We’ve come to Luke 10 and will read the first twenty-four verses. We are in that section in the Gospel of Luke that contains material not found in Matthew and Mark, the other two synoptic Gospels. Luke alone records that in addition to the earlier sending out of the Twelve, the Lord also utilized the services of a much larger band of his disciples. It is a reminder that there was much more going on in the Lord’s ministry than we have a record of in the four Gospels.
v.1 We are assuming perhaps the southern part of Galilee, Samaria and some areas on the eastern side of the Jordan River. One of the most intractable problems of textual criticism in the New Testament is found here: is the number 72 or 70. Good and early manuscripts of Luke read one or the other and good arguments can be made for either reading.
v.2 As we said before in regard to the ministry of the Twelve, of which we read in the early verses of chapter 9, it is the Lord’s way to accomplish his will in the world through his people and especially through those who speak the good news to others on his behalf. From time to time the Lord provides great numbers of such able evangelists, as he did here. In his history of the Reformation in Scotland John Knox speaks of a point of crisis in the Scottish Reformation when God seemed to “rain men from heaven.”
v.4 No sandals means no extra pair of sandals, not that they were to walk barefoot. There is no symbolism here, just practicality. They were to travel light. All of these instructions have the same general sense. By telling them to greet no one he is not requiring them to be rude, but to keep moving, the urgency of their task requiring them to avoid what one commentator calls the “time consuming futilities of oriental wayside etiquette.” [Caird, 142] You can spend a long time chatting about nothing over in that part of the world, as you can in this. They would have understood precisely what the Lord meant!
v.6 Similarly, no time is to be wasted on the heedless and the disinterested. The figurative language indicates God’s blessings are not given to those who do not wish to receive them; God’s gifts are not given by magic. [Morris, 201]
v.7 These instructions he had given to the Twelve before: they were not to spend their time in arranging accommodation and in the niceties of hospitality. Urgency is to be their rule! Time is precious. This great opportunity is not to be wasted.
v.8 There was to be no fussiness about food when, as seems likely, they were going into areas where there would many Gentiles and they might well find themselves having food set before them that didn’t meet the exacting requirements of rabbinical purity.
v.9 To tell people that the kingdom of God is near means that this is their opportunity for salvation; they must seize it.
v.11 People may not accept the message but that doesn’t change the reality. A failure to accept God’s kingdom when it is offered to them will remove people from the sphere where salvation occurs.
v.15 Augustine used these verses as proof of God’s sovereignty in salvation, that is, God giving it to some and withholding it from others. If God had seen fit to do in Tyre and Sidon what he did in the villages of Galilee, they would have repented long ago. But such things were not done there, but in Galilee. [Enchiridion, 95] But, as is also clear, the Galileans had no one to blame but themselves for their failure to obtain salvation when it came among them.
The point is also made here, as elsewhere, that in the judgment of God perfect justice may be expected. One will get what he deserves; nothing more, nothing less. Some will be punished more severely than others, especially those who heard the gospel, had it presented to them with power, but nevertheless refused to embrace it for themselves.
v.16 A point frequently made in the Bible: the Christian minister bears the Lord’s own authority; he is the instrument, his the voice the Lord has chosen to use. So a mere man is delivering the word of God himself.
v.18 The ministry of the 72 was a notable defeat for the kingdom of the Evil One.
v.19 Take the Lord’s remark about serpents and scorpions as figurative, as there is no evidence in the rest of the New Testament of a preacher treading on serpents without suffering harm. “I will protect you from your enemies,” is what he is saying.
v.22 These two verses closely resemble material we find in the Gospel of John, so much so that it has been referred to as “a Johannine bolt from the Synoptic blue.” [Morris, 204] Gospel truth is compressed here: the revelation of God’s truth and grace to the lowly and insignificant, rather than to the learned and powerful, the intimate relation between the Father and the Son, and the authority granted the Son by the Father to bring salvation to his people.
v.24 These men should not fail to appreciate that they were eyewitnesses of the most extraordinary events!
Some people are more fortunate than others. Can’t be helped. Imagine yourself having lived through some of the great moments of human history: standing on the deck of the Santa Maria when the lookout shouted “Land Ho!”; stepping on to the surface of the moon; being present to witness military victories that changed the world: Trafalgar or Waterloo, Yorktown or Gettysburg; being among others at Runnymede or in the hall with the signers of the Declaration of Independence; present in the audience at the premier of some masterpiece of Mozart or Beethoven, or in the lab at the moment of some great scientific achievement, say peering over Madame Curie’s shoulder at the first glow of radium. And what a privilege it would have been personally to know some of the world’s greatest men: from Alexander and Caesar to Marco Polo and Dante, from George Washington and William Wilberforce to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Winston Churchill. My son Jamie is a collector of the books of G.A.Henty, the author of a series of historical novels that fired the imagination of several generations of boys by carrying them back to great events and personages of human history.
But it has been the privilege of only a comparatively few human beings actually to be present at the great turning points or landmark events of history. For most of us we can only read about them and imagine what it must have been like to be there.
To be sure, in many cases, it may not have been very long before the bloom went off the rose.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be
Alive, but to be young was very heaven!”
So began William Wordsworth’s poem on the French revolution, but his enthusiasm lasted only for the short while before that revolution consumed itself in an orgy of vengeance and blood. The poem goes on to register Wordsworth’s dismay at what had begun so well but finished so terribly. Hardly anyone rejoices over radiation any more, and what nations and empires made of their victories in war is often a sore disappointment.
But, no one can read the Bible and not wish he or she had been there! To be at the Red Sea when the waters were divided, to be on Carmel when fire fell from heaven, to be among the shepherds when the angels announced the birth of the Messiah, what favored people were those few who were there! And for Christians reading the Gospels it is the same only more so. That we had witnessed the Lord’s miracles and felt the shudder of an encounter with the supernatural in our own souls as the disciples did over and over. That we had heard him address the demons and heard them shriek in unwilling but terrified submission. That we had seen the Lord Jesus with our own eyes, heard his voice deliver that heavenly teaching, and be witnesses of his resurrection and ascension to the Right Hand. No Christian who believes that in the New Testament we are reading an account of what actually happened can help but envy those who saw those events unfold and especially those who became well acquainted with him!
Only a few were so favored to have lived at exactly the right place at exactly the right time. And then to have been among those who, carrying with them the Lord’s authority, made the demons submit, healed diseases, and transformed lives by delivering the good news that the kingdom of God had come in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Those happy few indeed!
But here too we are being introduced to the way of the kingdom of God in this world. When the Lord had returned to heaven, this pattern would be repeated many times. There would be outpourings of the Spirit’s power, the kingdom of God would make great leaps forward, and multitudes of people would fall under its spell. But that would not usually be the case. Most of the time the kingdom of God — as we have already read in the Gospel of Luke — would proceed by the way of the seed: sowing, watering, waiting for the grain to mature, before reaping many months later.
But from time to time the progress of the kingdom is sped up and things happen much faster as they did here. We call that “revival” in the parlance of Protestant evangelical Christianity, but that isn’t always the best term. “Revival” suggests the renewal of a life that already existed, the regaining of momentum that had been largely spent. If the gospel were to take wing in our day in the United States, as it did in the 1970s in what is nowadays referred to as the “Jesus Movement,” that would be a revival. America has had the Gospel for a long time, but interest in it has declined in our day, churches are shrinking, the influence of biblical thought is on the wane. Were it to be recovered, however, were college students to begin coming to Christ in great numbers as they did forty years ago, were ministries like that of Francis Schaeffer — confronting and critiquing the culture from the vantage point of Christian truth — to gain great attention and influence as they did in those years, that would be a revival, the renewal of what was already here but in a weakened condition.
“Revival,” however, doesn’t accurately describe what happened as the Gospel began its course of conquest after Pentecost for it was reaching into a society that knew nothing of Jesus Christ and had never heard the good news; multitudes of people were being transformed by a message which they had never heard before. The church wasn’t being revived because there was no church. The gospel was a bolt out of the blue for the Greco-Roman world of the first century. In the same way “revival” doesn’t describe what is happening in many parts of Africa and Asia today where whole populations are being swept into the kingdom of God who have had little or no contact with the Christian church previously.
Call it revival or the time of the Spirit’s power, what we have here in Luke 10 is not the ordinary state of affairs! Would that it were. In Christian preaching it is often represented as if it were the ordinary state of affairs. You will often hear preachers say that our world “is white unto harvest” as the KJV reads in v. 2, but very often the world is not, or at least that part of the world where we happen to be. We are definitely to pray for workers and we are definitely to be about the work, but not necessarily because the moment has arrived to gather in a great harvest of souls. Sometimes it is so; more often it is not.
You get the sense of how unusual these circumstances were from the Lord’s instructions to the 72 disciples. This was not the ministry of the Twelve, of which we read at the beginning of chapter 9, who were also sent out on a preaching tour. This was not preparation for the lifetime work that the Twelve would have as representatives of Jesus Christ in the world. This was not, so far as we can tell, preparation for a permanent ministry as it had been for the Twelve. The greater numbers were needed because a time of great opportunity had been reached in the Lord’s ministry and the hour of decision had come for many and the time and opportunity had to be seized before it was gone forever. Often in revivals ever since laymen have been pressed into service precisely because the need to get the gospel out and the opportunity to bring people to salvation, ready as they were to hear the good news, was greater than could be met by the settled ministry of the church.
What is more, the Lord’s instructions all serve to indicate the special need for haste, the presence of a unique opportunity that must not be squandered. He told them to travel light, to make no provisions for a long stay, not to dilly-dally in conversations that had nothing to do with the great issue of the moment, to take no time to arrange ideal lodgings, and to waste no time on the disinterested. Time was too short for that. They were to seek out those who had ears to hear and proclaim to them that the kingdom had drawn near.
It is interesting to note the difference between these instructions and those the Lord gave his disciples later. In Luke 22:36 we read that he told them to take a moneybag, a knapsack, and a sword. The long stretch of ministry would not require the same haste, the same emergency measures as are appropriate in a day of the Spirit’s power. We certainly do not and should not think today that if someone at first shows disinterest in the gospel we should forget them and search for someone who seems more open to our message. We do not think it wrong to take time to build friendships for the gospel’s sake. Nowadays it is often through such painstaking attention to friendship that folk are finally won to Christ. But at such a moment as this, that would be to waste precious time. Historically in revivals unusual steps have been taken that would have been regarded as inappropriate in more ordinary circumstances: laymen being pressed into preachers, preachers hardly taking time to prepare their sermons, quite young men being given opportunities as gospel preachers, all because the need was so urgent, so many were ready to hear, more preaching was needed than the ministry could supply. The Spirit was astir!
Still further, the Lord draws attention to the special accountability that people bear who will not believe at such a time as this when the Spirit is so powerfully at work among men. It is a worse thing, a more inexcusable thing to refuse to believe the gospel when crowds of people around you — who like you had not believed before, indeed, had no interest in believing before — are nevertheless becoming followers of Jesus and rejoicing to be so. Unbelievers that stubborn are like those who will rise to fight the Lord Christ and his hosts when he returns to earth at the end of history. There will be no doubt that he is the King of Kings, but still they will not bow.
Then the uniqueness of this moment, how unusual it was, is further demonstrated by the remarkable effect of the ministry of these 72 men. The Lord described it as “Satan falling like lightning from heaven.” This was not the “bit by bit” or “step by step,” this was a great leap forward in salvation.
And then, finally, the Lord drew attention to the unusual nature of this moment by comparing it to the long sweep of salvation history. Many faithful men and women who likewise worked in the service of the kingdom of God longed to see such a day as these 72 were privileged to see but never did. Isaiah and Jeremiah prayed and wept for such a day, but it was given instead to these nameless men whom Jesus sent in his name through Judea, Galilee, and perhaps Samaria and the territory east of the Jordan.
In fact, it is not at all unlikely that these 72 men never again had an experience like this, just as Peter himself probably never gained 3,000 converts with a single sermon as he did on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit works when and where and to the measure that he wills. I imagine that many of these 72 talked about these few days to the end of their lives until their loved ones were thoroughly wearied with their stories and could repeat them word for word. So grand were those days, so different from everything that came after, it was natural for them to consider it the highlight of their life.
In 1630 at a place called Kirk O’ Shotts, just off the road between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Spirit of the Lord fell upon a great congregation gathered there for preaching and the Lord’s Supper. There was among the people as they gathered a sense that something unusual was happening, so much so that they extended the meeting to the following Monday. John Livingstone was asked to preach the service. He was so overcome with the responsibility — this is the sort of thing that happens in such a time — that he spent virtually the whole of Sunday night and early Monday morning in prayer seeking the Lord’s help for his preaching the next day. He didn’t know what message to preach until early Monday morning. But the sermon he preached had terrible power over the hearts of many and some 500 people were soon added to the churches of that place because of that single sermon. But, do you know, John Livingstone never had such an experience again. He looked back to it, he longed for it and prayed for it, but it was never repeated in his experience. But he, at least, had it once, like these 72 men.
Richard Greenham labored for twenty years in an English country parish in the late 16th century. He was a diligent and gifted pastor who cared for his people and did all he could to serve the interests of salvation in their lives. He was generous to a fault and always on the lookout for those who would take advantage of the poor in his parish. His godliness and spiritual insight made him a much sought after spiritual counselor of others, but they came to him from farther away, not so much from his own parish. His books became best sellers and made his a household name in England. But his ministry among his own people was virtually fruitless. He said to his successor, “I perceive no good wrought by my ministry on any but one family.” That was after twenty years as that parish’s pastor! Others said of him, “Greenham had pastures green but flocks full lean.” But a few years later, after Greenham had left that charge, the kingdom of God drew near to that parish and there was a great harvest. But not during Greenham’s years there. He was, in other words, among those prophets and kings who desired to see what the 72 saw, but never did.
Some of us have lived through a time of the Spirit’s power, perhaps not such a time as this, but certainly a time of more advance than we can now see in our land. A number of our senior men were saved at about the same time, when the Spirit was mightily at work in our land. In those days on American college campuses young men and women were coming to Christ in droves. But it is not so today. We were told at our most recent General Assembly that our Presbyterian Church in America had grown slightly in the previous year, but only slightly, not even 1%. It is not for want of workers or hard work. We have many good men, able men, working very hard to win the lost. There is precious little evidence — certainly none reported as the result of a reliable statistical analysis — that there are more genuine Christian believers in America today than there were ten or twenty years ago. The American church is not keeping her children in far too many cases and is not making up her losses.
That does not mean, of course, that the Lord has not left himself a witness. People still come to Christ in living faith even if not in great numbers; children faithfully raised in the love and truth of God grow up to follow Jesus with whole hearts, God be praised for that. If you have come to faith in the Lord Jesus in recent years, you have still more to thank God for because such salvation is comparatively rare in our land these days. Churches here and there will grow for a time. God will bless a ministry here or there for a time. But taken as a whole, our day is not a day for instructions such as the Lord gave these 72 men. There is goodness and blessing for the people of God at every time, in whatever time we may live, but surely we of all people can understand what the Lord meant when he spoke of those who longed to see such a day of the Spirit’s power but never did.
But it is as if the Lord knew that most who would later read of this great adventure of the 72 would never see a day quite like they did. And, on that occasion, he said something of great importance for us who live in a day of smaller things. The 72 were understandably agog at the results they had enjoyed. They commanded demons in Jesus’ name and the demons obeyed! That must have been a thrill! People had responded to them as they had responded to Jesus himself. They had healed the sick by the power of his name. They were giddy when they reported to Jesus what had happened. And he rejoiced with them to be sure. It was a great day!
But the Lord then interrupted those thoughts. He reminded them that such demonstrations of power were not the really great thing at all. This exhilarating success was not the truest blessing. Nor should it be the truest measure of their happiness or excitement. No there was something greater still and that was that they shared in the salvation of God, that they had been granted eternal life. It was indeed their great fortune to share in a day of the kingdom’s great advance, but it is a far greater thing to have one’s name written in heaven, to have one’s sins forgiven, and to be numbered among the children of God forever.
Remember, Judas belonged to the Twelve at this point; the traitor-to-be had participated in the disciples’ earlier preaching tour and he had cast out demons and healed the sick. He had come home elated as had the others. But it would have been better had Judas never been born because he would eventually betray the Lord, commit suicide, and go to his own place. Far better for Judas if he had never enjoyed the extraordinary privileges of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, never driven out demons or healed the sick, but had found eternal life through true and lasting faith in Jesus.
No, the greatest thing is the thing that all Christians share, whether they belong to a tiny community of believers like that woman we just read of in Allen Pritzlaff’s letter whom they met on a street in Uzbekistan — a brand new Christian sharing her faith with others at some risk to herself; part a small community of believers surrounded by a hostile culture — or whether they belong to a large community of believers who are riding the crest of a great wave of salvation in a day of the Spirit’s power as you find today in Asia and Africa. And while the privilege of some Christians to see a great day of the kingdom of God may be greater than ours, in regard to what counts and lasts forever, they have no more of it than we do. That is the Lord’s point and thanks be to God that he took care to make it when he did.
We ought to be glad to know about such times as the times of the 12 and the 72, and the many like them from that day to our own. They remind us that God is at work in the world according to his plan and purpose and that when he chooses to draw men to himself they will come, in whatever numbers he decrees, great or small. As he once said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” No amount of unbelief, no measure of hostility to the Gospel has ever been able to prevent the Almighty from softening and turning as many sinful human wills as he pleases.
But in this description of the great favor the Lord granted to these unnamed men, we find another encouragement as well. We who must wait for the consolation of Israel, we who must serve without great effect, we who must learn not to despise the day of small things are sharers in the same salvation, and, according to the law of the kingdom of God, the faithfulness of those who must serve in more difficult, less exciting times counts for more than those who serve while being carried along by the strong tide of the Holy Spirit.
You remember how in Malachi 3 we learn of brothers and sisters who encouraged one another in the things of God in a day of very small things in Israel. We read there that a scroll of remembrance was written in heaven, in the very presence of the Lord, concerning those who in such a time, with so few encouragements, nevertheless feared and honored the Lord’s name and helped others to do the same. It is as if the Lord were saying “I want to be sure that the labors of these disciples of mine whose times were harder but who were faithful in my work are not forgotten!”
We may rightly envy those 72 men for what they saw and did. But when all is said and done, they may rightly envy us for service that counts for more than theirs; if, in fact, we really do, you and I, serve the Lord faithfully, invest in the spread of his kingdom, and take our many opportunities to tell the good news to others.