Thursday, July 13, 2017

Luke 9:18–50

Luke 9:18–50 (ESV): Peter Confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus Foretells His Death, Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus, The Transfiguration, Jesus Heals a Boy with an Unclean Spirit, Jesus Again Foretells His Death, Who Is the Greatest?, Anyone Not Against Us Is For Us


I’m combining a number of ESV headings together for this post, as I am wont to do, since they’re thematically related. And also because Chapter 9 is super long, with many sections in it (as the ESV broke them up), and if I put up one post for every heading I’ll never get through the book of Luke. (I admit that this, on its own, is not a good reason for altering the way that I blog. It’ll take as long as it takes.) All of these passages are talking about who Jesus is, and his various ways of getting this point across to the disciples.

We start off with an instance where Jesus is is praying, and then stops to ask the disciples who the crowds say he is. Back in verses 7–9 we had read that Herod was hearing all kinds of things about Jesus, and those theories are what the disciples tell Jesus now: some people say he’s John the Baptist, others say that he’s Elijah, and still others think he’s some other random Old Testament prophet, risen from the dead. In fact, these rumours must be very common, because if you compare verses 7–8 (ESV):
… it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen.
and verse 19 (ESV):
And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”
the answers are remarkably similar. So, question answered, right? Except then Jesus turns the question around on them: who do the disciples say that he is? Peter gives the right answer to his question: “The Christ of God” (verse 20 (ESV)). In the other Gospels, when this story is told, we’re told that Jesus recognizes Peter for correctly understanding this, but here in Luke we’re just told that Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Christ, as well as passing on a warning:
… “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (verse 22 (ESV))
He then gives an even longer warning to them, about what is to come—imminently, as well as after he’s gone:
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” (verses 23–27 (ESV))
A little while after this (Luke tells us in verse 28 (ESV) that it’s “about eight days,” but I don’t know the significance of that fact), Jesus takes Peter, John, and James with him to go up on a mountain to pray, and while he’s there he’s transfigured before them:
And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. (verse 29 (ESV))
If that’s not surprising enough, Moses and Elijah appear, and are talking to Jesus about his imminent departure. The three Apostles who had joined him had been quite sleepy, but upon seeing this they wake up. As Moses and Elijah are departing, Peter—not knowing what he’s saying (likely out of fright)—suggests that they set up three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Even as Peter is saying this, though, they are enveloped by a cloud, and out of the cloud comes a voice, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (verse 35 (ESV)). The cloud then departs, and when it does Moses and Elijah are gone, and, although the passage doesn’t say it, I assume Jesus looks “normal” again.

The next day they are met by another crowd, and in this crowd is a man who begs Jesus to look at his son, who has a demon that other of Jesus’ disciples haven’t been able to cast out. Jesus’ response is interesting:
Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” (verse 41 (ESV))
Even as they are bringing the boy to Jesus the demon throws him to the ground and convulses him, but Jesus rebukes the spirit and returns the healed boy to his father. At this, the crowd is astonished at the majesty of God.

Even as the crowd is being astonished, however, Jesus turns to his disciples to make a very blunt point to them:
But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” (verses 43b–44 (ESV))
Unfortunately, the disciples don’t understand what he’s saying, but they don’t ask him about it because they’re afraid to. And then, as if to illustrate the point that they don’t “get it,” later on they get into an argument about who among them is the greatest. (I don’t think this is part of the same conversation, I think this is a separate episode, but it seems to be not too long after.) They don’t bring this argument to Jesus himself—they’re smart enough to know that that’s probably not a good idea—but he knows what they’re thinking anyway, and so he brings a child into their midst, and says, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (verse 48 (ESV)).

I don’t think they fully get it, though, because John follows this by pointing out that they had found a non-disciple casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and the disciples told him to stop it, because he wasn’t a disciple. Jesus tells them, however, that they shouldn’t stop him, because “the one who is not against you is for you” (verse 50 (ESV)).


There are a bunch of literary things that happen in the Bible that are lost on modern-day English readers. The biblical writers—Old Testament as well as New—loved to insert word play and puns into their writings, or reuse particular phrases or sequences in meaningful ways, and a lot of it gets lost when the Bible gets translated out of Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek into English. I’m wondering if something like that is going on between verses 7–8 and verse 19, when Luke keeps iterating through the rumours about who Jesus is. Or maybe Luke just had a sense of humour, and it amused him to repeat the list. Or maybe Luke the doctor was pedantically listing all of the options.

Christians are very used to the story of Peter correctly identifying Jesus as the Christ, followed immediately by Jesus telling the disciples he’s going to die, Peter rebuking him, and Jesus saying to Peter, “get behind me Satan.” It’s nice that Luke doesn’t tell the second half of that story; we hear about Peter correctly identifying Jesus as the Christ, but Luke doesn’t mention Jesus’ dressing down of Peter. They’re both things that happened, so obviously there’s nothing wrong with having those two stories together—the other Gospel writers do it that way—but Luke’s approach allows us to take a minute to recognize that Peter really did understand Jesus’ divinity, at this moment. It’s easy to judge Peter for a lot of the things he does or says in the Gospels, but we shouldn’t forget that he also did and said a lot of good things. He’s just impulsive; that’s going to lead him to blurt things out, and sometimes he’ll blurt out dumb things, but in other cases, like this example, he’ll blurt out something that’s absolutely true.

Innumerable people have pointed this out before me, but Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples to take up their crosses, he tells them to do it daily. This is an everyday thing. In order to be saved I need to be willing to give up my life in order to follow Jesus, and in order to continue to be saved the next day I need to be willing to give up my life in order to follow Jesus, and in order to continue to be saved 1,247 days later I need to be willing to give up my life in order to follow Jesus… It’s not a matter of being a one-time thing in order to “get in,” it’s a matter of changing our entire perspective on life to one whereby following and obeying Jesus is more important to me than anything else—even more important than living. The irony that Jesus points out here is that people who value their own lives more than they value him are going to lose their lives anyway; you have to recognize that Jesus is using the word “life“in two different ways here: there is life, in the sense of being alive, and there’s real life, which is a relationship with God (which is what we were created for). Real life should be more important to us than “being alive,” which, if we have our heads on straight, shouldn’t be too conceptually difficult anyway: we’re all going to die, at some point, but only those with real life will continue to live in God’s presence.

Interestingly, when Jesus is talking about those who are trying to save their lives (and ironically losing them), he talks about them being “ashamed” of Him and His words. What we are admonished to do is to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him; what we are admonished not to do is be ashamed of Him or His words. Those don’t seem like proper opposites of each other, but as usual, Jesus is going beyond mere actions or even words: he’s looking at the heart.

Many commentators have pointed out that when Jesus is transfigured, and talking to Moses and Elijah, they represent the law and the prophets—both of which are fulfilled in Jesus. (The fact that Elijah is there also means that Jesus can’t be him, for those who had been thinking that that’s who Jesus was.) There is some religious significance (that I don’t understand) about Peter suggesting that three tents be set up for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah; it seems to indicate that he’s viewing Jesus as the equal of Moses and Elijah. I don’t get this, but definitely, the voice of God the Father coming out of the cloud makes it clear that Jesus is something unique—something better—something that supercedes the law and the prophets. I shouldn’t keep quoting the ESV Study Bible notes, because that’s copyrighted material, but when God the Father says “listen to him,” He’s saying more than just “listen to him,” He’s saying “listen to him even more than you listen to the law and the prophets.” Not that the law or the prophets are any less the Word of God, they are, but Christians’ understanding of the law and the prophets is through the lens of Jesus’ words, deeds, and teachings.

When Jesus says “O faithless and twisted generation,” he’s not talking to the boy’s father, or to the boy himself. He’s referring to the disciples. Why could they not cast out the demon? Because they had no faith. I’m guessing that this episode is directly related to verses 1–6 of this chapter, when Jesus empowered the Apostles to heal and gave them authority over demons; I think they might have started to consider themselves to have great abilities, and so when they approached this demon, they simply felt that they’d be able to do it in their own power—instead of doing what they should have been doing all along, and asking God to cast out the demon. It is, of course, God who has the ultimate authority and power, and even what abilities I have were given to me by Him. Even if the disciples tried and failed to cast the demon out of the boy, this should have been a reminder to them to bring the problem to God; instead, they seem to have given up.

But even as they’re thinking about this, Jesus turns to them to tell them that he’s about to be delivered into the hands of the religious leaders, and once again, they simply don’t understand what he’s telling them. And in this case we can’t necessarily blame them, because it was the Father’s will: “it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it” (verse 45 (ESV)). We have the luxury of knowing how it’s going to end, when we read the Gospels, but at the time, the disciples just simply couldn’t comprehend that their master—their saviour—was going to die. Frankly, I think it’s still a stumbling block for many people today, when it comes to having faith in Him. What the disciples didn’t yet understand, and what many people still don’t understand, is that going to the cross and dying was Jesus’ plan all along; it was the whole point in Him coming to this world and being born as a man. As counterintuitive as it might seem, when Jesus died on the cross he wasn’t losing, he was winning: he was accomplishing what he’d set out to accomplish all along. (And when I say “all along,” I’m referring right back to Genesis 3, or even before Genesis 3 to when God had preordained all that was going to happen, when He decided to create mankind.)

And so Jesus, who is greater than Moses and Elijah—I don’t think modern-day readers fully understand how revolutionary that statement would haven been to the Jews of Jesus’ day—is about to do a great thing. But I’m a follower of Jesus; does that make me great, too? We can easily see how the disciples would have started down the path of having that conversation. (Frankly, I’m sure that one of the reason the Gospel writers didn’t include any of their arguments about why one disciple might have been greater than another is that the reasons might have sounded a little too reasonable in our ears!) But what Jesus is really telling them, when he talks about the least being the greatest, is simply that God doesn’t measure “greatness” the way that we do. When we think of Christians who are “great” we think of popular/powerful/famous preachers, or people who go to great lengths to feed or clothe or provide homes for the poor; when God thinks of Christians who are “great,” His choices might seem odd to us. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of people God thinks of as “great” are probably people we’ve never heard of. I’m sure He’s thinking of someone who lived a quiet life in the 1700s, who went to church every Sunday and worshipped, and tried to do the right thing, and tried to raise his or her children in the best way possible, and gave faithfully to their tithes—and, most importantly, was humble, not thinking they were greater than they really were, but simply trying to obey their God. There have been people like that throughout history, and there are still people like that now, and outside of the ones they directly interact with, nobody has ever heard of these people. But God knows exactly who they are; He knows them by name. He has already welcomed many of them into the kingdom, and He will continue to welcome the ones who are still coming. And I’m sure that every single one of them has been, and will continue to be, flabbergasted at the idea that the God of all Creation considers them to be “great.” They sure didn’t consider themselves to be great! But… that’s the point, isn’t it?

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