The path of discipleship
Jesus prepares his disciples for the time of persecution that will be coming to them as leaders of the Church. He encourages them, and us, to think of life beyond the present - into eternity.
Jesus prepares his disciples for the time of persecution that will be coming to them as leaders of the Church. He encourages them, and us, to think of life beyond the present - into eternity.
Hello and welcome to Series 8, Episode 13, which is about the path of discipleship. We're still in Luke's gospel where we've been for quite a few episodes. We're going to be studying Luke 12: 1 - 12.
Introduction and Recap
We're using Luke as the main source of the narrative of this particular period of Jesus' ministry.
Series 7 described the turning point when Jesus decided the time had come to move on from what was about three years of really productive ministry, travel, preaching and healing in Galilee, the northern province. He decided now was the time to head south, into Samaria first of all, but the real destination being Judea, the southern province, in which the capital Jerusalem is situated. That took place around the time of the Transfiguration. In Series 7, we discussed these events and some of the dramatic things that happened at that turning point in the story.
Series 8 has seen the beginning of that journey to the south of the country. First of all, we spent time in John's Gospel looking at Jesus travelling to Jerusalem as a pilgrim in a couple of major festivals - the Feast of the Dedication and Feast of Tabernacles - he was there very briefly. He gave some significant teaching and miracles but it was a very brief time. Then we returned to Luke and we found that he's travelling much more publicly, with his disciples, the Twelve and many others who are travelling with him on the road, who've decided to travel south and crowds are gathering. We've also taken note of the fact that Jesus has made a systematic attempt during this period to get his message out to the central and southern parts of the nation of Israel just as he'd done in the north in Galilee. The principal means of doing that was to send out 72 disciples in pairs; 36 teams who travelled around the central and southern areas of the country, as described in Luke 10. He is creating an impression and he's making his presence felt in these parts of the country. Large crowds are gathering to him. That's the context.
If we focus down the context a little more specifically, what we've noticed in the last two episodes particularly is another strand, another aspect of the situation, and that is that whilst his popularity continues to grow and his message continues to spread in some ways, on the other hand some people are turning against him under the leadership of the religious authorities who are making a very determined effort to stand in Jesus' way, to discredit him and to oppose him openly. In the last two episodes we've seen that process building up. We've seen an incident where when he'd done a wonderful healing - somebody who was mute and couldn't speak - someone calling out from the crowd that Jesus' power only came from the devil, from demonic forces, he was false; Jesus then gave some substantial teaching about the danger of that view and the truth of his claims.
In the last episode, we noticed something even more focused in this issue of conflict because in the last episode, Episode 12, Jesus went into the home of a Pharisee by invitation, to have a meal and it appears that a number of Pharisees were there and a number of Teachers of the Law. These are representatives of the religious establishment - those who've openly opposed him and are standing in his way. Everybody knows that - it's public information. Jesus is entertained by them but enters into a discussion with them and makes a number of very firm statements about how false and how wrong their position is. He challenges the Pharisees for hypocrisy and he challenges the Teachers of the Law, particularly, for creating all sorts of human regulations and weighing these down on people in such a way that this just becomes an impossible burden and is making them completely misunderstand the pathway to salvation. He's very critical of them. They in turn respond, at the very end of the last passage, in a way that is going to introduce what Jesus says to his disciples in this passage. It's really fascinating what happens. Jesus goes into this home and behind closed doors this very intense confrontation between him and his opponents, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Then when he comes out into the open again, having had a meal, crowds are there because the crowds were always following him and waiting for him. Whenever he disappeared into private somewhere, they would wait for him to return. The crowds were waiting and it says at the end of the last passage, which we're going to read again Luke 11: 53 - 54 just to remind you where we ended last time.
‘53When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54waiting to catch him in something he might say.Luke 11:53-54, NIV
The conflict between them which is simmering away all the time is now totally in the open. They are publicly confronting Jesus, contradicting him, questioning him with trick questions, trying to find contradictions in his teaching, trying to find double standards in his behaviour, trying to find misunderstandings in his use of Scripture and all sorts of things like this. In public, this is what's going on and of course the obvious implication of it is all the crowds are hearing this and they're confused as I stated at the end of the last episode. They're really confused because their religious leaders whom they respect are saying one thing about Jesus, and completely denying that he's the Son of God, or has any authority or any legitimacy at all, whereas Jesus is claiming the opposite and they're drawn to Jesus by his character, his teaching, his amazing miracles, and his charisma, and yet they're drawn to their religious leaders out of respect for the tradition of Judaism. What do they do? They're in the middle; the crowds are literally caught in the middle. This is the context in which Jesus addresses his disciples and gives them some very specific teaching about what is going on at that particular moment.
A Vast Crowd
Let's have a look at this passage. We'll start with Luke 12: 1 - 3, which sets the scene.
‘Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”’Luke 12:1-3, NIV
The amazing thing about this passage is the opening statement: a crowd of many thousands had gathered. That's a very dramatic statement and this context in terms of a crowd is one of the biggest numbers ever stated as being around Jesus. We don't know exactly the number but many thousands is a very big number. We're not talking about dozens, we're not talking about tens or twenties, we're not talking about hundreds; we're talking about thousands. At this particular point there's a vast crowd.
This makes us, in our mind, compare this situation with situations in Galilee where vast numbers came. Two situations come to mind - first is the feeding of the 5000, which I've discussed in an earlier episode, and at that time I pointed out that 5,000 men were present on the hillside in north-east Galilee, and women and children were there as well. We can speculate that the crowd could have exceeded 10,000 people easily, and therefore possibly the largest recorded crowd in the life of Jesus by number. Very similarly, Jesus also fed 4,000 people which could be a crowd of 4,000, plus many others, on the same principle in a slightly different area known as the Decapolis, which is a Gentile area to the east of Galilee. We've got a largely Jewish crowd in Galilee - very large; we've got a largely Gentile crowd in the Decapolis; and now we've got a crowd of what you might call ‘southerners’ - probably people from Judea. A similar size of crowd is anticipated here, so this is another high point in Jesus' ministry in terms of the crowds.
Why are the crowds coming in such numbers at this particular time, bearing in mind all the hostility that is rising up? Partly because Jesus hasn't been in that area very much, if at all, so the novelty factor is important and they really want to meet him and hear him and see what he does, but partly I think the influence of the 72 who were sent out. They created a tremendous atmosphere in the central and southern areas because they've been from place to place, village to village; they've gone as far and wide as they can to spread the message and so people are travelling to see Jesus. That's the context and there's so many people they're trampling on one another. They're trying to get a view of Jesus; they're trying to get within earshot so they can hear what he says. If he's performing miracles, they're trying to actually see what happens, not just be told while at the back of the crowd that something is going on at the front of the crowd. I wonder whether you've ever had that feeling? That's the feeling that some people had here - there's just so many people gathered but Jesus talks to his disciples while there's a big crowd around and he's following on from the other aspect of what's going on, which is the confrontation with the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, which the crowd is observing, as I've stated.
Jesus is now trying to equip his disciples to face this opposition, amidst all the activity of the crowds and that's why he teaches here, ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy.’ Double standards, doing the right thing outwardly, but being inwardly corrupt and selfish and greedy. If you studied the last episode with me, you'll remember Jesus talking about the Pharisees, who do lots of detailed religious duties but they neglect the more important issues of justice and mercy. They neglect to be generous to the poor. They're more interested in getting prominent socially. They've got seats reserved for them in the synagogues; they can go any time and they'll be treated as important dignitaries coming to the area. As they go through the marketplaces of the towns and villages, they'll be recognised by their distinctive dress and they will be honoured and respected. People will want to shake their hand, or bow down before them, or give them a sign of honour, or perhaps even invite them to their homes. These are the things that they love. They loved the human prominence of their religious position but Jesus calls it hypocrisy because deep down he considers them to be materialistic, selfish and wanting personal gain out of their religion. He warned here that what we hide now inside our hearts will be revealed fully on God's day of judgement.
The context of this passage is Jesus is helping people to understand that it's not just what's happening in the moment that counts. What we do now is connected to eternity and particularly to that day of judgement when every life will be assessed.
‘What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.’Luke 12:3, NIV
God sees everything and he sees religious hypocrisy, and he sees at this time very particularly that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law and other religious leaders are determined and set upon resisting Jesus, discrediting him, and if possible preventing people from believing in him. He also anticipates that they're going to be fierce opponents of the Early Church and of the disciples as the leaders of the Early Church. This is the teaching about discipleship that he is giving.
Life Beyond Persecution
Let's read on, chapter 12: 4 - 7
‘4“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”’Luke 12:4-7, NIV
The religious leaders are going to become the direct enemies of the young Church. They can even, verse 4, kill the body; they can bring disciples of Jesus to the point of death and martyrdom. That's what Jesus is predicting and he goes on to make it clear that it's no good just having a perspective on the Christian life which is about this life, this physical life that we're living now. He makes it abundantly clear death is not the end of life. Your body may be destroyed, you may even be killed, but you, the inner person, continue into the next life.The continuation of the inner person, what we call the soul generally speaking, the true inner person is retained, lives on and we believe, although it's not taught here specifically, that that inner person will at the time when Jesus comes again receive a resurrection body, a permanent wonderful body like our own but filled with glory, and without any imperfection or decay or decline or signs of ageing. The person lives on. Don't let the fear of dying for your faith hold you back from being true to your faith is basically what Jesus is saying. He said you should be more concerned about your relationship with God than the threats of human agencies who are challenging your faith, even possibly to the point of death. Fear him who has authority to throw you into hell. Yes I tell you fear him. This is an unambiguous statement, so I'm not wanting to modify it or pass over it too quickly. Jesus is saying here, as he's done in previous passages and will do again, that every human being is destined for eternal glory in heaven, or to eternal judgement in hell. We should fear that reality and turn away from it urgently, and not allow ourselves to be nominal Christians, who, when the pressure comes, will just give up the faith and go for a comfortable life.
This is not an easy message but it's a message that the Church needs in every generation. It's not an empty prediction that Jesus makes because when we turn to the pages of the book of Acts, which is beyond the scope of our study in any detail now but I'll refer to it briefly, we will find that Jesus's prediction comes true remarkably quickly. Here's a key moment. The Early Church started in the city of Jerusalem; it knew spectacular success in the early days - many thousands being converted fairly rapidly; many miracles taking place; the Apostles functioning really effectively to build a wonderful, living, thriving Church; but the religious leaders right there in the city of Jerusalem - the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Teachers of the Law, the Sadducees, the priests, the High Priest who was the leader of the Sanhedrin - all these people gathered together and with some real determination tried to stop the Christian faith moving forward. They threatened the Apostles; they imprisoned them; they started beating them and threatening others; and then eventually as described in Acts 7, one of the leading preachers, a man called Stephen, who had an incredible ability to communicate the faith and was a church officer in a church, serving the poor, distributing food - a gifted and spiritual man. He was brought under the investigation of the Sanhedrin and the ruling authorities and stood up to them very clearly. He made a speech which is described in Acts 7 which exposed their hypocrisy and their double standards and their unbelief. This angered them so much that quite spontaneously they decided, illegally, to stone him to death. The Romans did not allow the Jews to carry out executions for any reason, including for religious reasons. It was the prerogative and the right only of the Roman authorities to execute but anyway they went ahead and did it. They stoned Stephen to death publicly and it says in Acts 8: 1,
‘On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judaea and Samaria’.Acts 8:1, NIV
Stephen did not fear death. He fulfilled the teaching that we see here in Luke 12. He feared God; he wanted to do his will, he was willing to lay down his life and he knew he'd receive an eternal reward. This passage is encouraging us to stand up for faith, particularly the next few verses, the final section.
Stand Up For Your Faith
Let's read that together Luke 12: 8 - 12.
‘8“I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. 9But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. 10And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”’Luke 12:8-12, NIV
Here is a very strong encouragement to stand up for our faith. We should acknowledge our faith in Christ in public as required by the circumstances. We should never, ever disown Christ and we should trust the Holy Spirit to help us to know what to say when we are facing hostility and questioning. Some of you will know exactly what that means and Jesus encourages us by faith to call upon the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom to know what to say, what not to say, how to handle extremely difficult situations. He says in verse 10, repeating some teaching in Matthew 12: 30 to 32 that
‘everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.’Luke 12:10, NIV
God can forgive all types of sin, even wrong attitudes to Jesus but the one exception is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This word in Greek means a serious insult or slander. I gave very similar teaching on this when we studied a similar statement by Jesus as recorded in Matthew 12. The meaning of this is, if somebody has a fixed attitude of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demonic power, they will face God's judgement. It's an unforgivable sin. Notice what I said - a fixed attitude. This is not just a passing comment, or a mistake, or a temporary opinion or a thought. This is a fixed and determined attitude of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demonic power. This must be avoided at all costs. This is very robust teaching - challenging but it's an important equipping teaching, and for many of you reading this in different parts of the world, you will gain encouragement and strengthening from coming back to this important teaching of Jesus. Some Christians live in relative comfort where their faith is not threatened but many Christians in different parts of the world, to one degree or another, face significant challenges to their faith.
I want to make some final concluding reflections to draw the threads together and try and apply this to us. First thing to say is to reiterate what I said in the last episode, which is that the reality of religious hypocrisy and legalism is to be taken very seriously. It reveals lack of faith and it will ultimately be judged by God.
The second and very important comment I would make is that Jesus encourages us to take a long-term perspective of present sufferings, difficulties, threats and risks. That long-term perspective is literally an eternal perspective - very hard for us to keep this in mind consistently because we're so focused on the immediate, and the eternal world seems rather distant from our reality. The New Testament consistently encourages us to see that this life is a very brief moment in the whole scope of our existence, and eternity is by definition the fullness and extended reality of life that goes on forever. Therefore we should take what theologians call an eschatological perspective, a long-term perspective, or a perspective looking into eternity. Jesus often points this out - here's an example from the sermon on the Mount Matthew 6: 19.
‘19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”’Matthew 6:19-21, NIV
This statement of Jesus suggests that our obedience to him is creating a reward in the next life, not the reward of salvation which we only get through Christ's saving work on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, but the reward of God's blessing, the reward of God's approval, the reward of responsibility that was the reward of enhanced satisfaction and the reward of all the comforts needed. Those things will come to us in eternity if we invest now. I'm encouraging us to invest in eternity and hold lightly to the material things we have and see the trials and tribulations of standing up as a Christian in a wider context.
Jesus doesn't address here an issue that many of you will be thinking about - what about secret believers, people who have truly come to believe but haven't fully identified themselves as Christians? We should note a few things here in order to encourage you in this. If you read Jesus' teaching carefully, he's saying if you speak, acknowledge Jesus. If you speak about your identity and faith, you should acknowledge Jesus. If you speak, do not disown Jesus but he does not talk about those who at certain times may not be saying anything either way because they are in that particular period of time - secret believers, developing their faith in a hugely hostile environment. If their faith becomes a question, or if they need to speak - if we need to speak in any context - we have to speak the truth at any cost. That's the key point of this passage.
Discipleship is not going to be easy amongst the Jews for those immediate followers of Jesus, and as we know from different parts of the world now, it's not easy in many different other nations today but, and I conclude with this, we can take great comfort from the fact that the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say. You can make that prayer today if this message is important for you, if it's relevant to your context, just ask the Lord to give you the Holy Spirit in full measure to teach you what you should say as you seek to be true disciples of Jesus.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What experience do you have with large crowds? Was it a positive experience, or not?
- Is the fact that God sees and hears everything good or bad for you?
- Can you identify any hypocrisy in your own life? Where are there double standards? How can you challenge hypocrisy in the world?
- What do you now understand about ‘sinning against the Holy Spirit’? Is this something Christians should be concerned about?