I pointed out in last week’s sermon and in the sermon previous to that that Luke did not include in his narrative of the conversation the Lord had with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi Peter’s rebuke of the Lord for his prediction that he would suffer many things, be rejected by the elders of the people, be put to death, and rise again from the dead. Nor did he record the Lord’s stern rejoinder to Peter: “Get behind me Satan.” But what we now learn is that he did not omit that exchange because he was trying to preserve the reputation of the disciples. Following the account of the transfiguration, we have five short paragraphs (or four, if vv. 49-40 belong to the verses before them) each of which reflects poorly on the disciples. The passage we are about to read effectively brings to an end the main narrative of the Lord’s Galilean ministry. We are left with the realization that, as the Lord turns now to pay more attention to the preparation of his disciples for their future ministry, they remain a group of men with a lot to learn!
v.39 After the glory of the experience of his transfiguration on the mountain top, the Lord is plunged immediately back into the fray. The powers of darkness are still abroad in the world and people are still in desperate need of his help.
v.40 Remember, these men had successfully dealt with demon possession on their preaching tour of which we read in the opening verses of the chapter. Now the power had left them and the implication seems to be that it was their fault.
v.41 By leaving out other material we find in Matthew and Mark, Luke emphasizes the Lord’s words, “O faithless and twisted generation…” The emphasis falls on their lack of faith, a lack of faith even the disciples shared to some extent.
v.43 Once again it was impossible not to identify what Jesus did with the transcendence of God. They knew very well that he was wielding divine power.
v.44 Once again the Lord turned their attention away from the dramatic phenomena of his works of power to his coming passion, which, after all, was what really mattered! Only the Lord’s cross could save this boy from the demons forever!
v.45 It was concealed, no doubt in large part, because they couldn’t have grasped it in their present state of confusion and spiritual misunderstanding. But the fact that they didn’t dare ask him about it does not speak well of them.
v.46 It seems more than unseemly to us that these men should have actually had a discussion as to which of them was the greatest and why: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greatest of them all?” But then we have such conversations with ourselves in our thoughts all the time! It is perfectly obvious that the disciples were far from having the spirit that the Lord Jesus himself was demonstrating. He’s been speaking of giving up his life for his people and they are concerned for pride of place. He was thinking of others; they of themselves. [Morris, 194]
v.48 In other words, true greatness is not found in the one who wants to be first, but who is willing to serve the lowly and the unworthy.
v.50 These two verses are fascinating for several reasons. They indicate the stir that the Lord’s ministry had caused. It is not surprising that others had cottoned on to the fact that demons were subject to Jesus’ name and had cast them out invoking Jesus’ name to do so. And already during the Lord’s own ministry we can detect the fissures that would bedevil the church in the ages since. The disciples didn’t want anything being done in Jesus’ name by anyone who was not a member of their group. How many times have we heard that over the past 2,000 years! The Lord rejoiced in all work that was being done in his name and ordered us to do the same.
v.51 You will not appreciate the fact, all the more given the chapter division as it stands, but with v. 51 begins a long section unique to Luke. In fact, in Gospel scholarship it is referred to as Luke’s “great interpolation,” by which is meant a large amount of material — mostly teaching — that is inserted between what comes before it and after it in the Gospel of Mark, which Gospel’s order Luke appears to be following. The interpolation extends from 9:51 to 18:14, ten chapters, and includes some of the most memorable material in the Gospel history, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
“He set his face to go to Jerusalem” is a very important statement in the Gospel history. It is clear from this point that the Lord was focused on his coming death and the resurrection that would follow it. The appeal to the Galileans, the great public ministry was now largely over. His attention now turned almost exclusively to his disciples and their preparation for the ministry that would be theirs upon his ascension. He made his way slowly southward, though apparently in fits and starts and with detours along the way. After all, a year would separate the transfiguration from the crucifixion. The passion lay before him and the Lord turned himself toward that. This, of course, was what he had announced to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi and what he had spoken to Moses and Elijah about on the mountain. Indeed, there is some thought that Moses was there to speak of his death — remember it was referred to as his “exodus” — and Elijah was there to speak of his resurrection, as Elijah, remember, was taken directly to heaven, one of two men in human history who did not die but went directly to heaven. “To be taken up” sounds like what happened to Elijah, does it not?
v.53 The Samaritans lived between Galilee in the north and Judea and Jerusalem in the south. But relations between them and the Jews were so embittered that when they learned that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem they showed no further interest in him.
v.56 Offended by the insult to their master, James and John wondered if the Lord would have them call fire down from heaven upon these enemies as Elijah had done in 2 Kings 1. But once again the Lord told them that such behavior was not appropriate for his disciples.
One of the most fascinating figures of early Christianity was Jerome, the biblical scholar and Bible translator whose work was to shape European Christianity in many ways. His Latin translation of the Bible, commonly called the Vulgate, was the Bible of European Christianity for more than a millennium. It was Jerome who insisted and virtually by himself, in the face of unrelenting criticism by men who should have known better, that the Bible should be translated into modern languages directly from the Hebrew and Greek original. There were many in those days who were advocates of what we would nowadays call the “King James Only” viewpoint. They liked their old Latin Bibles and didn’t want to change even though the defects in that translation were obvious to all. He was a gifted writer, a very important scholar, and a devout Christian. Perhaps no one but Augustine looms so large in that tumultuous and formative period of church history as Jerome.
But what is so striking about Jerome is that while he was without question a great Christian man who in his zeal for the Lord made great contributions to the establishment of the faith, he was at the same time a real pill. He may have been a genius as both a writer and a biblical scholar, but as a Christian man he lost friends as fast as he made them because of his thin skin — he never took well criticism of any kind – and for his tendency to blame his own very obvious faults on someone else. Sooner or later almost all his friends and scholarly peers felt the lash of his acid tongue and pen. Jerome was a master of personal attack and, the Lord’s commandments of love and forgiveness notwithstanding, he took no prisoners. He also seemed, even to his friends, to be simply incapable of appreciating the fact — so obvious to everyone else — that what he found so objectionable in others were frequently the very failings of which he himself was notably guilty. I could tell you story after story of his hypocrisy, his cruelty, his jealousy, and his vengeance. Name any great man of the 4th century and you can pretty well count on the fact that he ended up on Jerome’s bad side. He didn’t admire Ambrose, thought little of John Chrysostom, and so it goes. He was, I regret to say, a great hater and a master of the sarcastic putdown. Jerome’s most learned biographer, the English scholar J.N.D. Kelly, imagines that his Christian friends not infrequently must have shaken their heads in dismay at the things he said or wrote and especially the way he treated other brothers in Christ. [Jerome, 169] Another scholar surmises that “About the only way Jerome could get lasting friends was posthumously.” [Wills, Augustine, 88]
The story of the correspondence between Jerome and his younger contemporary Augustine is a perfect example. Jerome took offense at the slightest suggestion that he may have been wrong about something, was cutting and patronizing in his replies, while Augustine, eager to maintain the great man’s friendship, wrote typically self-effacing, apologetic, and respectful replies. Augustine had supposed at the outset that Jerome would actually be eager to discuss some questions Augustine had about some of Jerome’s writings. Before long he learned how prickly a person Jerome was and how carefully he had to be handled. And so, predictably, it was Augustine, not Jerome, who took pains to maintain the friendship, to calm ruffled feathers, and to apologize for whatever remark Jerome may have taken amiss. Honestly, read a biography of Jerome and before you are very far into it you will want to wring the guy’s neck! But, you will also appreciate what great contributions he made to the kingdom of God and how deep was his passion for godliness as he understood it.
Such is the Christian life in one measure or another, much as we wish it were not. We hold the treasures of the gospel in jars of clay! And so it has always been; and so it was at the beginning. New life, salvation, the gates of heaven opening before us, the love of God, the transformation of human hearts, and human life reflecting the glory of God — this is salvation in Jesus Christ. But, at the same time, so much dismal pettiness, moral failure, pique, and foolishness. We just saw the Lord Jesus on the mountain top, his whole body transformed in dazzling glory. But now we are treated to a series of incidents, one following hard upon the other, in which the disciples reveal some disappointing aspect of their character and the Lord must confront and correct them.
In one of Raphael’s great paintings, indeed the very last painted by the Renaissance master, you have this very juxtaposition of light and darkness. On a huge canvas we see the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top and, at the same moment, the futile efforts of the disciples at the foot of the mountain to deliver the boy from the demon. We have Jesus in splendor and, as a counter-point, the disciples in darkness, guilty of one blunder after another. As one commentator beautifully expressed these contrasting scenes:
“The magnificent isolation of Jesus in his moral and spiritual grandeur, symbolized by the vanishing of Moses and Elijah from the mount of vision, [in the painting you can actually see Moses and Elijah disappearing in the scene] is now further emphasized by four incidents which betray the disciples [in their lack of moral and spiritual grandeur].” [Caird, 134]
While Peter, James, and John were blinded by the light, the disciples left below were confounded by the darkness. As Matthew tells us and Luke implies, their faith was too weak to drive out the demon. When next they hear again of the Lord’s impending suffering and death they remain confused and even afraid to bring up the subject, so utterly unable were they to understand how the Lord’s tremendous power would not be sufficient to prevent his death at the hands of his enemies. Then they fall into an argument as to which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom Jesus was about to establish. Who was the fairest of them all? Their own weakness and failure had just been exposed, but that didn’t distract them from discussions of their own glory! I’m sure all of them were entirely serious about this: it was a question worth pondering, which of them would be greatest. We may roll our eyes from our vantage point; they didn’t roll theirs.
Where there is pride and self-importance, jealousy will never be far away. So from thinking about their own importance they move to taking umbrage that someone else — not part of their group — had the temerity to drive out demons in Jesus’ name. The Lord’s rebuff of their concern only made explicit what was in any case perfectly obvious: they were more concerned with their names than with the Lord’s.
And, finally, in response to the rejection of Jesus by some Samaritans the disciples give way to the spirit of revenge, and, perhaps, a certain arrogance according to which they had come to think of themselves in the same company as Elijah who, as we read in 2 Kings 1, once called fire down from heaven on the enemies of the Lord. For this the Lord had to rebuke his disciples once again. Where in them is the humility, the grace, the love, the forgiveness that they had seen in him and heard taught by him?
One moment we see the Lord in splendor; the next we see his disciples stumbling along, putting every foot wrong, trying the Savior’s patience and getting directly in his way as he proceeds to undertake the salvation of the world. All of this would be interesting if we were only to see in the disciples something of the trial that they were to the Lord Jesus, something of what he had to put up with from his closest followers. They would serve, as they certainly do, to reveal his beautiful patience and his mighty love.
But, of course, the disciples are not only themselves in this history; they are every Christian, a picture of what Christian discipleship would always be. We know that because they serve in the Gospel history as a microcosm of the church — that is, after all, why there were twelve of them; they are the new Israel in miniature — and because so much of the teaching the Lord Jesus gave them was teaching intended for all the believers in Jesus who would follow them. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” is just one example of that.
What is more, there is nothing that we find in the disciples to their discredit in the Gospel history that we don’t find in the Christians of the apostolic period and which we haven’t found in Christians throughout the ages since and, for that matter, that we can’t find in ourselves today. Pride, self-absorption, a vengeful spirit, spiritual cluelessness — we live with the burden of such things every day. We have had reason to condemn ourselves for such things a thousand times and still we have reason to condemn ourselves.
Weary of earth and laden with my sin
I look at heaven and long to enter in…
We must be careful in acknowledging this, of course. The fact that everyone, even the best Christian is a moral failure a thousand times over, can easily become an excuse for our ceasing to strive to obey, to love, and to serve the Lord. The fact that no one is perfect is the hypocrite’s bed of ease, but it should remain the believer’s bed of thorns.
But without in any way excusing our failures, and there is no excuse for what we see in the disciples here and what we so often see in ourselves, I want you to find the encouragement that is here as well.
- Obviously, these men really were the followers and disciples of the Lord Jesus. They really did become the foundation upon which the entire Christian church has ever since rested. They really did turn the world upside down as Christian evangelists. They weren’t false disciples or fake Christians. They were the genuine article. For all their gaffes — and there would be many more — they really did believe in Jesus, they really did love him, and they really did serve him. And that should certainly be a great encouragement to any serious-minded Christian. We wonder, we must wonder whether our persistent moral failures do not disqualify us, do not nullify our profession of faith in Jesus. Perhaps we are hypocrites after all.
But here is the proof that remaining a sinner — a stupid, proud, foolish sinner — one can still be a genuine follower of Jesus with a living faith in him. These men were that even with all their warts. I remember Alexander Whyte once describing Romans 7:14-25 as the most encouraging passage in the Word of God. You remember that text. It is Paul’s heartfelt confession of how much sin remained in his life as a man 30 years a Christian and an apostle of Jesus Christ. The great preacher meant that if the Apostle Paul, of all people, was still complaining about how much a sinner he remained, of how often he did what he didn’t want to do and shouldn’t do, well then there must be hope as well for you and me. Being a sinner doesn’t mean one is not a true Christian because Paul was obviously the truest sort of Christian and he admitted that he remained a great sinner, even, in his typically extravagant way, a “bond slave of sin.”
There is something uniquely Christian here. The adherents of other religions and secular faiths do not mourn their failures as Christians continually do and must do. They are not daily conscious of the fact that they have not lived worthy of the grace and love they have received from God. But we Christians are and will be until the end of our lives and next to the tragedy of a Christian soul under the burden of his or her continuing sinfulness all of your other so-called tragedies, your Macbeths and your Hamlets, are just so many stage plays, full of sound and fury but signifying little or nothing. Perhaps Christians are not made perfectly good until the next world primarily to ensure that no one get the idea that we are saved because of our goodness. But whatever the reason the fact of every Christian’s continuing sinfulness, for a Christian, is both his burden and his great consolation.
We need texts like these exposes of the disciples’ sins, you and I, because we need to be reminded that behavior like that of the disciples here — depressing and disgusting as it is — is the sad fact of every true believer’s life. It is right for us to pity and to condemn the disciples here — we must never excuse, never accept or tolerate behavior like this — but it is also right for us to sigh and say, “Such is my life too. I must be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.” We Christians are a happy lot and a sad one and will be until we have been taken up as Jesus was. If you weren’t both happy for your salvation and sad for your continuing sin, you wouldn’t be a Christian.
- The second great encouragement we can find in these all too typical failures on the part of the disciples is that weak as they were in many ways, prone to moral lapses as they were, clueless as they continued to be in some ways, disinterested as they remained in the Lord’s will at least from time to time, they were used mightily by the Lord in the establishment of his kingdom.
They may have been weak, but the Lord used his strength to do great things through them. For all their occasional stupidity, they became in fact the most important and the most influential men in the world of their day and their accomplishment is still evident everywhere we look in the world of our own day. It was these men who made Christianity a world religion; it was they who established the church as the visible presence of the kingdom of God in the world. It was they, and a few others who would eventually join their company, who gave the world one of the greatest gifts it has ever received, the last twenty-seven books of the Bible!
What this means is that a man or woman does not have to be a spiritual giant to accomplish great things in the service of Jesus Christ. Spiritual midgets, which we all are in many ways, are fully capable of great deeds. Christian history is full of the great things very ordinary people have accomplished, whether the raising of children for Christ or sending the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. It was an unlettered, uneducated working man that brought Charles Spurgeon to faith in Christ one snowy Sunday morning, the same Spurgeon who would, in turn, bring thousands upon thousands of others to Christ through his ministry. It was a peasant woman whose words and whose example rescued Abraham Kuyper from the unbelief of theological liberalism and set him on his course of great achievement for the church of Jesus Christ.
Just as personal defects, including such moral defects as we witness in the disciples here, are not excuse for not doing our duty, so they are no impediment to fruitful service. To demonstrate to us that both our salvation and our usefulness is all of his grace, the Lord chooses to use proud, weak, fools like us to accomplish his will in the world. This is the great mystery of the kingdom of God, but the proof of it may be found everywhere we look!
The disciples may have been — indeed they were — the living proof that Jesus had to go to the cross to accomplish the salvation of his people. They were obviously not capable of saving themselves! But they were also the living proof that the Lord’s disciples — weak and foolish as they remained — would and could build the kingdom of Jesus Christ in the world.
People will often excuse their indifference to the gospel, their unwillingness to attend the services of the Christian church by saying that the church is full of hypocrites. “The Church has nothing for me; those people are all hypocrites.” And they are right! And not hypocrites only, but selfish, unkind, proud, unsympathetic, vengeful, impure, and jealous. The difference is that we Christians know we are hypocrites and all these other things; we mourn the fact, and we do not let it distract us from following after and serving the one, the only one in the history of mankind, who was never for a moment a hypocrite, never vengeful or impure or unsympathetic or proud or selfish, never for a moment a sinner of any kind, and came into the world precisely to save sinners from their sin. We may be followers only, but we are at least following the one man, the right man, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We’ve got a lot of sin to get taken away and he’s the only one who can take it away. That’s why they call us Christians.