jesus was rejected by his nation because they wanted to be saved from Rome, not from sin. They wanted a messiah who would smash their foes and restore their freedom. They were prepared to accept a political genius or a military champion, but not a suffering servant whose blood was somehow supposed to redeem from sin and reconcile to God. And so "he came to his own home, and his own people received him not."
How like those ancient people we are today! We will welcome a Christ who guarantees our national and economic security. We place our highest values on political pride and material comfort. But, as an army general once affirmed, our real problems are theological. Until humankind is put right with God and lives for eternity, it little matters which crooks are in power.
Jesus came to save us at the point of our direst peril, our deepest need. He came to save us from sin.
And the great good news is this: his salvation is for everyone. The artificial barriers of color, class and condition mean nothing to him, according to the angel's song.
As a Savior for everyone, Jesus is a Savior for every one. His deliverance is as universal as human need, but it is just as personal and individual as your need and mine. The angel expressed these dimensions in two phrases: "to all people" and "to you."
I recall a Friday night in a revival meeting with a small church when a man in his sixties came forward for prayer. He repented of his sins, surrendered his heart to Christ, and was happily saved. Chatting with him after service, I learned that he was a hobo. He had dropped off a passing train and had entered the service just to get warm. There he discovered that God's love and Christ's death were for him as surely as for anyone else in the world.
How should we respond to the Lord's birth announcement? How should we react to a gospel that pledges peace and joy? Just as those shepherds did long ago.
This birth announcement calls for celebration—“...a multitude...praising God." This birth announcement calls for investigation: "Let us go...and see." Personal discovery and corporate praise—these are the factors that demand emphasis when we hear this Advent announcement. To those who do not yet know Jesus as savior, we say, Come and see! To those who do know him, we say, Rejoice and sing!
On the night when Jesus was born, according to Luke's Gospel, angels sang "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men..." One is tempted to ask the angels, "Were you kidding?"
Twenty centuries of post-advent history seem to mock the song of the angels. Crimes, riots, wars, violence, death and pain are the very stuff of human existence. There is no peace between nations or races, and precious little even within families. Nothing is scarcer in our world than peace.
Were the angels wrong? No, they are just frequently misunderstood. When Jesus was born there was peace on earth. Four truths are needed to make sense of the ancient carol. The first is this:
1. Jesus Christ is the peace of God.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul rejoices in the healing of the social cleavage between certain Jews and Gentiles. He says of Jesus, "He is our peace, who has made us both one." By his death Jesus Christ reconciles persons to God and to one another, "so making peace." He makes peace and he is our peace. When he was born in Bethlehem, therefore, God's peace was on earth.
The second truth is this:
2. Jesus Christ is the dispeace of God.
In one of His cryptic, paradoxical remarks, Jesus said, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." He went on to declare that he would set family members against one another. True, he is a reconciler, but he is also a divider. That he is the peace of God does not guarantee that all men will be at peace with God or with each other.
I knew a preacher whose family bitterly rejected him when he accepted Christ. They went so far as to conduct a funeral service, bury a coffin, and inscribe his name on a tombstone. To them he was dead and gone, no longer a member of their family.
The peace of God was also the dispeace of people.
The third truth can be stated in these words:
3. There is no peace without salvation.
Long ago God said through the prophet Isaiah, "There is no peace for the wicked." Rather, "the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt." No one can be at peace with others until he is at peace with God and at peace within himself. Such peace comes only when sin is put away. Sin is the great disturber of the peace.
This is why the death of Jesus makes our peace. In his death he atoned for our sins. This is why "the disciples were glad" when they saw the marks of the cross in the hands and side of the risen Jesus and heard him say, "Peace be with you." At the cross he had put away their sins and had made possible their peace—and ours.
A fourth truth is needed to make sense of the angels' message.
4. There is no Savior except Jesus Christ.
Today, as then, "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." Jesus, and Jesus only, is the incarnation of the God who said to Israel, "I am the Lord, and besides me there is no Savior." Jesus only has broken the power of sin and death. He alone can save and, therefore, he alone gives peace on earth. Until persons, nations, and races come to terms with Christ there can be no peace on earth for them. Without faith in him as savior, and obedience to him as Lord, there is no peace—there is merely sedation. Sedation may be found for a little while in work, in pleasure or in withdrawal. Millions seek peace in these ways, but they do not find it. When the sedation wears off their hearts are as full of dispeace as ever before. Peace is found only in and through Jesus Christ.
Among those who bear his name peace has not always prevailed. Christians have battled Christians, sometimes in savage and bloody warfare. Christ must be more than a name and the truth about him must be more than a slogan. The spectacle of so-called Christians fighting Christians deserves the world's contempt. Jesus came to make peace and to make war in his name is to slander him.
Peace on earth? Yes, when Jesus is on earth, and when he is welcomed to our hearts and lives as Savior and Lord, there is indeed peace on earth.
Few preachers, if any, have topped John the Baptist. In the third chapter of Luke we have a synopsis of his ministry. A statement in verse 18 nicely sums it up: "He preached good news to the people."
In the opening verses several VIPs are named. They were all politicians or priests. They serve to date the ministry of John the Baptist and then they are dismissed. "The word of the Lord came to John," not to a king in his palace, or to a priest in the temple, but to the prophet in the wilderness. Man's deepest needs are met, not by political edicts or by religious rituals, but by the "good news" preached by John and others.
We may derive from the context the content of that "good news."
1. John preached the good news of forgiveness.
Verse 3 declares that "he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." "Sins" is the word for mankind's bad fix. "Forgiveness" is the word for God's good news.
Forgiveness of sins is unmerited but not unconditioned. God demands that we repent, and not just with our mouths. We must evidence repentance by confessing and forsaking our sins.
John made specific moral demands upon "the multitudes," upon "tax collectors and upon "soldiers" as these groups came to him asking, "What shall we do?" Whoever we are and whatever our sins are, we must quit them. The sinner must agree to make the crooked places straight and the rough places smooth if he wants to "see the salvation of God."
God enables us to repent, and when we do he responds with full and free forgiveness. That is good news indeed!
2. John preached the good news of cleansing.
Consider his words in verse 16: "I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
This promise had its initial fulfillment at Pentecost, when the first followers of Jesus Christ "were all filled with the Holy Spirit." Present on that glorious occasion was Simon Peter. Testifying of this experience, he declared that God "cleansed their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8-9).
What man is, as well as what he does, creates his bad fix. Salvation is needed from wrongbeing as surely as from wrongdoing. The carnality that caused the multitudes to be selfish, the tax collectors to be greedy and the soldiers to be brutal must give place to love—unselfish, caring, giving, serving love.
Here is good news! The Christ who is mightier than John is also mightier than sin. He is able, by filling us with his Spirit, to cleanse, to occupy and to govern our inner lives. There is pardon for what we have done, and there is cleansing from what caused us to do it. The Lord not only sets us free; he makes us pure. The pardoning judge is also the sanctifying priest.
There is another element in John's essential message:
3. John preached the good news of judgment.
He challenged the multitudes with a searing question: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (v. 7). God is going to bring an awesome judgment upon sin. John uses three strong figures to trumpet that judgment—“the ax," "the fire" and "the wrath." Trees that do not produce good fruit, he warns, will be chopped down and burned up.
These are awful words, but they are also good news. They proclaim a God who will not allow evil to persist forever. He will bring the curtain down upon the blood-soaked drama of "man's inhumanity to man." He will call sin to a screeching halt, putting an end to pain, death and grief. The rivers of misery and destruction that have coursed through history will disappear, and God's people will be gathered to a happier home in a better world. Judgment means that sin must end, good will triumph, and God's family will be holy and happy forever in the Father's house. That is good news!
John's message is still God's word for the world today. To create this good news, Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins. For preaching this good news, John went to prison and to death.
Sinner, what are you willing to give in order to receive this message? Will you repent? Will you renounce the sins that lead only to the ax and the fire? Will you bear the fruits that evidence repentance, the fruits of life turned in a new moral direction?
Believer, what price will you pay to transmit this message? Will you submit to the cleansing of your heart, and the empowering of your life, through the mighty baptism with the Holy Spirit? Will you risk the wrath of evil men to sound the good news? Will you, like John, live and die for the spread of the gospel and the rescue of the lost?
"The devil said to him, `If...'" Thus began the fierce temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
J. B. Chapman told about a man who claimed to be the world's foremost authority on the word "if." Pride of place here, however, really belongs to the devil. He is in the business of manufacturing doubt and never closes down his factory.
Three times the devil said to Jesus, "If..." He was trying to cast doubt on God's love, power, and wisdom.
The devil uses the same strategy with us as he did with our Lord. In surveying the temptations of Jesus, we can learn to recognize the voice of the tempter and gain victory over his subtle efforts to create doubt.
1. The devil’s first “if” tries to make Jesus doubt God’s voice.
"If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread."
Jesus had recently come from his baptism at the Jordan. There he heard the Father's voice, speaking from heaven, saying, "You are my Son" (3:22). Now Satan is whispering, "Are you really God's Son? Look around you. You are in the wilderness, alone and hungry. Should someone with privileges and powers of sonship be hungry? Surely this privation is not compatible with the love of God!”
The devil employs the same argument with us. When our circumstances are unpleasant, he insinuates doubt. Are you really the child of God? Then why do you suffer? Doesn't your hunger, or illness, or unemployment testify against your claim to be a Christian?
The answer is "No!" Prosperity doesn't prove that one is a Christian, and adversity doesn't disprove it. Like Jesus, we must trust the Father's voice. Jesus refused to doubt the voice from heaven, and he refused to doubt the voice from Scripture. He answered, "It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone.'" Sonship is not a matter of privilege; it is a matter of obedience.
2. The devil’s second “if” tries to make Jesus force God’s hand.
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up...’"
The devil was saying, "You need a following. Prove to the people that you are the messiah. A miraculous escape from death should do the trick! Put the promise of God to a test."
The crafty foe seeks to trap us in this same way. We are tempted to do rash things to prove to ourselves and to others that God is with us. Yielding to this temptation, men have handled snakes, driven cars with their eyes closed, plunged themselves into enormous debts, and other idiotic things in the name of God and his work. When the crash comes they try to cop out of their folly by offering proof-texts in its defense.
Like Jesus, we must refuse to wrest God's words out of context. We must not put God to a test by resorting to irrational and damaging behavior in the name of faith. Jesus replied to the devil, "It is said, You shall not tempt the Lord your God." Putting God to a test is not an act of faith but of doubt.
3. The devil’s third “if” tries to make Jesus exchange God’s way.
"If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours."
By "all" the devil was referring to "the kingdoms of the world," and to the "authority" and "glory" which these kingdoms represented. In Psalm 2:8, God promises those kingdoms to his Son, the messiah. "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession." Jesus is being tempted to switch God's promise for Satan's, to gain the kingdoms without going to the cross.
This is how Satan deals with us. Any road to the right goal will do, so choose the pleasant path. The end justifies the means. Take a moral shortcut and avoid hardship. Take the crown without the cross.
Is your goal a college degree? Satan says, "Cheat to get through your courses with good grades." Is social change your goal? Satan says, "Burn, loot, and kill to bring about reforms." Is community status your goal? Satan says, "Join the church to impress the town." All of his suggestions come down to a self-sparing life—get by without suffering.
The reply of Jesus makes it clear that the wrong path to the right goal is demonic. "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve." God alone has the right to choose our goals and means. Our business is to serve him, to submit to his will in everything. We are to follow Christ, even when there is blood in the footprints.
When Satan struck out, we read that he "departed from him until an opportune time." The devil never goes far off and never stays away long. His attacks are soon renewed. Temptation is persistent. Continued victory, therefore, demands continued trust and obedience. The love, power and wisdom of God must not be discarded for the devil's "if." We must practice what we pray: "Thy will be done."
From his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Galilee "in the power of the Spirit" (v. l4).
Most of the time, we associate the power of the Spirit with extraordinary events. The Old Testament conditions us to think like this. For example, farmers became warriors and slew great numbers of their enemies when the Spirit "came upon" them.
The abiding presence and power of the Holy Spirit, however, is needed for the less dramatic, but none-the-less essential, aspects of Christian living. Three of these aspects are indicated in this passage from Luke.
1. “In the power of the Spirit” Jesus went to church.
Verse 16 says, "He went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day." I do not deny that one can go to church regularly without being filled with the Spirit. The Pharisees did, and they were inveterate enemies of Jesus. But I do affirm that one who is not faithful in attending worship will not be filled with the Spirit. An exception, of course, would be the person whose physical circumstances prevented him or her from going to the house of the Lord.
There in the synagogue Jesus encountered some demons, loveless people and hypocritical leaders. Nevertheless, these did not keep him from attending worship services, nor can such persons and such forces furnish us with excuses for non-attendance.
As a Jew, Jesus knew nothing of solitary religion. He was part of a religious community. He needed to share praise, prayer, scripture and teaching in fellowship with others. How much more do we! The followers of Jesus should adopt his habit of worship. The Spirit's power is given for such habit-formation. In his power we will faithfully go to church.
2. “In the power of the Spirit” Jesus learned the Scriptures.
When "the book of the prophet Isaiah" was handed to Jesus, he knew where to find the passage that he read, and he knew how to interpret his own life and mission in the light of that truth. In the Bible, Jesus found out who he was and what he was to do (vv. 17-21).
I am not contending that one cannot study the Bible without being filled with the Spirit. I do insist that one who is filled with the Spirit will study the word of God.
Like Jesus, we can only discover our true identity and purpose as we read and ponder the written word of God. When we are under pressure, we can maintain the integrity of our lives only as we cling to the teachings of Scripture. And for this the power of the Spirit is given.
The Spirit and the Bible are closely associated. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Bible. He illumines our study of the Bible, and he applies the truth of the Bible to our minds and lives as we follow Jesus Christ. We need the abiding power of the Spirit to understand and practice the word of God.
3. “In the power of the Spirit” Jesus endured His opposition.
Those who heard the message of Jesus in the synagogue that day were "filled with wrath." "They rose up and put him out of the city" (vv. 29-29). They even tried to kill him—and they were his former friends and neighbors! Being rejected by those he loved must have hurt deeply, but Jesus would not buy their favor at the cost of compromising his truth.
Later on, Jesus warned his disciples to expect intense opposition from their own families. We are startled to hear Jesus say, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." A person's parents or siblings or in-laws might turn savagely against him, or turn coldly from him, for becoming a Christian (Luke 12:51-53). When this occurs, as painful as it is, the Spirit of God gives us moral courage to stand and to suffer for Jesus' sake.
To stand for Christ in a non-Christian home has been the lot of many Christians. Others have found harassment in the workplace or from the government because they followed Jesus Christ. At times the opposition becomes severe enough to issue in prison, in torture, and in death. Whatever the cost, the believer can endure in the power of the Spirit. He can even love the opposers while he survives their opposition.
Yes, the power of the Spirit is given, not just to accomplish great feats, but as staying power for the daily Christian life.
We can have staying power for daily Christian living in a hostile environment.
We can have staying power for the diligent probing of Holy Scripture.
We can have staying power for faithful participation in the worship of the church.
This is our need and this is the Spirit's supply. Power for the ordinary! We can have it when the Holy Spirit fills our lives with his own presence and power.
The reaction to Jesus, early in His ministry, is recorded in these words: "They were all amazed" (v. 36). When "all" are amazed something very unusual is going on. The young, who doubt everything, and the old, who have seen everything, were both amazed. Just what was—and is—so amazing about Jesus? To begin with,
1. His word is amazing—it conquers demons.
"They were astonished at his teaching, for his word was with authority" (v. 32).
A man possessed by "an unclean demon" challenged Jesus in the synagogue. (Are there clean ones?) Jesus rebuked the demon and commanded him to vacate the premises. Reluctantly, the demon obeyed, wracking the man a final time in his angry departure. When the man was restored, the crowd exclaimed, "What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out." The power of "the Holy One" was demonstrably greater than the power of the unclean one.
Our sophisticated age denies demons, but it affirms the demonic. Whatever their origin and power, some more-than-human forces of evil are at work in the world and are devastating human life. Who can explain this?
Solution is more important than explanation. The solution is Jesus Christ, who speaks a word of eviction and transformation. His word is amazing! Equally true,
2. His love is amazing—it includes mothers-in-law.
From the synagogue Jesus went to Simon's house. There "Simon's mother was ill with a high fever." When Jesus was told of her condition "he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her" (vv. 38-39).
No class of persons has been more maligned throughout history than mothers-in-law. No joke draws a readier or heartier laugh from men than a mother-in-law joke. To hear men laugh you would get the impression that only husbands have mothers-in-law. (Why don't we have father-in-law jokes? Is this another evidence of male chauvinism?) Whatever the explanation, this section of Luke's gospel makes it clear and certain that Jesus was as ready to help the fevered woman as he had been to help the demonic man. The love of Christ extends to all persons. Sinful men may put fences of slander and hatred around some classes and individuals, but not Jesus! To him everyone matters. His love is truly amazing. On a similar note
3. His plan is amazing—it embraces the whole world.
Verse 42 tells us that Jesus went into a lonely place to pray. Then the people from that area sought him out and tried to keep him there. You can't blame them, for he was doing for them what no other had ever done. But Jesus responded to the situation by saying, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose (v. 43).
The love of Christ is universal. It reaches to every place where people sin and hurt. He refuses to be the Lord and Savior of any one land, or any one race, or any one class of people. His purpose has the same global dimensions as do sin, guilt and death.
There is a line that stretches from there and then to here and now. There is a line from Galilee to your country, from Capernaum to your city or town. Jesus Christ is present here today; present to love, to speak and to redeem.
Jesus wrought one miracle in the synagogue and the next one in a home. Place is no more a barrier to his love and power than is time. Wherever you are, there he is. And he is just as willing to help you as he has ever been to help anyone, anytime, anywhere.
His word has lost none of its authority.
His love has lost none of its sympathy.
His plan has lost none of its catholicity.
The amazing Christ wants to be your Savior and Lord. Put your trust in him, and he will change your life forever. Because he is the same forever, you need never be the same again. Come to him in your sin and need just now!
Jesus was an immensely popular teacher. Luke tells us that "people pressed upon him to hear the word of God." He was forced to get into a boat, shove out a little from the shore, and teach the multitude from this improvised pulpit.
When the lessons were ended, Jesus went fishing with some of his disciples and used the occasion to recruit them for his service. With so many people wanting help, Jesus needed helpers. In this passage we discover the kind of people Jesus uses.
1. Jesus uses ordinary people.
These men were "fishermen" (v. 2). They were relatively unschooled, except in their craft. There was nothing outstanding or distinguished about their lives. They were just ordinary people, like most of us.
The work of Jesus Christ cannot await the emergence of an occasional genius. It must go forward daily through the consecrated labor of common folks. We appreciate the genius when he comes along, and we value the contribution that he makes, but the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ to the multitudes of earth demands the plodding feet and helping hands of plain people.
2. Jesus used obedient people.
Jesus told them, "Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch" (v. 4). They had "toiled all night" and had netted "nothing." Now they were tired, sleepy and disgruntled, but their response to his command was instant obedience. "At your word," Simon answered for them all, “I will let down the nets."
That kind of obedience makes kingdom progress possible. They might have said, "The fish aren't there right now." They might have protested, "Look, we're tired. Let us get some hot food and cool sheets first." No doubt a number of logical reasons for not going fishing just then crowded their minds. Nevertheless, they obeyed.
"Ours not to reason why"; ours to remember that Jesus is Lord. Ours to trust a love that cannot be cruel and a wisdom that cannot be mistaken. If he says fish now, we fish now. The Lord recruits obedient people for his work.
3. Jesus uses cooperative people.
Their nets, lowered at Jesus' direction, "enclosed a shoal of fish." The nets were strained and began to break, so "they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came..." (v. 7).
Partners! What a precious word! Paul thanked the Philippian Christians for their "partnership in the gospel." He wrote to the Corinthians, "we are fellow-workmen for God." We cannot do the Lord's work without one another's help. As we labor for Jesus Christ, encouragement, confidence, and hope come to each of us in knowing that we have partners. We can count on others to help us when we call, and they, in turn, can rely on us to reciprocate.
Hotshots who are grandstanding for their own glory do not achieve the work of Christ. Men and women quietly and happily working together under his lordship accomplish it. No one can do it all, and no one can do even a little of the work of the kingdom without the help of others. Cooperative people are needed.
4. Jesus uses committed people.
To these fishermen Jesus said, "Henceforth you will be catching men." Their
response to this assignment is recorded in verse 11: "And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him." That was a radical decision. Where it would take them and what it would cost them, they could not know, but they were convinced that following Jesus was better than doing their own thing. His purposes would prove more satisfying than their plans. So they committed themselves to his leadership without a backward glance.
Jesus still needs people who will leave everything at his call, people who will give anything at his request, people who will dare anything at his orders. He recruits for his mission those who place his will and work above their families, their friends, their careers, their goods, their all.
Such people will become astonished people. Just as Simon "was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish," so we will be joyfully surprised by what Jesus does for us, with us and through us, if we join the ranks of his ordinary, obedient, cooperative and committed workers.
People need to hear his word today, just as they did back then. That means people need to share his work today, just as those first disciples did. Are we the kind of people he can recruit and count on?
This passage begins, "While he was in one of the cities..." The city isn't named, and that makes a point in itself. Jesus can be present now in every city, and he is just as willing and able to help people in our cities today as he was in that unidentified city in the first century.
In this unnamed city was "a man full of leprosy." That speaks of life at its most miserable. The leper, in the advanced stages of his disease, was physically disfigured. Under the Mosaic Law he was socially isolated and religiously deprived. All who touched him became legally "unclean," so he was denied entrance into homes, shops, and synagogues—all places where human lives intersected. The leper's lot was tragic and serves as a fitting symbol of sin and its dire consequences.
When this poor man cried out for help, Jesus "stretched out his hand and touched him." That is love at its most magnificent. Love with the power to transform—such is the touch of Jesus Christ.
1. Jesus touched people with pity and power.
There was infinite pity in his touch. By law the leper was untouchable, and those who did touch him, even by accident, became ritually unclean. Living with such a stigma, this man must have yearned for the touch of a human hand. His psychological need may have been as deeply felt as his physical need. And Jesus knew, and cared and touched. Jesus could have healed the man by simply speaking a word of power. He did not have to add the touch of pity, but he chose to minister to the diseased psyche as well as to the diseased flesh. He is a savior for the whole person.
There was power in Jesus' touch also. "He stretched out his hand, and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him." The leper was suddenly clean and whole again. With just such power Jesus Christ still touches and cleanses the leprous lives of sinful people.
Jesus sent the healed man to the priest. Before he could be readmitted to society, the law required that certain rituals be performed and certain sacrifices offered. This is a beautiful illustration of the way Jesus Christ restores us to meaningful relationships with others. His saving grace makes us fit to live with.
In a Southern town I met a man of gentle spirit and sincere Christian testimony. To my surprise, I learned that he had once been a notorious bootlegger and killer, feared by all who knew him. A minister visited him during a period of illness, introduced him to Jesus Christ, and the touch of the Savior transformed that man's corrupt life.
Jesus touched—and still touches—people with power.
2. Jesus touched God in prayer.
This passage from Luke's Gospel ends with the statement, "He withdrew to the wilderness and prayed." This was the secret of his power. He spoke with God before he spoke to man. He was in touch with his Father before he came in touch with us lepers. Out of his profound communion with God came his powerful compassion for people.
There is surely a lesson here for those of us who are trying to serve Jesus and reach others for his kingdom. A life without prayer will be a life without power. In the solitary place we are equipped for the streets. "Great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed," so the Lord withdrew to pray. If we would share his success we must adopt his strategy. If his ministry had to be buttressed with private prayer, how much more do our frail lives need shoring up by communion with God?
This story from Luke's Gospel brings to us a twofold challenge.
It challenges sinners. Unsaved friend, Jesus Christ wills your cleansing! He loves you, but he hates the sin that infects and destroys you. He knows what you may have been unwilling to admit, that sin brings death. It touches with corrupting influence every human life. Would you be rid of this destructive malady? Call upon Jesus, trust in him, and he will touch your life with power to make it whole.
This gospel also challenges believers. The church is the body of Christ. It is his means today of reaching out to touch and help. Our Lord wants to make each of his followers a point of contact with lost, broken and despairing people. If you would be a channel of power, go with him to the place of prayer. Wait upon God and then you can work with people.
Jesus pardoned a man, which no one could see, because forgiveness takes place in the mind of God. Then Jesus healed the man, which everyone there could see, because healing occurs in the bodies of people. When the once-paralyzed man walked away in perfect health, the onlookers exclaimed, "We have seen strange things today" (v. 26).
How strange? According to Mark's account of this same incident, the crowd said, "We never saw anything like this." Alice in Wonderland saw a grinning cat. The cat disappeared but the grin remained, which prompted Alice to say, "It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life." Many strange sights are like that; they elicit curiosity. But the people around Jesus were more than curious; "they were filled with awe." They sensed that God was present in a special way. Let's look at what they saw.
1. They saw one man doing the work of four.
The man whom Jesus healed had been carried to the scene on a mat by four of his friends. That man is fortunate indeed who has four friends eager to get him to Jesus! While four men carried the bed in, one man carried it out—the man who had been lying helpless upon it. Jesus said to the paralytic, "I say to you, rise, take up your bed and go home." As the crowd looked on, goggle-eyed with amazement, he did just that.
Sin creates a tragic, crippling dependency, with two results. On the one hand, the individual is demeaned; on the other hand, society is burdened. When, as a consequence of sin, a man cannot shift for himself, other people have to care for him and for his family. Jesus enables a person to become responsible for his own life, to become productive and to contribute to society's well being. Jesus took this man off his back and put him on his feet. Our Lord still does such miracles today.
A strange sight indeed! One man was doing for himself what four men had done for him before he met Jesus. But here is something even stranger:
2. They saw a man doing the work of God.
In this event Jesus functions as teacher, healer, and pardoner. While credentialed experts were sitting by, this strange, untutored rabbi named Jesus was teaching with great authority. When the paralytic was lowered through the roof into the room, Jesus spoke to him, saying, "Your sins are forgiven." Moments later Jesus spoke the healing command, "Rise, take up your bed and go home."
Other men had spoken words of truth, health and pardon. They did so, however, as spokesmen for God. They did so in the name of God. But Jesus was doing all of this in his own name. He did not say, "Thus says the Lord," as the prophets had done. He said, "I say to you, rise!" No prophet, no exorcist, no healer, no rabbi in Israel had done this before.
The reaction of the critics is quite understandable. They questioned, "Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?" They were right, and they were wrong. Pardon and healing are indeed the work of God. But Jesus was no ordinary man. He was and is the incarnate Son of God, one with the Father.
"The power of the Lord was with him to heal" because he is the Lord of that power. When Jesus speaks in his own name—“I say unto you"—then God himself is speaking to us. The "I say" of Jesus is adequate for the physical, spiritual, and social transformation of all to whom he addresses his saving words.
Luke tells us that all of these strange sights took place "on one of those days." It was not a special day, marked with red ink on the calendar. It was just one of those days when Jesus touched God in prayer and touched men with power. Today can be one of those days. You can be the person whom Jesus saves.
The "strange things" all happened "when he saw their faith." In the absence of faith nothing happens, not even when the power of the Lord is present. But in the presence of faith anything can happen, for the power of the Lord is unlimited by human need; it is limited only by the divine will.
Strange things still happen as Jesus continues to work in the world. The sick are healed, the dependent become responsible, and the lost are saved. Praise his name!
Anyone's salvation is something to celebrate. Jesus said, "There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Earth should echo heaven's gladness.
When a tax collector gets saved that's an occasion for an extra edition of the news! Luke tells about one such IRS agent's conversion in these brief words: "Jesus...saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, `Follow me.' And he left everything, and rose and followed him."
"He rose." This is said of two men in Luke 5. One was the paralytic whom Jesus healed. The other was this revenue agent whom Jesus saved. Jesus puts men on their feet both physically and spiritually.
There are three matters in this passage of scripture to which I call your attention.
1. The first is the following.
"Jesus said to him, `Follow me.'" This was the command of the Lord, and it could only be obeyed or disobeyed. There was no middle ground, no third option. The claims of Christ are absolute. He is Lord.
Levi worked for the Roman government. He was under orders, but he recognized in Jesus a higher authority than any Roman official. This was the Lord, calling him to a better life than any civic job. Used to taking orders, Levi obeyed the command of Jesus with alacrity.
But if this was the command of the Lord, it was also the call of love, something that Levi was not accustomed to hearing. Tax collectors, especially those who worked for foreign conquerors, were passionately despised by their own countrymen. Levi was used to being hated, cursed, shunned and spat at, but being loved and wanted was something new. Hatred had doubtless hardened him, but love melted him. To the claiming love of Jesus he responded immediately: "He left everything, and rose and followed him."
When we leave everything to follow Jesus, we do not leave nearly as much as he gave up to become our savior. He left heaven for earth; he left glory for misery, and he left a throne for a cross—so great was his love for sinners. It is no wonder that Levi followed Jesus. The wonder is that any man or woman would refuse to follow him.
2. After the following came the feasting.
"Levi made him a great feast in his house." The feast was celebration, an expression of the sheer joy of new life. Nothing calls for joyous celebration like one's conversion to Jesus Christ. We celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries, national holidays, business triumphs, military victories and many other occasions. Deliverance from sin through the love of Christ exceeds the importance of all such events. It is surely the best possible reason for having a banquet or a party.
The feast in Levi's house was also evangelism. It was Levi's wise method of introducing his friends—many of them fellow "outcasts"—to Jesus. People are usually relaxed and unguarded and open-minded at mealtimes, so table-presence and table talk are excellent strategies for evangelism. A friend of mine calls it "stomach evangelism." Call it what you will, but many people are in Christ and in the church today because of it. Jesus used the method and so should we.
3. Along with the feasting, and marring the occasion, was the fussing.
"The Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, `Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?'" No one can spoil a celebration quicker than a few religious smugs, those self-righteous hypocrites who are guardians of rules but despisers of people.
Their question was downright slanderous. It was really aimed at Jesus, not at his disciples. They were implying, "A man is known by the company he keeps." They dared to brand Jesus a sinner.
The answer of Jesus was eminently sensible. "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." A man isn't known for the company he keeps but for the reason he keeps company. The doctor's place is with the sick, and the savior's place is with the sinners. A person may keep the worst of company for the best of reasons. He may keep the best of company for the worst of reasons. Jesus was with sinners in order to save them. The Pharisees were with Jesus in order to oppose and criticize him. The important question is not who you are with but why you are with them.
Let's not tarry with the fussing critics, however. The point of the story is this—there is a doctor in the house! "The great Physician now is near." He can touch your life with redeeming and healing love. He calls you as he did Levi, because he loves you as he did Levi. "Follow me," says Jesus. That is the grandest invitation ever issued. It creates the greatest opportunity ever given. Follow him! You will then always have reason to celebrate.
Jesus seemed to be challenged by the presence of death. He interrupted every funeral he encountered or attended by raising the corpse to life. At least, he did this at all the funerals we read of him attending.
In this passage we have the exciting account of how Jesus raised from death a widow's only son. The miracle occurred near the gates of a town called Nain as the lad was being carried to the cemetery.
The action begins with the words, "As he drew near..." When Jesus draws near good things happen! On this occasion
1. A great pity was evoked.
Trailing the bier was a brokenhearted widow. Her only son and sole support was dead. A widow's lot was harsh in those days. Employment was hard to find, and many widows existed on petty handouts from grudging relatives. "When the Lord saw her," therefore, "he had compassion on her."
The gospels speak often of the compassion of Jesus. It is the only emotion that Matthew ascribes to him, and the one most frequently cited by Mark and Luke. They were strongly impressed by how deeply Jesus cared for hurting people.
Luke stresses the pity of Jesus for a bereft widow and this should not surprise us. Luke takes a special interest in Jesus as the champion of the poor, the outcast and the women in his society.
The compassion of Jesus for crowds is documented in the Gospels. But while Jesus pitied the multitudes, viewing them as sheep without a shepherd, he never overlooked the needy individual. Here the Lord's compassion is focused on one lonely, grieving widow. Everybody is somebody to him! He has the whole world in his heart, but he feels a profound pity for you and me in our personal and private grief.
2. Along with the great pity evoked, a great power was exerted.
Jesus stopped the funeral procession and raised the dead! "Young man, I say to you, arise. And the dead man sat up and began to speak."
Jesus felt a special challenge when confronting a corpse. He was the Lord of life and the enemy of death. Death is the final issue of sin, and by his conquest of death Jesus manifested his power as the savior from sin. Death baffles the power and skill of medical science. In the presence of death our finest doctors can do no more. Jesus, the Great Physician, is sovereign over sin and death.
In this incident the power of Jesus' words is vividly demonstrated. "I say to you, arise!" With a word of authority Jesus calmed the storm-swept waters of Lake Galilee. With a word he healed the sick and cast out demons, even the most stubborn among them. Now he speaks and a corpse revives! He is victor over diseases that plague the mind and ravage the body. And he is the conqueror of death, that grim ocean of misery into which the vile streams of illness empty.
Having raised the young man to life, Jesus "gave him to his mother." What a lovely gesture with which to crown the mighty conquest! Jesus came to restore us to God, and also to restore us to one another, to heal life's broken relationships. When we give ourselves to him, he gives us to one another in holy and happy social bonds.
3. When this great power had been exerted, a great praise was expressed.
As mother and son rejoiced together, the awestruck onlookers exclaimed, "A great prophet has risen among us," and "God has visited his people." They were right. As Luke records elsewhere, Jesus was "a prophet mighty in word and deed before God and all the people."
The prophets were brave and lonely men who courted persecution by daring to rebuke the sins of kings and commoners alike. They thundered a summons to repentance and proclaimed the promise of forgiveness. The stubborn and impenitent they threatened with judgment. Among them none stood taller than Jesus, and like them he functioned as the living transmitter of the word and will of God to his generation.
It was also true that in the person and work of Jesus, God had visited his people, graciously fulfilling ancient promises and meeting present needs.
But their praise, while true, was inadequate. Jesus is "more than a prophet." Prophets and apostles raised the dead, but never by their own words. They did it only through prayer to God. "Thus says the Lord" was their authority. Jesus alone could say, "I say to you, arise!" Only the incarnate Word of God could issue such a challenge to death.
What does this old story say to us?
It reminds us that Jesus draws near in love and power to our situations of sin, pain and grief. It reminds us that Jesus cares for us, feeling the weight of our woes upon his own heart. It tells us that Jesus can forgive sins, comfort sorrows, conquer death and unite us to himself and to one another forever.
This miracle took place at a small town for the benefit of unnamed people. This reminds us that the love and power of Jesus are universal. They extend to all people, in all places, at all times. Great crowds and single mourners are loved alike by him.
Jesus was dining at the home of a Pharisee—a religious leader. Our Lord was always careless of the company he kept. Suddenly a woman walked in from the street, bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with costly perfumed ointment.
Simon the Pharisee was aghast. How could Jesus allow this unsavory woman to touch Him? Pharisees bent themselves out of shape to avoid contact with unclean persons. Surely Jesus discredited his claims by allowing a wicked woman to bathe his feet!
To the horrified Pharisee, Jesus directed a piercing question: "Do you see this woman?" The answer was obvious.
1. Simon did not really see her.
Blinded by prejudice, Simon saw her only as she was. He judged her by her past, and her past was sordid indeed. The Bible refers to her as "a woman of the city, who was a sinner." The word "sinner" is used here for a prostitute, a streetwalker. And this is exactly how Simon viewed her. She "was a sinner." But Simon said, "She is a sinner." He could see her only in the red light of her lurid past.
Jesus saw the woman in the present and future, which was vastly different from her misspent past. The difference was made by his pardoning grace. To the weeping woman he said, "Your sins are forgiven." He didn't minimize her sins; He frankly admitted they were "many." His forgiveness wiped away her sins, however, as surely as her tears washed the dust from his feet.
"Your sins are forgiven." No sweeter words ever fell from the lips of Jesus Christ. They are words that turn life into a new channel, for they free the oppressed spirit to serve and enjoy God. Simon didn't know this pardon, so he couldn't see the woman. What is more,
2. Simon did not really see himself.
When Jesus spoke to Simon of two debtors, one who owed much, one who owed little, Simon doubtless regarded himself as the debtor with a small obligation. He hadn't sinned much, not by his calculations.
Like other Pharisees, ancient and modern, Simon missed the whole point of Jesus' words, "They could not pay." Simon thought he was paying, thought he was canceling his few misdeeds by his many good ones. He may even have supposed that he had overpaid, that he had accumulated a credit balance with God.
Simon missed the thrill of forgiveness, with its liberating effect. He was on the treadmill of a merit system. Righteousness by works can produce false pride or tormenting anxiety, but it cannot bring peace and joy. One can never be sure of his score. Have I gained enough points? Am I still in debt?
We are myopic toward ourselves until we see ourselves as sinners whose only hope is God's mercy. We can only be saved by faith, never by works. When Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you," he could add, "Go in peace." No other way brings peace to the heart.
Simon did not see the woman and did not see himself, but his blindness went even deeper:
3. Simon did not really see Jesus.
He called Jesus "rabbi," "teacher." Whatever respect the title conveyed, it fell short of seeing Jesus in his power to save. No rabbi could forgive sins. Indeed, by their own admission, only God can forgive sins (5:21). Simon, failing to perceive that Jesus was the Son of God with authority to pardon sins, did not respond to Jesus with love and trust. He accorded Jesus a small degree of professional courtesy, and that was all.
The contrast between Simon and the woman is immense. He invited Jesus into his home; she welcomed Jesus into her heart. He greeted Jesus as a teacher; she honored Jesus as Lord. He withheld from Jesus the ordinary courtesies of hospitality—the washing of a guest's feet, the anointing of his head, the kiss of greeting—but she lavished on Jesus her most expensive treasures. He felt his sins were few; she knew hers were many. He knew only the cold, meager satisfaction of self-righteousness; she knew the warmth and joy of divine forgiveness. He could not clearly see her, or himself, or Jesus Christ. She saw, believed, and was transformed. "She was a sinner"—true. "She is a sinner"—false. The forgiving love of Jesus changed her life. It can change yours today.
Lake Galilee had been lashed into frenzy by a sudden violent storm. The boat in which Jesus and his disciples were sailing was in danger of capsizing. Jesus was asleep, much to the surprise of his terrified disciples. Shaking him awake, they cried out, "We are perishing!"
Jesus rebuked the howling wind and raging waves, producing a calmness in the sea like that in His heart. The awestruck disciples asked one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even wind and water, and they obey him?"
A good question—and this story supplies an answer.
1. Jesus is seen here as a weary man.
He was so exhausted from his labors that he could sleep during a storm. Jonah slept during a storm at sea; running from God had worn him out. Jesus was worn out from working for God.
The work of Jesus was not easy; it was exhausting. He did not heal the sick, cast out demons and teach the masses by waving a magic wand over the human situation. When a dying woman slipped up behind him, touched his robe, and was instantly healed, Jesus said, "Some one touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me." Ministry to people's needs drained our Lord, and he had to recoup his strength by resting, eating and praying, just as we do.
In the boat that day Jesus was a very weary man, not frazzled from making money or having fun, but from helping suffering people.
2. Jesus is seen here, also, as a mighty man.
"He commands even wind and water, and they obey him." He commands; he doesn't negotiate. Jesus was in charge!
As the Son of God, "all things were made through him" in the beginning (John 1:1-3). Here the elements of nature recognize and obey the creator's voice.
Only people disobey him. In the verse which precedes this story Jesus is heard saying, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (v. 21). The statement implies that some hear and disobey, and those who do so stand outside of his family. The storms of evil that savage human life—crimes, riots, wars, lust, force and greed—are spawned from disobedience to the Word of God. Among the creatures, only man possesses the freedom to choose a path of obedience or disobedience to God. What a terrible price we pay for the abuse of that freedom!
This story of the stilling of the storm was told and retold by the church, for it demonstrated the power of Jesus to handle all the storms of life. In the remainder of this chapter, Luke records the power of Jesus to deliver from demon possession, from physical illness and from death and grief. Every kind of tempest that rages in human lives must yield to the word that Jesus speaks as commander. He is a mighty man!
3. Finally, the story reveals Jesus as a family man.
He is a man who wants to share life with others. Those who, like himself, live in obedience to the Word of God are his "mother" and his "brothers." They form, together with him, God's "household," and he delights to be part of their daily lives.
Jesus said to His disciples, "Let us go across to the other side of the lake." He does not wish to travel without us, and we do not have to travel without him. He will be with us as we make the journey to "the other side" of life.
And on the other side he will be with us eternally! Jesus said, "I go to prepare a place for you...I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:1-3). We can be part of his family forever.
Along the way to that eternal home, Jesus shares with his brothers and sisters all the storms that arise. The storms may endanger and alarm us, but they cannot destroy us, for he is present to deliver us. Jesus takes care of his family.
Have you ever heard little boys boasting, "My big brother can whip your big brother?" The one who believes on Jesus Christ can be calm in the face of every threat, knowing that his Elder Brother can handle every situation.
Who is Jesus? This story replies, “A weary man; a mighty man; a family man.” There is another question in this story, one that Jesus put to his disciples: "Where is your faith?" He traced their fears to lack of faith. Is your faith in yourself? Is your faith in your circumstances? If so, you will fail in the storms. Put your trust in Jesus Christ. The storms will come, but they will not overcome.
Jesus performed many miracles. All of them are not recorded in the Gospels. One of them, however, is related in all four of the Gospels, the only one so widely published. Evidently this miracle profoundly impressed the early church. It is the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied by Jesus until a little boy's lunch had fed over 5,000 people.
As we examine Luke's account of this miracle, three factors will claim our attention. The first is
1. The Christ.
Two things about Jesus stand out in this story.
The first is this: he welcomed the crowd. He had gone to the desert to escape the throng, for he and his disciples needed rest and relaxation. As soon as the people discovered his whereabouts they flocked to the spot. He did not resent them as intrusions; rather "he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing." Though busy and weary, he welcomed them for they needed him. They needed what he could say to them and do for them. His compassion kept the welcome mat out to people at all times.
He welcomed the crowd and he challenged the disciples. The twelve disciples implored, "Send them away." They knew the people needed food and they had none to share—or so they thought. Jesus responded, "You give them something to eat." He challenged his disciples to view the crowd through his eyes, to see them not as inconvenience but as opportunity for service. It is easier to dismiss the needy than to help them. Our meager resources can make us defensive, but Jesus says, "Don't send them away—feed them!"
At this point, let us look for a moment at
2. The church.
The disciples feared what they faced. The problem seemed insurmountable. They lamely protested, "We have no more than five loaves and two fish." "No more than"—they set maximums, not minimums. Their thinking was negative; it was fear-born, not faith-born. Can we not identify with them?
Despite their fears, at the command of Christ they brought what they had. It wasn't much, and it didn't seem to be enough. But they did the only wise thing—they put into the hands of Jesus what had been placed in their hands. When he took the lunch it became a feast adequate for all who were present. Our human resources may be severely limited, but we never know what can be accomplished with them until we consecrate them to Jesus Christ.
The disciples shared what Christ did. "Taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave to the disciples to set before the crowd." The hands of the disciples distributed what the hands of Jesus multiplied. He gave to them and they gave to the crowd. Jesus does His work through people. What immense privilege the church has, to be his channel of blessing!
Having glanced at Christ and the church, let us now focus our attention on
3. The crowd.
They followed Jesus. They were not fully aware of his person or his purpose, but they had discovered in him a love and power they had not found in any other. In one of the Bible's happiest statements we read that "they followed him, and he welcomed them." Jesus welcomes all who will follow, however limited their understanding, however defective their commitment, and however imperfect their faith. He can take them as they are and make them what they need to be.
Those who followed also feasted. We read that "all ate and were satisfied." Their hunger was met by his fullness. Their need was supplied by his love. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." They shall be filled for he is the Christ who cares for the crowd. He will not send people away unfed and unsaved.
He not only provided bread, he is "the bread of life." He feeds the starving heart just as he filled the hungry stomachs. He gives himself to us for our spiritual life, just as he gave bread and fish for their physical life. Just as the material bread was broken, so Jesus was broken on the cross, dying there for our sins, in order to give us life eternal. The following results in the feeding.
The Christ—filled with compassion for the perishing of earth. The crowd—hungering for bread and for spiritual life. And between them the church—sharing the work of Christ, bearing groceries and the gospel to the crowd. All of us are in that story somewhere.
Our Lord's welcome abides. To each of us he is saying, join me for a miracle. Find in me your life. Work with me to help others discover life. Your desert place will bloom with beauty, truth and joy.
Among the sayings of Jesus are many gracious promises and a number of serious warnings. One of the most solemn warnings in found in Luke 9:26. "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."
Why should anyone be ashamed of Jesus’ words? They distill the wisdom of his own rich heritage. They reveal truths about God, man and destiny that no other human leader has approximated. They have influenced more good and restrained more evil than the words of any legislator, philosopher or ruler. His words are spirit and life—saving words that address the deepest needs of our lives with transforming power.
Yet many are ashamed of him and of his words. Why? One reason is this—
1. The words of Jesus identify a person.
James declared that looking into the Word of the Lord is like seeing yourself in a mirror. Other books may flatter human nature and excuse our sins but the Bible never does. Jesus and the Bible tell it like it is. Herb Shriner, commenting on the homeliness of girls in his town, said they had a beauty contest and nobody won. Well, nobody wins a prize for beauty when the words of Jesus expose the ugliness of sin, for "all have sinned."
Some people, embarrassed by what they are, yet unwilling to repent and change, prefer to dodge the Word. Smashing the mirror, however, won't change your looks. Scorning the words of Jesus won't rid you of moral warts and wrinkles.
But the words of Jesus hold the promise of new identity, new beauty. To Simon Peter, when they first met, Jesus said, "You are...you shall be..."(John 1:42). He can save us from sin. He can take us as we are and make us what we ought to be. "He will beautify the meek with salvation."
Another reason why some are ashamed of Jesus' words—
2. The words of Jesus isolate a person.
Jesus said that he came to bring a sword that would divide families, setting children against parents, until "a man's foes will be those of his own household" (Matthew 10:35-36). A fellow cannot follow Jesus without being alienated from godless relatives who reject the words of the Lord Jesus. One's peer group can exert tremendous social pressure upon him, for we all desire acceptance. The herd instinct is a powerful drive. Becoming a Christian cuts one out of the herd, and some people cannot bring themselves to bear the pain of that removal. They choose the popular crowd rather than the unpopular Christ.
Before Jesus healed the man with a withered hand, he commanded, "Come and stand here." Standing beside the Christ, he was ringed with critics and enemies. That is always the cost of discipleship. Some are ashamed of his words because they lack the moral courage to endure a painful separation from non-Christians.
A third reason why some are ashamed of His words—
3. The words of Jesus imperil a person.
Look at the context. Jesus predicted his sufferings and death. Then he set the cross before all who would follow him. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Being a Christian means losing one's life for Jesus' sake. Then comes the solemn warning of the awful and final consequences of being ashamed of him and his words.
In every age, obedience to the Lord has meant suffering and martyrdom for some of his followers. In those countries and cultures where such brutality is restrained, death to self-indulgence is demanded in the face of threatened social ostracism or economic penalties. The plain truth is, many do not openly and honestly serve Christ because they fear the consequences. They reject his words in an effort to spare themselves from suffering.
The words of Jesus identify, isolate and imperil. They are loaded with blessing, but in this kind of world they are also packed with danger. To be a genuine Christian is to live on a collision course with the world.
Jesus confronts you with his words, with his promise of salvation and his moral demands. Will you stand with him or be ashamed of him? You must choose, and your choice sets in motion consequences you can't control. "Whosoever loses his life for my sake," says Jesus, "he will save it." "Whosoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes." Jesus Christ is coming again, coming as mankind’s judge. If you are ashamed of him now, he will be ashamed of you then. If you deny him now, he will deny you then. If you acknowledge him now as your Lord, he will acknowledge you then as his friend. And then, nothing else will really matter!
While praying at a mountain retreat, Jesus was transfigured. His face and clothing "became dazzling white." His total being responded to the Father so completely that an inner glory was created that flesh could not veil. The disciples who were present "saw His glory." Years later, recalling the event, one of them wrote, "He received honor and glory from God" (2 Peter 1:17, 18). What was the glory on the mountain?
1. His was the glory of a sacrificial love.
Transfiguration is where the earthly life of Jesus would have ended had he not stooped to save us. He "knew no sin," therefore, he should not have known death. Without passing through death he could have entered into heaven, into the immediate presence of the Father.
Appearing with Jesus on the mountain was Elijah, the prophet who was taken from earth to heaven without dying. Another Old Testament character, Enoch, "was taken up so that he should not see death" (Hebrews 11:5). "Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:22). No man ever walked more closely and constantly with God than did Jesus! If Enoch and Elijah were translated without dying, surely Jesus could have passed from the mountain into the Eternal Presence whose glory now suffused his flesh and made radiant his clothes.
What bound him to earth was love—love for us, love that identified with sinful mankind. That love would bring him from the glory on the mountain to the misery in the valley. That love would take him to the cross to die for our sins. Truly, his glory was the glory of a sacrificial love.
A twin truth emerges in this account:
2. His was the glory of a liberating death.
When Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, they "spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem." They talked about his coming death, and Luke calls it a departure. Here the word "departure" translates the Greek "exodus." The death of Jesus at Calvary was to be a new and greater exodus than the departure of Jewish slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses.
The ancient exodus, made possible by the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds, set men free socially and politically. The cross of Calvary, where Jesus offered his spotless life in atoning death, has power to liberate those who are slaves to sin and death. Exodus II is the greatest liberation of all time.
A bright cloud overshadowed the scene, and when it was gone, so were Moses and Elijah. "Jesus was found alone." Moses and Elijah represented "the Law and the Prophets," but neither Law nor Prophets could provide our freedom from sin. Only Jesus Christ could accomplish this new exodus. In the words of Cecil Alexander's hymn,
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n and let us in.
The glory on the mountain was the glory of our Lord's liberating death.
When the cloud "overshadowed" them, the disciples heard a voice from the cloud saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him."
If you want freedom from sin, listen to Jesus! Between the transfiguration and the crucifixion, Jesus spoke these searching, saving words:
"Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened" (11:9-10).
"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (11:13).
"Everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man will also acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God" (12:8-9).
"Unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (13:3).
"There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (15:7).
"No man can serve two masters...You cannot serve God and mammon" (16:13).
"The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost" (19:10).
Yes, if you want an exodus—an escape from sin, guilt and death—listen to Jesus. He speaks the words of eternal life.
"Down from the mountain" came Jesus, from the mountain where he had received glory. He was not willing to remain there in comfort and security while "the great crowd" below was lost and helpless in their sins.
In the valley to which he descended was a tragedy that contrasted sharply with the beauty and glory of the mountain. Jesus addressed himself to the situation, bringing triumph out of tragedy. In this story we behold
1. The misery of mankind.
There in the valley was an afflicted child. He is described as demon-possessed. He suffered from terrible convulsions that left him foaming at the mouth and thrashing about on the ground.
With the lad was a brokenhearted father. He could do nothing for the boy, and neither could the crowd. The father is described as "a man from the crowd," just as needy as they, just as helpless as they. He comes to Jesus crying, "Look upon my son." On the mountain God had said, "Listen to my Son." When we listen to God's Son we soon learn that he is interested in our sons.
Also in the valley, compounding the problem, was an impotent church.
The father exclaimed, "I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Now he says, "Teacher, I beg you." There's no use begging help from those who are part of the problem, who share a human life bound and driven by evil forces. But when we look away from men to the Son of man, we can find the answer to our need.
To the anguished father Jesus issued the invitation of love: "Bring your son here." Until we bring our troubles to Jesus, nothing can be done. When we bring them to him, anything may happen!
In contrast with the misery of man, vividly depicted in the plight of the boy and the sorrow of his father, we behold
2. The majesty of God.
When Jesus took charge of the situation, healed the boy and restored him to the father, the crowd was "astonished at the majesty of God."
It was the majesty of judgment. We read that "Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit." This is judgment in the Old Testament sense, where a champion of the oppressed brings deliverance by routing their enemy. The judges were deliverers, and judgment was deliverance, the restoration of a right order in society. The majesty of God as the champion of the oppressed and enslaved shone through the defeat of this demon by Jesus Christ.
It was the majesty of power, also. Jesus evicted the demon and "healed the boy." The same divine power that brought order out of chaos "in the beginning" was at work in Jesus, bringing healing and freedom to this tormented boy. What the father, the crowd, and the disciples could not do, Jesus could and did.
It was, too, the majesty of love. When Jesus had healed the lad, He "gave him back to his father." He restored the damaged relationship. He removed the burden of heartbreak out of his love for father and son. Jesus is a savior who unites us to God and to one another.
The majesty of God! What an appropriate phrase to describe the person and work of Jesus Christ. He was more than a man among men, a healer among healers, and a teacher among teachers. He was all that, of course, but infinitely more. He was the eternal Son of God incarnate, bringing greater-than-human resources of sympathy and strength to people's lives. He touched disordered lives and broken hearts with the boundless power of divine love.
Jesus still issues his invitation today. "Bring your son here." Bring your own shattered lives first of all. Then bring your children, bring your spouses, and bring your friends. Bring them in prayer, setting their names and needs before the throne of grace. Bring them in faith, trusting the majesty of God where all the might of man has failed.
Notice that Jesus, while the crowd still marveled "at everything he did," spoke of his coming death. "The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men." He is telling them—and us—that all the benefits of his love and power are grounded upon the cross, are channeled through the cross. In casting out the demon Jesus won a skirmish. It took the cross and resurrection to win the war. His atoning death and risen life has turned a love-power loose in the world that nothing can defeat. His love-power is available to us in our time of need—right here, right now!
Jesus talked to His disciples about the cross, "but they did not understand." At this point they didn't really understand who Jesus was or what Christianity is. Do we understand? His transmitter was perfect, but their receivers were defective. Are ours? What were the barriers to understanding Jesus then? What are they now?
1. One barrier to understanding was self-assertion.
"An argument arose among them as to which was the greatest" (v. 46). What a candid portrait this paragraph of Scripture provides. Look at the disciples, who have crowded into the center. Red-faced and impatient, they are shoving one another, and each is pointing to himself.
One is likely saying, "I'm the oldest." Another is claiming, "I'm the smartest." Another, "I'm the richest." "I'm the most gifted." "I'm the most popular." Each is staking a claim to recognition, certain that he is qualified to be number one in the kingdom of Christ.
And in the background is a cross! Jesus has spoken to them of his approaching death (v. 44). And in the foreground is a child. Jesus took a child and said, "Whoever receives this child in my name receives me...he who is least among you is the one who is great" (vv. 47-48). In the kingdom of God, the great are those who endure crosses and receive children. The great are those who sacrifice themselves for others, even for children who can do nothing in return to promote the careers and fortunes of those who have received them.
Only in the light of the cross and the child can we ever understand Jesus Christ. Self-assertion blinds us.
2. A second barrier to understanding was self-protection.
The disciples had seen a man "casting out demons" in the name of Jesus, and now they report, "We forbade him, because he did not follow with us" (v. 49).
Here is another candid portrait. The disciples still hold the center, and they join hands to shut out this unauthorized and uninvited exorcist. On one side stand happy and liberated people; on the other side stands a puzzled and rejected exorcist.
Pride must be guarded by intolerance. Privilege must be vested. If anyone can do what we are doing, how can we preserve our status? So the circle must be closed, and the privilege protected, by those who want to control the channel by which divine benefits come to human lives.
Jesus forbids the disciples to question the credentials of this anonymous exorcist. The good works were sufficient credentials in themselves. "He that is not against you is for you."
The jealousy for status that would use church or creed or custom to close the circle makes it impossible to understand Jesus. We must love him enough to rejoice in the success of all who do his work. Exclusiveness is just as destructive of spiritual life as is carnal ambition. Self-protection blinds.
3. A third barrier to understanding was self-vengeance.
The disciples sought room and board in a Samaritan village and were refused. James and John said, "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" (v. 54).
Self-importance not only breeds intolerance; it spawns indignation. How vivid is this snapshot! Men are standing before their doors, barring entrance to their homes, and lines of bigotry and hatred seam their faces. And the same sullen, menacing features mark the disciples of Jesus. Those who had refused to welcome an outsider now resent being treated as outsiders.
"Consume them!" That is the strategy of the self-assertive and the self-protective. What a contrast to their clamor for vengeance is the prayer of Jesus from the cross: "Father, forgive them." Those are our choices, consume or forgive. Evil for evil, or good for evil are our options. Evil for evil only perpetuates evil. Good for evil breaks the vicious cycle and creates the possibility of new and happy relationships.
Jesus said, "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of." Our spirits must become like his, or we will never understand him. Selfishness must die and love must be enthroned. His spirit must control our lives. Our ambition, jealousy and hatred must give place to his self-giving, forgiving love. Let the barriers fall! As a flood lifts and bears away the debris that chokes a stream, let the Holy Spirit overflow your life and cleanse you from the sin that darkens understanding.
The smug, worldly, complacent lives of thousands who claim to be Christians are insults to Christ. The idea that a person can be his disciple without renouncing sin, bearing crosses, lifting burdens and being spent in service is utterly foreign to the New Testament.
Jesus subjected to stern tests those who offered discipleship. Three of those tests are located in these closing paragraphs of Luke 9. As we look at them let us dare to examine ourselves.
1. The first test is privation.
To a would-be follower Jesus said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (v. 58).
Jesus was an itinerant rabbi and not always welcomed into people's homes. Following him could mean sleeping on the ground and bearing the indignity of rejection. He calls his followers to a life of discipline and self-denial.
The test of privation is a challenge in the area of our relationship to things. What are you willing to give up at the command of Christ? Can you give up home, lands, goods, everything you own, and remain true to Jesus and loyal to his mission? Can the Lord requisition anything you possess for his kingdom?
The Bible is a portrait gallery of those who passed and those who failed this test of privation. Job passed it. He lost his herds, flocks, and even his children in a swift succession of disasters, but he exclaimed in faith, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Those first disciples of Jesus Christ passed this test also. An unnamed rich young ruler failed it, turning his back on Jesus because he was captive to his wealth. What about you and me?
2. A second test is priority.
To a man who hesitated to follow him, Jesus said, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (v. 60).
This man offered a deferred allegiance. When his father was dead and the estate was settled, then he would live for Christ. There were spiritually dead who could bury the physically dead, Jesus said. Kingdom work was urgent; it could not wait.
The test of priority challenges our relationship to people. Who has first place in your life, God or family or friends? "Jesus is Lord." He will not share the throne of your heart with another.
Jesus told a story about a man who excused himself from "a great banquet" saying, "I have married a wife." Many people refuse to be Christians out of fear of offending family or friends. They want to serve Christ only when it is popular. The social circle can become a noose, strangling one's spiritual aspirations. Does Jesus come before all others in your affection and allegiance?
3. The third test is perseverance.
"No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (v. 62).
The man to whom Jesus spoke these words had seemingly accepted the call to discipleship. Second thoughts shook him up, however. His request to "say farewell" to the family was an adroit way of easing out of what looked like a bad deal. Serving Christ can be a grind. Kingdom work is plow work, hard work, and temptations come to quit the field and go back to an easier life. Moral cowards and religious quitters will never survive the long haul.
Are we fair-weather or all-weather Christians? Do we shine on parade but desert in battle? Christ never reduces his terms—he will be all in all or nothing at all to us.
The price is great but the rewards are far greater. Faithful disciples will discover that Christianity is more than cross bearing, self-denial and hard work. It is also joy, peace and eternal life.
A Marine officer named Hawkins inspired unusual confidence in his men. When it was necessary for one of them to remain on ship during the invasion of Tarawa, during World War II, not one would volunteer to stay behind. Hawkins died in that battle, surrounded by enemies and fighting ferociously to the last. Hearing of his death the Marines openly wept. One of them said, "He was the greatest guy in the world. I would follow him into any battle."
That is how real Christians feel about Jesus Christ. He is the greatest leader of all history. We would follow him into any battle for the joy of being at his side and sharing his cause.
I must ask a parting question. It was asked long ago in derision. I ask it in utter sincerity. "Will you also be his disciple?"
A "lawyer," one of the Bible experts in Israel, put a test question to Jesus: "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered the question with a question. "What is written in the law? How do your read?" The lawyer responded by quoting the two greatest commandments—love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. The novice teacher gave the veteran lawyer an "A"—“You have answered right; do this and you will live."
At this point the squirming lawyer raised another question. "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus answered by telling one of his unforgettable stories, the story of the Good Samaritan. In doing so, Hhe answered two questions, not just one. Jesus answered the question,
1. Who is my neighbor?
Notice that the neighbor is given not chosen—given in the circumstances of daily life. "A Samaritan, as he journeyed," came upon the victim of armed robbery, a man who was "half dead" from a cruel beating. We like to think that we can choose our neighbors by simply moving into the right neighborhood. But your neighbor is anyone you happen to meet who needs the help you are able to give.
My neighbor is a victim who needs my help, not one who deserves my help. The Samaritan "had mercy on him" without raising any questions about merit—just the way God has had mercy on us all.
The man in the ditch was a victim of injustice. “He fell among robbers." They had no right to abuse his person or steal his property, but they used their strength to exploit his weakness. As Charles Reynolds Brown put it long ago, their philosophy was "What is yours is mine; I'll take it."
The beaten man was also a victim of indifference. A priest and a Levite saw him but "passed by on the other side." Their religion was a matter of rituals and rules, and it did not require them to get involved with this suffering man. My, this old story keeps sounding up-to-date!
The robbed man was also a victim of insufficiency. When the Samaritan had rescued him and had placed him in a roadside inn, he said to the innkeeper, "Take care of him...I will repay you." The victim of crime was not able to foot his own medical bills. His resources were gone, but he was not denied treatment on that account.
Who is my neighbor? The victim—the man who has been exploited, who has been ignored by persons insensitive to his plight, and who is unable to provide for his own immediate needs. Look around, and you will see that neighbors are everywhere!
Besides identifying the neighbor, Jesus answered also the unspoken question,
2. What does it mean to love my neighbor?
According to this probing story, love does. It not merely feels or says but acts. The good Samaritan "proved neighbor to the man." He was marked by "compassion" and not mere sentiment. When Jesus completed this story, he said to the lawyer, "Go and do likewise." It is not enough to love in word; we are commanded by Scripture to love "in deed and in truth." Love is something we do, not just an emotion we feel or a sentiment we speak.
Love gives. The Samaritan cared for the victim without demanding or expecting anything in return.
Love starts where it is, wherever it finds the victim. Some Christians are always planning to do great things for God and humanity after a while and far away. But the love God requires and people need commits us to the present hour and the immediate victim. If you cannot love and serve the man across the street, you will count for little across the ocean.
Love uses what it has, whatever resources are available. Love speaks the language of Peter to the beggar at the temple gate, "I give you what I have." Some people are always talking about what they would do if they had a million dollars, but they don't turn a tap to help suffering people with the few dollars they do control.
To love my neighbor means to give what I have and to do what I can to relieve his suffering, not counting on any return or calculating any profit, but just helping, to the extent of my ability, those who are hurting.
In this story a Samaritan proved neighbor to a Jew. Racial prejudice was overcome in an act of sheer humanity. How solidly this story hits home! The victim of injustice, indifference and insufficiency is usually a member of a minority. Too frequently, instead of helping oppressed minorities, we have sanctified our hatred, rationalized our prejudice, and vilified or murdered those who would speak out and act to help them. May God pity us, and make us more like Jesus. Let us not forget that we were all in the ditch when God sent Jesus into the world to save us.
Martha invited Jesus to her house for dinner. While she rattled the pots and prepared the meal, Mary "sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching." Busy and feeling exploited, Martha said to Jesus, "Tell her to help me."
To her surprise the Lord replied, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."
"One thing is needful." There is a textual difficulty and a problem of interpretation here. What is the "one thing" needful? There are nearly as many answers as there are commentators. One commentator identifies it as Christ, himself. Another insists that Martha lacked self-esteem. And another even interprets the one thing needful as entire sanctification.
The contrast is not between a "Mary" life as opposed to a "Martha" life, a meditative life versus an active life. Rather, the contrast is between the "many things" Martha was attempting and the "one thing" that would have suited the occasion. A "one-dish meal" would have given time for the entire household, including Martha, to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His words.
1. The contrast is between hearing and doing. Both are needed, but hearing comes first.
Unless hearing takes precedence, the doer will become distracted, fretful, selfish and anxious.
We can get at the passage by asking how it functions in the Gospel of Luke. What precedes it? What follows it? It lies between the story of the Good Samaritan and the account of Jesus "praying in a certain place."
Look at the Good Samaritan story. Emphasis throughout is on doing. The lawyer asks, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, who rescues the victim of a violent crime. The story ends with the admonition, "Go and do likewise." And between the initial question and the final answer lie also the words, "do this, and you will live." We could wrongly conclude from this that doing is all that matters, that we are justified by good works. In them we find our true identity, our true security. Doing good works is the only authentic life.
Such an erroneous conclusion is corrected when we meet Martha, for she was a doer extraordinaire. What is more, she is doing for Jesus. Yet Jesus rebukes her fussiness and seeks to realign her priorities. First, listen. Commune with the Lord, and then busy yourself with and for others.
This truth was hidden in the Good Samaritan story all along. "What shall I do?" was answered by "What is written in the law? How do you read?" First you listen. Hearing precedes doing. The Good Samaritan knew the law. The Torah was his Bible. He had really listened to it and now acted out its teachings.
Who was busier than Jesus? It is written of him, "[H]e went about doing good." But we are at once given a glimpse of him at prayer. He is communing with God, listening to his Father, and the wellsprings of his busy life are in that listening.
2. Doing is no substitute for hearing. Hearing is no substitute for doing.
Both are parts of a vital Christian life. But hearing comes first—then doing doesn't distract, upset, unnerve and make us impatient critics of those who do not share our bustling activity.
At the feet of Jesus we learn a lesson of priority. The "good portion" is not what we do for Jesus; it is what he does for us. It is not what we give him; it is what he gives us. He gives us his words to save and to direct our lives.
At the feet of Jesus we also learn a lesson of responsibility. The good portion" was "chosen." Hearing doesn't happen automatically; it requires discipline and decision. We find it easy to get busy at the beginning of the day. without first taking time to listen, to commune, to pray, to tap needed resources of strength, wisdom, patience, and love. We must learn to deliberately choose the good portion.
For many of us, listening can too easily become an excuse to avoid doing. We can spend all our time learning lessons and never practicing the truths we learn. Sitting at the feet of Jesus becomes a way to escape rubbing elbows with the world and ministering to the needs of others.
For others of us, doing can become our excuse for not listening. Listening is harder than doing for many people. Prayer is a more strenuous discipline than are deeds of charity. Therefore, we immerse our lives in constant business and know little or nothing of communion with God.
Like our Lord Jesus Christ, we should be hearers and doers, and we should keep the two in right order and in proper balance.
The disciples of Jesus came to Him one day with this request: "Lord, teach us to pray." In response, Jesus gave them a lesson-prayer, a brief, insightful prayer that has been known for centuries as "the Lord's Prayer."
Here, surely, is life's greatest lesson. When we learn to pray, we learn how to link human needs to divine resources. We learn how to appropriate God's love and power and wisdom for our weak, foolish and beleaguered lives. To pray well, it has been said, is to live well, for prayer can invest life with meaning, strength, peace and joy.
Let's take a look at the Lord's Prayer recorded in Luke's Gospel.
1. The rationale for prayer is here implied.
Why pray? The answer is found in Jesus' example. When the disciples came with their request, "He was praying in a certain place." No one knew God better than Jesus did. No one knew people better than Jesus did. If he who knew God and people needed to pray, surely prayer has urgency and value for each of us. All the philosophical and rational arguments mustered against prayer are shattered by the fact that Jesus Christ was a man of prayer.
Why pray? The answer is found in God's nature. Jesus said, "When you pray, say, `Father...'" God is our Father; he is love desiring communion. He cares for us, and he is concerned about our needs. But he also desires fellowship with us, as a father delights to converse with his children, linking his life closely with theirs. Earth may be a tiny planet, people may be minute creatures, but if God is our Father then size is no indicator of significance. God wants to commune with us.
For these reasons, that Jesus prayed, that God is our Father, prayer is assumed for Christians. Jesus said, "When you pray," not "If you pray."
2. The meaning of prayer is here defined.
Prayer is talking with God. "When you pray, say..." Prayer is saying. Prayer is conversation. Prayer is dialogue. We may not always pray aloud, but prayer always relates us to God as his speech-partners.
Some have reduced prayer to meditation, to thinking about God and people and life. Others would restrict prayer to action, doing things to improve life for others and ourselves. According to Jesus Christ, however, prayer is not thinking or doing but saying. Prayer is conversation with God.
Conversation—how simple! With God—how sublime! A child can pray, for a little child can talk to its father. A learned man or woman can pray, for we never outgrow the need and worth of conversation.
3. The content of prayer is here given.
Prayer has its divine dimensions. Jesus taught us to pray, "Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come." Prayer is concerned with our spiritual lives, with our relationship to God. His name binds up our origin and destiny. His kingdom provides our deliverance from sin, guilt and death. Prayer first of all recognizes God as God, apart from which man cannot be truly man.
Prayer has also its human dimensions. When we call upon our heavenly Father we are not allowed to forget our earthly brothers and sisters. Jesus teaches us to pray, "Give us...forgive us...lead us..." Prayer is concerned with our social lives, with our relationship to others. True prayer is the enemy of selfishness. It keeps us reminded of the ties that bind us to home, nation and church—to all mankind.
Prayer is practical, not ethereal, and not magical. Prayer is concerned with daily needs, with food for our stomachs and forgiveness for our hearts. "Bread" is a symbol of all our physical needs, including the strength to labor, the chance to earn, and the grace to share. "Forgive" is a plea that humbles us with the reminder of our failures. At the same time, it exalts us with the hope of mercy from the Father who welcomes every penitent sinner.
In Luke's Gospel the lesson-prayer is followed by parables and promises that assure us that God answers prayer. "Ask and it will be given you"—because that's how God loves, and that's what prayer does. Prayer links us, in our needs, to God with his infinite resources. Truly prayer, as Jesus taught it, is life's greatest lesson.
When Jesus cast out demons, releasing their human victims for normal living, some marveled at His powers. Others reacted with a stupid, slanderous charge: "He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons." Replying to their malignant nonsense, Jesus said, "If Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?... But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."
These words express our Lord's view of history. History is the arena of conflict between two kingdoms, one divine and the other demonic. In this war, demons are being evicted and defeated by "the finger of God."
As we examine this intriguing figure of speech, consider first
1. The meaning of “the finger of God.”
This phrase occurs three times in the Old Testament, the Bible with which Jesus was so familiar.
In Psalm 8:3 we find these words: "When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers..." Here the activity of God as creator is extolled. The starry heavens are the work of his fingers.
In Exodus 8:19 we read: "And the magicians said to Pharaoh, This is the finger of God." The magicians were referring to the plagues brought upon Egypt as a judgment from God, plagues which finally induced Pharaoh to consent to Israel's escape from bondage. Here the phrase points to the activity of God as redeemer.
The third occurrence is found in Exodus 31:18 in connection with the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. There we read of a covenant etched on "tables of stone, written with the finger of God." The activity of God as legislator is exalted. He is the moral governor of the universe.
In the ministry of Jesus—who is the incarnate Word of God, one with the Father in heaven—“the kingdom of God" comes upon people. In the healing and saving miracles of Jesus, the right and power of God to recreate human life, to redeem human life, and to rule human life is affirmed and confirmed. Jesus Christ, as the total witness of the New Testament makes clear, is the creator and savior and ruler of his people, indeed, of all the world.
From the meaning of this phrase let us move on to consider
2. The might of “the finger of God.”
Jesus scorned the notion that the kingdom of Satan could be destroyed by internal conflict. The battle between Jesus Christ and demonic forces is no civil war. Rather, the kingdom of Satan is assaulted from without and overcome. In this paragraph of Scripture, Satan is described as "a strong man," heavily armed, who guards his own palace. But Jesus Christ is "one stronger," who attacks, disarms and robs Satan. "The finger of God" is stronger than the "armor" of Satan. Jesus Christ can break the power of evil in any life. As an ancient hymn declares,
He breaks the pow’r of cancelled sin;
He set the pris’ner free.
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood avails for me.
In this conflict of the ages there are no neutrals. Listen to the solemn words of Jesus that close this section of Luke's Gospel: He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters."
Are you with Jesus? If so, you are on the winning side. His resurrection was the decisive victory in this warfare. Every battle since is just part of the mopping-up operation. The issue is not in doubt. Satan and his kingdom are defeated and will be destroyed forever when Jesus comes again.
Are you against Jesus? Then you are on the losing side. The finger of God is mightier than the combined powers of hell, mightier than the armed forces of modern nations, and mightier than the puny defiance of your own rebellious heart.
One day the war will end. The victorious Christ will assemble his redeemed people for an everlasting celebration. In that day we will be glad that we got on the winning side.
This is what the gospel is all about—an announcement of the victory of Jesus Christ, "the finger of God," and an invitation to enlist under his banner and to share his triumph.
Jesus told a story about a rich man who had bumper crops and overflowing barns. He pulled down his barns and built larger ones in order to store his grain and goods. Thinking himself secure for many years, he planned a retirement of ease and pleasure. Sudden death canceled those plans.
Society, no doubt, called this man a success. When he was still young enough to work he was rich enough to retire. But God called him "Fool," and when God brands you a fool you are a fool indeed.
What made this man a fool? More to the point, are you a fool? Am I a fool?
1. We are fools if we think all our income belongs to us.
This man talked to himself about "my crops," "my barns," "my grain," "my goods" and even "my soul." His favorite words were "I" and "my." He did not recognize the claims of others upon his assets.
Some of what we possess belongs to the poor. We are set in life as our brothers' keepers. According to Jewish law helping the poor was a responsibility, not a charity. This man gave no hint of any concern for the needy.
Some of what we possess belongs to the government. Government provides services and demands taxes. We must render to Caesar what is Caesar's—and try to help him know where the boundary should lie.
If we are married men, some of what we possess belongs to our wives. Wives help their husbands to earn, and they should have a voice in how those earnings are used.
All of what we possess belongs to God. The rich man was essentially a steward, not an owner, as we all are in the sight of God. "The earth is the Lord's." Apart from his goodness and gifts no crops can grow, no riches can be created. To clutch these gifts while denying the giver is ultimate folly.
Yes, he was a fool because he made himself the center of life, pulling things to his heart with greedy fingers, crying "I" and "my" and "mine" while ignoring the needs of others and the claims of God. If you live like that you are a fool.
2. We are fools if we think we can locate our souls by pointing to our stomachs.
Listen to this man's foolish words: "I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry." With these words he reduced himself to an animal. He denied any spiritual dimension to life, denied any essential relationship to God. He was just a body to be fed and a mind to be entertained, not a spirit to commune with God and prepare for eternity.
An old man complained that all his life he had lived for something to eat and something to wear. Now he was old, sick and unhappy. Nothing he ate agreed with him and nothing he wore looked good on him.
This man was a fool because he was rich where it mattered least and poor where it mattered most, as someone long ago observed. He was rich in goods and poor in goodness. He was rich toward himself and poor toward God. He was rich in things that he could not keep, and poor in those treasures that endure forever.
If you live for things you are a fool.
3. We are fools if we think of this life as the only and best life. The rich man talked of "many years." "But God said to him, 'Fool!' This night your soul is required of you.'" And suddenly he was dead, a wealthy man one moment, a pauper the next. Sudden death brought his complete ruin.
"The fool says in his heart, `There is no God,'" but when he dies he meets the God he denied. The fool says, "There is no hereafter," but when he dies he finds himself in eternity facing the judgment of God. To live for this world alone is stupid and suicidal. We may or may not have many years left in this world, but we have all eternity in which to reap the consequences of our life on earth.
On the outskirts of a Southern town a lovely house was being built. On frequent trips through the area I watched the progress of the building. I learned that a local doctor, who had accumulated wealth, was fulfilling a years-long dream in the construction of that large and lovely residence. He never had the pleasure of living there. Just before it was completed he dropped dead, the victim of a heart attack. Each time I saw the place I thought of Jesus' story of the rich fool.
If God calls you into eternity today, will you stand before him rich or poor? Will you face the judgment as a wise or foolish person? Do you live for God and others, or do you live for self and things?
"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
With this promise Jesus provided a ton of courage and comfort for his followers—and still does today.
The promise is found in the middle of some serious dialogue. The teachings of Jesus are for the home, the street and the market—not for an ivory-tower retreat. Here in Luke 12 he talks about persecution (vv. 4-12), about the pressure of daily needs (vv. 22-31), and about his second coming and its judgment upon our lives (vv. 35-48). Into the pain, stress and anxiety that threatens his church comes this bracing promise: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
1. The promise begins with an assuring command: “Fear not…”
Jesus commands us to fear God. In verse 5 we read, "I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!" We may rightly fear God, who has power of life and death over all persons, who determines our eternal destiny.
Having commanded us to fear the Almighty, Jesus forbids us to fear anyone or anything else. Again and again his words ring out—“Fear not!" "Do not fear those who kill the body" (v. 4) but cannot touch the soul. "Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows" (v. 7), and God who cares for them cares also for you. "Do not be anxious about your life" (v. 22)—God will provide food, raiment and shelter to those who do his will. "Fear not!"
2. The promise proceeds with an apparent contradiction: “little flock….”
In the Greek text there is a double diminutive—“little, little flock." Their disadvantage in numbers and resources is made emphatic. Surely, in the face of this fact, fear would be a reasonable reaction to the mounting pressures of life. No—because the church is a "flock."
A flock is under another's supervision. A flock does not defend itself. The shepherd cares for the sheep. The one who is responsible for us, as we "seek his kingdom," is the Father. God, in all the height and depth and breadth and length of his invincible love and power, owns the church.
When we look around us at life's troubles, or look within us at our weakness, we cannot help but fear. But when we look up to the Father, with his infinite resources all pledged to our help, we can be undaunted. Against the uncertainties of existence is placed the certainty of our Father's caring might, and we have peace in the midst of the storm. We are not exempt from the storms, but we can be at peace while they rage.
3. The promise closes with an adequate explanation: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
The kingdom of God is his rule over all things. It is the exercise of his sovereign power in the execution of his holy purposes. That kingdom is viewed in three ways in the New Testament.
The kingdom of God is a future inheritance. At his coming, Jesus will say to his loyal followers, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." Then and there, "the righteous" will enter into "eternal life" (Matthew 25:34-36).
The kingdom of God is also a present experience. In the words of Paul, it is "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). The kingdom of God means a life transformed by the grace of God that saves from sin.
And the kingdom of God is also a sphere of power, of spiritual authority. "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons," said Jesus, "then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matthew 12:28). The power of God, as it overthrows demonic forces and liberates human life through Jesus Christ, is the kingdom of God.
Now all of this is promised to the disciples of Christ, to the flock of God, to the church. The promise is their assurance and their adequacy for this world and for the next.
This kingdom is given, not earned. We are saved by grace, not by works. But the gift is to be sought. "Seek his kingdom," Jesus said, "and all these things will be yours as well" (v. 31). We are challenged to yield our lives, consciously and deliberately, to God's reign.
Do not fear! Do not fear your enemies, do not fear life's daily pressures, and do not fear the coming judgment. Seek the kingdom that the Father is pleased to give. In that kingdom lies our true identity, our true security.
One of our Lord's most searching parables is called "The Barren Fig Tree." For three years the owner had expected fruit but found none. To the keeper of his vineyard, where the unproductive tree had been planted, he said, "Cut it down." The vinedresser pled, "Let it alone, sir, this year also," and promised to give it special attention and one more chance.
"This year also"—these are solemn words to ponder as we face a new year. Let's apply them to our own lives.
1. The text invites a look backward.
"This year also…” There have been other years, years of mercy in which God has tried to reach us. He sought to produce in our lives the fruit of his kingdom.
God tries to reach us in two ways. One is through the tragedies we experience. The opening verses of this chapter tell of Galileans who were massacred at worship by Roman soldiers, and of workmen killed in a construction accident. According to Jesus, these calamities proclaim a serious message: "Unless you repent you will all likewise perish." This is not to say that God sends the tragedy, but that when tragedy occurs there is meaning in it for us.
The other way God seeks to reach us is through the mercies we receive. The verses following our text record the healing of a woman who had been painfully afflicted for eighteen years. Jesus saw her, called her and delivered her. At the same time he rebuked loveless religious leaders who objected to the miracle because it occurred on the Sabbath.
Tragic deaths and liberated lives become voices for God, calling us to repentance. The years behind us, filled with good and bad, remind us of our need to align our lives with the purpose of God.
2. The text also invites a look forward:
“This year also." The new year is another in the history of God's patience with us. Like those gone before, it will bring additional warning tragedies and pleading mercies. How will we respond to them?
This year could be the last. "Cut it down" may become the divine verdict upon a church, upon the world, or upon our individual lives. This year could witness the return of Christ and the judgment of God upon the evils of mankind.
Life is probation; probation defined by God's call to repentance; probation extended by the gift of another year; probation that will be closed by death and followed by judgment. Time is filled with urgency. The brevity of life and the certainty of death impose upon us a demand for moral action. "This year also" means decision time. "It is time to seek the Lord."
Looking ahead, we don't know what will happen this year. We know what may happen, however, and that is enough to fix our responsibility to God and to our own souls.
3. Finally, the text invites a look inward.
Our circumstances, now tragic, now beneficent, influence our lives, but they do not determine our lives. What we are in relationship to God, to people and to things is always determined from within. Men are not trees. The metaphor breaks down at this point. God has conferred upon his human creatures the awesome power and responsibility of choice. The answer to the new year is really in our hearts.
God may hedge us about with tragedy and mercy. He may plant us in good soil and grant to us the sun and rain of his constant love. But he does not coerce our service. He calls, he influences, but he does not shanghai us into his kingdom.
"This year also" was a warning Israel ignored. "Cut it down" was a judgment they endured. Jesus' last year of ministry ended in the crucifixion. Soon the nation was broken, the city and temple destroyed. Anticipating that tragedy, Jesus summed it up in these pathos-laden words: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold your house is forsaken."
"I would...you would not." The will of a man or woman can be opposed to the will of God. That measure of freedom is mankind's glory, but it can also be mankind's doom.
"This year also." The new year calls you to action, summons you to repentance, and beckons you to align your will with the will of the Lord.
Some one asked Jesus, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" Who framed the question? Was it one of the crowd, expressing contempt for the small group of disciples? Was it one of the disciples, proud to be part of an elite group? Whoever it was, he raised the wrong question. Thinking of salvation as a messianic banquet, his question was, "How large is the guest list?" The answer of Jesus was, in effect, "Just be sure you get in while you can!" The urgent question is not how many will be saved, but will I be among them? "Strive to enter."
Three things are before us in this passage. First is
1. The striving.
To all who would enter his kingdom, Jesus says, "Strive to enter...for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." Strivers, not seekers, will be saved.
Does this mean that striving saves? Is salvation a reward for moral effort? No. The "householder" spreads the feast, issues the invitations, and opens the door. It is all of his grace.
But only those in earnest will hear and obey and enter. What finally condemns men is not their deep sins but their shallow responses to what Jesus provided by "journeying toward Jerusalem," there to die for our sins.
We do not strive against God, compelling him, by our heroic good actions, to open the door. God is more eager to save than we are to be saved. No, we must strive against ourselves, against our indifference towards sin, against our attachment to the world, against all that marks the spiritual lethargy and apathy of fleshly lives.
If you would enter the kingdom, be in earnest about it. "Strive to enter." We see also in this passage
2. The strangers.
There are some to whom the Lord will say at last, "I do not know where you come from."
Knocking in vain upon the closed door, the sub-earnest are depicted here as pleading on the basis of a superficial acquaintance: "We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets." But casual recognition of the Lord is no substitute for personal relationship to him.
The casual recognition, however, testifies to an opportunity that was sadly forfeited. He had been in their streets. They had been in his presence. His word of grace had sounded forth to them, calling them to repent and be forgiven, offering unto them the gift of eternal life. They did not take that word seriously. They were concerned only for their eating and drinking—unwilling to have their physical and social lives disturbed by his moral demands. This has been true in every age and place where the gospel has been preached.
The doom of the sub-earnest is awful. "Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity." The words point to an eternal separation from the Lord. Trying to save ourselves by working only deepens the guilt that leads to this doom. All of our attempts to make our own doors into the kingdom are expressions of a pride that refuses the gift of the King's open door.
One day that door, now open, will be shut. One day the Christ, who now says, "Come to me," will say, "Depart from me." Invitation spurned becomes invitation withdrawn. Our excuses become our epitaphs. Our delays become our destruction. One must be in earnest, for the door to salvation will not always be open. Don't be a stranger to Christ in that day!
One thing more: The passage also contains
3. The surprises.
Perhaps the most shocking words of Jesus are these—“You yourselves thrust out."
Whoever put the question—“Lord, will those who are saved be few"—expected two things: One, that he would be among those saved; two, that all the saved would be Jews. Jesus makes it clear that the guest list includes Jews and Gentiles alike. Response to the gospel will be worldwide. But some who were sure that they would enter the kingdom will be excluded—even some of the children of Abraham.
The love and power of Jesus are sufficient for the salvation of all persons. Nevertheless, some will not be saved, for in their pride or sloth or unbelief some will wait too late.
The message is clear and urgent. The feast of the kingdom has been provided. Invitations to persons everywhere have been issued. "The world, the flesh, and the devil" seek to deceive and distract those who should be earnestly responding to Christ. One day the door will be closed by the same hand that opened it and the opportunity will be lost. Jesus is saying, "Get in while you can."
Jesus was careless about his company. He ate with sinners. In fact, he was so careless that he ate with religious leaders also. Luke 14 tells of such a meal, when Jesus dined with a synagogue official and some of his friends who were "lawyers and Pharisees."
Jesus is the center of any gospel incident, and statements beginning "He" are the primary carriers of truth. But there is much to learn, also, in the study of other people's reactions to Jesus. In this passage, let's focus our attention on the statements beginning "They."
1. “They were watching him…”
A sick man was present, the victim of dropsy. These religious people kept their eyes on Jesus, expecting him to heal the man. They disapproved any healing that occurred on the Sabbath day. To them, healing on the Sabbath was a violation of the law against working on the Sabbath.
What a disclosure of loveless hearts! They watched for something to disapprove. Jesus did not disappoint these critical watchers. Undaunted by their cold contempt, and scorning their heartless morality which placed human tradition above divine law, Jesus healed the man "and let him go."
Until Jesus healed him, the man had nowhere to go and nothing to do that would not accent and increase his misery. Now he was free! That should have made everyone happy. Not these Pharisees. "They were watching" Jesus in icy, harsh disapproval.
We who are called by Christ's name, can we look on human misery and divine mercy with indifference or scorn? Watching Jesus, those critics saw a man who cared that people were hurt or sick or lost. Do we resemble him or them?
2. “They were silent…”
Before and after the healing Jesus silenced his critics with a question. It was a device by which he sometimes put an end to cavil.
"Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?" They had already ruled that it was unlawful, but in the face of the sufferer's need and the healer's love they could not muster the courage to say "No."
"Which of you, having an ass or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?" They caught at once the condemning logic of our Lord's question. They had loopholes in their laws to protect their own interests. They would rescue one of their own sons, or one of their oxen, but they had no pity on a suffering human who was not in their families and did not serve their purses. Unwilling to change and unable to reply, they simply maintained a sullen silence. The watchers became the pouters.
Well, what about us? Are we more eager to enforce rules than we are to serve people? Have any of our legal and religious traditions become an excuse for withholding ministry to the needy? Are we willing to deny to outsiders the care we give to our children and even to our animals? In the United States, while dogs and cats are pampered, thousands of persons are homeless and hungry. The poor are often unable to get the medical service they need. Is not this gospel story saying something to us about these very conditions?
The story makes some things about Jesus disturbingly clear. To Jesus, people are valued above everything else on earth. To Jesus, all people matter, not just those who belong to a favored race or a privileged class. Is that true of us?
In Jesus we see religion at its purest and best, religion as love that identifies with those who suffer, as power that relieves human misery. James, who calls himself, "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ," wrote these challenging words: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). He learned that from the example and teaching of Jesus Christ.
In the critics of Christ we see religion at its worst. They were smug, selfish and sanctimonious despisers of the poor and hurting. Their religion was only a matter of rituals and rules.
As we face human needs today, are we watchers of Jesus or followers of Jesus? Are we his critics or his helpers?
Jesus journeyed toward his cross and "great multitudes accompanied him." He was too wise to equate popularity with success. "He turned" and challenged would-be followers to count the cost of discipleship. He did not leave them to guess at that cost, but told them frankly what it was. It thinned out the crowd, but Jesus knew that what kind was more important than how many.
Jesus Christ has never reduced the cost of discipleship. He offers no markdowns, no bargains.
1. The cost of discipleship is our all.
All that we are, all that we have, without exception, without exclusion, must be placed under his lordship. In words that sound almost harsh Jesus sets forth that cost:
”If any one 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. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
That word "hate" has troubled commentators. Jesus' words may puzzle us, but his meaning is crystal clear: Christ above others, however dear those others are to us.
We have tried to reduce the meaning of "cross." It does not stand for the denial of trifles to oneself. It does not refer to the patient endurance of irritating people and circumstances. The cross was a means of execution. It stood for death, stark and ugly death. Here again, the cost is clear: Christ above life, however prized life may be.
To be his disciples, then, means that we do not deny by compromise his lordship over us, not in order to get along with loved ones, not even to save our lives.
2. Would-be disciples are warned to count the cost.
Two parabolic sayings enforce the caution. The first concerns a foolish builder. He ran out of money and had to abandon the project. The second concerns a king who blunders into battle with an inferior army. He is forced to surrender and to sue for peace. In economic and political affairs, Jesus is saying, wise men count the cost of finishing what they begin. So should those who pledge allegiance to him as Lord of their lives.
The trail of church history is strewn with failures and deserters. Many began who never finished. They proved to be fair-weather disciples. They did not count the cost of going through to the end with Christ. When the way got hard, lonely and demanding they backed away from their half-hearted commitments.
The Marines have a saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." Something of that spirit must mark the disciple of Jesus Christ. He or she is on the journey until the destination is reached, no matter how difficult the trip may be.
3. The cost of discipleship reflects the value of our Lord’s mission.
Jesus Christ is erecting a building. "Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." He intends to finish that building. He must have workmen who cannot be bought off, who cannot be scared off, and who will not goof off.
Jesus Christ is also fighting a battle. He died in order to destroy the power of death, and to deliver those who were in bondage through fear of death. He was manifested to destroy the works of the devil. The very gates of hell are arrayed against the mission of Jesus. He must have an army, therefore, who will not turn their backs to the foe. His soldiers must not quit the field of battle in order to spare themselves from wounds and death.
Because his mission has eternal consequences, Jesus wants as his disciples only those who are willing to live for him through thick and thin. He wants those who will stand for him even when their loved ones reject him. He wants those who will give themselves for his mission if it takes their lives. To be his disciple means to sign a quitclaim deed to our lives, and to put everything that we are and have under his command.
Those who fail to follow him to the end, Jesus tells us, are like salt that has lost its salinity—good for nothing. That is our choice, to be good for something with him, or to be good for nothing without him.
What an unpredictable and disturbing guest Jesus could be! Once he attended a dinner and rebuked the pushy manners of other guests who were scrambling for "places of honor." Then he told the host that the wrong crowd had been invited. Instead of those who could reciprocate the invitation, he should have invited "the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind." Then, Jesus added, "You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."
Hearing this, a man nearby blurted out, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God."
In response, Jesus told the story recorded in our text, the story I want to discuss with you now. Three elements in that story call for comment. The first is
1. The great banquet.
“A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.'"
The kingdom of God is described as a feast. Life in the kingdom is not grim, empty and repressive as some people suppose. To live for Christ is to have joyful fellowship with God and his people.
God has spread a glorious feast of reconciliation and communion. Gospel preaching is God's way of issuing his invitations. Through the gospel, he is saying to us all, "Come." Come and be forgiven. Come and have fellowship. Come and enjoy life that is abundant and eternal.
This brings us to another crucial element in Jesus' story, namely,
2. The rejected invitation.
Those on the guest list, instead of rushing to the banquet, "began to make excuses." One said, "I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it." Another said, "I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them." A third said, "I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come."
The host responded with anger, for these excuses were patently foolish and false. You don't buy first and examine later, not if you have good sense. And you don't start married life under your wife's thumb, not if you have good sense. The excuses made evident the dislike of those invited for the banquet-giver.
When men reject the gospel, when they spurn a chance to enter the kingdom of God, there is one reason. There may be many excuses, but there is just one reason—hostility to God. They prefer their way to his, their sins to his salvation. As John puts it, they love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.
The rejected invitation led to
3. The forfeited opportunity.
The angry householder told his servant to comb city streets and country roads and bring to the feast "the poor and maimed and blind and lame." He wanted a full house. God enjoys company! And then he said, "I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet."
To reject the gospel is a serious matter. To refuse the kingdom of God is spiritual suicide. An old commentary by Matthew Henry carries a statement on this passage that needs to be heard again today:
The ingratitude of those that slight gospel offers, and the contempt they put
upon the God of heaven thereby, are a very great provocation to him, and justly so.
Abused mercy turns into the greatest wrath... Grace despised is grace forfeited. They that will not have Christ when they may shall not have him when they would. Even those that were bidden, if they slight the invitation, shall be forbidden.
Banquets are costly to the host. The price of our deliverance from sin is the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The sin of refusing God's invitation must be measured in the light of the value of that death. What a terrible thing it is to treat the sacrificial death of Christ with contempt. Nothing but the severest possible judgment could serve the cause of justice when such an offense is committed.
God is inviting you to his banquet. He is offering you life and peace and fellowship. He is asking you to leave your sins and to enter his kingdom. Don't miss your chance! The invitation you reject can become the opportunity you forfeit.
"Still there is room." There is room for you. "Come; for all is now ready."
The "best" people of his day couldn't understand Jesus. He kept bad company. When "tax collectors and sinners" surrounded him, eager to hear his words, the Pharisees complained, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." What they meant was, "Birds of a feather flock together." "A man is known by the company he keeps." They slandered the character of Christ.
In reply to their slander Jesus filed a libel suit. No, that's what people do today. It keeps lawyers busy and happy. Jesus told three beautiful, grace-filled stories, the stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son.
1. “Lost” is a key word in each story.
A shepherd lost a sheep. A woman lost a coin. A father lost a son. The human condition, in a single word, is lostness.
The sheep strays, nibbling at the grass, unaware of its danger. Over the hill, around the bend, into the brush—and lost.
The coin slips from a woman's fingers, or drops unnoticed from a table, rolls into a dusty corner under a piece of furniture, and is lost.
The son rebels. The restraints of the father's house seem to him a denial of life. He wants to get away, to be on his own, to do as he pleases and not hear anyone say, "No." So he takes his share of the inheritance, flings himself with gusto into a far country, blows his money on fair-weather friends and riotous living, and ends up in a hog pen—tattered, hungry, dirty and lost.
There are many ways of getting lost. Some do so like silly sheep, unintentionally. They stray into evil, not deliberately but carelessly. Their lives are aimless; no moral purpose guides them. They ignore the shepherd and get lost. Others get lost through someone else's carelessness, as did the coin. And like the prodigal son, many are rebellious and resentful. They chafe under discipline and restraint. They want to play God with their own lives, and so they clamor, "Give me." And they get lost.
However it happens, the result is the same. In a field, in a house or in a hog pen, the lost are lost. Like the sheep they are helpless. Like the coin they are useless. Like the son they are unfulfilled and wretched.
2. “Found” is the crowning word in each story.
The shepherd scours the wilderness until he finds the missing sheep.
The woman sweeps the house diligently until she turns up the missing coin.
The father, in patient love, awaits the return of his son. When he sees the lad coming up the road, he rushes to greet him, welcomes him, forgives him and restores him to the joy, peace and security of the household. He treats the ragged, reeking rebel as if he had never sinned.
This is why Jesus received sinners and ate with them. God is not willing for people to be lost. As a good shepherd is unwilling to lose a sheep, as a good wife is unwilling to lose a keepsake, as a good father is unwilling to lose a child, so "God is not willing that any should perish." That's why Jesus came! He came to seek and to save the lost.
The shepherd had to find the sheep, for a lost sheep never tries to find its way back. It just stands and bleats in fright and misery. The woman must find the coin. It lies there unable to change its situation. She must pick it up and put it back herself.
But the son "came to himself." He was more than a sheep or a coin. He was a thinking, feeling, willing person who was responsible for decisions and actions. God does not violate the nature of a creature. If the son is found, he must be willing to leave the hog pen and head for the house. He must resolve to arise and go to his Father. That's what the "tax collectors and sinners" were doing. They drew near to Jesus. They were taking action.
And so must you. The gospel summons you to repent, to turn from sin, to call upon the name of the Lord. You will not be saved because you do these things. Your moral efforts do not merit salvation, but you will not be saved unless you do these things. God does not force himself upon your life. A terrifying truth is this: you can die in the far country. A comforting truth is this: you can come home to God.
"This man receives sinners." No greater tribute was ever paid to Jesus Christ. I want to make it personal: This man received me, a lost sinner, and forgave my sins and changed my life. He will receive you.
We are exploring the fifteenth chapter of Luke. Three marvelous stories are found there, stories from the lips of Jesus, the master storyteller of all time. They are told in response to the murmuring of religious leaders who thought Jesus was a bad man because he was surrounded by "tax collectors and sinners."
The stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son tell why Jesus kept such company. He was seeking and saving the lost, and in so doing he was revealing the heavenly Father's heart toward sinners.
1. The stories strike a joyful note.
When the sheep was found the shepherd rejoiced. He was so relieved and happy that he called in his friends and neighbors to share his joy. Just so, said Jesus, heaven rejoices over every sinner who repents.
The coin was found and the woman called in her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Again, the situation that is normal to earth describes the celebration that takes place in heaven when one sinner repents.
The son was found and the father called for music and dancing, for feasting and drinking. He pitched a party to celebrate the restoration of a broken family circle. The joy that filled his heart required an exuberant outlet.
In every case, all who know about the finding of the lost are expected to share the rejoicing. Celebration was the only right response, the only adequate response, to the situation. But suddenly, at this point,
2. One story strikes a jarring note.
Grumbling is heard. The elder brother, instead of rejoicing, became angry and resentful. He refused to join the party.
The prodigal son represents the sinners who surrounded Jesus. The elder son represents the Pharisees who slandered our Lord. What does this surly, unforgiving attitude say about them? They loved sheep and money but not people. They were greedy, selfish, materialistic men. Despite their religious rules and rituals they were essentially worldly.
As Luke has earlier recorded, certain religious leaders objected to the healing of a woman on the Sabbath, yet they would rescue an ox on that day. Oxen, sheep, money—these represent opportunities for gain. They are status symbols for those who count success in terms of what a person makes and keeps for himself.
The elder son was loveless. He refused to acknowledge the returned prodigal as his brother. Twice the father said, "Your brother." Each time the elder son flung back in anger, "This son of yours"! And he assumed the worst about his brother, asserting suspicions as facts, accusing him of having blown his money "with harlots."
Though he never left home, the elder son was as far from the father's heart as the younger son had been from the father's house. "God is love." The loveless are godless. He who does not love, and does not rejoice when sinners are converted, knows nothing of God. The far country is not geographically remote; it can be spiritually far. So one lad came home and was found. The other stayed home and was lost. The father said, "It was fitting to make merry and be glad." No other response is appropriate to the nature of God and the meaning of reconciliation. To respond by grouching and grumbling reveals a religion without love, a religion without God.
Jesus places all of us in his stories. Look closely—you are there.
Perhaps you are the lost one, the sheep in the wilderness, the coin out of circulation, the son in the far country. If you are lost, The Lord wants you found. He takes no delight in your ruin; he sacrificed himself to save you.
Perhaps you are the found one, borne on the shepherd's shoulder, held in the woman's hand, welcomed to the father's house and its merry fellowship. God forgives and forgets. He forgives and celebrates. You are welcomed home, so don't live in the shadow of far-country memories.
Perhaps you are the friend or neighbor who can celebrate on earth what is celebrated in heaven—the rescue of the lost. God grant you many occasions for the release of that joy!
Perhaps you are the elder son, coldly self-righteous, knowing only the unsatisfying rigor of a legalistic religion, and resentful over the joy of the returned prodigal. If so, for all your religion you are lost. Your heart is far from God. He calls you to repent and find pardon. Then you will know joy, the joy expressed in heaven.
Do you love the Father? Do you love your brother? Do you love yourself? If you do, friend, join the party!
The purpose of this story, as someone has remarked, is not to describe the furnishings of heaven or the temperature of hell. It belongs to Luke's polemic against the selfish rich, against materialism and sensualism that wears religion like a cloak. It challenges a popular notion, the idea that wealth can be equated with divine favor.
"Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed." These words of Abraham can serve as a handle for grasping the message of this story. The Lord Jesus describes two great chasms.
1. A material chasm existed on earth.
We read of "a rich man" and "a beggar." One is in purple, the other in patches. One feasted, the other starved. One enjoyed health, the other endured disease. One was surrounded by admiring friends, the other by prowling dogs.
The beggar's name was Lazarus, which means, "God is my friend." Some friend! He allows poor Lazarus to suffer and die within sight of all that could have relieved his misery. Is that friendship? Wait. Let us hold our tongues. God works through people to help people in this world. The rich man should have relieved the poor man. We blame God for the evils that oppress and consume the poor, but those evils come from the self-indulgent and loveless hearts of men.
God does befriend the "have-nots." He champions the poor, the oppressed and the exploited who cannot help themselves. The face of God is against all the crime and misery produced by the tragic imbalance of wealth in our world.
Mother Teresa, who labored for the poor of her nation, once told the prime minister of Canada that he should buy cheaper clothes and give more money to help the needy. Mother Teresa mirrors the attitude of God toward the economic chasm in society. The haves should help the have-nots, but as a friend of mine has put it, the problem lies with the give-nots.
A material chasm yawned between rich man and beggar on earth, but
2. A spiritual chasm existed beyond death.
"The beggar died...the rich man also died...” The beggar went to heaven; the rich man went to hell. Lazarus was comforted; the rich man was tormented.
How awful is the place called hell! The fire of which Jesus speaks may be figurative, but the anguish is literal. Twice the place is described as one of "torment" and twice the resulting "anguish" is mentioned.
How delightful is heaven! It is a place of fellowship, and it brings comfort and satisfaction.
Why did the beggar go to heaven? Not because he was poor. Why did the rich man go to hell? Not because he was rich. Our Lord did not tell this story to sanctify poverty or to condemn wealth. After all, "Abraham's bosom" was a metaphor for paradise, and Abraham was a man of wealth himself. Then why did they come to their contrasting destinies? Jesus makes the reasons clear.
The rich man closed his mind to the word of God. He had "Moses and the prophets" to tell what God was like, how riches should be used, and where to find forgiveness of sins. In spite of these clear directives, he did not "repent."
The rich man also closed his heart to the needs of men. The beggar at his gate was God's way of trying to save them both, to save the poor man from hunger and the rich man from hell. But God was slandered by the popular notion that riches proved his favor. If wealth was a sign of God's approval, obviously the rich man deserved his luxury and the poor man deserved his misery. Believing what his unloving heart wanted to believe, the rich man hoarded his wealth and squandered his soul.
He was in hell because he was loveless and selfish, and because he refused to repent when the word of God rebuked his loveless heart and indulgent life.
By implication, Lazarus was in heaven only because he repented of his sins and believed the word of God.
Each of us is headed toward heaven or hell. A sign of our direction is our relationship to people and things. Are we willing to make a heaven on earth for ourselves while we create or tolerate a hell on earth for others?
No one must be lost in hell. The cross of Jesus Christ has bridged the great chasm between a holy God and sinful people. The "word of the cross" comes to us, saying, "Repent, believe on Jesus Christ, and be saved from the selfishness, greed and ease which lead to hell."
An old saying declares that in this life only two things are certain, death and taxes. Sometimes they seem to be joined in unholy wedlock and people feel they are being taxed to death. Jesus would add another sure thing: "Temptations to sin are sure to come." When they do, some will yield to them, setting up the situation described in our text.
1. Jesus speaks of a terrible sin.
To tempt another to sin is itself an awful sin. Indeed, it is satanic. The Bible declares that "God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one" (James 1:13). Throughout Scripture, Satan is "the tempter," the enemy of God and people. To play the tempter is to adopt Satan's role, the adversary's role. The tempter opposes God and opposes the welfare of the one who is tempted. Tempting another is demonic.
It is also suicidal. Listen to these strong words from Jesus: “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin." Such drowning as Jesus describes was a form of capital punishment in ancient times. Something worse will be the fate of those who do the devil's work.
You cannot destroy another without destroying yourself. It would be better to drown yourself than to tempt another. You cannot tempt another to sin without thereby sinning yourself. And you cannot sin without dying, for "the wages of sin is death." I must make an exception to what I just said. You cannot sin without dying unless you repent and receive forgiveness from God. The only escape from sin and death is the forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Having warned against a terrible sin,
2. Jesus speaks of a difficult duty.
"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times and says, `I repent,' you must forgive him."
To rebuke a brother is hard. Our love for a brother makes us reluctant to cause him pain by rebuking his sins. We had rather endure pain than inflict pain. When we are sinned against, it is often easier to suffer in silence than to rebuke the one who has wronged us. But the Bible says, "Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend." Sometimes the most faithful, loving and friendly thing we can do is rebuke sin. Otherwise, our silence will cause the sinning brother to feel justified in what he has done.
Yes, to rebuke a brother is hard, but to forgive a brother is even harder. Often we find it easier to forgive our enemies than to forgive our brothers. We expect more from a brother. Our disappointment is greater, therefore, when a brother sins against us. When wounds are deep, forgiveness is hard. To forgive others, we must remind ourselves that we live by forgiveness, the forgiveness that comes from God and from those against whom we have sinned. The forgiven have no right or reason to withhold forgiveness.
To rebuke a brother is hard; to forgive a brother is even harder; to continue to forgive is hardest of all. An act of forgiveness is one thing; a spirit of forgiveness is another. To be sinned against repeatedly and still go on accepting and forgiving the offender calls for a patient love that is only possible to us by the grace of God. Jesus makes it clear that we are to set no limits upon our forgiveness.
No wonder the disciples exclaimed, "Increase our faith." The major problem, however, is not one of faith. A little faith can achieve great things, for it is the object of faith and not the size of faith that matters. Faith as small as mustard seed, because its object is the almighty God, can achieve miracles. What is called for in the situation that Jesus describes is a great love. Faith uproots trees and moves mountains, but "love covers a multitude of sins."
Do you need forgiveness? Confess your sins to God, trust in Jesus Christ, and you will have pardon and peace.
Do you need to forgive? Remember that God loves you, and for Christ's sake he has freely forgiven all your sins. Show that love to those who have wronged you. Forgive, even as you have been forgiven.
This passage of Scripture forces two questions upon us. What is our relationship to God? What is our relationship to others?
In chapter 10 of Luke's Gospel we have the story of the Good Samaritan, one of the best known and hardest hitting stories Jesus ever told. In chapter 17 there is a lesser known story, but one with tremendous significance, the story of the Grateful Samaritan.
It opens with the words, "On the way to Jerusalem." In this Gospel, that means "on the way to the cross." Jesus had "set his face to go to Jerusalem" in order to die for our sins (9:51). Along the way he met and healed ten lepers. That is what his journey was all about. He went to his death in order that we might have life.
Two matters here are of special interest. The first is
1. A strange union.
"He was met by ten lepers." One of them is called "this foreigner." He was a Samaritan, which implies that the other nine were Jews. In that day Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
Jesus once asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. She responded in surprise, "’How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."
On this very journey to Jerusalem, Christ and his disciples had sought lodging for a night in "a village of the Samaritans." They were refused. The disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume the inhospitable people. Hatred between Jews and Samaritans was centuries long and blood deep.
But leprosy, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. "Misery loves company," runs an ancient adage. Those who are sick often breach barriers honored by those who are well. Wracked by pain and menaced by death, people become aware of their common humanity. Whatever divides us—race, culture, religion, politics—we have in common our sin, guilt and death—our leprosy.
"Master, have mercy," cried the lepers. Luke's word for master accents a note of authority. Here power is wedded to pity. The world knows very little of that. Power without pity creates political machines that grind the poor. Power without pity makes bombs that incinerate the innocent. In Jesus Christ these lepers sensed a rare union of might and love, and in this unusual combination they saw hope for new life.
Jesus responded in love and with power. And now there enters into the story
2. A sad division.
"As they went they were healed"—all ten of them. But "one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks."
Credit the nine as much as possible. They obeyed Jesus, and many do not. They trusted his words, and many do not. But the Lord raises a poignant question: "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?" He was plainly disappointed. They should have returned also. They should have given thanks also. The human heart can be swift to pray, slow to praise. The nine had seized the gift and had promptly forgotten the giver.
The division here extends to their healing. The Lord's words to the grateful Samaritan, "Your faith has made you well," point to a deliverance beyond the cleansing from leprosy. The words point to his inclusion in the kingdom of God, which had come in the person and work of Jesus Christ (vv. 20-21). The healing of the nine was skin deep; it left them in the old age of sin and death. The healing of the Samaritan was soul deep; it placed him in the new age of salvation and life.
As we consider this story, what is it saying to us?
It tells us that Christ is for everyone. World mission is the inescapable logic of his love for people of all races.
It tells us that our life comes through his death. Because he went to the cross, we can come to the Father.
It tells us that our thanks are his due. In view of what Christ has done for us, our rightful place is at his feet in thanksgiving.
There is leprosy of the spirit. One of its terrible symptoms is ingratitude. He who touched leprous flesh with power to make it whole can deliver us from sin and from that death of the spirit to which sin leads. On the way to Jerusalem, the savior has come to where we are. Our prayers for mercy can form a junction with his words of deliverance. There miracles of new life can occur. When they do, praise and thanksgiving becomes our duty and our delight.
Jesus aimed this parable at Pharisees who trusted in themselves, in contrast to a tax collector who trusted in God. The two had several things in common. Both were in the temple, both were at prayer, both were before God. But everything crucial is set in contrast, so that the parable's closing words contain the phrase, "rather than the other." Let's look for a few moments at each of these men.
1. One man was a Pharisee.
Jesus said, "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself." The phrase could be translated "facing himself." He didn't look up to God as he prayed; he looked at himself.
He liked what he saw. He saw a man who prayed, who fasted, who tithed, and who, in doing these things, exceeded the demands of the law and the customs of his fellows.
Certainly, these things which he did were not wrong in themselves. His motive for doing them and for rehearsing them was wrong. He did them to vindicate himself. He paraded his piety in an effort to impress God. His actions were good but his motive was reprehensible. The parable doesn't tell us to quit praying or to recover our money from the offering plates. It does compel us to ask ourselves why we pray, fast and tithe.
He liked what he saw, and he liked what he didn’t see. “I am not like other men," he boasted. He was not an extortioner—not greedy, not a "soul-snatcher." He was not unjust; he did the right things; he measured up—to his own yardstick. He was not an adulterer; he was faithful to his wife (poor woman!).
Thus he prayed, ticking off his positive and negative qualities. He was congratulating God for having such a noble servant upon the earth. As he faced himself, however, he saw only the surface image. Inwardly, he was cold, haughty, loveless and self-righteous. He possessed a deep hatred for all that did not measure up to his standards. He was a whitewashed tomb, as Jesus puts it elsewhere, outwardly righteous and inwardly corrupt.
2. The other man was a tax collector.
The publican stood "far off," not far off from God but far off from the Pharisee. He would not intrude himself upon the man who despised him. As poet John Tabb said,
One nearer to the altar trod,
The other to the altar’s God.
"He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven." He was filled with a sense of shame in the presence of God. He felt the oppressive weight of his sin, failure and unworthiness.
He "beat his breast," as if he were trying to force from it a reluctant confession. Human pride is not easily kayoed.
His prayer was brief and intense: "God be merciful to me a sinner." The Greek text contains a definite article—“the sinner." He felt himself to be the worst of sinners. His only hope was the sheer mercy of God. In a later time he might have sung,
I nothing have and nothing am,
My glory’s in the bleeding Lamb.
The Lord said, "This man went down to his house justified." As Paul was later to write, God "justifies the ungodly." God accepts and forgives those who admit they are sinners, those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. We are saved by faith, not by works. If we boast of our moral achievements and trust in ourselves, we remain condemned by the very sins we refuse to recognize.
While these two men are seen and heard at prayer, the parable is essentially a parable of justification, not of prayer. It was told by Jesus to remind us that we cannot put God in debt to us by our good deeds. Actions are no better than the motives that underlie them. When we do good, expecting thereby to establish a claim on God's favor, our motives debase our acts and destroy their moral value. All have sinned, and only by faith in the Christ who died for our sins will any of us be justified.
As Jesus closes this story, he appends a penetrating aphorism: "For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." The way up is down. As Sam Jones put it, "No man ever got saved bragging on himself."
When you go home from church, do you go justified or condemned? The answer depends upon whether you trust in yourself or in God.
"Good Teacher," said the young ruler to Jesus, "what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" His words were polite but inadequate.
No "Good Teacher" has authority to establish the conditions for "eternal life." Only God can do that. So far from disclaiming deity, Jesus here affirms oneness with God that allowed him to speak as God to this young ruler.
When Jesus does speak, he imposes absolute claims upon this man's life, claims that only God has a right to make. Here Jesus does not advise as a teacher; here he commands as God.
Let's look at this inquirer, then, as a man before God. And in the light of this passage of Scripture, let us look at ourselves in the same way.
1. He had many things.
He had money. "He was very rich." He had what most people regard as the solution to their problems—wealth.
He had power. Luke calls him "a ruler." Here again, he had what seems so vitally important to most people—influence over the lives of others. He made the sheep bleat and the frogs jump.
He had youth. This we learn from Matthew's account of this incident (19:22). The fortunes we spend on efforts to revive our youth or to camouflage our age indicate the high place we assign to youth in our scale of social values.
He had scruples. When Jesus quoted a number of the commandments, the young man claimed to have obeyed them from boyhood. He had kept his life morally clean. He had avoided the grosser sins often associated with riches, such as lies, thefts and adulteries.
He had opportunity. He was face to face with the Lord Jesus. He had crossed trails with the one who reveals God to mankind and redeems mankind from sin. He was at the gate of new life in this encounter with Jesus.
Yes, he had many things, but
2. He lacked one thing.
I am not sure that many others would have thought so. I am quite certain that most of his contemporaries would have said, "Lucky fellow—he has everything!" But Jesus knew him and said, "One thing you still lack."
That one thing had two elements.
The first was submission to Jesus as Lord. "Come, follow me," Jesus challenged. Jesus was saying, in effect, "You cannot determine your own life. You cannot have your own way. You cannot play God over your days and things and friends. If you want eternal life, submit to my lordship."
The second element of the one thing lacking was service to human needs. "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." Following Jesus is not a matter of private morality; it is a matter of social concern. Jesus does not say to him, "Confess your sins, say your prayers, read your Bible, pay your tithes, and attend your synagogue." No, he says, "give to the poor." The scandal of too many evangelical churches has been their unscriptural divorce of personal morality from social activity.
There is no eternal life without this one thing that had two elements.
The one thing lacking could not be simply added to the many things possessed. "Sell all that you have," Jesus demanded. The ruler was eager to have eternal life, but he wanted it as an addition to what he already possessed. He wanted it as a part of his portfolio of assets. Jesus aims at nothing less than the restructuring of our total lives by becoming Lord in fact and not merely in name.
The ruler had many things but lacked one thing, and then
3. He lost everything.
The phrase Jesus used, "to enter the kingdom of God," makes clear the significance of this encounter. The rich young ruler stood before the gate of the kingdom, but he missed the entrance.
He missed the gate to joy. "He became sad." Joy is not produced by wealth and power but by a right relationship to God.
He missed the gate to life. He forfeited "in the age to come eternal life"—unless he later reversed his foolish decision, renounced his golden idols, and submitted his life to Christ.
He missed the gate to freedom. He was possessed by his possessions. We are never free from what we cannot give up. As long as one seeks his identity and security in what he possesses, he is enslaved to his estate. Only when we are the servants of Jesus Christ are we free from the tyranny of things, people or ourselves.
In the Holy Spirit and through the Scriptures, Jesus confronts each of us today. He invites and challenges us, saying, "Come, follow me." We can be servants of Jesus, who gives life, or servants of things that distort and destroy life.
The issue before us is God or self, life or death, joy or sorrow. Remember, we choose for "this time" and for "the age to come."
"A blind man was sitting by the roadside begging." With these words Luke introduces us to Bartimaeus, one of the many persons healed and saved by Jesus of Nazareth.
Bartimaeus was "sitting by the roadside begging." In that day, at that place, what else could a blind man do to keep body and soul together? So the story begins with a blunt description of desperate need. Need, prayer, and deliverance—these are the bones of the incident. Let's examine them briefly.
The plight of Bartimaeus is summed up in two words. He was "blind" and "begging." In the land of Israel sunlight is brilliant and fierce. But in this region bathed with piercing light, Bartimaeus lived in utter, lonely darkness. The shadow cast upon his spirit was deeper than the shadows of giant rocks that marked the sun-drenched land, for he was reduced to the indignity of helpless dependence upon others.
Out of this depressing plight, Bartimaeus lifted an earnest plea.
"Jesus, Son of David," he pled, "have mercy on me." And when Jesus stopped, called him, and challenged him to be specific, Bartimaeus cried, "Lord, let me receive my sight."
The beggar's prayers have lessons for us, we who also need help from God. Three factors mark his pleas.
The first is humility. He prayed, "Have mercy on me." He did not claim to deserve our Lord's help, only to need it, to want it. He did not rage against his circumstances, he did not whine about his fate. Instead, he simply, humbly petitioned for mercy.
A second element of his prayers is persistence. When the crowd "rebuked him, telling him to be silent," he refused to be intimidated by their impatience and indifference. We read that "he cried out all the more." Jesus was "passing by." It was now or never. Opportunity is always fleeting, never static. Undaunted by the heartless crowd, the needy beggar persisted in his desperate cry. "Son of David, have mercy on me." "And Jesus stopped"!
The cry of a beggar can halt
God as He marches by,
If a crowd’s indifference cannot hush
That beggar’s cry.
The prayer of Bartimaeus was not only humble and persistent, it was definite. His plea was not vague and unfocussed; it was specific. "Lord, let me receive my sight."
Jesus had said to Bartimaeus, "What do you want me to do for you?" The beggar was used to asking people for what they were able and willing to give. With others it was money or food. With Jesus it was sight. Bartimaeus recognized in Jesus a love and a power greater than ordinary.
After the prayer, as an answer to prayer, came
"He received his sight and followed Jesus." How simply stated! How powerfully accomplished! Two elements are involved.
One is believing. Jesus said, "Your faith has made you well." Faith appropriates the divine resources. Faith links us in our need to God in his might. Nothing happens until we believe. Anything can happen when we believe.
Believing is followed by receiving. "Receive your sight." The words of Jesus are a gracious command. At his order light dispelled darkness. "Immediately he received his sight." The light shone in darkness, and darkness could not put it out.
The story closes on the only appropriate note—that of praise. The healed man followed Jesus, "glorifying God." The people who witnessed the miracle "gave praise to God." God's mercy deserves and inspires man's praise.
Two phrases from the story challenge us now.
"Jesus drew near." He has drawn near to us today. When his Spirit is present and his word is preached, Jesus has come to where we are.
"Jesus stopped." He has time for you if you want help from him. At the point of your need, lift your prayer to him. Others may ignore you or seek to quiet you, but Jesus will stop and listen to your plea. He cares.
Every person who lives in sin is environed by spiritual darkness. Into that darkness the light of our Lord's pardoning and renewing love has shined. While the light is shining, receive your sight!
"There was a man named Zacchaeus." Underline "was," because Zacchaeus became a changed man. Jesus said later, "He is a son of Abraham." Our Lord was describing the new Zacchaeus. No man has to be what he has been. Life can be transformed. The future does not have to be determined by the past. One can enter into a new relationship with God, with people, with things.
Advertisers often use "before and after" pictures to demonstrate the amazing difference their products can make. A "before" picture may show a man as bald as an egg. The "after" picture will show him with a luxurious growth of hair. Use the product being hawked and your head, too, can be hair-crowned instead of skin-wrapped.
Many such ads are false, many such products phony. The change Zacchaeus underwent was real. In this passage from Luke's Gospel we have "before" and "after" pictures of the tax collector, and the change-agent is clearly identified.
1. Look at Zacchaeus before he met Christ.
"There was a man named Zacchaeus."
He was loaded with money. Luke calls him "rich." Of the money he collected, enough went to Rome to keep his bosses happy. Enough stayed in his own pockets to make him wealthy.
People hated him. A "chief tax collector" had many enemies and few friends. No class of men was more despised among the Jews. They were Jews who worked for Rome, for the occupation forces of an alien oppressor. Patriotic Jews held them in contempt as traitors. So, for all of his money, Zacchaeus was lonely.
He was lost in sin. That's Jesus' word for him—“lost." The tax collector "sought to see who Jesus was," but poor Zacchaeus didn't know who he himself was. Far from God and deep in sin, his heart was as empty as his pockets were full. He was wealthy, but he was despised and guilt-ridden.
To top it off, he was "small of stature." He was forced to climb a tree in order to watch the parade. He could not enjoy the psychological compensation of towering over his despisers. Poor little rich man!
2. But look at Zacchaeus after he met Christ.
The crowd sneered and called him "a sinner." Jesus said, "He is a son."
Zacchaeus became a true son of Abraham. Like Abraham of old, Zacchaeus "believed God." He was "justified by faith." "Salvation" came to his house, according to Jesus, and the only salvation Scripture teaches is salvation by faith.
As Abraham had done, Zacchaeus evidenced his faith by his works. What he had gained by extortion he pledged to restore fourfold. Half of his goods were promised to feed the poor. The selfish, grasping, crooked Zacchaeus was no more. Now he would live for God and others, acknowledging Jesus as "Lord." The "sinner" is now a "son." The man who was no longer is. The tax collector has been transformed.
3. The change-agent is identified as "The Son of man.”
"Son of man" is a title heavily influenced by the vision of Daniel. The prophet saw the Son of man receive from "the Ancient of Days" an everlasting kingdom. Here Jesus shows that the awesome power of his kingly reign can invade time to rescue and change the individual sinner.
Jesus, the Son of man, came not accidentally but necessarily. To Zacchaeus he had said, "I must stay at your house today." Study our Lord's use of the word "must" and you will discover that a strong sense of divine compulsion directed his life.
Jesus came on a search and rescue mission—“to seek and to save the lost." Men in the armed forces are sometimes sent on missions to seek and destroy the enemy. The mission of Jesus was to find and save the lost. Long ago he sought a lonely, guilty tax collector. Today he comes to seek and to save us.
Luke's story begins with the sentence, "He entered Jericho and was passing through." The Lord has entered into this day, into this place, and he is passing through. He is your opportunity for new life, but that opportunity is not standing still.
Zacchaeus "received him joyfully" and was never the same again. Make him welcome and his redeeming grace will change every relationship in life. You can move from "sinner" to "son" or "daughter." "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."
Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. There He would be arrested, tried and executed. A crowd of disciples, loudly praising God, hailed him as the promised Messiah. Some Pharisees, indignant at the crowd's outburst, and fearful of the Romans' reaction, called upon Jesus to halt the demonstration. And Jesus, knowing that the hostility of leaders would soon chill the fervor of the crowd, knowing that these leaders would soon inflame a mob to demand his death, wept over the city.
Let's take up that phrase, "he drew near," and use it to view the relationship of Christ to ancient Jerusalem and to our cities and towns today.
1. “He drew near” to save.
In his lament over the city, Jesus said, "You did not know the time of your visitation." Our minds travel back to the opening chapter of Luke, and to the prophecy of Spirit-filled Zechariah: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David" (1:68-69). God came in Jesus Christ, came to save from sin. "The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost" (19:10).
This is why Jesus has drawn near to our cities. "He drew near to Jericho" (18:35)—and see what happened! Blind Bartimaeus was given sight and new life. Crooked Zacchaeus received pardon and character-transformation. Yes, Jesus draws near to save.
2. “He drew near” to sob.
"When he drew near and saw the city he wept over it." He was not fooled by the praises of the crowd. He read correctly the antagonism of religious and political leaders. The city, with few exceptions, was not ready to receive him as the savior from sin. They wanted instead a savior from political subjugation and economic hardship. Loaves and fishes multiplied, Roman rulers and soldiers subtracted—that was the arithmetic of their dreams. Knowing that they would reject and crucify him, and knowing the desolating consequences of their folly, Jesus wept.
Are things different in our cities? If Christ drew near to give us what we want politically, economically, and physically, he would be cheered in our streets. But he comes with a demand for repentance, with an offer of forgiveness, with a claim to lordship, none of which is guaranteed to advance our careers, fill our pockets, or keep us sensually thrilled. So there is a cross for him on main streets, in city halls, on college campuses, in business houses and even in churchyards.
There was not a sin committed in ancient Jerusalem that is not being duplicated in human behavior today in any city you can name. Unchanging in his moral standards, unchanging in his caring love, you may be sure that Jesus weeps over our wicked cities.
3. “He drew near” to smite.
Anticipating the judgment that would befall Jerusalem, Jesus said, "For the days will come upon you when your enemies...will not leave one stone upon another in you..." Two chapters later in Luke, this dire prophecy of judgment is repeated, and there it is attributed to the wrath of God (21:20-24).
Within a generation Jerusalem fell. Its storied walls were battered down. Its splendid temple was reduced to a pile of burned rubble. Many of its people were slaughtered and other thousands of them were scattered. We can call that the vagaries of history, but Jesus Christ knew better. He saw it as divine wrath upon human evil.
We are morally stupid if we think our cities can repeat ancient sins but escape judgment. Jesus Christ still poses the same alternative—He will be our savior or our judge. He saves where he can and weeps when he cannot, for hs own moral integrity requires him to smite in holy wrath those who will not respond to holy mercy.
What can we do? How can we avoid this wrath? How can we receive this salvation? We can do just what he did. The next Gospel paragraphs indicate the reforms needed. There we learn that Jesus cleansed the temple and taught the people, who "hung upon his words." Reforming our churches and spreading his words constitute the only hope of saving our cities and ourselves from awful judgment.
In ancient Jerusalem it was "too little, too late." Perhaps that is true in our day, but the attempt to avert judgment must be made, as the example of Jesus teaches.
He draws near. Where you are concerned, let him draw near to save, not to sob or to smite,
Jesus is here describing events that must take place before "the end" comes. The end is coming! God will bring down the curtain on human history. Sin and its terrible consequences will not endure forever. This world is not the best or the last world. The Lord's plans for his people are as vast as eternity, and the affairs of earth, often tragic and shadowed and heart-crushing, will give place at last to the joy, peace, freedom and fulfillment of that perfect society to which the Bible gives the name of heaven.
In the meanwhile, his people are not exempt from the conflicts that rage in this world. They share the pain and grief and death that follow in the bloody wake of natural disasters and human follies. Nevertheless, he upholds and preserves them, and their enduring faith will lead to eternal life.
One phrase from Jesus' words will occupy our attention just now—“kingdom against kingdom." This phrase is history in a nutshell.
1. “Kingdom against kingdom” is the truth of history.
From the earliest of humanity's political divisions, strife has prevailed. We can summarize the history of nations in the terse phrase of Jesus—“kingdom against kingdom."
Always it has been kingdom against kingdom. It should be kingdom with kingdom, and kingdom for kingdom, but the shining ideal is mocked by millennia of ugly facts. We have not established peace or earth; we have not realized the brotherhood of man. Instead of unselfish cooperation between nations there has been "wars and tumults."
When nations are not making war they are plotting and preparing for war. If astronomical military budgets could be eliminated we could deploy billions of dollars for the relief of such human needs as food, housing and medical care. That world powers find it necessary to spend trillions on ways and means of destroying people is a sad commentary on our claim to be civilized.
Evil forces will threaten where they do not actually dominate. Until the Lord returns "kingdom against kingdom" will continue to be the brutal and tragic truth of history.
2. “Kingdom against kingdom” is the truth of “salvation history.”
Within the broad stream of human history another special history is being enacted. Scholars call it "salvation history." God is at work in the affairs of men to achieve his own eternal purposes. He has provided salvation from sin through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All that happened before Christ came was preparatory to his advent. All that has happened since he came is the outworking of the divine mission that brought him into our world. This narrower—but more essential—stream of history has been and still remains a record of "kingdom against kingdom."
Against the kingdom of God stands the kingdom of Satan. Against the kingdom of Christ stand the kingdoms of the Antichrists. Jesus warns against them in verse 8: "Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!' and, ‘The time is at hand!' Do not go after them." False messiahs, duping those whom sin has blinded, attempt to build their own kingdoms of fame, power and wealth. They foreshadow the final end-time Antichrist whose beastly reign will bathe the earth with blood.
The kingdoms of the world will become at last the kingdom of Jesus Christ (Revelation 11:15). Evil rulers and false saviors will be vanquished, and "he shall reign for ever and ever." Their dark powers, which have created such havoc and carnage over the centuries, will be broken and banished to oblivion. Jesus will reign in perfect justice and unrivaled power throughout the ages to come.
The eternal triumph of Jesus Christ was loudly and clearly signaled by his resurrection. He put sin and death under his feet in holy victory. The warfare between his kingdom of light and Satan's kingdom of darkness has been decided. All that remains are the "mopping-up" operations. Gabriel's words to Mary are coming true: "Of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:33).
3. “Kingdom against kingdom” is the truth of individual history.
In this clash of kingdoms we must all take sides. We must be for or against Jesus Christ. He allows no neutral ground. He recognizes no conscientious objectors. He grants no non-combat status. In this same Gospel, speaking of the conflict between the kingdoms of God and Satan, our Lord declared, "He who is not with me is against me."
The conflict can be costly. To follow Christ can mean being hated: "You will be hated by all for my name's sake" (v. 17). It can mean being betrayed: "You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends" (v. 16). It can mean being persecuted: "They will lay hands on you and persecute you" (v. 12). It can mean being killed: "Some of you they will put to death" (v. 16). He who rules from a cross does not exempt us from conflict and wounds and death for the sake of his kingdom.
But following Christ always means salvation. He promises, "Not a hair of your head will perish" (v. 18). He assures, "By your endurance you will gain your lives" (v. 19). In the midst of trials and suffering he tells us to "look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (v. 28). Christianity is warfare, and all who enlist under the banner of Christ are on the winning side!
A television sports program used the slogan, "The thrill of victory; the agony of defeat." In Gethsemane, as he prayed in deep anguish, our Lord won a costly and decisive victory. He experienced the agony of victory.
On a lesser scale, every life has its Gethsemane, a point at which the will of a man or woman must yield to the will of God, whatever the cost. If we give attention to our Lord's Gethsemane experience, we can learn how to handle our own. Three words summarize his period of prayer: struggle, submission and strength.
1. The struggle was intense.
Listen to these words: "Being in an agony...” Jesus was facing his cross. That cross would be more than a miscarriage of justice, more than martyrdom for truth. On the cross Jesus would become a sacrifice of atonement. He would die bearing the awful burden of our sins. In the garden of prayer he shrank from that imminent death, not out of cowardice, but in the recoil of perfect holiness from the hideous weight of sin that must be endured.
In a far lesser way, but in a very real way, we struggle with the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus Christ must involve us in the sin, sorrow and suffering of the world. We cannot remain aloof from it, choosing instead the way of comfort and pleasure, not if we would be true disciples. Obedience to the Father's purpose for our lives, when it becomes evident that his purpose will be costly, precipitates a struggle. It is not easy to die to self-will in order to live for God.
2. The submission was expensive.
To the shameful and anguished death that awaited him, as the Father's redemptive purpose unfolded, Jesus responded in these words: "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done." With heroic faith he kept his will aligned with the will of the Father. His was the costliest submission to God in the history of mankind.
God's will for us is not always easy to accept. It may involve identifications, hardships and sacrifices from which we would naturally shrink. At stake in such a crisis is our sonship to God, our fellowship with him whose fellowship means life eternal.
God's way, however rough, is always wise and good. To our limited understanding it may appear otherwise, but the character of God guarantees the wisdom and goodness of all he requires.
In our Gethsemane, everything depends upon our response—whether we say "no" or "nevertheless." Rebellion or submission—there is no middle ground. Your will or God's will—there can be no negotiated compromise.
In submission Jesus found strength and
3. The strength was sufficient.
When Jesus had prayed and was drained by the physical and spiritual exertion of the struggle, "there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him." Heaven's gift of strength lies just beyond the point of submission to the will of God. What God demands, he enables.
In the strength he received Jesus endured his arrest, his trials and torture, and his execution. He faced them all with a poise, courage and assurance unequaled among men.
The paragraphs that follow in Luke's Gospel supply us with details about the kind and degree of strength that Jesus possessed. He demonstrated a power to love, to forgive, to endure and to triumph. He was betrayed, condemned, scourged and crucified, but through it all he embraced the Father's will without wavering, without complaint and without regret.
That kind of strength is possible for us, too, as we face the trials of our lives. Listen to the testimony of the apostle Paul, who discovered that divine power is made perfect in human weakness: "For the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).
At the time and place of our struggle to submit to the will of God we can find the strength to do his will. And in doing his will, however costly it proves, we shall find our highest good and our deepest joy.
When Jesus was arrested and led away for trial, "Peter followed at a distance." He has been criticized for this, but even at a distance he was closer than were the other disciples. They all "forsook him and fled." At least Peter was close enough to see what happened.
And what happened terrified him. If evil men could so abuse the Lord, what might they do to his disciples? In a moment of weakness, fearing for his life, Peter denied Jesus, saying, "I do not know him." Indeed, he denied him three times. The third denial was still on his lips when "the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter."
Then follows, in the Gospel record, the words that I want to underscore: "And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, `before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.' And he went out and wept bitterly."
"Peter remembered the word of the Lord," and it was
1. A wounding memory.
The remembered prediction awakened guilt and shame. Peter was sickened by sudden awareness of his weakness, failure and sin. His heart was stabbed with sorrow and his eyes were filled with tears.
How brave Peter had felt when Jesus spoke those words: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat" (v. 31). Hotly protesting any suggestion of weakness, Peter indignantly replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." He really meant what he said, but no man knows the capacity of his heart for treachery and cowardice. Jesus Christ, who does know the vacillating depths of human nature, sadly responded, "I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me."
Now Jesus was going to prison and to death, but Peter quailed before his accusers and disowned the Lord. From Peter we can learn that what binds us to Jesus Christ is not the strength of our resolution, but the strength of his love for us. How it hurts when we fail him, when we deny him, when our courage collapses and evil prevails over us! His words to us and our words to him become memories that wound.
The remembered word of the Lord became also for Peter
2. A healing memory.
Guilt and shame were indeed awakened, but repentance and faith were inspired also. Peter remembered not only the prediction of his failure, but also the promise of his recovery. Jesus had also said, "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." Through his bitter tears the fallen disciple beheld a rainbow of hope. His self-confidence was shattered, but he still could trust in the pardoning love of the Lord.
The Lord smites in order to save; he wounds that he might heal. He probes our festering hearts with the lancet of truth that he might bring to us the healing of his love.
Our Lord prayed for Peter, and those prayers were answered. Peter's faith was badly shaken but not destroyed. He wept his way back to God. He was forgiven and restored. He was "turned again" in the right direction. And he became a rock, a source of strength for his brothers and sisters when angry waves of persecution broke over the infant Church. Even today we read his epistles and are braced and nerved for Christian living in an unholy world.
Can you identify with Peter? Have you ever told the Lord, "I will follow you even if I have to stand alone?" Has your courage failed? Have you been bowled over by fierce temptation? Have the pressures of life so filled you with fear, doubt and confusion that you stumbled from the pathway of obedience?
Through your own tears of regret you can see a rainbow of promise. Our Lord's promises of quenchless love and constant mercies can become your healing memories. If you sorrow over sin, remember the words of David—“a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (Psalm 51:17). He is swifter to forgive than he is to rebuke. He will heal your heart, renew your life and convert your weakness into strength.
Peter never fell again. At Pentecost he was filled with the Spirit, and from that time forward the inner power proved greater than the outward pressures. Prison, torture and death could not drive Him from Jesus Christ.
What the Lord did for Peter He is willing and able to do for us. Let the wounding memories become healing memories.
"They crucified him." The shame and agony contained in those simple words are beyond comprehension. Hands that touched the sick and afflicted with healing power were pierced with nails. Feet that walked miles of dusty roads to bring good news to the poor were spiked to a cross. Lips that blessed the children and taught a people starved for truth were parched with thirst. A heart that beat with selfless love for sinners would be stabbed with a pagan spear. Despised, rejected, scourged and hung, the Lord of life met death at the hands of heartless men.
And how did he respond? He gazed upon his merciless tormentors, listened to their callous jeers, and he prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
1. The prayer from the cross reveals the ignorance of sin.
There is a terrifying irrationality about sin. Sinners simply cannot know what they do.
"They know not what they do" to God, to others or to themselves. Sin causes pain, grief, misery and heartache for those who love the sinner—far beyond the sinner's capacity to understand. Sin inflicts damage upon the mind, heart, conscience, personality and potentiality of the sinner impossible for him or her to foresee or escape. Sin rages out of control like a forest set ablaze from a tiny spark. It feeds and grows upon its prey until lives are ruined, hearts are broken, families are shattered, careers are destroyed and souls are damned. "If only I had known" is a common lament when the magnitude of sin's devastation begins to dawn upon the sinner.
Man, endowed with reason, is capable of vast and noble achievements. When he rebels against God and descends into evil, he does things irrational in nature and horrible in consequence. There is an abysmal ignorance about sin. Nowhere is this more evident than at Calvary.
2. The prayer from the cross reveals the invincibility of love.
How great is sin when it can ultimate in the murder of the Son of God! But much greater still is the invincible, persistent, forgiving love of the crucified One. "Love is as strong as death," declared an ancient writer. The love of Christ is stronger than death, even the humiliating and agonizing death of the cross. "Many waters cannot quench love," the Song of Solomon asserts, "neither can floods drown it." At Calvary a surging flood of all that was vilest and cruelest in human history crested and broke against Jesus, but the dark waters of our hatred and wrong could not quench his answering love. "Father, forgive them," he prayed. We might have expected, "Father, destroy them!" We might have listened for, "Father, avenge me!" Yes, and that we would have deserved. But he embraced the cross to atone for our sins, to reconcile us to God, and the love that held him there when he could have escaped thought only of our pardon.
There is an old story, first circulated in France, of a desperately wicked man who, in a drunken rage, murdered his own mother. He cut out her heart and fled through the dark, carrying it in his bloody hands. As he lurched across the cobblestones, he stumbled and fell—and the bleeding heart called out in anxious tones, "Are you hurt, my son?" His evil deeds could not quench the love of his mother. The truest, strongest mother's love is but a pale reflection of the love of the crucified Christ.
3. The prayer from the cross reveals the tenacity of faith.
In this dying prayer, Jesus called God, "Father."
Think of what Jesus had endured and was enduring. He had been rejected by the people he came to serve. He had been betrayed by one of his own disciples, denied by one of his closest friends, and deserted by his other followers. He had endured illegal trials based upon false charges. He had been abused, tortured and ridiculed by brutal soldiers. He had been stripped naked and nailed to a rude gallows. He was being taunted and cursed by a heartless mob. God had allowed an innocent man to undergo all this slander and violence and anguish.
And yet—wonder of wonders—the victim of history's grossest injustice did not rail or rage at God. He did not curse and blaspheme. He did not label God cruel or unfair or indifferent. He did not name God a monster or a tyrant. No, he called Him "Father," confident of God's love, wisdom, justice and holiness in the most dreadful circumstances. He was sure that God would bring victory out of disaster, that death would yield to life, and that love would triumph over hate. Calvary is the most sublime demonstration of dauntless faith the world has ever witnessed. The cross of Jesus assures us that in our losses and crosses we can trust ourselves to the purpose and power of God. He is the Father.
In the words of an ancient creed, Jesus was "crucified, dead, and buried." But when some devoted women came to his tomb, "they did not find the body." While they were puzzling over its disappearance, angels came and said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen."
I thought of the angels' question one day when I read a strange advertisement that appeared in a leading American newspaper. It proclaimed in bold letters, CHRIST IS NOW HERE. According to those who had placed the ad, Christ was soon to emerge as spokesman for a group assuring world peace. This modern Christ, the ad went on to say, is the same person awaited by Jews as the Messiah, by Buddhists as the fifth Buddha, by Muslims as the Imam Mahdi, and by the Hindus as Krishna.
Whatever appeal the ad may have to others, those who know Jesus Christ as he is attested in Holy Scripture will not be deceived. For Jesus Christ is more than a "world teacher;" he is the Son of God, crucified for our sins, raised from the dead in triumph over sin, and able to save forever those who trust in him.
All other religious leaders of the past are dead and gone. Today's crop will soon join them. But not Jesus Christ! He is alive, present in the person and power of the Holy Spirit, and victorious over all his foes. When anyone places him alongside others in such a list, they are seeking the living among the dead, and he is not there! "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"
1. You seek the living among the dead when you reduce Jesus Christ to the level of other teachers.
That such men as Confucius, Buddha, and Krishna were great teachers we do not deny. They taught some choice truths and helpful lessons. We can add the names of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Maimonides, Aquinas, Calvin—and scores of other learned men from history. But they are dead, and the repository of teaching they bequeathed to us, while it may inform and inspire, cannot save us from sin and reconcile us to God. Philosophies and theologies, however profound, however practical, do not save men. Sinners are saved by the living Christ who has "authority on earth to forgive sins."
Jesus Christ was a teacher, the greatest teacher who ever lived. But even his teachings, though utterly free from error, do not save. His atoning death and continuing life alone can save. We need more than teachers and lessons. "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"
2. You seek the living among the dead when you reduce Jesus Christ to the level of a prophet.
Within the nation of Israel arose a singular breed of brave men who functioned as the messengers of God. They proclaimed his word and will at the hazard of their lives. What stories of faith and courage cluster around the messages of such men as Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and John the Baptist!
Other religions have their prophets too. Mohammed is hailed as "the prophet" of Allah. The Mormons honor Joseph Smith as a prophet. But these men are dead and gone. Their messages cannot redeem us from sin, cannot rescue us from death. Only Jesus can do this.
Jesus was "a prophet, mighty in word and deed." But he was and is "more than a prophet." Prophets could proclaim the truth, but Jesus alone could say, "I am the truth." Prophets could point the way to God, but Jesus alone could say, "I am the way." Prophets could summon to repentance and utter God's promise of forgiveness, but Jesus himself atones and forgives. True prophets were great men and faithful servants of God, but Jesus is infinitely more than they were. He is "the Word" to whom their words bore witness. And as the Word made flesh, Jesus did and does what no prophet could do—he died as a substitute for sinners and he lives as a savior from sin. "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"
3. You seek the living among the dead when you reduce Jesus to the level of a reformer.
History enshrines as heroes some who were instrumental in producing social changes they thought were needed to improve human life. Many Russians pay homage to Lenin and Marx. America boasts of Lincoln and King. Some would place Jesus Christ in this category of leaders.
That Jesus has profoundly altered social conditions, few would deny. He does appear in Scripture as the champion of the poor, the hungry, the afflicted and the oppressed. But he is more than a reformer. He changes men's hearts and lives, not by imposing upon them new political and economic structures, but by forgiveness, cleansing and renewal that sets them in right and happy relationships to God and to others.
You can call the roll of great men—teachers, prophets, and reformers—and thank God for whatever truths they taught and whatever good they did, but Jesus Christ transcends their categories. They are dead and gone, and remain to us only as memories and influences. Jesus Christ is alive, the Son of God, the redeemer and judge of all mankind. Knowing the others will not save us. Knowing Jesus Christ is all that will save us!
The risen Christ suddenly "stood among" his disciples. Their reaction is captured in two simple words—“startled and frightened." They had been grieving over his death and its shattering effect upon their lives. Now, suddenly, he was in their midst, talking to them and even dining with them. Luke tells us, "they disbelieved for joy" (v. 41).
"Disbelieved for joy"—what a peculiar phrase. In other passages of Scripture unbelief is attributed to an evil or hard heart. Here it is explained by glad hearts. We have a common expression, which sums up exactly what those disciples were feeling—“It's too good to be true."
But it was true indeed. Jesus was "alive for evermore." Given the nature of God, the quality of Jesus' life and the purpose of His death, the resurrection was too good to be false.
Poor fallen humanity! We are so accustomed to evil, failure and disappointment that God's good news seems incredible. Just what did the resurrection of Jesus mean that produced this joyous disbelief?
1. Death had been conquered. This seemed too good to be true, but it was true indeed.
To the flabbergasted disciples Jesus said, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have" (v.40). In his hands and feet were the marks of the cross, where cruel nails had pierced his yielded flesh. Here was no apparition; no ghost conjured up from their confused and sorrow-burdened minds. The very one who had died in bloody anguish before a jeering mob was alive again! Jesus had overcome death for himself and his people.
Death seems so final. When we gaze in grief at the corpse of a loved one, death looks so final! Surrounded as we are by centuries of undisturbed graves and immersed in overwhelming bereavement, it is easy to believe in the futility of life and the finality of death.
The Bible opens with the majestic statement, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." But the closing words of Genesis are as somber as the opening words are bright: "in a coffin in Egypt." God creating life; mankind suffering death. And throughout Genesis, like the tolling of a funeral bell, occurs the spirit-dulling phrase, "and he died...and he died...and he died..."
But now a grave has been plundered, not by vandals or body-sellers, but by Almighty God in his holy opposition to sin and death. Jesus has been raised, and all who follow him are promised, "Because I live you shall live also." Death has been conquered! Too good to be true, but true indeed!
2. Life can be redeemed! This seems too good to be true but it is true indeed.
"It is written," Jesus said, "that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations" (vv. 46-47).
The death of Jesus atoned for sin. The resurrection declared that God has accepted that atoning sacrifice. The possibility of repentance and forgiveness has been created by the bloody cross and empty grave of Jesus. Life can be redeemed. We can be reconciled to God. We can be born again.
Liberation from the galling chains of evil habits and past failures is within our grasp. All we need to do is stretch out hands of faith to clasp the nail-scarred hands of love that beckon us to new life.
Early one Easter morning I preached the gospel to inmates of a state prison camp. Among those who listened was a man with a tragic, violent past and—so he thought—an empty, ruined future. Somehow that morning the light of the resurrection penetrated the bleakness of the camp and the darkness of his mind. He confessed his sins, yielded his heart in faith to Jesus Christ, and experienced the joy of conscious reconciliation to God.
That is the incredible good news brought to us by the risen Lord. Death has been defeated. Life can be redeemed. Does it seem too good to be true? Believe it—and you will never be the same again. You will be raised from your sins to a new life in Christ. And in that new life, joy will be the rule, not the exception, for this risen Christ will be your savior and friend forever.
The risen Savior formed his disciples into a Bible study group. The Old Testament, he declared, had been written about him. “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” “It is written,” he said, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
A world without Bibles would be a dark world indeed. But Bibles benefit us only when they are understood. What is involved in the process of understanding God's Word? This passage from Luke's Gospel tells us.
1. “To understand the scriptures” we must read them with open minds.
Jesus "opened their minds to understand the scriptures." Open-heart surgery is a common practice today. What we all need is open-mind surgery, performed by the skilled hands of the Great Physician. Only when this is done can we make sense of our Bibles.
Closed minds are enemies of truth. What closes the mind? Pride does—thinking we know it all and cannot be taught. Bigotry does—which reads through glasses of prejudice, and therefore misreads. Tradition does—which accepts uncritically and unexamined the opinions of earlier men. It was tradition, especially, that closed the minds of Jesus' enemies against him (Matthew 15:1-9). It threatened to blind his disciples also. Their idea of the Messiah was shaped, not by Scripture, but by popular notions borrowed from traditional interpretations.
Only with opened minds can we read the Bible with understanding. And only Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, can open our minds.
2. “To understand the scriptures” we must interpret them in the light of their witness to Christ.
Jesus said, “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled."
“Law, prophets, and psalms” was a summary phrase used among the Jews to indicate the entire Old Testament. Jesus here affirms the intention of God, in these portions of the Bible, to speak of him. The light of the Old Testament converges upon his bloody cross and empty grave: "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead."
We cannot understand Scripture unless we read it in the light of his crucifixion and resurrection. The Bible is centered on Jesus Christ, not on a code of law, not on a description of nature, not on a philosophy of history, but on the redeeming event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
One of my seminary professors, a gracious Presbyterian elder, used to insist on studying every doctrine of the Bible in what he termed a "Christo-centric" manner. His rationale was brief and logical: "Why not begin where the light is brightest?"
3. “To understand the scriptures” we must involve ourselves in bearing their message of Christ to others.
Listen to his words: "And that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."
A great scholar once said that we cannot enter the temple of theology as students only; we must come as worshipers. The adoring heart is just as vital as the inquiring mind if we would learn of God. In a similar way, if we wish to understand the Bible we cannot be objective and detached learners. We must be committed and involved witnesses. We must share the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ with our unsaved friends and neighbors.
The truth of Scripture is not given for truth's sake; it is given for life's sake. What John said of his Gospel can be affirmed of the Bible as a whole: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).
Scripture is not self-contained and self-serving. It exists to bear witness to Jesus Christ. He is there, not to be known about but to be known. The Bible was not given to mediate a doctrine of repentance but to bring about an experience of repentance. The Bible was not written to supply a doctrine of forgiveness but to instrument an experience of forgiveness. The written Word of God points beyond itself to Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, and he comes through Scripture to offer us deliverance from sin and life in God.
Let Jesus Christ open your eyes, redeem your life, and empower your service to his kingdom. That, in brief, is what understanding the Bible is truly about.