Jesus is preparing to activate a major mission and calls people to join him. He explains the cost of discipleship and not all are prepared to commit.
Jesus is preparing to activate a major mission and calls people to join him. He explains the cost of discipleship and not all are prepared to commit.
Hello and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 11, which is called, ‘Jesus sets out for Jerusalem’. We're going to be studying in Luke's Gospel 9: 51 - 62.
Introduction and Recap
This is the last episode in Series 7, so it's a good moment to look back over what's happened in this very dramatic series and this dramatic period in the life of Jesus. The earlier series from Series 3 through to Series 6 described, for the most part, Jesus' main ministry, which was in Galilee. Many of you will have followed those series and the story but to quickly remind us, in those earlier series we see that Jesus travelled around Galilee for a long period of time, many months into years. He took his disciples with him; he gathered his discipleship group; he formed it; he formed a group of twelve which he called his Apostles; and eventually he sent them out. It appears that Jesus had three periods of time where he was touring around Galilee. We called them the three tours of Galilee in the earlier series: many miracles, many remarkable things happened, huge crowds gathered and many healings. It was a dramatic and wonderful time in Jesus' ministry. It was at that time, as we saw in Series 4, that he gave the magnificent teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, which provides the framework for Christian discipleship lifestyle, which we studied very closely in Series 4.
Series 7 is a transition in the life of Jesus. Everything changes in Series 7. This time of working in Galilee and travelling around is coming to an end. Something very different is going to be happening. At the beginning, we notice that Jesus takes his disciples away from the crowds, away from Galilee itself, into another province and spends time there with them, and has some remarkable experiences with them. He takes them to the town of Caesarea Philippi, as recorded in Matthew 16 and parallel passages, and there he has a remarkable conversation with them concerning his identity. Who exactly is he? "The Messiah, the Son of the living God," is Peter's answer. He explains to them that he's going to form a Church community and that it's going to be very powerful, and to develop and to grow. Then he takes his inner circle, Peter, James and John, up the mountain near Caesarea Philippi - a very high mountain - and then he is transfigured before them. He suddenly has heavenly glory around him and within him. He's transformed into his heavenly glorious presence temporarily - a very remarkable and overwhelming experience for Peter, James and John. He meets the Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah, returning at that moment representing Old Testament history, prophecy and law, and has a conversation with them. These are really remarkable events. Following that, he begins the process of educating his disciples towards the right expectations of what's going to be happening at the end of his life. He tells them time and again that he is going to suffer, to die, and be raised again from the dead. We've seen some of those predictions in earlier episodes in Series 7, where we've been able to study them more closely. Then we've just finished, in the episodes before this one, a discussion of Jesus' teaching, as represented and recorded in Matthew 18, about the community of the Church. Jesus again talks to his disciples about the community that will exist after he has left them. The implication of that chapter is that everything that happens in this community, the Church, will happen without him being personally present. We can see he's training his disciples for the future. Matthew 18 has some remarkable insights about our attitudes towards God, about the dangers of undermining the faith of believers, and the danger of believers or disciples wandering away from the church community. We hear amazing teaching, challenging teaching, about the essential role of forgiveness in relationship between believers particularly. That is the teaching that we have just concluded, looking at, in the last episode.
The Turning Point
At this point, we are returning to Luke's narrative. Luke helps us, more than any of the other gospel writers, to understand Jesus' purpose and his actions at this point. It's Luke who defines the turning point most decisively and that's really helpful for us, in terms of understanding the rest of the gospel story. We're going to start by looking back in Luke 9, at his account of the Transfiguration, which comes from verse 28 onwards, to remind ourselves of the event that has triggered the change of direction. I'm just going to read a few verses from Luke 9: 28 - 31.
"About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up on a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour talking to Jesus. They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem."Luke 9:28-31, NIV
It's the topic of their conversation that I want to concentrate on. Clearly there's a remarkable, supernatural event occurring here. Two of the great leaders of the Old Testament Jews, and the Old Testament period, are appearing and talking to Jesus. That, in itself, is a miracle - a remarkable miracle. They come in a glorious heavenly light, and it's a remarkable experience for Peter, James and John. But what they discussed is the key. They discussed Jesus' departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem. That means his departure from this life, which implies his death, it implies his resurrection, and this implies his return to heavenly glory, the glory which they've just seen a little bit of here in the moment of transfiguration. The statement also says that he was going to bring it to fulfilment. In other words, he was going to orchestrate events; he was going to be in the initiative to make things happen, according to the pattern of events that was the will of his Father, and the plan of salvation.
Jerusalem is not in Galilee. Jerusalem is in the south of the country, as we've stated many times. It's the capital city, the city of the Temple, the city where the religious establishment is based, the city which the Roman Governor watches over when he visits at least three times a year. It's the place that everyone sees as the heart of the nation. It's a long way south of Galilee. Jesus is going to bring about some dramatic events in Jerusalem. The obvious implication is, he needs to move his location to Jerusalem and that's significant given that his base has been right there in the middle of Galilee. His home town from which he's operated for his ministry in Galilee is Capernaum, right there on the Sea of Galilee - the home of some of his disciples. He's now going to leave all that behind and he's going to head to Jerusalem, with the intention that he will bring about these events while he's in Jerusalem. He's not coming back to continue his ministry in Galilee.
Passing Through Samaria
Let's take up the story in our passage for today, Luke 9: 51 - 55, which is the first half of the passage that we're going to study today.
‘As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem and he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples, James and John, saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.’Luke 9:51-56, NIV
The beginning of this passage tells us very clearly about Jesus' intentions. He resolutely set out. More literally, he set his face for Jerusalem. He was determined now to move his location as he was preparing for the time where, as Luke describes it here, he was going to be taken up into heaven. That's describing the same things as we saw in Luke 9: 30 - 31 which described his departure, leaving this life and returning back to heavenly glory. The rest of the narrative, up until he arrives in Jerusalem, which will cover many different events and a lot of material in the Gospels, is related to this long journey south. It's clear that Jesus took many weeks, if not months, to get to Jerusalem, because he stopped in a number of different places, and he moved backwards and forwards around the area between Galilee and Jerusalem. So this isn't a quick journey, but it's a definite journey; it's a purposeful journey. He will end up in Jerusalem where there will be a confrontation. He's already warned about that confrontation. We mentioned those predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection that he's just been giving to his disciples. Matthew tells us, in Matthew 16, that he many times warned them that this was going to happen when he arrived in Jerusalem.
In order to go to Jerusalem, as this account indicates, the quickest way is to go through the territory between Galilee in the north, and Judea in the south, in which Jerusalem is situated, and in between them is a central territory. There are, essentially, three major territories in the main heartland of the country of Israel on the west of the River Jordan. There are some other territories on the eastern side which we've mentioned. But, for our purposes, at this moment, we need to focus on the fact we've got Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle and Judea in the south. Jesus is heading to Judea. The quickest way is to go through Samaria. There's a complexity attached to that. We've already seen this complexity when we discussed the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman, as described in John 4. If you're familiar with that story, or you've heard that episode, you'll understand what I'm referring to. You see, the Samaritans were not Jews. Their historical origin was that although this territory was originally Jewish, the northern part of the country, including Galilee, was sent into exile, under the power of the Assyrian Empire, 700 years before Christ roughly. At that time the Assyrians exiled many Jews and they also imported other nationalities and ethnic groups into the land to create a racial mix, and to create a sort of ethnic cleansing around their large empire. The ethnic groups who came into the country, when they intermarried with remaining Jews, developed a separate identity which became known as the Samaritans. One of their main cities is Samaria, hence the name. The Samaritan people lived uncomfortably alongside the Jews. There was a mutual dislike. The Samaritans claimed that they worshipped the same God, the Jewish God, Yahweh. They honoured the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch, the books of Moses. They had their own temple, which they set up in a large hill called Mount Gerizim, in their territory. They worshipped in parallel to the Jews, but they didn't accept all the later Jewish writings and teachings and the prophets. They believed that they were the true people of God rather than the Jews. So, there was a mutual antipathy and tension between these ethnic groups.
This outworked in a particular way concerning the geography of the country, because Jews from the north, Galilee, travelling to Jerusalem would often consider going through Samaria. It was the quickest route. They usually received a fairly negative or hostile reception and sometimes they weren't even allowed hospitality in Samaritan homes. On many occasions they took a longer route. They went down the Jordan Valley near the River Jordan, and then up again to Jerusalem. We find Jesus follows that route on occasion in his life. But on this occasion, like in John 4, he travels straight through Samaria. You can immediately see what happens. He receives a hostile welcome from a particular village. The reason was, he was heading for Jerusalem. In other words, he was going on a Jewish, religious pilgrimage. They didn't like that. They didn't like these Jewish tourists travelling through.
This provokes James and John to get really angry and to say something really foolish. They had seen the power of God on the Mount of Transfiguration very recently. They'd even seen Elijah come back, the one who could call down fire from heaven, as he did on Mount Carmel in the Old Testament. Maybe these experiences were vividly in their minds. They really were angry with the Samaritans for being so hostile to Jesus. They wanted a divine judgement on that village but Jesus rebuked them and they went to another village.
Three Conversations About Discipleship
Here is the scene; they're travelling along the road, they're heading slowly but surely south, to Jerusalem, for reasons that we've explained. As they're walking along, three conversations about discipleship take place in this context. Luke 9: 57 - 62
‘As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go". Jesus replied, "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." He said to another man, "Follow me." But he replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the Kingdom of God." Still another said, "I'll follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family." Jesus replied, "No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God."’Luke 9:57-62
These are three fascinating, brief and challenging conversations. The three people concerned appear to be general followers of Jesus. They're in the group of people that's travelling with him, and we can imagine quite a number of people travelling with Jesus on his journey. These three conversations are very significant but require careful interpretation.
What does the first one mean when he says, “I'll follow you wherever you go” and Jesus replied that foxes and birds have their places to rest but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head? He's referring to the immediate context. What have we just seen in the previous passage? He went into one Samaritan village to try and receive hospitality and he was denied it. Jesus, now travelling through Samaria, is in a position where he doesn't know where he is going to sleep the next night, and he doesn't know if he's going to have a bed to sleep on. He's in hostile territory. He's in an uncertain situation. This is in stark contrast to the time when Jesus was in Galilee where, for the most part, when Jesus was travelling around, people would fall over themselves to give him hospitality, give him a meal, to entertain his disciples, and to give them a bed for a night, if they needed it. Jesus is essentially saying to this first man, ‘If you want to follow me you will also have to accept a degree of uncertainty about your material provision, and the practicalities of life as you are serving me. Just as I can't be certain where I'm going to sleep, and I can't be certain of the reception I'm going to get from people, so this will apply to you.’ This is something of the cost of Christian discipleship. It's not an easy ride.
Verse 59, ‘To another man he said, "Follow me." But he replied, "Lord, let me go and bury my father." If the father had already died, he wouldn't be at the side of the road with Jesus, because the custom of the Jews was to bury very quickly after death. He wouldn't be travelling along, if his father had died already. Essentially, what he means is that he is anticipating the death of his father; perhaps his father is ageing, his father might be seriously ill, and so he's saying to Jesus ‘I need to attend to the situation with my father, which will involve, ultimately, burying my father. I need to be with him in the last period of his life, rather than coming straight to follow you.’ Jesus speaks to this man with a sense of urgency. Jesus is just about to launch a major campaign in Samaria and in Judea of preaching. He's going to send out 72 people, a large group of people, are going to be sent out. There's an urgency to proclaim the kingdom at this time. It's not possible for the preaching of the gospel to wait for a convenient time. Sometimes Kingdom demands supersede family commitments. Sometimes kingdom priorities override the needs of our wider family and we have to make difficult choices in terms of our priority. Jesus prophetically spoke to this man when he said to him, "Follow me." He was essentially putting his finger on the issue that the man had to make a decision, whether he was going to spend some weeks or months with Jesus travelling around, then go back to his family, or whether he was to stay with his family till a convenient time. There isn't a convenient time to become a Christian disciple. The time is always now, and the ‘now’ call of God is sometimes inconvenient and difficult in terms of our other responsibilities. We have to decide what God is calling us to prioritise. This is in fact the experience of Jesus in his own life, as we will remind ourselves in just a moment.’
The final conversation is between a man, who's keen to follow Jesus, but he wants to say goodbye to his family. He'd been away from home for some time perhaps, and he wanted to spend a little bit of time with them before travelling with Jesus. Jesus uses a very vivid metaphor here,
‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit to service in the Kingdom of God,’Luke 9:62, NIV
He's basically saying, ‘We can't look over our shoulders when we're committed to a Kingdom priority that demands that we move forward and do something specific at that time. We can't look to our previous lives of comfort and security. There can't be any double mindedness.’ This conversation, and in fact all these three conversations, are set at a moment of critical activity for Jesus and his disciples. They were on the move and Jesus was about to launch a big campaign of preaching in Samaria and Judea, as described in Luke 10. He was looking for recruits for that campaign who would be dedicated and wholehearted for the weeks or months that that particular campaign took place. That's the context - very important to see the context of these sayings - which have confused and troubled a lot of readers of the Gospels. Although they might appear to be harsh and difficult, they are expressing underlying principles about the Kingdom of God, which apply to all of us. They are set in the context of Jesus' very clear teaching about the nature of Christian discipleship.
The Cost of Discipleship
Let's just turn back to Luke 9: 23 - 24,
"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it."Luke 9:23-24, NIV
And then he goes on, verse 25 and 26,
"What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."Luke 9:25-26, NIV
We're called to take up our cross daily.
As I bring some reflections as we draw together the threads of this very interesting passage - very challenging passage - I'd make these comments to help us think about what applications we could make to our own lives. Discipleship means embracing the possibility of material hardship, uncertainty and poverty. This is what Jesus actually did as he travelled along the road. These are only possibilities. They may not happen at any point in our lives. The decisions we make, putting Christ first, are not based on any desire for our own comfort. Discipleship means prioritising kingdom calling over some social, family and cultural obligations and expectations.
Jesus honoured his family very much. In fact, he served his family faithfully for the majority of his adult life in Nazareth, working in the family business with carpentry, woodworking, building; and he honoured his mother; he honoured his brothers and sisters. When he was called to a life that involved leaving home and prioritising God's purposes for his life, he didn't hesitate to say goodbye to that family life and to move on and do the things that God called him to. Interestingly enough, he maintained a very real connection with his mother all the way through his life. She was there at the foot of the cross; she believed in his mission; and at least some, if not all, of his brothers are recorded as following him and believing in him over a period of time, but not initially. The creative tension between family and kingdom calling is there, even in Jesus' life. It's a very real, creative tension in the lives of Christians. If we follow the other teachings of the New Testament, particularly the Apostles Paul and Peter in their writings, we notice that family is very important, marriage is very important, loving children and caring for them is very important. Consideration for our wider family is a Christian priority. All these things should be remembered. But the most important thing is, what is Jesus calling us to do as disciples? Our family life needs to fit into that wider calling, rather than the other way round.
Discipleship means, not being double-minded, not looking for a comfortable alternative to living an active Christian life, and sharing our faith with others. We are not all called to make such instantaneous and radical decisions, as are implied in the text here. The situation is very specific. It demanded that people either travelled with Jesus, or went back home to their villages and to their families. That's the context in which Jesus makes these very dramatic statements. We're not all called to make such sudden and difficult decisions, but we are all called to seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness. That's the key thing that we can learn from this. I want you to find this episode helpful in reconsidering your own Christian discipleship and asking God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to make clear to you what priorities he has for you in your life and to then, to ask him to give you the courage to follow those through.