In the Gospel of John we learn that the hours the Lord spent with his disciples in the Upper Room that Passover night were crowded with interactions and conversations of various kinds, including his washing the disciples’ feet and his long discourse on his departure from the world and the coming of the Holy Spirit in his place. Much of that is omitted in Luke, which as you remember is already the longest Gospel and the longest book of the New Testament, but that just makes more interesting the material that Luke chose to include. Between the institution of the Lord’s Supper, of which we read last Lord’s Day morning, and the Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane which comes next, Luke reports three short conversations, each memorable in its own way, but together constituting something of a philosophy of the Christian life.
Evidently the disciples thought that the Lord was about to establish his kingdom — he had spoken of the coming of the kingdom in the previous paragraph — and they began arguing about which places in that kingdom would be assigned to each of them. A similar dispute had occurred earlier, some proof of how thick-headed the disciples had remained. They never seemed to get the point the first time and often not the second or the third. Reminds me of someone; who is that? I can’t remember.
The point is, people like to get credit for what they have done. [Morris, 326] In fact a number of ancient kings referred to themselves as “Benefactors.” They were authoritarian, usually cruel, but it was always for the good of others, you see.
They thought the triumph of Jesus’ kingdom was upon them. In fact a long a difficult road lay before them. So the Lord assured them, in language they no doubt remembered later, that they would enjoy the messianic banquet in due time and, for all they endured on the Lord’s behalf, they would indeed be granted important places in his kingdom. Great honor does lie before them, but it will come to them neither as soon nor as easily as they imagined.
The “you” in the phrase “Satan demanded to have you” is plural and so refers to all the disciples. The Lord goes on to speak of Peter in particular, but, of course, they all deserted him when he was arrested. This is an important way of speaking. Satan is not omnipotent. He can ask, but he has no rights, no independent authority. What that means, of course, is that the tests and trials we endure as Christians are only such as our Heavenly Father allows. Christians know that even in the most difficult passages of their lives they are always dealing with the will and the hand of their heavenly Father. Sifting like wheat suggests that Peter would face a heavy trial.
Another highly important point: Jesus did not pray that Peter would be spared the trial but that his faith would prevail in the trial. Trials are necessary and one reason they are is that the one who has been through deep waters is best able to help others in their trials. What tremendous good Peter’s trial proved to be for him; and what help, wisdom, and consolation it has been to untold multitudes ever since.
When the Lord sent them out on their preaching tours their resources were small but, as they had to admit, they proved to be adequate. They had then been able to rely fully on the hospitality of others.
The “but now” indicates that more difficult days lie ahead. No longer would they be able to rely on the goodwill of those to whom they would come preaching the good news.
This is one of the places in the New Testament where Isaiah 53 and its prophecy of the coming servant of the Lord who would suffer and die for his people is directly applied to Jesus, and by himself at that.
In A.D. 1302 the Pope Boniface VIII, in his bull Unam Sanctam, one of the most historically significant of all papal deliverances, based his doctrine of the double power of the church — both civil and spiritual — on this statement about the disciples offering Jesus two swords. That interpretation, however, is a ludicrous misunderstanding of the context. The disciples were so clueless that they actually thought that Jesus was talking about swords, about weapons. It is a figure of speech, one of the violent metaphors of which the Lord was so fond. It was his graphic way of describing their future life as one of conflict and struggle. Jesus must have thought, “Oh, for goodness sake, it’s a figure of speech.”
And when he says in reply, “It is enough,” he isn’t saying that two swords should be enough; he isn’t expressing agreement with their understanding of the situation; he is somewhat sadly dismissing the conversation as pointless. They don’t get it and there is no use talking about it with them. The same idiom is used in other texts in this dismissive sense, “Enough of that.” More like our “Forget it.”
If you were asked to explain what it means to be a Christian, what would you say? Not how to become a Christian, but what it is like to be a Christian. What would you say? How will your life be different from the life of one of your non-Christian friends? Perhaps you are an unbeliever yourself. You might be interested in what we Christians would say; how we would describe the difference between us and you. You might think that we would say, “We are better than you are.” But, the fact is, no Christian would say that. It is fundamental to our understanding of life that we are not better than you. Indeed, in one important way we are and must be worse than you. We have received a great gift, an impossibly great gift: forgiveness of our sins and peace with God, eternal life and an inheritance in heaven. Accordingly, when we do not demonstrate a proper gratitude for God’s love and grace, when we do not honor God with our lives — which we do whenever we are selfish, small-minded, petty, lustful, dishonest and all the rest — we are more guilty than you. We are sinning against God in a greater way than you ever do because we are sinning against his love, against his goodness, and against his forgiveness and we are sinning in the full knowledge of how wrong it is, how ungrateful, and how inexcusable.
We Christians might say that we are different precisely because love and gratitude obliges us to live our lives as a response to the grace and mercy that God has shown us. We might speak of our commitment to serve Jesus Christ by serving others in his name. We might describe the ethics that now govern our lives, the standards of right and wrong that now govern our behavior because we are Christians. All of that would be important to say, and the Bible teaches us to say such things times without number.
But such things are hardly the only things that might be said to give someone — an interested inquirer, say — an idea of what Christians are about and what sort of life they live. In fact, we have such a description of the Christian life here. We have here the last body of teaching that the Lord gave to his disciples about their lives as his disciples. Immediately after delivering this teaching he left with them for Gethsemane where, after some time spent by himself, he would be arrested. These three short paragraphs, therefore, contain something like the Lord’s Last Will and Testament. The words the Lord spoke on this occasion are often referred to as his “farewell discourse,” and that is what this is. This is the Lord’s “Goodbye.”
We can’t help but be curious about what he said on that occasion. After three long years teaching and training these twelve men, now eleven, he seized a final opportunity to say a few last things. After the Sermon on the Mount, after all of his parables and the explanations of them he provided to his disciples, after his long discourses on the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light of the world, and so on, there were still a few things he needed to say.
Three short paragraphs, each of which addressed an issue concerning which his disciples still remained profoundly confused. Three separate things. But what binds them together is precisely that the disciples found them so difficult to understand, difficult not least because in each case they describe a life that we do not find natural, a life to which we are averse, a life that, left to ourselves, we would not want to live and would not live. The life Jesus describes here only makes sense to Christians; it only makes sense if what Christians believe is actually true. Consider the Lord’s remarks one by one.
- In the first case, he said that his disciples must live with a radically different view of success and greatness than that of the world.
He spoke in vv. 24-30 of the unbeliever, the non-Christian, who thinks of his life in terms of this world, solely in terms of this world, who wants to accumulate as much power, or position, or comfort, or pleasure, or whatever he or she can. Often that success is measured by the power or control that he or she exercises over others. But the accumulation of power and influence is but the one example of this worldly mindset the Lord chose to describe in this way.
Not so the Christian. He or she has to be different in just this way. He or she will gain great status, influence, and pleasure, indeed far more than anyone could ever imagine in this world, but not now, not here, but as a gift of God in a world to come. We don’t know exactly what it means “to sit on thrones” or to “judge the twelve tribes of Israel,” but the rest of the New Testament teaches us that such rewards await not only the Lord’s original disciples but all Christians.
The Christian gains that status not by craving it or seeking it but precisely by forsaking the desire for it, by denying the importance that unbelievers attach to such things. No one could have enjoyed more of what this world has to offer than Jesus Christ and he forsook it all to save us. And the princes and the princesses of his kingdom are to do the same thing. The Lord’s point in vv. 26-27 is not that if his followers wish to rise to great positions in the church they must first prove themselves in a lowly position. His point is rather that faithful service in a lowly place is true greatness already. [Morris, 326] The only greatness in this kingdom is humble service! [Caird, 239]
How differently the world measures a human life than that same life is measured in heaven! The world gives its rewards to the successful, the powerful, the beautiful, and the wealthy. The Lord gives his, he says here, to “those who have stood by me in my trials.” The Lord measures a life by a man or woman’s loyalty to him, by the sympathy, and humility that marked a man’s or a woman’s life, by the love a man or woman had for him and for his kingdom. That is the measure of true greatness in heaven and that is what will receive its reward in the world to come.
Alas, it can be a lonely life, as Jesus’ life was even in the midst of many friends; but friends who didn’t understand, who didn’t get it. Think of the Christian woman, there must be great numbers of such women in our American church today, in an unhappy marriage. She’s lived in this marriage long enough to know it probably isn’t going to get any better. She’s going to have to get old with this same man. Her friends, even often her Christian friends are urging her to leave it. But she says to them, “My Savior suffered far, far greater pain and sorrow for me and my salvation; I’m not going to seek my own comfort and pleasure at his expense! I’m not; I won’t. His trials secured my everlasting life. My trials are the opportunity to demonstrate my loyalty to him. But, sure enough, the time comes when she must tell her clueless friends, “It is enough; just forget it; let’s talk about something else.” It’s pointless to attempt to explain when your friends and neighbors do not understand the deep motivations of your life or the struggle that every Christian must embrace to live for Jesus in this world, or the supreme importance to you of loyalty to Jesus.
I like very much the opening words of John 11 where the town of Bethany is identified as “the village of Mary and Martha.” I’ll bet that nobody else thought of Bethany as “the village of Mary and Martha.” On earth towns and cities are identified by the prominent people who once lived or live in them. Near our cabin in Colorado is the old mining town of Victor. There isn’t much left of it now but at the city limit there is a sign that says the traveler is about to enter the birthplace of Lowell Thomas. Many of you won’t remember that name, but years ago Lowell Thomas was a national figure, a famous radio commentator. I suppose many people would think Victor pretty small potatoes if Lowell Thomas, a long-forgotten radio commentator, is the best it can do. Tacoma trumpets the fact that Bing Crosby once lived here. I’ll bet there are some young people here this morning who have no idea who Bing Crosby was. But in heaven towns and cities are looked at differently. Bethany was known in heaven as the town of Mary and Martha, because those two ladies had stood by the Lord in his trials. How do they speak of Tacoma in heaven? It is the town of those who love the Lord and who serve him by caring about the next world and by living not only for themselves, but for others.
- In the second case the Lord said that his disciples had to live their lives by faith, depending upon an invisible person, his power, his help, and his presence.
Living by faith in someone you cannot see or touch or hear is incredibly difficult. If you don’t think so, try to do it, really do it just for an hour or two, much less a whole day, or a week, or a month. All of us vastly overestimate our capabilities, our powers if you will. Peter did and he had to learn his lesson in a very hard way. We Christians are always making Peter’s boast in one way or another and often failing as he did, and needing to be restored as he eventually was.
It was Peter who first confessed Jesus Christ as Lord at Caesarea Philippi. It was Peter who had fallen on his face before the Lord at the time of the miracle of the catch of fish and cried out: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” It was Peter who, when others were turning away from Jesus after his bread of life discourse in John 6, said, “Lord, where shall we go; you have the words of life.” So Peter’s fall teaches us that even those who love Jesus, who have committed themselves to him and to his salvation, to the extent that they do what comes naturally and rely on themselves, to that extent they will prove themselves weak and they will fail. Peter had to learn that lesson and because he did he taught that lesson to us all. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” (Paul said that but Peter might just as well have) but I can’t do anything of any lasting importance by myself. That principle defines the Christian life and search the religions and philosophies of mankind, as you will, but you will not find any other faith, any other view of life, that includes communing with the Living God moment by moment of every day as the principle of your success. Such a principle makes it unique, different altogether from the life of the non-Christian. By himself Peter proved a coward; in the strength of the Lord he would turn the world upside down and give himself to a triumphant death to prove his loyalty to Jesus.
Jesus proved this principle in the positive as surely as Peter did in the negative. He remained faithful to Peter when Peter proved himself unfaithful to him. He would eventually restore Peter, give him work to do, and enable him to do it, work that changed the world. The Christian life is a life lived in active dependence upon the Lord. No other life is anything like it; no other life is lived in communion with God, no other life even has the promise of such a communion with God.
- In the third case the Lord said that his followers would have adversaries with whom they would have to struggle all their lives.
The Christian life is often in the Bible described as a war or a fight. It is not, obviously, a selling point. Offering blood, sweat, and tears is not usually a way to gain followers! It is the supreme attraction of Jesus Christ that, promising hardship he gains as many followers as he does. The Christian life is a relentless battle against relentless adversaries. It can’t be helped; it is the nature of things. Christ had enemies becauseof who he is and what he came into the world to do. Those same enemies become ours when we become Christ’s.
The Lord’s instructions in vv. 35-38 hark back to the Galilean mission, when he sent out first the Twelve and then seventy more disciples to preach and to heal the sick. Then they were able to rely on the hospitality of the people because Jesus was so hugely popular. But now, he was preparing them for a dramatic change in situation. He was about to be executed as a criminal and they would be viewed as his accomplices. Every hand would soon be raised against them. He told them that they would have to provide for themselves because others would not.
And with one of those violent metaphors, for which the Lord had a special fondness, the Lord told them to expect hatred and opposition. “Get your sword,” he said. As Gethsemane would reveal and the remaining history of the New Testament would confirm, he was right. He certainly wasn’t intending them to use force, which they never did and, as they themselves taught, never would. This is a metaphor like “if your right arm offends you cut it off,” if your right eye offends you gouge it out.” He means, “Get ready for battle for battle it will be and, in your case in particular, a battle to the death.”
Christians still struggle as the first disciples did to take this seriously. They realize it is true, but it is so easy to forget or ignore and we are forgetting it and ignoring it all the time. These battles are too easy to evade. We don’t even realize that we are surrendering rather than fighting. But the longer we live the better we realize the truth of what he said here: that we have an adversary who seeks to devour us and that through many tribulations we must inherit the kingdom of God. We are still tempted to look for ease when our Savior told us to prepare for toil and struggle. The truth is, as Paul learned, “Whoever seeks to live a godly life in this world will suffer persecution.”
So whether it is our view of success and what we are seeking for ourselves, or our confidence in our own powers, or our hope for ease and an untroubled life, we are by nature inclined to think one thing and the Lord has told us here to think something very different. And these must be highly important thoughts to have occupied his mind at that sacred and fateful hour.
Think of it, brothers and sisters, how often the Lord must observe our lives or listen to our prayers or our conversations with one another, how often he must observe our behavior and find the demonstration again and again that we haven’t really grasped these things, or at least not well enough. How often, in effect, has he had to say to us, “Enough; just forget it. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
The last time I preached on this text, some eighteen years ago now, David Daniell’s magnificent biography of William Tyndale had just appeared. Daniell was one of England’s preeminent Shakespeare scholars and, as you might expect, it is not only a first class piece of historical research by a scholar of the period, but an elegantly written story. Tyndale is not as well-known and admired as he deserves to be. He is, without doubt, one of the church’s and one of history’s greatest men. He was born, it is thought, in 1494, and he was martyred in 1536. In the meantime he became a great figure of the Reformation, that work of the Spirit of God that altered the face of the world. Those hundreds of millions of Christians, closing in on a billion Christians, in Asia and in Africa and in South America; they are the fruit of the Protestant Reformation.
He lived most of his professional life in Europe because, as a champion of Luther’s teaching of salvation by God’s free grace, his life was at risk in England. His greatest achievement was, of course, the translation of the Bible, the first translation from the Greek and Hebrew original into the English language. And what a translation it was; a work of pure genius. Before he left England Tyndale had told a scoffing priest, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than [you do].” And he succeeded.
I was not aware, before I read Daniell’s magisterial study of the great man’s life, that nine-tenths of the King James Bible in the New Testament was Tyndale’s translation and that the same is true of the first half of the Old Testament, which is as far as he got before he was executed. Indeed, it is acknowledged by scholars in general that the poorest parts of the King James Bible are all in those sections that Tyndale had not first translated. The very passage that we read this morning, even in this modern translation, owes a great deal to the influence of this gifted and remarkable man who was determined to make it possible for people to read the Word of God for themselves, a privilege we take for granted today.
If you read the story of Tyndale’s life you will not be able to help noticing the correspondence between his life and the life that Jesus said here would be the life of all his followers. In keeping with the instruction of the Lord he made no effort to seek a name for himself. It is now recognized that probably no man exercised a greater influence on the English language and the English speaking world than did Tyndale, but in his own day he was more often vilified than admired. Thomas More, the English archbishop, hated Tyndale, wrote large books against him — defaming his name, spewing out torrents of scatological abuse, all the while failing to mount any plausible defense against Tyndale’s argument that God’s people ought to be able to read the Bible for themselves, to read it in their own language, and so hear the voice of their God in their own hearts, as everyone accepts that they should today.
Still today Thomas More is far more famous and a more beloved figure of history than William Tyndale. More had risen to positions of power as the world understands power and so he counted for more. A great movie was made some years ago — the Academy Award winner that year, “A Man for All Seasons” — to celebrate his life and to glorify his martyrdom, but More was a pale shadow of the man Tyndale was. But heaven knows Tyndale’s greatness.
Then Tyndale was to such a magnificent degree a man of faith. Over and over again he escaped his adversaries who were braying at his heels all the last years of life and continued his work through simple faith in the Lord and dependence upon him. The whole world was out to stop this one man. There was a price on his head. Rome tried to burn every copy of his New Testament ever printed. Only a few of the first editions survived. But he changed the world nevertheless by counting on the Lord to help him which the Lord did.
His life was constant sword play, though he never owned a sword! He spent his short years looking over his shoulder for his enemies, moving from place to place, hoping and praying that he might finish his work before they finished him. Like his master, Tyndale was betrayed by a friend, a friend who had just borrowed money from him! The last year of his life was spent rotting in a Flemish jail when he could have been finishing his immortal translation of the Old Testament. Relays of priests and theologians — like cops in an interrogation room — tried to break him down, to force him to recant his views and his translation. All to no avail. Finally he was led to the pyre where he was strangled and burned. His last words, following in his Master’s footsteps to the very end, were “Lord, Open the King of England’s eyes.”
People who live the way our Savior said his disciples would have to live, live remarkable and wonderful lives. The world may not always recognize this — though the world sometimes does — but heaven knows they do and takes note. Not easy lives, but great lives. What heroes we have to look up to in the Christian church? But it is a heroism of a different, a very distinct, a unique kind; heroism different than the world knows. That was the Lord’s point and that is what we must get through our thick skulls!
If you are an unbeliever sitting here this morning, we are not ashamed to tell you that to commit your life to Jesus will cost you a lot. But we also can tell you that you will never through all eternity to come regret a single sacrifice, or the pain, or the struggle. Jesus is worth it and heaven is worth it. More than worth it!