Luke 9:1-9

Text Comment

v.1       It is interesting to read that “he called the twelve together.” Often apparently there would have been a larger number of disciples gathered around Jesus. Sometimes some or all of these twelve men would have been at home, taking care of business as we might say. But on one occasion the Lord very particularly gathered the twelve, the inner circle of his disciples, the men he was preparing to take over for him when he left the world.

v.2       Mark tells us that he sent them out in pairs. Their assignment – to preach and to heal – makes it clear that what they were to do was an extension of the Lord’s own ministry, for that is precisely what he was doing, preaching and healing the sick. They’d heard him often enough by now to know what to say and watched him enough to know what to do. No doubt, as in life, some were better at it, more natural, than others.

v.4       The Lord’s point seems to be that his disciples should take care not to appear changeable, fickle, or hard to please. Like men who regard all the world as an inn and heaven as their home they were to be content with any lodging and any kind of provision.  It has always been the case that those best able to tell others to forsake the world are those whose own treasure is obviously in heaven! In Luke 22:35 the Lord will ask these same men: “When I sent you without moneybag, knapsack, or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered.

            As you know Francis of Assisi took these instructions as a summons and first by himself and then later with the monks of his order went from place to place with little in the way of provision. They saw themselves as walking in the disciples’ footsteps here in Luke 9. But it is interesting that later in Luke the Lord tells his disciples to take provisions for their traveling on kingdom business. [22:35-38]

            It is possible also that the limit of hospitality in any town to one host meant that the disciples would not linger over long in one town. It fixed a limit to the time they could stay in any place. [Morris, 183]

v.5       Paul, if you remember, did precisely this from time to time during his ministry (Acts 13:51). It was a sign that for having rejected the gospel they were being rejected by the Lord.

v.6       It is noteworthy and reason for reflection that one of those who preached the gospel and healed the sick was Judas Iscariot who would later betray the Lord.

v.7       This is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the king when Jesus was born. Herod was the ruler of an area that included Galilee where the Lord had done most of his preaching and healing and where, presumably, his disciples did most of theirs.

v.9       What is clear is that the Lord’s preaching and miracles had created a great stir, sufficient to grab the attention of the king.

One of the greatest books ever written on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus was A.B. Bruce’s The Training of the Twelve, first published in 1871 and thereafter reprinted in many editions. It is a book bristling with insights on virtually every page and full of the ripe fruit of powerful thinking in the service of Christian devotion. It is also elegantly written. I recommend  The Training of the Twelve to you all. I was put on to Bruce’s great book by the late Bill McColley, Dawn Darby’s father, then a minister of our presbytery. I remember Bill saying that Bruce had changed his mind on the question of the perpetual obligation of the Lord’s Day, so much so that after reading Bruce he had had to preach a sermon in his church recanting the previous sermons he had preached about the Lord’s Day! Books that can make a settled minister in the middle of his career do that are persuasive books indeed!

In his book Bruce, a Free Church of Scotland pastor and professor, pointed out:

“…there were two religious movements going on in the days of the Lord Jesus. One consisted in rousing the masses out of the stupor of indifference; the other consisted in the careful, exact training of men already in earnest, in the principles and truths of the divine kingdom.” [103]

Bruce’s book is the most complete study ever attempted of that second religious movement, the Lord’s training of his disciples for the ministry he would entrust to them once he had ascended to heaven. It was this part of the Lord’s ministry, though less dramatic than his own preaching and miracle-working, that was to bear by far the greater fruit. For it was these men, so carefully prepared for the calling of their later life, who would in the days of their apostleship provide the world with a full and authoritative revelation of the true religion, would lay the foundation for and organize the Christian church, furnish it with officers and laws, and start it on its course of conquest through the world. It was these men who, in obedience to Jesus Christ, by God’s grace, and through the power of the Spirit, created the church against which the gates of hell will never prevail.

There is a principle of leadership and accomplishment here that the church has often found it easy to forget and finds easy to forget even today. The wise leader, whether a churchman or a parent, will judge success and failure and will expend his or her energy not according to a calculation that places a premium on immediate and flamboyant results, but rather one that values results measured over the long term, measured by the greatest fruit born at the end of the day. We will do wise in our church, in our homes, in our Christian schools, always to operate with the same strategy the Lord employed: training others for the long stretch of life and Christian work and so multiplying our efforts many-fold.

But there is another principle of the Lord’s leadership still more obvious here and, while it has been intimated before, this is the first instance in the Gospel of Luke in which we have seen him put that principle into practice. Jesus had a public ministry of his own. The disciples were basically following him around, their role was primarily that of observers, though no doubt they helped him in a variety of practical ways. We have observed that public ministry through the chapters we have so far read in the Gospel. But at the same time he was preparing this group of men to continue that ministry when he was gone. He was teaching them every day – as we read in chapters 6 and 8 – he gave to his disciples deeper instruction than he gave to the crowds. He made sure they understood what he was saying and that they appreciated the implications of his teaching. He was a rabbi and they were his pupils. But, more than that, here he began to introduce them into the practice of the ministry, the utterly unique ministry that was his and would be theirs. As in so many other callings in life, one learns best by doing. There is no doubt that this “short-term mission trip” – for such it was – was part of the training of the twelve.

But more than simply training, it was an immediate extension of the Lord’s own ministry. Through his disciples, his truth, his power, and his authority could be in many more places at the same time. The Lord multiplied his ministry by sharing it with others. That was the strategic vision of the Lord Jesus.

Now that may sound unremarkable to us. We, after all, live in the era of the vision statement and the mission statement. Companies and organizations of all kinds, and churches as well spend millions of dollars and invest thousands of hours developing these statements that define their so-called strategic vision and invest still more to condense their vision statement into a few words, a concise, usually catchy summary of their mission or their “core values.” Wal-Mart, for example, has a vision statement and a mission statement. Its mission is “To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same thing as rich people.” Microsoft’s mission is “to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.” I would like to have been the person paid to come up with that sentence!

Now, we may smile at our particularly American obsession with the faddishness of all of this – after all, how did the Hudson Bay Company or Standard Oil or The Ford Motor Company make any money without having paid consultants millions to produce a mission statement (Can you imagine Henry Ford parting with millions to have some Madison Avenue whippersnapper tell him what the mission of his car company should be?) – but no one will dispute the obvious fact that companies that know what they are doing and why and keep their focus on their core beliefs and values are far more likely to succeed. Pan American and Trans-World Airlines on the one hand, and many churches on the other were organizations that got to a point where they didn’t know what they were doing or why and went out of business.

I recently received from my alma mater, the Divinity School of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, a newsletter, the featured article of which introduced the new woman pastor of the cathedral church near the University, St. Machar’s. St. Machar’s is an impressive medieval structure, but like most Scottish Presbyterian churches has utterly lost its way. The new pastor opined that the key emphasis of her ministry – shall we call it the church’s vision or mission – will be “social justice” – which in liberal theological speak means talking endlessly with like-minded liberals about reconstructing the peoples of Britain and of other countries into imitations of leftist Europeans and North Americans.

Well, I can promise you, after two generations of this have already decimated the Church of Scotland and transformed it into an old ladies club, destined to go entirely out of business within the foreseeable future, a Christian church with “social justice” so understood as its mission is a church with death written all over it. St. Machar’s is a lovely stone cathedral; not as large as the great Gothic churches of England, but large enough. To a man or woman of real Christian faith its age, its architecture, and its beautifully appointed sanctuary convey to the soul the impression of that long march of the generations of Christians who have worshipped there. But, though it is Aberdeen’s cathedral church, though it sits cheek to jowl with the university and its thousands of university students, there are probably five, six, or seven or eight times as many who come to worship here of a Sunday as go there. It is a Christian church without the mission of a Christian church, without a reason to be. For social justice, whatever one understands that to be, is not distinctly the mission of the Christian church and plenty of other larger, better funded organizations that think the very same thing about social justice as does the new minister of St. Machar’s are already sponsoring conferences and lobbying the government to come out for this position or fund that program or change that law. Adding a few old ladies in Aberdeen to the cause isn’t going to make any difference. There are in the Western world many churches that are very like those companies that at the end of their lives seemed to exist for no higher purpose than to continue to provide their executives with a job.

There is nothing of this aimlessness about the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom that he is establishing in the world. The Lord’s mission was to proclaim the gospel – the liberating power of the grace of God – to sinners and to form his church into an enterprise that would spread his kingdom – by word and by deed – to the four corners of the earth.

And that is precisely what he did. He set out to do it and he did it. But he didn’t do it by itself. Though he ascended to heaven and was no longer physically present in the world, working in and through his Holy Spirit, the church mushroomed shortly after his ascension into an organization, an organism such as the world had never seen before. It spread everywhere; it brought light and life to people of every language, race, nationality and social position. It could not be held back by government decree or by violent resistance. Its agents – and every single Christian was an agent – were relentless in doing what Jesus himself had done and doing it by his power and in the strength of his continued presence.

It was, indeed, as if there had once been but one Jesus, but now there were thousands and then millions. And as had been the case in the Lord’s own ministry, salvation came by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. The Gospel did not make its conquests by force or violence but by love and reason.

And, what is more remarkable still, the Christian church overspread the earth, and continues to do so, even though it had to drag along behind it hosts of its members who not only made no contribution to the effort, but were a positive hindrance, whose lives were an argument against the good news rather than for it and whose indifference was a standing temptation for generations of serious Christians. To do what Jesus did and what the disciples did after him was hard, demanding work. It was sometimes dangerous, even deadly; it was usually difficult. And when multitudes of so-called Christians contented themselves with doing little or nothing for the kingdom of God, serious, committed Christians were tempted by their example to do the same: to do less rather than more, to spend less rather than more, and to suffer less for the gospel’s sake than more. But still the church advanced, and not only were vast multitudes brought to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ but entire peoples and cultures were transformed. A great deal more social justice was achieved – the condemnation and then eradication of criminal acts that heretofore were taken to be a matter of course, the elevation of the status of women and the granting of true dignity to their work as wives and mothers, the establishment of the sanctity of marriage, the recognition of the poor as deserving of kindness, respect, and help, the establishment of the Christian Sunday giving even the most subservient worker a day off every week, an ax laid to the root of totalitarian and all brutal forms of government, and all the rest. As one scholar after another has admitted – willingly or unwillingly – where the gospel of Christ went the lives of people were always bettered in many ways. Justice increased; injustice decreased.

And, remember, Christians following in the steps of these twelve disciples, taking up the Lord’s own ministry and carrying it forward, did so without the astonishing power that for a few years was granted to these first disciples, these twelve men. The Christian men and women who brought the gospel to the world could not heal the sick by the mere utterance of a command. They couldn’t raise the dead or give sight to the blind. The only part of the disciples’ ministry that they shared was preaching the Gospel. They had to pray for the rest and God gave it as he would and only from time to time. Indeed, for that matter, as the evidence of the NT itself suggests, even these men, the Lord’s original disciples, could work miracles in Jesus’ name only for the first years of their ministry. After that they were preachers only; no longer healers of the sick.

I read the other day of Robert Moffat, the pioneer missionary to southern Africa in the 19th century and father-in-law of the better known though no more heroic missionary, David Livingstone. Long years of tireless preaching and teaching, which required learning new languages, mastering utterly alien cultures, loving habitually violent and ungrateful people, fighting off disease, alone, far from home, rarely receiving any letters – once it was two years before a letter from home reached him – and yet he shouldered on. For years no one paid attention to the gospel as he explained it to others, until some years later they suddenly did, first by the ones and twos, then by the hundreds, then by the thousands and, now, almost two centuries later by the hundreds of millions.

We are so used to this story that it is easy for us to forget that there was a time in the history of the world in which nothing like this was done. No one was making great sacrifices to bring the good news to those who hadn’t heard it. All of this originated in the Lord’s own ministry and it began right here, in Luke 9. Hisministry was, by his own strategic vision, being multiplied by his disciples. And with thirteen men now preaching the good news and proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ, a still greater stir was created than even the Lord’s teaching and miracles had already created, which was great enough, as we have already read, to bring people to Galilee from all parts of Palestine and from as far away as Tyre and Sidon. All over Galilee innkeepers and shopkeepers were finding business booming because of all the people streaming into their towns who had come to catch some sight of the celebrated Jesus, to have their sick loved ones healed, and to hear the famous teacher. And the twelve’s tour of the towns and villages only added to the furor.

It is an interesting observation, by the way, that for all the effect of their ministry throughout Galilee, for all the preaching they did and all the sick they healed, apparently no one ever thought that these men themselves were equal to Jesus. Everyone knew – not only because the disciples themselves made this abundantly clear but because it was so perfectly obvious – that these men could do what they did only because of their association with Jesus. As A.B. Bruce explains [99]:

“All the miracles wrought by the twelve were really wrought by Jesus himself, their sole function consisting in making a believing use of his name This seems to have been perfectly understood by all; for the works done by the apostles did not lead the people to wonder who they were, but only who and what He was in whose name all these things were done.”

Have you thought about this? Have you ever reflected on the fact that the Lord has given his own ministry to his followers? To you! He didn’t even hold to himself the power to work miracles. He shared that power with his disciples! Later in the book of Acts we will read that the apostles, equipped with the Lord’s power, did such mighty works that people – unfamiliar with Jesus and his ministry as the people of Galilee had been – actually thought that the apostles were gods come down from heaven. And Peter and Paul would have to disabuse them of that mistake and explain that they were not gods but representatives of the one true and living God whose grace they had come to bring them. What an honor to be entrusted with a ministry that was likely to make people think that you were God!

What condescension on the Lord’s part, what love, to give his servants such a stature, such a role and such an indispensable position in the work he is doing in the world. Is there anyone in the history of the world who has shown himself more ready to share the credit of good things with others than Jesus Christ? And not only share the credit. He rejoices in doing his great work in the world through and by his disciples. It was his plan. He was never going to bring salvation to the world by himself. It was always his strategic vision to do that through others. His kingdom was to be carried to the world on the backs of those who believed in him. It was his way of granting his people dignity and honor. It was a way of his investing in their lives something of his own supreme importance and significance and granting them some taste of his power.

To minister in his name, to bring life to the dead in his name, to be the cause of the building of his church and the extension of his kingdom in some place and at some time is the greatest privilege that has ever been bestowed on mere human beings. We may not appreciate that fact, but in the next world looking back, we will stand utterly amazed that the Lord took us up into his plan, made us essential to it, and shared the credit of the greatest work of all with us.

This was the first time that the disciples went out to preach the good news, but it would not be the last. On Pentecost Peter would preach a sermon that brought 3,000 people to faith in Christ. We can’t say for sure, of course, but that 3,000 may represent more than all the true followers of Christ that the Lord himself accumulated through the three years of his own public ministry. We do not get the impression that Palestine was teeming with his followers at the time of his crucifixion. It is not only that the Lord allowed his followers to share in his work; it is much more than that. It’s that the Lord intended his followers to do the work. He gave his followers the privilege of doing that work, of it all being theirs.

And so it was. And they gloried in that privilege and like the twelve on this first tour they cared little for the comforts of life or the acquisition of wealth. They lived simply, they served generously, they sacrificed willingly to spread the news of Christ and salvation to the world.

And still today it is the same. Have you reflected on this? As a result of the witness by word and deed that Christians give to others, others come to believe in Jesus and follow him. They don’t come to believe in us, they come to believe in him. It is our privilege to carry Jesus Christ into the hearts of others.

It is this identification between Jesus and his followers, between Jesus and his disciples, but as well between Jesus and you and me that is the key. We are the extension of his ministry and it is Jesus himself who comes to others through our words and deeds. Astonishing! He chose to save the world through us! That is the Lord’s strategic vision: to save the world and to use us to do it.

But it is precisely this identification that often worries us, is it not? Jesus was a controversial figure. Some loved him; others hated him. He was much spoken against. And throughout history and now increasingly in our culture, being a servant of the Lord Jesus – obviously and publicly – can get you scorned or worse. The life the twelve lived was, for this reason difficult and dangerous. At least a number of them died violent deaths precisely because Jesus had identified himself with them and they with him. The offense he was to people was transferred to them.

You have heard, I’m sure, of Charles Simeon, the Anglican preacher and pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, England for some 50 years in the later 18th and early 19th century. He was a man like these twelve men, spending his life proclaiming the gospel and building the kingdom. He did what Jesus did, not only proclaiming the message himself, but training others to do the same and from Holy Trinity a large number of missionary heroes left to take the gospel to the four corners of the world. Simeon became a man of immense and justly deserved reputation in the Christian world; a man of whom this world was not worthy. But it didn’t begin that way!

He came to the pastorate of Holy Trinity, as a young man of 23, a still young and untested minister. Although he was still only a deacon and too young to have the authority to dispense the Lord’s Supper, through a strange set of circumstances, he was effectively allowed to jump ahead of a number of men more experienced and with a greater claim on such a substantial church, and was forced upon an unwilling congregation by his bishop as a favor to Simeon’s father. The congregation had wanted someone else and someone with much less gospel conviction than Simeon who had become a real believer in Jesus shortly before.

They did their best to drive the young man off. The pew-holders – in those days the better-off rented their pews and only they were allowed to sit in them – stayed away. The result was that Simeon from his pulpit would look out over a sea of empty pews while the few who cared to hear him were standing in the aisles or sitting on benches along the walls. He was spoken against in the town, people from his church refused to acknowledge him in the street, and young undergraduates, sensing an opportunity to make mischief would come to church with no other purpose but to talk out loud during the service or stomp their feet noisily during the sermon. And so it continued for several years! Simeon was a joke in the town. He was a somewhat gangly and eccentric fellow anyway and easy to poke fun at. You can imagine how that kind of treatment could crush a sensitive young man, seemingly a failure from the outset of his ministry. But listen to him tell you what happened.

“When I was an object of much contempt and derision in the university, I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted with my little Testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to my God that he would comfort me with some cordial from his Word, and that on opening the book I might find some text that would sustain me… The first text which caught my eye was this:
            ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear his Cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was there – what a blessed hint for my encouragement! To have the Cross lay upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus – what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honoring with a participation in his sufferings…I henceforth bound persecution as a wreath of glory round my brow!” [Hopkins, 81]

It was his identification with Jesus that had made his life miserable for a time, but it was his identification with Jesus that made his life finally so consequential. There are millions of Christians in the world today in part because of the work Charles Simeon did preaching the gospel and training others to do the same.

In Simeon’s time as well men went out with no staff or knapsack or extra pair of sandals, but they were glad to do it because the one who had loved them and given himself for them had made far greater sacrifices that those. They took up his message and made it their own because it was the message that had transformed their lives and, deeply grateful as they were for what Jesus had given them, they wanted others to hear of Jesus Christ, his love, his salvation, and his glory as the King of Kings.

Remember we said in a sermon months ago, that the twelve were a microcosm of the church. While certainly some features of their ministry were unique to them and to their historical moment, in many respects they are every Christian. It is our calling as well, to take the good news of Jesus to others, to travel light while doing so, and to be so thoroughly identified with the Lord Christ that what people hear from us and see in us makes them ponder and consider him!

There is no privilege in all of human life remotely as great as this: that you should have been given to perform the work of the Son of God in the world! We will, if we do not already, someday realize that no more astonishing gift was given to us than this: that we should share the establishment of the kingdom with the Son of God!