Luke: The Gospel of the Gentiles

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Preface to the Gospel of Luke

Years ago, a friend passed along this bit of advice, given to him by an elderly Christian statesman: “The older I get the more I find myself in the Gospels.” While I don’t want to admit that I’m getting older, I do find myself strangely drawn to the Gospels. While each of the Gospels makes its own unique contribution to the message of the Bible, the Gospel of Luke is one of the high water marks of biblical revelation. Come with me, to study the account of a man who apparently never laid eyes upon the Lord Jesus personally, but who did a very skillful job of researching the accounts of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, and then communicating them in a most orderly way.

The author, Luke, was a doctor, and a traveling companion of Paul, whose second inspired account (the Book of Acts) is the only recorded history of the birth of the church, and of the expansion of the gospel from Jerusalem to the “uttermost part of the earth.”

The church would be greatly deprived if it did not possess the Gospel of Luke as a part of the inspired canon of Scripture. It is Luke’s Gospel which provides us with many of the details concerning the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. His genealogy of our Lord is distinctly different from the only other genealogy, found in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke gives us an account of the divine visitations to Zacharias and Mary, of the circumstances surrounding the birth of our Lord in Bethlehem, and of the announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. We are told by Luke alone of the recognition of Jesus as the promised Messiah by Simeon and Anna, and of the visit of our Lord to Jerusalem at the age of 12. The parables of the prodigal son and of the rich man and Lazarus are found only in Luke. Luke’s account alone includes the story of the appearance of our Lord to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Luke’s Gospel is a literary masterpiece, a beautiful story masterfully told. Luke has given us an extensive account of our Lord’s final journey to Jerusalem, where He is rejected and crucified, and where He is raised from the dead. And the greatest source of beauty and wonder is not the skill of the human writer, but the glory and majesty of the divine subject of the Gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ. You will meet Jesus here over and over again, and you will find Him ever more lovely in the light of Luke’s description of Him.

So come along with us as we commence this study of the Gospel of Luke. It is my prayer that you will never be the same.

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1. The Silence is Shattered (Luke 1:1-38)

Introduction to the Gospel of Luke

The very last words of the last book of the Old Testament read:

“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).

The gospel of Luke is but one of four gospels, but it is surely one of the great books of the Bible. The events of the early chapters of Luke’s gospel shatter a silence which has lasted for 400 years. He commences his gospel with the angelic announcement of Gabriel to Zacharias, an elderly priest, that he and his wife will have a son, a son who will come in the spirit of Elijah the prophet, and who will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and will prepare the way of the Lord.

Before we get into this exciting announcement, however, let us take note of the uniqueness of Luke’s gospel, which will greatly enhance our study of this book, especially in helping us to appreciate its uniqueness as compared to the other three gospel accounts. We will begin by pointing out several unique features of Luke, and then go on to consider Luke’s unique purpose in writing this gospel, as stated by the author himself in verses 1-4. Once we have considered these introductory matters, we will then turn our attention to the announcement of Gabriel to Zacharias.

The Gospel of Luke and the Other Gospels

Several features of Luke’s gospel point out its contribution to biblical revelation.

(1) The gospel of Luke is the longest book in the New Testament. I was surprised to discover this fact from reading Wilcock’s commentary,1 but a little investigation will bear out the fact that this is the case.

(2) The gospel of Luke is unique in what is reported.

Over 50 percent of Luke’s gospel is unique, containing materials found nowhere else. Without Luke, certain periods of Christ’s life and ministry would be unknown to us. Luke alone gives certain important chronological notations (2:1; 3:2; 3:23). Luke has a greater focus on individuals than do the other gospels. For example, Luke mentions thirteen women not found in the other gospels. It can also be said that Luke’s gospel has more comprehensive range than the others. It begins with the announcements concerning the births of John the Baptist and Jesus and ends with a reference to the ascension of Christ.2

It is impossible to say how many miracles Jesus Christ performed during His ministry, because many are referred to collectively. There are about a dozen passages in the gospels where miracles are summarized for us. There are thirty-five miracles specifically detailed in the gospels, twenty of which are found in Luke. Of the twenty in Luke, seven are unique to this gospel alone.3

… there are some fifty-one ‘parables’ spoken by Christ. Needless to say, this number is not fixed, since there is much disagreement as to what constitutes a parable. However, of the fifty-one so classified, thirty-five are found in Luke, and nineteen of those are unique to this gospel.4

On page 13, Benware lists 29 events in the life of Christ which are not included by any other gospel writer, other than Luke.

(3) Luke alone focuses on the artistic in his gospel.

It is striking that Luke alone, the educated and artistically disposed Greek, has committed to writing the songs of Elisabeth, Mary, Zacharias and Simeon and the hymn of the angels. ‘Luke, the artist, has gathered and collected, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the stories which reveal the fact that when Jesus came into the world poetry expressed itself and music was reborn’ (Morgan, in loc.).5

(4) Luke’s gospel is unique in portraying intimate information about the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. Luke, for example, informs us that “Mary treasured these things in her heart,” (Luke 2:51; cf. 1:29). The innermost thoughts, fears, and reflections of people are reported in this gospel, which are not recorded elsewhere.

From Luke’s point of view, it is the uniqueness of his gospel which justifies the effort he has taken to write it. This is explained in his introduction to the book, recorded in verses 1-4:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

In these verses Luke informs us that he is aware that a good many other gospels have been written. These would include, but not be restricted to, the other three gospel accounts. Luke has not written because others have failed to do so, but because other accounts have not included things which he feels are essential. What are these things which have shaped Luke’s gospel, which are missing elsewhere? From his own words, these would include:

(1) Accuracy in accounting the facts and focus of the gospel. We would not in any way suggest that the other gospels included in our New Testament were inaccurate. I suspect that many of the extra-biblical accounts suffered greatly in accuracy. This is one of Luke’s stated purposes: to give an accurate, consecutive, account of the gospel. As this relates to the other biblical gospels, Luke includes details that are not included in them, thus providing a more “accurate” account of the life and times of our Lord.

Luke seems intent on presenting a carefully arranged sequence of events, from the very beginning, something which cannot be claimed by other gospel accounts. Furthermore, Luke, as a historian, deals with the “roots” of Jesus’ ministry. A comparative chart of the early chapters of the four gospels, included at the conclusion of this message, points out the unique contribution of Luke to the biblical record of the earliest events in the life and ministry of John the Baptist and our Lord.

(2) Luke appears to be a Gentile, and to be writing his gospel to a Gentile, thus making this gospel unique in its Gentile perspective.6 Theophilus appears to be a Gentile man of some position:

Apparently he was an official of some kind, for he was called most excellent (cf. Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25, which use the same Gr. term, kratiste).7

As Gentile Christians, the gospel of Luke will therefore have a particular interest and importance to us.

(3) Luke’s gospel is derived from eye witness accounts. Luke also tells us about his sources. He informs us that while he was not a witness to all these events, he has obtained his information from eye witnesses and “servants of the Word” (v. 2). Eye witnesses would include individuals such as Mary, and the “servants of the Word” would be the apostles, who were God’s accredited witnesses (cf. Acts 1:21-22; 2:32; 6:2,4; Heb. 2:3-4).

The Book of Luke is therefore one which can greatly bless and benefit us in our Christian lives. Let us approach our study of Luke with eager anticipation.

The Appearances of John and Jesus

As we begin our actual study of Luke’s gospel, note the inter-twining of the lives of John and Jesus, even in the actual account of Luke. This can best be seen by a comparison of parallels of the two, when placed side-by-side, as provided by the chart at the end of this lesson.

Luke, as we have already noted, begins at precisely the place where the prophet Malachi left off. The final words of our Old Testament speak of the coming of one who would prepare the way of the Lord. Luke starts his account of the gospel with the report of Gabriel’s announcement of the birth of John to Zacharias.

An Introduction of Zacharias and Elizabeth
Luke 1:5-7

Zacharias and Elizabeth,8 the parents of John the Baptist, are introduced in verses 5-7. There are two different emphases to be found here, as I understand Luke’s account. On the one hand, the description of this couple reveals those characteristics which would have made them unacceptable to their contemporaries in Judaism. On the other hand, we are given those positive qualities for which they found favor with God, and which were the basis for God’s selection of them as the parents of John. We will look at the “negative” qualities first.

(1) So far as Judaism was concerned, Zacharias and Elizabeth were obscure and insignificant people, who were not of sufficient social or economic standing to have been granted the privilege of being the parents of John. Edersheim takes note of this when he writes,

In many respects he seemed different from those around. His home was not in either of the great priest-centres—the Ophel-quarter in Jerusalem, nor in Jericho—but in some small town in those uplands, south of Jerusalem: the historic ‘hill-country of Judaea.’9

Zacharias was a priest, but not one of great renown. Neither by his training nor by his place of residence was Zacharias set apart as a cut above his peers. In our terminology, this couple was from the “Ozarks,” a hillbilly priest and his wife. And where one came from did matter to the Jews. You will recall Nathaniel’s response upon learning that Jesus was from Nazareth:

“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

(2) Zacharias and Elizabeth were elderly and without children. There was a tremendous stigma attached to being without children, one which the woman probably felt most keenly. It may well have been thought that their predicament was the “judgment of God,” for some sin they had committed (cf. John 9:2). This fact would also have weighed very heavily against Zacharias and Elizabeth, if the choice of John’s parents were the decision of their peers, and not the sovereign choice of God.

In contrast to the negative factors which would have disinclined a Jew of standing to have expected the parents of John to be this elderly couple, there were two characteristics which Luke records which weighed heavily in their favor:

(1) Zacharias was a priest, and both he and his wife were of the tribe of Aaron (Luke 1:5). It seems to have been important to God that John be of the priestly line, even though his function was largely prophetic.

(2) More important than their physical lineage was their spiritual devotion. Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were described by Luke as “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (1:6). Not only was this a priestly couple, but they were a pious couple as well. Their lives were lived in obedience to the Law of Moses. This would not have been perfect obedience, but an obedience which met the requirements of Judaism. It did not save them any more than Paul’s religious piety was sufficient to save him (cf. Phil. 3:4-9). It did, however, set them apart from their peers. From a New Testament view (and O. T., too) their good works did not save them, but from the perspective of the Mosaic Covenant, their devotion to God expressed by their obedience to the Law, did make it possible for God to bless them through the birth of John.

An Angelic Appearance and Announcement
(1: 8-17)

There were many priests in those days and thus the priestly duties were allocated according to divisions of priests (cf. 1 Chronicles 24). When it came time for the order of Abijah’s division (cf. vv. 5, 8) to perform the temple duties, Zacharias went to Jerusalem.10 There, he was chosen for the very high privilege of burning the incense, which he would have done either in the morning or the evening. This was such a high privilege it could be done by a priest only once in a lifetime. It was a very coveted task.11

One can only imagine the feelings which Zacharias must have experienced the evening before his duty was performed. On the one hand, he must have rejoiced in the high privilege which was his, which he had hoped for all his life. On the other hand, he must have reflected on Leviticus chapter 10, which records the death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, for carrying out this ritual in a wrong manner. Thus, there were the mixed feelings of rejoicing and fear. He probably carefully rehearsed in his mind exactly how he would perform his duty, so that he would emerge from the holy place alive.

On the day of his duty, Zacharias went into the holy place, where he was to burn the incense. Meanwhile, outside a crowd assembled for prayer. I would take it that the prayers of the people were both for the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people, that is for the coming of the King and the establishment of Messiah’s kingdom. Included as well, perhaps, were prayers for the safety of Zacharias, as the dangers of his duty were well known.

Can you imagine the sense of awe and wonder Zacharias must have felt as he entered into the semi-darkness of the holy place, illuminated only by the light of the lampstand? Think how you would have felt in that awesome place, where you alone were allowed, when you suddenly realized that there was another person present with you. If the angel Gabriel appeared in a burst of light and splendor (cf. Luke 2:9), then the experience would have been all the more frightening.

The angel’s first words were of comfort. He assured Zacharias that he need not be afraid, for his prayer had been heard (v. 13). That prayer (singular) I understand to be his official prayer as a priest, representing the people of Israel. It would be a prayer that God’s kingdom would come. A prayer with which the people outside would be in agreement as they prayed. While I used to think that the prayer referred to was Zachariah’s prayer for a son, I no longer think this to be so. First of all, it would not be in keeping with Zachariah’s priestly duty. Second, I think that Zacharias may have prayed such a prayer earlier, but now that its fulfillment seemed impossible, I believe that he had given up all hope, and that he no longer made this request. He request for a sign seems to confirm this. Thus, the angel’s words are to the effect that Zachariah’s prayer for Messiah’s coming have been answered, and in such a way that his own son, born miraculously to this elderly couple, will have a part in announcing the Messiah’s arrival.

The name of this son, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb, and who will cause many Israelites to repent, in preparation for Messiah’s arrival, was to be John. John, as the angel’s words make clear, was to be the fulfillment of Malachi’s final prophecy (Mal. 3:5-6). John would be great in the sight of the Lord, and was not to drink wine or liquor (v. 15). I believe that this was to assure those who beheld his ministry that his “inspiration” was from the Spirit of God and not from the “spirits” of strong drink, a not unfamiliar charge in those days (cf. Acts 2:13; Eph. 5:18).

A Request and a Rebuke

In spite of Zacharias’ godliness, his obedience to the Law, and his lifetime of ministry, his faith was weak when it came to believing such a marvelous promise. There in the shadow of this angel’s splendour, Zacharias made a request of the angel, that he provide some sign, which would assure him that this promise would be fulfilled. He was given a sign, or should I say he himself became a sign, and in fact the sign was indicated by his speaking in “sign” language (1:22).

A friend of mine has suggested that Zacharias was struck dumb by Gabriel because his fear was of saying something stupid—a pretty good possibility in my opinion. You see, when the priest emerged from the temple, he was to pronounce a blessing on the people. Zacharias must have known that he would have to explain what had happened inside the holy place, and was afraid that no one would believe what he was promised; thus he asked for a sign. His speechlessness was an appropriate discipline for Zacharias, and it served to “announce” that something wonderful was about to happen. What Zacharias could have announced with his tongue, God announced through his dumbness.

The sad thing about the unbelief of Zacharias is that there were a number of examples of supernatural births in the Old Testament. God was not promising to do something for Zacharias and Elizabeth which he had not done for others before them. Abraham and Sarah had a son in their old age, as did Hannah and the parents of Samson. The virgin birth, on the other hand, was something entirely new, but Zacharias was not asked to believe this, only that he and his wife would have a son in their old age.

The angel Gabriel only now gives Zacharias his name, and he seems somewhat perturbed to have to do so. In effect, Gabriel is saying, “Good grief, man, do you not know who is telling you that you and your wife will have a son? I am Gabriel, the angel who stands in God’s presence. When I speak, I speak for God. To disbelieve my words is to doubt God Himself.” With this rebuke, Zacharias was struck dumb.

The task which Zacharias was to perform was one which should have been accomplished in a relatively brief period. The longer the delay in his return, the greater the concern of the crowd assembled outside. They may have wondered if Zacharias had been struck dead by God, just as Nadab and Abihu had been. I can imagine that members of the crowd began to whisper to one another. When Zacharias did emerge, the people waited for him to pronounce a blessing, as he would have customarily done.12 It must have taken a while for the people to grasp that the priests contortions and hand motions were an attempt to communicate and that he had been rendered unable to speak. When this realization struck home, the crowds knew they he had seen a vision in the temple and that God was about to do something marvelous in their midst (v. 22).

Elizabeth’s Seclusion

Zacharias went home, and in the course of time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. After becoming pregnant, Elizabeth remained in seclusion for a five month period. While there have been some very pious sounding explanations for her actions, I think that there may have been two primary reasons for her seclusion. First, Elizabeth did not want to announce her pregnancy until she was so obviously pregnant that no one could deny it. Those of us who have become parents know how quickly and easily we announce our blessed upcoming event. Elizabeth knew that she would not have been taken seriously, and she would probably not have wanted to face any more cruel scorn, so seclusion was a simple answer. Second, Elizabeth would have had to serve as a spokesperson for her husband, who could not speak, and seclusion kept her from having to perform this task.

The Virgin’s Visitor

I believe that Luke’s record of the angelic announcements to Zacharias and to Mary provide us with a study in contrasts. Zacharias was a man; Mary was a woman. Zacharias and his wife were elderly; Mary was young. Zacharias and Elizabeth were married; Mary was a virgin, only engaged to be married; Zacharias doubted the angel’s message; Mary believed.

In Elizabeth’s sixth month, Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing to her that she would miraculously bear a child who would be Israel’s Messiah. Her child would be great in the sight of God, and called the “son of the Most High” (v. 32). He would reign forever on the throne of his father David (vv. 32-33).

Mary had a request of the angel Gabriel, too, but her request was not for a sign, but for clarification. Zacharias wanted some kind of proof that he and his wife would have a child in their old age. Mary wanted clarification as to what she was to do, in order to cooperate with the purposes of God, as the angel announced them to her. She wished to learn how her conception would be achieved, since she was a virgin.13 She was asking for clarification, not confirmation. There is a world of difference between her request and that of Zacharias. Hers stemmed from her faith; the question of Zacharias stemmed from his lack of faith.

Gabriel explained to Mary that she would not need to do anything, that the conception in her womb would be the result of God’s miraculous intervention It was to be a miraculous virgin conception. Therefore, the child will be called the “Son of God” (v. 35). As a further word of encouragement to Mary, Gabriel informed her that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, was in her sixth month of pregnancy, which bore testimony to the fact that nothing is impossible with God (vv. 36-37).

Mary’s response is a marvelous testimony to her faith in God and her submission to His will:

“Behold the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (v. 38).

No one could have asked for any better response. What a marvelous testimony to the magnificence of Mary, a topic which we will take up more in detail in our next lesson.


Several lessons emerge from our initial study in the Luke’s gospel. Let us consider them as we conclude this lesson:

(1) We have seen some of the features of this gospel which are unique, which make it a book well worth our study.

(2) Luke’s gospel conveys a divine philosophy of history, as opposed to a merely secular approach to history. There are several features of a divine philosophy of history which set it apart from a secular outlook on history. A divine perspective of history sees all of history as a part of the divine plan. It therefore looks for a continuity of action, from the very beginning of history, to its culmination. Luke views the birth and the life of Christ as a part of God’s redemptive plan and purpose for history.

A divine philosophy of history views history in relationship to Christ. Christ is the key to history, the central theme. Thus, everything in viewed in terms of its relationship to Christ. Herod, one of the great and powerful figures of that day, is barely mentioned, for Christ meant little to him, other than to be a threat to his dominion. Herod is only a chronological point of reference to Luke. Elizabeth, Zacharias, and Mary, while they would have been given no attention by secular historians, are significant to Luke because they played an important role in the appearance and ministry of our Lord. One of the significant statements in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel is “… in the sight of the Lord.” Elizabeth and Zacharias were “righteous in the sight of the God” (1:6). John would be “great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15). Divine history measures the greatness of men in terms of God’s evaluation, not man’s.

In the final analysis, it does not matter what men think of us, of our significance, of our contribution to mankind, of our greatness, of our goodness; it matters much what God thinks of us. Each man, woman, and child, the Bible tells us, will stand before God and be judged by Him. The purpose of Christ’s coming to earth was to reveal God’s righteousness to us, and to offer that righteousness in place of our sin and rebellion. It was to offer us salvation and eternal life, in place of condemnation and eternal death.

Where do you stand with God, my friend? Does God view you as “righteous,” as He did Zacharias and Elizabeth? Does He view you as “great,” as He did John? When all is said and done, God’s approval or God’s rejection is the only thing in life, in history, that matters. Jesus Christ came to the earth so that we could be approved by God, by accepting the righteousness of Christ in place of our unworthiness and sin. I pray that you have found favor with God, through faith in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. That is what the Gospel of Luke is all about.

Luke’s attention to those whom the Messiah’s first coming was announced is relevant to those of us who await Messiah’s second coming. There were 400 years of silence between the last words of the prophets and the first coming of Christ. Suddenly, the silence was shattered, and Messiah came. We, too, live in a period of “silence,” but God’s promises pertaining to Christ’s second coming are just as certain as those in which the godly took comfort and found hope. Thus, as we study the lives of those who awaited His coming we learn how we should be ready for His return, as New Testament prophecy (and unfulfilled O. T. prophecy) assures us.

A Comparative Chart
of the Early Chapters of the Four Gospels





Introduction 1:1-4

Introduction 1:1-18

Genealogy of Christ 1:1-17 Abraham to Joseph

Birth of John the Baptist Announced 1:5-25

Birth of Christ Announced (Joseph) 1:18-25

Birth of Christ Announced (Mary) 1:26-56

Birth of John the Baptist 1:57-80

Birth of Christ 2:1-7

Christ child sought by Herod & Magi 2:12

Christ child worshipped Shepherds
Simeon 2:8-38

Infancy incident 2:13-23 To Egypt & return Slaughter of children

Christ’s Childhood 2:39-52 Jesus at the Temple

John the Baptist’s ministry, climaxed by baptism of Christ 3:1-17

John the Baptist’s ministry, climaxed by baptism of Christ 3:1-22

John the Baptist’s ministry climaxed in baptism of Christ 1:2-11

John the Baptist and Christ 1:19-34

Christ’s genealogy, traced back to Adam 3:23-28

Temptation of Christ

Temptation of Christ 4:1-13

Temptation of Christ 1:12-13

No temptation account

Commencement of Christ’s public ministry 4:12ff

Commencement of Christ’s public ministry 4:14ff

Commencement of Christ’s public ministry 1:14ff.

No emphasis on commencement of public ministry

Disciples called 4:18ff

No central text or emphasis on calling disciples Cf. Chaps. 4 & 5

Disciples called 1:16ff

Disciples called 1:35ff

Sermon on Mount
Chaps. 5-7

Wedding at Cana 2:1ff

1 Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke, The Bible Speaks Today Series, ed. by John R. W. Stott (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), p. 11.

2 Paul N. Benware, Luke: The Gospel of the Son of Man, Everyman’s Bible Commentary Series (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), p. 11.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, p. 12.

5 Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 81.

6 It is interesting to note that Luke has very little emphasis on the fulfillment of Old Testament (Jewish) prophecies, which would have less impact on a Gentile, since they had not been taught these promises from childhood, as a Jewish child would have been. Thus, it is in Matthew, a very “Jewish” gospel, that we frequently find the expression, “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” In Luke, for example, even when it would have been very noteworthy to point out that Jesus must be born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill Micah 5:2, this is not pointed out, even though it would have been very easy to do so (cf. Luke 2:1-7).

7 John A. Martin, “Luke,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983), New Testament edition, p. 202.

8 “… Zacharias means: ‘The Lord remembers (viz. His covenant)’; and his mother’s name, Elisabeth, means: ‘My God is an oath (i.e. my God is the absolutely Faithful One).’” Geldenhuys, p. 62.

9 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, p. 135.

10 “The division was one of 24 groups of priests, drawn up in David’s time (1 Chron. 24:7-18). The priests in each division were on duty twice a year for a week at a time. Zechariah was of the division of Abijah (Luke 1:5; cf. 1 Chron. 24:10).” Martin, “Luke,” pp. 202-203.

“There were some thousands of priests at the time, and it was arranged that each course should in turn send a number of priests to the temple for a week to execute their office there. In this particular week it was the turn of the course of Abijah, and Zacharias was one of the priests of that course who had to serve. Each day the lot was cast to assign the various duties of the priests for the day. As there were so many priests, it was not allowed that a priest should burn incense more than once in his lifetime. On that particular day the lot had fallen upon Zacharias and he had to attend to the burning of the incense. This incense-offering had to be brought twice a day—early in the morning and again at about three o’clock in the afternoon (Exod. xxx. 7, 8). Thus Zacharias had entered the temple after the lot had fallen upon him. The actual temple-building or sanctuary proper consisted of the holy place and the holy of holies. Into the latter apartment only the high priest was allowed to go (and that but once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement), while the officiating priests might enter the holy place.” Geldenhuys, pp. 62-63.

11 “But the celebrant Priest, bearing the golden censer, stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick. Before him—somewhat farther away, towards the heavy Veil that hung before the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, on which the red coals glowed. To his right (the left of the altar—that is, on the north side) was the table of shewbread; to his left, on the right or south side of the altar, was the golden candlestick. And still he waited, as instructed to do, till a special signal indicated, that the moment had come to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies. Priests and people had reverently withdrawn from the neighbourhood of the altar, and were prostrate before the Lord, offering unspoken worship, in which record of past deliverance, longing for mercies promised in the future, and entreaty for present blessing and peace, seemed the ingredients of the incense, that rose in a fragrant cloud of praise and prayer. Deep silence had fallen on the worshippers, as if they watched to heaven the prayers of Israel, ascending in the cloud of ‘odours’ that rose from the golden altar in the Holy Place. Zacharias waited, until he saw the incense kindling. The he also would have ‘bowed down in worship,’ and reverently withdrawn, had not a wondrous sight arrested his steps.” Edersheim, I, pp. 137-138.

12 Cf. Edersheim, I, p. 140, where Edersheim says that this blessing, found in Numbers 6:24-26, was pronounced: ‘The LORD bless you, and keep you, The LORD make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance on you, And give you peace.’ (Num. 6:24-26)

13 The New American Standard Bible renders Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?,” but the marginal note informs us that she literally asked, “How shall this be … ?” I believe the literal (marginal) rendering should have been retained.

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2. The Worship of Two Women (Luke 1:39-56)


When one thinks of the women of the ancient world, our first emotional response is usually pity. This would even be true in the Jewish world of those days when our Lord added humanity to His deity and manifested Himself to men. There was so much that women could not do, or at least were not allowed to do. We might suspect that the limitations of biblical revelation, compounded by those of the culture, would have made womanhood a curse. The men assumed the leadership roles, especially in spiritual matters. The women seemed only fit for fixing meals and bearing children. Perhaps a few women, “blessed” by financial prosperity and social standing, may have been able to enjoy some of the benefits of the male world.

While there is some truth in the rather dismal picture which I have portrayed, it is not utterly so. We need by read the final chapter of the book of Proverbs to see that women, at least biblically, were given great privileges and responsibilities. The degree to which women were degraded was that to which their husbands and their culture stooped.

Luke is well-known for his high regard for women and for the prominence which he gives them in his two accounts. We find the first instance of his highlighting of women in our text in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, where the spotlight is directed toward two godly women. The two women are Elizabeth, the soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother-to-be of Messiah, were truly great and godly women. Both were humble women of no social or economic standing. Elizabeth was the wife of an obscure priest. Both she and Zacharias were country people, who lived in an unnamed village in the hill country of Judah. The bore the added social stigma of having no children. No doubt in the minds of some they were being punished by God for some sin. Mary, too, was a humble peasant girl. She did not have any social standing due to her parentage or class, nor even the dignity of Elizabeth and Zacharias age. Yet the worship of both of these women is such that they are models for all true disciples of our Lord.

Introductory Comments

Before we begin to deal with our text, there are some introductory comments which may prove to be helpful. First, it should be noted that there are several things which Luke has not told us, which we might like to know, but will not find in this inspired account. These include the following:

Whether or not Mary was yet pregnant. There is no mention as to whether or not Mary was pregnant when she first arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah. Neither, Elizabeth, Mary, nor Luke refer to the fetus in Mary’s womb, while we are specifically told that John leaped in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting (Luke 1:41). It is my opinion is that Mary became pregnant during the time she way staying with Elizabeth and Zachariah. She would have been separated from Joseph, while at the same time being chaperoned by Elizabeth and Zachariah. This would serve as further testimony to the divine origin of the Christ-child.

Whether or not Elizabeth and Mary had any previous communication before Mary’s arrival. Elizabeth’s immediate response to Mary’s arrival might be explained by some previous communication between the two (e.g. writing to tell Elizabeth that she was coming and what the angel Gabriel had told her regarding her becoming the mother of Messiah). Luke does not tell us of any such communication, and the reader’s impression tends to be that there was no communication prior to her arrival, at least so far as Mary’s visitation by the angel. Luke does tell us that Mary “arose and went with haste to the hill country” (1:39), which would suggest that there was not sufficient time for any communication to have occurred.

Whether or not Mary was present when John was born. Luke ends this section (vv. 39-56) by informing us that Mary returned home after three months (v. 56). This would put her departure very close to the time of John’s birth, and reasons have been suggested for identifying the time of her departure either just before or just after the birth of John.

In all of these cases we must remember that Luke purposefully chose, under the guidance and control of the Holy Spirit, either to include or to exclude various details. The things which Luke does not tell us ought not to be our primary concern, to deal with them as “unsolved mysteries,” for which we must have an answer. Instead, we must focus on the things which Luke has included, for these point to the thrust of his argument. I must confess to you that I often become overly absorbed in what isn’t said, rather than to concentrate on what is reported.

Finally, there are those who would accept the rendering of some obscure manuscripts14 and conclude that it was Elizabeth and not Mary, who was the composer of the “magnificat,”15 the praise hymn of verses 46-55. The major reason for this position, in my opinion, is the similarity of the “magnificat” to the praise of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2. Since Hannah’s circumstances more closely parallel those of Elizabeth, some have drawn the hasty conclusion that it was she, rather than Mary, who composed this hymn of praise. This is a very poorly supported theory, and one which can be rather quickly set aside.


After indicating his purpose for writing this gospel in verses 1-4, Luke immediately commenced his account by introducing Zacharias, the father-to-be of John the Baptist. Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were both descendants of Aaron (v. 5), and were “righteous in the sight of God” (v. 6). The did not have any children, however, and now that they were advanced in age, it would take a miracle for them ever to do so.

In the course of Zacharias’ priestly duties, it fell his lot to have the high privilege of offering the incense at the temple of the Lord (vv. 8-9). In the course of performing his duty, the angel Gabriel appeared to him while he was inside the holy place. Zachariah was told that his prayer (a prayer, I assume, for the coming of Messiah) had been answered, and that he and his wife would have the privilege and pleasure of bearing the son who would prepare the way for Messiah’s appearance (vv. 13-17). Zacharias’ faith wavered, and he consequently asked for some sign, some proof that the promise of the angel would be fulfilled. This brought a rebuke, and a temporary loss of speech, which nevertheless served as a sign to the people assembled at the temple that something very significant was about to happen. Zacharias returned home to his wife, who kept herself in seclusion for five months (vv. 24-25).

Six months later, Gabriel appeared to Mary, indicating to her that she would be the mother of Israel’s Messiah. She would, by the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit, become pregnant, and her holy child would be called the “Son of God” (v. 35). He would be the Son of the Most High, who would be given the throne of His father David, from which He would rule (vv. 32-33). Mary’s response was an elegant expression of faith:

“Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

The immediate faith and submission of Mary, a simple and very young peasant girl, to the will of God is contrasted with the hesitant request of Zachariah for a sign, a man who was a priest all his many years of life. Just as Mary’s response surpasses that of Zachariah, so the greatness of the miracle of the virgin birth of Messiah will exceed the miracle which produces a son for the elderly priest and his wife. And so, too, will the greatness of Messiah and His ministry surpass that of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Messiah.

The Magnificence of Elizabeth

When Gabriel announced the miraculous virgin birth of Messiah through Mary to this young16 peasant girl, he informed her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, indicating that this was a sign of God’s ability to achieve the impossible (Luke 1:36-37). While no instruction was given here, the inference was clear: Elizabeth would be an encouragement to Mary, and a woman who would understand what God was doing in the virgin’s life. Thus Mary quickly prepared and left to visit her relative living in an unnamed village17 in the hill country of Judah (v. 39).

While Mary is clearly the principle character in this section, Elizabeth, her relative is also shown to be a remarkable women. We will begin by focusing on Elizabeth, as Luke does, and on her response to the arrival of Mary, the mother-to-be of Messiah. Several observations concerning Elizabeth’s response to the arrival of Mary will help us to grasp the magnificence of this woman, as I believe Luke intended us to do.

Characteristics of Elizabeth’s Praise

(1) Elizabeth seems to praise Mary before Mary has had any opportunity to explain anything to her. Mary left almost immediately for the home of Elizabeth and Zacharias, and the journey may have taken some time. So far as Luke’s account informs us, Mary was only told that her elderly relative had conceived in her old age, which testified to the fact that nothing was impossible for God (Luke 1:36-37). We aren’t told that the angel informed Mary that the child which was to be born to Elizabeth was to be the forerunner of Messiah. Mary may have wondered how Elizabeth would respond to the news she had to share. She may even have wondered whether or not to tell of her visit by the angel Gabriel.

One can speculate as to what Mary may have been thinking along the way to Elizabeth’s home. She may have been rehearsing what she would say to Elizabeth when she first saw her. If Mary had any such reservations, how quickly they were dispelled! The very moment she entered the house and gave a customary greeting, Elizabeth blessed Mary as the mother of her Lord.

(2) Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and her words were a divinely inspired utterance. Gabriel had informed Zacharias that the child would be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Now, it would appear that both mother and child were both filled with the Holy Spirit simultaneously. John “spoke” as it were by leaping in the womb (1:41), while Elizabeth seems almost to speak for John. One wonders how much that Elizabeth came directly from the Spirit of God, and how much originated from her own grasp of the Scriptures. We cannot say for certain, but we can affirm at this moment that all that she said was divinely inspired.

Not only did Elizabeth, in a sense, speak for John, she also spoke like John. We learn from the other gospel accounts that John was quick to acknowledge and proclaim the superiority of Christ (John 1:19-28), and thus to accept his secondary role as “forerunner” to the Messiah. He even encouraged his disciples to leave him and to follow Christ (John 1:35-37). Elizabeth also readily acknowledged the superior blessing bestowed on Mary, and rejoiced in it. Like mother, like son. I believe that Elizabeth is a prototype of her son in this regard.

(3) Elizabeth’s praise is not for her personal fulfillment and blessing in the bearing of a child, but in the blessing bestowed on her by the visit of Mary. Elizabeth’s proclamation does not focus on the blessing of the child which she will bear (John), but on the blessing of God in the arrival of Mary, who is to be the mother of the Messiah. In short, Mary is the focus, not Elizabeth. We will explore the basis for Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary later, but for now let us simply observe that the arrival of Mary is the occasion for Elizabeth’s praise, not the soon arrival of John.

(4) Elizabeth’s words served primarily as an encouragement to Mary. How encouraging the greeting of Elizabeth must have been to Mary. Rather than having to try to explain to Elizabeth what the angel had said to her about the virgin birth of her son, Messiah, Mary learned that Elizabeth already knew. Thus, Elizabeth’s praise served as further confirmation of Gabriel’s words. There were now two witnesses. Mary was totally free to share the details of the angel’s revelation, without any hesitation. Elizabeth already knew, believed, and rejoiced in the truth of God, spoken through Gabriel.

(5) Elizabeth praises God for much more than those things that Zachariah was told. When we look back at Luke’s report of what Zacharias was told by Gabriel, it was simply that the son God was giving him and his wife would be the forerunner of Messiah. There is no mention in this account of how Messiah will come to earth. How, then, did Elizabeth know that Jesus would be born of a virgin, and that the virgin was none other than her relative, Mary?

We must first very candidly admit that we are not told how Elizabeth learned what she affirmed by divine inspiration. It is my personal opinion, however, that she is no just a mere “mouthpiece” for the Holy Spirit, who has had no knowledge of what God was doing. I believe that Elizabeth knew from the Scriptures that Messiah would be both human and divine, and that He would be born of a virgin. With these things already known (albeit by the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the Scriptures), the Spirit of God informed Elizabeth, perhaps at that very moment, that Mary was the one through whom Messiah would be born.

(6) Elizabeth’s praise suggests that she may have possessed a greater depth of spiritual and scriptural insight than her husband. As we compare Luke’s account which introduces Zacharias, this elderly (and godly) priest is not put in nearly as favorable light as is his wife, Elizabeth. That which she speaks far surpasses what we are told Gabriel said to Zacharias. I am thus inclined to view this as Luke’s way of informing us that some women may very well surpass men spiritually. Indeed, I believe that Luke is telling us that wives are not restricted to the level of spirituality of their mate. Elizabeth’s praise surpasses Zachariah’s petition for a sign. Elizabeth’s words far surpass the revelation which we are told Gabriel gave to Zacharias. Women may be limited so far as their public ministry is concerned, but not so far as their spirituality and intimacy with God is concerned. Elizabeth is a magnificent woman of God, in Luke’s opinion.

Mary’s Magnificat

Mary seems immediately to respond to the praise of Elizabeth by offering her own praise to God. While we are not specifically told that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit when she spoke these words, we may surely assume so. Perhaps there is a hint here that the words of Mary’s hymn are divinely inspired, but that the work is her composition, her work of praise and devotion, in response to the revelation of the angel. Elizabeth’s words are not as reflective, but seem almost to explode from her lips unexpectedly. While Elizabeth spoke with “a loud voice” (1:42), Mary is perhaps more sedate. Regardless, these are some of the most beautiful words in all the word of God. Let us ponder them.

(1) Mary’s psalm of praise reveals a repeated use of the terminology and theology of the Old Testament. Virtually every commentator agrees that Mary’s praise is dripping with Old Testament allusions and references. In contrast to the “psalm” of Jonah in Jonah chapter 2, which we have recently considered,18 the psalm of Mary is a magnificent masterpiece. It not only employs the terminology of the psalms, but the theology. Mary dwells on the character of God, particularly His grace, which is bestowed on the humble and the oppressed. There is a also distinct parallel with the praise of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2. The marginal references in our Bibles indicate the many other allusions and parallels. Some may question how a simple peasant-girl may have such a grasp of the Old Testament. Geldenhuys responds,

In discussing this hymn of praise, some critics have asked whether Mary had her Old Testament open before her when she uttered the song. They forget that all pious Israelites from their childhood days knew by heart songs from the Old Testament and often sang them in the home circle and at celebrations. Mary was steeped in the poetical literature of her nation, and accordingly her hymn also bears the unmistakable signs of it.19

(2) Mary’s praise begins with her grateful response to the grace God has shown to her, a humble servant of the Lord. In verses 46-49, Mary praises God for His mercy as expressed toward her. She rejoices in God, who is her Savior (v. 47). While this may not refer only to the saving work which Messiah will come to accomplish, surely it includes it. God looked upon her humble estate with compassion; consequently she will be esteemed blessed by all future generations (v. 48). God’s compassion on her has revealed both His power and His holiness (“Mighty One,” “holy is His name,” v. 49).

Mary does not in any way view herself as better or holier than anyone else. She views herself as a sinner who needs God’s salvation, and as a the Lord’s servant, whose humble estate is the occasion for His mercy and grace. There is no hint that she thinks God has chosen her to be the mother of Messiah due to her blessedness, but rather that her blessedness is the result of God’s sovereign and gracious choice to use her as His instrument. In verse 48 her blessedness is viewed as the result of God’s grace.

(3) In verse 50 Mary’s praise broadens, viewing God’s grace to her as a reflection of His gracious purposes for His chosen people, Israel. God has not just singled Mary out for blessing, leaving others in their miserable estate. Mary saw her blessing as but an illustration, one instance of God’s grace, which leads her to praise God for His grace to all those who fear Him, from one generation to generation. Mary thus presses from the specific to the general, from her personal benefits to the blessings which all of God’s people (those who “fear Him”) experience.

(4) In verses 51-55, Mary’s praise focuses on the faithfulness of God to His promises and His purposes, especially His covenant with Abraham and his descendants. If verse 50 spells out the principle that God blesses His people, from generation to generation, verses 51-55 give some specific ways in which this has and will be done.

We can see that the verbs in these verses are past perfect. The question which this raises is what is meant by the use of the a past tense. My opinion is that deliverances which are described have already been demonstrated in Israel’s history, to some degree, but that they will finally and fully be realized in the future, as a result of Messiah’s coming. Much, perhaps most, of these things will be fulfilled in the second coming of Messiah, rather than in His first coming. In His first coming, Messiah came to reveal God to men, and to accomplish eternal redemption for all who would believe. In His second coming, Messiah will come to “set things straight,” to bring justice to the earth and judgment to the wicked. The book of Revelation speaks much of these themes, and prophesies their fulfillment.

(5) Mary’s praise serves as an encouragement to Elizabeth, just as Elizabeth’s praise was an encouragement to her. Many have observed the similarities of this Magnificat of Mary to the hymn of praise of Hanna in 1 Samuel chapter 2. It is so strong that some are tempted to view Elizabeth as the composer of the Magnificat, and not Mary. I believe that the similarity of the Magnificat to Hanna’s praise has the effect of encouraging Elizabeth, whose personal praise focuses on Mary, and not on her own joy in having a son in her old age. Thus there is a kind of criss-crossing effect in the praise of both women, for each expresses one’s personal praise, but edifies the other.

(6) Mary’s praise does not focus on the child she will bear, but on Father who is sending His Messiah. Geldenhuys has remarked,

It strikes us that Mary in this hymn does not utter a direct word in connection with the Son promised to her. Nevertheless she assumes throughout that He has indeed been promised her. Her whole hymn is inspired by this fact.20

It seems to me that this is a very significant fact. We would expect Mary to be taken with the fact that she will have a baby, and that this baby will be the Son of God. While this is certainly true, Mary chose to focus on what the child would be and accomplish as an adult, and not what her child would be as a child. In other words, Mary’s praise does not focus on the immediate blessedness of her having this child, but on the ultimate outcome of the coming of Messiah. She looks at the long range, not the short term. She views this event in terms of the distant past, in terms of the covenant promises of God, in terms of the history of Israel, where God’s mercy was shown on generation after generation, and in terms of the distant future, when at His second coming Messiah will set things straight. At this time the social order will under a radical and violent reversal. The lofty will be put down and the humble will be exalted (vv. 51-52). The hungry will be fed and the well-fed will be hungry. The poor will be helped, but the rich will be sent away (v. 53).

(7) Mary focused more on the results of Christ’s second coming than she did the first. When you ponder the specific results of Messiah’s incarnation as outlined in Mary’s “Magnificat” they have to do with what we know of as Christ’s second coming, more than with His first coming. I doubt that Mary way aware of the fact that Christ would come to earth twice, to achieve two distinct purposes. To press the matter further, I doubt that Mary understood that the redemptive purpose of Christ’s first coming would be accomplished by His death on a cross, death at the hands of wicked men. Even this is a manifestation of God’s grace, for at this early point in time such knowledge would only have caused Mary unnecessary and premature pain. Simeon’s words in chapter 2 (v. 35) allude to this pain, but do not explain what its cause will be. How gracious God is in what He does not tell us, as well in what He does.

(8) Mary’s theology, as reflected in her “Magnificat” is vastly superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, who would become the arch enemies of our Lord. As I have studied Mary’s psalm of praise it occurred to me that her theology was like that of her Son, and likewise, that it was very different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. I will not pursue this in any detail here, but let me point out several areas of contrast between Mary’s theology, her understanding of the Old Testament, and that of the scribes and Pharisees. Mary did not mention the Law of Moses, the Mosaic Covenant, but only God’s promise to Abraham, the Abrahamic Covenant. Mary understood that Israel’s hope was rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, not in the Mosaic. The scribes and Pharisees seemed as though they could only think and talk in terms of the Law of Moses. Mary viewed all of God’s dealings in the light of His grace; the religious leaders only thought in terms of human works.

Mary understood the great themes of the Old Testament, such as God’s mercy and compassion, God’s concern for the poor and the helpless. These were the themes of the Old Testament prophets. They were not, however, the themes of the scribes and Pharisees. In His rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus constantly referred to these great themes, and to the fact that legalistic Judaism violated them (cf. Matthew 23). Mary also understood the purposes of God as a plan which He had been carrying out throughout Israel’s history. She viewed history in the light of this plan. The scribes and Pharisees, however, seemed only to grasp a few of the particulars, but missed the plan. They “strained the gnats” but they swallowed the camels. Mary grasped the “camels” and the religious leaders only grasped at the “gnats.”

The Magnificence of Mary

There are those who have distorted the truth of God’s word about Mary, and rather than regarding her blessed above all women, have honored her as above mankind, worshipping her and praying to her as though she were on the level of deity, or even above Messiah. This is clearly seen to be in blatant disregard for the teaching of our text. Nevertheless, others have reacted to this error by failing to see this woman as a model disciple. I believe that Charles Talbert is correct in viewing Mary as a “model disciple.”21 Let us consider some of the ways in which Mary provides us with a model of discipleship.

(1) Mary is a model disciple in her faith in the word of God, and in her submission to the will of God. Mary is not a model for disciples in being the mother of Messiah. It is true that Elizabeth blessed Mary as the mother of her Lord (1:42), and that future generations will bless her as such also (1:48). While this is true, this must be kept in its proper perspective. Our Lord was careful to show that being obedient to God’s will and His word were more important than being humanly related to Him:

And a multitude was sitting around Him, and they said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are outside looking for You.” And answering them, He said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” And looking about on those who were sitting around Him, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers!” “For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35; cf. Matt. 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21).

In yet another text we read:

And it came about while He said these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice, and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which You nursed.” But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God, and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28).

While bearing the Messiah was a distinct privilege for Mary, that for which she is most highly praised is her faith and her obedience. This is evident in the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth, which subtly contrasts the belief of Mary with the unbelief of Zacharias:

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45).

To press the matter of Mary’s obedience even further, Mary was not only obedient to the imperatives of God’s word, but also to the inferences of His word. The angel had not commanded Mary to go to the house of Elizabeth, but had only stated that Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age, which showed that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:36-37). Mary got the point, however, and without having to be told to do so, went immediately to Elizabeth’s house, even though it was apparently some distance away and involved considerable inconvenience.

(2) Mary is a model disciple in the depth of her familiarity with the word of God. One cannot read the “Magnificat” of Mary without realizing that she has drawn deeply from the terminology and the theology of the Old Testament. Not only does she think biblically, she also expresses herself in biblical terms.

(3) Mary is a model disciple in her grasp of the grace of God, and in her gratitude toward God for bestowing grace on her. If there is any one concept which captures the spirit and the essence of God’s dealings with men it is the concept of grace. Mary’s “Magnificat” reveals the depth of her grasp of God’s grace, which is not only shown to her, but to all the people of God, and from generation to generation. Grace is the essence of true doctrine and the antidote to that which is false. As the writer to the Hebrews put it,

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited (Heb. 13:9).

The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day were largely legalists, who focused on the letter of the law, but missed God’s grace in it. Not so with Mary.

(4) Mary is a model disciple in grasp of the social implications of the gospel. Peter momentarily forgot that the gospel is inseparably linked with certain social obligations, and thus Paul had to rebuke him (cf. Gal. 2:11-21). Mary understood that the good news of Messiah’s coming would result in great social reversals. In His ministry the Lord Jesus would expand on he social themes of Mary’s “Magnificat”:

And turning His gaze on His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied … But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry … ” (Luke 6:20-21a; 24-25).

In the New Testament epistles, the apostles insist that Christians not conform to the evil social practices of their day, but live according to the social standards of the gospel, to which Mary referred, and which our Lord taught. Thus, James has some very strong words on the subject of discriminating against the poor and showing partiality to the rich (cf. James 2:1-13; 5:1-12).

(5) Mary is a model disciple in her grasp of the purposes and promises of God. Mary’s “Magnificat” focuses on much more than just her own blessing in the bearing of Messiah. Indeed, she does not focus on the child, per se, but on the results of the coming of Messiah. We know now that this includes both His first and His second comings. Mary has a great breadth of understanding. She looks backward, to the covenants which God has made with Abraham and with His people in the Old Testament. She looks forward to the ultimate righteousness which will be established when Messiah reigns on the throne of David. Mary has a good sense of history and a broad grasp of God’s purposes and promises. There is no provincialism to be found in her praise.

(6) Mary is a model disciple in her evident reflection and meditation on the things of God. All that we see in these few phrases of praise points to the fact that Mary meditated on the word and on the works of God. We have further corroboration of this from two other statements made by Luke:

But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be (Luke 1:29, emphasis mine).

And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51, emphasis mine).

Mary may not be all that some have held her to be, but she is a magnificent model of discipleship. She is a woman who grasps the Word of God, who meditates upon it, and who is obedient to it, both in its imperatives and in its inferences. She is a woman who had a good grasp of what God was doing in history and in society. Mary is a model disciple.

(7) Mary is a model disciple in that her praise was not only a personal expression of worship, but also was edifying to Elizabeth. We are led to the conclusion that Mary’s praise was spoken in the hearing of Elizabeth, just as Elizabeth’s praise was spoken to God, but for Mary’s benefit. In both cases, the praise of God spoken before others was done in such a way as to edify and encourage those who heard.


There are a number of ways in which the worship of these two women relate to contemporary Christians. As we conclude, let me suggest some specific applications of our text.

First, our text has much to teach us on the subject of women, their spirituality, and their worship. Modern society, as we know, has been “liberated” from the archaic, chauvinism of the ancient world. Even the church has made its concessions to the women’s liberation movement. Because of this, the practices of our church stand out, and are considered very offensive to many women, and some men. Nevertheless, it is our conviction that the principles of the New Testament church are as relevant and binding today as they were in Paul’s day.

The point I wish to make here is that the “restrictions” which the New Testament makes on women and their role in public worship are not detrimental to the spiritual life and development of women. Granted, the worship of these two women is not public, but private. Nevertheless, their praise was pleasing to God and it has been preserved for our edification.

The fact that the worship of these women was more restricted than that of men is no hindrance to their spiritual growth and development. Indeed, it would seem that in the case of Elizabeth, if not also Mary, her spirituality surpassed that of her husband. Elizabeth was not restricted to the level of spirituality of her husband, nor did the fact that the public expression of her worship was limited keep her from experiencing the greatest intimacy with her God.

The same principle applies on a different level. The fact that Zacharias was a “professional” priest and that his wife and Mary were but “lay” people did not in any way set Zacharias above the others. An aged priest has less faith than a young peasant girl, and thus Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary for her faith in God’s promise contains a mild rebuke for her doubting husband, who did not believe Gabriel’s words.

Second, the praise of Elizabeth and Mary provide us with a model for our own worship and praise. Mary and Elizabeth’s praise of God went much further than just gratitude for the gift of a child. Mary’s praise began with her own experience, but quickly linked this with God’s character and actions in the past (His ways) and then with His covenant and promises regarding the future.

How shallow our prayers and praise seem when compared with that of these two godly women. Our praise tends to be based almost exclusively on our pleasant and pleasurable experiences. Our praise tends to focus primarily on what God has done for us. We must seek to dwell much more on the character of God, of His covenant promises, and of His working in history, as well as in the future. The language of our praise should betray a continual soaking in the Scriptures and meditation on the terms and theology of the Bible.

Our praise during this Christmas season should especially be patterned after that of Mary, who did not focus on the tiny baby that she would soon hold in her arms, but in the God who sent Messiah and in the goal of His coming earth. This includes the immediate goal of redemption and salvation, but it especially includes the “setting right” of those things which are unjust and evil. These things are still future for us, as they were for Mary, for they will be accomplished at the second coming of our Lord.

Our praise, like that of Elizabeth and Mary, should not only seek to exalt God, but also to edify those who may hear it. Too often, I fear, we find ourselves performing before others, using our praise to speak to men, to convey some message to them, rather than to God. Mary’s praise was addressed to God, but in adoring God she also encouraged and edified Elizabeth, just as Elizabeth’s praise encouraged her. As the apostle Paul put it, “let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26a).

Third, the account which Luke has provided us of Mary’s intimate worship, shared only with Elizabeth, should instruct and motivate us in the disciplines of discipleship. We should strive to be student’s of God’s Word, meditating on its terms and theology, seeking to be obedient to its imperatives and its implications.

Finally, we should strive to see beyond the birth of the baby to the end for which the child came—to restore and reconcile fallen men to God and to one another. While Christ’s coming meant more than saving men from their sins, this was the beginning, the prerequisite for all that He would accomplish.

The miracle of the virgin birth, which is the basis and the starting point of the praise of these two women, is analogous to the miracle of the new birth which every man, woman, and child must experience to have eternal life and to live the kind of life which our Lord requires.

There is a principle at work here in the first two chapters of Luke which can be found elsewhere in the Bible. This principle may be stated in this way:


Throughout the Old Testament, the miraculous ministries of God’s chosen instruments often began by a miraculous or unusual birth. The births of Abraham (Genesis 12-21), Samuel (1 Samuel 1 & 2), and Samson (Judges 13), are examples of such miraculous births. It is not at all surprising to find that the births of both John and Jesus are miraculous, for the lives of both are miraculous. While me cannot say that every miraculous life began with a miraculous birth, I think it is safe to say that every miraculous birth resulted in a miraculous life and ministry.

There are many today who seem to think that they can live according to the standards and principles of the Bible by setting their minds to it. This is not so. The Bible requires that men live a life which is miraculous, a life that is humanly impossible (cf. Romans chapter 7). There is only one way that this can ever happen, and that is by our experiencing a miraculous “new” birth. This is why the Lord Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born again,” even though he was a prominent teacher in Israel (cf. John chapter 3).

There are many nominal “Christians” who are tying to live an impossible (miraculous) life, yet who have not been miraculously “born again.” I fear some of you may be trying to live a miraculous life, but who have not had the prerequisite “new birth.” May I exhort you to experience this new birth through faith in Christ this very hour.

While some think that they will be a Christian by “trying harder to live a good life” they need to learn that becoming a Christian, being “born again” is illustrated by the birth of Mary’s child, while trying to be religious through good works is illustrated by the birth of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was born through the actions of Elizabeth and Zacharias, which God supernaturally brought to conception and birth. This is not the way men are saved, however. Salvation does not result from our efforts, which God miraculously blesses. Our salvation comes about in the same way that Mary’s baby was conceived—totally by the sovereign work of God, apart from any effort which Mary might make. God does the work of producing life in us, just as He brought about life in Mary. We but need to believe and to accept God’s work, but we must leave the working to Him, and not to ourselves. Salvation is God’s miraculous work in us, producing new life.

The Israelites felt that their physical link with Abraham was sufficient to save them, but they were wrong, and John would later challenge this false belief (Luke 3:8). As our Lord Himself said later, those who obey His word are His sisters, brothers, and mother. Physical relationship to Christ is not nearly so important as one’s spiritual relationship. What is your spiritual relationship to God?

14 “A few Latin MSS read ‘Elizabeth said’ instead of Mary said, and some commentators (e.g. Creed) accept this. But the textual evidence in support of Mary is overwhelming.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 75.

15 “FRom the first word of her hymn of praise in the Vulgate translation, this hymn is known as the “Magnificat.” From the earliest times it has been used in the praises of the Christian church.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 84.

16 The term “young” is used with some caution, for it is only tradition that teaches us Mary was a young, girl, a teen. Nevertheless, girls were married young in those days, and it is thus likely true that Mary was quite young. Let us bear in mind, however, that Luke has not told us this was the case. Mary’s age, then, is not a significant issue to Luke. Far more important to Luke is her virginity, for this is an essential element in the virgin birth.

17 The term which is rendered “city” (“a city of Judah,” v. 39) is one that is very broad, and does not really indicate the size of the place. Thus, it is used with reference to Nazareth (1:26), which was but a village. It is my opinion that the “town” in which Elizabeth and her husband lived was merely a village, too. If Luke was writing to Gentiles, the name of this “village” would not have had any meaning, and thus was omitted as non-essential to his purpose. To those who lived far away from the Holy Land, the name of this unknown place was unimportant.

18 In our study of the book of Jonah, we concluded that Jonah typified the sin of Israel by his lack of compassion, his disobedience, his self-righteousness, and his refusal to repent. His self-righteousness is evident in the psalm of chapter 2, which dwells on his dilemma, his danger, and his deliverance, but not on God. In particular, instead of praising God for His mercy and compassion, as the psalmists and Mary do, Jonah protests against the grace and mercy of God in the final chapter of the book.

19 Geldenhuys, p. 85.

20 Ibid.

21 Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), p. 22.

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3. Why John Was Not Named "Little Zach" (Luke 1:57-80)


The matter of the names of children is very sensitive, so sensitive in fact, that I am reluctant to tell any stories about children being given unusual names. The names of children have different kinds of significance, depending upon the particular culture. In the “white” culture with which I am most familiar the only major consideration is that the name must “sound” right, match the sex of the child, and not have any unpleasant connotations. For example, my wife may suggest a particular name which I find unacceptable, only because I knew (or know) a person with that name, which gives the name a bad reputation.

In the culture of the Israelites, the name of a child was very significant. God sometimes changed the name of a person, such as changing the name of Abram to Abraham, of Sarai to Sarah, and of Jacob to Israel. At other times, God gave the name of the child before birth. Such is the case with both John and Jesus. The drama of our text has to do with a family argument over the name which was to be given the child of Zacharias and Elizabeth. When Gabriel informed Zacharias that he and his wife would have a child in their old age, the first thing he did was to instruct this priest as to what the child’s name would be:

“… your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John” (Luke 1:13).

It is not until the events of our text, which occur at the time of John’s circumcision, that this divinely given instruction causes any difficulty. Suddenly, the naming of John ends up in what appears to be a rather emotional issue, with Elizabeth standing her ground against an unnamed group of observer-participants, who are insisting that the boy be named after his father.

The question which we must bear in mind as we approach our study of this passage is, “Why would Luke bother to include the account of a family argument over the name of a child?” It is only in Luke’s Gospel that the births of John and Jesus are recorded. It is only in Matthew and Luke that any events in the early life of these two boys is recorded. Why, then, when there is so much that could have been reported about the early life of these two men, is this account selected by the author? I believe that this question provides us with the approach which will prove to be the key to understanding the interpretation and the application of our text. Our purpose in this study will be to try to understand what was taking place at the circumcision of John, and why Luke thought this event was worthy of being included in his history (and, as would become the case, the Bible). I believe that there are some very important principles to be learned here, which are as relevant to contemporary Christians as they were to John and his parents. Let is look to the Spirit of God to guide us in understanding this text as He meant us to.

The Structure of the Text

The structure of our passage may be summarized as follows:

(1) The “Family Feud” Over the Name of John—vv. 57-66

  • a. Elizabeth and the relatives—vv. 57-61
  • b. Zacharias speaks up and gains his speech—vv. 62-64
  • c. Public impact of the incident—vv. 65-66

(2) Zachariah’s Psalm of Praise —vv. 67-79

  • a. Focus on Messiah & His ministry—vv. 67-75
  • b. Focus on John & his ministry—vv. 76-79

(3) Conclusion—John’s growth and development, in seclusion and solitude—v. 80

Overall, the passage of Scripture which we are studying falls into two major parts. The first segment deals with the “family feud” over the naming of John and its aftermath (vv. 57-66). The second segment records the praise of Zacharias, when the power of speech is once again given to him (vv. 67-79), with verse 80 summing up the early life of John as a concluding statement.

A Brief Review of the Context

Luke’s gospel began with an introductory preface (vv. 1-4), which explained his reasons for writing this account even though a number of others had already done so. Immediately after his introduction, Luke begins to give an account of the births of both John and Jesus, inter-twined in a way which accurately reflected the historical reality of the interrelationship of the ministries of these two men. The birth of John, who is the forerunner of Christ, is announced first by Gabriel, to his parents, Elizabeth and Zacharias. Both are elderly, both are descendants of Aaron, and both are righteous in the Old Testament sense, living in accordance with the Law of Moses. Together, they have had no children.

While Zacharias was carrying out the privileged priestly task of offering incense in the holy place, Gabriel appeared to him, announcing the birth of a child to him and his wife, a child who was to be named John, and who would be the promised forerunner of Messiah, even as prophesied by Malachi, in the last prophecy of the last book of the Old Testament canon.

Out of doubt, Zacharias asked for a confirming sign, perhaps because he wanted some proof to offer those to whom he would have to make this announcement. He was rebuked by Gabriel, and was struck dumb. By his silence, rather than by his speech, Zacharias became a sign to the people, as he attempted to communicate with them by making signs. The people grasped the fact that Zacharias had seen a vision. No doubt there was a sense of wonder and expectation as a result of this.

Zacharias went back home (to his unnamed town) after completing his priestly duties, and his wife became pregnant, just as Gabriel had said. Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months, and in her sixth month she was visited by Mary, who had just received the announcement from Gabriel that she was to bear the Messiah, who would be miraculously conceived in the womb of this virgin. The two expressed their marvelous grasp of God’s Word and of His work in their praises, and they fellowshipped together for three months, after which time Mary returned home, pregnant (or so it would seem).

Our text begins at this point. Elizabeth bears the promised “miracle child,” and her neighbors rejoice with her in this blessing. It is at the circumcision of the boy that his name will be given. Under normal circumstances, his name would unquestionably be Zacharias, but Elizabeth insisted that it must be John. The resolution of this standoff comes with the pronouncement of Zacharias, as it is written on a tablet.

A Family Feud: “Little Zach” or John

The “family feud” occurred at the time of John’s circumcision. We know that this ceremony took place on the child’s eighth day (Luke 1:59). Normally, it would seem that the father took the leading role in the ceremony, but since Zacharias was dumb, and perhaps deaf as well,22 he seems to have been much less involved in the ceremony. The occasion may very well have taken place at the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth. We are told that “they” came to circumcise the child, and that “they” were going to call him Zacharias (1:59). I now understand this to mean that the people referred to by the term “they” are the same. A certain group of people came to the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth to witness and to take part in the circumcision ceremony (did a doctor or specialist come, who would perform the circumcision?). They same group seemed intent on naming the child Zacharias. I would understand that this group of people was composed of close friends and relatives, who would have had a personal interest in John’s circumcision. It would be something like a christening service today.

Somewhere in the ceremony, when the name of Zacharias was being given, Elizabeth interrupted, insisting that the child’s name was to be John. Since this was not the name of the father, nor was it the name of a relative,23 there was a strong reaction to Elizabeth’s demands. Zacharias was made aware of the problem, and given the opportunity to decide upon the name of the child. If he had heard none of the “discussion” it would have been an even greater marvel to the assembled witnesses that he, too, chose the name John.

One of the first and strongest impressions we gain from these verses is the sense of the prominence of Elizabeth, and of her determination for her son to be named “John” rather than “Zacharias.” Her actions may well have been considered inappropriate by those who observed her. Thus, for Elizabeth to be outspoken and insistent may have shocked them as totally “out of place” for a woman. Nevertheless, Elizabeth did so, and Luke strongly implies that she was both godly and right in so doing.

The role of Zacharias is certainly more passive and silent than normal. Whether this was solely due to his divinely imposed physical limitations, or whether this reflects some natural reticence and hesitation is a point over which we may disagree. I am inclined to view Zacharias as the quiet, retiring type, who was neither aggressive nor outspoken. Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems to have been more outspoken, especially in those matters which she viewed as godly and right. When Zacharias is made aware of the dispute and when he is asked to “cast the deciding vote,” he writes that the name John will be given to his son. This was truly shocking to those who stood by.

Why was the naming of the child so important, and so emotional? And why was naming the child John such a bone of contention? The naming of the son after his father implied that this child would “walk in the steps of his father,” that he would carry on the father’s name, and thus his work as well. Had John been named “Little Zach,” he would have been expected to grow up as a priest, just like his father. He would thus have gone about with his father as he carried out his priestly duties, learning how to do things, just like his daddy did them.

To be named by any other name would have implied just the opposite. John would not follow in his father’s steps. He would not learn to do what his father did. He would not be a priest. This, of course, was precisely the case, and thus the reason for the name John. It isn’t the meaning of the name “John” which is so important, then, but the message implied by having any name other than Zacharias which is such an emotional issue. If many of those gathered at the circumcision ceremony were relatives, Elizabeth’s insistence that the boy be named John was to renounce the family, its work, and its perpetuation through the next generation.

When Zacharias wrote the words, “His name is John,” on that tablet, he once again was given the power of speech. At that moment, his tongue was loosed and he began to praise God. The record of the praise of Zacharias is delayed a few verses, so that Luke can parenthetically report the impact of these things on those who watched, and on those who heard from those who watched. Verses 65 & 66 thus report the “gospel by gossip” which was spread abroad the “hill country of Judea” (v. 65). As “strange events” began to pile up, all related to this child, John, the expectation of the people in the area began to grow. It is little wonder that John was thought by many to be the Messiah, a thought which John persisted to deny (cf. 3:15-17).

The statement, “For the hand of God was certainly with him” (v. 66), may indicate that there were a number of other unusual or miraculous incidents associated with John in his childhood which testified to his unusual origin and mission in life. Luke must be selective, and thus he gives us but this general statement, suggesting that much more could have been written. The outcome of all of these things was a sense of expectancy among the people of that area.

Note that God does not announce the coming of the King, or of His forerunner in the Temple (save for Simeon and Anna), nor in Jerusalem (save in the visit of Jesus to the Temple at age 12), but in the “hill country of Judea.” It is not to the mighty or to the religious elite, but to the humble that the announcements of the nearness of Messiah’s appearance are made. This is but a prototype of the ministry of John and of Jesus, who came not to the “healthy,” but to the “sick;” not to the “righteous,” but to sinners (cf. Luke 4:16-21; 6:20ff.; Mark 2:15-17).

Zacharias’ Psalm of Praise

Rather than to record the inspired praise of Zachariah precisely when it was spoken, Luke includes the parenthetical comments of verses 65 & 66 so that this psalm serves to conclude the section, as it summarizes the impact of John’s ministry, and of Messiah’s ministry, of whom he is the forerunner.

Zacharias’ psalm has two major sections. The first section, contained in verses 67-75, is praise directed toward Messiah, in the light of His ministry. In this section, Zacharias directs His praise toward God in the light of the benefits of Messiah’s ministry for the nation Israel. If Mary’s “Magnificat” majored on the social implications of Messiah’s appearance, Zacharias’ praise highlights the political blessings which the nation Israel will experience. Note the frequent emphasis on the nation Israel in these verses:

“the God of Israel”
“He has come … and redeemed His people”—v. 68

“for us”
“in the house of His servant David”—v. 69

“as He said through his holy prophets”—v. 70

“salvation from our enemies”—v. 71

“to show mercy to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant,
which He swore to our father Abraham”—vv. 72-73

“to rescue us from the hand of our enemies” “to enable us to serve Him”—v. 74

As I presently understand Luke’s gospel, everyone in his account who praises God for Messiah’s coming does so in the light of their own circumstances, and in the light of their own hopes and aspirations. Messiah’s ministry is many-faceted, like the many facets of an expensive gem. Each psalm of praise tends to focus on one facet, and all of them together point out the manifold blessings of God manifested through His Messiah.

The second section, contained in verses 76-79, focuses on the messenger, John, and on the impact of his ministry. As Zacharias was informed by Gabriel, John will be the forerunner of Messiah, whose task will be to prepare men and women for His coming, by preaching of sin and of forgiveness for sins. In both the praises of Mary and of Zacharias, there seems to be more emphasis on the results of the Christ’s second coming, than His first.

Luke’s Conclusion

Verse 80 serves as the conclusion to Luke’s account of the birth and childhood of John the Baptist. In my opinion, it is the key to understanding our text:

And the child continued to grow, and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel (Luke 1:80).

Here, Luke gives us his reason for including the account of John’s childhood, even though his public ministry was to begin many years later. In addition, Luke here informs us as to his reason for including the account of the “family feud” in conjunction with the naming of John. Let me point out several important elements in this very brief concluding statement.

(1) This statement capsulizes and summarizes the entire period of John’s life prior to his public ministry. In less than 30 words, approximately 30 years of John’s life are characterized.

(2) This statement speaks of John’s physical, but especially of his spiritual growth during his growing-up years. Luke tells us that John “became strong in spirit.”

(3) This statement speaks of John’s preparation for public ministry. While John’s physical and spiritual growth is of great importance to his own walk with God, Luke’s purpose is to inform us that he was being prepared for the day of his public appearance, for the time of his public ministry as the forerunner of Messiah. In other words, John’s spiritual growth was essential for his spiritual ministry.

(4) Finally, and most importantly, Luke informs us that John was being prepared for his public ministry in solitude. John’s spiritual growth and development, Luke tells us, took place “in the deserts.”

I do not think that John’s living in the desert was incidental to his spiritual growth and development, but that it was a fundamental part of his growth process. Luke, as a meticulous and thoughtful historian, was a man who thought in terms of processes, and who saw history revealing a continuity, because behind it all God is bringing about His purposes and fulfilling His promises. Thus, for Luke, the ministries of John and Jesus did not commence at their public presentation, but at the time of the announcement of their births. Luke is concerned that we see the formulating factors in their ministries, which took place in their earliest years, as well as the ministries which resulted. And so while the other gospel writers begin with the public proclamation of John’s message, Luke begins with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, and with the experiences in John’s life which shaped him spiritually, in preparation for his ministry.

Luke informs us of several preparatory factors in the life of John, even in this very brief account of his birth and childhood. First, Luke tells us of John’s calling, as indicated by the announcement of Gabriel, before the child was even conceived. God’s purpose for John was announced, even before his conception, so that his parents might raise him in the light of those purposes, thus helping to prepare him for this ministry. Second, John was filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth, so that his spiritual growth would be enhanced, during his childhood, in preparation for his ministry. Finally, John was prepared for his ministry by being separated from his family, culture, and religious system.

John’s calling came prior to his birth

John’s early preparation is not something novel or unique. We will see from the next chapter of Luke that Jesus was also being prepared before and after his birth, for the ministry which God had called Him to perform. In the Old Testament, the accounts of men like Joseph, Samuel, David, and Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5), show that God was working in their early lives to prepare them for later ministry. Other texts, such as Psalm 139, indicate that God’s preparation begins in the womb. So, too, in the New Testament, Paul spoke of his calling before his birth (Gal. 1:11-17). He also reminded Timothy of the preparation which God had worked in his life through his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5-7).

Here, however, Luke makes a special point of the fact that John’s growth and development involved a separation, from his family, from his culture, and from the Jewish religious system, of which he could have been (indeed, should have been!) a priest, like his father.

Let me very quickly point out that I believe there were many positive contributions to John’s growth and development which came from his parents, family, society, and religious system. I believe that I see a great deal of Elizabeth (though not so much of Zacharias) in John. But this is not Luke’s emphasis. Luke chooses to emphasize the separation of John from his “world,” not his identification with it.

When he was given the name “John,” rather than “Zacharias” (“little Zach”), God was indicating to all who were involved that John would not be carrying on his father’s name, nor his work. Think of the ways in which John became very different from his father, which was symbolized by his non-family name. Zacharias was a priest; John was a prophet. John was a Nazarite; his father was not. Zacharias lived among the people; John lived in the solitude of the people. Zacharias was a part of the old religious system; John was not—he stood apart from it. Zacharias, as evidenced by his psalm of praise, spoke as an Israelite, but John, being somewhat removed from typical Israelite life and the religious system of the day, was able to see the errors which had developed:

“Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8).

Zacharias, as a part of the religious system, identified with it, while John was able to stand apart from it and to see its many errors and perversions (cf. John 1:19ff.). The boldness and clarity with which John spoke out against the evils of his day was, to a great extent, the result of John’s separation from the system and its sins, which he condemned. In contrast to Zacharias, who seemed reticent to speak, John spoke out boldly.

Thus, Luke would have the reader to know that separation from his society, even from his parents, played a key role in John’s preparation for ministry.


As we consider the preparation of John for his ministry, I believe that we find a very important principle underscored here, which is just as relevant to us and just as important in our preparation for ministry as it was for John. The principle is this: To represent Christ, we must stand apart from sin and from the world, which hates Him.

If there is one thing which characterized John it was that he was a man who was set apart. He was set apart by his calling before his birth, by his unusual birth, by his life as a Nazarite, by his name, and by his childhood spent in the desert, where he lived apart from his “world,” wore distinct clothing, and ate very different food. It was his separation from his “world” which facilitated his ability to see its sins, to stand firmly against them, and to speak out boldly in condemning them.

I believe that separation is just as essential for Christians today, if we would serve God as we should, and live up to our “calling.” Separation was essential for God’s people in the Old Testament. For example, we read,

“‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel’” (Exod. 19:5-6).

“‘For I am the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy’” (Lev. 11:45).

God chose Israel to represent Him, to reveal His holiness to the other nations. It was therefore necessary for the Israelites to stand apart from the evils of their day. They were not to live like the Canaanites or the other peoples. Thus, God gave them a special calling, a special covenant, and special commandments which, if obeyed, would set them apart from the nations.

This same holiness, this same separation, is required of New Testament saints as well:

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY” (1 Pet. 1:14-16).

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is that you abstain from sexual immorality; … For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification (1 Thes. 4:3, 7).

Holiness in the life of the Christian, that is, separation from sin, is necessary for several reasons; Holiness is required if we are to represent and reflect a holy God to men. We cannot be God-like if we live in sin, but only if we live apart from sin. We must be holy, we must stand apart from sin in order to be sensitive to sin, to recognize it and to sense how evil and offensive it is to God. And we must stand apart from sin if we are to condemn it and to plead with others to forsake sin. John’s separation from sin was essential to his personal walk with God and to his ministry. So, too, our separation from sin is also essential.

There is, I believe, a sense in which John’s “separation” was unique, and not a pattern form every Christian. John’s separation was somewhat extreme, in that he was physically removed from his family, his society, and his religious heritage. There are still those today who would strive to be separate from the world by attempting to live in some remote place, away from people.

I do not think that our Lord has commanded Christians to be physically separated from others as the norm.24 In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord taught that we should be “salt” and “light” (Matt. 5:10-16), both of which speak of our penetration into the world, rather than of our fleeing from the world. It is also said that such penetration with the gospel and holy living will likely result in persecution, which is the broader context of the passage (cf. Matt. 5:10ff.). Thus, our separation, while it should be as thorough in spirit as that of John, will manifest itself differently than John’s did. What is the nature of our separation? Let us briefly consider some of the biblical guidelines for New Testament holiness.

First, we must separate ourselves from sinful thinking. There is a sinful “mind,” a wrong way of looking at things and thinking about them. The natural “mind” is “set on the things of the flesh” and leads to death (Rom. 8:6) because it is hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7). Thus, we must be “renewed in the spirit of our mind” (Rom. 12:2), which to a large degree is done through intense and prolonged exposure to the Word of God.

Second, we must be separate from the sinful inclinations of our own fleshly desires. The seventh chapter of Romans deals with these, as does Galatians 5:19-21. The only way to overcome these inclinations and to live righteously is to “walk in the Spirit,” to walk according to the promptings and the power of the Holy Spirit of God (Rom. 8:1ff.; Gal. 5:16ff.).

Third, we must be separate from the world. Here, it is not by a physical removal, which is impossible by any means other than death (1 Cor. 5:9-10). We must be separate from the world by thinking differently, by recognizing its evil inclinations and solicitations, and by refusing to participate in any of its sins. We also find great encouragement and strength from the church, from a body of like-minded believers, who encourage us in practicing and persisting in righteousness (cf. Rom. 12:9-21; 13:8-14; 15:14; Heb. 10:19-25).

Finally, we must be separate by recognizing and removing ourselves from the sins of our family and even of our religion, which are not in keeping with the Word of God. The New Testament has much to say on these subjects, which time will not permit us to pursue in detail, but let me encourage you to study those texts which warn us about false teaching and teachers (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:1-5). Also, we should be mindful that even in the most godly of homes (such as that of Zacharias and Elizabeth) there is still sin and sinful patterns, which we should recognize as sin and put off, so that our lives will conform to the Word of God.

Let us be a separate people, so that we may represent a holy God to an unholy world.

22 Edersheim, among others, suggests that Zacharias was both deaf and dumb, which would explain the people’s efforts to communicate with him by signs (1:62), just as he did with them (1:22). Edersheim contends that the Hebrew term which might underlie the text was understood in this way by the Rabbis. Cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, p. 158, fn. 2. I do not think this has to be the case, although it is possible, and it would explain why Zacharias himself did not initially protest the giving of the name Zacharias to the child. He could not protest that which he did not hear. It may also be an appropriate disciplinary “sign” for Zacharias, since he was unwilling to “hear” the promise of God.

23 Some have objected to the fact that a child would be named after a living relative. Edersheim’s comments deal with this objection:

“Wunsche reiterates the groundless objection of Rabbi Low (u.s. p. 96), that a family-name was only given in remembrance of the grandfather, deceased father, or other member of the family! Strange, that such a statement should ever have been hazarded; stranger still, that it should be repeated after having been fully refuted by Delitzsch. It certainly is contrary to Josephus (War iv. 3,9), and to the circumstance that both the father and the brother of Josephus bore the name of Matthias.” Edersheim, I, pp. 157-158, fn. 3.

24 There is the necessity for Christians to physically separate themselves from professing Christians, who are living in sin. Cf. 1 Corinthians 5.

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4. The Birth of the Messiah (Luke 2:1-20)


An elder friend and I somehow were reminded of an old joke this past week, which relates to our text. A curious bystander was watching a blacksmith with great interest. The blacksmith was hammering out a horseshoe. He had just finished with a shoe and had placed it aside to cool. Without thinking, the bystander picked it up to look at it more closely, and even more quickly put it down. With a twinkle in his eye, the blacksmith commented, “Hot, wasn’t it?” Not to be made light of, the observer responded, “Nope, it just doesn’t take me long to inspect horseshoes.”

On can say that it doesn’t take Luke very long to report on child births, either, gauging from the length of his account of the birth of our Lord Jesus.25 And remember that Luke’s account of our Lord’s birth is the only inspired account recorded in the gospels. Neither Mark nor John deal with the births or the childhood days of either John the Baptist or Jesus, but begin with the commencement of John’s public ministry. Matthew tells us about the visitation of the angel to Joseph, prior to the birth of Jesus, which caused him to marry Mary, rather than to put her away privately, as he had originally intended. He also informs us about the visit of the magi, of Herod’s attempt to kill the baby, and of the flight of the holy family to Egypt until after Herod’s death. Matthew does not, however, tell us anything about the birth of our Lord, per se. Only Luke describes the events of our Lord’s birth. Thus, when we take note of Luke’s brevity, we see that the only account of Christ’s birth is also a very brief account. This is significant, as we shall seek to show at the end of the message.

Of all of the things which Luke could have told us about the birth of the Lord Jesus, he chose to give a very brief account of the factors which occasioned Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (the decree of Caesar, the census, the fact that the place of Joseph’s birth was Bethlehem), and how nearby shepherds came to witness the Messiah’s advent. These events, by virtue of the fact that they were chosen from many which could have been reported but were not, must be of considerable importance to Christians, especially Gentile believers, including ourselves. Let us seek to learn the meaning and the application of the Savior’s birth, as recorded only by Luke, the divinely inspired historian.

The Structure of the Text

Luke chapter 2 has three major sections. Verses 1-20 depict the birth of Jesus, and the worship and witness of the shepherds. Verses 21-40 feature an account of the presentation of Jesus at Jerusalem, and the inspired testimony of Simeon and Anna. The third and final section of the chapter describes an incident which took place in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old, at which time He remained in the Temple, His “Father’s house,” busy with His Father’s business (Luke 2:41-52).

Our text, Luke 2, verses 1-20, also has three divisions. Verses 1-7 explain the occasion for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and especially for the circumstances accompanying His birth, namely His being wrapped in strips of cloth and being placed in a cattle feeding trough. Verses 8-14 describe the angelic visitation of the shepherds as the occasion for the visit of the shepherds at the birth sight. Verses 15-20 report the shepherd’s visitation and their testimony after having seen the Savior.

The Setting

After the introduction of Luke’s gospel (1:1-4), Luke begins to intertwine the advent of both John the Baptist and Jesus, beginning with the announcements of their births, then their births, and finally some significant insight into a childhood event. The birth of John and the “family feud” over the naming of the child was the subject of our last study.

There are some intervening events reported by Matthew which also help us to understand what is taking place in our text. Matthew’s account of Joseph’s angelic visitation seems to occur shortly after Mary has returned to her home in Nazareth from the home of Elizabeth and Zacharias (cf. Luke 1:39-56). It is my opinion that Mary became pregnant through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit during her stay with Elizabeth and her husband, Zacharias. On returning home she may have been nearly three months pregnant. Seeing her three months into her pregnancy must have been a great shock and disappointment to Joseph. It didn’t take any expert in biology to know that no woman had ever gotten pregnant by herself, and thus Joseph was forced to conclude that she had had sexual relations with another man. Divorce was unavoidable, Joseph knew, but he determined at least to do this privately, rather than to make a public spectacle of Mary.

It was at this point in time that the angel visited Joseph in a dream, Matthew tells us (Matt. 1:18-25), informing him that Mary had not had an illicit union, but that the child she was to bear was God incarnate, Immanuel. As a result of this revelation, Joseph took Mary as his wife, providing for her and protecting her, and later serving as the father of the miracle child she bore.

Mary became Joseph’s wife in a very different way, due to the nature of her pregnancy. Normally, a Jewish man and woman became husband and wife by their physical union. As a part of the wedding ceremony the husband and wife went into their tent, and emerged after the union was consummated sexually. Mary could not have had such a marriage ceremony, for Matthew has told us that they had no sexual relations until after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25). Thus, when Matthew refers to Mary and Joseph as being married, he speaks functionally, for from this time on they lived together as husband and wife. But when Luke speaks of this couple, on their way to Bethlehem, he speaks of them as though they were still engaged, and yet to be married. Leave it to a doctor to be so technical. He was technically right, however, for it was only after the birth of Jesus that Mary and Joseph consummated their marital union and became husband and wife in the precise sense.

The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem

Luke takes up the account of the birth of Jesus with a report of the conditions into which God’s Messiah was born, and the human reasons for them. These first 7 verses are very “secular” in appearance. There is no mention of the hand of God, nor of any particular “spiritual” activity. Indeed, the section ends with almost a note of human tragedy. To think of it, the Son of God, covered with rags and placed in a cattle feeding trough! How inappropriate, we might protest. How tragic! This might be so, apart from the “other side of the news,” which is found in verses 8-20. The very circumstances which seem to pathetic, so sad, are those which prove to be most significant. Let us first look at the secular side of the news, and then press on to the spiritual dimension.

Verses 1-3 provide a secular explanation for the pathetic plight of the Christ-child. Caesar had proclaimed a decree, which required a census, undoubtedly in preparation for a later taxation.26 Registering for this census must have been a very painful act, not only because doing so was inconvenient, but because it was a reminder that while God’s people, Israel, were in the land of promise, they were not free; they were under the rule of a pagan power. A Roman law, made by a pagan potentate, compelled the Israelites to comply. The insistence of the Jews that they were subject to no one (John 8:33) is thus shown to be a blatant denial of a painful and sensitive fact.

Quite honestly, the information supplied in verses 1-3 is of little interest to the contemporary Christian reader. Who cares which Caesar was responsible for the census, or even that there was one? Who cares about Quirinius? In my opinion, Theophilus, the initial recipient did. The term “most excellent,” which Luke uses in chapter 1 (v. 3), is also used by Luke three times in Acts (23:26; 24:3; 26:25), each time in reference to a political official of high standing. This suggests that Theophilus, too, was a man of high political office. Luke’s information, while of little interest to us, must have been significant to Theophilus. Among other things, Luke was showing the historical roots of the Christian faith. Unlike the appearance of the other “gods” of false religions, whose appearance was couched in “once upon a time” terms, the coming of the Christ was a real event in real time.27 The facts Luke has provided were important to a man whose faith was to have historical validity.

In the final analysis, the decree of Caesar was divinely intended to cause one couple to make a long difficult journey from their home town of Nazareth in Galilee to the place of their birth, Bethlehem in Judea. The ancient prophet had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, a fact that was well known to the Jews:

And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet, ‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER, WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL’” (Matt. 2:4-6, citing Micah 5:2).

Luke’s purpose, however, is not to emphasize the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, as Matthew would do, for his gospel is written to a Gentile, who is probably not familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Luke’s purpose is to show the humble circumstances of the Messiah’s birth.28 Thus, Luke informs us that Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem, which would have been at least a three day journey of more than 60 miles. Nazareth was located in Galilee, to the north of Judea. As Luke informs us, the journey to Bethlehem was “upward” (“And Joseph also went up from Galilee,” 2:4) because Bethlehem was in the hills, just six miles south of Jerusalem, 100 feet higher, at an altitude of 2,704 feet. The journey was not an easy one, especially for a pregnant woman, nor was the occasion a happy one, for the census was undoubtedly a prelude to a tax and Mary and her husband would be far removed from friends and family29 if the baby were to arrive while they were in Bethlehem.

Much of the imagery which has become a part of the Christmas and nativity tradition has been supplied by our “filling in the gaps” of Luke’s account. What we are told is that there was not room in the “inn,”30 which resulted in the baby Jesus being wrapped in rags or strips of cloth and placed in a cattle feeding trough for a crib. We do not know that Jesus was born in a stable, or in a cave. The feeding trough could have been borrowed, so that the baby may have been born under the stars. Mary may have preferred the privacy. The trough would have provided a soft place for the babe to sleep and the strips of cloth, wrapped around the child, would have kept the cold out, especially if the holy family was “camped” in the open, out in the elements.

The Angelic Announcement
and the Late Night Visit of the Shepherds

So far as we have been informed by Luke, it would be difficult to see the hand of God in these events. Mary and Joseph appear only to be an unfortunate couple who are forced to make an undesired and unpleasant journey to Bethlehem, and it is there, tragically, that Mary gives birth, in the most miserable of circumstances. Our conclusion, if it must be made here, would likely be, “How sad!” “How pathetic!” “How unworthy of the Israel’s Messiah, the King of the Jews!”

The two key descriptive statements of Luke in verse 7 are now taken up, and their spiritual significance is pointed out in the verses which follow. Mary and Joseph just “happen” to be nearby a field in which some shepherds are tending their flocks. It may very well be, as some have suggested,31 that these flocks were the animals which were raised to be sacrificed in Jerusalem. These shepherds would also be looked down upon by their countrymen. Shepherds, as you will recall, were “loathsome” to the Egyptians (Gen. 43:32; 46:34); they were also poorly thought of by their own brethren. Geldenhuys reminds us that,

“Shepherds were despised people. They were suspected of not being very careful to distinguish ‘mine’ and ‘thine’; for this reason, too, they were debarred from giving evidence in court” (Strack-Billerbeck, in loc.).”32

In spite of their poor reputation as a class of people, these shepherds seem to have been godly men, men who were looking for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. All the others of those who were directly informed of the birth of Messiah in Matthew and Luke were described as godly people, and so it would seem to be true of the shepherds as well. After all, news of His coming would not be “good news of a great joy” (v. 10) unless they were seeking Him. The haste of these shepherds to the place of Christ’s birth (vv. 15-16) also testifies to their spiritual preparedness and eagerness for the coming of Messiah. This is in contrast to the response of the Jerusalemites to the news of Messiah’s birth, as prophesied in their Scriptures and announced by the magi:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Matt. 2:1-3).

To these humble shepherds the angel of God appeared in a blaze of glory, which caused them to be greatly frightened. The angel assured them that he brought them good news, and told them of the birth of Messiah.33 This was to be the cause for “great joy” for all the people. I take it that by this the angel meant that all people, all the nations, and not just Israel, would benefit from His birth. Suddenly, the angel was joined by a host, an army, of angels, singing a song of peace.34 Here was divine confirmation of the angel’s announcement.

The angel had promised a sign to the shepherds. The sign was that they would find the child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cattle feeding trough (v. 12). The sign was not designed to convince the shepherds of the truth of the angelic announcement. Surely the splendour of the angel, compounded by that of the heavenly host, was convincing enough. I believe that this “sign” was for the purpose of identification. From Matthew’s account of the Bethlehem slaughter (Matt. 2:16-18), it is apparent that there were a number of babies in Bethlehem at the time. The way that they would recognize God’s Messiah was by His swaddling clothes and by His unusual “crib.” No other child would be found in such a setting.

And so the two most pathetic factors in the birth of our Lord, His “swaddling clothes” and His “cattle feeding trough bed,” prove to be the very things which set this child apart from all others, and which identify Him to the shepherds. But they do more than this; they also identify Messiah with the shepherds. One of the names of Messiah is “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” The circumstances of our Lord’s birth uniquely identified the Lord Jesus with the shepherds. The Lord seemingly had no roof over His head, no house to dwell in. Neither did the shepherds, who, we are told, slept under the stars, as they cared for their flocks (v. 8). Jesus was poor and of no reputation, as were they. And Jesus, who was to be both the sacrificial “Lamb of God” (cf. Isa. 53:4-6; John 1:29) and the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Ps. 23:1; Ezek. 34:23; John 10:14), identified with these shepherds by being found in a cattle feeding trough. Were they considered unclean by virtue of their contact with animals? So was He. What a beautiful picture of our Lord’s humiliation and identification with men, even the most humble of men, rejected and despised men.

Eagerly and with great haste (vv. 15-16) the shepherds went to Bethlehem, where they “found their way to Marry and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.” I think it is important to recognize that the angel announced the birth and the location of Messiah not only so that the shepherds could witness this historic occasion, and to worship their King, but also so that they could tell others—be witnesses—of Messiah’s birth.

Think first of all of the impact of the shepherds arrival and announcement upon Mary and Joseph. Granted, they had both been told that the child, who was miraculously conceived in Mary’s womb, was the Messiah, the promised Savior. But it took years for this to be understood, just as it took years for the disciples to grasp who Jesus was. They continued to wonder and marvel at the things Jesus said and did, not putting everything together until after His death, burial, resurrection, and the promised coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 1l6:12ff.). So, too, Mary and Joseph must have been greatly surprised by the shepherds’ arrival and by the report they shared of the angelic announcement and choir. While all who heard this report wondered, Mary, in some special way, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” In computer terms, her data base of information continued to increase in size and she persistently was processing this material, as to its meaning and implications. I personally feel that it was the arrival of the shepherds which finally brought all the inconvenience and unpleasant circumstances of the birth of Jesus into its true spiritual light. What had once appeared to be only a sequence of unfortunate events, now is revealed to be the hand of God working through history to accomplish God’s will.

The testimony of the shepherds also had a great impact on the people in that area who were looking for God’s Messiah. Luke informs us that the shepherds “found their way” to Mary, Joseph, and the child, but how did this happen? We do not know exactly, but I can at least imagine how it might have occurred in such a way as to make Messiah’s arrival known to a great many people.

To me, the shepherds’ search for the baby Messiah in Bethlehem was like a scavenger hunt. The “clues” they were given were (1) that there was a newly born babe; (2) that the babe was a boy; and (3) that he was to be found in a cattle feeding trough, wrapped in strips of cloth. I can just imagine those shepherds, converging on the town of Bethlehem, in the middle of the night (vv. 8, 15-16), knocking on doors, seeking to find a child meeting these descriptions. One looking on the town from a distance could have seen the whole town progressively lit up, astir with the news which the shepherds brought. From every house where the baby was not found, there was probably another addition to the search party. Perhaps the entire town was awakened and engaged in the search before the babe was found. All of this served to make the news of the Christ-child’s birth known, as well as to create of mood of expectation and curiosity. At some of the homes, at least, there may have been the request to come back with news of where Messiah was found.

After the shepherds found the child and shared with Mary and Joseph what had happened, they probably retracted their steps through the town of Bethlehem, brings all the people up to date on what they had seen. Luke therefore tells us that “all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds” (v. 18). These shepherds, who belonged to a class of society banned from bearing testimony in the courtroom, were the ones God chose to bear witness to the birth of His Son. Why? Because, I suppose, God had always chosen the “weak and foolish” things of this world to confound the wisdom of the wise, and because ultimately it is not the messenger that matters, but the message itself. If Jesus came to bring salvation and deliverance to the poor, the oppressed, and the despised of this world, why not announce it by means of the despised and rejected? The apostles of our Lord were just such men (cf. Acts 4:13).


There are four lessons which I wish to underscore here, which I believe are taught in our text. Let us prayerfully consider what God has to say to us from this passage.

(1) The sovereignty of God in history. Luke is a historian, and his historical account of the birth of Christ surely seeks to demonstrate the sovereignty of God in history. In the first 7 verses of the text, everything is viewed solely through a “secular” grid. A pagan potentate makes a decree, and the Israelites comply with it by registering in the town of their birth. In the process, a pregnant woman is forced to make a long journey with her husband, and to bear the child far from home and without the conveniences of a home.

Luke then lifts the veil, showing us that all of these seemingly sad events occur in order that God’s Messiah might be born in the vicinity of some shepherds, and in conditions which set Him apart from all other babies in Bethlehem. These shepherds are guided to the Messiah by a divinely appointed angel and an angel choir, so that they serve to edify and encourage Mary and Joseph and to announce Messiah’s birth to all who live in that area.

You will note that no mention is made of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2 is specifically mentioned by Luke because the recipient of the account, Theophilus, is a Gentile, who probably holds a high-level political position. While Theophilus would not be particularly in the prophetic fulfillment aspect of the birth account of Luke, he would be greatly impressed to learn that God is sovereign, and thus able to achieve His purposes and fulfill His promises by means of pagan powers, even the highest political power of that day—Caesar. Theophilus would be very impressed by this fact, which Luke is careful to reveal.

(2) Luke provides us with a lesson in the communication of the gospel. Luke is writing an account of the gospel here, and in doing this very well he provides us with some lessons in communicating the gospel to others. Luke passed up the opportunity to highlight the fulfillment of Micah 5:2 because it would not have as much impact on his Gentile recipient as it would have had on a Jew. Luke emphasized the sovereignty of God over history and over a heathen king, which would have had a great impact on Theophilus. In what he has done and not done Luke teaches us that we dare not change the gospel, but we should carefully chose to focus on those details of the gospel which will have the greatest impact on our audience. Thus, the need for more than one gospel is once again apparent.

(3) Luke’s account of the birth of Christ reminds us of the principle of proportion. We have already pointed out that Luke alone records the details of our Lord’s birth. Only one gospel in four describes the birth of Christ, while all four carefully depict His death. To press this point further, only a very few verses describe the events surrounding the birth of Christ while several chapters of each gospel are devoted to a description of the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. The principle of proportion teaches us that much time and space is devoted to what is most important, while little time and space is given to that which is of lessor import. On the basis of this simple principle we would have to conclude that the death of Christ is more important to the gospel writers than His birth. Why is this so? Because it is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that saves us, not the babyhood of Christ. Granted, Christ had to take on human flesh before He could reveal God to men and save them, but it is His atoning work on the cross of Calvary that saves us.

Why, then, is the Christmas story so important to many today, even those who do not believe in Christ for salvation? Because, I fear, the babe in the manger is far less threatening than the Christ of the later gospels, who interprets and applies the Law, who condemns sin and who speaks of faith in His blood. The baby in the manger is sweet and cuddley, and “controllable.” The baby in the manger is a kind of “God in the box,” a God whom we are comfortable to approach, to think about, even to worship. But the Christ hanging on the cross is not a pretty picture, He is not one to whom we are drawn, who evokes in us warm and fuzzy feelings. Many have made much, too much, of the babe in the manger because this is the kind of “god” they wish to serve, a “god” who is weak, who is helpless, who needs us, rather than a God who is sovereign, and who demands our obedience, our worship, our all.

What kind of God do you serve, my friend? What is the Christ like whom you worship? Worshipping the “babe in the manger” is not enough, for this is only the way He came. The way He will be for all eternity is the way He is described by John in the book of Revelation:

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood, and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. BEHOLD, HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS, AND EVERY EYE WILL SEE HIM, EVEN THOSE WHO PIERCED HIM; AND ALL THE TRIBES OF THE EARTH WILL MOURN OVER HIM. Even so. Amen (Rev. 1:4-7).

According to Revelation and the prophecies of the Bible, the Jesus who came the first time as a little baby, is coming again, as an avenger and as a righteous judge, to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous. This may not be the kind of Jesus you wish to think of or to serve, but it is the same Jesus that came to Bethlehem. His second coming will be vastly different from His first appearance. Then, He came to humble himself, to die on the cross, and to save. Next time, He comes to judge. Are you ready to face this Jesus, to fall before Him in worship? This is the Jesus of the manger. This is the coming King. I urge you to accept Christ as He came the first time, as your Savior, and then to wait for Him eagerly, to come the second time, to make things right, to establish His kingdom on earth, and to rule over all creation. Let us learn from Luke’s account that the babe in the manger is the Savior of the world, whom we must accept as our Savior.

(4) Finally, we learn that God’s purposes are often achieved through suffering, and that God’s purposes in our suffering are often not immediately apparent. All of the suffering, inconvenience, and discomfort that was occasioned by the decree of Caesar was not immediately recognized as the sovereign hand of a loving God, who was bringing about His purposes, in a way that was for the good of those who suffered. Let us learn from Mary and Joseph that those seemingly “secular” sufferings of life are most often instruments in the hand of God, which time or eternity will make clear to us.

25 The simplicity and brevity of this account can be viewed as testimony to its inspiration and divine origin, for such accounts would normally be embellished.

“This story excels by reason of its unaffected simplicity. In it we hear throughout the sound of sober, historical truth. It is like a charming idyll. But although it may claim poetical beauty, it is by no means merely the product of poetical imagination or the forming of legends. Its reserved sobriety forms a sharp contrast to all apocryphal and legendary versions of the occurrences in later times.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 110.

“‘Such marvelous associations have clung for centuries to these verses, that it is hard to realize how absolutely naked they are of all ornament. We are obliged to read them again and again to assure ourselves that they really do set forth what we call the great miracle of the world. If, on the other hand, the Evangelist was possessed by the conviction that he was not recording a miracle which had interrupted the course of history and deranged the order of human life, but was telling of a divine act which explained the course of history and restored the order of human life, one can very well account for his calmness’ (F. D. Maurice, Lectures on S. Luke, p. 28, ed. 1879).” As cited by Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 46, fn. 1.

“… the circumstances just noted affort the strongest indirect evidence of the truth of this narrative. For, if it were the outcome of Jewish imagination, where is the basis for it in contemporary expectation? Would Jewish legend have ever presented its Messiah as born in a stable, to which chance circumstances had consigned His Mother? The whole current of Jewish opinion would run in the contrary direction. The opponents of the authenticity of this narrative are bound to face this. Further, it may safely be asserted, that no Aprocryphal or legendary narrative of such a (legendary) event would have been characterised by such scantiness, or rather absence, of details. For, the two essential features, alike of legend and of tradition, are that they ever seek to surround their heroes with a halo of glory, and that they attempt to supply details, which are otherwise wanting. And in both these respects a more sharply-marked contrast could scarcely be presented, than in the Gospel-narrative.” Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, p. 186.

26 There are a number of difficulties which one could deal with in this passage, but which are not crucial to our study. First, there is no record of a law by Augustus which required that a census be held. Second, while we do have an inspired record that Quirinius carried out a census in A.D. 6 (Acts 5:37), nothing is recorded about an earlier census. Geldenhuys, pp. 104-106, has a fairly comprehensive description of the problems found in our text, and some possible explanations. Cf. also Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 81, 82.

27 Cf. Geldenhuys above, footnote 1.

28 Edersheim writes: “Two impressions only are left on the mind: that of utmost earthly humility, in the surrounding circumstances; and that of inward fitness, in the contrast suggested by them.” Edersheim, I, pp. 185-186.

29 Morris reminds us that Mary and Joseph may have found the necessity of travelling to Bethlehem a welcome opportunity to leave Nazareth, for no one would have believed that Mary’s pregnancy was miraculous:

“We should perhaps reflect that it was the combination of a decree by the emperor in distant Rome and the gossiping tongues of Nazareth that brought Mary to Bethlehem at just the time to fulfil the prophecy about the birthplace of the Christ (Mi. 5:2). God works through all kinds of people to effect His purposes.” Morris, p. 84.

30 “The Greek word [for ‘inn’] is of very wide application … In the LXX. kataluma is the equivalent of not less than five Hebrew words, which have widely different meanings. In the LXX. rendering of Ex. iv. 24 it … certainly cannot mean a guest-chamber, but an inn. No one could imagine that, if private hospitality had been extended to the Virgin-Mother, she would have been left in such circumstances in a stable. The same term occurs in Aramaic form … Delitzsch, in his Hebrew N. T., uses the more common .… Bazaars and markets were also held in those hostelries; animals killed, and meat sold there; also wine and cider; so that they were a much more public place of resort than might at first be imagined.” Edersheim, Life and Times, I, p. 185, fn. 1.

31 “It is not unlikely that the shepherds were pasturing flocks destined for the temple sacrifices. Flocks were supposed to be kept only in the wilderness (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7:7; Talmud, Baba Kamma 79b-80a), and a rabbinic rule lprovides that any animal found between Jerusalem and a spot near Bethlehem must be presumed to be a sacrificial victim (Mishnah, Shekalim 7:4). The same rule speaks of finding Passover offerings within thirty days of that feast, i.e. in February. Since flocks might be thus in the fields in winter the traditional date for the birth of Jesus, December 25, is not ruled out. Luke, of course says nothing about the actual date and it remains quite unknown. As a class shepherds had a bad reputation. The nature of their calling kept them from observing the ceremonial law which meant so much to religious people. More regrettable was their unfortunate habit of confusing ‘mine’ with ‘thine’ as they moved about the country. They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give testimony in the law-courts (SB). There is no reason for thinking that Luke’s shepherds were other than devout men … ” Morris, p. 84.

32 Geldenhuys, p. 115, fn. 1.

33 Our study does not permit us to pursue in depth the terms and phrases of the angel, but below are a few selected comments:

Savior: “… A title used of Jesus here only in the Synoptic Gospels; it is found once in John.” Morris, p. 85.

Christ the Lord: “This renders a Greek expression found nowhere else in the New Testament and meaning, literally, ‘Christ Lord.’ Perhaps we should understand it as ‘Christ and Lord’ (cf. Acts 2:36; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11). The term Christ is Greek for ‘Anointed one,’ just as ‘Messiah’ is our transliteration of a Hebrew term with a similar meaning. Anointing was for special service like that of a priest or a king. But the Jews expected that one day God would send a very special deliverer. He would be not simply ‘an’ anointed by ‘the’ anointed, the Messiah. It is this one whom the angel announces. Lord is used in the Septuagint of God (it is used in other ways as well, but it is the translation of the name Yahweh). Christ the Lord thus describes the child in the highest possible terms.” Morris, p. 85.

Among men with whom He is pleased: “There are problems both of text and translation in the expression translated among men with whom he is pleased (more literally, ‘among men of (his) good pleasure’). But RSV is right over against ‘peace, good will toward men’ (AV), a reading supported by many late MSS. The angels are saying that God will bring peace ‘for men on whom his favour rests’ (NEB). There is an emphasis on God, not man. It is those whom God chooses, rather than those who choose God, of whom the angels speak.” Morris, pp. 85-86.

Peace on earth: “… In the Mediterranean world the birthday of a ruler was sometimes celebrated with a proclamation of the benefits of his birth. An inscription found at Priene, celebrating the birthday of Augustus in 9 B.C., reads in part,

Providence … has brought into the world Augustus and filled him with a hero’s soul for the benefit of mankind. A Savior for us and our descendants, he will make wars to cease and order all things well. The epiphany of Caesar has brought to fulfillment past hopes and dreams. (F. Danker, Jesus and the New Age, p. 24)

Here, Augustus fulfills ancient hopes and brings peace. These benefits are proclaimed on his birthday.” Talbert, p. 32.

“Peace, then, became an eschatological hope (Zech. 9:9-10) and the messianic figure the prince of peace (Isa 9:6).” Talbert, p. 32.

34 “Only once before had the words of the Angels’ hymn fallen upon mortal’s ears, when, to Isaiah’s rapt vision, Heaven’s high Temple had opened, and the glory of Jehovah swept its courts, almost breaking down the trembling posts that bore its boundary gates. Now the same glory enwrapt the shepherds on Bethlehem’s plains.” Edersheim, I, p. 188.

“… In biblical literature heavenly choirs sometimes celebrate future events as though they were already fact (e.g., Rev 5:9-10; 11:17-18; 18:2-3; 19:1-2, 6-8); their song proclaims the benefits that are to ensue: 2:13-14 employs such a heavenly choir.” Talbert, p. 32.

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5. Psalm of Simeon and the Announcement of Anna (Luke 2:21-40)


I once heard the story of a monkey at the zoo, which had a Bible in one hand and a copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in the other. When asked by the zoo keeper what he was doing, the monkey responded, “I’m trying to decide whether I’m my brother’s keeper, or my keeper’s brother.”

I thought of this story in conjunction with Simeon, who would surely be perplexed at some of the things which he could read today. For example, can you imagine Simeon, a man whom we generally assume to be very advanced in age,35 reading a book on the mid-life crisis? Regardless of the content of the book, I think that Simeon would find such reading incredible. In fact, I am not certain that people ever had mid-life crises until very recently (along with a number of other contemporary maladies). The mid-life crisis, as I understand it, generally comes upon people in their mid-life years because they find that the goals they have set for themselves (or which society has imposed on them) are not being met. The mid-life crisis comes because we see our strengths and potential waning and our goals slipping away unreached.

Simeon and Anna have much to so to our culture, and especially to Christians who are captive to it. The appearance of these two godly saints in the temple, where they recognize and proclaim Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, is the event which Luke chose to highlight as the most significant incident in Christ’s infancy, in addition to the visitation of the shepherds a few days earlier. Their faithfulness in looking for and hastening the coming of the Lord is indeed a rebuke and an encouragement to every Christian. Their goals and priorities and their persistent practice of righteousness are quite frankly in direct opposition to what our culture advocates. Indeed, they are also in opposition to the views and values most prominent and prevalent in our Christian culture. We would do well to ponder this passage, for if we were to follow the example of Simeon and Anna our goals would change, our lifestyles would simplify, and our mid-life crises would vaporize.

The Context

The first chapter of Luke’s gospel features the appearance of the forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist. Inter-twined with the account of the announcement of his birth and of selected events in his early life is the report of the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who informed her of the miraculous virgin conception of the child which would be born to her, Israel’s Messiah, the God-man and Mary’s sharing of this with Elizabeth. In verses 1-20 of chapter two Luke has recorded the birth of our Lord and of the angelic announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, who hastened to see the holy child, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a cattle feeding trough.

The rest of Luke chapter two describes two important incidents in the early life of our Lord, which both took place in the temple at Jerusalem, separated by twelve years. Verses 21-40 focus on Simeon and Anna, who recognize the infant Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah, and who publicly praise God for this and proclaim this good news to those who are looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people Israel. The final segment of the chapter takes place twelve years later, when Jesus accompanied His parents to Jerusalem, and then remained behind, about His Father’s business in His Father’s house.

The second chapter of Luke contains the only biblical account of the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s gospel supplies the only other biblical account of a childhood incident in the life of the Messiah. He records the arrival of the magi, the paranoia of Herod which caused him to kill the infants in Bethlehem in an effort to murder Messiah, and the flight of the holy family to Egypt, to preserve the child’s life. Bible scholars are not certain as to how the two biblical accounts, those of the magi in Matthew and of Simeon and Anna in Luke, are to be chronologically sequenced. It would appear that immediately after the birth of Jesus, the shepherds visited, that Jesus was soon thereafter circumcised, and then later presented at the temple, where Simeon and Anna appear. The family must have found more permanent lodging (cf. “house” in Matt. 2:11) in Bethlehem, where the magi arrived some time later on, perhaps as much as two years later (cf. Matt. 2:7, 16). The family then escaped to Egypt, and upon their return, they moved to Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem to fulfill the Scriptures (Matt. 2:19-23). Luke does not record some of these intervening events, but simply tells us that Jesus’ family returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:39), which is where most of the Messiah’s growing-up years would have been spent, prior to His visit to Jerusalem at age 12 (Luke 2:41ff.).

The Ceremonies

It may be well to distinguish the three ceremonies which are referred to in our text because we tend to jumble all of these into one event, rather than seeing them separately, both in time and in ritual. The first ceremony is that of circumcision, referred to in verse 21. This event probably took place where the family lived, and not at the temple. It occurred on the 8th day, as prescribed God directed Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14) and as prescribed by the law of Moses (Lev. 12:3). Associated with the circumcision was the giving of the name of the child (cf. Luke 1:59-63; 2:21).

The presentation of the first-born son is the second ceremony which our text reports.36 This, too, was a requirement of the Law, which Luke cites:

“EVERY first-born MALE THAT OPENS THE WOMB SHALL BE CALLED HOLY TO THE LORD” (Luke 2:23; from Exodus 13:2, 12; cf. Num. 18:15-17).

From the context of the passage in Exodus we know that during the final plague which God brought upon Egypt, all the first-born of Egypt were slain, both man and beast, while the first-born of the Israelites (that is, those who applied the blood of the Passover Lamb to their door posts and lintel) lived. The redemption of the first-born was required because the first-born were spared by God and thus belonged to Him. When an Israelite family redeemed their first-born, they were acknowledging that this child belonged to God.

The redemption price for a first-born male Israelite a month or more old was set at five (sanctuary) shekels in Numbers 18:16. Apparently presentation of the first-born never occurred earlier than 31 days after birth.37 Thus, the presentation of the child and the purification of the mother (the third ceremony), could be done on the same visit to the temple.38

The third ceremony was the purification of Mary, required by the Law after the birth of a child. In Leviticus chapter 12 we are told that a woman is ceremonially unclean after the birth of a child. For a boy child the woman is unclean for seven days (12:2), and unable to enter the sanctuary for another 33 days (12:4). For a girl child the time doubles. She is unclean for 14 days and unable to enter the sanctuary for 66 days (12:5). This means that Jesus would have been approximately six weeks old at the time of his presentation. The sacrifice of the two turtledoves indicates that Mary and Joseph were poor people, as this was a provision for the poor (Lev. 12:6-8).

It is the second ceremony, the presentation of Jesus at the temple, which is most prominent in Luke’s account (Luke 2:27). It is on this occasion that Simeon and Anna appear, to attest and announce that the baby Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Savior of the world.

The Circumcision of the Christ-Child (2:21)

The circumcision of the Christ-child is not prominent in the passage, but it is noteworthy. First, this record attests to the fact that the parents of our Lord “performed everything according to the Law of the Lord” (Luke 2:39). Second, the circumcision of Christ parallels that of John, described earlier (Luke 1:59ff.). Finally, it was at the circumcision of Christ that His name was formally given. The name, Jesus, which had been specified before His birth, both to Joseph and to Mary:

“And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

“And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).

The Hebrew form of the name Jesus is “Jeshua” (cf. Joshua), derived by the combination of two root words, meaning “the Lord” and “to save.” Thus, the Jesus meant “the Lord is salvation.” I believe that the name Jesus, which Luke tells us was formally given the Savior at the time of His circumcision, was one of the indications to Simeon that this child, Jesus (the Lord’s salvation), was the promised Messiah. Thus Simeon says,

“For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” [i.e. Jesus, the Lord’s salvation] (Luke 2:30).

The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (2:22-38)

It is in conjunction with the presentation of Jesus at the temple that both Simeon and Anna appear, and speak words of divine inspiration, identifying the Christ-child as God’s Messiah. Let us consider these two noble saints in order to discover what it is about them which Luke finds worthy of a place of honor in this rare incident in his account of Christ’s childhood.

The Psalm39 of Simeon

Simeon is a man that is something like the old testament character, Melchizedek, in that he suddenly appears out of nowhere. We are told very little about this man Simeon. We do not know from what tribe he is a descendent, although it would appear that he was an Israelite.40 We know nothing about his family, whether he was married or had any children. We are told nothing about his occupation, but it does not appear that he was a priest, for he was directed of the Holy Spirit to go to the temple.

The only things we are told about Simeon are those things which matter most to God—things which pertain to his faith and his character, things while tell about his relationship with God. We are told that Simeon was righteous and devout (v. 25), which speak of his personal walk with God and his integrity among men.41 He was further a man of faith and hope, for he “looked for the consolation of Israel,” an expression which summarizes the faith of the Old Testament saint in the promises of God concerning the restoration of Israel through the coming of her Messiah.

Finally, Simeon was a man who was filled by the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ (v. 26), God’s Anointed One, Israel’s Messiah. It was also the Holy Spirit that directed Simeon to the temple on the particular day that Jesus’ parents brought Him to be presented to the Lord. Finally, in some unspecified way, it was the Spirit of God who revealed to Simeon that this child was indeed the Messiah. No doubt the name Jesus was one evidence, but there must have been further confirmation, for there were no doubt many sons given this special name.

The precise means by which Simeon was enabled to recognize this six-week old child as distinct from all others is not told us, for Luke is not so much interested that we know how He was recognized, but that He was identified by a godly man, a man filled with the Spirit of God, as the Lord’s Christ.

Recognizing Jesus to be the Messiah, this elderly man took the child in his arms and blessed God. After a lifetime of seeking Messiah, one can hardly imagine the joy that was Simeon’s at this moment in time. Think of it, a man who knew that God held him in the palm of His hand, now holds God in his arms! The all-powerful God is a tiny baby, seemingly without any power at all. Simeon’s words of praise express the deep joy that was his at this moment, a joy which so utterly filled and completed his life he was ready to die:

“Now Lord, Thou dost let Thy bond-servant depart42 In peace, according to Thy word; For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” (Luke 2:29-30a).

The salvation which Simeon saw, was not seen by him alone, however, and so he hastens to add that it is a salvation that will be seen and shared by many:

“For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, Which Thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32).

The things to which Simeon was a witness were not hidden from other men. Others may not have recognized them as the work of God, but all Jerusalem, we are told by Matthew, knew of the Messiah which the magi sought, but rather than to rejoice the people were “troubled” (Matt. 2:3). So far as we are told, no one from Jerusalem made the relatively easy trip to Bethlehem to see the holy child that was born, which was testified to by the star in the east.

While Simeon was a devout Jew, he did not view the Messiah’s coming as only for the benefit of Israel. The Messiah, as Israel’s King, who would “sit on the throne of His father David,” was Israel’s glory, but Messiah was also a “light of revelation to the Gentiles.” That is, Messiah came as God’s salvation to all men, not just to the Jews. This truth was taught in the Old Testament, and Simeon’s words seem to reveal his knowledge of such Old Testament prophecies of a salvation for Gentiles as well as for Israel. For example, consider these texts, with which Simeon was likely familiar, and to which he may have been alluding in his praise:

The LORD has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God (Ps. 98:2-3).

“I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon, And those who dwell in darkness from the prison. I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give my glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.” Isa. 42:6-8 (cf. 49:6)

The LORD has bared His holy arm In the sight of all the nations; That all the ends of the earth may see The salvation of our God (Isa. 52:10).

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, And deep darkness the peoples; But the LORD will rise upon you, And His glory will appear upon you. And nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa. 60:1-3).

Imagine the impact which the actions and affirmations of Simeon must have had on Joseph and Mary. Luke simply summarizes this with the words,

“And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him” (Luke 2:33).

Amazed. Little wonder. Surely there must have been times when the parents of Jesus wanted to say to those who saw Him and remarked, “Cute child,” “Listen, this is no ordinary child, this is the Savior of the World!” But it is quite another thing when a man who was probably a total stranger walks up and proclaims you child, a child who looks like any other six-week old boy, to be the Messiah of God.

Perhaps in response to the amazed look on the faces of Mary and Joseph, Simeon went on to bless them, and to direct a very specific prophecy to Mary:

And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Did the fact that Simeon spoke only to Mary, while he blessed both Mary and Joseph indicate a veiled prophecy of Joseph’s death?43 At least we see a striking accuracy in the words of Simeon.

Up to this point in time, all of the inspired utterances pertaining to the Lord Jesus have been very positive, speaking with reference to His ruling on David’s throne, setting right the things which are wrong, and bringing peace and salvation to men. But now Simeon unveils the other side of the story, which is also a part of the Old Testament prophecies, such as those of Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53, prophecies of the rejection, crucifixion and death of Messiah, prophecies of His substitutionary atonement. Thus Simeon’s prophecy views the coming of Christ as revealing the hearts of men, and of dividing men, so that on account of Him some will rise44 and some will fall. More pointedly, Simeon’s words prepare Mary for the grief she must suffer, as the rejection of Her Son by men will cause her to witness His death on the cross. Truly this will be a sword that will pierce her soul.

The Announcement of Anna

Anna is a truly remarkable woman. While we are told less about what she actually said, we are given more information about her background than Simeon’s. Anna was an Israelite, of the tribe of Asher, one of the ten “lost tribes” of Israel, which were scattered in the Assyrian captivity. She was also a prophetess. She was a very aged woman, at least 84 years old, depending on how we understand Luke’s words. She was married for 7 years before her husband died, and had lived the rest of her life as a widow. Day and night she was in the temple, praying and fasting. For what was she praying and fasting? Luke does not tell us, but it is obvious that she, like Simeon, was looking for the coming of Messiah. I believe that Anna understood from the Old Testament that the “day of the Lord” was a day of divine judgment, and that Messiah would come to deal with Israel’s sin. Thus, her prayer and fasting was evidence of her mourning for the sins of Israel.

Consider the prayers and fasting of Anna in the light of these words from the prophet Joel:

Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom. A day of clouds and thick darkness… “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him … (Joel 2:1-2a, 12-14a).

Anna was evidently a very godly woman, a woman who was very aware of Israel’s sins, a woman who was looking for and hastening the coming of Messiah. The details of Anna’s life are not given to satisfy our curiosity, but as clues to her character. I believe that Luke intended the reader to infer the incredible character of this woman by considering the details he has supplied. As a young widow, the natural thing for Anna to have done would be to remarry. She must have had many such opportunities. As a member of the lost tribe of Asher, there must have been a strong incentive to marry and bear children, since this tribe may have been in danger of extinction. Her greatest womanly contribution, as well as her womanly fulfillment, would seem to have been marriage and child-bearing. Nevertheless, she remained single, lived out her life in the temple, occupied with prayer and fasting.

Simeon had been divinely guided to the temple; Anna was nearly always there. Thus she “happened” to come upon the scene of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and Simeon, just at the time Simeon was identifying the child as God’s Messiah. She, too, began giving thanks to God. More than this, she began to broadcast the good news to all those who were, like she and Simeon, looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. The fact that she was already known as a prophetess gave her testimony even greater impact.

The Meaning and
Message of Simeon and Anna

Luke had many incidents which he could have recorded for Christians, yet he chose the presentation of Jesus and the proclamations of Simeon and Anna. What was his purpose in including this account in his divinely inspired record, where there would have to be compelling reasons for inclusion in Scripture? What was the message of this text to the saints of his day, and to us as well? Let us consider the purpose of this passage. We will begin by making several observations.

(1) The incident takes place in the temple. The presentation of Jesus would normally have occurred at the temple in Jerusalem, but there is special significance to His appearance at the temple, both at the time of his presentation and at the age of 12. The Old Testament prophets had spoken of the appearance of God’s Messiah at the temple:

“‘Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:1).

Jesus’ first visit to the temple in Jerusalem, as recorded by John’s gospel (John 2:13-25), commenced with the cleansing of the temple, and with strong words of rebuke, just as one well acquainted with the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah’s appearance would have expected. Jesus’ first appearance at the temple, which occurred at the time of His presentation, was a very significant event.

(2) The inspired utterances of Simeon and Anna completely overshadowed the ceremony of Christ’s presentation. The occasion for the appearance of our Lord at the temple was His presentation, but nothing is actually said about this ceremony. We have no record here of the ritual, nor are we given the names of any of the priests involved in the ceremony. We are only told of Simeon and Anna, and of their proclamations. It is not the ceremony, the ritual of the presentation of Jesus which is most important, but the proclamation of these two saints.

(3) While the primary intent of Joseph and Mary was to fulfill the requirements of the Law pertaining to the birth of Jesus (cf. Luke 2:39), the purpose of the passage is to disclose two more divinely inspired proclamations of the identity of this child as God’s Messiah. The essence of the actions of Simeon and Anna was to identify the child as the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, God’s Salvation. Functionally, the utterances of Simeon and Anna informed the godly Israelites, those looking for the Messiah, that He had come.

(4) Simeon and Anna are highlighted for their godliness, and are described as model disciples, whom we should seek to imitate so far as their goals and priorities are concerned. Humanly speaking, Simeon and Anna had little to commend them. They were apparently not people of position or power. They were not the “shakers and movers” of that day. It is my personal opinion that to many of the officials of the temple, Simeon and Anna were looked upon as eccentrics, whose devotion was futile. After all, couldn’t these people do something useful, especially Anna, who was there every day, but only had time for prayer.

I am inclined to think that the religious officials looked even with disdain on people like Anna. She was always there, always under foot. And her kind of super-spirituality was probably viewed as creating an unspiritual environment. After all, if she was mourning over and confessing Israel’s sins, then she was backhandedly condemning the religious leaders. Since Anna was a widow, and the Lord condemned the religious leaders for taking advantage of widows (e.g. “you devour widows’ houses,” Matt. 23:14), Anna may well have been a victim of the religious leaders with whom she continually came in contact.

Application to Contemporary Christians

There are many ways in which this text and particularly the lives of Simeon and Anna apply to contemporary Christian living. The first is as a reminder of what really matters in life. For Simeon, his occupation was not the most important thing, for we are not even told what his life’s work was. It was not even “full-time Christian service,” which some think to be the ultimate calling in life. What set Simeon apart for many others, including the religious leaders at the temple (none of them are so much as named in this account), was that he was a mean who trusted in God, who obeyed His Word, who looked for His kingdom, and who was indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit. What ultimately mattered in Anna’s life was not marriage or family, but faithfulness to God. The seemingly unproductive activities of prayer and fasting, proclamation and praise was, and still is, most important. The early church devoted itself to such activities (cf. Acts 2-4). The apostles made prayer and the proclamation of God’s Word the priority of their ministry (cf. Acts 6:1-6).

The coming of the kingdom of God was the one great hope, the one great motivation, the one great occupation of these two saints, and it should be ours as well. Our Lord taught us that we should pray,

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

Peter also wrote,

“Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat!” (2 Pet. 3:11-12).

And to which John adds,

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And every one who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

The last book of the Bible is a record of the events which will occur in the last days, at which time the Lord will come and establish His eternal kingdom. His coming should be preoccupation of our lives. Anna holds very high God’s standards for singles, as well as holding high the great privilege and calling of the single life. We very quickly pass by Paul’s encouragement in 1 Corinthians 7 to consider the single life, but Anna is living testimony to the great contribution people can make who devote their lives to God. No wonder Paul can instruct the churches to financially support such women (cf. 1 Tim. 5:3-10).

This is not to say that everyone should attempt to imitate Anna, for so far as we know Simeon was a married man, perhaps a family man, who likely held a secular job and was thus much more involved in the workaday world. Nevertheless, his highest priority was loving and serving God, and so at the Spirit’s leading, he was a the temple, where he was enabled to recognize and proclaim God’s Messiah.

This passage reveals the quality of the life of the Christian, who has come to grips with death, and whose faith is in a God who raises the dead. Simeon was ready, perhaps even eager to die, for now that he had seen God’s Messiah, he was ready to leave his earthly dwelling behind, knowing that God’s promises were for the living and the dead. How sad it was this very week to hear the news reports of the well-known evangelist who said that God would take his life if 8 million dollars were not donated by this March. Why the frantic effort to stay alive if one’s faith is in God. Simeon was ready to face death because he had seen God’s Messiah; we should be ready to face death for in so doing we will see Him. As Paul himself wrote, citing the Old Testament, death no longer has any sting (1 Cor. 15:55; Hos. 13:14).

How eager are you to see the Messiah “face to face”? How do you confront the inevitability of death? Does life hold for you one single, dominating purpose? For the Christian, the Lord Jesus Christ is the focal point of life, the governing principle and priority of life. If you have not trusted in Him as God’s Messiah, I urge you to heed the testimony of Simeon and Anna, and to trust in Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah, the One who came to save all who would call upon Him, and to trust Him as God’s only means of salvation, by bearing your punishment on the cross of Calvary, and by rising from the dead.

35 It has been correctly pointed out that we are not given the age of Simeon, but only of Anna. We are not even told that Simeon was elderly, but only the he was ready to die. Nevertheless, we infer that he was elderly, like Anna, and I think rightly so. The only surprise to me is that Luke supplies us with the age of the woman, but not of the man.

36 I am inclined to agree with Talbert, that Jesus may not have been “redeemed” in precisely the same sense as every other first-born Hebrew boy: “Contrary to normal custom, Jesus was dedicated to God and remained his property (Bo Reicke, “Jesus, Simeon, and Anna [Luke 2:21-40],” in Saved By Hope, ed. J. I. Cook [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], pp. 96-108, esp. p. 100). The closest parallel to this emphasis is found in 1 Samuel 1-2, where Hannah gives Samuel, at his birth, to the Lord for as long as the child lives. Consequently, Samuel lives in the presence of Eli at the tent of meeting. If Jesus, in a similar manner, was dedicated to God and not redeemed, he belonged to God permanently.” Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), p. 36.

37 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, pp. 193-194.

38 Ibid, p. 194.

39 Morris writes, “… this little song is known by its opening words in the Latin, namely Nunc Dimittis.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 88.

Of the “Numc Dimittis” Plummer writes, “The Nunc Dimittis. In its suppressed rapture and vivid intensity this canticle equals the most beautiful of the Psalms. Since the fifth century it has been used in the evening services of the Church (Apost. Const. vii 48), and has often been the hymn of dying saints. It is the sweetest and most solemn of all the canticles.” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 67.

40 The fact that he was in Jerusalem, that he was familiar with the Old Testament, as is revealed in his psalm, that he was “righteous and devout,” and that he was “looking for the consolation of Israelite,” all point in the direction of his being an Israelite.

41 Morris writes, “Righteous shows that he behaved well towards men, while devout … signifies ‘careful about religious duties’ (in the classics it means ‘cautious’).” Morris, p. 87.

42 “… the figure is that of the manumission of a slave, or of his release from a long task. Death is the instrument of release.” Plummer, p. 68

43 Joseph, you will recall, was included in the account of Jesus’ disappearance in the last section of Luke chapter 2, but from that time on Joseph is never again named. Also, Jesus gave John the responsibility for caring for his mother in His last moments on the cross (John 19:26-27). This has led most Bible students to conclude that Joseph died sometime after the 12th birthday of Jesus and before His public ministry began. Simeon’s prophecy shows an uncanny precision at this point, one which I am inclined to see as inferentially prophetic.

44 “… elsewhere in the New Testament the word rendered rising is always used of resurrection.” Morris, p. 89.

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6. The Day Jesus Went AWOL (Luke 2:39-52)


Vacation time had come again and we were headed to the Northwest, where we would be visiting family and friends. It was a long trip, especially with five girls, and so much preparation was required. As usual, we worked late into the night, in fact early into the next morning, and finally loaded all the kinds into the car about 4 a.m. The kids were asleep in the back of the station wagon as we started to get under way. My wife suggested that we make one more “head count” before we left. Sure enough, we were one short. A trip back into the house revealed that one of the children had crawled out of car undetected and back into her own bed. It could have been hours down the road before we had realized our error.

I imagine that most of you could share a similar kind of story, about how a child or family member was left behind, or almost so. We may therefore tend to look at the account of our Lord’s absence from the family in that caravan as just another one of those kinds of “disaster,” the kind families talk about for years to come.

The story of Jesus’ absence is different in a number of significant ways.

First, let us remember that this is the only inspired, biblically recorded incident in the youthful years of our Lord. Matthew records the incident of the magi and the attempt of Herod to kill the baby Jesus, and the flight to Egypt, but other than this incident in the very young years of our Lord the account in Luke chapter 2 of the incident at the temple when our Lord was 12 there is no other biblical record of any incident in the growing up years of Jesus. It must be that Luke felt this story was very important indeed, to be the only childhood incident reported in his gospel.

Second, in this account are recorded the very first words of our Lord Jesus. Naturally, no words were recorded from the birth and infancy of Christ. Many of our Lord’s words were recorded from His later ministry. But the words of our Lord in this text are His first recorded words, and very important words they are indeed.

Third, this is the last time Joseph is ever mentioned in the life of our Lord. It is commonly felt that Joseph must have died sometime after this incident, before our Lord began His public ministry. It may well be that this last mention of Joseph is also a clue to the importance of our text, and of the incident it records.

Finally, the actions of our Lord, in the minds of His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, appeared to be wrong. The words of Mary to Jesus clearly imply an assumption of His wrong-doing, and thus convey a gentle, but obvious rebuke. If this child were any person other than Jesus, we would all agree that He was wrong. What is it, then, that makes Jesus’ actions proper, when they would not have been for any other 12 year-old?

The “tension of the text” (that tension which grows out of the details of the text, and which proves to be the key to its interpretation) is to be found here. While we must grant that Jesus was without sin, how is it that His actions here, which were regarded as wrong by His parents, are not wrong? Why can Jesus’ actions not be wrong for Him, when they would have been wrong for any other Jewish (or Gentile for that matter) boy?

I must inform you that this is one of those “collie dog” texts. When I was growing up, we had a collie. Unlike a bulldog, which would just run straight up, look you in the eye, and bite you, our collie would sneak around behind you, very quietly, and then suddenly you would feel his teeth making contact with your hindermost parts. This story is like that. Initially the story seems to have little impact. Granted, it might say something important about Jesus, but that would appear to have little application to us. Watch out! This text will soon sneak up on you, and teach a most important lesson, with tremendous implications.

The Disappearance,
Discovery, and Declaration of Jesus

The story is really very simple. The parents of our Lord had gone up to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Passover, just as they had done every year (2:41-42).45 It is not clearly stated, but I am of the impression that Jesus was taken along on throughout the years of His growing up. This year, He was twelve. Depending on the commentator you are reading, it was either at the age or 12 or of 13 that the Israelite lad was made a “son of the law.”46 The pilgrims who made journey to Jerusalem and back would often travel together in caravans. Thus, family, friends, and other acquaintances from Nazareth and the surrounding area seem to have formed such a caravan.47 The Feast having concluded, the caravan began the journey home, and among them were Mary and Joseph (with perhaps some of their children), but not Jesus.

Jesus was not discovered to be missing immediately. This was probably for several reasons. First, Jesus was an absolutely trustworthy and reliable child. As the Son of God, He was without sin, and thus His parents did not have the same concerns other parents might have. Also, the men and the women may have traveled in groupings which were separate. We are told that the women and children were often in front, with the men at the rear. Each of the parents might therefore have assumed that Jesus was with the other parent. Eventually, Jesus’ absence was noted, and after searching among those in the caravan and finding Him missing entirely, Mary and Joseph went back to Jerusalem, which may have been a day’s travel.

For three days they searched for the boy Jesus.48 Some think that the three day search included the time required to search for Him in the caravan, as well as the time spent traveling back to Jerusalem. I am inclined to read Luke’s account as indicating a three day search took place, commencing at the time they arrived back at Jerusalem. This would indicate a long, intense, search, which would lead to growing concern and consternation, as well as growing frustration, which seems evident in the parents’ first response to Jesus, once He was found.

Finally, almost as a last resort it would seem, the parents looked for Jesus in the temple. And there He was, sitting in the midst of the teachers, busily engaged in conversation. His role was principally that of a learner and a listener, who asked many pertinent and penetrating questions. It is evident that He also gave some responses, for those nearby who overheard Him marveled at His answers.

Imagine yourself as one of the parents of Jesus at this point. Be very honest, now. Imagine your growing sense of concern as the time passed, and as the child was not found. Consider your fears intensifying as you recalled the absolute reliability of Jesus and His wisdom. And then when you find Him, seemingly aloof to all the consternation He has caused, discussing theology (perhaps as He often had done in Nazareth) in the temple. Admit it, now, you would be angry with Him, just as I would have been.

All the concern and anxiety and intensity caused by Jesus’ absence now turns, I believe, to frustration and anger. His mother scolds Him, gently perhaps (in front of the teachers and those looking on), but nevertheless her words are intended as a rebuke. At this moment in time, Mary may have almost entirely forgotten that Jesus was any different from any other child. All of the strange and wonderful things she was told and had seen, the things she “treasured in her heart” were probably momentarily overshadowed by her frustration. “How could you have done this to us, Jesus!” seems to be the essence of her first words. “Your father and I have been looking for you for days, and we were just about at our wits end.”

One would have expected the lad to have looked downward, stung by the rebuke and His foolishness and thoughtlessness. Such is not the case, however, for Jesus’ response shifts the focus from His error to their own. In response to the rebuke of His mother, there is the gentle rebuke of His own question. “Why would you have had to look for Me?” He seems to have said. “Would you not have known where you could find Me?” And perhaps pointedly in response to Mary’s reference to Joseph as His father, Jesus stated that He was in His Father’s house, just where the Son should have been.

There was no resolution, the reason being that neither Mary nor Joseph really grasped what was happening, nor what “their” Son, our Lord, had said. The incident ends with Mary (along with Joseph) once again perplexed at the events occurring in her life related to this child. All she could do was to place these things alongside the others she had previously experienced, waiting for that day when the meaning of all this would become clear. If the memory of the mysterious events of Jesus’ birth had begun to fade in the minds of Mary and Joseph, this incident would once again bring them vividly to mind.

The matter was over as quickly as it happened. Jesus went with them, back to Nazareth, to live with them, and in submission to their authority. Nevertheless, things would never be quite the same, I suspect. Jesus continued to grow, physically, spiritually, and socially. Years would pass until the public ministry of Jesus would begin, but during this time Jesus was continually growing, ever being prepared for the day of His public appearance as Israel’s Messiah. His sense of purpose and calling toward this destiny can be seen, even in this childhood incident.

What Does This Story Mean?

It is tempting to look at this text casually, without struggling to grasp its meaning. Remember, this is not just one of many stories we have heard of a misplaced child, it is Luke’s only account of an event in the growing-up years of Israel’s Messiah, our Savior. There are several ways in which this story can be explained. Let’s consider our options and then seek to determine which one points to the meaning of the text.

(1) Our first option is simply to take this as a kind of anecdote, an incident in the life of Christ with which we can all identify. If have already suggested that there are too many things each gospel writer could have said to think that a trivial incident would be included, if not significant to the gospel as a whole.

(2) A second, but unacceptable, option is to understand that Jesus was wrong to remain behind in Jerusalem, at least without informing His parents of what He was doing. Since Jesus was the Son of God, in whom there was no sin, then He cannot have done wrong here, even as a child.

(3) A third option is to view Jesus as a kind of “absent-minded” Messiah, who is so preoccupied with the temple and the Scriptures that He simply missed the Caravan, and was thus left behind. This seems to be the view of at least one commentator.49 I know of several “absent-minded professor” stories from my years in seminary. One such story is about a professor who stood at his own back door, deep in thought, knocking for some time, without realizing that he had not yet gotten outside his own house and at the door of his neighbor, where he intended to go. Another story is told of the professor who drove his car to Houston, Texas, where he spoke, only to fly home, forgetting that he had driven there.

Jesus, it is suggested, was just caught up with “His Father’s business,” and the rebuke of His parents came as a shock. This is a bit hard to believe, however. I hardly think that an “absent-minded Jesus story” is fitting immediately after Luke’s comment that Jesus was increasing in wisdom. Jesus’ words indicate that He purposefully remained on in Jerusalem (“I had to be,…” v. 49). We know that Jesus was the oldest child, among several others (Matt. 13:55, 56), and thus He may have had the task of watching over them, and perhaps of getting them situated in the caravan. Also, when that first day in the temple came to an end, it was obvious that He was separated from His parents, yet He showed no concern, made no effort to be rejoined to them, and was apparently not looking for them. Absent-mindedness may not be sin, but it isn’t all that smart, either. Jesus was not absent-minded here.

(4) The fourth option is that Jesus’ parents were negligent, and were solely responsible for leaving Jerusalem without Jesus. How could they have left Jerusalem without Jesus? How could they have expected Him to assume such responsibility? This doesn’t square with the story, either. If Jesus had made this trip with His parents before (as I take it He did), then He must have been accustomed to the way it was done, He must have proven Himself capable on previous trips. An oversight on the parents’ part still does not explain the purposefulness of our Lord in remaining behind. Even if He had not succeeded in staying behind, He intended to do so, and without asking their permission or informing them of His intentions.

(5) Our final option is that Jesus was right in what He did, and that His parents were wrong in being angry with Him and rebuking Him. Jesus purposed to stay in Jerusalem, without His parents’ permission, and without informing them of His actions. The question is, why?

In the light of the rest of the life of Christ and of New Testament revelation, I believe that we can identify several reasons for Jesus’ actions, reasons which Mary and Joseph were not able to grasp at the moment.

First, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to learn of God. I cannot explain how our Lord, who was fully God and fully man, needed to learn, needed to develop in His grasp of God’s Word, but I believe it to be true nonetheless. The verses which introduce and summarize this section make the growth of our Lord one of the highlights of the text:

And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him (Luke 2:40).

And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52).

It is much easier to believe that the Lord Jesus grew physically than it is to believe that He grew intellectually and spiritually, but the text tells us that He grew in all these ways. The interchange of our Lord and the teachers at the temple reveals both our Lord’s eagerness to learn (for He was asking questions and listening to them—the posture of a learner), and the depth of the wisdom He had already attained.

Second, it appears that Jesus remained in Jerusalem to learn from the teachers at the temple those things which His parents could not teach Him. There is a broad sense in which every person needs the ministry of others in the “body of Christ,” and thus parents surely cannot and should not jealously guard the teaching their child by keeping him or her from the ministry of others. Here, however, I believe something more involved is taking place. Jesus was in Jerusalem during the observation of the Passover (Luke 2:41). I an inclined to think that He was particularly interested in the meaning of the Passover, especially as it applied to Him. The teachers at the temple could answer our Lord’s question more academically, more objectively. Our Lord’s parents surely did not allow their minds to ponder the sacrifice of their own son. Jesus therefore remained in Jerusalem to learn from others what He could not learn from His parents.

Third, I believe that Jesus remained on in Jerusalem because He would not have been given permission to stay there. Think about it for a moment. What do you think Mary and Joseph would have said in response to this request: “Can I stay on in Jerusalem for a few days to discuss the Old Testament and theology with the leading teachers of Israel?” More than now, children were to be seen and not heard. I can’t imagine our Lord’s earthly parents giving Him permission to do what He needed to do. Thus, He did not ask them.

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus did not ask permission to stay on in Jerusalem because He was God. On one level, the level from which Mary and Joseph saw it, Jesus was but a young boy, a boy incapable of making such critical decisions, a boy who was not old enough to stay by Himself in Jerusalem, a boy who was too young to be discussing the Scriptures with the finest teachers in Israel. But while He was a human being, a 12 year-old boy, He was also God incarnate, just as the angel had said to Mary and Joseph years before (Matt. 1:20-25; Luke 1:32, 35). On the divine level, God did not need to have man’s permission to act any way He saw fit, nor was it required of God to explain His actions to man. Indeed, God is even free to do those things which cause men pain and consternation. It is only the fact that Jesus was fully God (as well as fully man) that explains how He could act as He did and not be wrong for so doing. If it were any other child, we would have sided with the parents, but since the child is the Son of God, we quickly acknowledge that He was right. Jesus, unlike any other 12 year-old in history, was God.

The Purpose of the Passage

Hopefully we can now understand why Jesus did and said what He did in the incident at the temple. The question still remains, “Why did Luke record only this event in the childhood of our Lord? “What is so significant about this event which makes it worthy of becoming a part of the divine record of the life of Christ? The passage serves several important functions, as I currently understand it.

(1) The passage affirms both the humanity and the deity of our Lord. In Christ humanity is added to deity. Throughout the history of the church (beginning very early in church history), men have often emphasized one side of our Lord’s two natures (His deity and His humanity) at the expense of the other. One form of error (e.g. Docetism) tended to stress the deity of Christ, but to minimize His humanity. The other extreme (e.g. Adoptionism) stressed the humanity of Jesus, but minimized His full deity.

In Luke chapter 2 Luke emphasizes both the deity and the humanity of our Lord. That Jesus was fully human is evidenced by the fact that He was born and that He was a child, who grew and developed as any normal child would, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Jesus stayed on at the temple to learn, not to teach50 (although His answers to questions put to Him astounded those who witnessed this event). That Jesus was God is also evident in our text. The wisdom of Jesus is contrasted in this text with the ignorance of His parents, that is their inability to grasp who He was and why He acted as He did, even with the revelation about Him which they had been previously given. Jesus referred to God as His Father, and was in the temple because this was where a significant portion of “His Father’s business” was carried out. The amazement of those who witnesses His wisdom, as well as that of His parents, was further testimony to His uniqueness. That He could do and say what no other 12 year-old could have done and been right in so doing is also proof of His divinity. Whatever debates and disputes there would be in the history of the church, it must be agreed that Luke’s presentation of Christ was intended to represent Him as the God-man, even as a 12 year-old child.51

(2) Our passage reminds us of the principle of growth. In His perfect humanity, our Lord grew, physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. Jesus did not come to the earth and immediately begin to minister. We know from the gospel accounts that it Jesus would be nearly 30 years old or more before His public ministry commenced. The event at the temple occurred after 12 years of growth on the part of our Lord. His public ministry required another 18 years of growth.

If it was necessary for God incarnate to grow and to mature, in preparation for His ministry, why is it that we are so interested in instant spirituality, instant maturity. There are those who would have us think that some momentous event, some spectacular spiritual experience, is the key to instant maturity and service. If it were not true of our Lord, it is not true for us either. We may have glorious and monumental experiences, but these do not produce instant growth or maturity. Let us not expect or demand more than our Lord Himself experienced. Even God did not hurry.

(3) Our text reminds us of the relationship between deity and sovereignty. Jesus could do what He did because He was God, and as God He was sovereign. His sovereignty entitled Him to do that which His parents did not approve of. His sovereignty entitled Him to rebuke them for their lack of faith and understanding (they should at least have understood from all they had been told that He would be in the temple). His sovereignty also entitled Him to do that which inconvenienced them and caused them considerable distress.

(4) Our text informs us of the relationship between sovereignty and authority. If Jesus was God, then He was also sovereign. If He was sovereign, then His authority was ultimate, and the parental authority of Mary and Joseph was of a much lessor type. The authority of Jesus, as God, far surpassed the authority of Mary and Joseph as parents. That is why Jesus could override and overrule parental authority. (Let me hasten to add, for any child who might wish to take this in the wrong way, that only the boy Jesus could do this, for only He was God.)

It is quite easy to justify the actions of Jesus in our text, and to wonder why Mary and Joseph could not have grasped what was happening. But let me suggest that you and I respond to the sovereignty of God in precisely the same way, and all too often. When God brings adversity into our lives, when He causes us agony and distress, we become angry, too. When He does things which we do not understand, we are frustrated and upset. We want God to explain His reasons and His purposes to us, just as Mary and Joseph expected Jesus to justify His actions.

Mary and Joseph were wrong because they forgot that as mere men (I speak generically) their authority was vastly outranked by the 12 year-old child God had temporarily placed in their custody. And though there was just this one incident reported in the childhood of our Lord when the authority and identity of Jesus were asserted (the text tells us that He returned with His parents and lived in submission to them after this, v. 51), He was fully God and thus could sovereignly act independently, if He chose to do so and if it were in accord with the Father’s will. Jesus reminded His parents that He was, first and foremost, the Son of God, in obedience to Him, and called to carry out “His Father’s business.” The time would come when Mary would probably not have permitted this “son” of hers to go to the cross, but this He must do, in obedience to His true Father.

Whenever you and I question the working of God in our lives, whenever we are angry (which we are usually to “spiritual” to admit) with God, we reveal that we have reversed the divine chain of authority. All to often we act as though God were to be in submission to our will, rather than to acknowledge that it is we who must submit to His, even if that brings pain, or inconvenience, of if we cannot understand what He is doing or why. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God means that God may act as He chooses, without having to explain His actions to man, or to ask our permission.

Job temporarily forgot this, and in the midst of his pain and suffering he began to question God. To do so was to forget, as James Dobson says, “who is in charge.” It was only when Job was reminded of God’s sovereignty that he quickly ceased his complaints and protests, and asked for forgiveness. Let us do likewise.


We need to be very careful in the way we apply the teaching of this passage. For one thing, we need to distinguish between those things which are unique to our Lord, as Immanuel, God Incarnate, and those things in which our Lord is an example to all. A little probing of this may prove helpful. Let us do so by seeking to establish some principles from what we have learned, and then exploring their implications.

Only of our Lord could it be said that He was God and man, and thus able to act contrary to the permission and preferences of His parents, as He did by remaining on in Jerusalem. Our children dare not make Jesus the model for their actions in the sense that whenever they think their parents are wrong they are free to follow their own inclinations. The on-going submission of our Lord to His parents after this incident rule against such conclusions.

And yet there is a principle involved here, a principle which governed our Lords’ actions, and which should govern ours as well. The principle is this: If God is our Father, then our ultimate obedience must be to Him, and not to any earthly authority, when the two conflict.

When men choose to follow God, they must do so by following Him as the absolute, sovereign authority of their lives. When earthly authority directly commands them otherwise, they, in the words of the apostles, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Our Lord made this clear, I believe when He required that His disciples follow Him, above all other earthly attachments and authorities:

“For from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:52-53).

Now great multitudes were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:25-26; cf. also Mark 10:7:29-30; Luke 9:59-62).

This principle has application to parents, as well as to children. It means that those of us who have children must, like Mary and Joseph, recognize that God may be leading them in a way that is painful and even costly to us, but which is nevertheless His sovereign will. As such, we should not stand in the way of our children following God. Let us seek not to force our children to obey God against our instructions (implied or stated).

There is a second principle evident in our text: Nothing should hinder us from access to those things which contribute to our spiritual growth.

While I do not pretend to fully grasp how or why our Lord grew, it seems evident to me that being at the temple and having the opportunity to ask questions of the teachers was essential to the growth of our Lord. This was so important to Him that He found it necessary to act contrary to the wishes of His parents.

If our Lord’s growth was so important to Him, should our spiritual growth not be as important to us? Being at the temple, exposed to the teachers of that day, was one means of our Lord’s growth, among many others (exposure to the Scriptures, parental teaching, etc.). What means has God provided for our growth, which we should not allow other things to crowd out? I would suggest several for your consideration, to which you may be able to add others. The Scriptures are essential to our growth, so that nothing should keep us from them (Ps. 19:7-14; 119 [whole psalm]; Acts 20:32; Rom. 16:25-26; 2 Tim. 3:14-17; Heb. 13:9; Jas. 1:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 2:2-4). So, too, is the edification and instruction provided by others in the body of Christ, which requires regular attendance and participation in the worship of the church (cf. Psalm 73:17; Rom. 14-15; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4:1-16; Heb. 10:23-25). Prayer is another vital means of fellowship with God and growth (Eph. 6:18; 1 Thes. 5:18). Finally, obedience to what we know to be the will of God is a key to our further growth (cf. Matt. 7:24-27; Mark 4:21-25). Nothing should keep us from these vital means of growth.

There is another principle which is valid and pertinent to the Christian life, which is evident here: It is extremely difficult for those who believe in the divine and the human to recognize the two without sacrificing one or the other.

The parents of our Lord struggled as to how to put together the facets of our Lord’s nature, His humanity and His deity. In our text, the humanity of Jesus had so dominated their thoughts that they forgot to reckon with His deity, which was the basis for Jesus’ actions and response to them.

God is somehow able to intertwine the human and the divine. Thus, in the outworking of His divine plan and promises, God was able to use the decree of a pagan potentate to arrange for the arrival of Messiah in Bethlehem, rather than in Nazareth. God will later use the religious leaders of Israel and the Roman government to bring about the substitutionary, sacrificial death of His Son.

More problematic to us is the way God intertwines the human and the divine in our own experience. You and I have the same struggle, I believe, in recognizing both the divine and the human elements in our Christian lives. One illustration of this is in maintaining the tension between the element of divine sovereignty, along with that of human responsibility. You see, the struggle of Mary and Joseph is not so unique as it might first appear. There is a kind of incarnation which is going on in the life of every Christian. Let us not deny the divine nor the human in what God is doing in our lives.

One final principle remains to be stated, which I believe is the key to the whole passage: The most important issue, which determines all else in life, is the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?”

Establish the fact that Jesus Christ was fully God, as well as fully man, and everything in our text makes sense. It is easy to see why Jesus must be in His Father’s house, and at the same time easy to identify with the struggle this caused Mary and Joseph.

The acceptance or rejection of the Lord Jesus in His adult earthly life and ministry can be boiled down to the answer to but one question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” The rejection of Christ by the scribes and Pharisees, who engineered His death, is explained by the fact that they rejected His claim to be the Son of God (cf. John 8). They persisted to challenge His actions and teaching by demanding to know by what authority He was acting. Jesus, likewise, asked His disciples who He was (Matt. 16:13-15).

Grant the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and all else is but a logical outflow, all else that He said and did is reasonable, rational, undeniable. Reject this one fact and you must reject Him entirely. May I ask you, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Who do you think He is? The answer to this question will settle the matter of your eternal destiny, and will establish once and for all the matter of authority in your life. It will utterly rearrange your priorities and values. The answer is, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God, God Incarnate, who become a man and who dwelt among men to reveal God to them, to reveal their sin, and to pay the penalty for their sin by His death on the cross of Calvary. The answer to the identity of Christ also determines your identity, whether you are of your father, the devil (cf. John 8:31-47), or whether your Father is the God of the universe (Romans 8:12-17).

45 “At the Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles every male had to go up to Jerusalem (Ex. xxiii. 14-17, xxxiv. 23; Deut. xvi. 16). But since the Dispersion this law could not be kept; yet most Palestinian Jews tried to go at least once a year.” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 74.

“All male Jews were required to attend at the Temple three times in the year, at Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles (Ex. 23:14-17). The Mishnah expressly exempts women from the obligation (Hagigah 1:1), but some rabbis appear to have thought they should go up and some, of course, did. Attendance at all three festivals was difficult with Jews scattered all over the Roman world and beyond, but many made the effort once a year. It was the custom of Joseph and Mary to go up at Passover, the feast that commemorated the deliverance of the nationfrom Egypt (Ex. 12).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 90-91.

46 “It was at thirteen years of age that a Jewish boy could become a ‘son of the law’ or full member of the synagogue (cf. Mishnah, Aboth 5:21; Niddah 5:6). He would then assume all the responsibilities implied in his circumcision. For some observances at any rate the Mishnah provides that a boy should be taken to the observance a year or two before he turned thirteen so that hemight be prepared (Yoma 8:4), and there may have been something of this on the present occasion (though it is equally possible that Jesus went up every year; we do not know).” Morris, p. 91.

“Whether Jesus had already gone with His parents to Jerusalem at an earlier date we do not know. In any case, Luke relates that He did go when He was twelve years old. That was probably in order to be prepared for the ceremony of the following year, when He would be permitted as a young Jewish boy to join the religious community as a responsible member—i.e. as “son of the commandment” (Bar Mitzvah). This important event takes place when the Jewish boy is thirteen.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 126.

47 “The inhabitants of a village, or of several neighbouring villages, formed themsleves into a caravan, and travelled together. The Nazareth caravan was so long that it took a whole day to look through it. The caravans went up singing psalms, especially the “songs of degrees” (Ps. css.-cxxxiv.): but they would come back with less solemnity. It was probably when the caravan halted for the night that He was missed. At the present day the women commonly start first, and the men follow; the little children being with the mothers, and the older with either. If this was the case then, Mary might fancy that He was with Joseph, and Joseph that He was with Mary.” Plummer, p. 75.

48 Note the emphasis on the youth of our Lord in the phrase, “the boy Jesus” in verse 43 (also “the Child” in v. 40). Whatever Jesus did at this time, no matter how remarkable, it was Jesus, the boy, who did so.

49 “It was in accordance with His divine Sonship that He was engaged in His Father’s business in the temple with the teachers of God’s law, and it was genuinely and naively childlike that under the circumstances He had never thought that His parents would be uneasy. But when they came to fetch Him, He went voluntarily, without demurring, with them to Nazareth and was subject unto them, for this also was the will of His heavenly Father.” Geldenhuys, pp. 128-129.

50 “Note that the hearing is placed first, indicating that He was there as a learner; and it was as such that He questioned them. It was the usual mode of instruction that the pupil should ask as well as answer questions. A holy thirst for knowledge, especially of sacred things, would prompt His inquiries.” Plummer, p. 76.

51 While he held to a form of Adoptionism, John Knox nevertheless has to acknowledge that Luke held to a different position. He writes, “The author of Luke-Acts had a higher or more advanced, a less simple Christology than the adoptionism I have described. The whole treatment of the earthly life of Jesus in the Gospel section of his work and many an allusion to it in the Acts section indicate beyond question that he did not think of Jesus’ messiahship as having been conferred on him only after his human career had ended.” John Knox, The Humanity and Divinity of Christ (C. U. P. 1967), as cited by Norman Anderson, The Mystery of the Incarnation (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), p. 25.

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7. John the Baptizer (Luke 3:1-20)


A good friend of mine, Brady Pamplin, had the unique experience of growing up as the son of a county sheriff. His father who was the sheriff of Marlin County for many years, passed away this past year. It was at this time that Brady was told of an incident which had happened many years before. A gentleman who had been confined to a wheelchair for years told Brady about the first time he had met his father. There was a circus in town and he had gone. He had bought his ticket, but when he reached the gate he learned that his wheelchair wide to wide to pass through it. The circus people seemed unwilling to do anything to help. Sheriff Pamplin arrived on the scene at this moment, and sizing up the situation promptly kicked down the gate. That gate was never again put up, and the man went to the circuses from year to year without any difficulty.

Sheriff Pamplin, I fear, was one of the last of a dying breed of sheriff. The stories of such men are still swapped, but there seem to be few peace officers like these any more. I tend to think of John the Baptist as this kind of man, a unique man, with heroic qualities, and yet a man who was the last of a vanishing breed—the Old Testament prophet.

John the Baptist is not introduced to the reader of Luke’s gospel at the time his public ministry commenced, as is the case in all the other gospels. The first four chapters of Luke’s gospel intertwine the accounts of the announcements of the birth of both John and Jesus, along with significant childhood events. Thus, when we come to the ministry of John the Baptist in chapter 3 we are simply finding John to be in the spotlight, as he has been before, as the forerunner of the Messiah. Luke’s account is sort of like the old Huntley-Brinkley news program of years gone by. The camera and microphone continually switching from “Chet” to “David”: “Now back to you, David.” In our case, it is now back to John.

The ministries of John and Jesus are intertwined, but they are not identical. Both commence their ministry with the proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 3;2; 4:17). Both men (or at least their disciples) baptized (John 3:22ff.). Indeed, at least two of John’s disciples became the disciples of our Lord (John 1:35-42). And, of course, many of those who were baptized by John became followers of the Lord Jesus (John 10:40-42; cf. Acts 18:24–19:7).

There were significant differences between John and his ministry and Jesus and His ministry and message. Almost without exception, it was John who stressed the differences between himself and Jesus, showing Jesus to be superior. John clearly distinguished their origin, as was made clear by Luke. Jesus was from above, while John was from below. Jesus was God, while John was but a man:

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me’” (John 1:29-30; cf. 3:31-36).

Jesus was the bridegroom; John was the friend of the groom (John 3:29). While both baptized, the baptism of Jesus, John maintained, was greater (Matt. 3:11). Jesus was the Messiah; John was the forerunner of Messiah. John’s message stressed coming judgment, while Jesus spoke of forgiveness and salvation. The “tension of the text” comes here, however, for while John speaks of coming judgment, he does so as though the Messiah, the Lord Jesus will be the judge:

John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals;52 He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fir. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to clean out His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:16-17).

John’s description of Jesus’ ministry here does not seem to square with our Lord’s words, as recorded in John’s gospel:

“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17).

“Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

“You people judge according to the flesh; I am not judging any one” (John 8:15).

I believe that this tension between the ministry and message of John and that of Jesus is not only the tension of our text, but also the cause for John’s doubts, as revealed in his sending a delegation to Jesus, asking if He was indeed the Messiah (cf. Matt. 11:21-28; Luke 7:18-35). The resolution to this problem will provide us with the key to understanding the relationship of the ministries and messages of John and Jesus.

The Approach of This Message

Our approach in this message will be to focus first on John the man, then on John as the last of the Old Testament prophets, and then to see how his ministry relates to Christ and the gospel of the New Testament. We will further explore the meaning of John and his ministry as recorded in this portion of Luke’s gospel. Finally, we will seek to discover the relevance of John to the lives of the modern day reader.

Our text can be understood as falling into the following divisions:

(1) The setting, vv. 1-2

(2) The message of John, vv. 3-6

(3) The meaning of John’s message, vv. 7-14

  • a. John and the Messiah, vv. 15-17
  • b. John’s ministry terminated, vv. 18-20

John the Man

I suppose that if I were to ask my children what they thought about John the Baptist after reading our text, their response could probably be summarized this way: “He was a rude, crude, dude!” It is very easy to categorize John as kind of weird, and certainly, it would seem, quite hostile! This, however, is to fail to view John as a prophet, and also to miss the greatness and the marvelous qualities of this unique individual. Let us begin, then, by considering John as a man.53

(1) John was a man of distinction. By this I mean that John was a very unique individual, a man who stood out from the crowd. This is evident in various ways. John was a Nazarite from birth, and thus his food was distinctive. John was also a “desert man” so that he ate wild locusts and honey, the food of the desert. John was a prophet, and so he dressed in the garb of Elijah the prophet.

(2) John was a popular and powerful preacher. Mark’s account of the commencement of John’s ministry makes it clear that John’s ministry was widely known and widely sought:

And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins (Mark 1:5).

Mark informs us that even Herod had enjoyed listening to John, even though the message of John struck hard at his own sins (Mark 6:20; cf. Luke 4:19). John may have been “a voice crying in the wilderness,” but many people heard this voice. John was a man like E. F. Hutton (at least as the T.V. commercials would have us believe): when he spoke, people listened.

We might be inclined to think that John’s popularity was like that of our Lord, a result of the miracles which He performed (cf. John 6:26). John informs us of a very significant fact, however:

And many came to Him [Jesus, at place where John commenced his ministry]; and they were saying, “While John performed no sign, yet everything John said about this man was true” (John 10:41).

When you stop to think about it, there is not one instance in the gospels where we are ever told that John performed a miracle. John did not heal, like our Lord, so far as the text informs us. Those people who witnessed the ministry of Jesus, in the very place where John had formerly preached and baptized, testified that John “performed no sign.” This means that it was only John’s preaching that attracted the crowds. He must have been some preacher. (No doubt it was the messianic nature of his message which caused such excitement. John’s ministry seemed to give hope of the coming of the kingdom, as it was intended to do (cf. Luke 3:15-17).

It may not be saying enough to simply say John was a powerful preacher. It is probably more accurate to say that he was a powerful man. While it is true that Herod, as a politician, feared John because the people thought him to be a prophet (Matt. 14:5), Herod, as a pagan, feared John because he was a holy man:

For Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him (Mark 6:20).

(3) John was a man a great insight into the sinfulness of people and society. You might think that a man who lived in the remote places of the wilderness would have little grasp of what was going on in the “big city.” John’s ministry reveals that he was very much up to date with what was going on. John not only rebuked Herod for taking another man’s wife as his own,54 he also rebuked Him for “all the wicked things he had done” (Luke 3:19). John was able to put his finger on the specific sin which most characterized the tax-gatherers, and of the soldiers as well (Luke 3:12-14).

(4) John was a man of integrity. John lived what he preached and preached what he lived. His message was not one that would “tickle the ears” of his audience, but he proclaimed it forthrightly and forcefully. He did not appeal to fleshly motives, nor did he hesitate to point out the implications of the message of repentance which he preached. He did not have a vacation retreat in the mountains (we can assume), nor a fat bank account, all the while telling others to share with the needy (cf. Luke 3:11).

(5) John was a man of prayer. I would not have immediately thought of John as a man of prayer, but why not. More and more I am coming to view proclamation and prayer as the priorities of our lives, especially those who are in positions of leadership (cf. Acts 6:1-6). I have frequently heard the request of the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray,… ” but I have seldom heard the request finished. The disciples of our Lord, some of whom had been John’s disciples previously (John 1), asked, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.”

John was a man of prayer—a fact noted by the disciples of our Lord.

(6) John was a man of humility. John’s deep humility becomes particularly evident on several occasions. The first is when John’s ministry had become widely acclaimed and simultaneously messianic expectation had become intense. Note John’s response, as recorded by Luke:

Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he might be the Christ, John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, and I am not fit to tie the thong of His sandals; He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand to clean out His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:15-17).

How easy it would have been for John to hedge here, allowing the people to conclude he was the Messiah, without actually claiming to be. How easy for John to have gained financially, to have misused his role to bolster his ego. But John quickly set about to correct the misconceptions of the people, to focus their attention and devotion toward the Messiah, and not on himself.

The second occasion on which John’s humility became evident was after the appearance of Jesus, when His public ministry had commenced. Immediately His ministry began to overshadow John’s. His disciples were baptizing more than John’s, and His ministry was attracting more followers. John is at his finest hour here, as recorded in the last part of John chapter 3. What a giant John was. How graciously he accepted his role and rejoiced in the success of the Savior. He was, indeed, a man of deep humility.

As a man, John provides us with a model for ministry. His life was testimony to the fact that John believed with all his heart that, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

John the Baptist,
the Last of the Old Testament Prophets

John was a prophet whose ministry was rooted in the Old Testament. In the first place, the appearance and ministry of John was prophesied in the Old Testament:

A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain,55 And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:1-6).

Our Lord made it clear to His disciples that John was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi:

And His disciples asked Him saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist (Matt. 17:10-13; cf. also Mark 9:11-13, Luke 1:17).

John did not merely fulfill Old Testament prophecy, he spoke as an Old Testament prophet. His message was the same message which the (other) Old Testament prophets had proclaimed. We can but briefly summarize the similarities between John’s proclamation and that of the other prophets, but a comparison of their messages (a worthwhile endeavor) will show that their messages and emphases were the same.

John spoke of the coming of the kingdom of God (e.g. Matt. 3:2), but he rather than speaking of it only as a time of blessing, he spoke of judgment, of “the wrath to come” (cf. Matt. 3:7). In a similar way, Joel foretold the coming of the “day of the Lord,” warning that it was to be a time of judgment for Israel, as well as for the nations (Joel 1:15; 2:1-3, etc.). There was also a promise of grace and compassion, for all who repented (Joel 2:12ff.).

John called upon his audience to share their material possessions with those in need: “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise” (Luke 3:11).

His words should have a familiar ring, for this is what the prophets of old had called upon Israel to do:

“Is this not the fast which I chose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:6-8).

John called upon Israel to show mercy to practice justice.

“Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:13, 14).

The prophet Malachi, as did the others, called upon the Old Testament saint to do likewise:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:5).

John rebuked Herod for taking the wife of his brother (cf. Luke 3:19). His message could easily have been preached from this text in Malachi:

“And this is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?” Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then, to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Malachi 2:13-16).

The Meaning of John’s Preaching For Israel

John’s message was like that of the Old Testament prophets in a particularly important way. John and the Old Testament prophets spoke of the future, of the Kingdom of God, of the Messiah, and of “things to come” in two different ways. The prophets spoke of the coming of the Lord both as a time of judgment, and as a time of blessing. They spoke of Messiah both as the great King, who would reign from the throne of David, and as the Suffering Servant, who would die for the sins of the world. And, you will recall, that this was the cause for considerable interest and even agony on the part of the prophets. As Peter tells us,

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow (1 Pet. 1:10-11).

In the same way, John’s ministry contained these two themes, these two messages. One was of judgment, the other of God’s grace and salvation. The one was an exhortation to keep the Law of God, the other the promise that God would provide salvation apart from man’s keeping of the Law. The one message was that Israel must prepare the way for the Lord, the other was that the Lord would prepare the way for men.56 Thus, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).

When John spoke of Messiah’s coming, it was in either one of two senses: either as the judge, who would put down the wicked and establish His kingdom (which is still future for us), or as the “suffering Servant” who would die for Israel’s sins. It would soon become evident that Israel would not repent. Many of those who came to John for baptism left without ever entering the water (Luke 7:29-30). Thus, the kingdom of God was rejected, along with her King! All of this in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.

John’s one ministry as a prophet—calling Israel to repentance and to the keeping of the Law—was a failure, as all other prophets had failed (cp. Matt. 23:29-39; Acts 7:52). It was thus with John’s ministry that the preaching of the Law, of the old covenant, ceased: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, … ” (Luke 16:16).

From this point on, it is the new covenant, that of which the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah especially spoke of (Jer. 31:31-34), that is in view. Thus, the Messiah must come to suffer in the place of sinners, to be rejected by men, and to be smitten of God.

It was this transition, I believe, which was the source of John’s doubts, as recorded in Matthew 11:21-28 and Luke 7:18-35. John was hoping that Israel would repent, keep the Law, and that the promised blessings of the Law would come on Israel. With his own arrest, John began to see the failure of the old covenant, and thus he began to question his ministry and that of Messiah. Could he have been wrong? Why, then, was his ministry a failure? I personally believe that the answer which our Lord gave to the delegation sent from John provides the key.

“Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM” (Luke 7:23).

It is my opinion that these words are intended to focus John’s attention on the second, but less clear, phase of Messiah’s coming—to be the Savior of the world. Jesus’ ministry was not that of judgment, of overthrowing Israel’s enemies, but of ministry to the poor, the afflicted, the distressed. Jesus’ ministry was not of judgment, but of salvation. John needed to focus on this aspect of His ministry, not on that which would still later be evident, in His second coming. This, indeed, was that dimension of our Lord’s ministry which John himself introduced with the words, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John1:29).

John’s ministry should thus have demonstrated, once and for all, that the blessing of Israel, in fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, would never be achieved through the Mosaic Covenant, through the law-keeping of the nation Israel. Justification and blessing would only come by faith in the suffering, death, atonement, and resurrection of God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.

John’s ministry was to close, once and for all, that chapter in Israel’s history of the Mosaic Covenant, of law-keeping. No one had ever been saved by law-keeping, and neither would the kingdom of God ever be initiated because of it. Grace must replace law, the suffering of Messiah would provide a means of forgiveness and escape from the judgment of God. John’s ministry was intended to point this out, in a final and definitive way. John not only proclaimed, one final time, a call to repentance and law-keeping, but introduced the One through whom the law would be fulfilled, and through whom salvation and forgiveness would be accomplished. What privilege for John to end the one dispensation, and to introduce the other!

For Luke’s readers, the message was even more pointed. Luke was writing to a predominantly Gentile audience. In particular, Luke wrote to Theophilus (1:3). The question which a Gentile would want answered would be this: “How can a Jewish Messiah, fulfilling Jewish prophecies and promises, bring salvation to Gentiles?” Luke’s answer, supported by the ministry of John the Baptist, was this: “The Jewish system of law-keeping failed. It could not save Jews, nor can it save you. Thus, both Jews and Gentiles must be saved another way—through Christ.” This is precisely the apostolic answer of Peter, which Luke records in the book of Acts:

“Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:10-11).

Ironically, Paul found it necessary to remind Peter of this when he compromised under pressure from Judaizers and separated himself from eating with Gentile Christians:

“Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

Thus, the failure of the Jews to keep the Law opened the door for God’s grace to provide a better way, the way of salvation by grace, through faith, in Jesus Christ. Luke’s account of the failure of John’s ministry sets the stage for the grace of God to be made known through Christ’s first coming, death, burial, and resurrection.

Luke’s gospel reveals the rejection of Jesus as the King of Israel, and of the Law, as He taught it, and thus of the transition from Law to grace, from a “Jewish” religion to a universal (the church) religion. I will but briefly survey this, for our study of Luke will reveal it in much greater detail. In chapter 4 our Lord presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah, which received an immediate warm welcome (Luke 4:22), until Jesus went on to spell out what His ministry meant—including salvation for the Gentiles (Luke 4:23-27). This resulted in immediate and explosive anger, and an attempt to kill the Messiah (Luke 4:28-29). Thus, in chapter 5 (vv. 33-39) our Lord spoke of not putting “new wine” (the program of the new covenant) in old wineskins (the program of the old covenant). In chapter 7, the old covenant ministry of John is shown to be “inferior” to the new covenant ministry (7:28). As the gospel proceeds, the new covenant ministry of our Lord is more and more revealed, consummating in His death, burial and resurrection, instituting that covenant. So, too, Luke’s account of the book of Acts shows the fulfillment of John’s promise that Jesus would bring about a better baptism, a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, in Acts, especially chapters 18 (Apollos) and 19 (the 12 who had received John’s baptism), we see that once Christ’s sacrificial death had been made on men’s behalf, acceptance of John’s gospel was not sufficient. At best, John’s gospel looked forward to what Christ would do, as the “Lamb of God.” After Christ’s ascension, men were called on the believe in the Christ who had come, and to receive His baptism.

Luke’s account is unique among the other gospels in several ways. The meaning of John’s ministry in Luke’s account will, to some degree, be evident by those unique characteristics of his record. These three contributions can be seen by comparing Luke’s account of John with the other gospel writers:

(1) First, only Luke so specifically sets the ministry of John in its political and religious context. The first two verses of Luke 3 give us the key political and religious figures of that day. Perhaps Luke is suggesting to the reader that God’s revelation was not through political or even religious leaders, but through a humble desert man, John. The power of God was not introduced through the “power” brokers of the day. God’s power is quite distinct from man’s power. John, though a solitary figure, was a powerful man, not because of his position, but because of his message, and because of his divine calling. Here, perhaps, is the kind of “separation of church and state” which God practices. The fact that these men who are named are not a part of the revelation of Messiah may also be a reminder of Israel’s bondage, and of the sinfulness of her religious leaders, demonstrating the need not only for repentance, but also for divine deliverance.

(2) Second, Luke draws our attention to the masses, not to the leadership nor to the elite of the nation. While the first two verses focus on Israel’s “secular” (including the unbelieving religious leaders) leaders, the remaining verses highlight John’s message to the masses. It is the “multitudes” and the “people” (vv. 7, 10, 15) to whom we are told John spoke specifically, pointing out the particular sins they were practicing. And, you will note (Luke 7:29-30), that it was from this group that the greater portion of John’s followers came. Luke’s emphasis on the gospel to the poor and to the oppressed is evident here.

(3) Third, we find Luke’s account giving very specific emphasis to the material and monetary implications of the gospel. In speaking to the multitudes, including the soldiers and tax-gatherers, Luke informs us that John spelled out the proper use of money and power. It is little wonder that Luke’s gospel contains so many parables on the subject of money. The gospel will directly bear upon the use of our material goods.

The Meaning of John and His Message For Today

It might be thought that because John was “the last of the Old Testament prophets,” his life and ministry have little to say to 20th century Americans. This is far from the case. Both in his person and in his prophetic ministry, John has much to say to us today. As we conclude this message, let us seek to survey some of the ways this passage and this person relate to us.

(1) We have much to learn from the personal example and lifestyle of John the Baptist. The press has created the stereotype of a bearded “weirdo” carrying a sign, “Repent or Perish.” No doubt John the Baptist would be considered just such a person. John however, was a model man in many regards. John was a man who knew who he was (self-image?) and was thus committed to enhancing the ministry and person of Messiah, while at the same time diminishing his own role. He was a man who dared to be different, to stand apart and alone. He was a man who was not held captive by those sins which were characteristic of his day. In order to speak as boldly as he did, his life was even more rigorously guarded against any appearance of evil. Here was a man who life was as powerful as his words.

(2) We can also learn much from John’s ministry. While John’s ministry and message was to be replaced, there is much that we can learn from them. We can learn, for example, from the boldness of John in proclaiming his message. He did not hesitate to call sin sin, or to warn men of the coming judgment of God. For those of us who tend to be “wimpy” Christians (I include myself here), who are reticent to tell people they are sinners, who shy away from telling people there is a literal hell for all who do not trust in Christ, John’s boldness should serve as a rebuke. And note that it was his boldness in proclaiming God’s word that enhanced the power of his message. The gospel is, as Paul says, “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). Let us therefore proclaim it boldly.

I should quickly add that John’s boldness and honesty was not hostility or anti-social behavior. There are some Christians who are angry people, who are looking for an excuse to attack others and to vent their anger. John’s life and ministry do not sanction this kind of behavior. What John did he did out of love for God and for man (the essence, you will recall, of the Law, cf. Matt. 22:37-39). Let us boldly confront men with their sin, with the judgment of God and with God’s offer of salvation. It is precisely these truths of which the Spirit of God will convince men (John 16:8).

John’s ministry made sin and salvation very personal. I often hear people say, “My relationship to God is a very personal thing.” In one sense, they are absolutely right, but generally this is an excuse not to talk with anyone about their beliefs. John made sin personal by confronting men with those sins of which they were guilty. Herod was confronted with his sins, as were the multitudes, the soldiers, and the tax-gatherers. Also, salvation was very personal. Each person had to repent of his sins and turn from his wicked ways. Each person needed to renounce any false basis for salvation (e.g. “we are Abraham’s seed,” Luke 3:8). Each person was called to make a definite commitment to righteousness and a definite break with sin.

Besides having a personal experience, John also required a public experience. John’s preaching was public, as was his exposure of sin. The baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was likewise public. The baptism of John was to be accompanied by a change in the life of the repentant individual, public evident to others, so that the sins of the past were to be left behind.

It is possible, my friend, that you know all the vital facts, about your sin, about the present and coming judgment of God, and about the righteousness of Christ and the salvation which He has made available to all men. And yet it is also possible that you have never made a personal, public commitment to Christ. If not, I urge you, just as John urged those men and women of long ago, to take a public stand, to acknowledge your sin, and to express your faith in Christ as your Savior. No one is saved by osmosis, by inheritance, or by mere knowledge, but by a personal commitment, a personal entrusting of yourself and your eternal future into the hands of Jesus Christ, who died for your sins, whose righteousness may be your own. Do it today!

What a beautiful example of ministry we see in John. He was content, better yet, his “joy was full” (John 3:29) to have played a role in turning men to Christ, of having men follow Christ and not himself. He was joyful to have his ministry terminate and Christ’s ministry to perpetuate. He was willing to be an instrument, and then to allow his ministry to pass away. How few ministries there are today which are joyfully allowed to die, having fulfilled their role.

While John and his ministry are, in one sense, history, may we seek to emulate the spirit and the motivation of this great saint of old, and may our ministries also be modeled after his.

52 “And when it comes to worth, John sees himself as unfit to loose the thong of His sandals. Palestinian teachers were not paid, but pupils used to show their appreciation with a variety of services. A rabbinic saying (in its present form dated c. 250 but probably much older) runs, ‘Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for this teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong’ (SB,i,p. 121). Untying the sandal-thong was just too much. But John selects precisely this duty, which the rabbis regarded as too menial for a disciple, as that for which he was unworthy. This is genuine humility. Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 97.

53 My conclusions are reached on the basis of all the gospel accounts of John, and not just Luke’s gospel. The attached chart lists the major references to John in the gospels.

54 “Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus, half-brother to Herod Antipas, and she was married to Herod, another half-brother and a private citizen. Herod Antipas persuaded Herodias to leave her husband and marry him, though it involved his divorcing his own wife also. It was a very unsavoury business. Luke mentions other evils of Herod (as Matthew and Mark do not) and goes on to say that he added to all the rest this further example, that he imprisoned John.” Morris, p. 98.

55 The commentators have explained this imagery in the light of the ancient world: “In 1845 when the Sultan visited Brusa the inhabitants were called out to clear the roads of rocks and to fill up the hollows. Oriental monarchs often did this very thing. A royal courier would go ahead to issue the call. So the Messiah sends his herald (John) before him to prepare the way for him.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), II, p. 38.

In one sense, the imagery here can be summarized in the expression, “straighten up!” On the vertical plane, the high places are to be made low and the low places raised. Everything is to be “on the level.” Horizontally, the crooked places are to be made straight. Something like the crosshairs in a telescopic sight, both the vertical and the horizontal are to be straightened.

I believe there is a rather clear symbolic application made of this “high” and “low” imagery in the prophets and in the New Testament. I believe that the “high” refers to the proud, while the “low” refers to the humble. To prepare for the kingdom of God, the proud must and will be put down, while the humble will be elevated. Thus, Ezekiel wrote, “And all the trees of the field will know that I am the LORD; I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will perform it” (Ezekiel 17:24).

Mary’s words, spoken in praise to God for being honored to be the mother of the Messiah, reveal this same theme: “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble” (Luke 1:51-52).

Note, then, how the words of James convey this same message: “But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; and let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with a scorching wind, and withers the grass; and its flower falls off, and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away” (James 1:9-11).

James brings down the lofty and elevates the humble, and he validates his words by a reference to the withering grass, a citation from Isaiah chapter 40, indeed the verses which immediately follow those which characterized John’s message and ministry of “preparing the way of the Lord” by lowering the high places and elevating the low ones.

I suggest, then, that the meaning of Isaiah’s imagery, as understood and used by the prophets and those in the New Testament, had to do with pride and humility. Indeed, is the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount not doing the very same thing? It lifts up the poor and puts down the proud. So, also, the Lord’s reference to His ministry in Luke chapter 4, in citing Isaiah chapter 61 relates to this same theme.

56 The imagery of preparing the way by lowering the high places and raising the low ones is frequently found in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 40:3-5 the imagery is applied to Israel, who must prepare God’s way. In 42:16, 19; 49:11, it is used of God preparing Israel’s way. In chapter 45 (vv. 2, 3, 13), it is used of God preparing the way of Cyrus, who will accomplish God’s purposes.

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8. The Baptism and Genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:21-28; 1 Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Samuel 7:8-13)


A couple of years ago, we were having a great deal of trouble with our telephone system. With the breakup of “Ma Bell” everyone seemed to be placing the responsibility to fix the problem on another group. Finally, in frustration, I called a friend who works for the phone company, solely to find out who to call for help. In a matter of minutes there were supervisors on the line and things really began to happen. Soon, a supervisor from another part of town was at my office, solely to assure me that the repair man was on his way, and that the problem would be fixed, that night.

It began to dawn on me that my friend was a person of substantial influence and position in the phone company. When I asked the supervisor what my friend did in the company he responded, “When they call us, we drop whatever we’re doing and do what they say.” One’s position and one’s power has a lot to do with what he or she is able to accomplish.

So it was with our Lord Jesus Christ. From all outward appearances, our Lord was a person with no great power or station in life. He was born into a very poor family, as is evident by the circumstances of His birth. He was apparently a carpenter until the commencement of His public ministry. But at His baptism, there was a dramatic pronouncement from God Himself, which identified Christ as Israel’s King, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at this time endued Him with power to carry out His mission.

Tensions of the Text

Perhaps the major tension of this text has to do with the necessity of Christ’s baptism by John. You will recall that John emphatically stressed the superiority of the Messiah to himself. One evidence of this was the superiority of His baptism:

John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but He who is mightier than I is coming, and I am unfit to untie the thong of His sandals; He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

If John’s baptism was inferior to that of our Lord, then why did our Lord not baptize John, rather than have John baptize Him, just as John himself had protested in Matthew’s account?

A second tension has to do with the genealogy of our Lord. Not only does the genealogy differ from that of Matthew’s account, but it also is placed differently. Luke includes his genealogy just after the baptism of the Lord, and immediately prior to the beginning of His public ministry. Matthew’s account placed the genealogy at the beginning of his gospel.

The Approach of this Lesson

In this lesson we will seek to learn the meaning of the events of our Lord’s baptism, and also the significance of His genealogy, as placed in conjunction with His baptism by Luke. We will seek to understand the significance of these things in conjunction with the ministry of our Lord. We will also attempt to determine what Luke’s unique contribution is by means of his gospel. Finally, we shall seek to learn the meaning and the implications of our Lord’s baptism and genealogy for us as well.

The Meaning of
“My Son” in the Old Testament

The key to understanding the baptism of our Lord is to be found in the technical meaning of the expression, “My son” in the Bible. It is directly related to the designation and appointment of the Israel’s king by God. Let us see how this concept of “sonship” is developed in the Old Testament.

1 Samuel 9 & 10

Israel’s first king was Saul. In spite of being forewarned of the high price of a king, the Israelites demanded a king, like all the other nations had (cf. 1 Sam. 8). God granted Israel’s request and it was the task of Samuel, the priest, to designate who the king would be. In 1 Samuel 9 & 10 the entire process is described in detail. Saul and his servant were out looking for his father’s lost donkeys, and eventually came upon Samuel, who anointed him with oil, designating him as Israel’s ruler (1 Sam. 10:1). Shortly thereafter, the Holy Spirit came upon Saul (10:6-13), empowering him for his task.

1 Samuel 16

Saul, due to his disobedience, was rejected as God’s king, and another was destined to be his replacement. Since it was not just Saul, but his dynasty that was rejected, it was necessary for God to designate through Samuel who the new king would be. The account of this designation is found in 1 Samuel chapter 16. After viewing all of David’s older brothers and learning that none of them were to be king, David was sent for and anointed in the presence of his brothers as Israel’s new king, at which time the Holy Spirit also came upon him (16:13).

2 Samuel 7

Later, God would make a covenant with the house (dynasty) of David, known as the Davidic Covenant:

“Now therefore you shall say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be ruler over My people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you have gone and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make you a great name, like the names of the great men who are on the earth. I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly, even from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. The LORD also declares to you that the LORD will make a house for you. When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, and I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever”’“ (2 Sam. 7:8-16, emphasis mine).

Note well that the relationship between Israel’s king and God is described as the relationship between a father and a son: “I will be a father to him and will correct him with the rod of men … ” (v. 14). The statement, “You are My son,” then, becomes a technical expression to designate Israel’s king, as can be seen in the second Psalm:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King` Upon Zion, My holy mountain. I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, Thou shalt shatter them like earthenware’” (Psalm 2:6-9).

“In Thee I Am Well-Pleased”

Thus, the expression, “Thou art My beloved Son” designates Jesus as the king of Israel, Israel’s Messiah. At the announcement of His birth this was promised (1:32), and now God has declared it so. In addition, the expression, “in Thee I am well-pleased,” is also significant, underscoring the same truth. The words are intended to recall this passage in the prophecy of Isaiah:

“Behold My Servant, whom I uphold My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed, Until He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.” (Isa. 42:1-4)

In this prophecy, Israel’s Messiah, God’s Servant, is the One in Whom God delights, and He is also the One on Whom the Spirit will come (42:1).

The evidence is more than sufficient to indicate to any willing person that the declaration of the Father, along with the descent of the Holy Spirit, designated Jesus as the King of Israel, empowering Him for the task which was before Him. Like Samuel, John the Baptist was privileged to play a part in identifying the Lord Jesus as God’s King. As our Lord commenced His public ministry, the fact that He was the King of Israel was acknowledged. In the words of Nathaniel, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (John 1:49).

The Genealogy of Christ

The genealogy of our Lord immediately follows the brief account of our Lord’s baptism in the gospel of Luke. As we can see by comparing Luke’s genealogy with that of Matthew, there are considerable differences. They are not only placed in different locations in the gospel, but Luke’s genealogy runs from Christ back to Adam. Matthew’s runs from Abraham to Christ. The biggest difference is that after David, many of the names are different. It would seem best to explain the difference by viewing Luke’s genealogy as tracing the physical ancestors of Christ through Mary, while Matthew’s genealogy traces the kingly line of Christ through Joseph.

Luke’s genealogy ends with Adam, the “son of God” as the first ancestor. In one sense, Adam and Eve were to serve as “kings” over the creation, for they were created to “rule” over God’s creation (Gen. 1:26). Adam and Eve sinned, and their “rule” was greatly diminished. As the “second Adam,” Christ would come to reign over God’s creation as Israel’s king. Luke’s next event is the temptation of Christ, for it is after our Lord’s victory over Satan’s solicitations that He is shown to have the “right to reign.” The baptism of Christ identifies Christ as Israel’s king, and demonstrates that He has the Father’s appointment and the Spirit’s anointing. The genealogy shows that our Lord has the right lineage, that He is indeed of the “throne of David.” The temptation proves that our Lord has the godly character to reign. In every way, Luke shows our Lord to be qualified for the task He has been given.

It would seem that Luke’s gospel has uniquely established the “kingship of Christ” in a way that would be meaningful to his Gentile readers:

To Greco-Roman hearers of Luke’s narrative this would evoke echoes of the Roman use of the flight of birds of omen to discern the decrees of fate. For example, Plutarch in describing how Numa was chosen king after Romulus tells how Numa insisted that before he assumed the kingship his authority must first be ratified by heaven. So the chief of the augurs turned the veiled head of Numa toward the south, while he, standing behind him with his right hand on his head, prayed aloud and turned his eyes in all directions to observe whatever birds or other omens might be sent from the gods. when the proper birds approached, then Numa put on his royal robes and was received as the ‘most beloved of the gods.’ In such a thought-world the Lukan narrative would be viewed as an omen of Jesus’ status. Exactly what that status was can be discerned from the bird involved, a dove, and the interpreting voice from heaven.

In Mediterranean antiquity the dove was symbolic of ‘the beneficence of divinity in love, the loving character of divine life itself’ (E. R. Good enough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period [New York: Pantheon Books, 1953], VIII: 40-41).57

The Role of the Baptism
and Genealogy in Luke’s Gospel

In the first chapters of his gospel, which are unique in their detailed accounting of the events surrounding the births of Jesus and John the Baptist, Luke has already indicated that Jesus Christ was the “King of Israel.” In the baptism of Jesus, both the Father and the Spirit bear testimony to this. The genealogy shows that Jesus Christ is one with man, and that He is also of the lineage of David.

The remainder of the gospel will play out the response of Israel to the claim of Christ to be their King. In chapter four, Jesus presented Himself as the King, which was initially welcomed, but was then rejected when the fuller implications of His coming were explained (Luke 4:16:-30). Jesus presented Himself (just as the Old Testament prophets had) as the King who would come to deliver the oppressed and the downtrodden, including the Gentiles. This was simply too much for the Jews, who sought to kill Him after hearing of this (Luke 4:23-29).

In a variety of ways, Jesus spelled out the meaning of His kingship and of His kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount was a clarification of what the kingdom was to be like (Luke 6). The opposition began to grow in proportion to an awareness of what Christ’s kingdom was to be like. No one could deny that our Lord had power, but as His message began to be rejected, His power was attributed to Satan. To this our Lord responded, “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

Christ’s power was proof of His claim to be Israel’s king. Ultimately, Israel rejected Her king. They even crucified Him on charges that He claimed to be their king (Luke 23:2), and rejected Him as their King by saying, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).

Just as God bore witness to the fact the Jesus was the Son of God, Israel’s King, at His baptism, so He testified to His kingship by raising Him from the dead, and sitting Him at His right hand. When the Spirit came upon the newly born church at Pentecost, Peter preached, demonstrating that Jesus was the King of Israel, and that God had raised Him from the dead. Peter’s conclusion was forcefully proclaimed,

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

King Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father, and He is going to return, to subdue His enemies and to establish His kingdom. It is no wonder that fear came upon the crowds and many professed Christ as their Savior and King on that day.

When the Jewish religious leaders forbade the followers of our Lord to preach the gospel, the church viewed this as a rebellion against Christ as Israel’s King. Their words reveal that they see these events as fulfilling the words of the psalmist in Psalm 2, which speaks of the Christ as God’s King:



The declaration of Jesus as Israel’s king has many implications for us, as well as for those who had to respond to the personal appearance and claims of our Lord in the days of the New Testament. Let us consider some of these areas of application as we conclude our lesson.

First, if Jesus Christ is God’s King, then we had better listen to him carefully, and do as He commands. I do not believe that the disciples heard the words spoken by the Father at the baptism of our Lord. My impression is that only John and Jesus heard them. Virtually the same words are spoken in the hearing of three of the disciples from the mount of transfiguration, and here it is very clear that these words are intended to encourage the disciples to listen to Jesus very carefully:

“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; hear Him!”(Matt. 17:5).

The clear impact is this: If this is the Son of God, you had better “listen up”!

Peter says the same thing to his readers. If God’s words authenticated the words of Jesus, then Peter says that they also authenticated the apostolic preaching of the cross.

For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 2 Pet. 1:16-19.

With this, the writer to the Hebrews is in agreement. He has written, For to which of the angels did He ever say, “THOU ART MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE”?

And again,

“I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM, AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME”? … For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 1:5; 2:1-3a).

Second, Jesus Christ, the King, is coming again, to reward the righteous and to overcome His enemies. The message which Peter gave to His audience is applicable to us as well. Jesus Christ is God’s King. He is presently seated at the right hand of the Father, but He will come soon. His return is described in detail in the book of Revelation. There is no question as to whether or not He is returning. The only question is whether you await Him as your King, or whether He will come unexpectedly upon you as an enemy. I urge you to accept Him today. This is the message of the psalmist, when he speaks of the King and of our response to Him:

Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him! (Psalm 2:12).

Finally, when Christ comes as King, all those who have trusted in Him will reign with Him. Not only is the Lord Jesus the Son of God, but all the saints are also known as the “sons of God,” who will reign with Him.

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God … For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of it own, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God … And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:14, 19-21, 23).

He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son (Revelation 21:7).

May you be among that number, who are the sons of God, and who reign with Him forever.

Just as our Lord was baptized by the Spirit, designating Him as the Son of God, and empowering Him for His mission, so every true saint is baptized as well by His Spirit, and empowered to serve Him.58

I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen. (1 Timothy 6:13-16)

57 Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), p. 41.

58 “There is a remarkable correspondence in both content and sequence between the events and persons found in Luke and Acts (see C. H. Talbert, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts [Missoula: Scholars Press, 1974], pp. 15-23). Among these correspondences are the baptism of Jesus followed by prayer and the descent of the Holy Spirit in physical form, which is paralleled by the prayer of the disciples (Acts 1:14) as they await their baptism in the Holy Spirit which then occurs with accompanying physical manifestations (2:1-13). For Luke the baptism-prayer scene in Jesus’ career is prototypical for his disciples’ experience. Just as the Holy Spirit had come on Jesus after the baptism of repentance and in response to his prayer to empower him for his work, so the Spirit which the risen Lord has poured out (Acts 2:33) is given to his disciples, after prayer, to empower them for their mission. The one who was anointed by the Holy Spirit in 3:21-22 has become, by virtue of his exaltation, the one who pours out the Spirit, baptizing his followers with the Holy Spirit and fire. It is this baptism which empowers disciples for their ministry.” Talbert, p. 42.

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9. The Temptation of Jesus Part I (Luke 4:1-13)

I have never had an occasion to see stone turned into bread. I have, however, seen bread turned to stone. Years ago when my sister and I were in college, our college class at church had a special turkey dinner for the class. My wife-to-be and a friend fixed the turkey (leaving all the “parts” in that little bag inside). This was no disaster, and no one besides the preparers of the meal ever knew about it. The “dinner rolls” were another matter. My sister fixed one of my favorite recipes, a recipe which my mother (and my wife) have successfully used for many years. I can’t explain what happened to the rolls. They didn’t rise, but they also somehow came out of the oven petrified.

I can still remember the puzzled looks on the faces of those kids. They poked at the “things” with their forks. Some foolishly tried to break them in half. Eventually everyone gave up and left them alone. Sizing up the bewilderment of all I said aloud, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” That seemed to break the tension and we all had a good laugh. I actually tried to save one of those petrified rolls for posterity.

Turning bread into stone was no miracle, only a mishap which gave us an occasion for a good laugh. In our text, our Lord Jesus Christ is challenged by Satan to turn stone into bread, a miracle indeed. This proposition is the first of a series of three “temptations” of our Lord by Satan, at the very outset of His public ministry. These are not the only temptations which occurred during that 40 day testing period, but they are the three which both Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) record, and to which Mark (1:12-13) alludes. We must therefore conclude that these temptations are of significance to these writers, and thus to the gospel, and ultimately to us.

The Importance of the Temptation Account

There are several reasons why the temptation accounts are of importance to us. Let us consider these as we seek to prepare our hearts and minds for the instruction God has for us from our passage.

(1) First, the temptation accounts confront the student of the New Testament with some tensions within the biblical text. If our Lord taught the disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” (Matt. 6:13) why then did the Spirit lead our Lord into temptation, as our text indicates (cf. Matt. 4:1; Luke 4:1)? Furthermore, if James informs us that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) and we know that Jesus was fully God, how then could He be tempted (the temptation accounts, cf. also Heb. 2:18; 4:15)?

(2) Second, from the standpoint of our Lord’s ministry and calling, His entire mission is contingent upon His victory over every temptation of Satan.59 Jesus is being tested as the “Son of God,” Israel’s Messiah and King. To fail these tests would be to nullify all of God’s purposes and promises which were to be realized through the Son of God.

(3) Third, by studying the temptation of our Lord by Satan, we learn a great deal about our adversary, Satan. To know the mindset and the methods of our enemy, the Devil, we are forewarned and forearmed as to the temptations by which he will seek to destroy us. “… in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11).

In the three challenges and solicitations of Satan in the temptation accounts of Matthew and Luke we find the three primary avenues by which Satan seeks to make inroads into our lives so as to devastate our spiritual walk with God through Christ. Our survival as saints depends upon our knowing Satan and ourselves, and thereby putting on the “full armor of God” so as to be able to withstand his attacks:

Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm (Eph. 6:10-13).

(4) Finally, we see in our Lord’s successful resistance to Satan’s solicitations those very means which God has made available to us to withstand Satan’s attacks. Our Lord exemplifies the use of the Word of God in recognizing the error of Satan’s solicitations and the course of obedience to the will of the Father. Our Lord’s example in facing temptation is vital to every Christian who desires to live a life which is in conformity with the will and the word of God.

The Uniqueness of Our Lord’s Temptation

While Satan’s temptation of our Lord has much similarity to his attack against the Christian, it must be remembered that our Lord’s temptation was a unique event in history. It was Satan’s attempt to nullify the purpose of Christ’s first coming, to prevent the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, where God’s will would be done, even as it is done in heaven. It was also the temptation of our Lord as God. The temptations of our Lord were those which could be pressed on one who was divine. Mere man could not be “tempted” to make stone into bread for this is something which only God can do. Satan’s temptation was direct and obvious. It was evident that Satan was the source of the temptation. Our temptations are more indirect, coming most often through the world and the flesh. Finally, our Lord’s temptation was unique in that He, unlike all of us, provided Satan with no “inner ally,” no “fallen flesh” to which Satan could appeal. There was no inner inclination to rebel against God and no inner desire to sin. For us it is entirely a different matter, as Romans chapter 7 makes abundantly clear.

We must recognize, then, that the term “temptation” is employed in two very different senses, which can be seen from the temptation of our Lord. Temptation is, on the one hand, a solicitation to sin, to do that which is contrary to the will and the word of God. Temptation is an attempt to cause a person to sin. Satan’s efforts at temptation always fall into this category. But “temptation” when viewed from God’s point of view is a “test,” an opportunity for one to be proven righteous. Thus, in the case of Job (cf. especially chapters 1 and 2) Satan sought to bring Job to the point of forsaking his faith, to the point of sinning, but God’s purpose was to deepen Job’s faith, as well as to demonstrate to Satan that Job’s love for God was not based upon the material blessings which God bestowed upon him. These two meanings of the same term have long been recognized by biblical scholars.60

We might therefore maintain that Jesus was “tempted” in two senses in our text. From the vantage point of Satan’s intended purpose, our Lord was tempted. Satan wished to prompt the “Son of God” to act in disobedience to the Father, thus terminating His ability to fulfill His mission. From the viewpoint of God, and the author (Luke), this was a “test” of Jesus Christ, proving Him to be suited and qualified to fulfill His mission as the Son of God.

The Testing of Our Lord
in the Context of Luke’s Gospel61

Luke has set out to depict the good news in a very orderly way (1:3), and thus we would expect him to have prepared us for the temptation of Christ in the context of his gospel. Both the deity and the humanity of the Lord Jesus have been documented. Jesus was prophesied to be born of a woman, but also a product of the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit (1:26-38). The account of His birth in chapter 2 shows this to have happened. That Jesus knew of His heavenly origin is evident by His presence in “His Father’s house” (1:41-51).

In chapter 3, John the Baptist began his public ministry, preparing the people for the coming of Messiah, who was greater than he. Besides the testimony of John, the Father and the Spirit bore witness to the identity of the Lord Jesus. The Father’s words, “Thou art My beloved Son … ” identified Him as the King of Israel, who would sit on the throne of His father David (cf. 1:32). The descent of the Holy Spirit was the enduement of power for this task. It was as the “Son of God” that Jesus was put to the test by Satan. Thus Satan’s two-fold challenge, “If you are the Son of God … ” (4:3, 9).

The genealogy of the Lord in Luke’s account immediately precedes His temptation. If the baptism of Christ showed Him to be the “Son of God,” the genealogy shows our Lord to be the “son of Adam” (3:38). Thus our Lord is both God and man. As man Jesus was both a descendent of David, but also a son of Adam. I believe that Luke is showing our Lord’s qualifications for His task of redeeming fallen man. As the “Son of God” and the “Son of man” Jesus could die in man’s place and provide an eternal redemption. The temptation of our Lord seems to be an effort to play the deity of our Lord against His humanity in such a way as to “divide and conquer.” Our Lord’s victory here shows that His perfect blend of humanity and deity are not at odds, and thus He is fit for the task God has given to Him to accomplish.

Two Assumptions
Which Need to be Challenged

There are two assumptions which are widely held by Christians which need to be challenged, and at least re-thought. The first is the assumption that our Lord was really “tempted” by the offers of Satan. Some hold that even though (better, because) our Lord had no inner inclination to sin He was greatly tried by Satan’s solicitations.62 I do not personally see any hesitation on the part of our Lord, nor any great agony preceding His response to Satan. The agony which I do find in the Bible is that of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemene, when He struggled with the reality of the wrath of God which He was about to experience. I realize that the writer to the Hebrews refers to the “temptation” of our Lord (2:18; 4:15), but I think that we must be careful to distinguish the way these offers would appeal to us from their appeal to the sinless Son of God.

The second assumption is that Satan’s words are to be accepted at face value. The Word of God describes Satan as the “father of lies” (John 8:44). Satan is, in psychological terminology, a pathological liar. Such persons lie whether or not it appears necessary, and even when it may prove detrimental. I am not at all certain that just because Satan claims to possess all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-6) that he really does have the right to offer them to Christ. In my opinion, Satan is always offering others that which he does not possess. For example, he encouraged Adam and Eve to help themselves to the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and thus to a new level of knowledge. Our Lord offers men what He possesses, what He has purchased (e.g. salvation by His blood), but Satan is always giving away what is not his. He is always offering to give away the “Brooklyn Bridge,” as it were.

Satan does not seem to be any more truthful or obedient in God’s presence than anywhere else. For example, Satan “demanded permission to sift Peter like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Satan’s sin has distorted his thinking and has warped his character and deeds, even when standing before God. I therefore urge you to be careful about believing anything Satan might say, even in the presence of God.

Our Approach

Our approach to the temptation of our Lord will be to study it in several segments. In this lesson we will focus on the setting of the temptation (Luke 4:1-2) and on the first temptation, to challenge to make bread of stone. We will analyze this temptation in terms of the setting (the occasion, the need), the mindset of Satan, the Lord’s response, and the scriptural principle underlying our Lord’s response. We will then seek to see how the principles which guided our Lord in His response can be found repeatedly in His teaching and ministry. Finally, we will seek to discover the forms in which this same temptation can be identified in our own culture, and how they should be dealt with.

The Setting of Christ’s Temptation

The temptation of our Lord took place “in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). It was also in the wilderness that John grew up and ministered (1:80; 3:3-4). So, too, it was in the wilderness that Israel tempted God (Ps. 78:41, 56; 106:14). In contrast, it was in the idyllic setting of the garden that Adam and Eve were put to the test (Genesis 2 & 3). While the animals in the garden were tame, those in the wilderness were, according to Mark’s account, “wild beasts” (Mark 1:12-13).

While Matthew’s account highlights the fact that our Lord was led of the Holy Spirit to the wilderness, Luke wants his reader to understand that the Lord was Spirit led through the wilderness. In Luke’s words, the Son of God was “led about by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days.” Furthermore, Luke informs us that all this while our Lord was being tempted by the devil. The Lord went out to the wilderness to confront Satan, or at least to be confronted by him, and to return victorious. Even in His temptation our Lord is in control, not Satan. While Satan sought to undermine our Lord’s mission, God sought to underline it by having the Son of God emerge sinless as the second and last Adam.63 Just as Adam brought sin upon the entire race, so the victory of Christ made salvation available to all who are in Him (cf. Rom. 5:12-21).

We should at least note that our Lord’s hunger in the wilderness was self-imposed. Our Lord fasted for forty days and nights (Matt. 4:2; Luke 4:2). If there were “wild beasts” around, it would have been possible for our Lord to have killed something to eat (e.g. a rabbit), or at least to have eaten locusts and wild honey, like His forerunner John (Matt. 3:4).

The “wilderness” setting is clearly intended to bring to mind the parallel situation of the nation Israel which wandered in the wilderness. Israel was in the wilderness 40 years, even as our Lord was in the wilderness for 40 days. Israel hungered even as our Lord did. In both cases God was testing man. In the case of Israel, they also put God to the test, demanding to be fed, and sometimes threatening to return to Egypt. Our Lord is the antitype of Israel (cp. Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15), fulfilling the will of God where Israel failed.

The three temptations which are recorded are Satan’s final attempt, at least in this campaign. There were, by inference (cf. Luke 4:13), many other temptations during those 40 days. These represent Satan’s “best shot,” his most powerful offers, in his mind at least. They also represent those temptations most “common to man,” those temptations which we are most likely and most frequently going to face.

The scene is therefore set. Jesus as the “second Adam” will be tempted of Satan and prevail. Jesus as the “true Israel” will be tested in the wilderness and return victorious. Thus the Son of God, Israel’s King, will be shown to be fit to fulfill His divinely ordained task, qualified by the declaration of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit, and by His proven holiness.

The First Temptation:
Make Stone into Bread

Jesus had fasted for 40 days. Our Lord was understandably hungry. More than just hunger is involved, however. We can miss a mere meal and feel a strong sense of hunger. Our Lord’s hunger, if prolonged, would inevitably lead to death, apart from divine intervention. Satan’s challenge that Jesus turn stone to bread64 was one which sought to cause our Lord to bring about that divine intervention from His own power, that power which had just been bestowed upon Him through the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Our Lord’s condition was this, then. If He continued not eating, He would die. Thus, Satan challenged, He must act. Whether or not He must act as Satan had challenged, by miraculously converting stone to bread, is doubtful, for it would seem that there would have been other means of satisfying His need for nutrition.

Satan’s premise, on which he based his proposition, seems to be something like this:


In other words, Satan could not conceive of our Lord having a vital need, having the power to satisfy that need, and not using His power to meeting the need. Surely one’s power could be used to meet one’s needs, especially a need so vital as life itself. Satan seems to be appealing to that basic human instinct of self-preservation.

Previously it seemed to me that Satan was advocating self-indulgence here, but if that were the case he would have called for “steak and ale,” not mere bread. Bread was a basic essential of life, not a luxury food item. It is not self-indulgence, then, but self-preservation which Satan is seeking to induce our Lord to accomplish through His divine power.

On the face of the matter, such an offer seems innocuous. After all, is there anything so wrong with meeting basic human needs? Not at all! Hunger is a need which our Lord would later meet in His public ministry. Did He not feed the 5,000, who were in the wilderness and without food (cf. Luke 9:10ff., esp. note v. 12)? For our Lord, serious hunger even justified setting aside normal rules. Thus He defended the fact that His disciples “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath by referring to the precedent of David, who met his hunger and that of his men by eating the “consecrated bread” (Luke 6:1-5).

What was the evil, then, which caused our Lord to resist Satan’s solicitation, and to continue to hunger, even though death might be the result? The answer was to be found in the Word of God itself. Jesus responded to Satan in the words of Deuteronomy: “MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE … ” (Deut. 8:3; Luke 4:4).

Our account does not complete the sentence, as does Matthew, with the words, “BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD” (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4).

This, I believe, is due to the fact that Luke’s gospel is written to a Gentile audience primarily, rather than to a Jewish one.

Jesus’ words must be understood in the light of the quotation from Deuteronomy, and from the context in which it was originally spoken. Israel was about to enter into the promised land and God was, through Moses, reminding His people of the basis on which His blessings would be bestowed in the land.

We have already noted the parallel which the gospel accounts draw between the experience of Israel in the wilderness and that of our Lord in the wilderness. Our Lord knew this best of all, and thus deals with His own situation in the light of God’s Word concerning the lessons which Israel should have learned from the experience of their forefathers. I believe that we can see a very clear logical argument in Luke’s account of our Lord’s response, based upon the book of Deuteronomy.65

First, our Lord understood that God uses deprivation to test man’s faith, as reflected by his obedience when doing so appears dangerous or even deadly. The verse which immediately precedes the words cited by our Lord reads,

“And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has lead you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deut. 8:2).

Second, our Lord understood that testing through deprivation is often God’s preparation for future blessing. In Deuteronomy God is referring to the lessons which God has taught Israel in order to prepare her for the blessings of the land. If Satan was subtly suggesting that hunger was inconsistent with divine presence and blessing, Jesus knew from Deuteronomy that it was the evidence of divine love and care, in preparation for blessing.

Third, our Lord refused Satan’s proposition, not because He could not achieve it, but because He should not do so. The only reason that Jesus did not make the stone into bread was because it would have been wrong to do so. Jesus had the power to change His circumstances, to satisfy His hunger, but He refused to employ it in such a fashion. It would be no test of our Lord’s character to make such a challenge as Satan had unless Jesus was capable of turning stone into bread.

Fourth, our Lord’s presence and His hunger in the wilderness, like that of Israel of old, was the will of God, the result of God’s leading. God made it abundantly clear to Israel that when they complained about their circumstances, they ultimately complained against God, for it was He who led them. If our Lord was hungry, indeed, if our Lord’s life was in danger, it was the will of God for it to be so. For our Lord to have acted as Satan proposed would have been an act of disobedience.

Fifth, the only motive for making the stone into bread would have been distrust regarding the goodness and the guidance of God. Ultimately, the only reason for our Lord’s disobedience (making the stone into bread) would have been unbelief—distrust of the Father’s care, of His goodness, of His divine provision. As I understand the Bible, unbelief is the ultimate root of most, if not all, disobedience. Satan caused Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness and to disbelieve His word concerning judgment for eating of the forbidden fruit. Israel grumbled against God in the wilderness and demanded that God prove Himself because they doubted His goodness and guidance. So it would have been in our Lord’s case as well.

Sixth, Life is more than mere physical survival and thus must be sustained by more than food. Luke stops after the words, “Man does not live by bread alone,” thus emphasizing the fact that life is more than a matter of food. Surely the Old Testament (not to mention the New Testament) makes this abundantly clear. God told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the forbidden fruit, yet they continued to live physically after their disobedience. We know that the death they experienced included physical death, but involved much more. So, too, life was much more than physical existence. Intimacy with God was one of the things which was lost, for the evening walks in the garden were ended, along with life in the garden.

In the early chapters of Deuteronomy, God reminded the Israelites that His blessing was contingent upon their obedience, and further clarified His blessings as including “long life”:

“And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, in order that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Deut. 4:1).

“Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may lean to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children’” (Deut. 4:10).

“So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the LORD your God is giving you for all time” (Deut. 4:40; cf. 5:33; 6:2-3).

Life, then, is sustained by more than eating, but more importantly for the Israelites, it was sustained by obedience to God’s commandments. So it was for Adam and Eve as well. So much so is this true that sometimes true life is sustained by means of death. The Old Testament gradually unveils the truth that “life” with God extends beyond the grave. The promises God made to Abraham will still be fulfilled, and thus Abraham is not just a person of the past, but will be raised from the dead. Abraham had to trust God by being willing to sacrifice his only son, believing that God would continue life beyond his death (cf. Heb. 11:19).

This Temptation and the Gospel

This temptation struck at the very heart of the gospel, for the Lord Jesus had come to the earth in obedience to the will of the Father, to die on the cross for sinners, so that they might be forgiven and have eternal life:

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8).

The Old Testament sacrificial system taught the Israelites that life could be sustained by a blood sacrifice. Thus the sacrificial system put off the death penalty for sin. And the Lord Jesus, as the Lamb of God (John 1:29) was to be the sin-bearer, whose sacrificial death would bring life to all who were in Him.

Would Jesus save His own life, contrary to the will of His Father? Then He could not achieve eternal life for all men. Would Jesus act on His own behalf, distrusting and disobeying the Father? Then He would pursue the path of death, not life, for life requires obedience to God, even more than the feeding of the body. To have turned the stone into bread would have been to have turned from the path which led ultimately to the cross. Our Lord’s obedience to the Father and our salvation was on the line. Jesus’ rejection of Satan’s proposition meant that He was determined to accomplish the will of God, even unto death, which paradoxically, was the way to life, for Him and for all who are found in Him. The apostle Paul put it this way:

Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).

To have exercised His divine power to meet His human needs would have meant the loss of His power to save. But as a result of our Lord’s obedience to the Father, He emerged not only sinless, but mighty to save. Immediately following His triumph over Satan’s temptations we are told,

… and they all were continually amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority (Luke 4:32).

And amazement came upon them all, and they began discussing with one another, and saying, “What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out” (Luke 4:36).

The priority of the spiritual above the physical, of obedience to the Father’s will above mere existence shaped the teaching of our Lord. The result was that Jesus’ continually stressed the priority of man’s spiritual condition over his physical state. In Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that the hungry were blessed (6:21), while He pronounced woe upon those who were well-fed (6:23). The disciples were sent out without provisions (10:1ff.). The Lord’s Prayer included a petition for daily bread (11:3). Jesus taught that life was more than food (12:23).

Given the priority of the spiritual over the material, Jesus taught that men should “seek first the kingdom of God,” and that all of the other things—the necessities for physical life—would be added (12:31). Men should be laying up treasure in heaven, and not on earth (12:33).

In the final analysis, perhaps summing the whole matter up, Jesus taught that men must give up their lives in order to save them:

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25).

It is therefore much more important to fear the One who can destroy the soul (the spiritual dimension of man) than the body (the physical):

“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5).

Self-preservation is a basic human instinct, but also one that is often contrary to trust in God. Throughout the Bible men got themselves into trouble by trying to save themselves. Abraham, in an effort to save his life, put his wife in the position to have been sexually violated. Abraham’s life was in God’s hands, and he did not need to fear. Furthermore, Abraham’s future rested in the child which he and Sarah were to bear. His self-saving acts threatened his life and his future. The ultimate test of Abraham’s faith was his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, through whom Abraham’s future and his blessings would be brought to pass. When Abraham was willing to obey God, even when it appeared that doing so would be the end of his future, Abraham was proven to be a man of faith and obedience.

The Meaning of the First
Temptation for Luke’s Gentile Readers

For Luke’s Gentile readers, the first temptation of our Lord had great relevance. The mindset of the Gentiles was that physical appetites were to be met if one had the power to do so. Thus, they were inclined toward indulgence, both in food and in sexual matters. Paul found it necessary to underscore the same priority of the spiritual over the physical as our Lord had taught. Paul wrote,

Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body (1 Cor. 6:13).

Thus, what one did with his body was a great spiritual significance. The spiritual ramifications of one’s bodily actions thus governed the satisfaction of one’s physical appetites.

The Meaning of
the First Temptation for Us

How significant that He who would not make bread to save His own life presented Himself to Israel as “the bread of life” (John 6:35). By believing in Him anyone may pass from death to life, they may find life in its fullest sense, not mere existence. Thus Jesus alone could claim to be the only way, the only truth, the only life (John 14:6). Satan has nothing to offer but crumbs, and even these are not his to give. Jesus Christ offers Himself to all who will believe in His, He offers Himself as the source of life eternal. If you have never trusted in Him, I urge you to experience the bread of life.

The first temptation of our Lord should instruct us that man has ultimately only one need—God. To know Him and to have fellowship is to possess life in its fullest, even if the path of following him leads to physical death. Satan is always attempting to create the false perception of other, more pressing, needs. Adam and Eve had everything one could ask for, and were kept from but one thing. Satan set about to convince Eve that this one forbidden fruit was her one greatest need, a need so great that she could disobey God to attain it.

How foolish, and yet this same deception is going on all about us, and even within us. I have recently read an excellent book by Tony Walter entitled, Need, The New Religion.66 Walter’s thesis is that our culture has subtly re-defined “wants” as “needs,” and as such justified our whole-hearted pursuit of these things. I believe that Walter is correct. Satan has, once again, succeeded in focusing our attention on what we do not have, rather than on the sufficiency of God and the bounty of our relationship with Him.

Think about it for a moment. What characterizes your prayers, petition for what you do not have, or praise for what God is, for your blessings in Him. Don’t answer. I know all to well from my own experience. But God is enough. He is sufficient. To be found in Him is all we should want, or need. Even physical life should be gratefully set aside for the intimacy of knowing and obeying God. That is why Paul found it difficult to determine how he felt about the outcome of his trial (Phil. 1:19-26). If Christ is our life, our sufficiency, our all, then surely He should be our preoccupation, our highest priority. The materialism which dominates our society, even the church (e.g. the prosperity gospel) informs us that we have been led astray by Satan. Let our Lord’s priorities become our own.

Not only does our text lead us to the conclusion that death is not the end of life, it informs us that death is the way to life. The death of Christ became the way in which men could have eternal life. His death meant that He suffered and paid the penalty for our sins. By believing in Christ we become identified with His death, burial, and resurrection, which is symbolized by baptism (cf. Rom. 6:1ff.). But not only is death the way to life (dying in Christ to sin), it is, for the Christian, the way of life. We are taught that we must daily “take up our cross,” we must die to self-will and self-interest. The way of life is death to self. It is the way of the cross.

In the final analysis, the ultimate issue is our definition of “life.” For Satan, “life” was but mere physical existence. In order to maintain this kind of “life” it was necessary, according to Satan’s value system, to disobey the will of the Father, to act independently and in rebellion against God. Christ’s definition of “life” was life in its fullness, life in fellowship, harmony, and union with God. In order to maintain this kind of “life” our Lord found it necessary to obey God, even it that meant experiencing death.

What does “life” mean to you? The beer commercials (not to mention others) portray a very superficial view of life. For the Christian, Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). More than this, for the Christian, life is Christ (Phil. 1:21). May you experience this kind of life, and never settle for anything less, which is all Satan has to offer. To follow him is to pursue the path of death.

59 “Nevertheless the temptations in the wilderness were special temptations. They were not merely intended to tempt Jesus as Man, but to attack Him as the Messiah. This is evident from the fact that the temptations came immediately after His baptism when He had finally taken upon Himself His vocation as Saviour, and when God, by means of the heavenly voice, had given His approval to His decision and conduct, and had also equipped Him for carrying out this vocation by the special impartation of the Holy Ghost in all His fullness.”

“These temptations were, therefore, not the ordinary temptations such as Adam, the head of the old fallen humanity, had also to endure, but the special temptations which Jesus as Head of the new humanity had to experience. ‘And it is not simply a question here, as in our conflicts, whether a given individual shall form part of the kingdom of God; it is the very existence of this kingdom that is at stake. Its future sovereign, sent to found it, struggles in close combat with the sovereign of the hostile realm’ (Godet, in loc.).” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), pp. 157-158.

60 Unger writes that both the Hebrew and the Greek terms rendered “tempt” are “… used in different senses; not always involving an evil purpose, as an inducement to sin.” Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), p.1082. He goes on to point out that God tested Abraham (Gen. 22:1) and Israel (Exod. 16:4), without inciting them to sin. Satan, of course tempts men in an effort to encourage them to sin (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:5). Men can also tempt God by demanding that He prove Himself real to them (Ed. 16:2, 7, 17; Num. 20;12; Ps. 78:18, 41).

61 “The baptism, the genealogy, and the temptation are linked formally by the repetition of the expression “Son of God” (3:22; 3:38; 4:3,9); the baptism, temptation, and concluding summary are formally connected by references to the Holy Spirit (3:22; 4:1; 4:14). If one reads the temptation story aright, therefore, it will be heard in the context of3:21—4:15.” Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), p. 44.

62 “Plummer rightly observes in this connection that ‘the fact that the solicitations came wholly from without, and were not born from within, does not prevent that which was offered to Him being regarded as desirable. The force of a temptation depends, not upon the sin involved in what is proposed, but upon the advantage connected with it. And a righteous man, whose will never falters for a moment, may feel the attractiveness of the advantage more keenly than the weak man who succumbs; for the latter probably gave way before he recognized the whole of the attractiveness; or his nature may be less capable of such recognition. In this way the sinlessness of Jesus augments His capacity for sympathy: for in every case He felt the full force of temptation’ (in loc.). And Westcott remarks at Hebrews ii. 18: ‘Sympathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend on the experience of sin, but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin, which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain.’”

“If we bear these considerations in mind we shall realize that the Saviour experienced the violence of the attacks of temptation as no other human being ever did, because all others are sinful and therefore not able to remain standing until the temptations have exhausted all their terrible violence in assailing them.” Geldenhuys, p. 157.

My difference with Plummer’s position, as espoused by Geldenhuys, is that there was no great (external) advantage in the offer of Satan, just as there was no inner urge. When you stop to think about it, when one sees sin for what it is, there is no great advantage to it, except for the inner promptings of the flesh to indulge self and to rebel against God. Adam and Eve were enticed to partake of the forbidden fruit because the consequences of disobedience were denied, the character and goodness of God was questioned, and the benefits of eating the forbidden fruit were overstated. In the final analysis, Adam and Eve believe Satan and not God. Our Lord, however, saw things as they really were, and thus Satan’s offers held no great attraction, so far as I can see.

63 “Luke 4:1-13 must be read against the background of Jesus as the culmination of all that God had been doing in the history of Israel and as the second Adam … The temptations of Jesus thereby become antitypical of the experience of Israel in the wilderness and of the original pair in the garden: whereas those who came before fell, Jesus, as the second Adam and the true culmination of Israel’s heritage, shows the way to victory, reversing Adam’s fall and Israel’s sin. Thanks to the power of God’s Spirit, he has become the first of a new humanity, the leader of the faithful among the people of God. Because he has won the victory and has poured out the Spirit (Acts 2:33), his followers have the possibility of similar victory in their spiritual warfare.” Talbert, p. 47.

64 While in Luke the challenge of Satan is to “tell this stone to become bread” (4:3), Matthew’s account reads, “command that these stones become bread” (4:3). The change from singular to plural is not troubling, nor is it difficult to explain. Each account summarizes in very few words a temptation which may have occurred over a period of time. Thus Satan likely repeated this challenge several times in several places. In one place there may have been one stone, which may have looked like a loaf of bread. In another place there may have been several small stones, which could have had the appearance of several small loaves or rolls. Thus, each account is both accurate and true, and yet both accounts depict the same temptation.

65 I think it would be a serious mistake to think that our Lord was referring to but one verse in Deuteronomy, as opposed to the lesson of the entire book as it bore on the wilderness experience of Israel, particularly chapters 1-8, which draw upon lessons which could be learned from the past.

66 Tony Walter, Need, the New Religion (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1985).

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10. The Temptation of Jesus Part II (Luke 4:5-8)


Forty days have passed, during which Satan has tried nearly every kind of temptation (cf. Luke 4:1, 13). The final three temptations, as recorded by both Matthew and Mark (in differing order), are Satan’s “best shot” in my estimation. The first temptation was based upon the fact that our Lord had fasted 40 days and nights and was hungry. Satan sought to induce our Lord to use His divine power to convert stone to bread. Our Lord’s response, based upon the lesson which Israel was taught in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:3), was that life consisted of more than physical existence and was therefore sustained by more than food. Ultimately, life is living in union and fellowship with God, as Adam and had done prior to the fall. Death is separation from God. Life, then was sustained by obedience to every word of God. For our Lord to have acted independently of God by turning stone to bread would have been to doubt the word of God (specifically the declaration, “Thou are My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased,” Luke 3:22), and thus to have forfeited life, not sustained it.

Satan is now about to employ the second temptation. What is it that he is trying to avoid, or to accomplish in this temptation? I like to think of Satan as being something like the head of the CIA, having a host of “undercover agents” (demons, fallen angels, like himself), who constantly gather intelligence to further the cause of wickedness and rebellion against God. While Satan and his host are not omniscient (all-knowing), they have attained a great deal of data over the centuries. What is it that Satan knows, which motivates his actions in this text? Let us begin our lesson by considering what Satan had to have known, and thus what he would have been trying to accomplish by this temptation.

From Genesis 3:15, Satan learned that a woman would have a child which would spell his destruction:

“And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

Satan knew from the beginning of history that a man would come to destroy him. The genealogy of Luke shows the link between Jesus Christ and Adam, both of whom were “sons of God” (Luke 3:22, 38). I believe that Satan had rightly concluded that Jesus had come to destroy him. The demons knew so as well. They cried out,

“What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” (Luke 4:34).

As time went on Satan learned that although he wished to rule over the earth, God promised that the Messiah would come, and that He would rule in righteousness, and that His reign would be forever:

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10).

Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated wickedness; Therefore god, Thy God, has anointed Thee With the oil of joy above Thy fellows (Ps. 45:6-7).

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this (Isa. 9:6-7).

“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever” (Dan. 2:44).

“I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and men of every language Might serve Him. And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14).

At the time of our Lord’s birth, the “kingship” of the Christ child was constantly stressed. The prophecies of Christ’s identity as Israel’s king could hardly have been missed by Satan’s intelligence-gathering force.

The prophecies which preceded our Lord’s birth identified Him as the King of Israel, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the coming King:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

In the magnificat of Mary, this was again evident:

“For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name.… He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble” (Luke 1:49, 52).

When the wise men arrived from the east, they asked,

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:2).

The answer of the scribes was a citation from the prophecy of Micah:


All of this indicates that Satan undoubtedly knew that Jesus was the “seed of the woman,” the “Son of God,” the King of Israel, the Messiah who had come to destroy him and to establish an everlasting righteous kingdom. Satan’s motivation is therefore not very difficult to determine: Stop our Lord at all costs! And if Jesus could not be defeated by Satan, perhaps an agreement could be negotiated, whereby an alliance could be established, and the “kingdom of Satan” could be shared.

Satan’s Power and Authority

What Does He possess?

I have previously suggested that Satan’s claims cannot be taken at face value, for Satan is a liar by nature (John 8:44). Thus, this statement of Satan must be carefully weighed:

“I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours” (Luke 4:6-7).

What does Satan possess? What can Satan give to another? Let us consider what the Bible tells us about Satan’s authority. Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of John are the most informative. Summed up, Satan is the “ruler of this world”:

“Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. And I , if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:31-32).

“I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me; but that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go from here” (John 14:30-31).

“… and concerning judgment, because the ruler of the world has been judged” (John 16:11).

The apostle Paul calls him the “god of this world”:

And if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:3-4).

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12).

What does it mean for Satan to be the “god of this world” or the “ruler of the world”? It does not mean all that Satan claims in his words to our Lord in the second temptation. The right to rule the earth was given to man, not Satan. Adam and Eve were commissioned to rule God’s creation (Gen. 1:26). According to the psalmist, the rule of all creation still belongs to man:

What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, And dost crown him with glory and majesty! Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands; Thou has put all things under his feet, All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field, The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes through the paths of the seas (Ps. 8:4-8).

Our Lord Jesus, as the “Son of Man” ultimately fulfills this task, but it is the task of man, not of Satan. Furthermore, the ultimate rule of the earth is God’s:

For the kingdom is the LORD’s, And He rules over the nations (Ps. 22:28).

The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; And His sovereignty rules over all (Ps. 103:19).

“Thou art the God, Thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth” (Isa. 37:16).

Daniel answered and said,

“Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:20-21a).

“This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: that you be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Dan. 4:24-25).

There is a time in the future, which is known as the period of the Great Tribulation, during which Satan will be given authority to rule, but this power is granted, within limits, and for a specified period of time:

And it was given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them; and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, every one whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain … And he exercises all authority of the first beast in his presence. And he makes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed … And there was given to him to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast might even speak and cause as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Rev. 13:7-8, 12, 15).

Satan is the “ruler of this world” in the sense that he dominates fallen men through the power of sin and death, and through the instrumentalities of “the world” and “the flesh,” as well as through his direct intervention (“the devil”). He is not in control over kings and kingdoms, although he certainly influences them. Our Lord is the One who is in sovereign control of history, and of the nations, and thus the prophecies of the word of God are sure. God cannot predict the future if He does not control it.

Satan’s claim is only partially true, at best, and thus his offer is exceedingly hollow. It is worth noting that throughout the Bible Satan is continually offering others things which are not his own. He offers Adam and Eve the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but it was not his to give. Our Lord, on the other hand, offers what He possesses, and the life which He offers is that which He has obtained at the cost of His own blood.

What Happened on that High Mountain?

Matthew’s account (and that of Luke in the King James Version, which I am inclined to accept as genuine) informs us that Satan led Jesus up a very high mountain. It was from this vantage point that he projected in some miraculous fashion “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time” (Luke 4:5). Some are inclined to understand this miracle as one which took place in the mind of our Lord.67 I am inclined to disagree for two reasons. First, I do not think that Satan had access into the mind of our Lord, or that he has direct access to implant such sequences into any mind. Second, I see no reason for him to have led our Lord to the top of a very high mountain to project a “mental movie.” This could just as well have been done from the place where the previous temptation was staged.

The expression, “in a moment of time,” is unique to Luke’s gospel, and I believe it serves as an important clue to what happened on that high mountain. Satan’s “moment in time movie” was a spectacular production that would have made Cecil B. DeMill (the producer of the movie, “The Ten Commandments”) weep. We may perhaps best relate to it by thinking in terms of that amazing production which was staged in the Los Angeles Coliseum at the concluding ceremonies of the Olympic games. It was a very dramatic, professionally produced presentation of the kingdoms of the world. The fact that it took place in but a brief moment added to its impact. Its brevity also enabled Satan to gloss over all of the gory aspects of the kingdoms of the world which would have made it possible for them to be scrutinized, and thus seen in their true light. These kingdoms were far from glorious and would have to be put down, set aside, destroyed, so that the kingdom of God could be established on the earth. Like a dishonest used car salesman, Satan made a hasty presentation, hoping that Jesus would not see the ugly flaws in his kingdom.

What was Satan Offering Our Lord?

Satan’s problem, as we have already noted, was that the coming of Christ and the establishment of His kingdom spelled the doom of Satan and the demise of his kingdom. Satan was desperately striving to save his own skin. Satan’s goal was thus to attempt to derail the establishment of the kingdom of God, the Messianic rule of Christ on the earth. Satan’s goal was to somehow persuade the Son of God to become his ally, rather than his arch-enemy, who would destroy him and his kingdom.

What “weakness” was Satan hoping to find in our Lord to which this particular offer might appeal? My premise is that Satan is projecting his own fallenness, his own weaknesses, on our Lord. He therefore expects that the same things which appeal to him will appeal to the Son of God. One of Satan’s primary ambitions is to “be in control.” The accounts of his fall in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 show that he was impressed with his position and power, but that he wanted more. Indeed, he was not content until he could be in full control. Since God was in control over him, he sought to elevate himself to the place where he possessed God’s power and control. I believe that Satan hoped to find that same compulsion to control, to be in charge, in our Lord, and thus he aspired to offer him a kingdom which was too tempting to refuse. Dominion and power and glory are those things which appeal to men who aspire to be in control. Satan was impressed by it, and so he hoped our Lord would be as well.

We know, especially from the second chapter of Philippians, that the things which Satan offered our Lord were the very things he left behind in heaven to come to earth to achieve redemption for mankind. These are also the very things which our Lord won by virtue of His obedience to the Father’s will, even unto death. In comparison with the dominion and power of the kingdom of God, Satan’s offer is indeed a paltry one.

Satan’s approach was to offer the Son of God the kingdoms of the earth, in place of the kingdom of God, which was not of this world (John 18:36). Satan seems to be acting on the premise that a king must have a kingdom to be a king. Satan’s kingdom (at least “his” from his own perspective) was already present, and, so far as his “presentation” had demonstrated, it was a splendid one, so why seek any other? Besides this, in order to attain the kingdom which the Old Testament promised, there would have to be a bloody battle. Why go to all that trouble when there was an easier way?

Satan owned the kingdoms of the world, and he could give them to whomever he wished, or so he claimed. Satan would gladly give them over to the Son of God for a very small concession on His part. All that He needed to do was to bow the knee to Satan in worship. It may have been a totally private act, carried out in a “moment of time.” What great benefit could come from such a small act.

Satan’s proposition offers what appears to be something of great value, for but a minimal cost. His merchandising methods make Madison Avenue look pale. Indeed, I think that Madison Avenue learned from Satan. His offer is like those we see on television all the time. You know, a beautiful diamel ring, which looks as though it is worth thousands of dollars they tell us. And while it could sell for thousands, a mere $19.95 will acquire it, for a limited time, of course, and until supplies run out. Along with the ring they will send us earrings, bracelets, pots and pans, knife sharpeners, and the kitchen sink. Such value, for so small a price. So Satan’s temptations have always appeared.

Our Lord’s Rejection of Satan’s Proposition

One of the amazing features of our Lord’s response to Satan is a remarkable brevity. Naturally, Luke has summarized each of the temptations. Nevertheless, it would seem that while Satan may have elaborated greatly and drawn out each solicitation to sin our Lord had little to say to Satan. The words of our Lord respond to Satan on only one point, and that point is the critical issue or principle involved. All other issues are not addressed. The reader should be able to discern these errors and Satan is not one to be corrected or converted, so that extensive correction would merely be a wasted effort. Satan, like the fool of Proverbs, does not rate a reasoned response, for he is set in his rebellion. Instead, Jesus gave but one reason for rejecting Satan’s offer: “YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND SERVE HIM ONLY” (Deut. 6:13; Luke 4:8).

Satan had asked for only one thing, but that one thing was the most crucial act of all. He asked to be worshipped. No doubt Satan attempted to make this act of worship seem trivial. Perhaps it would be done in private, and for just a moment in time. Our Lord understood the importance of worship, however. It was important because worship was to be directed toward God alone. To worship Satan would have been a direct violation of God’s Word.

More than this, worship was a symbolic act, an act which implied and required further action. Worship was something like the act of signing one’s name on a piece of paper. This does not seem very important, unless that piece of paper is a bill of sale, a contract, a blank check, or enlistment papers for the army. Signing up for the army is a very easy act to perform, but once you arrive at boot camp you begin to realize all the implications of what you have done.

So it was with worship. Worship is an act which acknowledged that the person or thing bowed down to is greater than the worshipper. That which is worshipped is of greater worth, and has greater power and authority than the worshipper. Thus, the one who worships another must also serve him. The words, “AND SERVE HIM ONLY,” are added by our Lord, and are not a part of the text of Deuteronomy 6:13. They surely are implied by the context of Deuteronomy, however. Our Lord’s words inform Satan that He knew that an act of worship would have constituted Him a servant of Satan. Thus, by getting Jesus to worship him Satan would have made Jesus a subordinate, and would have preserved his freedom and prolonged his kingdom. Jesus, knowing these things, refused Satan’s proposition and let him know that He understood the implications of what he had proposed.

Our Lord’s kingdom could only be established by the defeat of Satan and his forces, not by submission to him through an act of worship. The kingdoms of this world have to be set aside before God’s kingdom can be established. Our Lord’s kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36), and thus to accept the kingdoms of this world would have been to have rejected God’s kingdom. Jesus’ refusal to fall down before Satan was, among other things, a declaration of war. Satan was an arch enemy. It was only by means of the cross of Calvary that Satan would be defeated and the kingdom of God could be established.

That our Lord clearly understood the difference between His kingdom and that of Satan can be seen in the gospels. Almost immediately in Luke (4:33ff.) Jesus began to wage war on Satan and his demonic forces (cf. also Luke 11:14-26). In the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Luke 6; Matt. 5-7), Jesus spelled out the vast difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. Repeatedly, Jesus found it necessary to correct His disciples, whose thinking about our Lord’s kingdom more often were along the lines of the kingdoms of this world. As a result of His victory over Satan in this area, our Lord would only a little later say, “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father” (Matt. 11:27).

Satan is Indeed a Liar

In the book of Revelation we see that Satan will eventually get his wish, to reign upon the earth and to dominate the kingdoms of this world for a short period of time, a time which is known as the Great Tribulation (cf. Rev. 12ff.). It is through the beast and the false prophet (Rev. 13:1ff.) that Satan reigns and through whom he is worshipped. At long last his desires are realized. All through history, in my opinion, Satan is seeking those through whom he can reign, through whom he can be worshipped, and through whom he can set up his kingdom, when grated permission by God. The Great Tribulation will be Satan’s “reign for a day,” and when his character is fully revealed and he has served God’s purposes, he will be confined for a thousand years, and then finally cast into the lake of fire forever (Rev. 20). At this time the kingdom of God will be established on the earth, and our God Himself will reign (Rev. 21-22; cf. also 1 Cor. 15:24ff.).


Our text has a variety of applications to us. First and foremost, our Lord’s victory over this temptation again shows that He has the right to rule. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It was His willingness to relinquish the glories of heaven and to suffer at the hands of men which made our salvation possible.

Second, this text reminds us of a principle which was applicable to our Lord and also applies to saints today: IN GOD’S ORDER, THE CROSS IS THE PATH TO THE CROWN. Satan offered a “crown” without a cross. God’s way was to establish His throne, His kingdom by means of the cross of Calvary. The cross is the means to the crown. Suffering is the pathway to glory. The Old Testament saints learned this lesson (cf. Hebrews chapter 11, cf. esp. vv. 24-25, 32-40). And so it is for New Testament saints as well:

For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; If we endure, we shall also reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:11b, 12a).

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps (1 Pet. 2:21).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Third, we should learn from this text that unlike our Lord and like Satan, we have a desire to control which is so strong that we are willing to pay a high price to attain such control. While our Lord was willing to set aside His right to reign, so that He might pay the price for our sins, we are often willing to pay a high price to gain control or to keep control.

The issue of control, of having control and being in control is a very prominent one in the Scriptures. The scribes and Pharisees were jealous of our Lord for they recognized that they were losing control (cf. Matt. 7:29; 27:18). It was due to their fear of losing control that they constantly challenged Jesus as to His authority. The disciples, too, were overly concerned with being in control. They argued one with the other as to who was the greatest (Mark 9:33-34). They were concerned with who would to sit on the right and left hand of our Lord (Matt. 20:20-21). They wanted to use God’s power to destroy their enemies (Luke 9:51-56). They wanted to prohibit others from doing wonders in the name of Jesus (Mark 9:38). Jesus had to teach them that the greatest in the kingdom were to be servants of all, just as He was doing (Mark 10:42-45).

Throughout the New Testament we can see how the desire to exercise control can be used of Satan to promote sin. The Corinthians seemed to have a fixation on being in control, or of being in that group which had control, or of having a leader who was in control. Husbands are tempted to abuse their role as leaders by lording it over their wives, all in the name of biblical leadership (cf. Ephesians chapter 5). Elders can be tempted to lord it over the flock (cf. 1 Peter chapter 5). Individuals can seek to maintain control by standing up for their rights. Women can resist the order established by God in the home and in the church by seeking to gain control, to lead where they should not (cf. 1 Timothy 2; 1 Corinthians 11, 14). Let us beware of Satan’s attacks in the area of control.

Fourth, we should be instructed by our text concerning the character and tactics of Satan. Satan is a liar and a thief. He claims to own and he offers to give that which is not his. He glamorizes sin and he minimizes the high price which following him exacts.

Fifth, we should be reminded of the importance of worship. Worship is so important, Satan strove to attain it. Worship was so vital, it was the one point on which he responded to Satan. Whatever we worship we are obligated to serve. Worship establishes who is in control.

The worship of God is constantly under satanic attack. Satan seeks to pervert our worship in two ways. First, he seeks to re-direct our worship. He seeks to turn our worship from God to virtually anything else. Satan desires our worship, and is willing to be worshipped indirectly. When worship is directly to anyone or anything but God, it is ultimately the worship of Satan, in my opinion (cf. 1 Cor. 10:19-20).

If Satan cannot re-direct our worship, he will seek to reduce it to less than what it should be. Satan represented worship as a means to an end (“Worship me and all this will be yours.”) Our Lord saw worship as the end, the chief goal of man. Worship is our highest calling, our greatest privilege. Unfortunately, even when we are worshipping God, we often view worship as a means. We worship so that we will feel good, so that we will receive a blessing. We pray, not so much to praise God, but to petition Him for what we want. We read the Bible, not to adore Him, but to find promises which we might claim. Let us beware of worshipping God as a means, rather than as our highest goal.

67 Thus, A. T. Robertson writes that this miracle was “… mental, a great feat of the imagination (a mental satanic ‘movie’ performance), but this in no way discredits the idea of the actual visible appearance of Satan also.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), II, p. 50).

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11. The Temptation of Jesus Part III (Luke 4:9-13)


There are many things in this life that I consider tempting. One of the greatest temptations for me has to do with cars, horsepower, and speed. I have occasionally had a friend come by with a new car, hoping I would find out “how fast it would go.” For me, that is a real temptation. That is one of the primary reasons I have always driven older, slower cars (another is money). I am able to identify with the first two temptations of our Lord as well. The first temptation was in the area of food and hunger. Satan sought to tempt our Lord to satisfy His hunger by commanding a stone to become bread. This would have been no difficulty for our Lord, and it would have solved His problem of hunger.

The second temptation was in the area of power and control. If the first temptation had to do with physical “needs” which motivate men, the second had to do with the psychological “need” to exercise power and control over others. The prestige and power of “all the kingdoms of the world” were offered our Lord by Satan if He would but bow the knee in worship to him. Our Lord rejected this offer because man’s worship and service can only be directed toward God. Since the worship of Satan would have necessitated serving him, our Lord would have become his servant had He succumbed to this temptation.

Again I say that I can identify with the human (albeit fallen, oft times) desire for food and for power. The third temptation is one that has no immediate attraction at all. I have never felt the temptation to jump from a tall building. If I were standing on a very high place, my only temptation would be either to cling to some piece of the structure for fear of falling, or to crawl down as quickly as possible. How is it that Satan can suppose jumping from the pinnacle of the temple can be a tempting offer?

I would suggest to you that this offer could only have been tempting to the Son of God. If I were a bird, it would be a delight for me to leap from the high place, only to soar even higher when the winds provided lift for my wings. If I were but a man, there would only be the certainty of a very messy “splat” on the rocks below. But if one were indeed the Son of God, One with Whom the Father was well-pleased, One who had the assurance of His care and protection, then jumping might well be a tempting thought.

Have you ever watched a small child learn to trust its father? When my children were younger we would sometimes visit a swimming pool. With a little persuasion, I would entice one of the kids to jump into my arms in the pool. After a few experiences, no coaxing was needed. Indeed, the child would sometimes leap when I was not looking, bobbing to the surface (or perhaps being lifted to the surface) with the greatest of delight. It is not difficult to imagine that the Son of God could have felt the same way about jumping from the pinnacle of the temple.

Satan’s temptation of our Lord, then, is a back-handed admission on the part of the devil to the deity of Christ. Satan knew that proposing a leap from the heights of the pinnacle of the temple might only have an appeal to the Son of God. For anyone else, for any lesser being, it would only be a temptation to dramatically commit suicide. Thus Satan in this third and final temptation (as Luke records it) is tempting the Son of God as God. Only God, or at least someone very much assured of God’s protection, would contemplate a leap from the heights of the pinnacle of the temple.

As we come to this third temptation of our Lord, it is Satan’s final temptation, at least for the time being. We know from the final verse of this section, that other temptations would follow later:

And when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13).

The purpose of this lesson will be to explore the third temptation of our Lord by Satan. We will seek to understand what it was that Satan was seeking to accomplish and why. We will also make an effort to determine why leaping from the temple would have been sin, and its results, had our Lord done so. We shall also explore the reason why our Lord gave Satan for refusing. Finally, we will endeavor to explore the ways in which jumping from the pinnacle of the temple may be performed by people today.

The Setting of the Temptation

Each of the three temptations takes place in a different setting. The first temptation occurred in the wilderness, the second was proposed from the top of a very high mountain, and the third temptation will take place in the “holy city,” Jerusalem, and on very high point of the temple.

Our Lord had no doubt been in Jerusalem on a number of occasions. His parents, Luke has informed us, went up there every year (Luke 2:41). To this point in the life of our Lord Luke has only recorded the incident which took place in the temple at Jerusalem when our Lord was 12 years old (cf. Luke 3:41-51). Even at this early age our Lord recognized that the temple was “His Father’s house” (3:49).

Satan must have led our Lord to Jerusalem for a particular reason. I believe it is safe to assume that he led the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem and to the temple, thinking that this would make his final temptation more appealing. Jesus has just been acclaimed the Son of God, the “King of Israel,” by the Father, at the time of His baptism. Jerusalem is the place where the king would reign. It is also the capital of the kingdom. Just as the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem today brings many memories of Israel’s glorious past, and inspires hope for her future, so Jerusalem and the temple were emotion-stirring places. Strong emotions must have stirred in our Lord as He passed through the streets of the holy city, being led on His to the temple, the scene of His final temptation of this series.

Jerusalem meant a great deal to an Israelite. Some Israelites swore by Jerusalem (Matt. 5:35). Our Lord also had a great feeling for the city of Jerusalem. He once said,

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 13:34-35).

Later, our Lord would warn of the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20ff.; 23:27-31). The kingdom of God will come to the earth with the arrival from heaven of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12; chapter 21).

In addition, it was surely in Jerusalem that many devout (and many not-so-devout) saints lived who were waiting for the coming of Messiah and the commencement of His kingdom, people like Simeon and Anna, for example (cf. Luke 2:25ff.). These people would surely be the first to recognize the Messiah when He revealed Himself to men. If our Lord was to manifest Himself as Messiah, Jerusalem would be the place to do so, and the temple would be the one place in the city where He would most likely appear. The Old Testament prophets had spoken several times of His appearance in the temple:

“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:1; cf. Micah 1:2-3).

It was in Jerusalem and on a very high place of the temple68 that Satan’s final proposition was made.

“If You are the Son of God, cast Yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘HE WILL GIVE HIS ANGELS CHARGE CONCERNING YOU TO GUARD YOU,’ and, ‘ON THEIR HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, LEST YOU STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.’” (Luke 4:9).

The challenge is clear. Satan dares, as it were, our Lord to jump from the pinnacle of the temple. Since our Lord has in the previous two temptations cited Scripture as the reason for His refusal of Satan’s solicitations, Satan this time cites Scripture himself, supposing that this will greatly enhance his position.

Satan’s Use of Psalm 91

Satan’s biblical citation comes from the text of Psalm 91. The psalm speaks of the safety and security of the one who takes refuge in God. We are told that the Jews of that day understood this psalm to be messianic in that the protection spoken of was specially that which Messiah would experience.

It is my opinion that Satan is a very poor student of Scripture. While Satan may have great intelligence, we know that the Scriptures cannot be understood apart from the divine illumination of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6-16). If the “natural man” cannot comprehend the things of God, how is it that we think Satan has such a thorough grasp of the word of God? I do not think that Satan is a very good student of Scripture, although I do believe that he “searches the Scriptures” in an effort to determine what God is doing.

I believe that Satan thought that the Psalm 91 was a messianic psalm, and thus that it could be cited as convincing proof of God’s protection and care of His Son, Israel’s Messiah. I further believe that Satan’s interpretation of this psalm was borrowed from the Jewish scholars, who held the view that the psalm was messianic. I also believe that Satan learned from the Jews their tradition that Messiah would manifest Himself to Israel by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple.

It is my conviction that Satan not only misapplied the passage he cited from psalm 91, but that he misinterpreted it as well. Satan may very well twist the truth, but in this instance, I do not believe that he knew the trust. Satan sought to buttress his final temptation with a passage of Scripture which he had misinterpreted and which he thus misapplied. It is not that he knew the true meaning of the text and twisted it as much as that he did not know the meaning of the text and thus misapplied it.

What, then, was the true meaning of Psalm 91? I believe that this psalm speaks of the safety of every saint who takes refuge in God, who looks to God for protection. More specifically, the safety which is spoken of here is the divinely provided protection from God’s wrath. The plagues and dangers here are not, in my opinion, the adversities and dangers of life, but the perils of the wicked in the outpouring of divine wrath. As the psalmist puts it, “You will only look on with your eyes, And see the recompense of the wicked” (Ps. 91:8).

The Psalm is not a promise of protection for Israel’s Messiah. Indeed, it is the opposite! It is the promise of protection from God’s wrath for all who take refuge in God. It is the salvation from judgment which the believer is assured of. From the “suffering Servant” passages in the Old Testament (e.g. Isa. 53) and the message of the New Testament, we know that it was the suffering of Messiah which provided the protection from the saint. It was because Christ bore the wrath of God on the cross of Calvary that men need not experience that wrath themselves. Thus the message of Psalm 91 is not a promise of protection for Messiah, but an implied reference to Messiah’s suffering the wrath of God on the sinner. If the psalm refers to God’s care for Messiah, it is with veiled reference to the resurrection of Messiah after He has died for the sins of men (cf. vv. 14-16). This was therefore a terrible proof text for Satan’s temptation.

Neither the Jews nor Satan had grasped the meaning of Psalm 91, and thus they failed to understand its application to Messiah. Our Lord understood it fully, and thus was not impressed by Satan’s offer. Just what was Satan offering our Lord? What did he hope to accomplish by enticing our Lord to jump from the pinnacle of the temple? This is what we shall now seek to discover.

The Nature of this Temptation

We can all agree on one thing: Satan was seeking to persuade the Lord Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple. But why? The answer to this question is not as obvious. I believe that there are several possible reasons, one or more of which may have been Satan’s purpose in this temptation:

(1) Satan was seeking to disqualify our Lord as Messiah. Had our Lord “put God to the test,” He would have sinned, thereby disqualifying Him to serve as Messiah.

(2) Satan was seeking to get our Lord to doubt the goodness and power of God, and thus to “Divide and Conquer.” The only reason for putting God to the test is doubt and unbelief. For Jesus to have jumped would have meant that He doubted God and thus found it necessary to test God’s love and care. Our Lord’s responses to the first two temptations indicated a firm faith in God, a faith which was willing to passively wait for God to bring about His will, rather than to independently bring it about by His own actions. Satan sought to turn passive faith into presumptive faith, a faith which forced God to act.

(3) Satan may have sought to bring about a premature introduction of Jesus as Messiah, ushering in the kingdom before He could destroy the evil one. Satan may well have learned that the Jews expected Messiah to manifest Himself by leaping from the temple. To persuade Him to prematurely manifest Himself, with divine power and deliverance, might have convinced the people of Jerusalem that He was Messiah, immediately ushering in the kingdom, and hopefully (from Satan’s point of view) eliminating the need to crush the head of Satan.

(4) Satan was seeking to kill the Messiah. In Genesis chapter 3, God had told Satan that the Messiah (the seed of the woman) would crush his head (3:15). He, on the other hand, would “bruise the heel” of the seed. From this point on, I believe that Satan sought to prevent the seed from being born, or to kill the seed once he was born. This helps to explain Satan’s opposition against Israel (through whom the seed would come) in the Old Testament period. Once the birth of Messiah has taken place, Satan is apparently behind the attempt of Herod to kill the child (cf. Matt. 2). In the end, it was Satan’s entering into Judas which brought about the scheme which resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus. Satan did not realize that “killing Messiah” was the divinely intended means of His bearing the sins of the world on the cross. My point here, however, is that Satan saw the killing of Messiah as the solution to the threat of Messiah and his kingdom.

Just how would Satan envision killing our Lord by persuading Him to leap from the pinnacle of the temple? I can think of several ways. First, acting presumptuously would be sin, and sin (as he knew well) brought death. Second, if our Lord were to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, he might not be saved, and thus would die. Finally, Satan’s angels might be employed to bring about the Messiah’s death. Satan has cited a passage which, according to his interpretation, views the angels as God’s instruments for protecting and rescuing Messiah. It is also the “fallen angels” who make up the lion’s share of Satan’s forces which oppose God. Thus it would seem to be Satan’s fallen angel forces which interfered with the heavenly messenger in Daniel chapter 10. Could it be that Satan hoped to convince Jesus to jump, and then to thwart an angelic deliverance by calling in his own angelic forces? Such a plot is not too devious for one so evil and cunning as Satan.

In one or more of these ways, I believe that Satan sought either to disqualify or to disarm Messiah, so that He would not be able to fulfill His mission, which was to destroy the evil one and to establish His kingdom on the earth.

Our Lord’s
Response to Satan’s Offer

Once again, our Lord did not respond by correcting every error in Satan’s theology and methodology.69 He struck at the jugular vein of the matter, giving but one biblical response, one which terminated not only this temptation, but the entire session, which had lasted forty days. Our Lord’s response was a biblical one: “‘YOU SHALL NOT FORCE A TEST ON THE LORD YOUR GOD’” (Luke 4:12).

When Israel Tested God

The words which are Lord cited to Satan are found in Deuteronomy chapter 16, with a further descriptive statement: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah (Deut. 6:16).

If we want to understand what it means to “put God to the test” we must learn how Israel put God to the test there. The account of this is found in the 17th chapter of the book of Exodus:

Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD? But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us, or not?” (Exod. 17:1-7).

From this text we can identify certain actions which is called “putting God to the test.” Let us consider what some of the characteristics of testing God are, from this incident at Massah. Then let us seek to determine how the third temptation of our Lord was similar, and thus a testing of God.

Characteristics of Testing God

(1) The Israelites put God to the test because they felt God was failing to meet their needs and to fulfill His promise. The land to which God promised to bring His people was described as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8, 17; 13:5). It was one thing not to have these things in abundance; it was quite another to lack water, a basic necessity for life. The Israelites had come to Rephidim and there was no water there. It would seem that Adam and Eve also disobeyed God by eating from the forbidden tree because they felt that the knowledge of good and evil was an unmet need, worthy of disobedience.

To put the matter a little differently, the Israelites put God to the test when they realized that God’s purposes and leading brought them into adversity, rather than ease and comfort. In the Israelites’ protest against Moses and God, they spoke of the “good old days” in Egypt and contrasted them with their present circumstances (Exod. 17:3). Life was better then, they protested. It was so good, in fact, that they threatened to go back.

(2) The Israelites put God to the test because they doubted God’s good will and good purposes for their lives. The Israelites accused God of leading them into the wilderness to put them to kill them and their children and their cattle (Exod. 17:3).

(3) The Israelites put God to the test by resisting God’s leadership. The people grumbled against Moses and argued with him, but ultimately they were resisting God.

(4) The Israelites put God to the test by insisting that God perform according to their expectations and demands. The Israelites put God to the test by determining His presence by His presents. The word of God was not sufficient, nor was God’s marvelous works for them in the past. They wanted God to act now, to give them what they wanted, when they wanted it, or they would refuse to acknowledge His presence among them. God’s presence among His people could only be proven by His on-going performance of miracles, so that none of their needs were unmet.

(5) The Israelites put God to the test by reversing the Father-Son relationship. Our Lord Jesus has just been designated as God’s “Son” at His baptism (Luke 3:22). As God’s Son, the Lord Jesus needed to be tested and proven, before He could be given all of the privileges of His sonship:

So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, “THOU ART MY SON TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE”; just as He says also in another passage, “THOU ART A PRIEST FOREVER ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.” In the days of His flesh, when He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and who was heard because of His piety, although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation; being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:5-10).

There is a very clear principle underlying this passage, one which is clearly applied to all saints later in the book of Hebrews. Speaking to those who are chafing under minimal suffering, the writer says,

You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons (Heb. 12:4-8).

Israel was also, in a collective sense, God’s son:

“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My first-born. So I said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your first-born”’“ (Exod. 4:22-23).

Later on, through the prophet Hosea, God said of Israel: “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son” (Hos. 11:1).

I believe it is a principle that the son must first be tested and proven, and then exalted to a position of prominence and power, by God Himself, in His own time. This was to be true of Israel, so that the adversities Israel experienced in the wilderness were God’s test, to see if the nation was fit to reign as God’s “son”:

“And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son” (Deut. 8:2-5).

Israel failed the test of “sonship” and our Lord Himself has been designated as God’s “Son,” who will establish the kingdom of God and rule over the earth. Satan’s temptation, while couched in terms that appear to be a challenge to prove His sonship, is really a solicitation to renounce it. As the “Son of God,” our Lord was to endure physical want, waiting for God to satisfy His needs. Satan challenged the Lord Jesus to meet the need Himself, by commanding a stone to become bread. The “son of God” was to be the instrument through which the whole world would worship God, yet Satan sought to entice our Lord to worship him, in order to possess a kingdom which was in rebellion against God. Finally, in this third test, the “Son of God” was to wait for the day when God Himself enthroned Him as the king. Satan sought to persuade the Savior to leap from the pinnacle of the temple, thus instituting a kingdom independently of the Father.

Sonship really was the issue of this temptation. Israel had failed to grasp what sonship entailed, or rebelled when they became aware of its price. Our Lord understood fully what sonship was all about, and thus each of His responses to Satan came from the one place in the Old Testament which most emphatically taught the meaning and implications of sonship.

What Satan is seeking to accomplish in the third temptation is even more bold, more evil, than that which happened at Massah. At Massah, Israel suffered from a genuine need of water. The need was not of their own making, but divinely brought about. They tested God by demanding that God meet the need in order to prove Himself worthy of their obedience and worship. In the temptation at the pinnacle of the temple, Satan is proposing that our Lord presumptuously create a need which forces God to intervene, based upon a text which was believed to teach that God would not allow any evil to happen to His Messiah.

There are times when one may be in danger due to the leading of God or to one’s obedience to the will of God. For example, Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, were in grave danger (death in the fiery furnace) because they refused to bow in worship of the golden image. Even though the danger was, as it were, beyond their control, they refused to place God in a position where He had to act a certain way:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan. 3:16-18).


As we attempt to explore the relevance and application of our text to our own lives, let us remember that Christians are also, in a sense somewhat distinct from that of our Lord, “sons of God,” who are to reign with Christ (cf. Hos. 1:10; Rom. 8:19; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 1:6; 20:6). As “sons of God,” we are subject to testing and discipline (Heb. 12). We are also susceptible to the same temptations to which Adam and Eve and Israel (and virtually all mankind) have failed. Thus, the test of our Lord’s sonship is very relevant to “sons of God.”

The specific test of our Lord’s sonship was that of “putting God to the test.” Why is it wrong to test God? Let me suggest several reasons why putting God to the test is sin.

(1) It is a sin against our sonship and God’s sovereignty. The father-son relationship is one with a clearly defined chain of command. The father is in authority over the son. The son is to trust and obey the father. The son is to wait until that time when the father installs him as the king.

For a “son of God” to put God, the Father, to the test is to reverse the authority structure which God has established. It is to forget that it is God who is to test us, not we who are to test God. It is we who need proving, not God. It is we who should serve God, not God who is our servant, in the sense of viewing Him as standing by, every ready to do our bidding. It is He who directs us, not we who are to direct Him. Is this not the essence of God’s rebuke of Job? All too often, Christians are representing God as the servant of man, who is so eager to have followers that He is ready to do our bidding. Wrong! Sonship means that we are to obey, we are to serve, we are to suffer, if it pleases the Father.

Our Lord understood that the day of His enthronement was the prerogative of the Father (cf. Heb. 5:5). Thus, when pressed by His disciples concerning just when that day would be, our Lord left this matter in the Father’s hands, not His own (Matt. 24:36). The disciples continued to press to learn the time, even after our Lord’s resurrection, but our Lord responded, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority, … ” (Acts 1:7).

(2) It is a sin against love. Perfect love is inconsistent with fear (1 John 4:18), which is often the occasion when men seek to put God to the test. Israel feared that they would die in the wilderness. Love does not know fear. In addition to this, love does not doubt, but believes. The apostle Paul put it this way, “Love … bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Putting God to the test is not bearing, not believing, not hoping, and not enduring.

(3) It is a sin against faith. Faith is simply believing God. It is taking God at His word, and not demanding continual signs and proofs. Job put it this way: “Thou He slay me I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15).

Faith is rooted and grounded in the promises of God. Many of the promises of the Bible are the assurance of future blessings or events. By their very nature, they are not present realities. It is the abuse of God’s promises which is often the source of putting Him to the test. God promised He would bring Israel into a land of milk and honey, and they began to demand that God bless them now. As Israel and Satan (wrongly) understood Psalm 91, God promised to protect His Messiah from all harm and injury, and so he urged our Lord to force God to fulfill that promise then and there. This is all contrary to faith. The writer to the Hebrews reminds his readers that all of the Old Testament saints died without receiving the promises of God:

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb. 11:39-40).

Faith is believing in the promises of God, and waiting for God to fulfill them in His own time. Faith is enduring suffering, persecution, and adversity in the present, while looking forward to the promises of God. Putting God to the test is demanding the God bless us now, and remove all suffering from us.

When we put God to the test we are doubting not only the promises of God, but His presence among us. Remember those words of the Israelites, which constituted putting God to the test: “Is the LORD among us, or not?” (Exod. 17:7).

Our Lord has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). He promised to be with us always, to the end of this age (Matt. 28:20). Putting God to the test betrays a wrong premise, that God’s presence is only evident in times of blessing and prosperity. This is a heresy of our own day, but it is not taught in the Bible. Many of the people of the Bible found God’s presence even more precious and real in times of distress:

Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Ps. 73:25-28).

It is my personal opinion that presumption, that is “putting God to the test,” is a perversion of faith. It is faith taken too far. There is a fine line of distinction between trusting God and testing God. Testing God may very well be founded on the premise (faith) that God is able to do what He has promised, but is sinful in resisting God’s time table for fulfilling His promise. Trusting God involves receiving what God has presently provided, but waiting for what is yet future. Testing God is trying to force God to provide now what He has promised for later.

Putting God to the test is sin. On this we can all hopefully agree in principle. What does this mean in practice? How do we put God to the test in our culture? Let me suggest several possibilities, which may open the door to seeing some of the ways in which you are in danger of sinning in this area.

(1) Christians can put God to the test by acting on future promises as though they were present promises. The so-called “name it and claim it” Christians are sometimes (some might say often) guilty of claiming future promises as present realities, and thus the failure to be rich or healthy cannot be explained by the sovereign choice of God, but by one’s lack of faith, by one’s failure to possess God’s blessings. In such cases people are accused of sin for not “putting God to the test.” Let us remember that where there is one form of evil, Satan also has its opposite. Putting God to the test can have a very pious appearance, when in reality it is man’s demand that God jump through his own hoops.

Putting God to the test is often the result of our own impatience, of wanting now what God will give us later. Such impatience demands that God “hurry up” what He is doing. This is nothing new:

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit, and wickedness as with cart ropes, to those who say, “Let God hurry,` let him hasten his work so that we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it” (Isa. 5:18-19).

(2) Wrongly responding to Adversity. It is often in times of adversity that our tendency to put God to the test becomes evident. We may very well place conditions on God, things which He must do for us in order for us to acknowledge that He is present with us, and for us to worship Him. Thus, if we are sick and God doesn’t heal us, we question His presence and His goodness. If God doesn’t make our marriage heaven on earth or cause our wayward child to act as we think he should, we begin to function as though God were not with us. In effect, we have put conditions on God, things which He must do, if we are to worship and serve Him. This is putting God to the test, in my opinion.

(3) We can put God to the test by living recklessly. There are some people who like to flirt with danger. Living on the ragged edge of survival, or death, or disaster is the thrill which keeps some of us going. Compulsive gamblers are often this way. Most Christians know better than to excuse gambling and so they do it in different ways, often sanctifying their recklessness by labeling it faith. “I couldn’t afford this car,” they tell us, “but I am trusting God to provide the payments.” Living by faith can lead us into danger, as Daniel and his three friends learned, but faith is always evidenced by obedience to God’s Word. Faith is not foolishness attributed to trusting God, it is trusting God and forsaking folly. Let us be on guard about seeking to do that which is foolish by calling our actions “a step of faith.” There are more than enough things to trust God to do, so that we do not need to lengthen the list of the impossible things we are looking to God to accomplish.

68 There is no certainty as to precisely what spot at the temple is referred to by the expression, “the pinnacle of the temple.” Obviously, it was a very high point, perhaps the highest point of the temple.

69 It occurs to me that much of our Lord’s actions and attitudes could either be explained or illustrated in terms of the cross. Were Satan to be informed that Jesus was destined (and determined) to die on the cross, to die in the sinner’s place, it would have explained why our Lord thought, acted, and taught as He did. But our Lord very carefully avoided mentioning the cross. The reason for this is simple. Satan thought that putting the Savior to death would terminate the kingdom of God and the rule of Messiah on the earth. The opposite was true, and it was Satan who was to play a crucial role in orchestrating the Lord’s crucifixion (cf. John 13:2, 27). If Satan realized that God’s plans and purposes for Messiah were to be realized through His death, he surely would not have attempted to kill Him. Thus, our Lord carefully avoided the subject of His death in dealing with Satan.

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12. The Temptation of Jesus Part IV (Luke 4:1-13)


I grew up in a part of the country where there were a good number of deer, which meant that there were also a good number of deer hunters during hunting season. Some of these were “city slickers,” who knew nothing of deer or of hunting. Those of us who lived in the country resented the city folks coming out and hunting deer on our land, deer that we had fattened on our apples and vegetables all year long. Some of these “hunters” were dangerous, hunting and shooting in ways that damaged property and even took human life.

Because of this tension between the city folks and us country folk, there were always stories circulating about hunters. One such story (which may even have been true) was about the city dude who stopped at a country store to inquire what a deer looked like. Here was a hunter who didn’t even know what he was supposed to shoot at. This kind of ignorance caused farmers a great deal of trouble. I read a newspaper article about a farmer who painted the letters “C O W” on his cow, for fear that it would be shot, as many cattle have been during deer season.

Not knowing what you are looking for is even more dangerous when it comes to temptation. My first thought was to view temptation as being a solicitation to do what we know to be evil. Adam and Eve were tempted to do something which God had clearly indicated was evil. The foolish young man in Proverbs (chapter 7), who was seduced by “madam folly” was also enticed to do evil.

When you stop to think about it, Satan hardly needs to work at this kind of temptation. Because man is now a fallen creature, in rebellion against God and under the control of Satan through the lusts of the flesh and the fear of death, man needs little inducement to sin. In Romans chapter 7 Paul tells us that the Law is used of sin to promote evil. When the law prohibits sin, our rebellious nature wants to do exactly what the law has forbidden. When the law commands certain things to be done, our flesh has the inclination to disobey.

Consequently, the greatest, most dangerous form of temptation is that which entices men to do what is ultimately devastating and destructive, as though it were the doing of what was right. That which Satan sought to tempt our Lord to do was not represented as evil, but as good. Satan’s messengers not only appear as the wretched instruments of evil that they are, but also as “angels of light” (cf. 2 Cor. 11:14-15), promoting evil in the name of good.

I found an excellent illustration of this kind of deception this past week. A letter came in the mail. On the outside of the envelope were the words, in red ink, “sexually explicit ad.” On first thought one might be inclined to think kindly of these advertisers. After all, they have been so honest as to “warn” the reader of material which is offensive and objectionable. But on second thought this “warning” can be viewed as the “teaser,” the advertizers “hook,” appealing to one’s curiosity (at best), to tempt him to see what is to explicit.

You and I will undoubtedly never be tempted by Satan as our Lord was. We will probably never rate a personal appearance of Satan or his personal attention to us. More often than not, the temptation which comes our way will not be immediately apparent as a solicitation to do evil. Very often temptation comes to us as a “golden opportunity,” or the “chance of a lifetime.” Temptation comes in various forms, some of which appear to be pious. Thus, we must be very careful to define temptation, to be able to identify it, and then to know how to deal with it.

I am saying at the outset of this message that we not only need to learn how to deal with temptation, we also need to learn how to recognize temptation. This is true for several reasons. The first is that the fall of man has clouded man’s ability to distinguish evil from good. If Satan had been truthful in his temptation of Adam and Eve, recognizing temptation would be no problem for man. After all, did he not assure them that partaking of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would make them wise, just like God (Gen. 3:5)? Sin and Satan do not make sin readily apparent as much as they dull man’s perception of sin (2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 2:11). It is our Lord Jesus Christ who, in His coming, has revealed sin (John 1).

The second reason why it is imperative for us to be able to recognize temptation is because most advertising is temptation. Hundreds of times a day we are bombarded with media solicitations to buy something. The methods used are almost identical with Satan’s techniques of temptation. Consequently we have become oblivious to the existence of “tempting” mechanisms and approaches. Indeed, we are almost inclined to expect to be tempted. We are conditioned to purchase that product whose manufacturers do the best job of tempting us to buy it. Consequently temptation is so common we do not even recognize it.

In this lesson we are going to attempt to draw together all of the particulars of the past three lessons and to come up with some overall conclusions and applications. First, we will seek to define temptation, and to identify some of its characteristics, so that we will be able to recognize it when it comes our way. Second, we will seek to clarify the ways in which our Lord’s temptation was like those of our own. Finally, we will identify some of the principles which governed our Lord’s response to Satan’s wiles, which are applicable to us as well.

What is Temptation?

When our Lord dealt with the solicitations of Satan He responded to them as the temptations they were. We will be greatly helped in our struggle with sin if we are able to recognize the temptations which come upon us as such. How can we recognize temptations? In the same way that our Lord did in our text. On what basis, then, did our Lord recognize each of these temptations as solicitations to sin? What are the earmarks of temptation? Our text suggests several characteristics of temptation.

(1) Our Lord identified Satan as the source of His temptations. We know that no temptation comes from God (James 1:13). We also know that Satan is a liar, a murderer, a deceiver, and a thief. Thus, whatever comes from Satan is going to be sinful in nature. Satan never prompts men to act righteously. He may prompt men to appear righteous, but He never promotes righteousness. Thus, we must always view the “offer” in terms of the offerer. Only good and perfect things come from God, the “Father of lights” (James 1:17). Only evil things come from Satan, the prince of darkness (Eph. 6:12; Col. 1:13).

As a further study, I recommend that you read through the book of Proverbs, where the wicked are portrayed as those who encourage their fellow-man to do evil (cf. for example, 1:10ff.). Satan, his demons, and those in this world under his control all are the sources of untold temptations.70 The wicked cannot be the source of good, and thus we must always consider the source of the offer.

(2) Temptation is proposing any act which is inconsistent with the plans and purposes of God for that person. It is not just the wicked who can tempt us, as our Lord’s words to Peter make very clear:

“Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt. 16:23).

Peter rebuked our Lord for speaking of His suffering and death in Jerusalem. In seeking to turn our Lord from His destiny, Peter was but a mouthpiece for Satan, and thus was addressed as such. Temptation is that which prompts us to do that which is against God’s word and His will. Temptation is thus a solicitation to sin in general, but it is also an enticement to sin in particular, that is it seeks to divert us from what God has for us to be and to do. All three of Satan’s temptations were diversions from Messiah’s calling and ministry. Our Lord recognized them as such, and thus refused them.

(3) Temptation may prompt an action which has the appearance of godliness and righteousness, and may even seem to have a biblical basis. Satan’s final temptation in Luke’s account was one that was “biblically based,” at least in Satan’s mind. Temptation may very well be couched in biblical terminology. Temptation proposes, as it were, a biblical “lion in the road” (to use the terminology of Proverbs), which seems to compel a certain action.

(4) Temptation appeals to man to satisfy a need or a desire, but in a way that is displeasing to God. When Satan tempts men (whether directly or indirectly) he appeals to a human need or desire, which provides an incentive to fulfill it. Satan appealed to our Lord’s hunger, hoping that He would satisfy it in a way that would be sinful. So, too, it would seem, in the second temptation, he appealed to our Lord’s “need” as Messiah to have a kingdom.

(5) Temptation is an appeal to act independently of God and to pursue self-interest above God’s will. Commanding stone to become bread

would have been an independent act on the part of our Lord, for the purpose of satisfying His own needs, but independently of God. Temptation may challenge us to act (make stone into bread) when we should wait (for God to provide), or to be passive (bow the knee to Satan) when we should act (to aggressively attack Satan and His kingdom).

(6) Temptation often seeks to motivate disobedience by creating a doubt about God’s goodness or power, thus prompting one to act in his own behalf. The goodness of God is questioned by the challenge of Satan that our Lord make stone into bread, or to leap from the pinnacle of the temple.

(7) Temptation is an enticement to pursue God’s will and calling, but by motives or means which are inconsistent with that calling. Ostensibly, Satan was encouraging our Lord to pursue His calling and destiny as the “Son of God.” In reality, Satan was challenging our Lord to establish His kingdom by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple, to force God’s hand and to modify God’s timing. Satan would have our Lord attain His kingdom by worshipping him, rather than by worshipping and obeying God.

(8) Temptation proposes a short-cut, an easier way to reach our goals. Satan’s temptations propose some way in which man can meet his needs or goals, but with a lower price tag, with less pain and self-sacrifice. Temptation always seems to offer a big prize for a small price, a kingdom for a mere bowing of the knee, but there is always a higher, hidden cost. Temptation offers future rewards now; it trades the future for the present, pleasure for pain, and the seen for the unseen.

(9) Temptation thrives on falsehood, deception, and evasion. Temptation and truth are seldom found together. Temptation is always very selective about the facts it reveals, and most often it lies about the facts. Temptation tells men what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. It therefore minimizes the consequences of an evil act and maximizes the benefits. It promises the knowledge of good and evil, and it denies the penalty of death.

(10) Temptation is very frequently a solicitation to act immediately, hastily, without prayer, counsel, or deliberation. Every act which Satan proposed our Lord perform was an immediate one. That is, every temptation which is described is a temptation to act “now.” Our Lord was to command the stone to become bread now. He was to bow down to Satan in worship, and thus receive his kingdom now. He was also urged jump from the pinnacle of the temple now. Ultimately, sin in unreasonable, and thus Satan gives one little time to ponder his actions.

(11) Temptation usually appeals to our lower motives and instincts. We should not need to be tempted to buy life insurance. A person should hardly require convincing concerning their responsibility to provide for their loved ones. It is the carnival, with its virtually useless “goods” and services which require the “hawkers” and barkers. Temptation appeals to my greed, but truth appeals to grace. Temptation appeals to lust, but truth appeals to love.

(12) Temptation usually appeals to the person who feels the need to prove himself. The commercials appeal to the young man who feels the necessity of proving his masculinity, or to the woman who feels it necessary to prove her femininity. All three of Satan’s temptations were based on a challenge that Jesus prove that He was the Son of God. Note Satan’s big “if.”

In the final analysis, we can sum up the earmarks of temptation from three perspectives. From a Godward perspective, temptation solicits doubt as to God’s goodness, love, and power, leading to unbelief, disobedience, and misplaced worship. From a man-ward perspective, temptation encourages man to seek his own interests, to act on his own behalf, and to be independent and self-reliant. From a satanic perspective, temptation seeks to divert men from serving God to serving Satan.

Christ’s Temptations and Us

Christ’s victory over the temptations of Satan had various implications and applications. For Christ, emerging sinless from the temptations proved Him to be qualified as God’s Son to rule over the earth. It further proved Him to be the Lamb of God, without spot, and thus qualified to die for the sins of men. In my opinion, the temptation of our Lord served to clarify and to intensify His sense of calling and direction. He came forth from His testings full of the Spirit and power, and immediately began to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. In addition, He began to attack the kingdom of Satan, casting out demons, and begin acknowledged as the Son of God by them. They even acknowledged that He had come to destroy them (cf. Luke 4:31-34). For Israel, it proved the Lord Jesus to be her Messiah. He identified with the nation by reliving, as it were, Israel’s experience in the wilderness, but without sin or rebellion, as was the case with Israel.

But beyond this, in the temptation Christ identified with mankind, with men in general. In particular, we can say that He identified with us. The question is, “To what extent did He identify with man?”

The writer to the Hebrews expounds the meaning of our Lord’s temptation and testing perhaps more than any other New Testament writer. These two texts focus on the identification of our Lord with man in His temptation and testing:

Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God , to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted (Heb. 2:14-18).

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, “THOU ART MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE”; just as He says also in another passage, “THOU ART A PRIEST FOREVER ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.”

In the days of His flesh, when He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and who was heard because of His piety, although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation; being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 4:14–5:10).

In the first text we are told that our Lord identified with man by taking on human flesh, by becoming a partaker of flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14). We are also told that “He had to be made like His brethren in all things(2:17). What constitutes the “all things” of which the writer speaks?

The expression “all things” cannot include the sin nature of man and his being born in sin, for our Lord was both “without sin” and “without a sin nature.” As James put the matter, God cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13). That is, when Satan “tempts” men, he finds within each and every man a natural inborn tendency to rebel against God. This is true both for the Christian (Romans 7) and the unbeliever (1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 8:5-8; Eph. 2:1-3).

The key to the issue here may be found in the term “made.” Our Lord, says the writer, was created like His brethren in all things. Sin and the sin nature was not a matter of creation, but a matter of transmission. Our Lord was like man in every regard, in those matters which are determined by creation. No wonder Luke goes to such great detail to describe the unique and miraculous birth (creation) of our Lord.

The difference between our Lord’s lack of a sin nature and man’s innate inclination toward sin can be illustrated in this way. An alcoholic has a known and recognized predisposition toward alcohol. The mere hint of this substance can produce incredible temptation. A non-alcoholic is not affected by this substance in the same way, and thus can be in close proximity to it without great agony or temptation. So it is with Satan’s solicitations to sin. All men are, like the alcoholic, inclined toward sin and thus tempted by it. Thus, we must pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” Our Lord, on the other hand, has no such attraction, and thus the Spirit of God could lead Him into temptation and He could emerge victorious.

It is precisely because our Lord was free from sin that He could die as the sin-bearer of the world. On the other hand, the writer to the Hebrews is intent upon stressing all the many ways in which our Lord did identify with mankind. In particular, I believe that our Lord identified with fallen man by taking on his weaknesses and limitations. That is, in our Lord’s temptation by Satan I believe that He chose to use none of His inherent powers of deity, but to emerge victorious from His temptation by utilizing the same resources which are available to every child of God. Just as we cannot withstand sin and Satan in our natural abilities, so in the setting aside of the use of His divine power, our Lord was required to utilize the same resources God has given us. The writer to the Hebrews emphasizes this temporary and voluntary “weakness” of our Lord when he says,

But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for every one (Heb. 2:9).

Christ identified with man, took on man’s weaknesses and temporarily set aside the use of His innate power. The power by which He overcame Satan and carried out His ministry was that which He had in submission to the will and word of God and in dependence on the Holy Spirit. Thus Christ, although He did not have a sin nature, did experience the struggle with sin that man has in his humanity. He did not defeat Satan and resist temptation with His (intrinsic) divine power, but He defeated Satan by those same means which are provided for us—the Spirit of God, the Word of God, and the worship of God.71


The first lesson which we can learn from our text is how to recognize temptation. Let me suggest some tests for temptation, based on the characteristics of temptation, pointed out earlier in this lesson:

(1) Who or what is the source of the offer? Can I trust the tempter? Is he or she a person of proven character? What do they have to gain?

(2) What are the long-term consequences of the proposed action? Do I get immediate pleasure or benefit, but at the cost of long-term benefits? Does the benefit endure, or does it quickly pass?

(3) To what motive or desire does the offer appeal?

(4) How does the proposed action square with God’s Word? Is there a biblical prohibition which forbids it? Is there a biblical imperative which commands it? Is it a matter of personal freedom or liberty?

(5) How does the proposal square with my goals and calling in life? With my priorities? With my values?

(6) How will the proposal impact my walk with God? Will it draw me closer to God? Will it cause me to be more dependent on Him? Will it enhance and enrich my worship? Will it strengthen my faith?

(7) What will it cost? What will the real, bottom-line cost be? What are the hidden costs? Who will pay the cost? Is the proposal one in which I gain at the expense of others, or one in which others gain at my expense (the biblical ideal)?

(8) Am I being hurried to act quickly, rather than to think the matter through carefully? Will the “deal” really not be available in the future? Why not?

(9) How much scrutiny and investigation is encouraged and/or allowed? Does the solicitor want me to check out the offer, or to act quickly?

(10) Am I considering this proposition because I feel that I need to prove something to someone?

In addition to these “temptation tests” our text provides us with a number of principles which relate to our daily lives:

Principle One:

It is not Sin to be Tempted. I know of many who agonize over temptation. Indeed, they should. You will remember that “righteous Lot” was vexed as he saw the sin around him. But while we should be vexed by temptation, we should not feel guilty about being tempted. If our Lord was tempted beyond that which any man has been tempted and was without sin, then we must conclude that being tempted is not a sin. What we do with that temptation can become a matter of sin.

Principle Two:

No Temptation is Beyond Our Ability to Resist. If you grant the premise that our Lord faced all of Satan’s temptations with the same divinely provided means which God has given every Christian and emerged triumphant, then we must conclude that there is no temptation which comes our way which is beyond of God-given capacity to resist. As Paul put the matter in his epistle to the Corinthians:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).

In the first chapter of his first epistle, the apostle Peter says virtually the same thing, only in greater detail. He reminds his readers that God has, by His divine power, “granted to us every thing pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3). God needs to provide no more. The Christian simply needs to appropriate more of what God has already provided. He has given us His Word and His Spirit. As we are guided and governed by these provisions, we will experience victory over sin and temptation. There will not be perfection in this life, but there can and should be growth.

Perhaps you have heard someone attempt to justify their sin by saying something like this: “But I’m only a man.”

In this sense, so was our Lord, so far as the means He employed to deal with Satan’s best shots. So, too, were all the saints of the ages, who did resist sin and temptation.

Principle Three:

No Temptation is Permanently Overcome, Never Again to Occur or to Appeal to Us. Our Lord emerged from these temptations victorious, but just because our Lord prevailed does not mean that Satan threw up his hands and quit. Our text ends with these words:

And when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13).

Some of the very same temptations can be found as the recorded life of our Lord continues in the gospels, sometimes on the lips of Jesus’ enemies, and sometimes even from the lips of His disciples (e.g. Matt. 16:23).

Principle Four:

No Temptation is Unique to Us, for Which There is not a Biblical Precedent or Principle. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we are told that there is no temptation which will come our way except those which are common to man. No temptation is unique. Every temptation which we will ever face has been faced before, many times. Even the temptations of our Lord were not unique. For each temptation, our Lord found a parallel in principle in Israel’s history, and thus He could refute Satan by citing a biblical principle from an Old Testament text.

All too often I hear people justifying their actions by attempting to justify their particular situation and temptation as unique. In effect they are saying, “No one has ever faced the situation I am in, and if they had, they would have sinned, too.”

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tested in every area, and our account in Luke supports this (cf. Luke 4:2, 13). Since our temptations are not unique, Our Lord has faced it before (with the power God provides all His children), and the saints have faced them before, victoriously.

Principle Five:

The Biblical Antithesis and Antidote to Temptation is Exhortation. As I have thought about the matter of temptation it occurred to me that we can better understand it in the light of its opposite. What is it that is the antithesis of temptation? I believe that it is exhortation—encouragement. If temptation is the solicitation to do that which is wrong, exhortation is the encouragement to do what is right. This is one benefit which we have which our Lord did not. Even His closest disciples failed to grasp what God had called our Lord to do—to die as a criminal on a Roman cross, to bear the sins of men. Thus, rather than encourage our Lord, they, resisted the reality of His life’s calling. So it was that Peter rebuked our Lord for talking about His coming death in Jerusalem in Matthew 16.

The Bible frequently exhorts the saints to encourage one another:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:23-25).

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another (Rom. 15:14).

Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing … And we urge your, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thes. 5:11, 14).

Encouragement entails the Christian coming alongside another, warning him or her of the consequences of pursuing a path of sin, and urging that they pursue the path of righteousness. This is one of God’s divinely provided resources against sin.

Principle Six:

Our Lord Dealt with Temptation Positively, Rather than Negatively. I am not talking about the kind of “positive thinking” which is so popular today. Rather, I am stressing that Satan always seems to be striving to cause the saint to think negatively, to think in terms of what he or she cannot do, rather than in terms of the freedom God has given. Thus, rather than to point out all of the trees which God had given Adam and Eve to eat of Satan drew their attention to the one tree from which they could not eat. Every offer of Satan that our Lord declined, He declined because He was pursuing a higher, positive good. He did not think in terms of His hunger, but in terms of the superiority of His life in obedience to the word of God. Just as an Olympic athlete gladly gives up some things to attain a “better reward,” so our Lord viewed those things which Satan offered and He declined.

There is a final lesson to be learned from our text which is not immediately apparent, but which is vital to an understanding of the nature of the kingdom of which our Lord was appointed as King. The nature of our Lord’s kingdom is something like the operating system of a computer. The computer is a wonderful piece of equipment, but it has no value unless there is an operating system which defines how the various components of the computer are to work. The operating system must always be operating, even though it is not apparent to the user. Whether you are doing word processing, using a data base or a spread sheet, the operating system is quietly doing its work. Interfere with that operating system and the program is crashed. In the temptation of our Lord Satan was seeking to “crash the system,” to “terminate the program” of the kingdom of God. He was seeking to do so by changing the very principles on which the kingdom of God was based.

Put simply, Satan’s “operating system” is one that is based upon raw power and authority, while that of our Lord is based on love. Throughout the temptation of our Lord, Satan challenged Jesus to prove His sonship and to establish His kingdom by using His power, by forcing things to comply with His needs and wishes. That, of course, is precisely the way Satan operates. I have never heard of anyone who has become a follower of Satan because of love, but only because of power. Either they fear Satan’s power and serve him to appease him, or they want to have use of his power to benefit themselves.

Our Lord’s kingdom was not going to be based upon raw power, but on love. Christ was not going to compel men to be a part of His kingdom by the use of His force, but attract them to Himself and His kingdom by love. The Sermon on the Mount was, as it were, the “constitution of the kingdom.” Instead of retaliating, one must turn the other cheek. Instead of a kingdom composed of the rich and powerful, it was a kingdom of the meek, of peacemakers. The reason was simple: men would not enter into the kingdom on the basis of their merits (strength, wealth, power), but on the basis of the shed blood of the Messiah.

Our Lord’s disciples were often guilty of thinking in terms of power, rather than love, just like others. When our Lord was resisted, they wanted to use God’s power to wipe out their “enemies” (Luke 9:51-56). When the disciples thought about the kingdom, one of their principle concerns was what position of power they would hold (Mark 9:33ff.). When Jesus spoke of His own suffering and death, they resisted the thought (Matt. 16:21ff.).

Love, on the one hand, relinquishes power, but on the other love is itself the great power. The use of force simply prompts the other party to resist with equal or greater force. Love disarms the other party, and makes it easier for this person to change and to enter into a relationship of love and genuine fellowship. The power of sheer force quickly vanishes in the absence of the power broker, but the power of love lingers on, long after death.

I do not mean to represent force and love as complete opposites, totally incompatible with each other. I do mean to say that power or force must always be governed by love. In the kingdom of God, the power of God is directed by God’s love. Love may require the use of power or force, but force is most often employed without love.

I believe that the relationship between power and love is one of the most difficult issues of the Christian’s experience. The Corinthian saints were awe-struck with power, but they were lacking in love. The Corinthians were mesmerized by “charismatic,” persuasive, powerful, people. They thus took pride in who their leaders were. They prided themselves in the possessing certain gifts, which they assumed were evidence of greater spiritual power. The 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians underscored the superiority of love.

The church at Ephesus, as described in the second chapter of the book of Revelation (vv. 1-7) was marked by its purity and its perseverance, but it was rebuked for its lack of love. The entire Old Testament Law was summarized by two commandments, both of which were to love. The goal of Paul’s instruction was love (1 Tim. 1:5). That which marks out the disciples of our Lord is their love for one another (John 13:35). It was God’s love for the world which brought Jesus Christ into the world, to be rejected of men, and to die that men might be saved (John 3:16). Love is the one thing which Satan can not grasp, and which he sought to turn our Lord from. The basis of the kingdom of Satan is raw power and fear; that of our Lord is love, which casts out fear.

This view of the relationship between love and power enhances my understanding of a couple of difficult texts in the Bible. In Ephesians we read,

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).

The explanations of this text are many. The question must be asked, “Why is it that fathers are viewed as being in danger of provoking their children to wrath, when mothers are not?” I think that the answer is that fathers tend to resort to power, to force, to authority, rather than to rely on love. “Don’t ask why, just do it!” “Because I told you so!” The easiest way of getting things done is to resort to raw power. But discipline and instruction is the product of love, not power (cf. Heb. 12). Notice that our Lord appealed to His disciples to obey Him out of love for Him (cf. John 15).

The same thing can be said with reference to this exhortation to husbands:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for not one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body (Eph. 5:28-30).

Why are wives not commanded to love their husbands, while husbands are commanded to love their wives? I think that the answer is that husbands have a higher authority, and thus are tempted to resort to their power, rather than to love as the guiding principle and moving force in their relationship with their wives. The biblical command for wives to submit in Ephesians 5 becomes a club in the hands of an unloving husband, who uses these texts to enhance his power and position, not to enhance his wife, as Christ has given Himself for His church.

It is my contention that Satan, somewhat like a computer “hacker,” was trying to “crash the program” which God had for His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Ultimately, he was trying to turn our Lord from the path of love (for God and man), submission (to the Father’s will) and service. It is my conviction that it is in these very areas that most Christians are tempted and fail. Let us seek to walk the path of love, by the power of God’s Spirit, to His glory.

70 I suggest these passages as a starting point for a study of the way (evil) people may be the source of temptation: Exodus. 32:1; 34:12-1; Numbers 25:1-13; Deuteronomy 13:1ff. and Matthew 7:13-23

71 The one thing our Lord did not have at His disposal here which we do have was the “fellowship of the saints.”

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13. On Prophets and Popularity (Luke 4:14-30)


We have probably all heard the story of the man who purchased a horse that formerly belonged to a preacher. In order to make the horse go, the command, “Praise the Lord,” had to be given. To stop the horse, “Hallelujah!” was the instruction. The purchaser did all right in getting the horse started. “Praise the Lord!” he shouted. The horse took off at a full gallop. The problem was that the horse was headed for a cliff. “Whoa!” the man shouted, but to no avail. Suddenly he realized he had forgotten the command to stop the horse. Just in the nick of time he remembered. “Hallelujah!” The horse came to a stop at the very edge of the cliff, so that its new owner could look into the chasm below. The man began to feel a bit religious himself, and so with great excitement and relief he shouted, “Praise the Lord!”

The point of this well-worn story for us is that saying the wrong thing can get a person into a lot of trouble. There are a number of very public personalities that can testify to the truth of this statement. I can immediately think of several political figures, not to mention some religious leaders who have found their statements to have gotten them into a lot of trouble.

In the case of the fictitious rider, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying what appeared to be the wrong thing nearly got both tossed headlong over the edge of a cliff. The one critical difference with the statements of our Lord is that they were purposeful. Jesus did not suffer from a “slip of the tongue,” but from a careful and deliberate statement, made to the people with whom He had lived and worshipped as He grew up. The tension of the text is this WHY DID JESUS DELIBERATELY SABOTAGE HIS POPULARITY AMONG THOSE WITH WHOM HE HAD LIVED? Our study will provide us with the answer to this question.

The Approach of This Lesson

In this lesson we will begin by looking into the background of the Lord’s appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth. We will briefly survey the public ministry of our Lord up to this point, a ministry which was nearly a year in duration. We will then consider the unique situation our Lord found at Nazareth. Next, we will consider the text which our Lord cited, and the response to our Lord’s words by the people who heard Him. This will lead us to an analysis of our Lord’s response to His popularity among the people. We will especially focus on the misconceptions of the people and our Lord’s clarifications and teaching in the light of these. Finally, we will seek to explore the implications of the principle which undergirds the entire event, the principle that a prophet is never popular at home with his own people.

The Structure of the Text

Our text can be broken down into the following divisions:

(1) Verses 14-15—Galilean ministry summarized—Jesus’ preaching & popularity

(2) Verses 16-21—Jesus in the synagogue—Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled

(3) Verse 22—The positive response of the people

(4) Verses 23-27—Jesus corrects misconceptions: prophets are never popular

(5) Verses 28-30—From praise to the precipice

Verses 14 and 15 summarize the ministry of our Lord in Galilee, which serves as a backdrop to His appearance at Nazareth. In verses 16-21 Luke has recorded the appearance of our Lord at the synagogue, His reading of a portion from the prophecy of Isaiah, and His astounding claim that this prophecy has been fulfilled in the hearing of His audience. The positive response of the people is described in verse 22, which is immediately challenged by our Lord in verses 23-27. The result is a near riot, where the people have every intention of killing our Lord by forcing Him over a precipice to His death.

The Preaching and Popularity of Jesus in Galilee
Luke 4:14-15

Our Lord did not appear at the synagogue in Nazareth immediately after His baptism and temptation, as one might suppose from reading only the gospel of Luke. Actually, nearly a year has passed since our Lord first was presented to Israel as the Messiah, introduced first by John the Baptist. Our Lord’s ministry in Galilee resulted in a growing popularity. The people of Nazareth had heard the reports of His preaching and power, and were eager to see what He could do in their midst (cf. Luke 4:23). Verses 14 and 15 of our text are a very concise summary of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and its impact. Actually, there is very little record of the ministry of our Lord that first year of His public ministry, and what we do know comes to us from John’s gospel. Below is a summary of our Lord’s ministry, up to the time of His first appearance at Nazareth.








John introduces Jesus
Points disciples to Jesus
Water turned to wine at Cana
Temple cleansed
Jesus & Nicodemus
Jesus in Judea, baptizing
Jesus & Samaritans




Jesus returns to Galilee
Nobleman’s son healed
Jesus rejected at Nazareth






This chart informs us that before our Lord appeared at the synagogue in Nazareth, He had ministered publicly for about a year. During this year of ministry He had been introduced as the Messiah by John (John 1:19-34), called some (if not all) of His disciples (John 1:35-51), cleansed the temple in Jerusalem (John 2:13-22), talked with Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish teacher (John 3:1-21), and proclaimed the gospel in Samaria (John 4:4-42). When He returned to Galilee (John 4:43-45), He healed the nobleman’s son from a distance, the nobleman approaching Him in Cana, while his son was ill in Capernaum (John 4:46-54).

As reported by Luke (4:14-15), our Lord’s ministry in Galilee had been in the power of the Spirit (4:14). My assumption is that a number of miracles were performed, but they are not mentioned, nor are they emphasized. What is emphasized is the preaching ministry of our Lord in Galilee, and His prominence and popularity which resulted. Reports of our Lord’s ministry thus reached the people of Nazareth before He did. When He finally arrived, the level of anticipation and excitement was high.

Our Lord’s Arrival
and Announcement at Nazareth

Our Lord’s arrival at Nazareth, as recorded here by Luke, was His first public appearance, but not His last. There are two passages in Matthew and Mark, which initially appear to be parallel accounts, but which I believe are reports of a later, although similar, incident:

Matthew 13:53-58 And it came about that when Jesus had finished these parables, He departed from there. And coming to His home town He began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they became astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? “And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his home town, and in his own household.” And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.

Mark 6:1-6 And He went out from there, and He came into His home town; and His disciples followed Him. And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his home town and among his own relatives and in his own household.” And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. And He was going around the villages teaching.

The similarities between Luke’s account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth in chapter 4 and those of Matthew and Mark are evident. Several significant differences overshadow the similarities, at least in my opinion.72 First, In Luke’s account, we are given the impression that virtually no miracles (save our Lord’s miraculous escape from the hostile crowd) took place, while the other texts indicate that a few miracles occurred. Second, in Luke’s account, the disciples are not mentioned, and appear not to be present with Him, while in the other (later) accounts, the disciples are present. Third, our Lord’s departure seems quite different in the accounts. Finally, the attitude of the people in Luke’s account is very positive and expectant, while in the other accounts, the people are skeptical and negative. Thus, while the expression, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” is similar, the meaning attached to it is different. The two different temple cleansings have similarities, but they are clearly two different events, one early in the ministry of our Lord (John 2:13-22), and the other just before His crucifixion (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46).

This distinction between Luke’s Nazareth visitation and that of Matthew and Mark is an important one. If we did not see such a distinction, we would have to interpret Luke’s account in the light of the others, but since we understand the events to be distinct we can interpret the same essential statements (“Is this not Joseph’s son,” Luke 4:22; Matthew 13:55-57; Mark 6:3) differently. In Luke, the people are still very positive and Jesus’ power is a wonder, which they are striving to grasp. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts, the power of our Lord is a mystery, which they are compelled to explain (demonic possession is one such explanation, cf. Mark 3:22), because they do not wish to receive Him as the Son of God.

Imagine what it must have felt like to for our Lord to return to Nazareth, the place where He grew up. As a child who was born into a very humble home, Jesus may very well have suffered the scorn or rejection of other children, especially those who came from more influential or well-to-do families. As a child who never sinned, He would very likely have been rejected by His peers as a “goody goody,” by whatever terminology was used in those days. It must have been a very strange feeling to walk those familiar streets into Nazareth, streets He had walked for years, streets in which He had played as a child. In one sense, Jesus was coming home.

Jesus’ arrival at the synagogue, seems to be His first public appearance as Messiah in Nazareth. Jesus frequently taught in the synagogues,73 and this is certainly not Jesus’ first visit to this synagogue, for it was in this town that He grew up.74 It was this synagogue that Jesus must have frequented in the years he and His parents lived in Nazareth. From what Luke has already told us about our Lord’s discussion with the teachers in Jerusalem at the early age of 12 (Luke 2:41-51), we must be willing to consider the likelihood that Jesus did the same kind of thing with the Jewish teachers in the synagogue at Nazareth. Thus, Jesus would have been a very familiar face in that place. The question, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” may very well reflect the growing sense of recognition of this One whom they had seen so much in the past.

Synagogues were not a biblical innovation, that is they were not required by the Old Testament, but were rather the product of the captivity of Israel. Nevertheless, there is a fair bit of background information available as to how the synagogue service was conducted. For example, Shepherd writes:

“In the worship of the synagogues, which since the restoration from Babylonian captivity had played so large a part in Jewish life, there were three persons who participated: the reader, the interpreter, and the expounder or preacher. On the sabbath and certain festive occasions there were several readers. Two lessons were read: one the parashah was from the Law and the other called the haphtorah from the prophets. Two prayers preceded the first reading. When the selection from the Law had been read, Jesus, invited by the chief of the ten leading elders, took His place to read the lesson from the prophets. The Chazzan, or school-master clerk of the synagogue, took from the ark of painted wood the roll of the prophet Isaiah, and handed it to Him. In the chief seats before Him were the ten leading elders, and behind them ranged the congregation, the men on one side and the women on the other of a lattice division in the middle of the synagogue.”75

The Lord stood, which seems to indicate His desire to read. The scroll containing the prophecy of Isaiah was handed to Him. Whether or not He requested this scroll is not stated. He turned to the text in Isaiah, where these words were written:


By and large, this citation is a quotation of Isaiah 61:1, although there is also a portion of Isaiah 58:6 as well.76 It is doubtful in my mind that our Lord read only these words. I would imagine that Luke cited only these words, and that more were included in the Scripture reading. These verses contain the “heart” of the text which was read. The essence of these words, along with the statement of our Lord, is that the Messiah has come.

In our Lord’s reading and interpretation of this text in Isaiah, the Lord Jesus is claiming, on Old Testament grounds, to be Israel’s Messiah. This is based upon several areas of fulfillment. First, Jesus’ life and ministry was marked by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke has emphasized the fact that our Lord was empowered and led of the Spirit, and our Lord does as well (cf. Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14). Second, the ministry of the Messiah, thus far was primarily that of proclamation, preaching. Note the emphasis in these verses on proclamation. Third, the ministry of Messiah which is described here is focused toward the poor, the distressed, the downtrodden. It is the needy who are in view here, those who are “sick” in Jesus’ words, not the “well” (cf. Mark 2:17). Finally, the ministry of the Messiah was not, as yet, that of bringing vengeance on the enemies of God. The citation from Isaiah stops just before this statement: “And a day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2b).

Jesus had not come to condemn, but to save. Our Lord understood that His role as Messiah was to come twice, the first time to reveal God to men, and to provide a way of salvation. The second coming was to bring God’s judgment to the earth and to destroy His enemies. Our Lord’s use of this text in Isaiah reflects this distinction between His first coming as Messiah, and His second.

The People’s Response

The words of our Lord which were spoken in the synagogue at Nazareth were warmly welcomed. Listen to Luke’s description of the people’s response:

And all were speaking well of Him,77 and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22).

Several things characterize this response. First, the people respond very positively to Jesus’ claim. There were no objections, no resistance, no apparent hesitancy. They spoke well of Jesus. Second, there was no clear grasp of what His words meant. I can almost see two members of the congregation which had gathered at the synagogue on that fateful day, whispering to each other. One might have said, “Wasn’t that a glorious message?” To which the other might have responded, “My, yes, but I wonder what He meant?” Luke informs us that the people wondered what Jesus meant by what He said. The words had a gracious tone, but their meaning was obscure. Third, the warm response to Jesus’ words was the result of a distorted concept of the Messiah and His ministry. I believe that the people had grandiose thoughts of what Jesus would do for them. In my opinion, they may have looked at the fact that Jesus was a home-town boy (“the son of Joseph”), and thus expected Him to do even greater things for them than He had done elsewhere. After all, wasn’t Jesus one of their own? Jesus came home, as it were, to a ticker tape parade, and was given the “key to the city.” Now, they expected great things of Him, and He knew it.

The Response
of Jesus to His Popularity

There is a proverb which very aptly indicates the significance of the praise of the people:

The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, And a man is tested by the praise accorded him (Prov. 27:21).

If our Lord was tested by the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, the praises of His home town peers was just as much a test of His character. Let us see how this works out to reveal the wisdom and perfection of our Lord.

It would seem that questions and discussion were normally in order after the Scriptures had been read and interpreted in the synagogue.78 Either Jesus had no questions, or He did not give His audience an opportunity to ask them. Instead, Jesus posed the question which they were all thinking. Jesus knew the hearts of men, and He thus knew what His audience was thinking. He cut through the formalities and the niceties and got to the heart of the issue. He understood that His words were misunderstood, and so He set out the raise the critical issue with the question He posed.

And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself; whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your home town as well.’” And He said to them, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his home town.” (Luke 4:23-24).

The proverb, “Physician, heal yourself,” is somewhat curious. Does it mean that the people expected Jesus success and status to be first evidenced by His own appearance, so that He was challenged to produce the trappings of success? A doctor would be expected to heal himself. A dentist would certainly have lovely teeth. One who was to bring blessings and prosperity to Israel would surely have all the earmarks of prosperity. This One who had come to them was none other than Jesus, the child who had grown up in their midst, the child of Joseph, a very humble man of meager means. If Jesus were the miracle worker that rumor indicated He was, surely He would quickly demonstrate His power, especially since He was one of their own.79 The fact that Jesus was the son of Joseph was not yet viewed as a liability, as a hindrance to accepting Him. Rather, it was a claim to greater privilege and blessing than the other cities of Galilee had received through His ministry.

From a strictly human point of view, what a temptation it would have been to prove Himself to His fellow-Nazarethites, to His peers, especially if Jesus had not been the most popular child in His younger years (which I expect was the case). While He could have proven Himself by working many spectacular miracles—something Jesus would not do for Satan or for the people of Nazareth—He could at least keep His current popularity aflame by simply saying and doing nothing. He could keep the people guessing; He could continue to ride the wave of His success via the reports of His ministry elsewhere.

The principle that a prophet is never honored in his own country, by his own people meant that Jesus, if He were a true prophet, would not be received with open arms, or with bowed knee, but with rejection, like all of the other prophets. The only way that Jesus could be warmly and positively received by His peers was if they did not understand what Jesus meant by what He said, that they did not understand His claim to be Messiah, nor what kind of Messiah He would be. Jesus would not receive misguided praise and therefore He set out to correct their misconceptions of His messianic identity and mission. His words, recorded by Luke in verses 23-27, were intended to spell out what His messianic ministry would mean. This was no revelation, in the sense of informing the people of Israel something entirely new and unknown, for that which Jesus was about to say was a prominent theme of the prophets, and was in the near context of the Isaiah text from which He read in the synagogue.80

Jesus pointed out that if His ministry were correctly understood, He would be rejected like all the other prophets of Israel’s history. Prophets were not received by Israel, but spurned, persecuted, and even killed, and this without exception (cf. 1 Ki. 19:10; Jer. 35:15; 44:4-5; Acts 7:52). Jesus not only cited the principle that Israel’s prophets were never honored by their own people, He illustrated the fact by showing that the prophets were often more kindly treated by Gentiles, and that the Gentiles received blessings at their hands. He cited the case of Elijah’s stay with the Gentile widow at Zerephath (1 Ki. 17:9) and of the healing of Namaam, the Syrian (an enemy of Israel, indeed, a military leader of the army which was successfully attacking Israel (2 Ki. 5:1-14).

In both cases, the prophet of Israel brought blessings to Gentiles which the Jews, their own people did not receive. In both cases, the prophets were sent to Israel to condemn their sin and to pronounce divine judgment, and were largely rejected by their own people.

In the context of this description of Jesus’ return to His home town, Jesus is saying is simply refusing to fulfill their expectations because they are ill founded, based upon a false grasp of the Scriptures and a misconception about Messiah and His ministry. Jesus tested their enthusiasm and incurred their wrath by simply reminding His audience that He, like other prophets of Israel, had come to bring blessing not exclusively to the Jews, their own people, but to the Gentiles.

We may thus see why our Lord found it necessary to offend His audience with the truth, so that their sin would be exposed, as well as the nature and need for His coming as the sin-bearer of the world. But why did Jesus choose this issue, the blessing of the Gentiles, to provoke His listeners to action? Why this issue, rather than some other?

I believe that there are at least three reasons for our Lord raising the issue of the blessing of the Gentiles.

First, the blessing of the Gentiles is a prominent prophetic promise. As early as the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis chapter 12, God promised to bless the nations through Abraham. Frequently in the prophets God reiterated this truth. While Israel sought to thwart this purpose by their disobedience (e.g. Jonah), God purposed to bring it to pass, even if through Israel’s disobedience (cf. Romans 9-11).

Second, this was a pivotal issue, a matter of Jewish pride and self-righteousness, which had to be dealt with and set aside in order for Jews to experience God’s salvation. As John the Baptist indicated in the wilderness (Matt. 3:9) Paul insists in Romans (9:6), being a physical descendent of Abraham does not make one a true Israelite. Just as the Nazarethites thought that being a son of Joseph and a resident of their town gave them some leverage with Jesus, so they, as Jews, felt that being such gave them a monopoly on God’s blessings. The people of Nazareth were willing to view themselves as the “poor,” the “captives,” and the “downtrodden,” as depicted in Isaiah, but they were not willing to view themselves as “poor like the Gentiles,” “captives like the Gentiles,” or “downtrodden, like the Gentiles.” This was taxing their racial and religious pride too heavily. In effect, the people of Nazareth were saying this: “If I must identify with the heathen Gentiles in order to be blessed by Messiah, I will have nothing to do with such a Messiah.”

This is a very sensitive point, but a very crucial one. The Law did not bring a Jew any closer to God. Indeed, the Law simply prescribed a higher standard, which no one, including the Jews, could keep (cf. Rom. 2:17–3:20; Acts 15:8-11). The Jews persistently tried to modify the gospel so that the Gentiles would have to enter into the kingdom of God through the “Jewish gate,” that is by becoming a Jewish proselyte, by being circumcised, and by keeping the Law. In effect, they were insisting that Gentiles try to keep the law, which they as Jews had failed to do. Salvation was made possible through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He is the only door, and through this door men must pass as sinners. The “works of the law” must be set aside as an unclean thing, as an offense to God, just as the heathen practices and beliefs of the Gentiles must be left behind. In order to enter into our Lord’s kingdom, the Jews had to become “like Gentiles,” lost and unclean. This was precisely the problem. They were proud and self-righteous. The extent of this pride is evidenced by the intensity of their reaction to Christ’s words.

Third, Luke’s gospel is written principally to and for Gentiles. The Gentile reader is going to read the gospel with this question in mind: “How can a Jewish Messiah, dying in fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures, obtain salvation for a Gentile?” The answer is simple: The rejection of the Messiah by the Jews made it possible for the Gentiles to be saved. This incident in the life of Christ evidences how strongly the Jews felt about keeping the Gentiles from receiving God’s blessings. In one sense, the Gentiles could rejoice at this sinful reaction of the Jews, for it opened to door to their salvation. Even the disobedience of Israel achieves the purposes of God!

A Strong Reaction
and a Miraculous Escape

The Nazarethites were furious. They, like the Jews later described by Luke in the book of Acts (13:46, 50; 22:21-22), violently reacted to Jesus’ words. Their aim was none less than murder. There was not even an attempt to “sanctify” their actions by trumping up false charges, as would happen at His trial and crucifixion. Anyone who would speak of the blessing of the Gentiles instead of the Jews was a traitor! He deserved to die! Now!

The crowd rushed Jesus from the synagogue and was pressing Him toward the precipice of a nearby cliff, causing Him to fall to His death. Jesus did not escape by fleeing, nor by “taking a back way out.” Instead, He walked through the midst of His opponents (4:30). Just as the waters of the Red Sea parted to allow Moses and God’s people to pass through, so the angry crowd parted to allow Jesus to pass through their midst, unharmed, untouched. This was the one and only miracle which they would witness. How tragic.


I believe that this incident in the life of our Lord has widespread implications for our own lives. Allow me to conclude by distilling several vital principles from our text and from the Word of God more generally.

Principle One:

God’s Prophets are Never Popular. Our Lord said this very clearly: “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his home town” (Luke 4:24). Later, Stephen would say to his Jewish brethren: “Which one of the prophets did your father not persecute?” (Acts 7:52).

The inference of Stephen’s words is that there was never a prophet in the history of Israel who was popular among his own people. One need only study the life of the prophet Jeremiah for an illustration of this principle.

The Lord Jesus refused the popularity of His peers because He knew full well that popularity could not be based upon a clear grasp of what His ministry and messiahship was all about. He also knew that popularity would not take Him to the cross of Calvary. Jesus refused popularity because, as the greatest prophet of all, men could not and would not take pleasure in Him.

Principle Two:

All Christians have all been given a Prophetic Task. It is not hard to conceive of our Lord as falling into the category of a prophet, but it may be a little more difficult to think of ourselves as prophets. Nevertheless, I believe that it is true to say that every Christian has a prophetic calling, a prophetic ministry, and a prophetic message. The church, as the body of Christ, is to continue to do and to teach that which our Lord began in His earthly ministry. The Great Commission, given to the church, is a prophetic commission. The message which we are to take to the world centers around the themes of sin, righteousness, and judgment, to which the Holy Spirit will bear witness (John 16:7-11).

As prophets, Christians can expect to be persecuted. Early in His earthly ministry our Lord addressed the issue of the suffering of the saints, linking their suffering with that of the prophets before them:

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).

Jesus frequently spoke to His disciples about the persecution they would experience as a result of being His followers (cf. John 15:17-20).

The apostle Paul also spoke of the suffering of the saints because of their prophetic calling:

And after they had preached to gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22).

The consistent teaching of the New Testament is that Christians will suffer for their faith (cf. 2 Tim. 3:8-13), and this is, I believe, because of the prophetic nature of Christian life and ministry. Just how Christian life and ministry is prophetic can be seen in the next principles.

Principle Three:

Prophets are not Popular because of Whom they Identify With. Prophets must identify with God, rather than with their sinful fellow men. John the Baptist (not unlike Elijah and Elisha) lived apart from his culture, even from his family. He was not unaware of what his culture was doing, but he was not a part of it. He stood apart from the world. So, too, the Christian is to stand apart, and thus will suffer persecution:

For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you (1 Peter 4:3-4).

And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them (Eph. 5:11).

Thus, by refusing to live according to our former lifestyle, the ways of the world, we condemn sin, convict sinners, and become very unpopular.

In our identification with Christ as our Savior, we are also required to identify with the needy, the poor, the oppressed, and the captives. The Nazarethites wanted Jesus to identify with them, but they refused to identify themselves with sinful Gentiles in their need for salvation and forgiveness. Yet the Old Testament prophets had consistently spoken of the Israelites in Gentile terminology (e.g. “not My people”), likening their sins to those of the heathen, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt, and so on. The Gospel forbids that we should shun anyone due to their race or to their social status, as Paul’s stinging rebuke of Peter (Gal. 2:11ff.) and James’ warning to the church (Jas. 2:1ff.) make very clear. Christ’s identification will fallen humanity (Phil. 2:3ff.) requires that the church also identify and associate with the humble (Rom. 12:16). This does not mean that we shun the rich, as the rich, but only that we do not favor the rich because they are rich.

Jesus associated with the poor, the sick, and “sinners” and thus almost immediately offended the self-righteous (Mark 2:15ff.). As we identify with Christ, we must also identify with those with whom He associated and identified, namely those who were in need and acknowledged it, and sought His grace. Those who would come to God for grace must stand in line with sinners, with the unclean, with the lepers, and with the harlots and tax gatherers. Those who refuse to identify with such will not want grace at all, nor will they want the source of grace, Jesus Christ.

Principle Four:

Prophets are not Popular because of their Message. I am reminded of the Old Testament prophet, Micaiah. When Jehoshaphat was deliberating as to whether or not he should go to war with Ahab, the king of Israel, the false prophets of Israel all gave the green light. Jehoshaphat was not convinced, however, and wanted to be sure that a true prophet had been consulted. He therefore asked, “Is there not yet a prophet of the LORD here that we may inquire of him?” (2 Chron. 18:6).

To this, Ahab responded, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me but always evil. He is Micaiah, son of Imla” (2 Chron. 18:7).

From the perspective of wicked Ahab, Micaiah never told him what he wanted to hear. From the perspective of God, Ahab never wanted to hear what God had to say. Ahab only wanted God to confirm and affirm His sinful actions. Prophets are not popular with disobedient people, for they do not want to do God’s will—it is an offense to the natural or sinful man, who is at odds with God.

So it is with the Christian. Our words of counsel and exhortation may be welcomed by a fellow-believer, who seeks to do the will of God. But our words of warning and admonition are going to be rejected by anyone who is intent upon doing evil. Prophets are not popular because they tell men what the need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.

Principle Five:

One of the Greatest Hindrances to our Prophetic Ministry is our Desire to be Popular with the World, and to have its Approval. If I were to be completely honest about my sinful failures to witness to my faith, I would have to confess that me fear of rejection, my fear of losing popularity with my peers, is my number one enemy. If we are more intent upon winning man’s approval than God’s, we either keep silent about the gospel, which will very often offend people (“You mean that if I don’t believe in Jesus Christ, God will send me to hell?”), or we modify the gospel to make it more appealing, and thus dulling its most cutting edge (sin, righteousness, judgment).

The life of our Lord is a constant testimony to His desire to please the Father, more than anyone else. Thus, His actions and His words are always governed by the will of the Father. Once we have settled the question as to whom we would serve, whom we would please, we have come to grips with the most fundamental issue of the task of the prophet. God put it this way to Jeremiah:

“Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’ Because everywhere I send you, you shall go, And all that I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, For I am with you to deliver you,” declares the LORD (Jer. 1:7b-8).

Practical Outworkings of these Principles

Before leaving our text, let me simply probe the principles we have discovered, so as to “prime the pump” of your thinking concerning their practical outworkings.

In the first place, our text should give us considerable insight as to how we can distinguish between true prophets and false prophets. As you read through the Bible you will discover that false prophets are more popular that true prophets. False prophets tell people what they want to hear; true prophets speak those unpleasant truths from God which men need to hear. False prophets appeal to the flesh, and not to the spirit. They justify sin, rather than to condemn it.

Second, we ought to be encouraged in the sharing of our faith, reminded of the fact that men do not naturally accept the things of God, but rather reject them. The gospel will only be effective in the salvation of men as the Spirit of God works a miracle in their hearts, convincing them of the truth of His word and giving them renewed hearts to respond positively to it. I have heard it said, “If only the gospel were conveyed clearly, no one would reject it.” Just the opposite is true. When the gospel is clearly conveyed, natural men will always reject it, unless stirred by the Spirit of God. Witnessing will not save men, but it will often make them mad. Only the working of the Spirit saves men.

Third, because prophets are not popular in their home town, they may be tempted to proclaim the gospel out of town. If the principle which our Lord laid down is true than it is easier to be a witness anywhere than it is to be a witness at home. Going to the “foreign mission field” could be a temptation for some to avoid the heat of staying home. Perhaps this is why our Lord commanded His disciples to begin witnessing first at home, and then to go beyond.

Fourth, our patriotic duty may conflict with our prophetic duty. In effect, the people of Nazareth appealed to Jesus’ sense of patriotism, narrowed from His country to His home town. Even the original term used for “home town” in Luke 4:23 is similar in tone and meaning to patriot. Our ultimate allegiance, like the Old Testament saints named in Hebrews 11, is to that heavenly land, that heavenly city. We are but strangers and pilgrims here. When we become too attached to our country, or our city, we may find our obligation to God being overshadowed. Jonah was a true patriot, but a miserable (albeit successful) prophet.

Fifth, our involvement in politics may conflict with our prophetic duties. In light of the principle which our Lord laid down, no prophet I know of would have been elected to public office (Daniel, David, and the other political officials in biblical times were not elected, you will recall). In our country, politicians must be popular to get votes and they must get votes to get elected to office. From afar, I have seen “prophets” (usually preachers) seriously modify their prophetic message when running for office, because being a successful politician requires being popular. I am not saying it is wrong to be in politics, mind you, only that it is dangerous (tempting) to be in politics.

72 I agree with the conclusion of Edersheim: “Many, even orthodox commentators, hold that this history is the same as that related in St. Matt. xiii. 54-58, and St. Mark vi. 1-6. But, for the reasons about to be stated, I have come, although somewhat hesitantly, to the conclusion, that the narrative of St. Luke and those of St. Matthew and St. Mark refer to different events. 1. The narrative in St. Luke (which we shall call A) refers to the commencement of Christ’s Ministry, while those of St. Matthew and St. Mark (which we shall call B) are placed at a later period. Nor does it seem likely, that our Lord would have entirely abandoned Nazareth after one rejection. 2. In narrative A, Christ is without disciples; in narrative B He is accompanied by the. 3. In narrative A no miracles are recorded—in fact, His words about Elijah and Elisha preclude any idea of them; while in narrative B there are few, though not many. 4. In narrative A He is thrust out of the city immediately after His sermon, while narrative B implies, that He continued for some time in Nazareth, only wondering at the unbelief.” Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, p. 457, fn. 1.

Plummer also comes to the same conclusion: “Comp. Mt. xiii. 53-58; Mk. vi. 1-6. It remains doubtful whether Lk. here refers to the same visit as that recorded by Mt. and Mk… Similarly, the non-Galilean ministry opens with a rejection (ix. 51-56).”Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 118.

73 “All the Gospels mention His teaching in synagogues, and give instances of His doing so during the early part of His ministry (Mt. iv. 23, ix. 35, xii. 9, xiii. 54; Mk. i. 21, 39, iii. I, vi. 2; Lk. iv. 44,vi. 6; Jn. vi. 59).” Ibid, p. 117.

74 Jesus’ family had apparently already moved, so that His rejection by the people of Nazareth would not have adversely affected them.

75 J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939), p. 119.

76 “Instead of reading twenty-one verses or even three, He read part of the first verse and a part of the second of chapter 61 and interpolated in the midst a phrase from verse 6 of chapter 58.” Shepherd, p. 119.

“But, on investigation, it appears that one clause is omitted from Is. lxi. 1, and that between the close of Is. lxi. 1 and the clause of verse 2, which is added, a clause is inserted from the LXX. of Is. lviii. 6.” Edersheim, I, p. 453.

77 “All spoke will of him is more literally ‘all witnessed to him.’ Rieu’s ‘they soon began to recognize his power’ is a paraphrase, but it tells us what happened… Notice that Luke speaks of astonishment, not admiration or appreciation. They wondered at His preaching, but they did not take it to heart.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 107.

78 “It was customary for the preacher to answer questions and exchange ideas with his auditors at the conclusion of his discourse. Jesus perceiving their unspiritual comments and hostile attitude, made application of His sermon citing two illustrations from the ministries of Elijah and Elisha.” Shepherd, p. 121.

79 “Now He knows that the hearers in Nazareth demanded that He shall first give evidence that He has improved His own position and circumstances—for is He not a simple former inhabitant of Nazareth who Himself has had to struggle against poverty and difficult conditions? And if it is indeed true that He has performed so many miracles in Capernaum, let Him first reveal His miracle-working power in His home-town of Nazareth. Why, then, does He not first see to it that indisputable proofs be here given of the genuineness of His claims?” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 168.

80 For the salvation and blessing of the Gentiles in Isaiah, cf. 49:6; 56:3, 6-8; 60:3, 4-6; 66:18. For the sin of Israel and her need for repentance, cf. 55:6-9; 57:14-15; 59:1ff. For an emphasis on the Messiah’s ministry to the afflicted and downtrodden, cf. 49:13; 51:4. These are only samplings, the “tip of the iceberg.”

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14. Deity Confronts the Demons (Luke 4:31-44)

And He came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And He was teaching them on Sabbath days; and they were continually amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority. And there was a man in the synagogue possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Ha! What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he went out of him without doing him any harm. And amazement came upon them all and they began discussing with one another, and saying, “What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.” And the report about Him was getting out into every locality in the surrounding district.

And He arose and left the synagogue, and entered Simon’s home. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever; and they made request of Him on her behalf. And standing over her, He rebuked the fever, and it left her; and she immediately arose and began to wait on them. And while the sun was setting, all who had any sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on every one of them, He was healing them. And demons also were coming out of many, crying out and saying, “You are the Son of God!” And rebuking them, He would not allow them to speak, because they knew Him to be the Christ.

And when day came, he departed and went to a lonely place; and the multitudes were searching for Him, and came to Him, and tried to keep Him from going away from them. But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” And He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:31-44).


Several (actually more than that!) years ago, when I was a student in seminary, I went outside late in the night to be revived by the cool breezes of the evening. Our apartment was located next to the seminary parking lot, and I observed a car parked outside the library, with four people in it. The license plate was from out of state and the situation was questionable enough that I called the police and asked if a squad car might check out the car and its occupants. There had been some recent burglaries at the seminary and it seemed the prudent thing to do. I did play the matter down and ask for someone to cruise by in the course of their patrol.

It didn’t work out quite that way, however. Within five minutes, four squad cars were on the scene, two coming from each side of the parking lot. One of the squad cars stayed behind a good while. I began to get an uneasy feeling about what I had done. Who was it in that car, and what were they doing? A friend of mine happened to be a roommate of one of the seminary students who was in the car. He told me that two or three seminary men were in the car, attempt to exorcise a young man of a demon.

What would these men have told the police, when they inquired as to what was going on? What would you have said? “Oh, no problem, officer. You see we were merely trying to cast a demon out of this fellow here.” Right. That would have brought on a whole new crew, wearing white coats and carrying strait jackets.

When I told a professor friend of mine, he said, “I’d lie!” I know just how he felt. One would surely attempt to avoid telling those policemen what you were really doing. In our day, demon possession is not something which our culture is accustomed to seeing, nor are they eager to admit that demons even exist. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of the well-known book The Road Less Traveled, has also written a book which is a study of human evil, entitled, People of the Lie. In this book he professes to be a Christian, and he also testifies to at least two experiences of exorcism in his career. He points to another author who pursues the matter much more fully. Demon possession, according to Peck, is a reality, even in the United States.

The passage of Scripture which we are going to study in this lesson is not only relevant to us because demons do exist today and still possess people. It is relevant to us for a number of other points of application as well. My initial impression was to view the people of Capernaum as vastly superior to those at Nazareth. Our text ends with the people begging Jesus not to leave them, while the people at Nazareth drove Jesus from their synagogue and sought to kill Him. In this case, however, the differences between the people of these two are really superficial, and the similarities are disturbing. Even more distressing is the realization that the demons have something in common with the people of both cities. Let us look to our text to discern the differences and the similarities between the three major groups which are described: the Nazarethites, the Capernaumites, and the demons.

A Brief Review

The accounts of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist, His forerunner introduced Luke’s gospel. Then, Luke tells us of the commencement of John’s ministry and that of our Lord. John began to preach that Messiah was coming and that men should repent in preparation for His arrival. He denied that He was Messiah and immediately pointed to Jesus as God’s appointed King when He was divinely indicated as such at His baptism. Jesus was then led of the Spirit into the wilderness, where He was tempted.

Luke passes by the first year of Jesus’ public ministry, with but a two verse summation of the impact of His ministry in Galilee (4:14-15). The reputation of the Lord reached Nazareth, the place where He grew up, long before His return to this city. When He arrived on the Sabbath and read the passage from Isaiah, messianic expectation was exceedingly great. Nazareth was not merely an obscure town in Galilee, it was a town with a poor reputation, such that Nathaniel could say, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

Since Jesus referred to Nathaniel as “a man in whom there was no guile” (John 1:47), we must believe that these words did not just reflect prejudice and bias.

When Jesus informed the people of Nazareth that the words of Isaiah, the promise of Messiah’s coming, were fulfilled in their hearing, the people were delighted:

And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22).

Knowing that no prophet was ever honored by his home town, Jesus brushed aside the people’s praise, and informed them further of His messianic ministry, which was to include the salvation of the Gentiles. At this the people’s praise turned to anger. Jesus was thrust unceremoniously from the synagogue—they would have no more of His teaching—and the people were about to force Him over a precipice, which would have brought about His death (or a mighty deliverance by a band of angels—remember Satan’s temptation using Psalm 91). Jesus passed through the hostile crowd, much like Moses and the Israelites walked through the Red Sea. His own people had rejected Him. He, like all the other prophets of Israel, was no hero, for His message and ministry did not conform to the desires and expectations of the people.

Jesus’ Ministry At Capernaum

Leaving Nazareth, Jesus arrived at Capernaum.81 Capernaum was a small city, located on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, about 25 miles from Nazareth. Jesus moved here upon hearing of John the Baptist’s arrest (Matt. 4:12-13). It thus become known as Jesus’ home (Mk. 2:1; Matt. 9:1). This is where Simon and Andrew, James and John lived (Mk. 1:21, 29).

Jesus At The Synagogue on the Sabbath (1-37)

Verses 31 and 32 begin with a summary of Jesus’ teaching ministry in the synagogue on the Sabbath days. His teaching resulted in amazement on the part of His audience, not unlike the initial response of the people of Nazareth. Luke sums up the cause for the amazement of the audience with these words:

His message was with authority (Luke 4:32).

This is a similar statement to that found in Matthew’s gospel, immediately after Jesus had delivered the “Sermon on the Mount”:

The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:28-29).

What is it that distinguished our Lord’s teaching from that of the scribes and Pharisees, and made His teaching authoritative, when their teaching was not? The gospels do not really tell us what it was about Jesus’ teaching that caused it to stand apart, vastly superior to that of others. It does not seem that Jesus method of delivery was that much different from His contemporaries. Jesus taught sitting, as they did, for example. The difference does not seem to be a matter of style, so much as of substance. In my personal opinion, there were at least two things which distinguished Jesus’ teaching from that of the others of His day:

First, I believe that Jesus’ teaching was simple and straightforward, while that of scribes and Pharisees was academic, scholarly, and obscure. Have you ever heard a scholar teach in such scholarly terms that you left having no grasp of what he was saying? You go away feeling that that man knew much more than you, but you have no idea of what it was he said. Obscurity often passes for depth. When Jesus taught, He spoke very simply, using earthly stories, parables, and illustrations. People heard Him, knowing what He had said, and grasping that this was what the Bible had taught in the first place. Jesus, as the Master Teacher, made the text of Scripture clear and simple.

Second, Jesus taught as the author of Scripture, while the scribes and Pharisees taught as mere students, and not good students at that! The difference between Jesus’ teaching and the rest was the same as hearing the author of a book speak about his book and hearing another person speak about the same book. Jesus taught Scripture as God, from God’s point of view. The scribes and Pharisees taught as mere men, with their biases and prejudices obscuring the text of Scripture. Indeed, the matter was even worse, for the scribes and Pharisees were known for quoting their knowledge and use of rabbi’s material, and not for their knowledge of the Scriptures. Morris informs us that,

Originality was not highly prized among the rabbis and it was usual to accredit one’s words by citing illustrious predecessors. For example, R. Eliezer piously disavowed novelty: “nor have I ever in my life said a thing which I did not hear from my teachers” (Sukkah 28a; a similar statement is made about R. Johanan b. Zakkai, and the attitude was common). Jesus did no such thing and the authority with which He spoke impressed men.82

The Demon’s Disruption (33-37)

From a general statement about the authority, Luke moves to a specific incident which illustrates his point. On one particular Sabbath Jesus may have been in the midst of His teaching when He was rudely interrupted by the piercing scream of a demoniac. I can almost imagine watching the person ahead of me jump when the man screamed (that it not to say that I would not have done likewise). The satanic and demonic evil of this man, controlled by the demon, would have been frightening. His voice would have sent chills down your spine. What would Jesus do now? No doubt the demon thought that he would create chaos and confusion. He was up to no good. According to Luke’s account, however, the incident simply served to demonstrate the power of our Lord’s words and to further His reputation throughout the region. Let us see what this incident reveals about the man, the demon, the people, and our Lord. Remember that this is the first instance of demonic possession in Luke’s gospel. It is also the first report of a miracle being performed on the Sabbath, which receives no protest—surely all were glad to have the demoniac cured, especially those setting near him.

At Nazareth, Jesus had been put out of the synagogue. Now, at Capernaum, a demonized man had come into the synagogue, and the demon must be put out of the man. The man was utterly dominated by the demon. The demon so fully controlled the man that the voice was the demon’s, as well as the spirit. The man was utterly overshadowed. To use a contemporary expression, the demon wanted only the man’s body, and he had it.

The demon was dominant, and thus from the words and action which characterized the demoniac we can learn much about demons. The demon was unclean, in contrast to the Lord, who was recognized by the demon as “the Holy One of God” (4:34). The demon was loud and disruptive. He cried out with a loud voice (4:33). His intent seems to have been to interrupt and disrupt the teaching of Jesus. The demon, in my opinion, was not only hostile and angry, it was perplexed. The demon was something like a wild animal that has been cornered. His question, “Have You come to destroy us?” (4:34), could just as easily have been a statement, “You have come to destroy us!”83 This raised the question, verbalized by the demon, “What do we have to do with You,84 Jesus of Nazareth?” (4:34).

Satan had been told at the time of the fall of Adam and Eve (in which Satan was instrumental) that his head would be crushed by the heel of the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). He knew, in other words, that when Messiah came, it would spell his destruction, his demise. That is why the demon so quickly raised the question of what Jesus was doing there in the synagogue. Had He not come to destroy Satan? What was the purpose of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue? What was going on? Satan could not figure out the game plan of our Lord. Not realizing that Jesus would “crush his head” by means of His substitutionary death on the cross, Satan could not fathom what was taking place. The demon was demanding to know what was going on.

Jesus would not carry on a conversation with this demon. He would not dignify the demon by giving it further occasion to manifest its diabolical nature. Thus, Jesus rebuked85 the demon and commanded it to be silent and to come out of the man. The demon obeyed, but only after one final rebellious act. He cast the man to the ground in a way that was so violent, it seemed certain that the man would have been seriously injured. Luke, the doctor, informs us further of our Lord’s great power by indicating that the man incurred no injury from this final fit. Jesus was Lord.

We can see that the man was utterly overshadowed, dominated and controlled by this unclean and evil spirit. We can see that the demon was seeking to resist the purposes of Messiah, rebellious to the end. We can also see that our Lord was in complete control. While exorcisms typically were long, drawn out processes, with formulas and the like, Jesus cast the demon out with one short sentence. The demon obeyed, reluctantly, by immediately, and there was no injury done to the man. What a Saviour!

The incident had a profound impact on those who watched. I would suspect that the whole ordeal took very little time, but even the brevity of the event was significant. At the word of Jesus, demons obeyed. The word of Jesus had great power and authority. If Jesus’ teaching was authoritative, so were His words spoken to the members of the satanic hoard.

And amazement came upon them all, and they began discussing with one another, and saying, “What is this message [literally “word”]? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out” (Luke 4:36).

Jesus’ words were powerful, whether in teaching, or in commanding the demon to be silent and to depart from the demoniac. The authority of our Lord was to be seen by the power of His words. When Jesus spoke, even the demons listened, and obeyed.

As a result of this incident in the synagogue Jesus reputation was spread abroad. Reports of this event and many others preceded Jesus to other parts of the land. They also brought many to Him for healing, which is described in the next section.

The Healing of Peter’s
Mother-in-law and Many Others

Jesus left the synagogue, and went to the home of Peter (or so it would seem), where his mother-in-law was suffering from a high86 fever. On her behalf, “they” (which seems to include Peter and other family members) appealed to Jesus to heal her. While the other accounts (Matt. 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31) focus on the physical “touching” or “taking the hand” of this woman, Luke emphasizes the word of rebuke spoken to the fever. Once again, it is the word of the Lord which is powerful. Not only does this high fever leave the woman instantly, but the residual consequences of the fever were remedied. Just as the waves of the sea would take considerable time to be calmed after the winds ceased, so the weakness resulting from the fever of this woman would have taken time to overcome. Yet her healing was instantaneous and complete. Thus, she immediately got up and began to minister to the Lord.

It was still the Sabbath day, and thus there was not the normal activity. As sunset approached, the Sabbath ended, which immediately brought many to the door of the house, hoping for healing. These were not people with minor ailments, various aches and pains, but people with serious maladies of various types, people who had to be brought by others87. Until the Sabbath ended, the people could not labor by carrying the ill to Jesus. At sunset, the people arrived en masse. Every type of illness was healed, instantly and completely. Demons, too, were being cast out, like the exorcism which Luke reported in the synagogue earlier that day. Here, too, the demons identified Jesus as the “Son of God,” but were rebuked and silenced, and commanded to come out (Luke 4:41). Jesus did not desire or permit the praise of these unclean enemies.

The Priority of Jesus’ Ministry

It would seem that Jesus performed healings throughout the night. The people began to arrive at sundown, and Jesus is now said to “depart to a lonely place” when the day came. Thus, early on the next morning, when He had healed all who were present, Jesus slipped away to a lonely place to pray. Luke does not specifically mention prayer here, but Mark does (Mark 1:35). Later, in chapter 5, Luke does describe the prayer life of our Lord:

But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray (Luke 5:16).

It was not long before the crowds found the Lord. When they realized that He was leaving them, they, unlike the people of Nazareth, sought to keep Him in their midst. The reasons, I think, are fairly obvious, and not all that commendable. Who would want such a healer and teacher to leave?

Jesus responded to their appeals to stay by referring to His calling, to His priorities:

But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

Jesus knew what He had been called to do. Just as Isaiah’s prophecy, read by our Lord in the synagogue at Nazareth, emphasized the importance of proclamation, so Jesus stresses the priority of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom to practicing miraculous healings. There is a missionary mandate here as well. Not only does Jesus view preaching as having priority to miracle-working, He also views it as necessary for Him to preach throughout Israel, and not just in a few places. Thus, the final verse (4:44) informs us that Jesus kept on preaching in Judea, and not just in Galilee.


Our text contains a number of valuable lessons. Let us consider of few of them. First, the text gives us much insight into the realm of the demonic. The demoniac was so controlled by the demon spirit that he utterly lost his personhood. Satan offers men freedom, but he delivers bondage, slavery. We do not even know the name of this demonized man. What a pathetic picture of a man filled with the spirit of Satan. How great the contrast with the Christian who is filled with the Spirit of God. That person is free from the dominion of sin and death, free to exercise all of their God-given talents and potential, to be the unique person God meant them to be, to fulfill their unique role in the church and in the world. The demonized man was just a body to be possessed, a mouth through whom Satan could speak. Only in Christ are men made free. Only filled by His Spirit can we experience freedom and individuality.

As I have considered the demon exorcisms of this text and compared them with the others described in the New Testament I have come to the conclusion that Jesus never diagnosed any case of demon possession, to the surprise of his audience. That is, every time Jesus dealt with a demonized person the people already knew the problem was demonic. The New Testament never describes any occasion when a person was brought to Jesus and He diagnosed the problem as demonic, to their surprise. Demon possession was evident to everyone. I say this because today there are many who are crediting demons with illnesses, ailments, and vices, for which they should not receive credit. Alcoholism, smoking, child abuse, and countless other symptoms are now said to be the result of demonization. I never see this in the New Testament. When men are demon-possessed, everyone knows it. It may require God’s matchless power to rid the demonized of the spirit which possesses him, but it does not take divine insight to recognize the demonized as possessed by a demon. Let us not give demons more credit than they deserve. Let us not seek to see them where they are not. And let us not cast our guilt and weakness on them.

Our text also provides us with insight into the priorities which guided our Lord. In short, His priorities were prayer and the preaching of the Word. Miracles played a minor role in His ministry, but prayer and preaching were His priority. Thus, He knew He must leave Capernaum and preach elsewhere, even though the people begged Him to stay. Prayer and proclamation were also the priority of the apostles (cf. Acts 6:1-7).

Finally, this passage points out a very sad reality—the hardness of the heart of man. In one sense the people of Capernaum seem to stand head and shoulders above the people of Nazareth. The Nazarethites drove Jesus from their synagogue, and would have killed Him if they could. The people of Capernaum begged Jesus not to leave their presence. Were not the Capernaumites better than the Nazarethites? Not really.

Had these two groups of people been interchanged, I think that each would have acted exactly as the other, given the same situation. Both the Nazarethites and the Capernaumites initially responded to Jesus’ teaching with awe and wonder. Both would have urged Him to stay in their midst, except for the fact that Jesus revealed some of the unpleasant realities of His messianic ministry to the people of His home town—namely the hardness of heart of the Jews and the divinely purposed blessing of the Gentiles through the unbelief of Israel. Had the events which occurred at the Capernaum taken place in Nazareth (which was precisely what the Nazarethites hoped, Luke 4:23), the people would have loved Jesus, and begged Him to stay. Had the events which happened at Nazareth occurred at Capernaum, I believe that the Capernaumites would have thrown Jesus from their synagogue and sought to kill Him, just as the people of Jerusalem would later do. The only thing which was different in Nazareth from Capernaum was what Jesus did and said. The people were the same.

There is one thing which the demons, the Nazarethites, and the Capernaumites all shared in common: wonder, curiosity, amazement, and unbelief. Lest we bristle at the thought of the unbelief of the people of Capernaum, let me remind you of these words of our Lord concerning Capernaum:

Then He began to reproach the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall DESCEND TO HADES; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Matt. 11:20-24).

The message which both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed was this: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The message and the miracles of Jesus were simply His claim to be Messiah. Yet while people initially responded with wonder and praise, they did not repent. And when Jesus refused to fulfill their expectations of Messiah, they rejected Him and sought to put Him to death. The greater the number of miracles Jesus performed, the greater the evidence of His Messiahship, and the greater the responsibility for rejecting Him. Jesus was popular whenever He utilized His power to enhance and enrich the lives of the people and to remove their pain and suffering. Jesus was unpopular whenever the greater purposes of God for His life were unveiled.

The people of Capernaum are really no better than the people of Nazareth. Both wanted a miracle-working Messiah who would do their bidding. Neither sensed their own sin and the need for repentance. And so it is today. There are many in churches today who know that Jesus is the Son of God, yet have not submitted to Him. There are many in churches today who believe in Jesus as a miracle worker or as a great teacher, but not as Savior and Lord. Such people are no better than those who immediately and openly reject Jesus for who He is. Indeed, the judgment of those who know more is greater, for their level of responsibility is greater. To whom much is given, much is required. This is why Jesus held Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum more culpable than Tyre, Sidon, or Sodom. Knowledge brings responsibility. Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah, and our response to Him is to be repentance and belief. What we need much more desperately than physical healing and mighty miracles is the forgiveness of our sins. This is the primary task for which our Lord came to the earth, and it is God’s primary gift to men, which we are to receive. To receive God’s other gifts, and to reject His gift of salvation, is a damnable offense. Let us not be like the Nazarethites, the Capernaumites, or the demonized. Let us repent and believe in Jesus as our Savior.

81 Capernaum “… was the chief Jewish town, as Tiberias was the chief Roman town, of the neighbourhood. It was therefore a good centre, especially as traders from all parts frequently met there (Mk. ii. 15, iii. 20, 32, etc.).” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 131.

82 Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 109.

83 The “us” is significant here, for the demon saw himself as but one of the satanic force, all of which would be destroyed at Messiah’s coming.

84 “‘What have we in common?’ Comp. viii. 28; Mt. viii. 29;; Mk. i. 24; Jn. ii. 4; Judg. xi. 12; I Kings xvii. 18; 2 Kings iii. 13; 2 Sam. xvi. 10; I Esdr. i. 26; Epict. Diss.i. I. 16, i. 27. 13, ii. 9. 16.” Plummer, p. 133.

85 The rebuke of our Lord showed His disapproval of its unclean nature and of its diabolical associations, and of its work. Jesus also “rebuked” the winds (Matt. 8:26; Luke 8:24) and the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:39). I believe that this is due to the fact that both the winds and the fever were destructive and detrimental to man. Sickness (fever) and storms are not in accord with the original creation of the earth, but are the unpleasant result of the fall, thus the rebuke from the Creator.

86 The other gospels omit the observation of Dr. Luke that she had a high fever. We would expect such details from a doctor.

87 Thus far, none of those who have experienced the healing hand of our Lord have done so at their own initiative, but at the initiative of others.

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15. How to Hook a Fisherman (Luke 5:1-11)


This past weekend I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I was teaching an in-prison seminar. When I arrived, the state director of Prison Fellowship, Mark Ecklesdafer, picked me up at the airport. Since it was just about lunch time, we picked up something to eat and then went down to the river to watch the steelhead (something like a cross between a trout and a salmon) try to jump the dam, on their way upstream to lay their eggs. Mark is an avid fisherman, and so he and I watched twenty or more fishermen, standing in the river, fishing for steelhead. Many were hooked, but none were landed while we watched. A number of fish had been caught, however, which we could see by the fish which were trailing in the river, attached by a rope to the fisherman (or to a nearby stake in the river).

As I sat there beside that river on such a beautiful day, I could not help but think of this text in Luke’s gospel, which I knew I would be teaching in a week. I concluded that no one could really appreciate the miracle which our Lord performed here unless he or she were a true fisherman. A true fisherman is one who will persist at his task for hours, on the mere possibility of making a great catch. Mark told me that his wife would sometimes ask him, “How can you stand there in the water for hours, hoping to catch a fish?” His answer, which any fisherman can identify with, was, “Easy.”

This story of the great catch is more than just the account of a great catch, for in the final analysis, it is not the fish that are “hooked” but the fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew,88 and their partners James and John. From this point on, Luke informs us, these men left their jobs as fishermen and followed Jesus wherever He went. This event is therefore one of the turning points in the life of the disciples and in the gospel accounts of the life and ministry of our Lord. It should not be overlooked that Peter, James and John, the three named fishermen here, are the inner three of the circle of disciples, those three who were privileged to witness events which the other disciples did not see (for example, the transfiguration of our Lord, cf. Luke 9:28).

The Background of this Miracle

Two texts of Scripture seem, at first glance, to be parallel accounts with that of Luke in chapter 5, verses 1-11. These texts are Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:13-20. Matthew’s account reads this way:

And walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And they immediately left the nets, and followed Him. And going on from there He saw two brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. And they immediately left the boat and their father, and followed Him” (Matt. 4:18:22).

The differences between the accounts of Matthew and Mark are so different from that of Luke that I cannot possibly see all of these texts as being a description of the same event.89

In fact, there are a number of callings of the disciples, there are several stages of commitment reflected in the Gospels. One of the keys to understand the events in Luke chapter five is to recognize that there is a progressive drawing of the disciples.

“From the data of the other Gospels it appears that it [the calling of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11] was probably quite early during the Galilean ministry, but after the Lord’s first meeting with Peter, John, Andrew and others (John i. 35-52). It was also after the first call of Peter and the others to be disciples of Jesus (Matt. iv. 18ff., Mark i. 16ff.). From this it becomes clear that, although they had followed Jesus at the first call, they did not yet follow Him in a complete and unconditional manner. They were still, at least for part of the time, engaged in their trade as fishermen until the final choice was made to leave all and follow Jesus (v. 11).”90

As I understand the progressive calling of the disciples from the Gospels, it falls roughly into this sequence of events:

(1) At the suggestion of John (“Behold the Lamb of God!,” John 1:36) and the invitation of Jesus (“Come and see,” John 1:39), Simon and Andrew followed Jesus for that day. The next day, Philip and Nathanael were invited (“Follow Me,” John 1:43). With these (and other disciples?) Jesus attended the wedding at Cana (John 2:2), and witnessed to the people of Samaria (John 4).

(2) Jesus calls the four fisherman disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) to follow Him (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20), which they do, but not to the exclusion of their fishing business, which they still do on the side.

(3) Jesus fills the boat with fish. From this time on the disciples leave

their ships and fishing and follow Jesus everywhere (Luke 5:1-11).

(4) Jesus also called Levi, who left his work (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14;91 Luke 5:27-28).

(5) At some point, the other disciples are called, but this is not recorded in the Gospels.

(6) Jesus was sought by others, who wished to follow Him. He encouraged men to follow Him, but was clear to spell out the cost of discipleship (Matt. 8:18-22).

(7) After a night of prayer (Luke 6:12), Jesus appointed the 12 disciples as His apostles (Luke 6:13; cf. Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-19).

The Setting for the Miracle

Jesus was standing by the Sea of Galilee, which Luke calls the “lake of Gennesaret” (v. 1).92 Around Him a crowd had gathered, listening to Him proclaim the word of God. Beyond the crowd of those who were pressing in on the Lord Jesus, there was the sea of Galilee, and two ships were pulled up on the shore. One ship belonged to Peter (v. 3), and the other belonged to James and John (vv. 7, 10). These four fishermen were not among the crowd. Instead, they were off washing their nets (v. 2). They had spent a long and fruitless night fishing (5).

The amazing thing about this scene is that the wrong people seem to be close to our Lord, and likewise the wrong people seem to be at a distance. You would think that the disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, who had spent much time with Jesus, would be those in the inner circle, closest to the Master. Instead, the crowds pressed upon Jesus, and the disciples were at a distance, tending to business, washing their nets. They no doubt looked on with some interest as they worked, but they were surprisingly detached from the Master and from the crowd.

Jesus’ appearance at the lake is, in my opinion, not coincidental. I believe that He purposed to be there, knowing that this is where the disciples would be. It is no accident that the boat into which our Lord stepped, and from which He taught, was Peter’s (v. 3). Jesus seems to merely be doing that which would make His speaking more effective and efficient, as well as providing a way of escape from the crowds when He was finished. I believe, however, that Jesus was seeking the disciples. It was time for them to become permanently attached to Him, accompanying Him wherever He went. The time for a deeper level of commitment and involvement had come. The appearance at the lake that day was for the purpose of bringing about a life-changing decision on the part of Peter and his companions. Jesus would momentarily use the boat as His pulpit, but He was intent on making fishermen fishers of men.

The Catch of a Lifetime

The disciples had apparently finished washing their nets and had probably hung them out on the ship to dry. Jesus had likewise finished His teaching, and asked Peter to put out to deeper water, and to let down the nets for a catch. Notice these words of our Lord:

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).

Jesus did not make a suggestion; He made a command. And He did not order the disciples to let down their nets to try to catch fish, He ordered them to put out their nets for a catch of fish. In other words, Jesus was issuing both a command and a promise. The command was to put out the nets. The promise was that there would be a catch. And what a catch it would be!

Peter’s words betray a reticence, perhaps even a bit of irritation:

“Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at Your bidding I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).

In the first place, Peter’s words indicate that he and his partners were dog tired. They had worked hard, all night. Besides that, they had just finished washing their nets. They would have to do it all over again. Second, Peter indicates that their efforts had been futile. Night was the best time to fish.93 If they had not caught anything at night, why in the world should they catch anything in the daytime, the worst possible time to fish. Third, there is a hint of irritation here. Did Jesus, a carpenter, think that He knew more about fish than these fishermen? His order seemed naive.

Peter relented and let down the nets, but it would seem that he has safeguarded himself for the failure he thinks is certain. You almost wonder if Peter didn’t want to fail in this venture, so that he could give Jesus an “I told you so” look. How many times would Peter have the opportunity to prove Jesus wrong. Surely when it came to catching fish, he was the expert. Jesus was the Master, and so His word would be obeyed, albeit under protest.

The result was incredible. There were those stories that all fishermen swapped, about good catches, but this beat all that Peter had ever heard, by far! The nets were absolutely full. They began to break. They signaled their partners for help, and even with two ships, the harvest was so large that both boats began to sink. The catch of a lifetime had been made. And now it was time to “hook” the fishermen.

The Disciples’ Response

Every miracle had its purpose, and this one was no exception. There was a “catch” to the story, and it is now to be disclosed. Simon Peter94 was the leader and the spokesman for the others. He immediately responded (as always) by falling down at the feet of Jesus, saying,

“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8).

Falling prostrate at the feet of Jesus was an act of humility and worship. Peter had been ministered to in an area of his own expertise.95 He now saw the Lord Jesus in an entirely different light.96 Jesus was Lord, and he was but a sinful man. In verse 5, Jesus was referred to by Peter as “Master,” but now He is Peter’s Lord. The change of terms is our signal to a quantum leap in Peter’s grasp of Jesus’ greatness and power.

Peter not only confessed the greatness (and perhaps the holiness) of our Lord, but also his own sinfulness. Just what was it that caused Peter to recognize his sinfulness at this particular occasion? What was Peter now confessing as sin? I believe that the narrative provides us with the necessary clues to understand Peter’s confession. Peter saw his resistance and reticence to obey the Lord’s command to let down the nets as sin. Peter thought he was the expert, but now sees that Jesus is Lord of the sea as well. Peter doubted that they would make a great catch, and feared that his efforts would be wasted. Now he saw his Lord’s sovereignty and his sin.

Peter’s confession is noteworthy. At the very point that Peter draws nearer to His Lord than ever, he seems to urge his Lord to depart from him. Peter could have departed from the Lord Jesus, but his love for Him and His growing awe prohibited him from doing so. It was like the moth and the flame. He could not draw apart, but only nearer. If sin were to drive a wedge between him and his Lord, it would have to be the Lord who departed, not Peter.

So far as I can tell, this is the first time in Luke’s gospel that any man has seen so much in one of our Lord’s miracles. Previously, people have marveled at His power and teaching, but no one has concluded, as Peter did, that Jesus was so righteous, and that he was so wretched. The revelation to Peter that he was a sinner is a basic necessity, and Peter has the distinction of being the first in Luke’s account to become aware of this fact. Whether or not the other three disciples-to-be recognized their own sin as a result of this miracle we do not know, but Luke is clear that all were amazed and seized with wonder at seeing what the Lord had done (Luke 5:9-10).

Our Lord’s response is perplexing, because it is not immediately apparent as to how His words relate to Peter’s confession:

“Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10).

Peter had just confessed to being a sinner, and testified to the greatness of His Lord. Jesus responded by a command not to fear, and a promise that he would become a fisher of men. How do our Lord’s words square with what Peter has just said?

I believe that Peter’s fear can be found in three areas, and that our Lord’s words to Peter provide him with hope in each area:

First, I believe that Peter was fearful of leaving his life’s occupation of fishing to follow Jesus. Note the contrast between the first two verses of our text and the last verse. The story begins by describing the great crowd which had surrounded Jesus, while the fishermen are off in the distance, tending to the washing of the nets—tending to business. When the story is concluded by Luke in verse 11 the disciples leave everything and follow Jesus:

And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him (Luke 5:11).10

On several occasions, over a period of time, Jesus has invited Peter and his fishermen partners to follow Him. I do not think that our Lord’s invitation was only for a short period of time. I believe that these men understood the implications of Jesus’ invitation, but were afraid to leave their life’s work to follow Him wherever He went. This was necessary, however, for Jesus ministered far more widely than just in Galilee, around the Sea of Galilee, where they always fished.

What was it that caused Peter and the other three fishermen fear leaving their boats and their jobs? I confess that I am reading somewhat between the lines, but I suspect that they were fearful concerning the very practical matter of providing for themselves and their families. The longer these men were with Jesus, the more they wanted to be with Him all the time. But you see, they had responsibilities and financial obligations to consider, too. I can just see Peter, telling his wife (whose name is never given in Scripture—I wonder why?) that he would love to be able to go with Jesus when He traveled to more distant places, but there was the business … “But Peter,” she may have protested, “How can we pay the bills?” The children need clothes, the roof on the house needs repairing, and you know that we have to care for my mother … ”

Of course, these were very practical matters. But this miracle with the fish demonstrated in a very remarkable way that Jesus was not only to be trusted as Israel’s Teacher and Prophet and Miracle-worker, but also as their great Provider. With this remarkable catch, Jesus showed that He was able to provide. He was sovereign in the matter of work, as well as in all other matters. With this miracle Peter’s fears about following Jesus melted. He and his partners walked away without a thought, without even bothering with that huge catch of fish.97 The fears which had haunted and hindered them so long vanished with the catch of fish.

In this miraculous catch of fish our Lord also graciously provided a psychological release from the occupation of fishing. Those of you who are not fishermen will probably never fully appreciate how hard it is to quit fishing. You are always attracted by the possibility of a really great catch. To have quit fishing without a great catch would have left a void in these fishermen. Every time they heard the fishing was great they would have second thoughts. With this one catch, a catch which broke all records, the fishing profession could be left forever. No one could ever have a catch like this. They truly quit while they were ahead. What a way to retire! How gracious of God to arrange for a career change in this way.

Second, I believe that Peter and his partners were fearful about commencing an entirely new career. Not only did the call to follow Jesus require these fishermen to leave their career, it required them to commence an entirely new career. Jesus likened the new career of the disciples to the old. In both cases they would fish. There was some kind of continuity in their tasks. It would seem that the first occupation had prepared them for the second. But even more than this, Jesus gave these men the promise that they would be fishers of men, a promise which in the light of their huge catch, included being very successful fishers of men. How easy to leave one task for which you have just set a new world’s record, to take on another, which you are assured you will succeed at. How gracious was our Lord’s dealings with these disciples.

Third, Peter’s was fearful because he recognized his sin and the Lord’s righteousness. The words of Peter, “Depart from me, Lord,” reveal his awareness that a holy God cannot have intimate communion with sinful men. While Peter had no desire to leave His Lord, He did not know how he could enter into an even more intimate relationship with the immensity of his sin. Our Lord did not fully answer Peter’s objection on this count, He only assured him by telling Him to stop fearing.98

Ultimately the Lord’s provision for Peter’s sin is even more abundant than His provision of fish. That provision will be made at the cross of Calvary, where He will die in the sinner’s place. Communion and intimacy with God is abundantly provided by the Lord’s sacrificial death. It is too early for Peter to know about this, and so he is simply assured, without any specific details being given.


The Meaning of this Incident for Peter and His Partners

For Peter (and Andrew too, it seems), James and John, the three who will make up the inner circle of Jesus followers, this incident is a major turning point. They have followed Jesus before, but only partially, only for a time. Now, these disciples have made the decision to leave their careers and follow Jesus wherever He went. This was no small decision. It was a crisis of careers and a mid-life crisis combined. From this moment on, Jesus would begin to pour more of His life into these disciples. The more intimate aspects of His life and ministry would now be made known to them.

The monumental change which occurs here is signaled by the striking contrast between the distance of the disciples and their dedication to their job in verses 1 and 2 and their divorcing themselves from their jobs in verse 11 to become Jesus’ disciples. It is also signaled by the change in Peter’s name, from Simon (as previously) to Simon Peter or Peter (as it will now be, with few exceptions).

There is also a change in the way in which Jesus is perceived and in which the disciples perceive themselves, as indicated by Peter’s response. The Lord Jesus had only been “Master” before, one of a higher rank, but not seen to be whom He really was. From now on, Jesus is “Lord” to Peter and his partners. And Peter, who saw himself as an expert, at least in fishing, now sees himself as a sinner before a holy God. What a change!

The Meaning of this Incident for Us

Before we begin to explore the meaning of this passage for us, let me be very clear in what I think the text does not mean. THIS TEXT IS NOT TEACHING THAT THOSE WHO ARE MOST COMMITTED TO CHRIST MUST LEAVE THEIR SECULAR JOBS TO BE HIS DISCIPLES. There are far too many Christians who seem to feel like second class Christians because they are not in “full-time Christian service.” There are many who have entered into “full-time Christian service” on the faulty premise that this would make them more significant, spiritual Christians. The Bible does not teach this, and our text does not teach this, though some may wrongly conclude that it does.

Didn’t the disciples have to leave their (secular) jobs in order to follow Jesus? They most certainly did. But why? At this point in time, Jesus was (only) physically present on the earth. If Jesus were to have His disciples with Him and He was called to preach the good news of the kingdom of God far and wide (cf. Luke 4:43-44), then there is no way that these fishermen could continue their fishing career in the Sea of Galilee. But what we must see is that after our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection and ascension, He is now spiritually present with all saints through His Holy Spirit. While we may need to leave our homes or our employment to obey His leading and to proclaim the gospel, we do not need to leave anything in order for Him to be in and with us.

In the gospels, we can see the reticence of the disciples (used in the broader sense, not just of the 12, cf. Luke 6:17; Acts 6:1-2) to be physically separated from Jesus. They would have preferred Him to remain physically present with them, but Jesus refused, and told them His “going away” was actually better (cf. John 16, esp. vv. 6-7; 20:27). The disciples were not to leave Jerusalem until Jesus had come to be with His church through His Spirit, which commenced at Pentecost, and continues to this day. Thus, we need not leave our occupations to be with Christ. We often bring Christ to a fallen world by living and witnessing for Christ in and through our work. Spirituality (nearness to Christ) is not determined by whether or not we have “secular” jobs. One need only remember that the apostle Paul often supported himself through “secular” employment. And by means of his working with his own hands, set an example for all (cf. Acts 20:33-35).

What, then, does our text have to teach us? Primarily, our text deals with the matter of following Jesus. There are many lessons for us to learn about following Christ from our text. Let me suggest just a few.

First, our text strongly implies that following Jesus begins with the realization of our inadequacies and needs. Those who came to our Lord and followed Him in the gospels were those in desperate need. Jesus Himself said that He came to seek and to save the lost, that He came not to the well, but to the sick. Thus, it is those who are inadequate in themselves who follow Christ. There is no need to follow Christ if you are doing fine in and of your own efforts.

It is no coincidence that prior to the successful catch of that morning, at the command of Jesus, there was a long, frustrating night of “fishing failure” the night before. The one area in which Peter felt confident and capable was as an expert in fishing. So it was that Jesus sovereignly designed a night of failure, followed by a morning of unparalleled success. Peter failed on his own, but was abundantly successful in obedience to Christ’s command. Those who follow Jesus are those who have found themselves to fail on their own. Peter’s most significant confession in this text is that he was a sinner and that Christ was righteous. When this is granted, it is no wonder that the sinner gives up his way and chooses to follow Christ. Failure is the first step in following Christ. Those who follow Him have found themselves to fail on their own. Those who feel sufficient will not turn to Him.

Second, our text teaches us that following Jesus requires faith in Him as our all-sufficient Savior. If Peter found himself to be a failure at fishing and a sinner in life, He found Christ to be sovereign, righteous, and all-sufficient. All of Peter’s fears vanished when he realized the sufficiency of the One who had called him to be a fisher of men. Jesus Christ is the only all-sufficient One. To follow Him is to be assured of God’s provision of forgiveness of sins and of righteousness; to follow Him is to be assured of our physical needs. To follow Him is to be assured of eternal life. To follow Him is to be assured of divine guidance and direction. To follow Him is to be assured of all that is required to do His will. Our great lack of faith can be traced, in almost every case, to an inadequate grasp of the goodness and the greatness of God. When we realize who it is who calls us to follow Him, the faith to do so comes easily. Apart from knowing God, we find our faith lacking and deficient.

Third, our Lord knows our weaknesses and our unbelief, and gives us ample evidence, ample basis for our faith. The Lord Jesus knew of the inner turmoil which Peter and his partners were dealing with, better than they did. Instead of berating them or of forcing them to follow Him unconvinced and semi-committed, Jesus performed a miracle which vaporized their fears and was a catalyst for their faith. For these men, an overflowing, tearing net and two sinking ships was all the evidence they required to see the sufficiency of the Savior.

God has given us even greater testimony to His sufficiency. In the first place, He has given us the evidence of His resurrection. Not two full ships of fish, but an empty tomb testifies to the holiness and the power of our Lord. In addition, He fills us with His Spirit, and He shows us His power in the transformed lives of those who have trusted in Christ as their Savior. Finally, we have the testimony of the Scriptures themselves, including this very account in the gospel of Luke. We have ample evidence on which to base our faith. Our problem is that we do not meditate these matters often enough. Our greatest problem as a church and as individual saints, I fear, is that we lack faith, and this is due to an inadequate grasp of the greatness of our God. Let us let our minds and hearts dwell long and deep upon Him.

Fourth, our text strongly implies that in order to follow Jesus, we must forsake certain things. In order for Peter, James and John to follow Jesus, they had to leave their ships and their nets. In the final analysis, they had to leave those things in which they had faith, in which they found their safety, their security, and their significance. Following Christ, finding Him to be our all-sufficient Savior, requires that we forsake anything besides Him in which we trust, in which we feel secure, in which we feel significant, in which we feel safe. For the rich young ruler, his trust was in his riches. Jesus instructed Him to forsake his riches, to sell his possessions and to give the money to the poor, not because rich people cannot be saved, but because God will not let men trust in His Son and something, anything, else. Selling all of his goods would have been the most beneficial thing (for himself) that this young man could have done, for it would have forced him to place all of his trust in Jesus alone. We cannot follow two leaders, and we are led by that in which we trust. Thus, we must have our faith in only one person, Jesus Christ, and in nothing else, if we are to follow Him.

Often times, our greatest problem will come in that area in which we are most skilled, most knowledgeable. For Peter, this was his skill as a fisherman. Jesus had to show Peter that He knew more than this veteran of the Sea of Galilee, so that Peter could find Jesus the Master and Teacher, even about fishing. Whatever it is that you find yourself good at, whatever it is that you trust in, is that which you must forsake to follow Christ.

Fifth, our text suggests that if we are to be followers of Christ, we must do what He does. Jesus came “to seek and to save” the lost. The disciples were to become “fishers of men” not only because Jesus would command them to do so, but because this is His mission. These men would become “fishers of men,” not so much because they were fishermen, but because Jesus had come to draw (catch) men into His kingdom. To follow Christ means to do as He does. Those who would be followers of Christ cannot ignore the fact that Jesus was a seeker of men, and thus we, too, must be fishers of men. Evangelism is an inseparable part of the calling of a disciple of Jesus.

Sixth, our text suggests that if we would follow Jesus, we must not only do what He does, but we must do it His way. Peter thought of himself as an expert at fishing. Using their finest skills the night before, Peter and his partners caught nothing. Fishing Jesus’ way, which involved a violation of all of the principles of fishing Peter knew, brought great success. Following Jesus, in my estimation, means leaving behind many of the “proven methods” of our past. This statement may trouble many, but there is much truth in it, I believe. In the early chapters of the book of First Corinthians, the apostle Paul made a point to show how his methods were seemingly silly, and diametrically opposed to the methods of successful speakers of his day. But in doing things this way, in doing things God’s way, the Spirit of God produces the fruit and God receives the glory. Let us be careful about what it is we try to bring with us when we seek to follow Jesus. Not only did Peter and his partners leave behind their boats and their nets, they left their proven fishing methods behind as well.

Seventh, our text suggests that we should not make hasty commitments to follow Christ, nor should we call on others to do so. Finally, let me conclude by reminding you that Jesus did not press these men to make a hasty decision. Considerable time passed, and I would suspect that much agony was experienced in the interim. Why is it that we press men to make hasty decisions, when Jesus did not? Important decisions should not be made quickly. Decisions which are good ones, which are lasting ones, are those made slowly, prayerfully, deliberately.

May each of us thoughtfully consider what it means for us to be followers of Jesus Christ. Let us contemplate His sufficiency, and our sin. Let us forsake our methods, our sources of security, salvation, and significance. Let us follow Him.

88 Note that while Andrew is not named, we are told that they cast in their nets (v. 6), and signaled their partners (v. 7). Peter also spoke in the plural (we, v. 5), not the singular (“I”). I take it therefore that while Andrew was not specifically named, he was understood to be included.

89 With this conclusion, Morris is in agreement: “It is just possible that Mark [1:13-20] tells of the incident [Luke 5:1-11] without the miracle (though even then there are not inconsiderable differences). But it is more likely that Luke is referring to a different incident.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 112.

Geldenhuys is even more confident of this: “This story is by no means the same as that in Matthew iv. 18-22 and Mark i. 16-20. The points of agreement between Luke’s story and those of Matthew and Mark may be explained from the fact that Peter and his partners lived at Capernaum as fishermen and were often engaged in their calling on the shore of the lake. For this reason Jesus probably often found them there. Their decision to follow Him wholly and unconditionally was not taken just all of a sudden; there had already been meetings with Jesus and a certain amount of following Him as His disciples after the events related in Matthew iv. 18-22 and Mark i. 16-20. All this, however, was only preparatory to what takes place inverses 1-11.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 183.

90 Geldenhuys, pp. 180-181.

91 Luke 5:1-11 seem to fall between Mark 2:13 & 14.

92 “Luke, incidentally, always calls this sheet of water a lake, whereas the other Evangelists follow the Old Testament in calling it a sea. It measures roughly 13 miles by 7 miles and is situated about 700 feet below sea-level. This is the only place where it is called Gennesaret, the usual name being Galilee (Chinneroth in the Old Testament; Tiberias twice in John).” Morris, p. 112.

93 “Night was considered the best time for fishing, and Peter may be suggesting that, when experts, fishing at the right time, had caught nothing, it was useless to try at the request of a Carpenter.” Morris, p. 112.

94 Morris well notes that here Peter’s name changes, much as Saul’s name is changed to Paul in the book of Acts: “Here only in his Gospel Luke uses the compound name Simon Peter. Up till 6:14 (apart from this verse) he always calls this man Simon. Afterwards, except in passages where he is quoting other people, Luke always calls him Peter.” Morris, p. 113. I believe that Luke is signaling the reader to the greater role which Peter is beginning to play, as a result of his confession and praise.

95 “Although these [previous miracles] had impressed him and even made him agree to follow Jesus, this revelation of His power of disposal over the fishes of the lake spoke to him in a very special manner. For he was a fisherman by trade and knew how humanly impossible it was to catch fish successfully in the lake in the early morning hours. The Lord’s revelation of power in the field of Peter’s own particular calling—the trade of a fisherman—consequently made a very powerful impression on him.” Geld, pp. 181-182.

96 “Peter’s next words, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord, remind us of the experience of great saints in the immediate presence of God, such as Abraham (Gn. 18:27), Job (Jb. 42:6), or Isaiah (Is. 6:5). Cf. also Israel’s ‘let not God speak to us, lest we die’ (Ex. 20:19). Peter recognized the hand of God and that drove him to realize his own sinfulness. The address, Lord, replaces ‘Master’ of verse 5 and this is probably connected with this heightened apprehension.” Morris, p. 113.

97 I agree with Morris, who writes, “They left the greatest catch they had seen in all their lives. The catch was not as important as what it showed them about Jesus.” Morris, p. 114.

I disagree with Geldenhuys, who takes a very naturalistic view of this text, in spite of the clear sense of Luke’s words: “From the nature of the case it follows that the multitude of fishes were first properly dealt with and disposed of. Jesus would not have let them catch the fish to be cast into the sea again or to be wasted. Undoubtedly the Lord allowed them to divide and sell the fishes and to provide for their dependents before commencing to follow Him continuously.” Geldenhuys, p. 182.

98 The expression, “Do not fear,” could literally be rendered, “Stop being fearful.” Peter was in a state of fear, which our Lord commanded Peter to cease.

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16. Stretcher Carriers and Sermon Critics (Luke 5:12-26)


Although Jesus’ ministry commences in Luke chapter 4 (and we are midway through chapter 5), about a year has passed since the beginning of His public preaching. Up till now, Jesus has been preaching and teaching in synagogues (Luke 4:15). At Nazareth, the town where Jesus had grown up, His teaching was initially enthusiastically received, but when the fuller implications were spelled out (namely the blessing Messiah would bring to the Gentiles, Luke 4:23-27), He was cast from the synagogue and apart from divine enablement, would have been thrust down to his death. Jesus then went to Capernaum, where He preached and underscored His message by casting out a demon (Luke 4:31-37). Healing Peter’s mother-in-law seems to have led to an all-night healing session (4:38-41), but after a time of private prayer our Lord felt compelled to press on to other places so that He could carry out His primary task of proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God (4:42-44).

If Luke chapter 4 focused on the ministry of our Lord to the masses, chapter 5 begins to focus on the ministry of our Lord with respect to the leadership of Israel. In the two healings recorded in our text (Luke 5:12-26), the Lord discloses Himself to the priests (5:14) and to the teachers of the law (5:17, 21, etc.). In the case of the priests, we do not know of their response to the report of the healed leper, indeed, we do not even know for certain that the leper ever went to the priest (he did not obey the Lord about keeping quiet, you will recall). We do know that the teachers of the law reacted strongly to what they heard from our Lord. The beginning of the opposition of the leaders of the nation can be found here in Luke’s gospel. Simultaneously, the commencement of the training of the 12 can be found. As the leaders of Israel draw back from our Lord, He calls men to follow Him, who will later be appointed as His apostles, and the eventual leaders of the church which is to be born after His death, resurrection, and ascension.

Not only do we find the opposition to Jesus on the part of Israel’s leaders beginning here, but we also see some of the reasons for their opposition. Let us look carefully at the two healings which are Lord performs in our text, to see what lessons were to be learned by the nation, and to learn the lessons which God has for us here as well.The Structure of the Text99

The text can be divided into two major sections, each describing the a healing performed by our Lord, and a response to that healing:

(1) Verses 12-16—The Healing of the Leper and its Consequences

(2) Verses 17-26—The Healing of the Paralytic and its Consequences

The Healing of the Leper

In a certain Galilean city100 our Lord came upon a leper. Luke, the doctor, tells us that this was no ordinary leper, but rather a man “full of leprosy” (5:12). While the term leprosy may have been employed for a number of different ailments, Luke wants us to know that this man was a hard case. We sometimes hear of people who have had exploratory surgery, who are found to be “full of cancer.” It is indeed a serious condition.

The man prostrated himself before the Lord Jesus and implored Him to heal him. His petition shows a great deal of insight into the person of our Lord: “Lord, if you are willing, You can make me clean” (Luke 5:12).

The leper did not doubt the Lord’s ability to heal; the only issue was whether or not is was His will to do so. Many people who wish to be healed today could learn from this leper. The critical issue was not the leper’s faith (“Lord, if I am willing … ”), nor the Lord’s power (“Lord, if You are able … ”), but the Lord’s sovereign will. How comforting it is to appeal to a merciful and compassionate God!

Reaching out and touching the man, the Lord replied, “I am willing; be cleansed” (Luke 5:13).

It is noteworthy that Jesus here, as elsewhere, touches the leper, when He never seems to have touched a demonized person. Pressing this point even further, it would seem that the text suggests that Jesus touched the leper before He pronounced him clean. The Lord is doing several significant things here. (1) He is touching a leper before he is cleansed, showing the He is not able to be defiled by this uncleanness. (2) He is instantly producing physical healing of a very serious disorder. (3) He is not only healing the man, but He is pronouncing him to be cleansed. Jesus did not command the man only to be healed, or to be whole, but He pronounced him to be cleansed. It would seem that our Lord has therefore done that which an Old Testament priest could only do after a test period, to be sure that the man was indeed free of the disease. When Jesus makes a man clean, there need not be a test period. The man is thus to go and offer his sacrifice, and to be a witness to the priests, but apparently not to be pronounced clean (or at least this would only be a formality, a seconding of what our Lord had already done).

The Lord gives a very stern warning to the man, something which Mark’s gospel makes even more emphatic (“He sternly warned him,” Mark 1:43), instructing him not to make his healing public. This would almost seem to be a greater miracle than his healing. I lost a few pounds and it would seem that everybody noticed (some thought I was too thin!). Can you imagine being completely healed of leprosy and not having to answer an endless stream of questions. It is hard to fault the man for telling of his healing.

The second part of Jesus’ command to the former leper was to go to the priest, as the law (Leviticus 13 & 14) instructed. The primary reason seems to be for a witness to the priests. Note the plural “priests” here, rather than just the singular. He was to go to the “priest” (singular) as a witness to the “priests” (plural). I doubt that there was a long line of people waiting for a priest to pronounce them cleansed of leprosy. In fact, I would almost imagine that the priest may have excused himself, consulted with other priests, and then finally consulted the law itself, to learn how he should handle this cleansed leper. How unusual this cleansing would have been. How great a testimony it would have been to the priests. How quickly word would have spread among the priests. This was another way of serving notice to the priests that the Messiah had arrived.

Word did get out, thanks to the leper101 and perhaps to others who might have witnesses his healing. Luke alone informs us that Jesus frequently retreated to the wilderness (the place where He was tempted?) for the purpose of prayer: “But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16).

Why did our Lord need to pray, and for what might He have prayed? First, I believe that our Lord desperately yearned for fellowship with the Father. At this early point, not to mention later, no one really fathomed the purpose of our Lord’s coming. People flocked to Jesus, but with only a partial and distorted grasp of what He was coming to do. Only the Father understood. Prayer was a time of fellowship and communion between Father and Son. The miracles and the misunderstanding of the people only intensified our Lord’s yearning to be alone with the Father.

Furthermore, the greater our Lord’s earthly success, the greater the temptation might be to forsake the way of the cross and to pursue an easier route to reigning upon the earth. Our Lord’s retreat for prayer was an expression of His dependence upon the Father. It put His successes in perspective, for He did everything in obedience to the Father’s will and in the power of His Spirit (cf. Luke 4:14). These times with the Father kept our Lord’s perspective and priorities in line with those of the Father.

These are days when all too many popular preachers and evangelical figures are falling. Many of them, I fear, have failed to follow the example of our Lord of retreating to solitude and prayer in times of great success and public acclaim. It is in our earthly successes that we are inclined to feel smugly self-sufficient and successful, forgetting that it is only in our weakness and His strength that God’s sufficiency is shown.

The Pharisees and the Paralytic

Jesus had returned to Capernaum, and word had already gotten out that He was back at His headquarters (Matt. 9:1-2; Mark 2:1-2). News of Jesus’ return precipitated two very different responses. The first response was that of a number102 of people who may have lived in or near Capernaum, who knew that Jesus was able to heal the sick. They had a friend who was paralyzed, whom they wanted to bring to Jesus for healing. It seems to have taken some time to get the man from where he was staying to the house where Jesus was teaching. By the time they arrived, the house was filled. And there was apparently a large crowd gathered outside. Mark (Mark 2:2) informs us that there was not even room outside the door.

The scene, which Matthew totally passes by without comment, must have been almost comical. It is difficult to conceive of our Lord not being aware of the entire event. The house is crowded and Jesus is teaching. At the same time, Luke notes that Jesus was endued with power to perform a healing.103 If this house had windows, there would have been people filling them. Perhaps the Lord could see the commotion going on outside, caused by the four who were determined to get the paralytic to Jesus. The may have tried one window and then another, all around the house. (The door, as Mark has informed us, was impossible.)

Undaunted by the difficulties, these men decided to try “from the top down.” They took the paralytic, let’s call him “Fred,” to the roof. There may have been stairs, of course, but may have come only from inside the house. Can you imagine poor old “Fred,” placed not on one of those carefully designed and constructed ambulance-type stretchers, but rather on a kind of makeshift pallet. Hands may have slipped in the process of getting “Fred” to the roof, and poor Fred may have several times dangled precariously on his pallet, threatening to fall to the earth too far below. For all we know, Fred might have panicked and pled to be taken home, where life was safer. Once on the roof, one can imagine the difficulty of four men carrying a stretcher over hot tiles. Lowering Fred down through the roof must have provided another spine-tingling ride, making the scariest rides at Six Flags look easy.

The scene, as viewed from below, must have been just as amusing. The house was filled with people, we are told. Luke alone tells us who many, perhaps most, of these people were. They were the “Pharisees and teachers of the law.” Jesus had become a major threat to the teachers of the law, as a couple texts of Scripture will demonstrate:

And they were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22 ).

And they were all amazed, so that they debated among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him” (Mark 1:27).

Jesus’ teaching was immediately recognized as newer than, different from, and better than that of the scribes and Pharisees. It would not have taken these teachers of the law long to recognize that the popularity of Jesus spelled trouble for them. No doubt the word circulated quickly among the teachers of Israel and this gathering at Capernaum was at least one of the summit conferences they called to decide what to do about the teaching of Jesus.

Luke informs us that it was no small gathering of teachers, but a representation of all the teachers in Israel:

And it came about one day that He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem … (Luke 5:17a).

The teachers of the law had gathered to hear Jesus, to pass judgment on Him, and then, undoubtedly, to decide what course of action to take concerning the threat which He posed to them.

Such a group of teachers would have been a large delegation. They, in my opinion, would have constituted most of those inside the house. Luke includes a detail that I consider significant. He informs us that these teachers were sitting in the room (Luke 5:17). If you were going to get the maximum number of people in that house, how would you position them? Would you have them sit or stand? Of course, you would have them stand. Then why were the Pharisees and teachers of the law “sitting” when more people could have been able to come in the house if all stood? My answer is this. The sitting position was the position of authority for the teacher. A teacher in those days did not stand to teach, he sat to teach (cf. Luke 4:20-21). These teachers would not have stood, for that would have been to concede Jesus’ authority as a teacher, the very thing they were inclined to challenge. It is this large group of hostile hearers who take up all the room inside this house, and who keep the paralytic from being brought before Jesus.

What a humorous sight it must have been to watch these prim and proper (and very proud) teachers as the roof was being removed. It would have been a very dirty business. It could have been dangerous as well. If there were tiles (which it seems to me there were), a tile might occasionally have been dropped. Can’t you just see the teachers below, scrambling out of the way of a falling tile? Mark’s account tells us that they dug through the roof (Mark 2:4) the roof, implying that there was some dirt or something like it. All of this “stuff” (crud) came tumbling down on those seated so proudly and properly below. Can’t you see them angrily demanding the men above to stop, dusting themselves off in disgust?

Once the man was finally lowered so that he was in front of the Lord, things really began to happen. Notice that nowhere is it said that the four men or the paralytic made a specific request of our Lord. Either our Lord acted before the request was made or the men felt that Jesus would not need to be asked specifically, once He saw the man’s need. All three gospels report virtually the same response on the part of our Lord: “And seeing their faith, He said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you’” (Luke 5:20).

This was, I think, a distressing response to all who those who were involved in this incident: the victim (Fred), the four stretcher-bearers, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

Poor Fred must have been distressed at the words of Jesus. He had not come primarily to be forgiven, but to be healed. He had risked all of the perils of his journey, and especially those related to his being lowered from the roof. Being told that his sins were forgiven must have seemed like a “rip off” to Fred, who had come to be healed. After all, isn’t this what his four friends had assured him would happen? And the four men must have had a similar response. They had brought Fred a considerable distance and fought their way through the crowds. They had gone to the trouble of getting Fred down through the roof. The owner of the house would probably be sending them a bill for the repairs to the roof. They had not asked for a healing, but surely the Lord could have performed it. They, like Fred, must have felt “let down” (pardon the pun).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were indignant. They seemed to care little whether or not Fred was healed, but they were angered by Jesus having the audacity to pronounce a man’s (any man’s) sins forgiven. Forgiveness of sins is something which only God can do, they reasoned, and rightly so. Thus, to tell a man his sins were forgiven was also to claim to be God. “Just who does this fellow think he is?” The question of authority raises its ugly head, for this is the bone of contention between these teachers and Jesus. Jesus, so the crowds thought, taught with authority, and not like them. Now Jesus Himself is claiming God’s authority. They are indeed overflowing with “righteous” indignation.

The response of Jesus raises all kinds of questions. In the first place, it raises the question, “How could Jesus offer the man forgiveness of sins when what he really wanted was physical wholeness?” The answer to this is simple, I believe. Jesus, by His actions, was teaching that the forgiveness of sins is more important, more valuable, than mere physical healing. If one had to choose between one or the other, forgiveness of sins is of much greater value than physical recovery.

Second, the question arises, “How can Jesus forgive this man’s sins, based on the faith of the four?” Isn’t the forgiveness of sins based upon individual repentance and faith? The answer is to be found in the ultimate source and basis for forgiveness, the character and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We have faith in Him because He first opens our hearts (Acts 16:14). Faith itself is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-10). Thus, God’s grace is not prompted or initiated by man’s actions, it is prompted by God’s compassion and grace. It is mediated by Christ’s atoning work on the cross. God’s good gifts are the result of God’s goodness, not man’s meritorious acts, to which God responds and reciprocates. Our text shows that God’s blessings do come by faith, and that in this case the faith which is in focus is that of the four men, not that of the man on the stretcher.

Third, the Pharisees demand to know, “How can Jesus dare to forgive a man’s sins when only God can do so?” The answer to this question is, by far, the most simple: Jesus can forgive a man’s sins because He is God. Logic had carried the Pharisees and teacher of the law to the deity of Christ as surely as the four had carried the paralytic to Jesus. But they would have none of what logic demanded.

Jesus had all along intended to heal the paralytic, but this healing was to be a teaching tool, not just a miracle. “Fred’s” desire was about to be fulfilled, but now his healing would prove that our Lord did have the power to forgive sins. Our Lord asked a simple question, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Luke 5:23).

It is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” than it is to say, “Rise up and walk.” The reason is because there is no visible proof that sins have been forgiven. One can make such a statement without having to prove he has done it. But to command a paralyzed man to walk is something very difficult. They proof of your power is very visible, or the evidence of its absence. To command a paralyzed man to walk requires him to do so. Thus, Jesus has set up this circumstance to show that He has both the power to forgive sins and to make the paralyzed to walk. Our Lord’s miracle here will prove His power in two areas, not just one. He is “killing two birds with one stone,” so to speak.

With this, our Lord commanded “Fred” to get up, to pick up his pallet, and to go home. Fred did so immediately. Imagine it. The pallet which had seconds before carried Fred from home, Fred now carried home under his arm. What a delightful burden this must have been. I wonder if it made it all the way home, or whether Fred dumped it in the trash can outside the house.

Fred left the house, glorifying God, and so did all the rest, all the rest with the exception of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They are still stewing about the “blasphemy” uttered by our Lord. I would take it that the crowd which praised God was largely that group which waited and watched from outside. They may well not have heard our Lord’s pronouncement of forgiveness of “Fred’s” sins. They would have watched Fred friends attempt to get him into the house, then onto the house, and then through the roof to Jesus. They would then have seen Fred emerge from the house some time later, with his pallet under his arm. How they must have rejoiced.

We are not told how the Pharisees and teachers of the law responded. No doubt they were sullen and silent. No doubt, too, they met soon to discuss how they would handle Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles. But that is something which Luke delays for later in his account.

Lessons From the Paralytic

There are numerous lessons to be learned from our text. I will underscore just a few. First, our text serves to contrast the faith of the stretcher-carriers with the unbelief of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The stretcher-carriers believed in Jesus, the Pharisees and teachers were skeptical. The stretcher-carriers were persistent in their efforts to reach Jesus. The Pharisees and teachers were resistant, increasingly drawing back from Jesus. The stretcher-carriers overcame various obstacles to get to Jesus; the Pharisees and teachers were obstacles, keeping others from Jesus. The stretcher-carriers wanted others to benefit from the blessings which Jesus bestowed on men; the Pharisees and teachers rejected His blessings and cared little about others benefiting from Jesus. If you stop to think of it, not once in any of the gospels do you find a teacher or a Pharisee bringing anyone to Jesus for mercy and grace. You often find them opposing and resisting people who wish to draw near to Him. At best, you find the Pharisees and teachers passively tolerant. The Pharisees and teachers had to reject their own logic and theology to reject Jesus as the Son of God, which their hardened hearts compelled them to do. They saw themselves as righteous and suspected Jesus to be a sinner. After all, He associated with them.

The bottom line is simply this: Are you a stretcher-carrier or a sermon critic? Stretcher-carriers are those who recognize Jesus’ power and authority and who seek to share Him with others, often at great personal effort and sacrifice. Sermon-critics are those who may listen to the teaching of the Bible, but with minds already made up, just waiting for some pretext for their unbelief and rejection.

Even born again Christian are inclined to become sermon critics, rather than stretcher-carriers. They come to hear a preacher, only to see if he conforms to their preconceived doctrines and ideas. They want only to discover if he agrees with them. They do not want their prejudices exposed and challenged. They do not want to be under the authority of God’s Word. And they spend so much time criticizing that they have no time to bring others to the blessings which God has for those who will receive them.

May God grant that you and I become stretcher-carriers, and not mere sermon critics.104

99 Parallel texts to that in Luke can be found in Matthew 8:2-4; 9:1-8 and Mark 1:40—2:12. Each text has a unique emphasis. In Matthew’s record of the healing of the leper we are given a very generic and concise report. Mark’s account of the healing of the leper is longer, emphasizing: (1) Jesus’ compassion, v. 41; (2) Jesus’ strong warning not to tell others, v. 43-44; (3) the leper’s testimony creating such popularity that it virtually forced Jesus to stay in remote places, yet prayer is not mentioned), v, 45. Luke emphasizes: (1) the seriousness of the illness (full of leprosy), v. 12; (2) the crowds which came for healing and hearing, v. 15; (3) Jesus’ withdrawal for prayer, v. 16.

All the accounts emphasize: (1) Humble petition: “If You are willing … ” (2) Jesus touched the man
Jesus’ willingness to heal: “I am willing … ” (3) An immediate cure; (4) Warning not to tell others, but commanded to go to the priest.

In the story of paralytic, Matthew once again gives a very generic and general account, not even telling us of the lowering of the man through the roof. Matthew does tell us that Jesus came by boat to “His own city,” Matt. 9:1, so that we know the miracle occurred at Capernaum (cf. also Mark 2:1, “home”). Mark adds the detail that the crowd in and about the house was so large that there was no room left, even outside the door (2:2). Luke provides us with the very significant fact that many of those in the house were teachers of the law, assembled from all over Israel (5:17). He also informs us that the “power of the Lord was present” at that time for Jesus to heal the sick (5:17).

100 Luke simply says, “one of the cities” (Luke 5:12). Mark seems to indicate that it was during our Lord’s Galilean preaching tour (Mark 1:39).

101 We would not know for certain that the news of this man’s healing came from his own mouth from the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Mark, however, clearly indicates that the man spread the news of his healing abroad (Mark 1:45). The same text also informs us that the report made Jesus so popular that He had to virtually “hide out” in the wilderness. Mark does not mention that our Lord’s seclusion in the wilderness was for the purpose of prayer, but Luke clearly says so (Luke 5:16).

102 Initially, I was inclined to think that only four people were involved in getting the paralytic to Jesus. However, the rendering of the Mark’s Gospel in the NIV at least suggests that more may have been involved: Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them” (Mark 2:3). It is not unlikely that a larger delegation was involved in getting this man to Jesus. Only four would have been needed to carry his pallet, however.

103 Luke’s purpose in making the statement about our Lord’s healing power in verse 17 seems to be two-fold: (1) To indicate that the only reason why the paralytic would not be healed was due to our Lord’s inaccessibility. Our Lord was, at this time, fully able to heal. (2) To indicate that our Lord’s healing power was not continuous, but intermittent, based upon the divine enablement of the Spirit. There would be no need to say that Jesus then had the power to heal unless there were times that He did not possess this power. This assumes that Jesus had temporarily set aside the use of His divine power as the Son and was dependent upon the Spirit’s power, during the time of His humiliation and incarnation.

104 I want to be very clear that I am not trying to stifle criticism of my own preaching—it needs criticism. In fact, I meet weekly with a group of men who do criticize my thinking and preaching, and I greatly appreciate it. I am more stimulated and encouraged by a good criticism than by a compliment. But what I am referring to here is the attitude of belligerence, which does not want to be challenged or corrected or informed, but only to be agreed with.

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17. On Eating Drinking and Being Merry (Luke 5:27-39)


This week, I came across a book entitled The Seven Deadly Virtues.105 The author of the book, Gerald Mann, is a Baptist preacher. Early in his book Mann tells of an experience in a small country Baptist church which kept him from church for a number of years. Mann writes:

The first time I met a Baptist preacher, he asked me about three questions, placed his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Jerry, you’re lost, and that’s all they are to that!”

I started attending church regularly. I didn’t know what “lost” meant, but he said it with such gravity that I was certain I was whatever he said I was.

By the spring of my thirteenth year, the Baptists were “hard in prayer for my soul,” as they frequently informed me. An evangelist was coming to town to lead revival services, and according to them, it could well be my last chance to be saved. Such ominous warnings didn’t frighten me. What little I had had to do with God told me that he was not that kind at all.

However, I attended the revival anyway, because the evangelist was a former teen-age gang-leader who had once tried to stab my older brother. I was curious to hear and see a person who claimed to have been converted from the seamy side of life.

The ex-hoodlum-turned-Bible-thumper was something to behold! He was dressed in white and red—white suit with red cuffs and lapels, red and white shoes. Even his Bible was red and white!

His sermon was a blow-by-blow account of his former life on the “wild side.” Graphically, he portrayed scenes of gang fights, heroin sales, and sexual liaisons with wanton sirens. Considering that the wildest thing in our town was playing dominoes at the pool parlor, one can imagine how captivated we teenagers were. This was genuine Mickey Spillane stuff! And in the flesh! We didn’t miss a word.

Then he told us of how Jesus had reached into the midst of all that muck and plucked him out of it. I am certain he didn’t intend to, but he made it sound as if Jesus had spoiled a rather exciting life! His message had the import of one of those True Confession magazine stories: “I immersed myself in a world of booze and dope and sex. And boy, was it fun! But I tell you my story only to keep you from making the same fun-filled mistakes!”

The story was so gripping that I was sorry he had been converted so soon. I wanted to hear a little more!

Then the evangelist took the microphone and started down the aisle, while the song leader fed out the cord. In a flash, I realized he was heading straight for me. (Later, I learned that someone had “fingered” me as a potential convert.)

He stopped in front of me and said in a booming voice, “Do you want to go to Hell!” The audience was silent. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and angry and confused. I bolted from the pew, dashed outside, and ran two blocks before I looked back.106

Gerald Mann describes and attitude toward sin and sinners which is very frequently found among Christians, and which is often the pretext for the rejection of the gospel by unbelievers. There is a very common perception that while unbelievers are having their fun now, their time of suffering—and our time of blessing, of course—will come. We therefore find ourselves frequently citing the beer commercial in a critical way. Since you only go around once, you’d better grab all the gusto you can get. The “King James” version of this is: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

When it comes to the matter of eating, drinking, and being merry, it is generally held that the Bible in general, and Jesus, in particular, condemned the thought. If this is your opinion, you are in for a rather distressing study, for the issue of eating, drinking, and being merry is precisely that which the Pharisees raise with Jesus and His disciples. The disturbing fact is that Jesus is the one who is eating, drinking, and being merry, and the Pharisees are miffed because of it. How is it that Jesus can be for eating, drinking, and being merry, when many Christians are against it? Hopefully this “tension in the text” will hold your interest long enough for you to learn some vital lessons from our text.

The Structure of the Text

Our text in Luke has two parallels, one in Matthew 9:9-17 and the other in Mark 2:13-22.107 Luke’s text breaks into these divisions:

(1) Verses 27-28 — Levi’s resignation

(2) Verses 29-32 — Levi’s reception: Look who’s coming to dinner!

(3) Verses 33-39 — Feasting or fasting: Why don’t Jesus’ disciples fast?

The Context of the Text

The public ministry of our Lord has commenced in chapter 4. That ministry “started out with a bang,” with Jesus’ message and miraculous power welcomed, but that did not last long. The first instance of Jesus’ public teaching recorded by Luke (albeit a year into His public ministry) is at the Synagogue in Nazareth, where Jesus had grown up. Reading from Isaiah chapter 61, Jesus indicated that His coming was a fulfillment of this prophecy. People were delighted to hear this, until Jesus pointed out that His coming meant blessing for the Gentiles, too, something which brought about a murderous response from the people. Elsewhere, however, Jesus was welcomed and sought after by the multitudes.

Luke is already preparing his readers for the rejection of Jesus by the leadership of the nation. If the multitudes welcome Jesus, the Pharisees and teachers of the law quickly begin to be suspicious, and then critical, and then become outright opponents, who seek occasion to accuse Him and also a means of destroying Him.

The Pharisees were first introduced in chapter 5, at the healing of the paralytic, who was lowered through the roof of the house, in which Jesus was teaching (vv. 16-26). When Jesus informed the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, the Pharisees reacted, reasoning (rightly) that only God can forgive sins. They cannot deny the healing of the paralytic, but they are unwilling to receive Jesus as God. The calling of Matthew and the banquet at which Jesus and “sinners” intermingled was another incident in which the gap between Jesus and the Pharisees widens significantly. This section of Luke’s gospel, which reports the reaction of the Pharisees to the “eating and drinking” of Jesus and His disciples, informs us of one of the fundamental issues which put Him and the religious leaders of Israel at odds.

Our Approach

Our approach in this lesson will be to carefully consider the actions and associations of our Lord. We will also attempt to understand the questions raised by the Pharisees, in response to our Lord’s actions and associations. Then we will carefully consider our Lord’s response to these questions. Finally, we shall seek to learn if there are any 20th century parallels to the thinking of the Pharisees, as well as to identify any principles which should guide and govern us in our spiritual lives.

Levi’s Resignation

Levi, known here and in Mark (2:14) by this name, but elsewhere referred to as Matthew (cf. Matt. 9:9; 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), was a tax-collector. We know from the New Testament108 that anyone who was a tax-collector was a very unpopular person, synonymous with “sinner” and on a social par with gluttons, drunkards, and harlots. This was the bottom rung of the Jewish social ladder. One could sink no lower.

There was more than one type of tax-collector in those days, as Shepherd informs us:

Levi was a custom-house official. The Talmud distinguishes between the tax collector and the custom house official. The Gabbai collected the regular real estate and income taxes on the poll tax; the Mockhes, the duty on imports, exports, toll on roads, bridges, the harbour, the town tax, and a great multiplicity of other variable taxes on an unlimited variety of things, admitting of much abuse and graft. The very word Mockhes was associated with the idea of oppression and injustice. The taxes in Judea were levied by publicans, who were Jews, and therefore hated the more as direct officials of the heathen Roman power. Levi occupied the detestable position of a publican of the worst type—a little Mockhes, who himself stood in the Roman custom-house on the highway connecting Damascus and Ptolemais, and by the sea where all boats plied between the domains of Antipas and Philip. The name “publican,” which applied to these officials, is derived from the Latin word publicanus—a man who did public duty. The Jews detested these publicans not only on account of their frequent abuses and tyrannical spirit, but because the very taxes they were forced to collect by the Roman government were a badge of servitude and a constant reminder that God had forsaken His people and land in spite of the Messianic hope, founded on many promises of the ancient prophets. The publicans were classed by the people with harlots, usurers, gamblers, thieves, and dishonest herdsmen, who lived hard, lawless lives. They were just “licensed robbers” and “beasts in human shape.”

According to Rabbinism there was no hope for a man like Levi. He was excluded from all religious fellowship. His money was considered tainted and defiled anyone who accepted it. He could not serve as a witness. The Rabbis had no word of help for the publican, because they expected him by external conformity to the law to be justified before God.109

Luke was the more hated kind of tax-collector, who assessed taxes for commerce. One can see how his tax office could be stationed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum.110 One can also imagine that Levi may have frequently heard Jesus teach, and was likely well known to our Lord, just as the disciples Peter, James, and John were known to Him.

We know that the position of tax-collector, like most jobs, affords certain kinds of evil. Luke has already informed his reader of one of the evils of which many tax-collectors were guilty when he wrote of John the Baptist’s words to the tax-collectors who came to him for baptism:

And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (Luke 3:12-13).

Thus, we know that many tax-collectors were guilty of abusing their position by using the power of the state to charge excessive taxes and keep the profits of their evil deeds. Luke himself will later inform us of one instance in which a sinful tax-collector repents and makes restitution for his misconduct (Zaccheus, cf. Luke 19:1-10). The question is, “Was Matthew one such crooked tax-collector?” I see absolutely no evidence which suggests that he was. Matthew, on following Jesus, makes no gestures of restitution, as does Zaccheus. I believe the reason is that Matthew was an honest tax-collector. Jesus did not call a crook to follow Him, hoping that discipleship would mend his ways. Jesus’ look at Matthew is a discerning one, suggesting an appraisal and approval of his character.111 The assumption of the Pharisees, that all tax-collectors were crooked, “sinners,” was wrong, and I believe Matthew to be one example of their error.

It is my opinion that tax-collectors were hated, not just because they misused their authority, but because of what they represented. Tax-collectors were a painful reminder of the fact that Israel was not a free nation, but was subject to Roman rule and authority. If the Pharisees had thought this matter through, they would have realized that the very presence of tax-collectors was a reminder of Israel’s sin, for foreign domination was, under the Mosaic Covenant, one of the consequences for disobeying the Law of Moses. This would surely be an indictment against the “teachers of the law,” who were so opposed to tax-collectors. The Old Testament prophets frequently identified the leadership of Israel for making a significant contribution to the sin of the nation.

And so it was that Jesus passed by the tax office of Levi and invited him to follow as a disciple. Luke alone tells us that Levi, much like the fishermen (Peter and Andrew, James and John) at the beginning of the chapter, left everything and followed the Master. The brevity of the account serves to underscore the dramatic change which seems to happen so quickly and yet so decisively.

Levi’s Reception:
Look Who’s Coming to Dinner!

Luke alone informs us that the dinner which Jesus attended was a celebration banquet put on by Levi. Having left all, one would think that Levi would have held a wake, rather than a reception. From all appearances, it was a lavish affair, held in what would probably have been a very large and lovely home. No doubt Levi was a well-to-do man, even without practicing the evils of some of his colleagues.

I can imagine one of Levi’s colleagues arriving home after a hard day at work, asking his wife if there was anything interesting in the day’s mail. As a matter of fact, there was, his wife informs him. She shows him an invitation to a banquet at the house of Levi. The invitation explains that the reception is in celebration of his leaving his work in order to follow Jesus of Nazareth. The invitation also indicates that Jesus will be at the banquet as well.

Our Lord is not only present at the celebration, He was the central personality, the major attraction and focus of attention. Every indication is that Jesus was very much a part of the celebration. It is my personal opinion that this celebration included wine, like the wedding at Cana. It is also my viewpoint that Jesus was holding a cup of wine and was drinking from it just like the others.

“Eating and drinking” is in our text, the central issue. “Drinking,” here, as elsewhere, has the connotation of drinking wine, not just drinking water or grape juice. Jesus said,

“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gathers and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33-34).

John obviously ate, but a rather unusual diet of desert foods (locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). John drank as well, but not wine (cf. Luke 1:15). It is quite plain, then, that what John did not drink, namely wine, Jesus did, and thus He was accused of being a “drunkard.” Jesus and the “sinners” were there, mingling happily, joyfully, at Levi’s celebration.

No so with the Pharisees! In contrast to the rejoicing of the rest, the Pharisees, Luke alone tells us they were grumbling (v. 30). Some think that the Pharisees crashed this dinner party. I do not. Jesus was not one to exclude anyone, and I doubt that Levi was either. Several times in Luke’s gospel Jesus is described as eating in the home of a Pharisee (7:36; 11:37; 14:1). The Pharisees were there by invitation, I believe, but they never entered into the festivities. As I read the gospel accounts of this reception I envision them standing off to one side, with sour looks on their faces, turning down all food and drink, watching critically, waiting for the chance to find fault.

The guests at this banquet are the source of great consternation for the Pharisees. Luke tells us that the guests were “tax-gatherers and other people” (v. 29). This is different from Matthew and Mark, who identify the guests as “tax-collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:10; Mark 2:15). The fact that tax-collectors would be invited by Levi, a tax-collector, seems self-explanatory. After all, who would Levi invite but his peers, his social equals, and his colleagues in the work world? Undoubtedly this explains much, but Mark includes the very significant comment that many of the tax-collectors and sinners at this celebration were followers of Jesus (Mark 2:15). This would mean that while Levi may have invited some who had not yet met Jesus (a somewhat evangelistic dinner), many whom he invited were very familiar with him, and thus could easily enter into Levi’s joy at following the Master.

The scribes of the Pharisee party (not all scribes were Pharisees) were greatly distressed by the fact that Jesus was associating with undesirables. Eating and drinking was something a “proper Jew” did with “proper people” and never with “sinners.”112

The Talmudical tractate Berakoth (43) expressly states that the disciples of the scribes may have no table communion (W. Manson, in loc.) with the ‘Am-ha-’arets (“the people of the land,” those who do not know or observe the Law).113

Thus, the Pharisees converged upon Jesus’ disciples114 with this question: “Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Luke 5:30).

Luke has carefully avoided calling the guests at this reception “sinners,” but the Pharisees do not hesitate to use this label. There is a curling of the lips as the word “sinners” is spoken by the Pharisees.

Why? The issue hinges on the definition of the terms “sinner” and “righteous.” These terms have very different definitions in our text, the first the definition of the Pharisees, the second, the definition of Jesus.

The distinction between the pharisaic definition of these terms and that of our Lord can best be seen from the story which our Lord told later on in Luke’s gospel:115

And He also told this parable to certain one trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I think Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

To the Pharisee the “righteous” were to be distinguished from “sinners” by human assessment. The “righteous” held the right social and racial positions, sinners did not. The “righteous” were better than “sinners,” according to the Pharisaic view. The “righteous” were holy because they followed the rules, they did the right things, they kept the Law of Moses, as they interpreted it. The “righteous” were also justified in disdaining the “sinner” and in keeping separate from him.

The one “claim to fame” of the Pharisees was their “separation” from sin and “sinners.” They saw themselves as holy because of what they would not do, where they would not go, and with whom they did not associate. What a blow to their system it must have been to have Jesus come onto the scene, doing virtually the opposite of all they did, and claiming to be God at the same time. What a humbling thing it must have been for the Pharisees to be present at the reception which Levi put on. They were undoubtedly present only because they were afraid to let Jesus go unsupervised, unchallenged, unchecked.

Jesus’ answer reflects the difference between the heart of God and the heart of Pharisaism: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call righteous men but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31b-32).

Jesus had made it clear from the beginning that He had come to help those in need. His message of repentance, like that of John, was aimed at sinners. After all, do the “righteous” need to repent?

There are two very important principles underlying our Lord’s words, principles which we very much need to grasp and to apply.


It is Matthew who includes these words to the self-righteous Pharisees, who are condemning the guests at Matthew’s house as “sinners”:

“But go and learn what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mtt. 9:13).

The Pharisees thought of righteousness only in terms of rituals, of ceremonies, of self-righteous “sacrifices” (such as fasting). Jesus, citing Hosea 6:6, reminds these “righteous” Pharisees that the essence of true religion is not ceremony, but compassion. The compassion which God calls for is that which has concern for the well-being of one’s neighbor, including “sinners” and Gentiles. This was something which Pharisees would not do, and in the name of holiness. Jesus came to call sinners because He was compassionate rather than condemning.


The Pharisees thought that holiness required them to remain separate from sinners, to refuse to have contact with them. Jesus was holiness incarnate, and yet His holiness was not diminished by His contact with sinners. In order for God to call sinners to repentance, God found it necessary to have contact with them, which is the reason for our Lord’s incarnation—of His taking on human flesh, living among men, touching and being touched by them. Jesus was not only comfortable among sinners, they were comfortable with Him.

The lesson which Jesus was trying to communicate to the Pharisees is vitally important to Christians today. These two fundamental principles are the key to evangelism, to penetration into our society with the saving grace of God. If we have compassion, we will not spend all of our time and energy condemning sinners, but will rather call them to repentance. If we would obey our Lord by calling them to repentance (the essence of the great commission), then we must learn to have contact with sinners in such a way as to be comfortable with them and they with us, without conforming to their ungodly ways. This is what our Lord did, and this is what our Lord calls us to do. We, in the name of separation from sin, are often sinning by not showing compassion to sinners and by not having contact with them so as to be able to share the gospel. This is no new error. The apostle Paul had to correct similar misconceptions in the church at Corinth:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:9-11).

How well Paul’s words apply to the Pharisees, especially the self-righteous Pharisee of Luke 18. How well they also apply to many Christians today, who think that holiness requires them to avoid associating with sinners. Let us listen to and learn from the Savior, who came to seek and to save sinners, like us.

Why Don’t Jesus’ Disciples Fast?

Both of the questions of the Pharisees involved eating and drinking. The first question, asked and answered above, concerned those with whom Jesus ate and drank. The second question presses even further, as to why Jesus’ disciples are eating and drinking at all, since both the disciples of John and those of the Pharisees were practicing fasting. Why were Jesus’ disciples feasting when the rest were fasting?

And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers; the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same; but Yours eat and drink” (Luke 5:33).

The question is evident, Jesus’ disciples, unlike the disciples of the Pharisees and even of John, feast, while the others fast.116 The real issue is not stated, but it is there: “Why are your disciples able the enjoy life, while we merely endure it?” Note the contrast in the attitude of the Pharisees with that of the “sinners.” The sinners are celebrating; the Pharisees are grumbling. The sinners are happy; the Pharisees are sad. The sinners are enjoying life; the Pharisees only endure it. The sinners are “grabbing for gusto,” the Pharisees are griping to Jesus.

Jesus gives a very extensive answer to this question, because a number of factors are involved. His first answer deals with the immediate question, the obvious issue, the fasting question. Fasting was a sign of repentance, a strangely inappropriate action for the Pharisees, who thought themselves righteous, and thus did not feel obligated to repent:

And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism [of repentance] of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John (Luke 7:29-30, comment mine).

John the Baptist had referred to himself as the friend of the bridegroom, and the Messiah as the bridegroom (John 3:29). Jesus picked up this imagery and pointed out the fact that the friends of the bridegroom do not fast while he is present with them, but only fast in his absence. Jesus, the bridegroom, is present with His friends and followers, and thus it is only appropriate for them to rejoice. John was in prison. His disciples were right to fast. For Jesus’ disciples to fast while He was present would have been for them to act inappropriately. There would be a time, Jesus indicated, when He would not be present, a time when fasting would be proper for His disciples. This time, as I understand it, would be the time from His arrest and death, to the time of His resurrection, or perhaps the descent of the Holy Spirit.

There is a very simple, but crucial principle underlying our Lord’s explanation:


Centuries before, David had written, “In Thy presence is fulness of joy; In Thy right hand there are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11).

Of course those who were followers of Jesus found pleasure in the reception which Levi put on, because they were with Jesus. They were sinners, but they were forgiven. There was no greater joy than that of fellowship with God. For the Pharisees, who knew not God, being in His presence was agony, not ecstasy. Those who do not know God find His presence “hellish” agony.

Here is the key to understanding the parable of the prodigal son. The great tragedy of the prodigal was not being poor, or even being poorly fed, it was being separated from his father. Thus, the great rejoicing at his return. But for the old brother, being at home with the father was no reward in itself. The older brother was angry because of the “joy” of this feast his father had ordered at the return of this sinner. The older brother was angry because he had suffered at home, with the father, and not experienced all the pleasure of the other. How much a Pharisee the older brother is.

There is a principle which is vitally important to Christians which underlies the explanation of our Lord. It is this,


Joy, not sorrow, not sadness, should be the dominant characteristic of the Christian. The Christian life includes sorrow and suffering and sacrifice, but these are not the melody line of our life, or they should not be. These are the harmony line. Suffering and sacrifice are means, but they should not be the end. Joy is the goal, it is the climax, it is the reward of forgiveness and fellowship with God.

Why is it that there are so many “dill pickle” Christians around, who are more like the Pharisees than those who attended Levi’s reception? It is because Satan has warped our conception of the Christian life. I have recently read an excellent book which is devoted to the subject of the pleasure, the joy of knowing and serving God. It is by John Piper, entitled, “Desiring God: The Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.”117 I cannot recommend it too highly. It is the joy of knowing and serving God which should be our strength and our goal. It is also the joy of the saint which should draw others to Christ as well.

Jesus went on to deal with a deeper issue, that being the contrast and contest between “old” and “new.” The Pharisees represented and defended the “old order” or so they thought. They were the promoters and preservers of the law. Jesus came to fulfill the law and to institute a new covenant. Thus, underlying the struggle between Jesus and the Pharisees was a contest between old and new. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to adopt the old, or at least to adapt the old. Jesus could not do this. He came to fulfill the law by living in perfect obedience to it, and by dying to its demands. But He also came to institute the new covenant (celebrated, incidentally by eating and drinking).

Thus, by means of a parable, Jesus explained why the new could not adopt or adapt to the old. To put a new patch on an old garment would be foolish. You would have to cut it out of the new garment, destroying it, and then it would not match the old garment on which it was patched anyway (Luke 5:36). In a similar way, you cannot put new wine into old wineskins, for the old skins would burst (be ruined) and the wine would be lost (ruined). There was no way to use the new to salvage the old.

The “new wine” must be put into new wineskins (Luke 5:38). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices. Pharisaism, which was committed to preserving the old way, could not accept this. The reason for this Jesus explained in last verse of chapter 5:

“And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough’” (Luke 5:39).

Jesus is explaining, in this statement, the mindset of the conservative, for Pharisees were conservatism incarnate. Having tasted the old and finding it good, the conservative does not wish to try the new, even though it might be better. And the reason is simply this:


I had better say it now. I am generally quite conservative. But conservatism is not automatically right; neither is liberalism automatically wrong. Contemporary Christianity has over-simplistically been linked with conservative economics and politics. Right wing politicians have become “bed-fellows” with fundamental, evangelical Christians. This could be a very unhealthy relationship, even though close ties can be found.

There are various types of conservatism. There is economic and social conservatism, where the “have’s” attempt to keep what they have (money, standing, power), which leaves the “have-not’s” without. This kind of conservatism is not Christian, for the “have’s” are to give of their wealth to the “have-not’s” (cf. 1 Timothy 6). There is also social conservatism, which is simply stubborn resistance to change, any change. This helps to explain why old people tend to be more conservative, as a group. Let’s face it, the older I get, the less energy (foolishness) I have to try something new, especially if the old and proven works. Biblical conservatism seeks to defend the faith, to hold fast to the fundamental doctrines of the Bible, and this is good, but all too often much more than the fundamental truths gets thrown into the “save” basket.

The conservatism of the Pharisees had “gone to seed.” It had become a kind of “preservatism” which attempted to save their way of life, but which was found to have rejected the God they claimed to serve. Let us beware of letting our conservatism get out of hand. Nothing is to be viewed as better only because it is old. Likewise, nothing should be automatically viewed as better simply because it is new.


I have sought to make application to the principles of this passage as we have gone through the text itself. But let me not conclude without saying something very pointed to any who may not yet have come to faith in Jesus Christ, who have not found His presence a comfort and a joy. First, do not allow “dill-pickle” Christians to convince you that you must sacrifice all pleasure and joy to serve and follow Christ. The opposite is true. The only lasting and ultimate joy is found in being forgiven by Him, and being in fellowship with Him. Second, do not think of God as distant, uncaring, and unpleasant. Our Lord Jesus demonstrated that God cares, that God has come, and that God finds pleasure in the fellowship of forgiven men and women. Third, do not suppose that being a sinner must keep you from God. Recognizing that you are a sinner is the first step toward God. Jesus came to call sinners. It is only the self-righteous who shunned Jesus, for Jesus came to forgive sinners and to have fellowship with them. You cannot be too sinful for God to save, only to holy to need His salvation. Finally, recognize that proof that you are forgiven, a child of God, is by the comfortableness and joy you find in being in the presence of God and His people. If you have never trusted in Him, do it now. No joy will ever match that which you find in Him.

105 Gerald Mann, The Seven Deadly Virtues (Waco: Word Books, 1979).

106 Ibid, pp. 12-13.

107 Each of these passages has its own unique contribution. The unique contribution of each text is summarized briefly below, for your consideration and future study.

Matthew: This is of his own calling. Uses the name Matthew (9:9), rather than Levi (Mark & Luke).
Alone quotes Jesus as saying, “Learn what this means: “Desire mercy and not sacrifice’” (Hos. 6:6). John’s disciples ask about fasting.

Mark: There were many tax-gatherers and sinners who followed Jesus (2:15). Both John’s disciples and Pharisees ask about fasting.

Luke: Levi forsook all and followed. Levi put on the feast (Matt. & Luke simply have Jesus eating a meal in a house).

Matthew & Mark say “tax collectors and sinners”—Luke says, “tax collectors and others.” Pharisees grumbled about Jesus & sinners (they were offended, not just inquisitive).

Matthew and Mark ask disciples why Jesus ate with sinners, Luke has them asking “you” (the disciples) why they ate with sinners.

Luke emphasizes damage to new garment, which is ruined to repair the old. Luke only speaks of men who have tasted old finding it better than the new (like “old time religion”).

108 Matt. 5:46; 9:10-11; 11:19; 18:17; 21:31-32; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 3:12-13; 5:29-30; 7:34; 15:1; 18:10-11; 19:1-10.

109 J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939), pp. 142-143. Edersheim also writes, “It is of importance to notice, that the Talmud distinguishes two classes of ‘publicans’: the tax-gatherer in general (Gabbai), and the Mokhes, or Mokhsa, who was specially the douanier or custom-house official. Although both classes fall under the Rabbinic ban, the douanier—such as Matthew was—is the object of chief execration. And this, because his exactions were more vexatious, and gave more scope to rapacity. The Gabbai, or tax-gatherer, collected the regular dues, which consisted of ground-, income-, and poll-tax. The ground-tax amounted to one-tenth of all grain and one-fifth of the wine and fruit grown; partly paid in kind, and partly commuted into money. The income-tax amounted to 1 per cent.; while the head-money, or poll-tax, was levied on all persons, bond and free, in the case of men from the age of fourteen, in that of women from the age of twelve, up to that of sixty-five.

If this offered many opportunities for vexatious exactions and capacious injustice, the Mokhes might inflict much greater hardship upon the poor people. There was tax and duty upon all imports and exports; on all that was bought and sold; bridge-money, road-money, harbour-dues, town-dues, &c. The classical reader knows the ingenuity which could invent a tax, and find a name for every kind of exaction, such as on axles, wheels, pack-animals, pedestrians, roads, highways; on admission to markets; on carriers, bridges, ships, and quays; on crossing rivers, on dams, on licenses, in short, on such a variety of objects, that even the research of modern scholars has not been able to identify all the names. On goods the ad valorem duty amounted to from 2 1/2 to 5, and on articles of luxury to even 12 1/2 per cent. But even this was as nothing, compared to the vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one’s pack-animals, when every bale and package was opened, and the contents tumbled about, private letters opened, and the Mokhes ruled supreme in his insolence and rapacity.” Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [reprint], 1965), I, pp. 515-516.

110 “Capernaum, being located on the Via Maris and being a busy populous center, had a large custom-house with a correspondingly large number of tax-gatherers. It was located at the landing-place for the ships which traversed the lake to various towns on the other shore. The flow of commerce along the highway was also great. From the midst of this group of men engaged in a lawful occupation but likely unlawful abuse, Jesus would win some to eternal life. He was accustomed to pass by that way and doubtless made use of His opportunities to evangelize them. Levi, may have heard Jesus preach by the seaside. He would not feel free to enter the synagogue. The great Teacher frequently taught the humble fisher-folk and others in the open air by the sea and so reached many in this way with His message who would be inaccessible in the synagogues. The sudden response to the call of Jesus that Levi had heard Him preach. Perhaps he had pondered long, as he sat at the receipt of custom recording the import and export duties, the words of some message on the Kingdom, and had secretly decided in his heart that he would be some day a disciple of the new prophet. He was strangely drawn to Jesus, recognizing in Him the helper of all men, even sinners.” Shepard, pp. 145-146.

111 Plummer suggests that a particular word is used of Jesus looking on Levi, which indicates pleasure:

“‘Looked attentively at, contemplated, a tax-collector,’ as if reading his character. The verb often implies enjoyment in beholding (vii. 24;Jn. i. 14, 32, 38; I Jn. i.1).” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), pp. 158-159.

112 “Thus, in one and another respect, Rabbinic teaching about the need of repentance runs close to that of the Bible. But the vital difference between Rabbinism and the Gospel lies in this: that whereas Jesus Christ freely invited all sinners, whatever their past, assuring them of welcome and grace, the last word of Rabbinism is only despair, and a kind of Pessimism. For, it is expressly and repeatedly declared in the case of certain sins, and, characteristically, of heresy, that, even if a man genuinely and truly repented, he must expect immediately to die—indeed, his death would be the evidence that his repentance was genuine, since, though such a sinner might turn from his evil, it would be impossible for him, if he lived, to lay hold on the good, and to do it.” Edersheim, I, p. 513.

113 Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 193, footnote, 3.

114 Shephard remarks,

“They directed their expressions of criticism to the disciples of Jesus, perhaps because they were afraid to risk themselves in debate with the Teacher who had bested them in that recent encounter. Perhaps they thought, as Chrysostom suggests, that they might instill disloyalty in the disciples, and discredit Jesus before them.” Shepard, pp. 145-146.

115 The Gospel of Luke reveals a very interesting development of the definition of a sinner:
The Pharisaic View of a Sinner: (1) Jesus associates with sinners Luke 5:31-32. (2) Jesus is a “friend” of sinners Luke 7:34. (3) Jesus “welcomes” sinners Luke 15:2. (4) Jesus is a “sinner,” worthy of death Luke 22:70-71 (cf. John 9:16, 24). Jesus’ Definition of a Sinner: (1) Sinners not defined Luke 5:32; 6:32-34. (2) Sinners not restricted to sufferers Luke 13:15. (3) Sinners include the self-righteous Luke 18:10-14. (4) Sinners are those who condemn Christ(cf. Matt. 26:45; Mark 14:41).

116 “In the Old Testament fasting is ordered only on the Great Day of Atonement as a definite institution (Lev. xvi. 29, where “afflict your souls” also includes “fasting”). But fasting was also practised voluntarily as a sign of mourning (2 Sam. i. 12), at times of disaster and national calamities (Neh. i.4), as a sign of repentance for sin (I Kings xxi. 27), and the like. Thus originally it bore a rich religious significance. During the Babylonian exile, as a result of the lack of the sacrificial services, the opinion arose more and more that fasting was a meritorious work that would be rewarded by God. Thus the practice of fasting assumed an increasingly outward and formal character and lost much of its religious value. For this reason the prophets during and after the exile took such drastic action against it. True fasting, they proclaimed, consisted not in abstaining from food and drink but in renouncing sin (Zech. vii. 5 ff.). Still the degeneration grew apace, so that in the time of Jesus it had become a fixed practice with the Pharisees and many other Jews to fast regularly twice a week (Luke xviii. 12) with much outward display and hypocrisy (Matt. vi. 16, ix. 14).

Jesus’ attitude towards fasting briefly amounts to this, that He rejects it as a religiously meritorious ceremony bearing a compulsory, ceremonial character; but He practised it Himself at times and permits it as a voluntary form of spiritual discipline (Matt. iv. 2, vi. 16-18).

It was such a voluntary religious practice that the first Christians observed fasting (Acts ix. 9, xiii. 2, 3, xiv. 23). But after the third century it degenerated in many cases to an obligatory and supposedly meritorious formality as it is still to be met with today among Roman Catholics, Jews and Mohammedans. Geldenhuys, p. 198.

117 Tim Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1986).

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18. The Great Sabbath Controversy (Luke 6:1-11)


My friend Al, who works at the auto parts house I frequent, pointed me to his new “jokes” posted on the front of the counter. I could not help but laugh at the way in which the four types of government were compared, using two cows. SOCIALISM would have you give one of your cows to your neighbor and keep the other. COMMUNISM would insist that you give both cows to the state, and occasionally you might be fortunate enough to get a little milk or butter. NAZISM would shoot you and take both of your cows. In a DEMOCRACY you would sell one cow and buy a bull. To this I would add one more category—LEGALISM. Legalism would lay down so many rules and regulations concerning the keeping of cows that nobody would want them anyway!

Legalism is a deadly system, one which characterized the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, and which was evident in their attitudes and actions as we see Luke describing them in our text. Specifically, the legalism of the Pharisees was dramatically evident in their rules pertaining to the keeping of the Sabbath. Concerning the legalism of the Pharisees with regard to the Sabbath, Shepard writes:

“The Mishna says: ‘He that reapeth corn on the Sabbath to the quantity of a fig is guilty; and plucking corn is reaping.’ Rubbing the grain out was threshing. Even to walk on the grass on the Sabbath was forbidden because it was a species of threshing. Another Talmudic passage says: ‘In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered sifting; if she rubs the head of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing’ [Jer. Shabt, page 10a]. The scrupulosity of these Jews about Sabbath was ridiculously extreme. A Jewish sailor caught in a storm after sunset on Friday refused to touch the helm though threatened with death. Thousands had suffered themselves to be butchered in the streets of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes rather than lift a weapon in self-defense on the Sabbath! To these purists, the act of the disciples was a gross desecration of the Sabbath law. The worst of all was that Jesus permitted and approved it.”118

Shepard is referring to the Sabbath laws of Jesus’ day, but it would be incorrect to suppose that things have improved with time. A friend loaned me a book by Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth entitled, Shemirath Shabbath: A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath.119 This volume (my friend reminds me that it is the first volume) goes into great detail concerning the interpretation and application of the Sabbath for contemporary Judaism. In the preface to this work the author writes,

“The Mishna (Chagiga: Chapter 1, Mishna 8) likens the laws of Shabbath to ‘mountains hanging by a hair,’ in that a multitude of precepts and rules, entailing the most severe penalties for their breach, depend on the slightest of indications given by a biblical verse.”120

He also reminds us of the importance which Judaism has and continues to place on the keeping of the Sabbath:

“May we be privileged, by virtue of the proper observance of the Shabbath, to see the final redemption of Israel. ‘Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, ‘“Were Israel properly to observe two Shabbathoth, they would immediately be redeemed’”(Shabbath 118b). Until such time, God’s only dwelling-place on this earth is within the four walls of the Halacha (Berachoth 8a).”121

The book contains much instruction about the keeping of the Sabbath, but I will mention only a few. As I do this, I confess that it is somewhat “tongue in cheek,” but I would hasten to point out that the legalism which is apparent here is frequently found within evangelical Christianity as well. If we would smile at the “straining of gnats here” let us laugh at our own “strainings” as well.

Cooking in most all forms (boiling, roasting, baking, frying, etc.) is forbidden on the Sabbath, in particular when the temperature is raised above 45 degrees centigrade (113 Farenheit).122 If the hot water tap is accidentally left on, it cannot be turned off on the Sabbath.123 Escaping gas can be turned off, but not in the normal way. One must turn off the tap of a gas burner with the back of the hand or the elbow.124 The preparation of food is greatly affected by the Sabbath. One cannot squeeze a lemon into a glass of ice tea, but one can squeeze lemon on a piece of fish.125 That one cannot light a fire on the Sabbath is taught in the Old Testament law (cf. Exod. 35:3). Strict Judaism views this to prohibit turn electric lights on or off on the Sabbath. The problem can be solved, however, but using a timer, which automatically handles this task.126 So, too, an air conditioner cannot be turned on by a Jew on the Sabbath, although a Gentile might be persuaded to do so.127 One cannot bathe with a bar of soap on the Sabbath, but liquid detergent is acceptable.128

I found the section dealing with “discovered articles” (pp. 233-235) most interesting. One is prohibited from transporting goods on the Sabbath. This would prevent merchants conducting business on the Sabbath. It has been so highly refined (defined?) that now one cannot carry something which he unknowingly took with him. If one is walking along on the Sabbath and discovers that he is carrying something in his pocket, he has several courses of action so as not to violate the Sabbath. He may, for example, drop the item out of his pocket, but not in the normal or usual fashion (by grasping it, removing it from the pocket, and dropping it on the floor). He can, however, reverse his pocket, expelling the object unnaturally, and thus legitimately. If the item is valuable, and he does not wish to leave it on the ground, he can ask a Gentile to watch the item for him. Otherwise, the item could be carried, but not in the usual way. He can carry it for a prescribed distance (just under four amoth), put it down, then take it up, and so on. Or, the man could relay it between himself and a fellow-Israelite, each one carrying the object for no more than the prescribed distance. If this is not advisable, the object can be carried in an unusual way, such as placing it in the shoe, tying it to his leg, or managing to suspend it between his clothing and his body.

The keeping of the Sabbath is, to some, not only a matter which is taken seriously, but which is taken to almost humorous extremes. One can well imagine, then, that the Pharisees would be zealous in seeing what our Lord did with respect to their Sabbath regulations. While we may not struggle with the keeping of the Sabbath, we should struggle with the problem of legalism, as it raises its ugly head in the keeping of our Lord’s commandments to His followers. Let us listen well to learn how we may be as legalistic as the Pharisees, and not even know it.

The Structure and
Context of our Passage

Verses 1-11 of the sixth chapter of Luke’s gospel deal with the subject of the keeping of the Sabbath, according to the Pharisaical interpretation of the law. This passage has two major divisions. Verses 1-5 give an account of the protest of the Pharisees and the response of our Lord, stemming from the “harvesting” of food on the Sabbath by Jesus’ disciples. Verses 6-11 deal with Jesus’ healing of the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.

In chapter 6 (actually a larger portion of the text) Luke is not concerned with providing us with a precise chronology. This can be seen by the vague time references (“on a certain Sabbath,” 6:1; “on another Sabbath,” 6:6). It is also hinted at by the fact that the arrangement of Luke (followed here by Mark as well) does not match that of Matthew. While Mark and Luke go immediately from the account of the call of Levi, the banquet which he gave, and the resulting barrage of questions, to the Sabbath controversy. Matthew, however, records the call of Levi in chapter 9 and does not deal with the Sabbath controversy until chapter 12.

Luke’s purpose is to prepare his reader for the rejection, arrest, conviction, and execution of Jesus by his opponents by laying the groundwork early in the book, which clarifies the issues which made enemies of the Pharisees (in particular) and the other Jewish leaders, as well as with the masses (hinted at in the Nazareth incident in Luke 4:16-30). The masses rejected Jesus because He would bring blessings on the Gentiles (Luke 4:16-30). The Pharisees rejected Jesus because He claimed to be God (5:17-26), because He associated with sinners (5:27-39), and now, because He did not keep the Sabbath as they interpreted it (6:1-6). These issues will dominate the relationship between the Pharisees and Jesus, culminating in His crucifixion. The section which we are studying provides us with the “continental divide” of the gospels.

While in chapter 5 the Pharisees (first mentioned by Luke in conjunction with the pronouncement to the paralytic that his sins were forgiven) object to Jesus’ authority to forgive sins, they do not seem to have come to a resolved opposition against Him. When we come to verses 6-11 in chapter 6, they have their minds made up. They are no longer looking for evidence as a basis for making a decision about Jesus, they are looking for proof the validate their rejection of Him. What began with curiosity, and led to concern, has, by the time we have reached our text, become condemnation and criticism.

The Approach of the Message

In this message we will begin by considering the objection of the Pharisees to the trivial act of the disciples of our Lord of eating of the grain from the fields, through which they were passing. We will then explore some of the responses which our Lord could have made, but did not. Then we will consider the response which He did make, along with its implications. Next, we will look at the Lord’s healing of the man with the withered hand, seeking to learn the critical differences between our Lord’s understanding of the Sabbath, and that of the Pharisees. Finally, we will attempt to discover how the error of the Pharisees has its counterparts in our day and time, and even in our church! We will conclude by pointing out some of the crucial principles which our text can teach us about God’s commandments.

The Disciples Go Against the Grain of Pharisaism
(The Horrible Harvest)

The Lord Jesus and His disciples were passing through some grain fields on the Sabbath, followed by a delegation of Pharisees. Perhaps a crowd of other followed as well. Why were the Pharisees present? I believe that the Pharisees stuck closely to Jesus just as the press does to some noted dignitary, hoping for something to happen (usually bad). The Pharisees knew that Jesus’ popularity was growing steadily. They also were becoming alarmed at the realization that Jesus was not in their camp, indeed, was often attacking them (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, which comes before this incident in Matthew’s account). They were afraid to leave Jesus to Himself, unwatched, unchallenged. Furthermore, they were eager to catch Jesus in some transgression of their rules, so that they could point their fingers at Him and accuse Him of being wrong.

On this Sabbath day, we might imagine some of the Pharisees badgering Jesus with a constant barrage of questions, hoping to trap Him. Another group may have been counting the steps our Lord was taking, since they would only allow a limited amount of travel on the Sabbath. Much to their delight, some of the disciples (who were seemingly oblivious to the legalism of the Pharisees) began to strip heads of grain from the field, rub them in their hands to separate the grain from the sheaf, and pop it into their mouths. This, to the Pharisee, was harvesting and threshing grain, something which one could do on any other day, but not on the Sabbath. The challenge was made, both to Jesus (Matthew and Mark) and to the disciples (Luke), “How the Sabbath be so blatantly broken by doing this?”

Jesus had several options available to Him in what He could have said in response to this challenge:

(1) “I DIDN’T DO IT!” Jesus is not said to have done as His disciples did in the text, nor is He accused of doing so by the Pharisees. The easiest thing for Jesus to have done was simply to point out that He was not guilty of their charge, that their charge to Him was misdirected. Jesus refused to do this however, taking responsibility for the conduct of His disciples. Jesus argued on the premise that what He could do, His disciples could do. Jesus wanted to argue His point here, and did not miss the opportunity to do so by using a technicality.

(2) “THAT’S JUST YOUR INTERPRETATION OF THE LAW OF THE SABBATH.” The Sabbath commandment is incredibly concise: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Even the related texts which expand on the application of this law are not lengthy or detailed (cf. eg. Exod. 31:12-17; 35:2-3; Lev. 23). When the actions of our Lord’s disciples are viewed through the lens of the Old Testament law, there was nothing wrong with them. Viewed through the lens of the legalism of the Pharisees, their actions were heinous. Jesus could very easily have pointed out to His critics that there was a world of difference between the Pharisaic interpretation of the law and the actual law itself.

Jesus does not want to argue about different methods of interpretation here. The Sermon on the Mount, as recorded by Matthew, does spell out the differences between the correct interpretation of the law and those of the Pharisees, but this is not His purpose here. As I understand this text, Jesus wants to establish His right to violate the law, even though He has not done so.129 He therefore grants His opponents their argument (that it was unlawful to harvest on the Sabbath, as the disciples had done) and presses on to show that they were wrong in accusing Him, not because of a wrong interpretation of the Sabbath, but because Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, had the right to break the Sabbath.

Our Lord’s argument, as outlined by Luke, is based upon a very simple premise: WHO YOU ARE DETERMINES WHETHER OR NOT YOU ARE FREE TO BREAK THE SABBATH

We could go into very great detail in seeking to see the parallels between Jesus and David, or to justify David’s violation of the sacredness of the bread which he ate, and which he gave to his men (his disciples) as well. Let us not do so, however, for the point is more forceful when we take the Lord’s words on face value.

Jesus responded to the harassing questions of the Pharisees with a stinging introduction: “Have you not even read … ?” (v. 3).

The Pharisees were professional students of the law. This was their high calling in life, their claim to fame. Jesus began by asking these scholars if they had ever even read the text to which He referred. It is His way of saying, “You question is a very elementary one, and one that reveals a very poor grasp of the Scriptures.” These words must have come as a slap in the face to the proud students of the law.

Jesus’ argument was amazingly simple: “David broke the law, and if he could have done so, I all the more.” Technically speaking, David did break the letter of the law when he ate bread that only the priests were allowed to partake of. David also gave this bread to his men, and was not to be condemned for doing so.

Why didn’t the Pharisees condemn David’s actions? This is the question which Jesus seems to be pressing. David’s actions could be justified by several lines of argument. David was hungry, as were his men. He might have died without this bread. The answer which Jesus is seeking is something different, however. Jesus wants His critics to admit that they don’t condemn David’s actions because David did them. David was so revered by the Pharisees that they dared not condemn his actions here, even though a technical violation of the law.

The point of this line of argumentation is now about to be pressed home. If David could break the law (prohibiting any but the priests from eating the sacred bread) because of who he was, Jesus could also break the law, for He is even greater than David. Who you are determines what you can get away with. The central issue, then, was not whether or not Jesus broke the Sabbath, but who Jesus was. Once the Pharisees rejected Jesus as the Son of God, as Israel’s Messiah, then He must be held accountable for keeping all of the law. There was no protest against Jesus’ miracles on the Sabbath (cf. Luke 4:31-37) until after Jesus rejection by the Pharisees.

Jesus’ statement indicated who He was, which entitled Him to break the law: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5).

The term, “the Son of Man” has only once been used previously by Luke, and that at the time of the Pharisees rejection of Jesus’ authority to forgive sins. The Old Testament meaning of this title, found predominantly in Ezekiel, would suggest that Messiah would reveal the sins of the nation Israel, for which He would be rejected and persecuted. Jesus began to use the title for Himself at the first evidences of rejection.

The second expression, “Lord of the Sabbath” is even more significant. I believe that it may have a two-pronged meaning. First, Jesus may be claiming here to be the Sabbath’s Lord in the sense that He is the fulfillment of all that the Sabbath was to foreshadow (cf. Col. 2:16-17). The rest which the old Sabbath promised has come in Christ: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

If Jesus has fulfilled the Sabbath by coming with a greater rest, then the commandment to keep the Sabbath can be set aside. Why work to rest under the law when Christ gives rest from the law?

Furthermore, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath in the sense that He is greater than the Sabbath, and thus able to set it aside. To be Lord of the Sabbath is to be Lord over the Sabbath.130 When Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath, He claimed to be greater than the Sabbath, in authority over the Sabbath, and thus far more qualified than David to break the law pertaining to the Sabbath.131

The Healing of the
Man with the Withered Hand

Luke does not record any response to Jesus’ defense of His disciples’ action. My guess is that the Pharisees went off, stunned, silent, and sullen. Another Sabbath incident is recorded by Luke in verses 6-11 which was, according to the Pharisees, was a transgression of our Lord, who did the “work” of healing on the Sabbath.

There was a man present as Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath, who had a withered hand. The scribes and the Pharisees were well aware of this man’s presence (had he been “planted” by them?), and they were sure that our Lord would heal him. They were waiting for the occasion, so that they could accuse Jesus. They wanted the man healed, but not fore his benefit. Jesus wanted the man healed for the man’s benefit. How right Jesus had been to point out (according to Matthew’s account, Matt. 12:7), that the governing principle in keeping the law, especially the Sabbath law, was not sacrifice or ritual, but mercy and compassion. These Pharisees had no compassion on the man with the withered hand, and yet they were certain that Jesus would have compassion on Him. They, in their lack of compassion, sought to use the compassion of Christ to their advantage. What a contrast in the character of our Lord with that of His enemies.

I do not know whether the man caught Jesus’ eye, or if he plead for mercy and healing, or whether he was pointed out to Jesus by the Pharisees or others. We are told that Jesus was aware of the man, as well as of the scheme to accuse Him (Luke 6:6-8). How easy it would have been for our Lord to avoid this conflict. He could have privately instructed the man to meet Him at another time or at another place, so as to avoid the attack of the Pharisees.

Jesus did not do so however. Jesus wanted to face the issue head-on. He called for the man to come forward, in the sight of all. Jesus wished to make an issue of the healing of this man on the Sabbath. Here was the very heart of the conflict between Jesus and His opponents, the scribes and Pharisees. The issue which Jesus wished to raise was the purpose of the precept. Why was the Sabbath Law given? The Pharisees concentrated on the negatives, on the “Don’ts” of life. Jesus on the affirmatives. The Pharisees thought that the more a man suffered (fasting, tithes), the more spiritual he was. Jesus ate and drank, a matter of discussion in the immediately preceding context.

Jesus therefore posed this question, in essence:


The Pharisaical view of the Sabbath would reluctantly allow for one to work to render aid to a dying man, to one in such dire straits that he would not live till the Sabbath had ended. But the man with the withered hand did not fit into such a category. He would live. His malady was not life-threatening. The Pharisees therefore believed that Jesus should wait to heal this man. Jesus, by His actions, was raising the question, “Why?”

Jesus looked about, studying His audience, and, according to Mark’s account, angered by the hardness of heart of His accusers (Mark 3:5). He seemed to let the question simmer in their minds. What was the Sabbath for, to make men miserable, or to be a blessing? If the Sabbath was for good, then doing good on the Sabbath could hardly be wrong. If the Sabbath was not given as a blessing for man, then doing good on the Sabbath would be wrong. It was that simple. Why was the Sabbath given, for good or evil?

Jesus answered the question by His deeds. He instructed the man to stretch out his hand (Dr. Luke, incidentally, alone informs us that it was his right hand—what a man of detail!). When he did so, it was healed. I have to smile because Jesus actually did nothing other than to speak. He did not reach out and touch the man. He did not even command him to be whole. He instructed him to hold out his hand, which as he did so, became healed. Technically speaking, the way in which Jesus performed this miracle kept Him from breaking even the strict and legalistic rules of the Pharisees. Tee Hee.

The Pharisees were not giggling, however. They were seething with anger (v. 11). They went off in a huff, to deliberate among themselves (Mark tells us that they included their enemies, the Herodians,132 and that they discussed how to kill Jesus, Mark 3:6) as to how to handle Jesus.

The Pharisees are now the bitter enemies of Jesus. They are not interested in following Him. They are no longer open to the possibility of His being the Messiah. They only wish to be rid of Him, something which they will only later be able, in the providence of God, be able to achieve. The Sabbath controversy was, for them, the last straw. Jesus and they were deadlocked in a conflict which was irreconcilable so long as they stubbornly resisted the Son of God and persisted in their sins (they didn’t repent, they just fasted so as to pretend they were repentant).


Our text does far more than reveal the sinfulness of the Pharisees, and the silliness of their interpretation and application of the Sabbath. We can learn several vitally important principles from this passage. Let me summarize them in conclusion.

(1) There is not a direct cause-effect relationship between legality and morality.

The Pharisees wrongly concluded that by keeping (their interpretation of) the law, they would be righteous. They thought that legality insured morality. This has always been wrong. As a friend of mine has said, there are many crimes that are not sins and there are many sins that are not crimes. Witnessing, spanking disobedient children, and meeting as a church in a home may become illegal, but they will not because of this become immoral acts. So, too, abortion may now be legal, but it is still an immoral act. Legality and morality are not the same. Legalists do not see this, and thus they are always law-minded for the wrong reasons. Law-abiding people are still sinners. Indeed, the purpose of the law was never to make men righteous, but to prove men sinners.

(2) There is not a direct, one-toone relationship between our interpretation of the Law and the Law itself.

The Pharisees had obviously confused or blended their interpretation of the law with the law itself. In other words, their interpretations of the law were the final authority. I believe that our Lord did not argue this point at this time for at least two reasons. First, He wanted to demonstrate His freedom from the law, not just from their interpretation of it. Second, he knew that the were unable and unwilling to distinguish the two from each other (their understand of the law from the law itself). Confusing our interpretation with the inspired Word of God sanctifies our opinions, even our errors, and makes it a mortal sin for men to differ with us. Let us be on guard about equating our perception of the truth with the truth itself. There is often a great deal of difference.

(3) The precepts of the Law must always be applied in the light of the principles of God’s Word.

To the legalist, it is the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law that is supreme. Legalists, like a bureaucratic IRS agent (I do not say all are this way), looks not at the intent of the law, but only at the inscribed law. It is a scary thing to see what legalists can do to any law when they refuse to interpret that law in the light of the spirit in which it was given.

I believe that the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew’s account, is our Lord’s interpretation of the Old Testament law, based not upon the letter of the law, but upon its spirit. In this, Jesus set Him interpretation of the law in opposition to that of the Pharisees. In this, Jesus sought to demonstrate that His handling of the Old Testament law was consistent with the original intent of God when it was given. The law is thus to be interpreted in terms of its original intent, rather than upon a rigid legalism.

In the United States, we have an illustration of how devastating legalism can be. The Supreme Court was created to be the final interpretive authority, the final judge, as to the meaning of the law. This court was to interpret the law in the light of the purpose for which that law was originally written. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has now become a kind of second legislative body, no longer judging the laws in terms of the intent of the framers of the constitution, but by the standards and purposes they wish to achieve. How tragic! How like the legalism of the Pharisees, who sought to impose their own agenda on God’s laws.

(4) The precepts of the Law are to be understood and applied in the light of the person who gave them.

From what we know about the Pharisees, they must have had a very distorted view of God. If they thought they were godly they must also have thought they were God-like. Thus, they very likely viewed God as a person who found little to enjoy, and much to agonize over. Holiness consisted not so much in positive, affirmative actions as in what one didn’t do.

One’s view of God would greatly shape the way in which one interprets and applies God’s commandments. Thus, having a very negative God-image (may I alter the over-worked self-image term?), one would view the commandments in their most negative light. Think about it for a moment. Suppose that you worked for a company which had a set of policies for all its employees. If you had a very strict and harsh manager, you would interpret the rules very conservatively. If, on the other hand, you had a very kind, understanding and tolerant manager, you would tend to interpret the company rules more liberally. You would not always assume the worst.

Jesus claimed to be God, as the Pharisees well knew, but He did not conform to their conception of God. Jesus was, as Jonah similarly protested, a gracious and compassionate God, a God who delighted in the salvation of men. Jonah and the Pharisees were not compassionate, as Jesus pointed out (Matt. 9:13; 12:7; Hos. 6:6). Note that in both instances of our Lord’s reference to Hosea 6:6 in Matthew, it is addressed to the Pharisees. Jesus was too kind, too caring, too forgiving, too intimate with sinners. A harsh conception of God led the Pharisees to a harsh interpretation of the law. Knowing the Rule-Maker is one of the greatest keys to understanding the rules which He has made.

(5) The Law must always be interpreted and applied in the light of the covenant of which it is a part.

Think about it for a moment. Why do we not live under the laws of the 3rd Reich, or of Contemporary Russia, for example? The reason is simple: Laws are but a definition of the kind of conduct which a given government requires. The nature of the government determines the nature of the laws. An atheistic government may have laws prohibiting religious meetings, worship, or propagation. A truly communistic government will likely have laws which prohibit free enterprise. Laws are a reflection of a given government, a clarification and definition of how life is to be lived under this kind of government. Even a change of administration in the United States (say from a very liberal one to a conservative one) can great affect what new laws are passed and how existing laws are interpreted and enforced.

We must remember that the Sabbath laws, as all the Ten Commandments, were a part of the old covenant, the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus has already explained to the Pharisees that you cannot blend the old and the new. The reason why our Lord retained and defended His right to set the law aside was because it was a part of the old covenant, which was to be done away with, set aside, replaced by the new and better commandments of the new covenant. The Pharisees were either unable to understand, or at least to accept, the fact that the old order (along with the old laws) was passing away.

I do not mean to suggest that the Ten Commandment and the requirement of the Mosaic Covenant have no relevance to the 20th century Christian. I do mean to say that we must today interpret and apply the Old Testament law in the light of the fact that Christ has set aside the old order and established the new.

(6) Who you are determines whether or not you are subject to the Law.

David, our Lord reminded His critics, was able to violate the law which prohibited the eating of the sacred bread to anyone but the priests. The priests, because of who they were, could eat the sacred bread, and they could violate the Sabbath by offering sacrifices in the temple. Jesus, God incarnate, was free from the law, so to speak because He was the author of the law. You and I cannot take a book that has been written, copywritten, and published, and change its words, but its author can, because it is his work. So, too, as God Jesus was not subject to the law, and thus not bound to keep the Sabbath. Christ voluntarily place Himself under the law, in the sinner’s place, so that He could bear the penalty of the law, and redeem men from the power of death through the law.

Jesus’ actions and words in our text are most significant, for they teach in principle in a minute scale what He will accomplish on a broad scale. Jesus was not merely claiming authority to set aside the Sabbath, He was claiming the right to set aside the whole law. By meeting the demands of the law without any sin, and by dying to the law in the sinner’s place, Jesus has set the law aside. Having died to the law, the resurrected Christ was no longer under the law, to which He had subjected Himself. Our Lord’s Sabbath actions were but a prototype of His work on the cross.

Pressing this principle beyond its immediate application to our Lord, we can also say that the disciples of Jesus were given the same rights and freedoms as their Lord claimed. Not only was David allowed to break the law and to eat the holy bread, so were his disciples. Not only was Jesus free from the law, so were His disciples. Our bondage or freedom is the by-product of our relationship to Christ, or our lack of it. Those who are “in Christ” are privileged to share in all the He accomplished for them.

(7) The principle of perversion: The good things which God gives can quickly and easily be corrupted and perverted by sinful men.

Satan has, from the very beginning, sought to pervert the blessings of God, making them into a curse. God’s command that Adam and Eve could eat of every tree but one was for their blessing. Satan quickly entered to make God’s restriction look evil. In Romans chapter 7 Paul teaches us that the law is good, but that sin perverts it, so that the law actually is used to entice men to sin. So, too, the Sabbath law, given for man’s good, was perverted by the Pharisees.

(8) One’s perception of the purpose of the Law has everything to do with one’s motivation for obeying it.

If I view God as harsh and unloving, and His law as restrictive and burdensome, then I will do everything I can to avoid its instructions. I will distinguish between my joy, my best interest, and the commands of God. This is exactly what the Pharisees did. For all their talk about keeping the law, the Pharisees had become experts at avoiding its commands. The very things which God required most (mercy and compassion), the Pharisees were able to escape, and even to feel righteous for so doing.

When I once come to the liberating conclusion that the psalmists had long ago reached—that the law was good, wholesome, and a delight to obey—then I will strive to learn it, to understand it, and to apply it:

How blessed are those whose way is blameless, Who walk in the law of the Lord.…. Blessed art Thou, O LORD; Teach me Thy statutes. With my lips I have told of All the ordinances of Thy mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, As much as in all riches. I will meditate on Thy precepts, And regard Thy ways. I shall delight in Thy statutes; I shall not forget Thy word.… O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day (Ps. 119:1, 12-16, 97).

God’s commandments, Old Testament or New, were to be viewed as blessed, a joy to carry out, and a joy when carried out. That is much needed perspective today. That is not the spirit of legalism.

118 J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939), p. 161.

119 Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth, Shemirath Shabbath: A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath. English edition, prepared by W. Grangewood (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1984).

120 Ibid, p. xxx.

121 Ibid, p. xxxii.

122 Ibid, p. 1.

123 Ibid, p. 17.

124 Ibid, p. 11.

125 This is my understanding of the view expressed on pages 66-67.

126 Ibid, pp. 141-142.

127 Ibid, p. 146.

128 Ibid, p. 154.

129 I must differ with Shepard, who feels that Jesus here affirms the law, rather than insisting on His right to violate it: “In His defense, Jesus had not abrogated the law but established it. He did not throw open the door to Sabbath desecration but stripped the Sabbath of its shackles and freed the disciples for greater activity in true worship and service on the Lord’s day. This work of Jesus would lead later to the further separation from the bondage of Jewish traditions, when the day should be exchanged in honor of the resurrection of the Lord of the Sabbath.” Shepard, p. 163. The reasons for my view will be seen as the sermon develops.

130 I pursed the expression “Lord of… ” (e.g. “Lord of the harvest,” “Lord of heaven and earth,” “Lord of lords”) in the Bible, I found that “Lord of… ” connotes the lordship and authority of the one before the “of” (God) over the one following the “of” (“harvest,” “heaven and earth,” “lords,” “Sabbath”).

131 The Gospel of Matthew cites another instance of “Sabbath violation” which is not a violation because of the persons who do so. Jesus referred to the priests who work on the Sabbath, in conducting sacrifices (Matt. 12:5). Because of who they are, they are not condemned for breaking the Sabbath. Jesus then went on to say that One greater than the temple was present. Since Jesus was greater than the temple, and greater than David, He could, with impunity, break the Sabbath law.

132 “Hitherto they had been enemies of the Herodians, considering them half-apostate Jews. The Herodians were supporters of the Roman domination, followed the heathen customs, and had held that Herod the Great was the Messiah. But they could be used as tools to destroy Jesus and so the Pharisees secretly establish a combination with them and against Him, plotting together with them as to what would be the best method to kill Him.” Shepard, p. 166.

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19. Defining Discipleship (Luke 6:12-26)


In his excellent book, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion,133 Gordon MacDonald identifies five different types of people:

(1) Very Resourceful People are the people who stimulate and challenge us in our ministry—our mentors.

(2) Very Important People are those who share with us in our ministry, often our associates.

(3) Very Trainable People are those people who have potential for ministry, whom we can profitably train.

(4) Very Nice People are just that, but add little to our ministry and do very little ministry themselves.

(5) Very Draining People are those who could easily consume most of our time and energy in ministry. These are the takers, who seldom become producers or givers. These are the very needy folk, who drain us of our strength and time.

When I read through Luke’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount as he records it, I think that there are a wide variety of people present there to hear what Jesus taught. Without too much effort, we could probably find people to fit nearly every category which MacDonald has identified for us. Jesus would, of course, be the “very resourceful person.” The twelve disciples might be the “very important people.” The larger group of disciples might contain “very trainable people.” The large crowd would probably have some “very nice people” and some “very draining people.” I have to think that there is another category which must be added, too, the “very nasty people,” made up of those whose life’s calling seems to be to harass and trouble us. The Pharisees would certainly fall into this category.

The puzzling thing to me is that most of the categories of persons are simply lumped together to some degree by the term “disciple. “We would use the term primarily for the twelve whom Jesus here designates as His apostles (v. 13). The group of those from whom the twelve were selected are called “disciples” (v. 13). I would take it that it was from this group that the 70, who were later sent out by Jesus (Luke 10:1ff.) were drawn. Then, there was the large group of “disciples” who awaited Jesus and His “disciples” as they came down from the mountain (v. 17). In addition, there was the “great throng of people” (v. 17) who came to hear Jesus and for healing.

A number of dispensational scholars have taken the position the Sermon on the Mount was the “constitution of the Millennial Kingdom,” and thus it does not directly apply to the church today. I disagree. It would seem to me that from Luke’s account at least we must conclude that the subject of the sermon (at least verses 20-26) is discipleship. Those to whom the sermon was addressed are the disciples (v. 20a). Our text not only helps to define what discipleship is all about, it also has much to say about the motivation of a disciple. For all of us who would desire (or not desire) to be disciples, this text has much to say. Let us listen well to the words of our Lord, speaking to disciples about discipleship.134

The Structure of our Text

The structure of our text may be outlined as follows:

(1) The Setting of the Sermon, verses 12-20a

  • The designation of the twelve as apostles—vv. 12-16
  • The miraculous ministry of Jesus on His descent—vv. 17-19

(2) The Sermon on the Mount, Part I—verses 20b-26

  • Blessings—vv. 20b-23
  • Woes—vv. 24-26

The “Tensions of the Text”

There are several “tensions” to be found in this text, problems which motivate our study and provide significant clues to the interpretation of the text. Briefly outlined, the “tensions of this text” are:

(1) Jesus appears to be changing horses in mid-stream, from one who enjoyed life and whose disciples did as well (cf. 5:27-39) to one who advocates a “teeth-gritting” endurance of life.

(2) Jesus appears to be teaching that poverty is a blessing and that riches is a curse. Are the poor more blessed than the rich?

(3) Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount differs quite a bit from that of Matthew. Why does Matthew’s account dwell on the “spiritual” (“poor in spirit,” “hunger and thirst for righteousness”), while Luke’s dwells on the physical (the “poor,” “hunger”)?

The Interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount

There are many different views as to how we should approach the Sermon on the Mount. I have already suggested that I believe the thrust of our Lord’s words, at least in our portion of the sermon, dwell on the very present matter of discipleship, not on the future matter of the Millennial Kingdom. This means that the teaching of Jesus here is not remotely related to our daily lives, but is directly relevant to us. I would also suggest that this sermon should be interpreted in the same way (with the same hermeneutics) our Lord taught in Matthew account of the Sermon, in terms of the principles of the law, and not just the precepts. Thus, our Lord’s teaching on “turning the other cheek” is not merely a rule which teaches a mechanical kind of response to a right cross (the term does suggest this, rather than a slap, as we will later point out), but a principle which should govern our relationship with our enemies. The practices advocated here are illustrative of principles, and the principles are primary.

The Setting of the Sermon

Luke begins by telling us that the day’s events were preceded by a night of prayer on the part of our Lord. Luke gospel has an emphasis on the prayer life of our Lord, which we have already seen. Our Lord was said to be praying when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him (3:21). Our Lord went off to pray after the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the healing session which resulted (4:42, compare Mark 1:35). Later, Luke said that Jesus had a habit of prayer, “But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16).

While there are many important matters which require prayer, what our Lord does is not unusual. From our perspective it would have been, for how many of us spend all night in prayer? And if Jesus found it necessary to do so, how much more so should we pray?

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Jesus prayed all night just regarding the choice of the twelve who would be chosen as apostles. This was surely on our Lord’s agenda, but I think that there were other matters which He prayed about as well. I would suggest that our Lord prayed concerning the sick and that the great display of His power (vv. 18-19) was in answer to His prayer. I believe as well that the Sermon on the Mount was a matter of prayer. Jesus had to prepare His messages, too, and He did so on His knees. We who preach could surely learn from the Master here! Finally, I suspect that Jesus prayed for His enemies, the Pharisees. In verse 28 Jesus will teach, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

I cannot imagine our Lord failing to practice in His prayers what He preached. It is my opinion that our Lord’s prayer for the Pharisees may have greatly helped Him in preaching His Sermon on the Mount. I cannot conceive of the fact that the Pharisees would not have been present at this sermon. Luke never mentions them (Matthew’s account has references to them, cf. 5:20), nor is it ever mentioned that they were there. They were never absent, however. Recall, for example, that they were there when Jesus healed the paralytic (5:17ff.), and at the reception held by Levi (5:29ff.), and in the grain fields when Jesus was traveling on the Sabbath (6:1ff.). The Pharisees were almost omnipresent when it came to Jesus. They dared not leave Him alone, unchallenged.

A preacher friend of mine once shared that he had a woman in his congregation who felt it was her task to challenge and humble him. Every Sunday she would sit in the front and very loudly disagree with him. Do you think that the Pharisees did any differently? I’m sure that they were there when Jesus preached this sermon. I have no doubt but that they were in disagreement. But Jesus prayer for them, His enemies, enabled Him to overlook them, and not to be distracted by their disruptions.

After His all-night prayer vigil, Jesus called a larger group of “disciples” to Him, from which He chose twelve, designating them as His apostles. These were to be the leaders of the church (remember that Luke also authored the book of Acts). These twelve men were to spend much time with Jesus. They were to be sent out in preaching and healing campaigns. They were to be apostles.

Even Judas was chosen. Luke very carefully informs us that Judas was to become a traitor (v. 16). This indicates that Judas was not initially a traitor. It tells me that Judas did not purpose to infiltrate Jesus’ inner circle as a base of operations. Judas had good intentions.

Some might say that while this was true, Judas was an unbeliever, and that all the rest were genuine believers. There is truth in this, of course, but in a very technical sense, none of the twelve were true believers yet. These men had many positive qualities. These men would become men of faith, spiritual leaders, but there were not so at this point in time. It is not until chapter 9 in Luke’s gospel (chapter 16 in Matthew’s) that the great confession of Peter is found. Consistently the disciples are looking at one another after some great miracle of our Lord and asking themselves, “Who is this … ?” None of the twelve initially fully grasped that Jesus was the Messiah in such a way that we could call them full-fledged believers at the time Jesus appointed them. There was not as much difference between Judas and Peter (say) than we might think. Peter became a rock; Judas a traitor.

Jesus’ actions here teach us some important lessons about leadership. Jesus was in no hurry to “lay hands on” any man as a leader. Considerable time passed before the twelve were designated as leaders. Just as Judas would fail, so there would be men at a later time which would fail as well, though not as unbelievers (cf. Acts 20:29-31). Jesus had no qualms about giving some men greater amounts of His time than others. Jesus gave priority to those who would later prove to be ministers and leaders. These eleven, to use MacDonald’s terminology, were “very trainable people.”

In the immediately preceding section of Luke, the author has developed the theme of the opposition of the Pharisees. With the Pharisees, Jesus has become a very unpopular person. Jesus was challenged because he claimed the authority to forgive sins (5:21). Then He rankled the Pharisees because of those with whom He associated—sinners (5:27-32). Next, they were upset because Jesus and His disciples ate and drank, while they fasted (5:33-39). Finally, the Lord was guilty, in the minds of the Pharisees, of breaking the Sabbath, and Jesus had the audacity (so they thought) to claim the right to do so (6:1-11). The verse which precedes our text informs us that the Pharisees were now the enemies of Jesus, who are looking for a way to be rid of Him. Parallel accounts tell us that the wish to put Him to death (cf. Mark 3:6).

While Jesus was exceedingly unpopular with the Pharisees, He was the favorite of the people. We should probably say, because Jesus was popular with the people, He was very unpopular with the Pharisees. His unpopularity with the Pharisees was very much related to His popularity with the people, something which the Pharisees very much resented. Matthew and Mark tell us that Pilate knew the source of the religious leaders’ hostility was jealousy (Matt. 27:18; Mark 15:10).

The extent of Jesus’ popularity with the people is evident from two major facts mentioned by Luke. First, the large number of people who were there, even in such a remote place. Second, the great distance from which people were coming. Here, we are told by Luke that they came from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and even from the coast of Tyre and Sidon (v. 17).

This popularity of our Lord is an important element in the setting of the Sermon, for it indicates to us the great courage of our Lord in delivering this message. Jesus’ popularity was a rather fragile thing, as later events will indicate. Jesus did not choose to speak on non-controversial matters, however, just to keep the favor of the crowds. When you stop to think about what our Lord is saying in this sermon, it was virtually the opposite of what others taught and believed. Jesus spoke of poverty, hunger, and persecution as blessed, and of wealth, being well-fed and favor as bringing a curse. He taught people to love their enemies, and not to retaliate. He taught that one should give to those in need, knowing that they would never be repaid. These are not very popular teachings. The “health and wealth” teachers of our time know this. Jesus, in spite of His great popularity, spoke the truth, and taught what people needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear.

The Sermon

There are a number of differences between Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-49) and that of Matthew (chapters 5-7).

Luke 6:20-26 And turning His gaze on His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. 23 “Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. 25 “Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets.

Matthew 5:1-12 And when He saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 And opening His mouth He began to teach them, saying, 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In the first place, Luke’s account is much shorter than Matthew’s. Second, in the blessings portion which we are studying, the ones blessed are spoken of more in the third person (as if “they,” “them”), while in Luke’s account it is second person (“you”). Matthew’s account is more “spiritual” (“poor in spirit,” “hunger and thirst for righteousness”), while Luke’s is more physical (“poor,” “hunger”). Luke makes a greater emphasis on the contrast of time (“now”). Matthew’s account deals only with blessings, while Luke has cursings (“woe”) as well.

The words which our Lord spoke to His disciples in verses 20-26 contain a mixed message of both blessing and woes. The “woe” section is unique to Luke. Matthew’s account contains only blessings. It is difficult to grasp the parallels which are drawn between the blessings and the cursings unless the two passages are placed side-by-side, as follows: Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are POOR for yours is the kingdom of God.

“But woe to you who are RICH, for you have already received your comfort.

Blessed are you who HUNGER now, for you will be SATISFIED.

Woe to you who are WELL FED now, for you will go HUNGRY.

Blessed are you who WEEP now, for you will LAUGH.

Woe to you who LAUGH now, for you will MOURN AND WEEP.

Blessed are you when men HATE YOU when they EXCLUDE YOU and INSULT YOU and REJECT YOUR NAME as evil, because of the Son of Man. “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the PROPHETS.

Woe to you when all men SPEAK WELL OF YOU, for that is how their fathers treated the FALSE PROPHETS.

At first reading the words of our Lord are incredible. It would seem as though Jesus has said that all who are poor, hungry, mourning and persecuted are blessed, while all who are rich, well-fed, happy, and honored are cursed. Is it a blessing to be poor, hungry, sorrowful, and rejected? Are all the hurting people of the world suddenly so fortunate, while all of the comfortable, happy people of the world are really cursed?

The answer to these questions is “No!” There is no intrinsic benefit to being poor, nor is there any automatic evil in being rich. Luke is careful in the selection of words which he uses to convey Jesus’ message. Look at them again. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor … ” He did not say, “Blessed are all who are poor … ”

There is a world of difference between these two statements. Matthew’s account limits the “poor” to the “poor in spirit.” Luke’s account limits the “poor” to the disciples, who have chosen poverty in order to follow Him. So also, those who are rejected and persecuted are treated this way “because of the Son of Man” (v. 22). It is not being poor that is blessed, but being poor for Christ’s sake. There is no intrinsic merit in being rejected and persecuted, but only in being thus treated on Christ’s account (cf. 1 Peter 2:20).

Not all Christians are called to a life of poverty, hunger, weeping, and rejection, but the disciples of our Lord were. Poverty, hunger, weeping and rejection was the life which our Lord chose, setting aside the riches and glory which belonged to Him so that He could become the Savior of the world by dying on the cross of Calvary. The disciples, that is those who followed Him, would have to adopt His lifestyle and suffer His rejection. To identify with Christ as His disciples meant adopting Jesus’ lifestyle. For the eleven this meant poverty, hunger (at times) and weeping, and rejection.

Obedience to God meant this kind of life for many—not all, but many. Note the words of the writer to the Hebrews, speaking of those faith led them to choose suffering now, so that they would receive God’s promised rewards:

And others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (Heb. 11:36-37).

So, too, this was the life which the apostle Paul chose:

To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless (1 Cor. 4:11).

But in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger (2 Cor. 6:4-5).

As Jesus frequently taught, when a choice must be made between money and God, God must come first (Matt. 6:24). Money is not evil, unless it takes the place which only God should have (cf. 1 Tim. 6). The rich young ruler’s money meant too much for him. When forced with the choice of following Christ or being rich, he chose to remain rich (Luke 18:18ff.). In the Lord’s parable of the soils, the thorny soil symbolized the “cares of this world” are that which chokes out the seed of the gospel. Luke tells us that Jesus called them “worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). When we must choose wealth or Jesus, being well-fed or Jesus, laughter or Jesus, we must always choose Him.

Does this mean, then, that those who follow Jesus, those who are His disciples, are in for a gloomy, miserable, unhappy life? Not at all! The reason is this: the joy and the blessedness of serving Him is so great that the things we must give up to do so are no great loss to us. These are only great losses if we have invested too much in them, if they mean too much too us. The parable of the “pearl of great price” (cf. Matt. 13:44-46) teaches this truth. Once the man has found the “pearl of great price” he gladly sells all that he has to purchase that of greatest value. We sense no great loss when we give up lesser things to gain the greatest thing. This is what Jim Elliot is remembered for saying, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

This raises an interesting and important point. What is it that makes following Jesus so great a blessing that men will gladly give up riches, comfort and even friends to do so? Luke’s account would supply us with a very strong reason: the blessings which Jesus gives are eternal, while those which disciples may reject are temporal. We can fill in many other answers from the gospel as a whole. Jesus gives the forgiveness of sins, peace with God, the joy of fellowship with Him and of serving Him. Discipleship leads to the greatest blessings, so great that wealth, health, and the praise of men matter not.

Giving up lesser benefits for greater ones is not a principle known and practiced only by Christians. It is a principle practiced by all who are wise. We give up immediate pleasures to save our money to buy something that is of lasting pleasure or value. Runners give up food and even friends to maintain rigorous training, all for the joy of winning the race. Sacrifices are a blessing when they lead to greater blessings. That is what Jesus was saying in this sermon. How blessed were His disciples! True, they would become poor, they would experience hunger, and they would be rejected and persecuted. But in light of the blessings of fellowship with the Son of God these were hardly worthy of being called sacrifices.

We must also ask another question. “Who are those upon whom the ‘woes’ are pronounced?” Notice that Jesus also says here, “Woe to you who are rich … ” (v. 24).

It is my opinion that Jesus is now speaking to particular people, just as he had been speaking to the disciples. (Would this have been a special word of warning to Judas, for example, who would be stealing money from the money bag he carried for the disciples? Cf. John 12:6)

If the “you’s” of verses 20-23 could identify with the prophets of old in being rejected and persecuted by the nation, the “you” of verses 24-26 must be those who could identify with the false prophets (v. 26). I believe that Jesus especially had the Pharisees in mind here. Later on Luke will inform us that “the Pharisees were lovers of money” (Luke 16:14).


The point of the passage is clear. Men must make a decision as to their values and their priorities. We must all choose to forsake some things in the pursuit of others. Not all men must forsake wealth to follow Christ, although all must forsake the love of money. Life involves choices. We must choose what in life to pursue. Every choice has both benefits (blessings) and a price to pay. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of a gift, the gift of eternal life, which is of infinite value. To have it is worth the loss of anything else. The price is that we must acknowledge our sins and trust only in Christ. We must forsake all other gods and follow Christ alone. If such a choice comes at the price of poverty, hunger, sadness and rejection, it is well worth it, and it is still blessed. May God grant that each of us may be disciples of our Lord. That we may find following Him better than anything else life has to offer. Jesus never minimized the cost of discipleship. He didn’t need to, because it is the pearl of great price. Intimacy with God is the greatest of all blessings. All other “blessings” are but trash in comparison.135 May God’s values and those of the gospel be ours. It is not the pursuit of riches that is wrong, but the pursuit of false riches. Let these words of the Lord of Glory to the church at Laodicea be a guide to us as well:

“‘So because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see’” (Rev. 3:17-18).

Let us all purse riches, but let those be the riches which only our Lord can give.

133 Gordon MacDonald, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion.

134 Initially I had purposed to cover a bigger piece of the Sermon on the Mount, but I have obviously changed my mind. One of the reasons is that verses 20-26 are addressed pretty directly to the disciples of our Lord. In verse 27, however, a broader group seems to be in view, as indicated by the words, “But I say to you who hear…”

135 The whole book of Hebrews is summed up by the word “better.” The assumption is that once men recognize the better from the inferior, they will forsake the inferior for the better. This is precisely our Lord’s argument in this part of the Sermon on the Mount.

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20. Tough Love (Luke 6:27-49)


This sermon is what I would call a “sweaty palms” message. It is surely not a message that we would naturally want to hear. Our natural inclination is not to “turn the other cheek” nor to give a freeloader a “loan.” I think it is important to begin this message by admitting to ourselves that we are naturally opposed to what Jesus has to say in Luke’s accounting of the Sermon on the Mount. Because of this, I caution you to delay judgment on what you hear until you have had sufficient time to think about it, to study the Word of God, to pray, and to search your own heart.

I have entitled this message, “Tough Love,” but I think you will soon recognize that I mean something very different from what this expression generally has been used to describe, even in Christian circles—especially in Christian circles. I recently read Anthony Campolo’s book, entitled The Power Delusion, in which he indicated that it is now common practice for couples who are seriously dating to seek to avoid the commitment of love. Each of the two, Campolo suggests, are actually trying to “under love” (my words) the other, as opposed to outdoing the other in love. The reason is that love has obligations and so the one who loves most owes most. To be free from the debts of love one must love less, making the other partner more in debt to you than you are to them. A kind of “unbalance of payments” scheme.

If we are right in assuming that love has its debts, then we will probably be dismayed to learn from our Lord just how great a debt we owe. In this case, however, we are not dealing with the our debt of love for a husband or wife, or of a friend, or even of a neighbor, but of an enemy. Jesus is specifically dealing with love’s obligation and expression in relationship to our enemy. Quite frankly, we will see that what Jesus requires His disciples to do for their enemies is more than what many are willing to do for their spouse.

The “tough love” we are dealing with is not the kind of love which justifies being “tough” on the other person (which is sometimes required), but rather is a love which is incredibly tough on us to live out.

Admittedly, when we read our Lord’s words in verses 27-30, there are many potential problems with doing exactly as He says. The first thing I would say to this is that Jesus wanted His listener to obey the spirit of His words, not just the letter. He wants His disciples to interpret His words here just as we should interpret the Old Testament Law of Moses. We should find the principle underlying the precept and then interpret and apply the precept in light of the principle.

Second, I would hasten to admit that there are many potential problems which come to mind when one tries to take Jesus’ teaching seriously. For example, should one “turn the other cheek” in the case of rape, or of murder, or of child sexual abuse? What about an abused wife? I think that we can quickly see that one must interpret and apply our Lord’s words in the light of other biblical principles. But while there may be exceptions, our Lord’s intent is to deeply imbed the principle in our minds. In the case of marriage and divorce, Jesus did not want to talk in terms of exceptions, but in terms of the rule (cf. Matt. 19:3ff.). So, here, Jesus wants to avoid undermining the rule by emphasizing exceptions. Thus, we see no exceptions to “turning the other cheek,” even though we know that there must be some. Let us first learn the rule from this text, and then seek to put it into practice, and finally to consider abuses and exceptions.

The Structure of Our Text

I view our text as having three major divisions. As a unit, the text contains our Lord’s words to the broader group of those gathered to hear Him (cf. 6:27; 7:1), rather than just the small group of disciples (cf. 6:13-16, 20). Here, Jesus is spelling out how one of His followers must deal with their enemy. Verses 27-30 define some of the practices which Jesus’ follower must carry out for an enemy. Verses 31-38 lay down the principles which require and motivate one to act as Jesus has taught above. In verses 39-49, Jesus “parablizes,” pointing out why this kind of practice is needed. Thus the text may be summarized as follows:

(1) Loving One’s Enemy (Luke 6:27-49)

  • BEHAVIOR: The Practice of Loving One’s Enemy—Verses 27-30
  • BASIS: The Principles for Loving One’s Enemy—Verses 31-38
  • BETTERNESS: The Practical need for loving enemies—Verses 39-49

The Approach of This Message

In this lesson I am going to do something a bit unusual, something I usually seek to avoid—deviating from the order of the text, as recorded. I am going to begin by characterizing the practices which our Lord required for us to love our enemies (vv. 27-30). Then, I will deal with the parables of Jesus, underscoring the importance of our obedience to His commands here (vv. 39-49). Finally, I will conclude by identifying the principles which underlie the practices (vv. 31-38).

The Practice of Loving One’s Enemy:
The King of Love Christ Calls For

Entire sermons could be preached on these verses, but our approach precludes this. Let us begin with an overview of what Jesus is calling for in this section.

(1) Jesus is giving instructions to all of those who would be His followers, His disciples. Verse 27 informs us that Jesus spoke these words to “all who hear.” This may be another way of saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Nevertheless, I believe that Jesus is telling those who would follow Him what practices are required of them.

(2) The practices which our Lord requires here all pertain to our “enemy,” the one who hates, curses, mistreats, attacks, and takes advantage of us. Our enemy, I think we can say, is the one who is not seeking our best interest at their expense, but who is striving to achieve their best interest at our expense.

(3) The practices which Jesus requires are all responses to a specific evil done to us personally by our enemy. The actions our Lord requires are responses to personal offenses against us.

(4) The evils done against us may be due to the fact that we are followers of Christ, although this is not clearly stated. The responses are clearly required of Christ’s followers.

(5) The actions (responses) our Lord requires are those which are contrary to Judaism, to our culture, and to our own fallen nature. The actions which Jesus requires are supernatural responses. We would not do them normally (motivation), nor could we (means, power). Thus, the actions set the follower of Jesus apart from all others.

(6) Generally speaking, the actions required of our Lord necessitate the surrender of our personal rights. To put it in other words, we could file charges against our enemy for their doing to us what they have done.

(7) The list of practices which Jesus laid down here is suggestive, not all inclusive. Matthew, for example, gives us additional matters to consider, which were a part of this same sermon (cf. Matt. 5:41). Jesus did not intend for this list of required responses to be considered complete, but rather suggestive. These are but examples of the way in which a more general principle: Do not return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.

(8) The things Jesus required require faith and supernatural enablement. These are not acts which one does in his own strength, in order to be saved, but are acts which one who has been saved does, due to the new mind and the new strength Christ gives through His Spirit.

(9) The things which our Lord here commands could be abused and may need to be set aside in order to carry out other instructions. The Christian life is not simple, as the Pharisees sought to make it (they really complicated it further). The Christian seldom acts on just one principle at a time, but on several, all held in balance and tension. We are thus something like a juggler, trying to keep several principles in the air at the same time by our deeds.

(10) The practice of the commands of our Lord given here relate to the “blessings” pronounced by our Lord above. Doing as Jesus commands may make us poor. We may object, “But I’d go broke doing this!” Jesus’ words above, “Blessed are you who are poor … ” would become very relevant.

(11) Knowing that one had made the commitment to practice these precepts would have a great impact on his conduct. For example, if I knew that I were not going to strike a person back who hit me, I would be encouraged thereby to become a blessed “peacemaker” and “gentle” person (cf. Matt. 5:5, 9). Those who choose to carry firearms in their cars know that this does not tend to make them meek, just as those who choose a more pacifistic lifestyle tend to avoid developing chips on their shoulders. The conscious chose to obey Jesus’ commands here will also tend us to develop other godly characteristics.

Parables Explaining the
Need for Loving Our Enemies

I would not “go down fighting” for the fact that all of these words are parables, but I do think that the one common factor is that of explaining why it is essential for Jesus’ followers to obey these commands. In simplest terms, Jesus is saying that it is necessary for His followers to “march to the beat of a different drum,” to live life by a higher standard, to have their practice be better than that of others, who are not His followers. “Betterness” is the unifying thought which undergirds these verses and gives a unity of thought. Let us briefly summarize the impact of each statement which our Lord makes here to see His reasons for “betterness” in living of His followers.

(1) Guides of the blind need to see better than those they lead, v. 39. The first parable has to do with those who lead the blind. If the “guide” is as blind as the one he leads, both will get hurt. The guide for the blind must see better than the one he guides. Jesus came, He said, to “give sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18). This, I believe this involved more than the giving of physical sight (cf. John 9:35-41). If Jesus’ followers are going to do as He did, their sight must be better than that of sinners.

(2) Teachers must be better than their students, v. 40. Jesus reminded His of what we all know: teachers must be better than their students, for it is the student’s task to come up to the level of his teacher. We do not have a 5th grade student teaching 12th grade students. We might, however, have a 12th grade student teaching the 5th grader (in the old days this happened). Because students are in the process of becoming like their teachers, teachers should be better.

(3) Eye inspectors and correctors must have better vision than the one whose eye from which they are trying to remove a small foreign particle, vv. 41-42. If one has bad eyesight, caused by a large foreign object, he can hardly function well at helping another remove a small imperfection from his eye. One must have better vision than the one with impaired vision, whom we are seeking to help.

(4) The superiority of some things can only be discerned by the better quality of their output, their “fruit,” vv. 43-45. The quality of some unseen things can only be measured by the visible “fruit” of their output. The nature (species) and quality of a tree can only be known by the nature and quality of its fruit. The condition of a man’s heart, invisible to other men, can only be judged by what proceeds from him (his mouth). If following Christ is the better way, then Christians should produce better “fruit.” Thus, Christians are called to live by a much higher standard.

(5) Obedience to the “tough” commands of our Lord proves a person to be a true follower of Christ, and handling the tough tasks now assures us of enduring tough times ahead, vv. 46-49. Jesus taught that it is not only to call Jesus Lord, they must prove He is Lord by obeying His commands (v. 46). It is in doing the tough things which shows our discipleship. It is not test of a child’s obedience to hand him money and instruct him to go and buy candy. It is a test of obedience to have the child submit to an inoculation at the doctor’s office.

In verses 47-49, Jesus sought to illustrate the fact that doing the hard thing now gives confidence in the hard times ahead. When building a house, the wise man “goes the extra mile” of laying a strong foundation. Digging deep to establish a solid foundation is not the easy way, but when the storms come, the building will stand. Obedience to our Lord’s commands regarding the loving of our enemies is not easy, but it does give us confidence that in the future we will have been well founded, well established in our faith and obedience, and able, by His grace, to withstand any coming storms.

In each and every one of these illustrations, the need for “betterness” has been established, even though the cost is high to live according to Christ’s higher standard. The commands of Christ regarding loving our enemies is a very high standard, higher than that which others hold or practice, but this only shows that which God all things are possible for those who trust in Him, who obey His commands, and who are sustained by His power and grace.

Principles Underlying the Loving of our Enemies

The precepts about loving our enemies, which our Lord has given us in verses 27-30 are based upon principles. Beginning from the lowest level principle and ascending to the highest, Jesus gives us several governing principles in verses 31-38. Let us briefly consider these.

(1) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This principle is based upon a fundamental premise, that of reciprocity. We tend to respond to others in kind. Those who love us, we love. Those who are kind to us, we are kind to. Those who are harsh with us, we tend to be harsh with. The “golden rule” teaches us that that given the human tendency toward reciprocity we should treat others in the same way that we want them to respond to us. If we want people to be kind and gracious toward us, we must be kind and gracious toward them.

There is nothing particularly noble about following this principle, since we serve our own best interest by being kind toward others. Kindness shown toward others tends to be reciprocated toward us. We gain from what we give. Much of the secular counsel in how to relate toward others is based upon the principle of the golden rule. It does not rise above the standard which unbelievers set for themselves.

The golden rule, however, is but a minimum requirement. It relates toward with the expectation that our kindness will be returned. It does good so that good will be done for us. The golden rule can be followed by any self-seeking person. Obedience to it has little virtue, for it sets a standard which all men would try to keep. The golden rule is not bad—it is simply not good enough. Thus, our Lord presses on to other (higher)principles.

(2) Do good unto others when they have done evil against you.

Jesus made it very clear that there is no virtue in living according to the same standard as others, even sinners (vv. 32-34). Then Christian is to surpass the world’s minimum standard in the matter of loving others. The world gladly responds in kind. Sinners love those who love them. But the saint must love those who hate him. This is by far the more difficult path. If others reciprocate in kind, we are to respond otherwise. We are not only to give love for love, and good for good, we are to love our enemies, and to return good for evil.

(3) Do unto others, without looking to men for your reward.

If we are to do good to those who have done evil against us, we are also to do good to men who will do evil against us. Men do good things for others, expecting them to do for them in return (reciprocation). The Christian not only is to disregard what their enemy has done against them, but is also to act kindly toward others, knowing that they may not reciprocate, and may do evil to us when we have done good to them.

Sinners look to men for their reward, and they look for their rewards to come quickly. Christ’s followers are to look to God for their reward, and that may not come until eternity. This means, of course, that men must live by faith in order to love their enemy, faith that God sees, that God rewards, and that blessings will come later on.

(4) Do unto others as God has done unto you.

While sinners deal with others in accordance with the way they have been treated by them, saints are to deal with others in accordance with the way God has treated us (and all men). Christ’s followers are to show mercy to their enemies because God has shown mercy to us. In His mercy, God has always provided men with a way to escape the judgment of God. This has always been by means of God’s grace, through the instrumentality of man’s repentance and faith (which is also a gift of God). The mercy of God is to provide the follower of Christ with the motivation to show mercy to his enemy. We are to treat others as God has treated us.

(5) Do unto others in the same way you want God to do to you.

We have already seen that we are to deal with men as God has dealt with us. Now we must press this even further so that we deal with men in such a way that determines how God will deal with us in the future. This is not an easy principle to grasp, but the Lord Jesus taught that the way we treat others determines how God will treat us. In the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus taught that we are to ask God:


Lest we fail to grasp what this means, our Lord explains,

“For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14-15).

God deals with us in the same way that we deal with others. God judges us according to the standard we use for others (Matt. 7:1-2). When we deal with men in mercy, God deals with us according to mercy. When we demand our rights, that is, justice, then God gives us justice (what we deserve) too. So, Jesus taught that God deals with us in the same way we deal with others, including our enemies:

“And do not pass judgment and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you shall not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For whatever measure you deal out to others, it will be dealt to you in return (Luke 6:37-38).

Here it is, then. While ordinary men live ordinary lives, Christians are to live supernatural lives. While ordinary men love those who love them, Christians are to love those who hate them. And they can do so because they look to God for their reward, not to men. Christians can be taken advantage of by men because God is the one who blesses and rewards them. Christians can engage in a kind of “deficit spending” of love because God will always replenish the supply.


These words of our Lord are indeed difficult and perplexing, but their essence is clear. We are to do what no one else will do—love our enemy. We are to do so because God has loved us while we were His enemies. We are to do so because God is the One who will bless us for obeying His commands.

We know from the gospels that our Lord practiced what He preached. He loved His enemies and He went the extra mile on the cross of Calvary. He provided, at His expense, the way of salvation for men. Through the cross of Christ men can be transformed from enemies to intimate friends (cf. Ephesians 2).

There are a number of ways in which our text could be misinterpreted and misapplied. Let me say that this text was not written to suggest or to sanction the abuse of our Lord’s disciples by evil men. This text was not written for the thief, to sanction his taking of our coat or our shirt. This text was not written to justify borrowing money and not paying it back. While there will always be those who will use such texts to demand unreasonable things from Christians, this was obviously not our Lord’s intent. He was advocating the overcoming of evil with good, not the practice of evil against the good.

This text also surfaces the fact that we often act out of unrealistic expectations. Much of our acts of “love” done toward others is very selfishly motivated. We love others in order to be loved in return. We give in order to receive. We do good, so that good will be done to us. We serve on the basis of expected reciprocity. Whether or not we continue to serve and to love others is conditioned by how they respond toward, by how must we get back from them in return. Our Lord’s words are intended to show such thinking as utterly mistaken. We must serve others, expecting nothing in return from them, but assured that we will receive our reward from God. And the beauty of God’s grace is that He rewards us far beyond that which we deserve. He rewards in accordance with His grace and His riches.

I personally believe that much of the so-called “burn-out” in ministry is simply people who are angry with men (and with God) because there has not been any reciprocity, and return for our sacrifices and service. This kind of burn-out is based upon self-interest and self-seeking, not on the obedience of a true disciple of Christ. Let us forsake our expectations of receiving our rewards from men.

I have already indicated that our Lord’s concept of “tough love” is vastly different from that which is often propagated in the name of Christianity today. “Tough love,” as it is commonly spoken of, is love that is tough on others, love that looks out for one’s own interests. Biblical “tough love” is that which is tough on us, the lover, and which is merciful to others, even our enemies. You will not find our text in most books which deal with “tough love” because our Lord’s words condemn what is popularly taught.

This leads me to a final word of advice about the way we listen to sermons and the way we read “Christian counsel books.” We have a tendency to quickly accept the “sounds good to me” advice and counsel, that advice which conforms to our own sinful tendencies and preferences. Of course we don’t want to be taken advantage of by evil men. Naturally we do not want to return good for evil. And thus we quickly look for reasons which we should not have to do what Jesus has taught here.

But let me remind you that God’s thoughts are not man’s thoughts, nor are His ways our ways. Therefore, we should expect that much of what our Lord has to say is going to be hard to accept. Truth is going to initially be reacted to. Only after much thought and prayer can we see that the hard things are exactly what our Lord meant, and what our fallen nature wants to reject. The corollary to this is that false teaching, that which makes things easy on us, is going to “sound good” to us, and be accepted without a great deal of critical thought. Let us beware of that teaching which “sounds good” to us too quickly. The renewing of our minds requires that our thinking change into conformity with God’s Word. Hard to hear or not, let us listen to what our Lord has taught us in this passage.

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21. Jesus the Healer (Luke 7:1-17)

Luke 7:1-17 When He had completed all His discourse in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum. 2 And a certain centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. 3 And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. 4 And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; 5 for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue.” 6 Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; 7 for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” 9 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

11 And it came about soon afterwards, that He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large multitude. 12 Now as He approached the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizable crowd from the city was with her. 13 And when the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 And fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” 17 And this report concerning Him went out all over Judea, and in all the surrounding district.

Matthew 8:5-13 And when He had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, entreating Him, 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering great pain.” 7 And He said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” 10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 “And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; let it be done to you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very hour.


The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant can best be understood in the light of the Old Testament account of the healing of Naaman, as recorded in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a military man, too, like the centurion. Naaman was the captain of the army of the king of Syria, Israel’s enemy. We know that because of Israel’s sin and rebellion against God Syria was given dominance over God’s people. The Syrian army, under the command of Naaman, would wage periodic attacks, plundering cities, taking the crops, and even taking slaves. It was one such slave girl who happened to become the servant of Naaman’s wife. She told her master’s wife that if Naaman were in Israel there was a prophet of God who could heal him of his leprosy. Naaman decided that it was worth the effort to make the trip to Israel to seek such a healing.

Naaman took the expected course of action. He worked from “the top down.” Naaman received a letter from his king, the king of Syria, to the king of Israel. In effect, this letter ordered the king of Israel to see to it that Naaman was healed of his leprosy. In addition to the persuasive power of the letter from the king of Syria, Naaman came laden down with money and expensive gifts. This would “sweeten the pot” and provide more incentive for benevolence, surely securing his healing if it was possible in any way.

The king of Israel was greatly distressed at the arrival of Naaman and on reading the letter he presented from the king of Syria. He viewed this as a political ploy, giving the Syrians a pretext for another attack on Israel. After all, how was the king of Israel to heal of pagan leper? When Elisha, the prophet of God to Israel, heard of these matters, he sent word to the king of Israel to send Naaman to him, so that he would know that there was a prophet in Israel.

Naaman arrived at the door of Elisha’s house. It must have been an awesome sight, seeing all those “Rolls Royce chariots” arriving at the house, something like the arrival of the black limousines at the White House, when dignitaries and heads of state visit our president. Obviously, Naaman had expected the “red carpet” treatment from the Israelites. His nation’s political supremacy, His commissioning letter from the king of Syria, his gifts and money in hand assured him of being treated very well, he thought.

It was quite a disappointment to have been greeted by a mere servant, rather than the prophet. So, too, it was humiliating to be instructed by the prophet through the servant that he must dip himself seven times in the Jordan river if he would be cleansed. In fact, Naaman was downright furious. He expected to be greeted by the prophet, and to have been healed personally by the prophet, using some dramatic words and gestures. He expected to pay well for his healing, of course, but in the process to be treated as his position deserved.

A wise aid to Naaman suggested that he had little to lose but his pride, and much to gain. Had the prophet asked for a great sacrifice on his part, he would have gladly paid, so why not do what he said? Naaman obeyed and was cleansed.

The reason why the healing of Naaman is pertinent to us is that Naaman and the centurion are very similar in many ways, except in their approach to God for healing. Naaman came on the basis of human power and authority. He came as the captain of the Syrian army and by means of the power of Syria. He expected that his influence and power, not to mention his money, would assure him of healing. The centurion, on the other hand, totally set aside all of his position and power, humbly appealing to Jesus as one who was unworthy of His gifts, indeed, even of His presence.

The story of the centurion’s faith is both significant and relevant to us. Our Lord made a point of commending his faith. This man was a Gentile, not a Jew, and yet he put the Jews to shame in this matter of faith. Few things are more needed in our individual lives and in the life of the church than a vital, growing faith. The centurion’s faith serves both as a stimulus and as a model for Christians of all ages.

The Approach of this Message

In this message we will study two incidents in the life of our Lord. The first incident is that of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10); the second is that of the raising the dead son of the Jewish widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17). These two incidents have certain elements in common and other distinct areas of contrast.136 These incidents share in common these fact that both are miracles performed by our Lord. Also, both of these incidents have been recorded by Luke as samples of the kind of miracles Jesus had been performing, the reports of which went to John the Baptist, and resulted in his question to Jesus, as asked by means of two of his disciples (Luke 7:18ff.). These two incidents serve as incentives and models for faith in our lives. Finally, these miracles serve to confirm and testify to the identity of Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah.

We will begin by studying the healing of the centurion’s servant, and then move on to the raising of the widow’s son. Then we will return to consider the characteristics of faith which we can discern from both incidents. Let us listen well to these words which can stimulate and strengthen our faith.

The Centurion’s Faith

The story of the healing of the centurion’s son is a remarkable one, but let us focus on some of the critical features which Luke and Matthew include in their accounts of this event.

First, note with me that there are some very perplexing differences between Luke’s account and that of Matthew. It is not difficult to conclude that the accounts in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 are a record of the same incident. What is difficult to grasp is why Luke’s gospel makes a point of telling us that the centurion never personally spoke with Jesus, while Matthew’s account clearly gives us this impression. Matthew’s account seems to describe a face-to-face conversation between the centurion and Jesus, while in Luke’s account two delegations are sent by the centurion to Jesus in the man’s behalf. He even explains why he did not come personally to petition Jesus to heal his servant (Luke 7:7). The issue which faces any conservative student of the Bible is the explanation for the apparent discrepancy between the two gospel accounts. Since we believe that the Bible is free from error, we must also hold that there are no unexplainable discrepancies in parallel gospel accounts of the same incident. How, then, can we explain the apparent contradictions in these two accounts?

My first answer is that we should not feel obliged to give a full explanation where one does not exist. We are not to close our eyes to problems in the text, but faith allows us to live with apparent inconsistencies, knowing that God’s word is inerrant and infallible, and that our understanding of His word is neither of the above. Faith is not opposed to the facts, but it is not troubled when all the facts are not made known. Let us remember that the gospel writers were aware of the writings of others (cf. Luke 1:1-2), and yet they felt free to have differences in their accounts—not differences which made another biblical author in error, but perhaps differences which remind us that we have only partial accounts of any incident in the life of Christ.

For example, in Luke’s account of the healing of the paralytic (Luke 5:17-26), he informs us that he was let down through the roof. In Matthew’s account, this is never mentioned (Matt. 9:2-8). From reading only Matthew’s account, we would never have guessed that the man who was healed had a most unusual “entrance.” Neither account is in error, and both can be harmonized. We must suppose that in some cases, if all the facts were reported, apparent discrepancies would be explained, but the purpose of the accounts was not so much to convince critics as it was to proclaim the gospel, from different points of view. Apparent discrepancies should not be avoided, but neither should they make us feel compelled to answer every problem when only limited information is given.

I have a friend who is an attorney. He once had a client who was involved in a traffic accident. His client had been struck by another car in an intersection. The light was green for his client. He had two police officers who saw that the light was green. The other party insisted that his light was green, and he had two deputy sheriffs to testify to this, who were standing on the opposite corner. The bottom line was that the traffic light was malfunctioning. Knowing the malfunction of the light cleared up all of the discrepancies in the two accounts.

Having said this, there are various ways of explaining the differences between these two gospel accounts. The first is to view the centurion as not coming initially, but personally appealing to Jesus later on, perhaps as the servant became more critically ill and his pain intensified. I find this a little hard to accept. Another explanation is simply that Matthew’s account is the more abbreviated, and that he meant us to understand that the centurion appeared before Jesus and appealed to Him by means of his representatives. We know that this was Matthew’s meaning in a text which is somewhat parallel in this regard:

Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas for them; but Jesus he scourged and delivered over to be crucified (Matt. 27:26).

Pilate did not personally scourge Jesus or hand Him over to be crucified; he did so through his agents. So, too, we could say that Matthew intended us to understand his account of the petition of the centurion’s representatives.

Second, note that the centurion is never named, even though Luke is a man of great detail. I believe that this is for several reasons. Luke was more interested in describing the man’s character than giving us his name. He was also intent upon focusing on the man’s position and power as a centurion. Luke wanted us to think of this man as a Gentile, which he most certainly must have been. Finally, Luke wanted us to see this man in terms of his position of power. This centurion was a military officer, attached to the occupation forces in Israel. His power with respect to the nationals was almost unlimited. He, like Naaman, could have attempted to secure healing for his servant by using his political connections, but he laid all these things aside. Rather than appealing to Jesus as a man of great position and power, he approached Him as an unworthy Gentile. He demanded nothing, but pled for grace.

Third, note that the centurion asked nothing for himself, but was seeking physical healing for his servant, a young lad who was very likely a Jew.

Fourth, the only motivation to which the centurion appealed was the mercy of our Lord. In Matthew’s account especially the condition of the servant is described as being very painful. The basis upon which Jesus was approached was that of human need, not of human power or worthiness or merit. So, too, the centurion offered nothing in return for the healing of the servant.

How interesting to contrast the humility of the centurion with the hypocrisy of the Jewish elders, who pled his case before Jesus. Only Luke provides us with the details on this matter, including the petition of the Jewish elders to Jesus on the behalf of the centurion:

“This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue’ (Luke 7:4b-5).

The centurion saw himself as unworthy of the grace of God. He did not feel worthy to have Jesus come under his roof (v. 6), nor even to personally come to appear before the Master (v. 7).

The Jewish elders, however, saw the centurion as very worthy. The basis of his worthiness was his favorable attitude and actions toward the Jews. Far from disdaining the natives who were under the authority of Rome, this man loved the nation of Israel. He greatly valued them as a nation, and thus, I believe, had a considerable respect for their religion. This love for the nation was expressed by his role in building (or helping to build) their synagogue. At the bottom line, the Jewish elders were much like some institutional Christians today, they believed that big donors were to receive “special handling” by religious leaders. Perhaps they had another fund-raiser planned and were hoping to hit this man up for another donation. Frankly, the whole thing stinks. The true attitude of the Jews toward Gentiles of a lessor “value” can be seen from Luke 4:22-30 and Acts 22:21-23). Man surely does discriminate, and on the basis of outward appearances.

Jesus went with the Jewish elders, toward the house of the centurion, but for very different reasons than they had suggested. Jesus acted apart from selfish interest, and out of a heart filled with mercy. They acted out of self-interest, for very selfish reasons. Rich and generous Gentiles were worthy of Jewish ministry, but the unworthy were worthy of rejection, disdain, and even eternal damnation, at least in the minds of many Jews.

Fifth, the centurion made his request, based upon what he had heard of Jesus. So far as we know, these two never met. So far as the centurion was concerned, there was no need. Being from or near Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus, there must have been a great deal to hear about Jesus (such as the healing of the paralytic, lowered the roof, whose sins were forgiven—Luke 5:18-26), and this man had a listening ear.

Sixth, the centurion must have had a fair understanding and appreciation for the Jew’s religious beliefs. Notice that the centurion did not wish to have Jesus put in the position to have to come into his house. This was not because the official was unwilling to have Jesus, but, due to his contact with the Jews, he understood the Jewish reticence to have any intimate contact with a Gentile. Furthermore, the centurion built their synagogue, so he had to have known a good deal about their religious beliefs and practices. He was not offended by these views, nor did he in any way challenge them. Indeed, he accommodated them. This was a very humble thing for a military superior to do for a captive people.

Seventh, the centurion had a grasp of the meaning of authority. The centurion was a man of authority himself, but he was quick to recognize that his authority did not extend to the healing of dying men. Jesus’ authority did. Jesus’ authority was greater than the centurion’s. Thus, the centurion does not mention his own authority, except to illustrate why Jesus need not be personally present to heal his servant. A man of authority need only speak the word. Jesus, the centurion had concluded from the reports he had heard, was a man of greatest authority. He even had authority over nature. Thus, He could order sickness to depart and it would do so, whether or not He was present. He also recognized that Jesus’ authority, like his own, was the result of a higher authority (“I myself am a man under authority,” v. 7). A man of authority, like the centurion, could quickly recognize and appreciate the superior authority of Jesus.

Eighth, each of the accounts of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew and Luke have a unique emphasis. Luke’s account, addressed primarily to a Gentile audience, provides great encouragement for Gentile readers because here the faith of a Gentile is praised by our Lord as superior to that of Israelites. There is hope for Gentiles. Also, though, there is conveyed the great respect which the centurion had for Judaism and for the Jews, which caused him to send a delegation of Jewish elders to petition Jesus for the healing of his servant. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, written with a Jewish audience in mind, tends to humble the reader by including Jesus’ words that not only commended this Gentile’s faith, but which also spoke of the fact that in the kingdom many Jews would be absent, while many Gentiles would be present (Matt. 8:10-12).137

The Raising of the Widow’s Son

Shortly after the healing of the centurion’s slave Jesus was traveling toward Nain, accompanied by a large crowd. Heading out of town, in the opposite direction, was another crowd, but of a very different disposition. The crowd with Jesus (except for the “sad sack” Pharisees) was joyful, jubilant, expectant. Everything here was upbeat. The other crowd was the opposite. They were mourning the death of a widow’s only son. There was no joy, no hope, no expectancy.

The two crowds met head-on, outside the city of Nain. This put Jesus face to face with the widow, whose grief was evident. She did seem to know who Jesus was, or is she did it did not matter. She did not ask for nor expect anything, except perhaps that Jesus and His followers stand aside. All of the initiative was taken by our Lord, and not in response to faith, but only in response to grief and human need.

Having great compassion on her, Jesus told the widow not to cry. Many have said this to a mourner, but only Jesus could be right in doing so. We tell others not to cry because it makes us uncomfortable. Jesus told her not to cry because it was unnecessary and inappropriate. She was not to cry because her son was not to remain dead. Rejoicing was the appropriate response. Jesus then touched the coffin, bringing the procession to a halt. This must have caught the poll-bearers off guard because this would have normally defiled Jesus. With no ceremony, Jesus simply instructed the boy to arise, which was immediately evident by his sitting up and speaking. The more labored and time-consuming raisings performed by Elijah and Elisha were greatly overshadowed by this instantaneous raising of Jesus.

Both crowds seemed to explode with joy and praise. They feared God and acknowledged Jesus to be a great prophet, at least. This did not exclude Him from being Messiah, though neither did it acknowledge Him as such. From the response of the people to John it would seem that they thought a prophet might be Messiah. At least Messiah would be a prophet. “God had visited His people,” they said, and so He had. The reports of Jesus’ greatness spread throughout the region.

This story, like that of the healing of the centurion’s son, also brings to mind the healings of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Jesus’ raising of the dead son reminds us of a similar incident in Elijah’s ministry (1 Ki. 17:17-24) and in that of Elisha as well (2 Ki. 4:18-37). In the case of Elijah especially, there are parallels to the raising of the son of the woman who lived at Nain. Both boys were the only son of a widow. Both boys were raised from the dead by a “prophet of God.” Both Elijah and Jesus presented the boys to their mother. Both raisings proved that a true prophet of God was present.


I believe that these two miracles, the healing of the centurion’s son and the raising of the widow’s son, serve several purposes in the developing message of Luke’s gospel. First, these miracles testify to the fact that Jesus is who He claimed to be—Israel’s Messiah. No prophet had ever surpassed these miracles. Second, these miracles are the backdrop for the questions of John the Baptist, which are to be introduced in the following section. Third, these miracles were the basis for the faith of men and women. Finally, these miracles are samples of the kind of faith which we should have today. Let us look back over these two miracles to discover the characteristics of faith which these to incidents teach us.

(1) Faith honors and pleases God. If anything is clear in the story of the centurion, it is that the faith of this man both pleased and honored God. God delights in men’s faith. God is honored by faith when He is the object of that faith. What greater compliment to the character of God than to have men demonstrate that they have confidence in Him. Men find God trustworthy because He is worthy of men’s trust. Faith honors God. Faith pleases God. Faith is commended by God.

(2) Faith focuses on God as its proper object. The centurion did not trust in his (great) authority, but in Christ’s. The centurion believed that Christ was Lord of nature, that He had authority to command sickness to depart. His faith was focused on the right object.

Too often, we focus our attention on our faith, rather than on God, who is the object of our faith. The centurion was not guilty of such self-consciousness. In fact, he did not mention his faith at all. It was Jesus who pointed out the great faith of this man. The centurion had fixed his attention of Jesus, on His compassion, His mercy, His power. The centurion was preoccupied with the person of our Lord, not his possession of faith.

To press this point a little further, some Christians lose the focus of their faith by concentrating on the promises of God, rather than the person of God. Promises are only as good as the person. Promises alone are worthless. A healthy faith is a faith in the person, which then enables us to believe the promises. And if our faith in the person of God is sufficient, we hardly need promises, for we know that God is greater than those promises He has given. The difference here is subtle, but important. It is the difference between God as the gift and God as the giver. The centurion’s faith was focused on God.

(3) Faith anticipates and asks for great things from a great God. The centurion not only asked our Lord for a miraculous healing—the boy was about to die—but also for a healing that was out of the ordinary. The centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant “long distance.” His God was so great that He need not be present to heal, and thus he asked for Jesus merely to speak the word. Faith in a great God is evidenced by requests that are out of the ordinary.

How often my prayers and those of others I hear are merely requests for the humanly possible. It is not that God cares little about colds, sniffles, the flu, minor aches and pains, but lets face it folks, a little aspirin, bed rest, and time usually solves these problems. The things which should require faith are those things which are not humanly possible. Let us once again read through the New Testament, looking at those things for which our Lord and His apostles prayed. Let our prayer be a reflection of the greatness of our God.

(4) Faith is always found in the vicinity of grace and mercy. The centurion’s petition was a request for grace, and thus he totally rejected any worthiness on his own part (although the Jewish elders thought he was worthy). The faith of the centurion was not only faith in the power of our Lord, but in His character, specifically His mercy. He knew that Jesus was not only able to heal from afar, but willing, because of the great suffering of his servant. Faith cannot be divorced from mercy and grace. God’s gifts to men are not the result of man’s worthiness, and not even the result of man’s faith, but of God’s goodness and mercy. In the case of the raising of the widow’s son, no faith was demonstrated, no request was made, but Jesus saw the need and met it.


(5) Faith does not require sight or visible evidence. So far as we know, the centurion never saw Jesus. The centurion did not request Jesus’ presence, nor did he feel it necessary for his servant to be healed. Faith is trusting in the person of God, based upon the testimony of those who have seen him. So it was for the centurion and so it is for us. Our faith is to be grounded in the testimony of the apostles. Faith does not require sight. The centurion’s faith did not require Christ’s presence, nor rites, rituals and magical formulas, only the spoken word of the Lord.

(6) The faith which our Lord commends in the centurion is for the blessing of God on others, rather than on one’s self. Notice the unselfish nature of the centurion’s faith. He trusted God and asked our Lord for the healing of his servant, not the blessing of his bank account, and so on. The “name it and claim it” folks always seem to dwell on the selfish dimensions of faith. Have faith and God will heal you. Have faith and God will make you rich and famous. Have faith and God will bless you. The faith of the centurion is vastly superior. It is focused upon God and its application is toward others. May our faith be out-going, rather than ingrown. Faith is a gift, like the other gifts, not to be used in a self-indulgent sort of way, but to meet the needs of others.

(7) Faith grows. Our Lord commends the faith of the centurion, but it would be wrong to think that his faith was somehow instant faith. I believe that the faith of the centurion was a faith that was nurtured, that grew over time. His faith was evidenced in the way he dealt with the Jews, and especially in his generosity toward the building of their synagogue. The centurion seemed to trust God to bless Gentiles through the Jews. He invested his worldly goods in blessing Abraham’s seed. The faith which we see commended by our Lord here is not the “first-fruits” of his faith, so to speak, but the evidence of a growing, healthy faith.

I believe that faith must be exercised, if it is to grow. May God stretch and increase our faith. May our Lord in the day to come be able to commend our faith, as he did the faith of the centurion. And may our faith be a blessing to others.

136 Some of the contrasts between the two incidents are summarized below:

Centurion: (a) he was rich; (b) he was a Gentile; (c) he was a man; (d) Jesus healed his slave; (e) the slave was dying and in pain; (f) he pled for healing; (g) he exercised faith; (h) Jesus wasn’t physically present; (i) No public response mentioned.

Widow: (a) she was apparently not rich; (b) she was a Jew; (c) she was a woman; (d) Jesus healed her son; (e) the son was dead; (f) no request was made for healing; (g) The widow exercised grief; (h) Jesus was present and touched the body; (i) great response described.

137 Edersheim writes,

“Thus, in St. Matthew the history is throughout sketched as personal and direct dealing with the heathen Centurion on the part of Christ, while in the Gentile narrative of St. Luke the dealing with the heathen is throughout indirect, by the intervention of Jews, and on the ground of the Centurion’s spiritual sympathy with Israel. Again, St. Matthew quotes the saying of the Lord which holds out to the faith of Gentiles a blessed equality with Israel in the great hope of the future, while it puts aside the mere claim of Israel after the flesh, and dooms Israel to certain judgment. On the other hand, St. Luke omits all this. A strange inversion it might seem, that the Judaean Gospel should contain what the Gentile account omits, except for this, that St. Matthew argues with his countrymen the real standing of the Gentiles, while St. Luke pleads with the Gentiles for sympathy and love with Jewish modes of thinking.”

Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [reprint], 1965), I, p. 544.

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22. John's Problem with Jesus (Luke 7:18-35)


The danger which faces us as we come to the account of the question which John the Baptist relayed to Jesus is that we won’t take it as seriously as we should. Several major factors could hinder our grasp of the gravity of this situation. First, we have a general problem with the PIOUS BIAS as I have come to call it. That is, we are inclined to think that because John the Baptist was a prophet, he must have always been pious. We must hold this erroneous viewpoint in spite of the fact that most of the heroes of the Bible are described as mere mortals, with the same sinful tendencies and temptations as the rest of us, and with unbecoming behavior at times. Second, we tend to think of John only in positive terms because of his past piety. He is the one who identified Jesus as the Messiah. He is the one who said that Jesus must increase, while he must decrease. He is the one who encouraged some of his disciples to become Jesus’ disciples instead. Third, we tend to think of John positively because of the good things which our Lord had to say about him. Fourth, John died a hero’s death, and thus we don’t want to speak of him in any way which would tarnish his reputation.

While John the Baptist was a great man, he was not a perfect man. This was the worst moment of John’s life, so far as the biblical record is concerned. We will not appreciate this passage of Scripture and its relevance to our lives unless we begin by understanding the seriousness of the error which is depicted here. Set aside your pre-conceived opinions of what happens here for a moment and consider exactly what is taking place when John sends two of his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are You the One who is coming, or do we look for someone else?” (Luke 7:19, 20).138

(1) The question which John asked was John’s question. Initially I wondered whether of not John’s disciples might have embellished John’s question, but Luke’s account repeats the question. The first time the question is spoken by John to his two disciples. The second time the question is spoken by the disciples. The wording of the two questions is the same. The question which John’s disciples asked Jesus is precisely the question John instructed them to ask.

(2) John’s question was the result of his unhappiness with what Jesus was saying and doing. The section begins with these words: “And the disciples of John reported to him about all these things” (Luke 7:18).

The two miracles recorded in the previous verses of chapter seven—the healing of the Centurion’s servant and the raising of the widow’s son from the dead—would surely have been included in the report which was given to John. Clearly, John was not altogether pleased with the reports he was receiving as to what Jesus had been saying and doing. The question which John sent to Jesus via his two disciples reflected John’s displeasure.

(3) John is questioning Christ, the Messiah. John does not here openly question God, nor does he question himself or his ministry. John does not question the fact that Messiah will come. John questions that Jesus is the coming Messiah. And this is in light of his own words to the contrary in the past:

And John bore witness saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven; and He remained upon Him. And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God. And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34).

(4) John’s “question” is not really a question—it is a public challenge. The question, once again, is this: “Are You the One who is coming, or do we look for someone else?” (Luke7:19, 20).

The “we,” given the context of this account, would seem to include not only John and his followers, but the crowd which I believe was present at the time the question was put to Jesus. The “we” thus is nearly equivalent to “Israel.” The response of Jesus to the crowd about John also suggests that the question was put to Jesus publicly. Given all the miracles which Jesus was doing at the time, he could hardly have been alone, so that this question could have been put to Jesus privately, even if the two had wanted to do so.

The biggest difficulty with the question, however, is with the inference of the last statement, “… or do we look for someone else?” There is a clearly implied threat here. If you fail to answer our questions satisfactorily, we will look for someone else to be the Messiah.

(5) John is forcing, not following, Jesus. Rather than following Jesus, as John has done in the past, John is attempting to force Jesus into declaring Himself as Messiah, and acting as John has predicted. This is not as clearly stated in Luke’s account here,139 as it is by Matthew:

“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matt. 11:12-13, NASB).

If the forcefulness began with time of John the Baptist and was present to the time of Jesus’ words, it is not unlikely that John and/or some of his followers were trying to “push the program,” to forcefully help things along. I believe that it is evident from our text that John is being pushy, overly forceful.

(6) John was challenging Jesus to do what He had purposed not to do. John was pressing Jesus for a public announcement, a public commitment to be the Messiah. He was demanding that Jesus proclaim Himself as Messiah or John and the others would reject Him and turn to another. It is obvious that Jesus did not intend to bear witness to Himself in this fashion. Jesus did not want men to accept Him as the Messiah because He claimed to be Messiah, but because the evidence was compelling that He was Messiah.

The so-called “great confession” of Peter will come later in the gospel accounts, but when Peter does finally conclude that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, it is not because Jesus has told him so:

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:15-17).

The reason why Jesus refused to publicly claim to be Israel’s Messiah was so that flesh and blood would not reveal His identity, but that the Spirit of God would do so, based upon the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah, and the works and words which Jesus did, proving Him to be Messiah.

Luke’s account of the “great confession” of Peter goes even further, showing the reader that even after Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Christ Jesus did not want His disciples to proclaim His messiahship:

And He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.” But He warned them, and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, … (Luke 9:20-21).

John’s question, or rather John’s challenge, was wrong for various reasons, but one of these was that it was Christ’s purpose not to publicly identify Himself as Messiah, the very thing John demanded, or else he and others would find themselves another “messiah.”

Put in its crassest form, John was saying to Jesus, “Put up or shut up! Enough of the way You have been functioning. Either you identify Yourself as Messiah (and get on with the program, of judgment and of arranging for my release) or else we’ll find ourselves another Messiah.”

Given this perspective of John’s words here, conveyed by two of his disciples, we can see that John has fallen far from what he once was. He who gladly accepted his role at one time, is now threatening to change things. He who was given the great privilege of identifying Jesus as Messiah, now challenges Messiah to prove Himself, not altogether unlike the challenge of Satan during our Lord’s temptation. He who once encouraged his disciples to follow after Jesus now sends two of his disciples after Jesus, not to follow Him wherever He would go, but to change His course.

The Approach of This Message

In this message, we will seek to understand some of the reasons for John’s spiritual decline. We will then focus on Luke’s emphasis in this section, which is to show how our Lord responded to the challenge. Finally, we shall seek to discover how John’s failure is like our own, and how, given our Lord’s teaching here, we can avoid falling into the same trap.

The Structure of the Text

The text can be outlined as follows:




(4) Verses 29-30 People’s response to John and to Messiah

(5) Verses 31-35 In spite of many differences between John and Jesus, both were rejected by the masses

Why Did John Go Wrong?

It is important to begin by pointing out that in neither Luke nor Matthew’s account is there an emphasis on explaining why John went astray at this point in time. I believe there are inferences in the gospels, but no clear statements nor emphasis on the reasons for John’s crankiness here. It may be of help to us to briefly consider some of the factors which contributed to John’s attitudes and actions.

(1) John had very little contact with Jesus. From what Luke tells us in his gospel, we would have to conclude that Jesus and John were virtual strangers. There was the contact between Mary and Elizabeth, at which time John leaped in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), but early in his life, John began to live a secluded life in the wilderness. The only way that John recognized Jesus as the Messiah was by means of the Spirit’s descent upon Him (John 1:29-34). Jesus avoided contact with John and his disciples to minimize competition and friction between them (John 4:1-3). It was not until John’s arrest that Jesus’ public ministry officially commenced (Matt. 4:12, 17). The point here is that John did not have a close relationship with Jesus which might have assured him of Jesus’ identity and of His ultimate fulfillment of the messianic prophecies, especially those John had emphasized.

(2) Jesus had not publicly identified Himself as Messiah. It was not from the mouth of Jesus that John learned He was the Messiah, but from the revelation of God to John and the witness of the Holy Spirit, in the form of the dove, which descended upon Him at His baptism. John seems to be seeking from Jesus what he had never heard, our Lord’s own testimony to the fact that He was Messiah.

(3) John had been Israel’s great prophet, but it appeared that Jesus was taking his place. John did not seem to mind having an inferior role to that of our Lord, but it might have been an irritation for John to learn that Jesus was being received as a great prophet. This is what we see in the immediately preceding context, in the crowd’s response to the raising of the widow’s dead son:

And fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us! and, God, has visited His people!” (v. 16).

(4) There were great differences between John’s ministry and message and the ministry and message of our Lord. John and Jesus were very different men. Jesus was, it would seem, gentle and soft-spoken. John, it would appear, was rough-hewn and outspoken. Jesus was very much in contact with people, frequently found in the cities, and often in contact with sinners. John was a man who lived a very secluded life. He lived in the desert, so that the people had to come out to hear him preach, if they would hear him and be baptized. His seclusion was extended by his imprisonment. John did not eat many foods, but ate a kind of desert “C Rations.” Jesus, on the contrary, drank wine and ate foods that John did not and would not (cf. Luke 7:33). John’s disciples fasted, and Jesus’ disciples didn’t (Luke 5:33).

John’s ministry, so far as the gospel record informs us, did not include miracles, healings and wonders. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that John may have performed wonders, but we are never told of any. Jesus, on the other hand, frequently worked miracles. The two which are mentioned in the immediate context (the healing of the Centurion’s servant and the raising of the widow’s son from the dead) are but a sampling. It would not be difficult to see why Jesus’ healing ministry would trouble John if he had no healing ministry himself. Jesus’ ministry was, at the moment, very popular, while John had little or no public ministry while in prison.

The major difference between John and Jesus, as I see it, and the one which best explains John’s unhappiness with Jesus, is the difference in the emphasis of the message of each. John’s emphasis was on sin, judgment, and condemnation, while Jesus’ emphasis was on healing and salvation. Both emphases were biblical and important, but they were very different in tone and in their outworking. The Old Testament prophets contained an emphasis on both areas, but in practical outworking John focused on the judgment side of Messiah’s coming and Jesus focused on the salvation side.

John’s task was to condemn Israel’s sins and to warm of the impending judgment of God. It was also to call on men and women to repent for their sin to avoid the wrath of God. John’s problem was that he did not understand that there were two comings of Messiah, the second of which was for the purpose of judgment, the first of which was to become a provision for man’s salvation by dying for the sins of the world. Jesus’ first coming was to bear the judgment of God, not to bring it. John’s message was true, and it served the purpose of preparing men for Christ’s first coming by calling many to repentance. Those who acknowledged themselves to be sinners found grace and forgiveness. John was perplexed by our Lord’s mercy and healing, for He expected Him to inaugurate the kingdom in a very different way.

John’s challenge was thus his attempt to force the Lord’s hand, to press Jesus to announce that He was the Messiah, and to cause Him to begin to bring judgment to the earth. John had warned men that Messiah would come with fire, and John thought it was high time for Jesus to get with it, and to do as he had warned Messiah would do. John’s failure to fully grasp the prophecies of the Old Testament and thus the two-fold coming of Christ, led him to conclude that Jesus was in need of some straightening out. That is what John set out to do, but as we shall see, this is not what happened. Let us now move on to consider the way in which Jesus dealt with this crisis, which John precipitated.

Our Lord’s Response to John’s Challenge

I cannot help but to wonder how we might diagnose John’s problem today. Some would undoubtedly see this as a “self-image problem.” It seems to me that nearly every problem today is related (by us) to low self-esteem. I wonder which of the plethora of books on the shelves of the Christian bookstores we would have sent to John. Jesus’ actions and words would not have conformed to much of what we would say or do. Let us begin, then, by taking note of what Jesus didn’t do, but what we might have been inclined to do in His place.

Jesus did not do what John demanded. Jesus did not make a declaration that He was (or that He was not) the Messiah. John may have given an ultimatum, but Jesus didn’t take the bait. Jesus didn’t give John His personal attention. Some would have felt that John was merely lonely and depressed and that he needed some “quality time” spent with him. Jesus didn’t think so. Jesus did not tell John the answers to his problems, which would have put his mind at ease. John’s grasp of the messianic prophecies was incomplete and distorted. Jesus could have straightened John out. He could have laid out the whole “plan of the ages,” but He did not. And, Jesus, I might add, did not inform John that he was soon to die at the hand of Herod.

Jesus’ response to John was very simple. He simply told John’s emissaries to tell John what they had witnessed:

“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22).

In effect, Jesus is suggesting to John the solution to his problem. He is simply telling to John to do what every saint must do, compare the prophecies of the Old Testament with the deeds and declarations of Jesus Christ. If Jesus fulfills these prophecies, then the Bible bears witness to the fact that He is the Messiah. Note how the words and works of Jesus do compare with these Old Testament messianic prophecies in Isaiah:

Luke 7:22

And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them.

Isaiah 29:18

And on that day the deaf shall hear words of a book, And out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.

Isaiah 35:5-6

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. 6 Then the lame will leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness And streams in the Arabah.

John’s assurance that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah should come from the knowledge that the deeds and declarations of Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies which spoke of His healing ministry and of His preaching good news to the poor and the oppressed. John needed to get back to the Word, the Word which He had proclaimed. Unfortunately, John had tended to divide what God had joined together. John had filtered out the salvation and healing texts and focused only on the judgment texts. And yet, when we look at the Scriptures we find the two themes welded together. Look, for example, at the broader context of this text we just cited from the prophecy of Isaiah:

In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. The ruthless will vanish, the mockers will disappear, and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down — those who with a word make a man out to be guilty, who ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice (Isa. 29:18-21).

Perhaps because of the tendency of men to compartmentalize truth, God has in this prophecy and others joined together the two themes of mercy and justice, of salvation and judgment. While it will take two comings for these promises to be fulfilled, God wants His people to understand that Messiah will achieve both. He will accomplish salvation for those who trust in Him; and He will accomplish divine justice on those who persist in their sin. John, like many of us, seems to have emphasized one aspect of prophecy to the exclusion of the other. Thus, when Jesus’ first coming was characterized by mercy and grace, John was inclined to think he had designated the wrong Messiah, rather to question his thinking and theology. Jesus’ words take John back to the Book, which is the only standard for our thinking and theology. Jesus’ ministry was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and thus it is John who must stand corrected. It was not Jesus who needed to change, but John.

Jesus had become, as it were, a stumbling block to John. And so our Lord’s final message to John is one which encourages him not to stumble over our Lord: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Luke 7:23).


There are many lessons for us to learn from John’s failure and Jesus’ words of encouragement and correction. Let me suggest a few.

First, this incident teaches us that the only valid test for determining whether of not Jesus is the promised Savior of the world is the test of truth. Does Jesus and Jesus only fulfill those promises and prophecies of the Bible which speak of the coming Savior of the world? If the deeds and words of Jesus, as reported by the gospel accounts, fulfill the Old Testament prophecies (which every gospel writer assures us that they do), then Jesus is the Messiah. The test of who is God’s Savior is the test of the Scriptures themselves. Everyone who claims to be Messiah must measure up to the standards which God has set for Him. Only Jesus meets these standards. Jesus does not give John a direct claim for many other men have made the same claim. Jesus does not attempt to use His personal magnetism or charisma, but rather points to the deeds which He has done and to the Scriptures which speak of these deeds.

Let me ask you very candidly, my friend, Have you looked carefully at the evidence? Are you seeking God’s salvation? Do you wish to have the forgiveness of your sins? Do you wish to experience the grace of God, rather than His judgment? Then you can only do so by trusting in God’s provision, God’s Messiah. Who Jesus Christ is the most important question in the world to you. Have you read the Old Testament prophecies? Have you studied the words and deeds of Jesus. If you conclude that Jesus was an impostor than you cannot look to Him for salvation, but if you conclude that He alone fulfills the Scriptures, then you must turn to Him, trusting in His death, burial, and resurrection for your salvation.

Second, for Christians there are a number of principles which are relevant to our own experience. Let me conclude by mentioning just a few:

(1)Prophets, are not perfect. John was a prophet, in fact the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, but John was not perfect, as our text makes clear. Many of the great Christian leaders of present and past times have been known (at least by those close to them) to be men with some strange ideas or practices. Great Christians have not necessarily been good husbands or fathers. They may not have been able to get along well with others. Men who are great in one area, might not be great in another.

More than this, men who are great in one area may have major problems in that very area of their greatness. John was a prophet, and thus we must say that his specialty was prophecy, but this was precisely where his great error arose, too. John failed to grasp the fact that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. John was trying to straighten Jesus out, when John needed to straighten out his grasp of prophecy.

John was not alone in this, for Peter tells us that all of the Old Testament prophets struggled to grasp the meaning of biblical prophecy. Indeed, they even struggled to grasp the meaning of their own prophecies:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Our difficulties in understanding the Bible can be found in several areas. First, there is the limitation of the “natural man,” unsaved, and unaided by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 2:f6-16). Then, there is the limitation of our finiteness. Even saved persons have limits as to what they can grasp now. Third, there is the limitation of our sinfulness, our waywardness, and of our warped past. An abused child (by its father) will find it difficult to read those passages which speak of God as Father, without reading into the text those ideas which are rooted in their experience, but are not true to the Word.

Finally, we have difficulties in fully grasping God’s truth because of our limitations in the area of our spiritual gifts and ministry. Each Christian has a particular form of “giftedness,” which God has given to equip them for a certain kind of ministry. Since we do not possess all of the gifts, we approach the Scriptures only through the gifts which we have. For example, when Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed about taking Mark on their next missionary journey (cf. Acts 15:36-41), each had a perspective based on his own gifts and calling. As a front line apostle, Paul refused to take along a man who had failed under pressure, and rightly so. As an encourager, Barnabas refused to give up on a man who had failed, and rightly so. Each viewed Mark through the grid of his own gifts and calling. I am suggesting that we approach the Scriptures in the same way, with our own strengths and corresponding weaknesses.

If the Old Testament prophets—those through whom the Scriptures were given—did not fully understand the Scriptures, how can we suppose that we understand them completely, either? The apostle Paul tells us that the Scriptures do not tell us all we would like to know. The Scriptures enable us to “see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12), only to know fully in eternity.

Our limitations in understanding the Scriptures suggest a couple of areas of application. First, we should be very careful not to become overly dogmatic about those things which are not crystal clear in the Scriptures. I notice, for example, that some Christians tend to be very dogmatic about certain views about prophecy (eschatology). Whether you are “pre or post trib,” for example, is something about which one can be absolutely convinced. If John could be so wrong about Messiah, let us be very cautious about eschatology, and any other area of biblical truth, too, if it is not emphatically and clearly taught in the Bible.

Knowing our own limitations in understanding the Scriptures, let us learn the dangers of isolationism and autonomy in Bible study and Christian living. Part of John’s problem, in my opinion, was his isolation from other believers. He had no one to challenge his thinking, and even his biblical interpretation. You and I need one another for many reasons, but one good reason we need others is to balance off our own limitations and distortions. Any Bible teacher who does not listen to and learn from other Bible teachers, is suspect, in my opinion. Any Christian who thinks they need only their Bible and the Holy Spirit is likely to become extreme in some view of what the Bible teaches. Let us learn to lean on one another to help balance out our grasp of biblical truth.

Knowing that our grasp of the Scriptures is imperfect, we need to learn to live by holding truth in tension. John, like the other prophets, could not harmonize the seemingly contradictory truths of Christ’s suffering and His triumph, of Messiah’s judgment and His salvation. And yet what John could not reconcile, God does. No prophet could reconcile these truths in tension until they had been fulfilled. Jesus did not solve John’s problem by informing of how all of the Messianic prophecies would be fulfilled in the future, by one Messiah and by two comings. Jesus encouraged John study the Scriptures and the believe them, even though certain truths seem to be in tension.

I believe that we need to do likewise. We must, for example, hold the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in tension with the equally true doctrine of man’s responsibility. We do not do justice to the Word of God by holding to one truth and excluding the other, only for the sake of clarity or simplicity. Let us learn, like John, to hold seemingly opposing truths in tension, until God reveals their unity and harmony in the future.

(2) There is a great danger posed by unrealistic expectations. The bottom line is that John had unrealistic, inaccurate expectations of God. His expectations with regard to Messiah and His ministry were wrong, and thus they came into conflict with the ministry and message of Christ. John tried to change Christ to conform to his expectations, rather than to change his expectations.

We put ourselves in a very vulnerable position when we allow ourselves to hold unrealistic expectations, either of God, or of our mate, or of our children, or of our church, or of our ministry. Let us be on guard to keep from having expectations which surpass the Scriptures.

138 This is the rendering of the NASB, which I prefer to that of the NIV, which reads, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” The NIV is too polite, taking the sting and the threat out of the question.

139 Luke chooses not to record this statement in his gospel until chapter 16 (v. 16).

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23. Wordless Worship of an Unnamed Woman (Luke 7:36-50)


Of all the secular experts, Michael Landon is, in my opinion, one of the most effective at creating drama on the television screen. I can still remember scenes from “Bonanza” and “Little House on the Prairie” which nearly brought tears to my dry, masculine, eyes. Luke is even better at drama than Michael Landon. The story of the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair is one of the most moving accounts in the New Testament. My fear in teaching this passage is that I (we) will over-analyze it, and in the process lose the thrust of this great text. It is something like telling a joke, which is not immediately understood. The more we seek to clarify the details, the more we lose the impact of the joke.

In the laboratory, one must often kill the object being studied in the process of seeing its parts. Frogs, for example, do not come to or from the lab living and jumping. So, too, I fear that as we look at the parts of this very moving story we might miss the thrust of it for having considered its details. In biblical words, I fear that we might “strain the gnats” of this text, but “swallow its camels.” Let us open our hearts as well as our minds to the message of this text for us.

There are three principle characters in this story, all of which are relevant to us. The Lord Jesus is, of course, the star of the story. He, unlike the others, deals with this woman in love and forgiveness. The woman, who is never named, is the recipient of our Lord’s forgiveness. She represents the “sinners” who are strangely attracted to Jesus. The host, Simon, was a Pharisee, and as such he represents at least the perception which many “sinners” have of the church and of Christians. It is from these characters and their relationship with each other that the message of our story is to be found.

The Structure of the Text

The structure of our text can be outlined as follows:

(1) The Setting—vv. 36-38

(2) Simon’s Thoughts and Jesus’ Response—vv. 39-47

(3) Jesus’ Response to the woman—vv. 48-50

The Uniqueness of this
Foot Washing in the Gospels

Each of the gospels has an account of the washing of Jesus’ feet by a woman. Let us briefly consider these other accounts:

Matthew 26:6-13 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. 8 When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9 “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Mark 14:3-9 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “ It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

It is my personal opinion that the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John all deal with the same washing, but that Luke’s account is a unique incident, recorded only in his gospel. John’s account initially seems to differ from those of Matthew and Mark, primarily due to the fact that the dinner appears to happen at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. While John’s account tells us that Martha served, it does not specifically indicate that the meal was served at her home. If the home of Mary and Martha was too small to entertain a large group, then Simon the leper (a former leper, healed by Jesus, I assume) may well have volunteered his home. Martha would likely have insisted that she serve.

The similarities between the three gospel accounts and that of Luke are superficial. The name Simon is was as common in the ancient world as “Smith” is in our phone books. “Simon the leper” is hardly synonymous with “Simon the Pharisee.” In fact, a link between the two would be unthinkable to a Pharisee. Luke’s incident appears to occur much earlier in Jesus’ ministry than that of the others, which occurs just prior to our Lord’s death (thus serving as a preparation for His burial). In Luke’s account, “Simon” silently protests; in the others’ accounts, the disciples protest (John narrows the protest down to Judas). Simon the Pharisee could not grasp how Jesus could let such a sinful woman touch Him, while the disciples were troubled by the waste of the perfume, which could have been sold so that the money could help the poor.

All things considered, I believe that the incident described by Luke in his gospel is different from that described by Matthew, Mark, and John.140 Let us seek to learn from Luke what it was about this event which made it worthy of so much attention.

The Setting

We are not told precisely when this incident occurred, nor the name of the city. The principle characters are Jesus, Simon the Pharisee, and the woman with a soiled reputation. It is interesting that Luke gives us the name of the host, but not of the woman. Omitting her name is, in my opinion, a gracious act, purposely done.

At first look it would seem that there are two people equally zealous to see Jesus: Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman. Simon could easily converse with Jesus in the comfort of his home, around a meal. For the woman, getting close to Jesus was no easy matter. Her sinful life, known to all who lived in her town, made it difficult for her, a woman, to seek out Jesus, a man. If she owned a home, she could not invite Jesus there, for this would be inappropriate, especially if she were a harlot, for this would be her place of business.

Reports of Jesus’ ministry and teaching had somehow reached this woman, and she was most eager to see the Savior. When she learned that Jesus was to have dinner at the house of Simon, the woman knew it was her opportunity to see Jesus. From our Lord’s words, it would seem that she arrived at Simon’s house before Jesus: “You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet” (Luke 7:45).

If the dinner were to begin at 7:00 P. M., the woman seems to have arrived at 6:45. She was there, ready and waiting. With her, she brought a container of perfume.141 It is my opinion that this woman came prepared to anoint the feet of Jesus, the humble task usually delegated to the lowest servant. Perhaps she would be permitted to do this.142

The washing of Jesus’ feet can best be understood in the light of our Lord’s words of rebuke to Simon, and when compared to the Lord’s washing of His disciples’ feet as recorded in John chapter 13. As the Lord entered the house of Simon, custom and normal hospitality would have it that Jesus would have been greeted with a kiss, His feet would have been washed, and His head anointed with oil.

The woman no doubt waited near the door for Jesus to arrive. She probably expected that Jesus’ feet would have been washed by one of Simon’s servants. After His feet were washed, the woman would then likely have planned to anoint His feet with the perfume she had brought. Imagine the look on her face when she realized that Jesus’ feet were not going to be washed. She did not let the dirty feet of our Lord keep her from what she had intended to do. She dared not kiss Jesus on the face, as Simon should have done, but she could kiss His feet, His dirty feet. She had come with no basin, no water, and no towel. Nevertheless, as she began to kiss His feet, the tears began to flow, something most unusual for a woman of her profession.143 As the tears began to flow, the woman must have noted that the little streams of tears carried the dirt of the road as well. She used the water of her tears to wash His feet, something she could hardly have planned in advance. Since there was no towel available to her, she used her hair to dry Jesus’ feet. Imagine this, the woman used her hair, the most glorious part of her body (cf. 1 Cor. 11:15), to dry the feet of Jesus, the most ignoble part of one’s body! She did not do her duty quickly, so as to quickly finish an unpleasant task. She persisted at kissing the feet of our Lord (cf. v. 45).

This woman’s worship of Jesus was at a great cost to her. It cost her the expensive vial of perfume, and the humility to kiss, wash, and dry the dirty feet of the Lord Jesus. But there was a higher price than this paid by the woman. In my opinion, the greatest price which she paid was facing the scorn and rejection of the self-righteous Pharisees and other dinner guests at that meal. Jesus did not give her a “dirty look,” but it is inconceivable to think that all of the others did not. Simon’s disdain, revealed by his inner thoughts, must also have been evident in his eyes, and so too for the other guests. “What in the world are you doing here?” must have been etched on the faces of the guests. It could hardly be otherwise for a Pharisee, whose holiness was primarily a matter of physical separation from sin and from “sinners.” The woman’s desire to see and to worship Jesus was greater than her fear of these guests. Their scorn was a high price to pay, but to the woman it was worth it.

Simon’s Thoughts and Jesus’ Teaching

No doubt a great part of Simon’s motivation was to “check out” Jesus. Was this man really a prophet? Was His message to be believed? And how did His message compare with that of the Pharisees? Was He a threat, or an ally? Just who did Jesus claim to be and what was to be done about Him? Should He be resisted, opposed, put to death, or should be ignored? Could He be recruited to their side? These may have been some of the questions in Simon’s mind, suggesting some of his motivation for having Jesus over to dinner.

Simon’s reasoning is most illuminating. It went something like this:


  • If Jesus were a prophet, he would know people’s character
  • If Jesus knew this woman was a sinner, He would have nothing to do with her


  • Since Jesus has accepted this woman, He does not know her character
  • Since Jesus does not know this woman is a sinner, He cannot be a prophet
  • Since Jesus is not a prophet, I/we can reject Him, His message & ministry

Simon, like many of us, was being very logical about his thinking and his response to the Lord Jesus. The problem with logic is the same as the problem with computers: your output is only as reliable as your input. To put it differently, there was nothing wrong with Simon’s logic, other than the fact that he based his conclusions on a faulty premise. His first premise—If Jesus were a prophet, He would be able to discern the character of those around Him—was correct. Jesus, in fact, went beyond Simon’s expectations. Jesus was not only able to detect the woman’s character (“… her sins, which are many,” v. 47), He was also able to know the thoughts of Simon, His host (v. 39). By conveying to Simon that He knew His thoughts, Jesus proved that He was at least a prophet.

Simon’s second premise was entirely wrong, a reflection of his erroneous thinking as a Pharisee. Simon, like his fellow-Pharisees (remember that the word Pharisee means “separate”), assumed that holiness was primarily a matter of separation. Holiness was achieved by keeping oneself separate from sin and from sinners. According to this view, Jesus would have to shun this sinful woman in order to remain holy. Simon concluded that either (1) Jesus didn’t know this woman’s character, or (2) that whether or not He knew about her sinfulness, He was physically contaminated by her, and thus could not be holy.

Our Lord knew exactly what Simon was thinking, as well as why his thinking was wrong. Jesus’ words to Simon in verses 40-47 expose the error of Pharisaical thinking, and explain why the “Holy One of Israel” would draw near to sinners, even to the point of touching them and being touched by them.

A Story for Simon (40-42)

The question which best expresses the issue which caused the Pharisees to draw back from Jesus is found early in the gospel accounts:

“Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Luke 5:30; cf. Matt. 9:11; Mark 2:16).

Simon could not conceive of Jesus knowingly allowing this woman to touch Him by washing His feet. Why would Jesus possibly associate with sinners? Jesus gave the answer by telling a story and then extracting a principle.

The story was a simple one. A money-lender loaned money to two different individuals, neither of which were able to repay their loan. The one had borrowed ten times more money than the other. The money-lender forgave the debt of both men. “Which of the two,” Jesus asked Simon, “would love the money-lender more?” Simon’s cautious answer was that the one who owed the most would love the man the most. Jesus confirmed the truth of his response.

Underlying it was the principle, THOSE WHO ARE FORGIVEN MOST LOVE MOST.

Jesus now takes the principle and applies it to Simon and the sinful woman. Simon shunned the woman because she was a sinner, and expected Jesus to do likewise. Jesus rebukes Simon by showing that in every respect the woman has outdone Simon in her acts of love and devotion. Simon did not show Jesus even the minimum courtesy of washing His feet. This woman not only washed His feet, she did it with her tears and her hair. Simon did not bestow a kiss on Jesus’ face; the woman did not cease to kiss the feet of Jesus, which, at first, were dirty feet. Simon did not anoint the head of Jesus with oil; the woman anointed His feet with expensive perfume. The woman outdid Simon in showing love to the Lord. The woman was, at least in Simon’s mind, a greater sinner. The woman was, as Jesus pointed out, the greater lover as well. From both the story which Jesus told and from the supper which Simon held, the one who was forgiven more loved more.

There is a problem here, which has troubled theologians and Bible students over the years. In verse 47 it would appear that Jesus is telling the woman that she is forgiven because she loved much. It is not difficult to accept the statement that those who are forgiven much, as a result love much. It is difficult to accept the statement that those who love much are forgiven much. To love because you are forgiven is a natural response to grace. To be forgiven because you love is works. There are thus some who would teach that on the basis of this text we must love in order to be forgiven. This makes forgiveness the product of our works, rather than a gift of God’s grace.

It may be over-simplistic, but I think that the problem can be resolved by taking note of who Jesus is speaking to, and the issue which He is addressing. In verse 47, Jesus is speaking to Simon the Pharisee. He is answering the question, “Why does Jesus seek out and associate with sinners?” The Lord’s answer is found in His response to Simon:

“Simon, I seek out sinners and associate with them because they love me more than ‘saints’ like you Pharisees do.”

Think about it for a moment. If God’s purpose for the incarnation was to be loved by men, whom would you expect the Lord Jesus to associate with if it were true that “he who is forgiven much loves much”? If the principle is true, then we would expect our Lord to seek out those who were the greatest sinners (and in the minds of the Pharisees, this woman qualified as one of the city’s great sinners).

Jesus is therefore addressing the question, “Why does Jesus seek out sinners?” rather than the question, “How is one saved?” The relationship between forgiveness and love is the basis for our Lord’s actions in seeking and receiving sinners.

The body language of our Lord in verses 44-47 is most significant. All through the dinner, Jesus’ back was to the woman, who was anointing and kissing His feet. He was, at the same time, facing His host, Simon. Now, once Simon’s rejection of Jesus is revealed, in contrast to the woman’s worship, Jesus turns His back on Simon and faces the woman, even though He is still addressing Simon (cf. v. 44). Jesus is, by His actions, rejecting Simon and accepting the sinful woman. What an incredible statement is being made here!

Jesus’ Words to the Woman

When Jesus speaks to the woman in the final verses of our passage, He now makes clear to her the basis for her forgiveness: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).

Let there be no doubt as to the basis for one’s forgiveness. It is not works. It is not the work of loving others, even God’s Son. Forgiveness is the gift of God, granted to those who have faith.

The question is this: “What was it that the woman believed by faith?” If the woman’s faith saved her, what was the substance of her faith? What did the woman believe that saved her? I believe that the text strongly implies the answer: THE WOMAN BELIEVED THAT IF SHE CAME TO JESUS AS A REPENTANT SINNER, JESUS WOULD NOT SEND HER AWAY.

The “bad news” of the Pharisees—”Jesus associates with sinners”—was good news to this woman, because she acknowledged that she was a sinner. The only people who will bristle at the thought that Jesus has come to seek and to save sinners are the self-righteous, those who do not think they need saving. This woman did not dispute the fact that she was a sinner. She rejoiced at the reports that Jesus received sinners. She came to him as a sinner, believing by faith that He would not send her away—and she was right. Of all those who went to the dinner, only this woman is said to have left forgiven. Oh, the marvelous grace of God toward we sinners!


The first lesson of this incident is that Christ came to seek and to save sinners. A woman who was considered a great sinner by her peers was forgiven by our Lord, while those who thought themselves righteous went away unforgiven. There is a strange attraction to Christ for those who will admit they are sinners, and who wish to turn from their sins. Jesus is never more approachable than He is to sinners. In John’s gospel we read these words of great encouragement to every sinner:

“All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).

While it is true that Jesus is the sinless Son of God, who hates sin and who will ultimately judge sinners, the message of the gospel is that in His first coming Christ came to save, not to condemn. Jesus thus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

This is because in His first advent, Jesus came to bear the penalty for man’s sin Himself, and to save men from eternal damnation. All who come to Him for forgiveness and salvation will be saved. None will be turned away. But there is yet another coming of Christ, when He comes to judge. At that time, it will be too late. Those who come to Him them will tremble in fear of Him, and rightly so.

My admonition to you who have never come to Christ as this woman did is that you come now. Come, trusting that He will receive you, that He will forgive you, that He will save. No one is more accessible to sinners than Christ. No one is more repulsive to the self-righteous than Christ. May each of us be like this woman, rather than like Simon the Pharisee.

The second lesson which we can learn from our text is to recognize the characteristics of self-righteousness as evident in the life of Simon the Pharisee. I cannot dwell on the evils of Pharisaism here, so suffice it to mention just a couple of characteristics of Simon which are evident in our text, which could be true of us as well. Simon was more interested in passing judgment on God than he was on God’s judgment of him. Simon felt that his home would be more righteous by keeping sinners, like this woman, out, than by inviting sinners in. Many churches feel the same way. Simon was inclined to see some sins as greater than others in the eyes of God. Sexual sin was unforgivable, but pride was acceptable.

Simon thought of religion as something to be preserved; Jesus thought of true religion in terms of penetration. Simon wanted to keep sinners out, Jesus went out to sinners. Some of Simon’s error is the failure to grasp the change from the old covenant to the new. The Old Testament dealt with sin as incurable, and thus the principle defense was simply to avoid contact with sin and sinners. The new covenant came with a solution for sin. The new covenant could change hard hearts to soft ones. Thus, Jesus did not feel compelled to deal with sinners the way the Old Testament taught—seek to destroy or to avoid them.

The Pharisee looked at sin something like the way we look at AIDS. It has no cure, and thus the best course of action is to avoid any and all contact. But, you see, the gospel teaches that Jesus is the cure for sin. Thus, Jesus did not need to avoid sinners, He could seek them out, just as we could aggressively attack AIDS if there was a foolproof cure.

Somehow Simon and the other Pharisees of the New Testament found it difficult to be “touched” by those they would not touch. In all of the New Testament I fail to see one incident in which a Pharisee was touched by the misery, the sin, the shame, the grief of another human being. It is little wonder that the Old Testament prophets had to speak so often about mercy and compassion. I see none of it in the Pharisees in the gospel accounts. To have compassion obligates one to minister to others. To lack compassion allows one to use others for one’s own personal gain, at their expense. Jesus, who did not hesitate to touch or be touched by sinners, was constantly “touched” (emotionally) by them. May we be like Him.

The painful reality is that our churches often reflect the mood of Simon’s house than they do of Jesus Himself. We ought to welcome sinners, if they acknowledge themselves as sinners, and if they seek to be saved from their sins. All too often, sinners are shunned by the church, more than they are sought be it. May we learn from our Lord to be more like Him and less like Simon.

Lastly, we learn a great deal about worship from this woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears. It is true that we do not have the opportunity to wash the feet of Jesus, as the woman in our text did, but we can learn a number of principles pertaining to worship from her actions. Consider these principles with me as we conclude.

(1) Worship is for sinners. The woman who worshipped Jesus was a sinner. Our Lord neither denied this, nor minimized it. It is important to recognize that sinners can worship God. As you think through the complex rules and regulations of the Old Testament law, it becomes evident that God established worship for sinners. Otherwise, it would not have been necessary to have all of the intricate rules and rituals and sacrifices. Worship, in the Old Testament, was for sinners.

So, too, in the New Testament. As our Lord said, it is our awareness of our own sinfulness, in conjunction with the knowledge of our Lord’s perfection, which stimulates worship. Those of us who are most sensitive to the magnitude of our sin, should also recognize the magnitude of God’s forgiveness, thus stimulating our worship.

I sometimes get the impression that when we come to the Lord’s Table we think that we have to reach some kind of momentary sinlessness before we can worship. How foolish. Even momentary sinlessness is impossible. When Paul warns against observing the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11: 27) he is referring to the inappropriateness of the drunken excesses in the Corinthian observance of communion. There is a world of difference between an “unworthy manner” (and adverb, “unworthily”) and an unworthy state (being a sinner). While we will be sinless when we worship God in heaven, we worship as sinners on earth.

(2) Worship takes place at the feet of Jesus. The proper position for our worship is at the feet of Jesus. It suddenly occurred to me that the feet of our Lord are very frequently mentioned in our text. While Simon did not even do justice to our Lord’s head, the woman was only comfortable at Jesus’ feet. She kissed them, washed them, and dried them with her hair. She did not feel worthy to do otherwise. Particularly in Daniel and the Book of Revelation, men find themselves falling at the feet of Jesus, when they recognize Him as God. Worship at the feet of Jesus acknowledges His greatness and our unworthiness; His perfection, and our sinfulness. Worship that exalts man is not true worship.

(3) Worship is preoccupation with the person of Jesus Christ. The woman who worshipped at the feet of Jesus was preoccupied with Him, and Him alone. The fact that there were those present who disdained her did not matter, for she cared only about what her Lord thought about her. The fact that many present were hypocrites did not prevent her from worshipping, for her worship was focused on the Savior.

(4) Worship is not concerned about receiving something from our Lord as giving something to him. Jesus was approached by many people, most of whom wanted something from Him. I do not wish to minimize this or to condemn it. If I lived in Jesus’ day and were blind, I would want to come to Jesus for Him to restore my sight. But this woman’s worship was expressed by her giving to Jesus, not getting from Him. Too often, our prayers are like a wish list for Santa, at Christmas time. Too seldom, our prayers are praise and adoration alone, without any request, where our only desire is to be in His presence, forever.

(5) Worship involves the emotions. The tears of the woman who worshipped Him by washing His feet are most significant. The worship of this woman was, may I say, emotional. Those of us in our tradition tend toward a very intellectual worship. We could use a good deal more emotion. Remember that we are to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Worship should involve the mind and the emotions.

(6) The worship of this woman was without one word. It took me a while to realize that while our Lord spoke to this woman, Luke did not record so much as one word which she spoke to Him. It is possible that she spoke to Him, but Luke does not find it necessary to record the fact if she did. I make a point of the silence of her worship because some women seem to chafe at the fact that their leadership in public worship if forbidden in the New Testament Scriptures. I also would point this out for the benefit of those men who think that they can only worship when they speak publicly. The best worship may be wordless.

(7) Finally, worship is not easily hindered. There were many reasons why this woman could have stayed away from Jesus and not worshipped Him. She was not invited. She was not wanted. She might be expelled. She would be scorned. There would be hypocrites there. But in spite of many difficulties, the woman did what she desperately desired to do—she worshipped Jesus. Why is it that a couple drops of rain, a late Saturday night, and we find worship too difficult.

May God enable us to worship as this woman did, to the glory of God, and for our delight.

140 Morris writes, “Each Gospel has a story of an anointing of Jesus by a woman (Mt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:3-9; Jn. 12 1-8). There are good reasons for thinking that the other three are describing one and the same incident, but Luke a different one. They refer to an incident in the last week of Jesus’ life, Luke to one much earlier. The ‘sinner’ of Luke’s account wet Jesus’ feet with tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them, which is different from what the others describe. And the ensuing discussion is different. In Luke it is concerned with love and giving to the poor. There is no reason for holding that the woman in the other Gospels was a ‘sinner’ (John says she was Mary of Bethany). Some have held that Luke’s ‘sinner’ was Mary Magdalene, but this is sheer speculation.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 146.

141 From Proverbs 7:16-17, it would seem that perfume may have been part of this woman’s tools of her trade. With it, she may have adorned herself and her bed. Now, she was eager to employ it for the most noble purpose, anointing the feet of the Savior.

142 Some have puzzled as to how his woman would have been permitted to enter Simon’s house and to be present during this meal. The explanation is to be found in the culture and customs of that day: “That a woman, uninvited, and of such a character, should have pressed into the chamber, and should have been permitted to offer such homage to the Saviour, may at first sight appear strange; but it can easily be explained when we [remember] that in the East the meals are often almost public. We must remember her present earnestness, too.” R. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1948), p. 104.

“At a dinner at the consul’s house at Damietta, we were much interested in observing a custom of the country. In the room where we were received, besides the divan on which we sat, there were seats all round the walls. Many came in and took their places on those side-seats, uninvited and yet unchallenged. They spoke to those at the table on business or the news of the day, and our host spoke freely to them. We afterwards saw the same custom at Jerusalem.” —Narr. of a Miss. of Inquiry to the Jews from the Ch. of Scotland in 1839, as cited by R. C. Trench, p. 204, fn. 2.

“In the East the door of the dining room was left open so the uninvited could pass in and out during the festivities. They were allowed to take seats by the wall, listening to the conversation between the host and guests. Then Jesus sat at table with Simon the Pharisee, a woman of the city entered. Instead of sitting by the wall and listening, she lavished her affection on Jesus: (a) she wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head; (b) she kissed his feet; and (c) she anointed his feet with ointment (vss. 37-38). That Jesus permitted the act evoked a negative response from his host (vs. 39).” Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), p. 86.

143 If this woman were a prostitute, she would have tended to become “hard” and would never have intended to show her emotions, especially in front of a man. I have not dealt with such women, but I have dealt with many men in prison. Crying is not something which a prisoner ever does in prison, for it shows “weakness” (at least in the minds of prisoners). I believe the same is true for women like the one we find in our story. Her tears are thus especially significant. If one wonders how a few tears could wash the feet of our Lord, I suggest that the many bottled up tears of her past flowed in abundance on this occasion.

Talbert writes, “B and B’ involve explanations to two questions: first, why is the woman known to be forgiven by her display of affection and second, how can Jesus pronounce the confirmation of her forgiveness? These questions will shape the discussion of the passage which follows… There are two possible ways of reading vs. 47. (1) “Because of her conduct her many sins have been forgiven.” Here the sinful woman’s love is understood as the cause of her forgiveness. (2) “Her many sins have been forgiven, as is evidenced by her conduct.” Here the woman’s love is viewed as the evidence of her forgiveness. (2) “Her many sins have been forgiven, as is evidenced by her conduct.” Here the woman’s love is viewed as the evidence of her forgiveness. The second reading is linguistically possible (e.g., 1:22; 6:21) and is demanded by the context. The New English Bible’s reading is to the point: “And so, I tell you, her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” Why is the woman known to be forgiven? The answer is that her display of affection is evidence of it.” Talbert, p. 87.

Plummer also says, “This is a verse [v. 47] which has been the subject of much controversy. What is the meaning of the first half of it? We have to choose between two possible interpretations.

(1) “For which reason, I say to thee, her many sins have been forgiven, because she loved much” … Her sins have been forgiven for the reason that her love was great; or her love won forgiveness. This is the interpretation of Roman Catholic commentators (see Schanz), and the doctrine of contritio caritate formata is built upon it. But it is quite at variance (a) with the parable which precedes; (b) with the second half of the verse, which ought in that case to run, “but he who loveth little, wins little forgiveness:; (c) with ver. 50, which states that it was faith, not love, which had been the means of salvation; a doctrine which runs through the whole of the N.T. This cannot be correct.

(2) “For which reason I say to thee, her many sins have been forgiven (and I say this to thee), because she loved much” … This statement, that her many sins have been forgiven, is rightly made to Simon, because he knew of her great sinfulness, he had witnessed her loving reverence, and he had admitted the principle that the forgiveness of much produces much love. This interpretation is quite in harmony with the parable, with the second half of the verse, and with ver. 50. There were two things evident,—the past sin and the present love,—both of them great. A third might be known, because (according to the principle just admitted) it explained how great love could follow great sin,—the forgiveness of the sin.” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), pp. 213-214.

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24. Ministry, Money and Women (Luke 8:1-3)


Suppose that you and your wife were to invite the president over for dinner. Suppose, too, that he and his wife were to accept your invitation. As the time draws nearer, your wife asks how many places to set at the table. There would be the president and his wife, certainly a number of security people, undoubted the press, and on an on it would go. What may have begun as a rather intimate meal, would quickly become a large production.

So it was with Jesus’ ministry. In my mind, I have always had a certain mental picture of Jesus going about from place to place, followed by His disciples. At the front of the disciples were, of course, Peter, James and John. As we look more closely at the description of the ministry of our Lord in the gospels we discover that very soon the party which accompanied our Lord became quite large. One of the few texts which informs us about this large group is our text for today. In addition, Luke informs us about the vital role which a large number of women played in supporting the ministry of our Lord and His disciples.

While our text is but three verses long, it is a very important passage. It provides us with details the other gospel writers avoid, or only casually allude to. It informs us about the relationship between ministry and money and also about the role of women in ministry. Let us listen well to our text, for it has much to say to us.

Our Approach in this Lesson

The approach of this message will be to begin with a number of observations about what Luke is trying to tell us here. Then we will conclude by focusing on the principles we learn from this passage concerning ministry and money, and concerning the ministry of women.

Observations of the Text

(1) Our text links the preceding passage with a new, second, missionary journey about Galilee. There is a sense in which our text seems almost parenthetical, but note that verse 1 begins by informing us of another missionary campaign of our Lord:

After this,144 Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 8:1a).

The expression, “after thisinforms us that the events which follow are related to the preceding verses, specifically, I take it, the story of the woman who washed our Lord’s feet with her tears? Is it possible that she is one of the group that accompanies our Lord, which Luke is here describing?

In the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus indicated very early in His ministry that He was committed to going about from city to city to preach the gospel. He had this commitment because He recognized that it was a vital part of His divine calling and commission. When the disciples urged Jesus to return to the people who were waiting for Him, He responded:

“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other town also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43a).

There will be several other missionary campaigns mentioned in Luke,145 but this is clearly the beginning of one of the important ones in His ministry to the people of Galilee. I believe that verses 2 and 3 of chapter 8 tell us how our Lord’s ministry was logistically worked out. He was accompanied by many, and they were supported by the contributions of some of the women. In the parable of the soils which follows (vv. 4ff.), Jesus explains the different responses to His preaching of the kingdom, as well as providing the reason for His change to the parabolic method of teaching.

(2) Jesus was accompanied by a large group of followers on this campaign. In the early days of our Lord’s ministry, it seems as though He either traveled alone (e.g. when He went to the synagogue in Nazareth, none of His disciples are mentioned, Luke 4:16-30). At other times, some of His disciples were with Him. But now we are told that a large group of followers accompanied Jesus on this campaign.

There were, Luke tells us, the 12. Obviously these are the 12 disciples. I am not certain but what they may have been accompanied by their wives, at least a later practice of the apostles, but perhaps one which began here (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5). If other women accompanied Jesus and the 12, why not the wives of the 12? In addition to the disciples, there were many others, as we will soon see.

(3) Included among this large group of followers who accompanied Jesus on this tour were many women. Three women are specifically named: Mary Magdalene (from whom the seven demons had been cast out), Joanna the wife of Cuza, Herod’s steward (this may explain one of Herod’s primary sources of information about Jesus and His ministry, cf. 9:7), and Susanna, who is not mentioned again in the Scriptures. In addition to these three, who are named, were many other women:

… and many other. These women were helping to support them out of their own means (Luke 8:3b).

(4) The women who followed Jesus had all been miraculously helped by Him. I believe that Luke identifies the three women by name so as to indicate how different each was. But regardless of the diversity among the women who followed Jesus, they all seemed to have this in common: Jesus had miraculously delivered (healed) them of conditions for which there was no human solution. Some, like Mary Magdalene, were delivered of demon possession. Others were healed of sicknesses and disease. Others, may have been healed of injuries and disfigurations. But all were beyond human help. All of those who went with Jesus to be of help to Him were those who had experienced His help in their lives.

In one sense, the group which accompanied Jesus was a testimony to the identity of Jesus Christ as Messiah. As Jesus went from village to village and city to city preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, those with Him bore witness to the fact that Jesus had given them sight when they had been blind, had enabled them to walk, when they were paralyzed, had freed them from demonic possession, when they had been in bondage to demons. The crowd which accompanied Jesus was, in one way of viewing it, the answer to John the Baptist’s challenge that Jesus prove His identity as Messiah.

It is not difficult to understand why those who had been healed by our Lord would want to be with Him as He traveled. The delivered demoniac expresses not only his desire to be with Jesus, but that which many like him must have felt as well:

“The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him (Luke 8:38-39).

In both cases, that of the demoniac, who went home to his own people, and those many who accompanied Jesus, the good new was proclaimed by those who had been helped by the Messiah.

(5) The women who had been healed by Jesus and who now accompanied Him, were those who also supported the whole group out of their own means. Luke wants us to know that these women were not mere “clingers-on,” they were active contributors to the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom. Humanly speaking, this campaign could not have been waged without their support. The party had to eat, and the food was provided by these women. I cannot say for certain that no men contributed to the support of our Lord’s mission, but we do know that many women played a crucial role in this matter.146

I should note at this point that while the women contributed the money which provided for the needs of this group, a man (Judas, to be specific, cf. John 12:6; 13:29) kept and distributed the funds.

The more I have read this text, the more I have become convinced that meeting the physical needs of the crowd that accompanied our Lord was a secondary matter, an outgrowth of being with Christ. To put the matter differently, I am convinced that these women did not follow our Lord to “have a ministry” as much as they followed Christ to be with Him. Being with Christ, these women were, like Him, sensitive to needs (even the hunger of those in the group) and to meeting these needs. Thus, these women were with Christ and also acted as He did in the face of needs.

(6) The women who accompanied our Lord and His disciples met needs which our Lord did not meet in a miraculous way. In one way, it is amazing to find our Lord and His disciples in need. In another, it is amazing that He purposed that women meet their needs. The Lord Jesus had proven His power and sufficiency in the lives of each who followed Him. He did that which men could not do—He performed a miracle in each life. And yet He did not miraculously provide for the need of the group for their daily bread. Why didn’t Jesus miraculously provide food for His party?

The precedent was set at our Lord’s testing in the wilderness. There, He refused to turn “stones into bread” as Satan challenged Him to do. He would not use His power to provide for His own needs. Similarly, He would not use His power here to do something similar, only on a much larger scale. Jesus would not make “miracle meals,” even though His followers were hungry.

On two occasions, Jesus did miraculously provide for His followers, once at the “feeding of the 5,000” and again at the “feeding of the 7,000.” In both cases, there was no earthly way to feed these hungry. Jesus feed these crowds by performing a miracle because there was no other way to feed them. Also, in so doing He gave further evidence to the fact that one greater than Moses was present.

I believe that there are several reasons why Jesus did not miraculously provide for His followers, thus making the group dependent on the generosity of these faithful women followers.

This was a part of our Lord’s humiliation, of His humbling in coming to the earth.

This gave men and women the opportunity and privilege of having a part in His ministry.

It was an example for later apostles and missionaries, that God provides for the needs of His people through people. The Lord’s practice of allowing women to support Him and His followers gave approval to the supporting of those who proclaim the gospel. Our Lord set the precedent that those who proclaim the gospel should be supported by those who benefit from that preaching. This is seen earlier in the Old Testament prophets (cf. 1 Kings 17:7ff.; 2 Kings 4:8-10), and is taught in principle by the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9).

Our Lord’s practice of being supported by women affirmed the importance of women in the proclamation of the gospel, and the practical partnership attained by underwriting the preaching of the gospel.

(7) These women, who followed Jesus during this Galilean campaign, continued to follow Him to and through the end. Luke likes to introduce key characters to his reader before he focuses on them. For example, Paul is introduced briefly (Acts 8:1, 3) before the accounts of his conversion (Acts 9) and of his later ministry (Acts 13:1ff.).

Later texts tell us more about these women as time went by:

“Many women were there [at the cross], watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matt. 27:55-56).

“Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Jesus, and ‘Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (Mark 15:40-41).

“The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment … It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 23:55-56; 24:10-11).

“They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

Taking all of these texts together, we know that these women who are mentioned by Luke are the same women mentioned by Matthew and Mark as well, who continued to follow Jesus, not only in Galilee, but also to Jerusalem. They are the women who stood by our Lord at the cross, and who were the first to come to the empty tomb. What a marvelous and wonderful group of women these were! What a tribute Luke gives them! These were faithful women, faithful in meeting the needs of our Lord and of His party, faithful in staying with Him even in danger, faithful even after His death. Indeed, they were among those present and praying at the time of Pentecost.


Out text provides us with several vitally important principles, related to two major areas of Christian experience and ministry. The first pertains to the relationship between ministry and money. The second pertains to the role of women in ministry.

The Relationship between Ministry and Money

(1) Ministry costs money. This principle is so obvious it seems almost silly to state, but there seem to be those who overlook this reality, or who chose to ignore it. Even our Lord’s ministry required money. He did not have the need for television production costs or for office space, but He and those who followed Him did need simple provisions, namely food. Our Lord’s overhead did not include a hideaway retreat in the mountains or a yacht, nor a high personal income, but He and His followers had physical needs which people were privileged to participate in meeting.

(2) Ministries sometimes mismanage money. It is very apparent that some ministers and some ministries mismanage the funds which are given in support of that ministry. Judas, we know, misused some of the funds which were given to support our Lord’s money. Such evils should not be minimized, but neither are they an excuse for failing to support God’s work. Let us take every precaution to prevent and to clean up mismanagement; but let us not avoid our responsibility to support God’s work.

(3) Those who share in the costs of ministry, participate as partners in that ministry. I believe that Luke is telling us that these women who accompanied our Lord and who helped to finance it were a vital part of the “team” which proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God. Our Lord put the matter this way:

“Anyone who received a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:41-42).

Thus, to sustain a prophet in his ministry is to share in the reward of his ministry. To support a prophet is to share in his work and in his reward.

(4) It is biblical, in some cases, to be supported in ministry. Luke has told us that Jesus was supported in His ministry by a faithful group of women. Surely if our Lord can be supported, it is biblical for other “missionaries” (those who proclaim the good news) to be supported as well. Paul emphasized this in 1 Corinthians chapter 9. I understand the Gospel of Luke to indicate three major forms of support of those who minister.

First, men may be supported in proclaiming the gospel by those who have previously benefited from their ministry. This is the case in Luke 8:1-3 as I understand it. These women had personally benefited from our Lord’s ministry to them, and now they support His ministry to others. Paul was supported by the Macedonians, to whom he had previously ministered (cf. Philippians 1:3-6; 4:10-13).

Second, men may be supported by those to whom they presently minister. When Jesus sent out the 12 (Luke 9:1-6) and the 72 (Luke 10:1-12), He told them to take nothing. That was because they were to be ministering to those to whom they came, among whom they lived and served. The 12 and the 72 were to heal and to cast out demons. Surely the cities to which the came should have gladly sustained these preachers and miracle-workers. They were indeed servants “worthy of their hire.”

Third, some men were self-supported. When men became hostile toward our Lord and His message, Jesus spoke to His disciples about a different means of being supported as they proclaimed the gospel:

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:35-37).

When the disciples of the Lord previous went about preaching and healing, they were generally well-received. But after our Lord’s rejection and crucifixion, it would be different for His disciples as well. Now they were to continue to go out, preaching the gospel, but this time fully prepared to care for themselves. In effect, they were to be self-supporting in the hostile world which was to come. Because of various evils and abuses (mainly those of the false teachers) Paul refused to exercise his right to be supported by the church, and to minister at no cost. Indeed, Paul even worked with his own hands so as to be able to support others (cf. Acts 20:34-35).

This last method is not a very popular one today. Few seem willing to dirty their hands with common, mundane labor. Many are those who want someone else to support them in their ministry. Many of these ask people whom they do not know, to whom they have never ministered, to support them in ministry. I do not see this kind of support in the New Testament.

When, then, should men be supported, by whom, and under what circumstances? From the entire book of Luke I believe we would have to say that this would differ for different people, and even for the same people, under different circumstances. I believe that we should be supported either by those to whom we have ministered or by those to whom we presently minister. And, we should be supported only when it promotes the gospel of Jesus Christ. There were times when Paul avoided taking money for his ministry because of the abusive practices of the false teachers. There were times when Paul was trying to practice the gospel by working with his own hands, supporting others. And there were times when Paul accepted support so that he could devote himself to proclaiming the truth of the gospel. Whether we are supported or not should be determined by determining whether or not the gospel will be best served by being supported or by being a supporter of others by working with out own hands. Too many people in ministry refuse to consider both options.

(5) Supporting the gospel ministry involves the support of many. The women who supported our Lord’s ministry did not support only Jesus—they supported the entire ministry team:

These women were helping to support them out of their own means (Luke 8:3).147

There are many Christians who want to support the leader of a ministry. After all, he is visible, vocal, and dynamic. But they are not so eager to pay the secretary who takes his calls or types his sermon manuscripts, which are essential functions too. When the gospel ministry is supported the gospel team should be supported.

(6) Supporting the gospel ministry involves the mundane. I am sure that there was nothing very exciting about buying heads of lettuce, or vegetables, or meat, but these were the things from which the meals were made. Today, Christians are not eager to pay for the office rent, for the utility bills, or for printer ribbons. All of these mundane matters are necessary, however, and buying them as a part of the gospel ministry is supporting the ministry, no matter how mundane that may seem.

(7) He or she who is faithful in little will be faithful in much. These words of our Lord refer to ministry with money, and then ministry in other ways:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10).

In the context of this passage it is clear that money is the “little thing” while other matters are the greater things. These women, who were faithful to follow our Lord in Galilee, and to meet the needs of the group, were faithful also at the foot of the cross and at the tomb of our Lord. Their faithfulness in the little thing of money assured them of faithfulness in the greater things of a later time. Judas, on the contrary, who was not faithful in the little thing of money was not faithful in greater things. Faithfulness in the matter of money is critical, for it leads to faithfulness in greater things as well. Investing in the gospel ministry determined where the hearts of these women were:

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).

The Role of Women in Ministry

(1) Jesus elevated women above the status given them by society. Luke is a man who gives greater attention to women in his accounts than do the other New Testament authors.148 Throughout the life and ministry of our Lord, Jesus loved and esteemed women. Throughout the gospels, women are described in a very favorable light.149

(2) Jesus used and encouraged women in ministry. Luke’s account of these women who followed Jesus and supported the Galilean campaign is a tribute to them and to their ministry. It commends the women for their faithfulness and commitment to the Lord and it values their ministry as a partnership in the proclamation of the gospel.

(3) Jesus differentiated the ministry of women from that of men. Jesus did not use women in ministry in the same ways that He used men. He did not choose 6 men and 6 women as apostles; He chose 12 men. He did not send out 36 men and 36 women from city to city (10:1ff.); He sent out 72 men. Jesus did not send out women to preach to people. Jesus used women in ministry, but in a way that is entirely consistent with the principles and practices of the apostle Paul, those principles and practices which are viewed as “narrow” by some evangelicals and most others. Jesus did not use women in ministries which caused them to teach or to have authority over men.

(4) Jesus did not allow His culture to dictate the ways in which women were used in ministry. Today, some Christians are tempted to think in this way: Jesus elevated women above the culture of their day. Therefore Christians should continue to press for women’s rights and ministry which surpass society’s standards and structures. If Jesus was a “liberator of women” in His day, the church should seek to liberate women today.

They miss the point of what Jesus did. Jesus did not allow His culture to dictate how women were used in ministry. In Jesus’ day, the culture was suppressing women. In our day, our culture is liberating women to the extent that no distinctions between men and women are tolerated in terms of their ministry and function. In the church we must obey God’s commands, and not culture. Now, instead of surpassing culture by elevating women (as Jesus did), the church is forced to firmly plant its feet and refuse to give women offices and functions which are clearly unbiblical. Women are forbidden in Scripture to teach or to lead men (1 Tim. 2:11-12), and the church must obey, whether culture or women hail this as fair and proper or not. Following Christ often means resisting our culture. Jesus did not allow His culture to dictate His practice, but rather divine principles. We must do likewise, whether we are praised or mocked for being obedient. In the final analysis, we do not honor women by treating them like men. We honor them by dealing with them as a special creation of God with a complementary, not a competitive role to play with regard to men.

(5) One’s spirituality or significance to Christ is not measured by one’s prominence, power, or position, but by one’s heart for God and devotion to Him. The reason why both men and women clamor for the “right” to possess positions of power and prestige is because we think that our significance to God is measured by our standing before men. I have little doubt that the women whom Luke mentions in our text were more “spiritual,” more spiritually perceptive, than the 12 disciples. The men who followed Jesus wanted to call down fire on God’s enemies; they wished to gain power and prominence for themselves; they argued about who would be the greatest in the kingdom; they failed to grasp the spiritual implications of what Jesus was saying and doing. The women, on the other hand, seem to be more sensitive, more devoted to pure worship of the Savior, and more perceptive that Jesus’ death was becoming eminent (thus, the anointing of Jesus for His burial, by a woman, of course). Position and power have nothing to do with their devotion to Christ and the intimacy of their fellowship with Him. Thus, “having a significant ministry” was not, and never should be, a driving force in the lives of these godly women. They only wished to be with Him, even if that were while washing His feet. Let us seek this mind as well.

Allow me to make one final observation. This text is divine testimony to the fact that God knows those who follow Him, and He honors both their devotion and their deeds of service. Whether men praise us or not, God will reward our faithfulness and devotion to Him. Let us seek His praise, His favor, His “well done, good and faithful servant.”

144 A. T. Robertson comments: “This word means one after the other, successively, but that gives no definite data as to the time, only that this incident in 8:1-3 follows that in 7:36-50.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), II, p. 110.

145 Luke also informs us of the sending out of the 12 (9:1-6), and then of the 72 (10:1-12), and then finally, he gives our Lord’s revision of instructions in 22:35-38.

146 It is my guess that the disciples supported Jesus early on, when they were still working (e.g. at their nets). Now, Jesus’ disciples were working with Him, and thus could not provide for the material needs of the group. Supporting Jesus was something which the women “could” do—“could” in the sense that it was appropriate, in the sense that they had the means to do so, and also in the sense that they were eager to do so.

147 It should be pointed out the some Greek manuscripts have the singular “Him,” no doubt a reflection of Matthew 27:55-56 and Mark 15:40-41. Nevertheless I believe that the entire team was supported, and not just our Lord. In supporting “Him” these women supported “them.”

148 “The evangelist pays special attention to women in his narrative of Jesus and the early church: Luke 1:24ff., Elizabeth (only in Luke); 1:26ff., Mary (only in Luke); 2:36ff., Anna (only in Luke); 4:38ff., Simon’s mother-in-law; 7:11ff., the widow at Nain (only in Luke); 7:36ff., the sinful woman (only in Luke); 8:2-3, women who ministered to Jesus and his disciples (only in Luke); 8:43ff., woman with a hemorrhage; 10:38ff., Martha and Mary (only in Luke); 13:10ff., the crippled woman (only in Luke); 15:8-10, the parable of the woman with a lost coin (only in Luke); 18:1-8, parable of the widow (only in Luke); 21:1ff., the widow who gave her all; 23:49,55, the women at the crucifixion; 24:10-11, 22-23, the women at the tomb; Acts 1:14, the woman and Mary at prayer; 5:1ff., Sapphira; 6:1ff., the widows; 9:36ff., Dorcas; 12:12ff., Mary the mother of Mark and Rhoda; 16:14ff., Lydia; 16:16ff., the slave girl who is healed; 17:12, Greek women of high standing believed, 17:34, Damaris; 18:2, 18, 26, Priscilla; 21:9, Philip’s four daughters; 23:16, Paul’s sister; 25:13, Bernice.” Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 90,91.

149 “What a challenge and inspiration it must be for every woman to consider that, while nowhere in the four Gospels is mention made of any women who were hostile to Jesus, there are numerous references to ministration and marks of honour which they accorded Him. With much affection and faithful devotion they ministered to Him with their possessions (verse 3)—to Christ Jesus who became poor so that we might be made rich. What an example of service to be followed by every woman who believes in Him!” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975 [reprint]), p. 239.

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25. Parable of the Soils (Luke 8:4-21)


While I was a student in seminary, I went through one of those typical stages through which the immature pass. I was convinced that all the seminary needed to teach was “content,” and that they should do away with all of the “methods” courses. One of the methods courses I felt was unnecessary was that of homiletics, teaching men how to deliver their sermons.

One day I found an ally, a fellow-student who felt just as strongly on this matter as I did. He did not think that homiletics was necessary either—just a waste of time. As it turned out, he was scheduled to deliver his sermon to homiletics class the very next day. For the life of me I cannot tell you what in the world that fellow was trying to get across to the rest of us. Suddenly I saw that homiletics was beneficial.

If a course in homiletics will help a preacher to get his ideas across to his audience clearly and effectively, Jesus would seem to need such a course at this point in His ministry. That is, if Jesus were trying to get His ideas across to His audience clearly, He was doing the opposite. But the real problem comes when we learn from our text that our Lord’s purpose in speaking by means of parables was not to clarify, but to conceal His message.

As you read through our text in the 8th chapter of Luke’s gospel you will find two statements, which appear to contradict each other. This apparent contradiction is the “tension of our text.” At the end of the parable of the soils, Jesus called out to His audience, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:8b).

This quite clearly seems to be an encouragement to listen to His words and to learn from them. And yet in the same context Jesus told His disciples, “… I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand” (Luke 8:10b).

In other words, Jesus is encouraging His audience to listen and to heed His teaching, while He is also telling His disciples that the parables He uses are designed to “cloud” the truth, rather than to clarify it, to conceal the truth, rather than to reveal it.

The importance of this parable can hardly be overemphasized. Our Lord concluded it with an exhortation to listen well to His words (Matthew 13:9; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8). He also told His disciples that if they did not understand this parable, they would not understand any of the parables (Mark 4:13). Thus, this parable, in one way or another, serves as the key to understanding the meaning of each parable, as well as our Lord’s reasons for using this new “parabolic” method.

The Approach of this Message

As we study our text we must seek to find an interpretation of it which enables us to reconcile this apparent contradiction. We will begin by considering the setting of our Lord’s teaching in this text. Then we shall consider the parable, its meaning, and the purpose of parables in our Lord’s ministry. We will learn how teaching in parables fits into the ministry of our Lord and to His overall purpose. We will then attempt to distill principles from this passage and show their application to our lives.

The Structure of the Passage

Our text falls into four divisions:

(1) The parable of the soils told by Jesus—8:4-8

(2) The purpose of our Lord using parables—8:9-10

(3) The interpretation of the parable of the soils—8:11-15

(4) The implications and applications of the parable—8:16-21

The Setting

From the accounts of Matthew and Mark we learn that Jesus was probably at Capernaum. Matthew tells us that “Jesus went out of the house” (Matthew 13:1), which at least suggests that this was the house where our Lord usually stayed while at Capernaum, the early headquarters for His ministry. A large crowd from various cities and towns had gathered along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, so that our Lord found it necessary to speak from a boat, anchored close to the shore (cf. Matthew 13:2; Mark 4:1).

The preceding context in all three gospel accounts indicates a strong resistance to Jesus, His teaching, and His ministry, on the part of the Pharisees. The clash between Jesus and the Pharisees was evident in His claim to have authority to forgive sins (Luke 5:17-26), His association with sinners (Luke 5:27-32), and His failure to keep the Sabbath according to their prescriptions (Luke 6:1-11). Jesus’ miraculous power was attributed to Beelzebub, the prince of demons (cf. Mark 3:22). By this point in time they had already determined to put Jesus to death (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6). It was only a question of finding the right place and time.

The parable of the soils is found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-34; Luke 8:4-18). Luke’s account informs us that teaching by parables began with our Lord’s second Galilean campaign (cf. Luke 8:1). Teaching by means of parables became the Lord’s method of teaching the crowds:

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything (Mark 4:33-34).

The “disciples” to whom our Lord revealed everything was the larger group of His followers, including those previously mentioned in 8:1-3. Mark especially makes this clear:

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, … (Mark 4:10-11a).

The Parable of the Soils

The parable of the soils describes what becomes of seed that is sown in four different types of soil. The first type of soil is the hardened soil of the pathway. This seed does not penetrate the soil at all, but is quickly snatched up by the birds of the air. The second type of soil is the rocky soil, a shallow layer of earth, barely covering

to rock below. The seed which falls upon this type of soil quickly germinates, aided by the warmth retained by the rock, but hindered by a lack of depth and by a lack of moisture. The seed which germinates quickly also terminates quickly. The third soil is the thorny soil, a soil populated with thorns. The seed falling into this soil germinates and begins to grow, but is eventually crowded out by the hardier thorns. The fourth soil is the fruitful soil, that soil which produces a bountiful crop. Having told the story, Jesus put an exclamation point after it by adding these words: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (v. 8).

The Purpose of the Parables

The disciples apparently kept quiet as our Lord was teaching by means of this parable and many others. They may have been reluctant to admit that they didn’t understand what He was trying to teach them. It would seem that no one else asked what He meant, either, or they would not have needed to ask Jesus privately about His meaning.

The disciples who accompanied Jesus (more than just the twelve, cf. Mark 4:10) privately inquired about the parable. Luke’s account tells us that they asked Him about this parable (v. 9), while the other accounts inform us that they were also asking about the meaning of all the parables. Matthew tells us that they inquired as to why Jesus switched to teaching by means of parables (13:10). Mark says that “they asked Him about the parables” (4:10). All of these questions are intertwined, and so it is easy to see that all of these questions could have been put to our once they were away from the crowd.

In Luke’s account, even though he says that they asked Jesus what this parable meant, Jesus first explained to them why He had changed His method of teaching the crowds by means of parables. Luke’s account of our Lord’s response is brief and to the point. Jesus’ answer is brief, but loaded with implications. Let us consider what He said:

“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand’” (Luke 8:10).

Let us make several observations concerning what our Lord has said:

(1) Jesus began using parables to conceal His teaching from some, and to reveal it to others.

(2) Jesus used parables to conceal truth from the crowds, while revealing it to His disciples. We can see from our text that the disciples did not understand our Lord’s parables any more than the crowds, but He did explain the meaning to them later (Mark 4:34).

(3) By teaching in parables, Jesus did not withhold anything which the people were both eager and able to understand. Mark clearly tells us that Jesus taught the crowds all they could handle: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand” (Mark 4:33).

(4) Jesus viewed His teaching by parables (and thus His concealing and revealing) as a fulfillment of prophecy, or at least as consistent with the ministry which God gave to Isaiah. Our Lord cites from Isaiah chapter 6 to vindicate His actions. God had sent many prophets to the nation Israel, and all of them were rejected, along with their message. John, the last of the Old Testament prophets, was also rejected, at least by the religious leaders of Israel. Isaiah chapter 6 is the account of this prophet’s commission. The words which our Lord cited are the word of God to Isaiah, indicating that his ministry was essentially not one of calling men to repentance, but rather of confirming their condemnation. Isaiah’s words sealed Israel’s doom, and preceded the outpouring of God’s judgment on His disobedient people. Jesus viewed His ministry as similar to that of Isaiah, and thus teaching in parables could be vindicated by referring to Isaiah’s account of God’s words addressed to Him.

(5) The teaching which Jesus was simultaneously concealing and revealing concerned the secrets of the kingdom of God. I believe that on His first Galilean campaign Jesus concentrated on identifying Himself as Israel’s Messiah (cf. Luke 4:16-21). Now, He seems to be concentrating more on the nature of the kingdom itself.

(6) Those from whom the secrets of the kingdom of God are concealed are unbelievers, whose doom is thereby sealed. Jesus conceals the truth from “those who are without” so that they won’t understand and will not repent, and thus not be able to enter into His kingdom. This is implied in Luke’s account, but clearly stated in both Matthew and Mark, not to mention the prophecy of Isaiah. You will recall that when the teachers of the law attributed Jesus’ works, accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, to Beelzebub (Mark 3:22f.), Jesus said that this was one blasphemy which could not be forgiven them. Their doom was sealed, and speaking in parables was one aspect of their condemnation.

Our Lord’s words of explanation reveal that some decisive changes have occurred in His ministry:

  • They reveal that there is a change in the message of our Lord. I believe that in the first Galilean campaign of our Lord, the emphasis was on His identity as Israel’s king. Now, the Lord’s teaching has shifted to the more intimate (secret) aspects of His kingdom.
  • Our Lord’s words reveal a change of method. Our Lord is now speaking by means of parables—more indirectly than before.
  • Our Lord’s words reveal a change of focus and emphasis. Jesus is beginning to spend more time with His disciples. In our Lord’s first Galilean campaign, it would seem that His disciples were not always present. From now on, Jesus pours more effort into the teaching of His disciples (not just the 12, either, but the larger group of His followers).

The Interpretation
of the Parable of the Soils

Jesus has just finished explaining His purpose in speaking by means of parables—to conceal the secrets of the kingdom from the crowds, while revealing them to His followers. Now, having explained His purpose in using parables, Jesus goes on to explain the meaning of this particular parable of the soils.

The parable explains the different responses which men have toward the gospel. Four different responses are given, along with four different causes and four distinct results. The sowing of the seed symbolizes the spreading of the gospel. The seed which is sown is the word of God (v. 11). The hardened soil—those alone the path—are those whose hearts have never been open to the gospel, who never responded positively to the Lord Jesus Christ. The scribes and Pharisees seem generally to fall into this category. The gospel makes no impression on them whatsoever. Satan immediate snatches the gospel from their hearts, so that there is no response, no new birth, no fruit.

The second soilthe shallow soil—represents those who positively (joyfully) respond to our Lord’s teaching, but only due to an inadequate grasp of its implications. These folks respond positively to the word because they think that it is a kind of “prosperity gospel,” a gospel which promises only good times, blessing, happiness, and bliss. The quickness of the response is an indication of their lack of depth, or their lack of perception as to what the gospel really means. And, let me quickly add, this is not due to our Lord’s misrepresentation of the gospel. It is the result of selective hearing, of hearing only the good and pleasant things, rather than hearing of the costs involved in discipleship, of which our Lord often spoke. A simple reading of the Sermon on the Mount will show how our Lord carefully represented the blessings and the costs of following Him.

The third soil, the thorny soil, represents those who have a more complete grasp of the cost of discipleship, but who have never rid themselves of the “cares of this world.” Their concerns for money and for pleasure outgrow their seeking first the kingdom of God, and thus their priorities are reversed. It is not that the people represented by this thorny soil do not understand the costs of discipleship, but that they are not willing to pay the price. It is not lack of knowledge which causes them to err, but lack of commitment, lack of dedication.

The fourth soil, the good soil represents all those whose hearts are prepared for the gospel, and whose lives are uncluttered with competitive interests and values. In this fourth soil the word not only bring forth life, but the plant comes to maturity and it bears fruit. Here is the goal of discipleship.

Which of the Soils is Saved?

When I have taught this text before I have spent considerable time attempting to answer the question, “Which of the four types of soil represent those who are saved?” I am now inclined to approach this parable differently. I believe that the first soil represents those who are lost, and that the fourth soil represents those who are saved, but I do not believe that the Lord’s purpose in telling the parable is to distinguish between believers and unbelievers. There is only one kind of soil which attains the goal. The goal which our Lord holds out in this parable is not that of being saved, but that of reaching full maturity and of bearing fruit. Someone might argue that a “rocky soil” person or a “thorny soil” person is a true believer, but our Lord would have us understand that they have not reached the goal for which they were saved. We are saved, not only to escape divine wrath and to live forever in heaven, but to attain to the “fullness of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) and to bear fruit (John 15:5).

The problem with many contemporary Christians is the same as that of the Pharisees and many other Jews of Jesus’ day—we are “two-category thinkers.” We think of the world only in terms of those who are saved and those who are not; those who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. The Jews thought of the world in terms of two categories: the Jew, who was God’s chosen, the object of God’s blessings; and the Gentile heathen, who was lost and the object of divine wrath. The parable of the soils which Jesus told forces us to think in terms of more than just two categories. It is not enough to have merely escaped hell, and to have our foot wedged in the doorway of heaven. The goal for which we are saved is to persevere, to grow, to reach maturity, and to produce more fruit. To fall short of this goal (even though we may have been saved), is to fail to attain that for which we were called and set apart.

The kind of Christian which pleases the heart of God is not one which makes a dramatic start and then dies out, nor one whose commitment to Christ is slowly choked out by worldly desires. The kind of Christian which pleases God is that one which thoughtfully hears the gospel, understands its implications, and then consistently grows and matures, and which bears fruit as a result.

Over the years of my ministry I have seen only a few who were so bold as to admit that all they wanted was to be “saved by the skin of their teeth,” who wanted to live this life with a minimum of commitment and obedience to Christ, and with a maximum of worldly pleasure. The few who were honest enough to say so admitted that they did not care about heavenly rewards, but only wanted to be sure of making it through the gate. While few are honest enough to admit to this kind of thinking, many of us are guilty of it. Our Lord’s parable of the soils should exhort us to desire and to depend upon Him to enable us to be like the fourth soil, and to find all other soils unacceptable. It is only this fourth soil kind of person who perseveres through adversity to maturity and fruitfulness (cf. v. 15).

In the gospel accounts we find that these four types of soil describe nearly all of those who heard the gospel of the kingdom. We find those who immediately rejected it; those who too quickly accepted it, those who fizzled out over a longer period, and those who endured and who bore fruit. These four types of soil also provide us with a grid by means of which we can categorize church-goers today. How few are those who can be called “good soil saints.”

The Reason for Hiding the Truth

In the previous verses Jesus has told His disciples that He meant to hide the truth of the kingdom from the masses, while revealing it to His intimate followers. Now, in verses 16-18, Jesus makes it clear that this “hiding” of the truth is only temporary. The truth, Jesus taught, was like a light, and light was not intended to be hidden, but to be brought into the open, where men in darkness could benefit from it.

In verse 17, Jesus went on to say that nothing which was presently hidden was to stay hidden for long, but would be brought out into the open. Jesus was not revealing His secrets to His disciples so that they could keep these things to themselves. Jesus was revealing His secrets to His disciples so that very soon they could broadcast them to the world. The disciples were thus urged to listen well, for as they distributed that which the Lord had entrusted to them they would be given even more. The secrets they were told were to be publicly proclaimed. As the truth was broadcast, more truth would be revealed. Jesus did not envision a gnostic few, who discovered and kept His secrets to themselves, but a dynamic force which would proclaim them abroad.

Why, then, were these truths, these secrets of the kingdom, temporarily concealed from the masses? Why were only the disciples told? I believe that that which was “secret” here was that which pertained to the sufferings and sacrificial death of Christ. The reason why these secrets were not made known to the crowd of Israelites was that many of them were to be the ones who would publicly deny Christ and who would demand His execution, while calling for the release of Barabas. Isaiah’s prophecy was veiled because the nation Israel had too long rejected the prophetic warnings and exhortations of previous prophets. When Isaiah came on the scene his message was veiled because God’s judgment was at hand. Thus, Isaiah’s preaching was to solidify Israel’s state of unbelief.

Something similar is happening in our Lord’s shift to teaching in parables. The nation Israel has not received Jesus as their Messiah. Their leaders have rejected Him and have determined to put Him to death. The people demand miracles and signs. Jesus began to veil His teaching, focusing more on His disciples and revealing more and more to them about His upcoming rejection and sacrificial death. Jesus’ concealing of these mysteries of the kingdom allowed the unbelieving nation to intensify its efforts to rid itself of this kind of Messiah. It signaled a change from speaking of a crown to suffering death on a cross. These mysteries would only be proclaimed and understood after our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.

The principle has been laid down that Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him (v. 18). The question is, “What constitutes ‘having’ or ‘possessing’ the truth?” The answer, I believe, is this: WE HAVE THAT WHICH WE POSSESS BY PRACTICING IT.

The “inner circle” of our Lord’s followers not only heard our Lord’s teaching, they took it to heart, leaving everything behind them to follow Him. Those who did not possess the truth only heard it, but did not apply it. Jesus is teaching that the one who possesses His teaching is the one who acts on it, who makes it his (or her) own, and who thus perseveres, grows to maturity, and bears fruit. To those who use the truth, more is given. To those who only hear it, even what they appear to possess is taken away—it has done them no good at all.

The Real Family of our Lord

This “principle of possession” is applied by our Lord in a very practical way in verses 19-21. His mother and brothers came to the house where He was staying and requested to see Him. Some brought word inside to the Lord, informing Him that His family was there and wished to see Him. Jesus responded by saying that His “true family” was made up of those who heard His word and put it into practice. The real followers of Jesus are those who had ears to hear and hearts to do what He taught.


This text teaches us some very important principles—truths which have pertinent and practical application to our own daily living. Let me conclude by mentioning some of these principles:

(1) Men are unable to grasp God’s truths, apart from divine enablement. Not only the crowds, but the disciples of our Lord as well failed to understand what Jesus was teaching by means of the parables. The disciples were enabled to understand what the parables meant only because Jesus explained their meaning to them at their request (Mark 4:34). Apart from our Lord’s explanations, the disciples would have been just as much in the dark as the crowds. Even when Jesus spoke plainly to the disciples, they did not fully grasp what He was saying (cf. Matt. 16:9,11; Mark 9:30-33).

Divine revelation requires divine interpretation. This is because God’s truths are vastly above our ability to grasp or comprehend:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9).

This principle, that divine revelation requires divine interpretation, is not just true for those who lived in Jesus’ day—it is true for saints today as well:

No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would hot have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, No mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:7-9).

In this context, Paul tells the Corinthian saints that God’s truths are above human comprehension. He goes on to say in the verses that follow that it is through the Holy Spirit that God makes these truths known to men. The Spirit has inspired the human authors, and it is also the Spirit that enables gifted teachers to explain them, and who illuminates individuals to grasp their meaning and application. While the disciples went to Jesus to learn the meaning of His words, we must look to the Holy Spirit to enable us to grasp the meaning of Scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10ff.; John 16:12ff.).

(2) When it comes to possessing the truths of God, we must use it, or lose it! Our Lord informs us that He does not inform His followers of His secrets only for their information, but for their transformation (cf. John 17:17; Rom. 12:2). And not only are we to see to it that the Word of God is applied to our own lives, we must also proclaim it to others. Here is fruit-bearing. The Word of God is like the manna of the Old Testament: it is not given for us to store up, but to use. That which is not used rots.

(3) Problem passages should draw us to Him. Often times people will use difficult texts as their excuse for not studying the Bible, or for not following Christ. The “difficult sayings” of Jesus drew the disciples closer to Him, for He alone knew their meaning. Problem passages should do this for the true Christian. They should cause us to seek His face, to learn from Him through His Spirit. Problems should draw us to Him, not from Him.

(4) The parable of the soils has an evangelistic lesson, as well as a warning. Note that the sower sowed seed on all four kinds of soil. You might say that he sowed indiscriminately. You and I do not know what kind of soil our unsaved fried or neighbor might be. Because of this, we must proclaim the gospel (sow the seed) indiscriminately. We will not know what kind of soil men are for some time. Let us therefore be on guard against pre-judging others and simply proclaim the truth of God’s word to all.

For those who have heard the word of God, who have heard the gospel and yet have not responded, there is a clear word of warning here. To disregard the gospel is dangerous, for Satan will not allow the seed to remain for long and the seed may never be sown in our hearts again. If you have heard the message of the gospel, knowing that you are a sinner in need of God’s grace, in need of the forgiveness found only in Christ, and yet have not acted so as to receive it, you are presuming on the grace of God, expecting another opportunity which may never come your way again. Receive Him today!

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26. Stilling of the Storm (Luke 8:22-25)


After many years of marriage and a number of tense moments, our friends, Don and Maggie, had come to an agreement: Maggie would not interrupt Don’s concentration when he was in the middle of a project. On a number of occasions Maggie had interrupted Don when he was deeply involved in a task, much to his consternation. Finally, they agreed that when she wanted to ask him something, she would wait until he had finished what he was doing.

The arrangement had worked pretty well over the years, until a particular day. Don was working on a project in the garage. Maggie, well acquainted with their arrangement, walked out to the garage and stood silently by, waiting for the signal that he was ready to be interrupted. When he looked up, she calmly reported, “the house is on fire.”

There are times when one feels justified in being excited, even a bit panicky. When I read the account of the stilling of the storm in the gospels, I am troubled by the fact that Jesus rebukes the disciples for panicking in this life-threatening storm. I have to ask myself how one would approach Jesus to awaken Him, so as not to set his faith aside. If you were one of the disciples, who had just been rebuked for your lack of faith, what would you have done differently in that storm? Would you come to Jesus something like Maggie came to Don? How does one deny their faith in the midst of a storm? How does one practice their faith in the face of a life-threatening danger? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are questions which our text raises.

For some, the stilling of the storm is an easy text to interpret and apply. They would tell us that we “trust Jesus in the storms of our life.” But how is this done? How does one practice faith in the frantic moments of life? How should we have responded if we were in that storm and if we were practicing our faith? It isn’t as simple as it seems. The story of the stilling of the storm isn’t a very extended account, but it is one that requires a good bit of thought and study.

Our Approach

Initially, I must admit to getting caught up by all of the details which were not provided by our text. I intended to approach to the stilling of the storm something like the National Transportation Safety Board would investigate an airplane mishap. A seemingly simple and trivial incident (like running out of gas) is taken very seriously, requiring months of investigation, the conclusions being summarized in multiple volumes. As I began to approach the stilling of the storm from this same point of view, I ended up with many unanswered questions.150

It suddenly dawned on me that I was missing the point of the passage. All of the details which I desired to discover were deliberately omitted, not only by Luke, but also by Matthew and Mark, in their parallel accounts. The reason why all of this information was withheld was so that the principle thrust of the incident could not be lost in a maze of mundane details. Consequently we will not approach the passage in a way that tries to discover all of the facts, but in a way that seeks to interpret and apply the facts which we have been given.

As I understand the account of the stilling of the storm, the principle focus of the passage is on faith, or rather, the lack of faith evidenced by the disciples’ response to the storm. The is no doubt the obvious emphasis on the need for faith, but it would seem to me that this text supplies us with a great deal of insight into the nature of faith. Let us then seek to learn from this lesson what faith really is, how it works, and how its absence can be detected. May God use this lesson to increase our faith.

I will begin by briefly re-telling the story of the stilling of the storm, including some of the details which are added by the other accounts of Matthew and Mark. We will then seek to explore some of the principles pertaining to faith which can be discerned from this incident on the middle of the Sea of Galilee. We will also attempt to show how these principles apply can be found elsewhere in Scripture and how they apply in our daily experience.

The Context of our Passage

The account of the stilling of the storm is the first of three miracles recorded by Luke in chapter 8. The stilling of the storm (Luke 8:22-25) is followed by the healing of the demoniac (8:26-38). The third manifestation of our Lord’s miraculous power is recorded in the account of the raising of Jairus’s daughter, interrupted by the healing of the woman with the issue of blood. All of these precede the sending out of the disciples, to do the very things the Lord has done here:

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick (Luke 9:1-2).151

All of these miracles point to the power of our Lord Jesus, as well as to His identity as Israel’s Messiah. They are, for the disciples, as well as for the reader, to be the fuel for faith. The two central threads which run through these miracles are “fear” and “faith.” As we study these incidents, let us seek to learn the relationship between fear and faith, and between Jesus’ power, His person, and our peace of heart and soul.

Parallel Passages

The miracle of the stilling of the storm is found in all three of the synoptic (synoptic means to see the same way, and refers to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of which approach the life of Christ in the same general way, as distinct from the approach of John’s gospel) gospels. Each of the gospels contributes some unique facet or element, so that our study of the event from Luke’s gospel is enhanced by a reading of the accounts of Matthew (8:23-27) and Mark (4:36-41).152

The Stilling of the Storm

It was the day on which Jesus had taught the crowds by means of parables on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The crowds lined the shore, while Jesus taught from a boat, anchored just off shore. It was evening (Mark 4:35), and our Lord had finished His teaching, so He instructed His disciples to cross the lake by boat to the other side. They left the crowd behind on shore, but some of those who were listening from on board other little boats followed as they set out to cross the lake (Mark 4:36). It was during the peaceful part of this trip that Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat, on a cushion (Mark 4:38).

Without warning, a storm came upon the lake. The winds blew fiercely, whipping the water into mountainous waves. The boat and its passengers were in serious danger. The seasoned sailors on board understood the threat even better than the rest and all were frightened. No doubt they did everything possible to secure the ship and to attempt to weather the storm. The boat was being swamped by the waves, which swept over the bow. Jesus, at the rear of the boat, was least affected. The violent up and down motion of the boat was much more pronounced at the bow of the boat and least at the stern. So, too, with the water which swept over the bow. The disciples were scared to death; Jesus slept.

With some irritation they must have noted His peaceful repose. How could He be so peaceful? How could He sleep? Why was He not even aware of their plight? Didn’t He care? We are only told that “the disciples went and woke Him,” but I would imagine that they were not as gentle as they might otherwise have been as they shook the Lord to rouse Him from His sleep.

The statements of the disciples differ from one gospel to another:

  • “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25)
  • “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” (Luke 8:24)
  • “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)

I believe that all of these words were spoken, and probably more. As there were twelve frightened and frustrated men with Him, each may have spoken at once, or perhaps in sequence, or a little of both. Thus, the recording of all of these statements is true to the events, and reveals different emotions and responses. Matthew seems to record a cry for help. Luke seems to give us a statement of doom. Mark records the rebuke of one or more of the disciples for our Lord’s seeming aloofness.

Aroused from His slumber, Jesus stood and rebuked153 the winds and the waves. Instantly the winds ceased. More astoundingly, the raging waters were calm. Normally, considerable time is required for the waves to cease, even though the winds have long since diminished. Yet here, all was calm. The sea was as smooth as glass. Jesus gently rebuked the disciples for their fear and for their lack of faith. The disciples, however, were too shaken by what they have seen to think very deeply about what our Lord had just said. They were totally overwhelmed by what He had just done. Speaking to one another they pondered not only what had just happened, but also who is was who was with them in the boat: “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him” (Luke 8:25).

It would seem that their fear at what Jesus has just done differs both in kind and in intensity from that which they had as a result of the storm. What Jesus has just done was even more startling than the life-threatening storm itself.

The Point of the Passage

The story is simply told. There is no embellishment evident in any of the gospel accounts. There are many questions which come to the reader’s mind as a result of the brevity of the text, some of which must be left to the reader for personal study and meditation. Many details which we would like to have been told have been withheld so that the principle point of the passage would be emphatically clear. This incident focuses on faith, or perhaps more accurately, the absence of faith on the part of the disciples. The disciples were afraid, and their words and actions toward Jesus were less than what was expected of them. Jesus spoke to them only about the faith which they should have had. Let us seek to identify the principles taught by this passage which pertain to faith.

The Importance of Faith

(1) Faith is fundamental for those who would be followers of Christ. The Lord sought faith in His disciples in this text, and nothing else. The story of the stilling of the storm is the account of our Lord’s looking for faith in His disciples and not finding it. All of the extraneous details have been omitted from this story so that the importance and nature of faith are glaringly prominent.

Jesus did not criticize the sailing skills of these men, nor did He coach them on the art of bailing boats. He did not expect them to do anything in the midst of that storm but to trust in Him. Instead, they rebuked Him for His lack of caring and activity. The disciples’ lack of faith was viewed by our Lord as a most serious problem. The Lord gently, but firmly, rebuked them for their unbelief154 and for their fear.

Faith is fundamental for those who would be followers of Christ. It is that for which our Lord seeks (cf. Luke 18:8), that in which He delights, and the lack of which causes Him displeasure. Faith is equally important for those who would follow Christ today. It is by faith that we are saved from our sins (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:22). We are to live by faith (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). Whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). Faith is fundamental, not only to our text, and to the disciples, but to everyone. It was faith that saved Abraham (Romans 4), as it was faith that sustained all of the heroes of the faith named or alluded to in Hebrews chapter 11. It is faith from which obedience flows (Romans 16:26). It is by faith that we stand (2 Corinthians 1:24). Faith is the shield which protects us from satanic attack (Eph. 6:16; cf. 1 Peter 5:9). To sum it up, without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

(2) Failing to trust in Chrsit dishonors and displeases Him and is detrimental to men. The disciples’ lack of faith does not please our Lord here, nor does it do so elsewhere (cf. Matt. 14:31; 16:8). It was dishonoring to Christ for it showed that the disciples did not view Him as the Son of God and the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (cf. Colossians 1:16-17). In addition, the disciples’ lack of faith caused them much unnecessary consternation and fear.

The Nature of Faith

(1) Faith involves a decision for which men are responsible. Our Lord’s rebuke of His disciples, regardless of how gentle it may have been, indicates that the disciples were expected to have faith, and were held accountable for failing to have faith. While faith is, in one sense, a gift of God, it is also a gift which may be accepted or refused. Faith involves man’s choice.

(2) Faith acts, sometimes by waiting, and sometimes by working. Sometimes faith is a decision which requires man to take action. For example, Abraham’s faith in God required him, on one occasion to circumcise his son. On other, he was required to send away Ishmael. On yet another, he was instructed to “sacrifice his only son.” We might call this the “obedience of faith.” It is doing that which God has commanded, trusting in God to fulfill His purposes and promises as we act in obedience to His command, even though such obedience seems to be foolish, even destructive.

At other times, a decision of faith requires us to be passive. Faith sometimes must passively wait, at a time when we would be tempted to act on our own to bring about a certain result. God promised Abraham a son. By faith, he should have patiently waited. Instead, Abraham produced a son through his wife’s handmaid. This was an act of unbelief, which continues to have its adverse consequences. Faith acts, sometimes by waiting, and other times by working.

(3) Faith is tested and proven by adversity and trails. The disciples’ lack of faith is exposed in their crisis experience on the Sea of Galilee. Faith’s absence or presence is revealed in the traumas of life. Apart from this storm, the disciples would have continued to appear and to feel as though they had control of the situation. Their panic on the lake showed otherwise.

So it is for us as well. It is the crises of life which reveal our faith. God sent trials into Job’s life to show that his relationship to God was a matter of faith, not of mere self-interest, as Satan suggested (cf. Job 1). So, too, James tells us the purpose of trials is to test and to deepen our faith:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance (James 1:2-3).

The tests and the trials of life—life’s crises—simply expose those flaws and failures in our faith which have long been there, but which are only revealed under stress and pressure. If possessing faith is important, then we can be grateful for the tests which reveal our weaknesses.

(4) Faith is the opposite of fear. Jesus cited the disciples’ fear as evidence of their lack of faith. When you stop to think about it, fear (that is, the kind of frantic, panic, fear that the disciples displayed in the storm) and faith are mutually exclusive. Where you find fear, faith is absent. When you find faith, fear is gone. In their fear the disciples made too much of the problem and too little of God’s provisions. They viewed themselves as on the brink of disaster, at death’s doorway. In reality, they were only “beginning to be in danger” (Luke 8:23, NASV). The boat was beginning to fill up, but the disciples saw it as full. Fear maximizes the problem and minimizes God’s provisions and presence.

Worry is an even greater sin than fear in my opinion. Fear is based upon reality—there was a serious storm raging. Worry is based upon the hypothetical possibility of trouble. “What if I lose my job?” “What if I get sick and can’t work?” Fear is being in a boat that is in a storm and is filling up with water. Worry is standing on shore, too frightened to get into a boat, for fear that a storm must might come up, and that it might sink. Fear has more basis than worry, even though it is wrong.

(5) Faith faces danger and risk. Faith does not deny danger nor minimize it. Faith involves “risk” from a human perspective. Faith puts oneself, one’s future, one’s safety on the line. Faith entrusts oneself to God in the midst of danger. While faith is antithetical to fear, it is also akin to fear in that danger will evoke one response or the other. Faith faces danger with peace and tranquillity. Fear faces danger in frenzy. Faith is willing to take risks, based on the promises and purposes of God. Fear avoids danger at all costs. Faith is not gambling, toying with danger, for gambling is based on chance, while faith is based upon God.

(6) Faith is trusting God. Faith focuses on God, its object is God. Since the incarnation of Christ, faith focuses on God incarnate, Jesus Christ. The disciples did not just lack faith, they lacked faith in Christ, the One who was in the boat with them. The words of the disciples, after the stilling of the storm, reveal their utter failure to grasp the greatness of the One who was with them. The disciples did not grasp the greatness of the One who was with them in the boat, and thus they lacked faith in His power, in His presence, in His goodness.

(7) Faith is trusting God alone. True faith is faith in God alone. Faith cannot be placed in both God and man (cf. Ps. 146, esp. vv. 3-4). Faith in God cannot be mixed with trust in ourselves, or in our own actions. The storm of the Sea of Galilee had brought the disciples to a point of absolute desperation. There was nothing which they, or any other human being, could do to save them. If God did not act, and if He did not act in a supernatural way, they were doomed.

In this case, the disciples were painfully aware of their inadequacy, of the futility of anything they might do to save themselves. In other instances, we must come to the realization that even when our actions might seem to save us, they don’t. Abraham’s method of lying about the identity of his wife, Sarah, seemed to work, it seemed to save his skin. In the final analysis, Abraham had to come to see that only God could save Him. When Abraham was called on to sacrifice his only son, he was brought to the point of trusting only in God.

(8) Faith is trusting in God alone to do the impossible. Faith is not trusting in God for those things which will happen in and of themselves. Faith is trusting in the God who miraculously intervenes to do that which is humanly impossible. Faith is not based upon statistics, but on supernaturalism. Faith trusts God to do that which cannot be done. The disciples saw no way out of the storm. Jesus stilled the storm, and all, including the boat, made it safely to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

The Scriptures teach us that we are to walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). In spite of the fact that our bodies are deteriorating, we believe that we will live eternally. While we see that we will die, we believe that we will be raised again. While it appears that those who live according to the Sermon on the Mount will suffer economic disaster, God has promised to provide for our every need. Faith is not based upon statistics, nor upon sight, but upon God’s supernatural power, and upon His promises.

(9) Faith is trusting in God alone for salvation. A study of this text has led me to a starting conclusion: All faith is saving faith. The disciples here, cried out for their physical salvation. Had our Lord not intervened, they would have perished. As you look through the New Testament, you see that many who come to Jesus in faith ask for “salvation.” The woman who believed that she would be healed of her issue of blood literally believed that she would be “saved” (Matthew 9:21), and the Lord obviously confirmed this when He said,

“Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed [literally “saved”] you” (Matthew 9:22).

While she was still alive, Jairus believed that if Jesus came and touched her, she would be healed [literally “saved”] (Mark 5:23). Mark later tells us that all who touched Jesus were healed [literally “saved”] (Mark 6:56).

My point in all of this is that all faith looks to God to “save” us in the sense that according to our human “sight,” in terms of mere statistics, what we do or do not do by faith would seem to lead to destruction. Abraham was commanded to leave his family behind and go to an unknown (as yet unnamed) land, where God promised to bless him. From a human perspective, Abraham was leaving certain prosperity behind while flirting with disaster. Abraham was instructed to take the life of his only son, through whom God had promised to bless him and all the earth. Humanly speaking, this would destroy Abraham’s family. But Abraham, by faith, believed that God was supernaturally able to raise him from the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:17-19). Faith trusts God to save us from disaster, from disease, from destruction, from death, from defeat. All faith is faith that God will save us from something (and to something).

(10) Faith always has a firm foundation. When Jesus rebuked the disciples for their unbelief He said, “Do you still have no faith” (Mark 4:40, emphasis mine).

This term “still” strongly suggests that there was no excuse for their unbelief. It implies as well that the disciples had been provided with more than enough evidence for their faith. It informs us that the disciples’ had a firm foundation for their faith. In the past, their unbelief might have been understandable, even excusable, but not now. There were many evidences, many facts which had been provided the disciples, which were to serve as the basis of their faith. Let us briefly review some of the evidences which the disciples had, which were a firm foundation for their faith in Christ.

Old Testament Texts About God

By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses (Psalm 33:6-7).

God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging (Psalm 46:1-3).

You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas, who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength, who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations (Psalm 65:5-7).

O LORD God Almighty, who is like you? You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them (Psalm 89:8-9).

All of these texts focus on the fact that God is both the Creator and the Controller of His creation, which includes the sea. The New Testament goes even further to identify Christ as the Creator and Sustainer of the creation.

For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17).

The One who was in the boat with the disciples was the Creator and the Controller of the Sea!

Old Testament Incidents Pertaining to Israel

When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, to make his mighty power known. He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. He saved them from the hand of the foe; from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them. The waters covered their adversaries; not one of them survived (Psalm 106:7-11).

When God created Israel as a nation and brought them out of Egypt, He did so by parting the Red Sea, in such a way as to save the Israelites and to destroy the army of Egypt. The disciples are the beginning of God’s new program the church. If need be, the Lord could have used the winds to cut a path in the Sea of Galilee, and they could have walked to shore, on dry land!

Old Testament Prophecies Pertaining to Messiah

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him (Deut. 18:15).

I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him. My hand will sustain him; surely my arm will strengthen him. No enemy will subject him to tribute; no wicked man will oppress him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down his adversaries. My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted. I will set his hand over the sea, his right hand over the rivers. He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, The Rock my Savior.’ I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail. I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure (Psalm 89:8-9,20-29).

Moses had prophesied that One like him, but greater than he, would come. That One was Jesus. He was greater than Moses. Moses brought bread from heaven; Jesus was the Bread of Life, come down from heaven (cf. John 6:30-40). If Moses parted the Red Sea, what could the One greater than Moses do to the Sea of Galilee? Psalm 89, I believe is a Messianic Psalm, speaking not only of David, but of Messiah, the Son of David. This One, we are told, will “set his hand over the sea” (v. 25).

Jesus’ Words and Deeds

Jesus’ teaching and deeds, up to this point in time, had given ample proof of His identity as Messiah, as well as of His power. In Luke chapter 5, there was a similar “boat incident” (vv. 1-11), in which the Lord taught from on board, and then commanded the disciples to put out to sea. In that incident, He commanded them to put out their nets. Contrary to nature and to good fishing procedures, they made a great catch. The nets began to tear and the boat began to sink (with fish). Peter responded to the power of the Lord with words which closely parallel those of the disciples after the stilling of the storm.

In addition to this miracle in the boat, Jesus had healed a leper and a paralytic (Luke 5:12-26). He had performed many miracles (6:17-19). He healed the nearly dead servant of the centurion and raised the widow’s dead son (7:1-17). There should have been no doubt as to the Lord’s person or His power. All of the statements of the Old Testament about the power of God, and some of the prophecies pertaining to Messiah could be seen as fulfilled in Christ.

(11) Faith is trusting the presence, purposes, power, and character of God, founded on the Word of God. Faith is rooted in our awareness of the presence of God in Christ in our midst. Christ was with the disciples, but they did not know who He was. The disciples’ discussion after the miracle betrayed their lack of understanding who He was who was with them. Knowing Christ, and being assured that He is with us, is the basis of our faith.

The verb form of the term rendered “afraid” in the account of the stilling of the storm (Matthew 8:26; Mark 4:40) is found once in the New Testament, in a way which addresses the kind of fear manifested by the disciples in the midst of the storm. Noticed how peace can be found in the midst of difficulties, how peace can replace panic, based on the assurance of Christ’s presence with us:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27, emphasis mine).

A similar note is sounded in Deuteronomy 31:6, which, in the Greek translation (the Septuagint) uses this same term found in John 14:27:

“Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.”

When the Lord was about to leave His disciples, He comforted them with the assurance that He would send His Spirit, whose task is to mediate the presence of Christ (cf. John 14-16). We may have peace in the midst of the storm if we have the presence of Christ in our hearts.

In addition to His Spirit, the Lord Jesus left His Word, which testifies to His presence, His power, and His purposes, which will be fulfilled in us.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy “Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).

(12) Faith is founded on the purposes of God. The disciples were frightened in the midst of the storm but had they known who He was, they could have had great comfort in the Lord’s purposes. It was His idea for them to go to the other side. It was His purpose to reach the other shore. It was God’s purpose for Christ to die on a Roman cross, not to drown in the Sea of Galilee. Knowing who it was who was in the ship, and knowing His purposes, could have given the disciples great peace.

One final note, even though the disciples’ faith failed, God’s purposes did not. In spite of the disciples’ fear and unbelief, the ship did not sink, the storm ceased, and all landed safely on the shore. The failures of our faith do not frustrate the purposes of God. As Paul puts it,

If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

Here is the bedrock basis for our faith. He is good. He is powerful. His purposes will stand. And even when we fail in faith, He will not fail in faithfulness.

150 Some of the questions are: Why did Jesus fall asleep? Did He snore? (How “human” was Jesus?) What caused the storm? Was it, for example, satanic in origin (cp. Job 1:19)? Had our Lord not fallen asleep, would the storm have arisen at all? Would He have dealt sooner or differently with the storm? Why was the storm allowed to happen in the first place (whether by Christ or by the Father)? What is the relationship between our Lord’s sleep and … the storm? fatigue? disinterest on our Lord’s part (as the disciples may have thought)? His faith? the disciples rebuke? Were the disciples wrong for being concerned? Should they not have been concerned? What caused the disciples to be irritated with Jesus, so that they virtually rebuked Him? What did the disciples expect Jesus to do, once He did awaken? What did they want or ask Him to do? Why were the disciples frightened after the stilling of the storm? Why did Jesus rebuke the winds and the waves? Did they do something wrong? Why did Jesus rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith? In what way(s) did their words and action reveal a lack of faith? Why did the disciples’ faith fail? In whom should the disciples had faith, in Jesus as Messiah, or in God? If the disciples were to do it all over again, right this time, what should they do differently? If the disciples had known that Jesus were the Messiah, the Son of God, who made the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, what difference would it have made? What should the disciples have known by this point in time, and how should it have changed the way they acted? What are the evidences of a lack of faith? What are the evidences of the presence of faith? How is faith tested? When is faith needed? How is faith exercised? How can faith be increased?

151 “In 4:31—5:11 we found four miracles climaxed by the call and commissioning of Peter: the miracles functioned as a catalyst for Peter’s response of faith. Now at the end of the Galilean section is another series of four miracles followed by the sending of the Twelve: the mighty works that precede the commissioning demonstrate the authority of the one who gives power and authority to his emissaries.” Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel ((New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 96-97.

152 The words of the disciples to the sleeping Jesus, for example, are different: (a) “Lord, save us! We are going to drown!” Matthew 8:25 (b) “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” Luke 8:24 (c)“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Mark 4:38. (d) Mark tells us that there were other boats with them, as well (4:36).

153 It comes as a bit of a surprise to find the word “rebuke” used here. We know from our own understanding of this term, not to mention its use in the Bible as indicated in a concordance, that a rebuke is appropriate only were some wrong has been done. We rebuke people when they are wrong, but why did our Lord rebuke the winds and the waves?

We need to recall that our Lord also rebuked the fever of Simon’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:39). In the rebuke of the fever and of the winds and the waves, Jesus has responded in a way that suggests to us that nature was “out of order” and in need of correction. As I understand it, nature has been adversely affected by sin, just as man has (cf. Romans 8:19-22). The winds and the waves perform a very valuable function, but they sometimes get out of order, as in a storm, taking lives and destroying property. So, too, a fever is the body’s means of dealing with infection, but it sometimes gets out of hand, causing serious problems, even death. Our Lord rebuked nature here because nature was out of order with the Creator. Our Lord’s purpose was to die on a cross, not to drown in the Sea of Galilee. Our Lord was to reach the other side of the Sea, not sink in the middle. Nature was out of order. Jesus commanded it to comply. Thus, His rebuke.

154 The term “afraid” (NIV), badly rendered “timid” (NASV), is not one commonly used in the New Testament, as can be seen by consulting a concordance. The same term is used only 3 times in the New Testament, two times in the accounts of the stilling of the storm and once in Revelation: “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death “(Revelation 21: 7-8).

The unbelief of the disciples, for which the Lord rebuked them, is of the same strain as that for which men are eternally condemned. Unbelief is a most serious matter.

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27. The Deliverance the Demoniac or "Unholy Fear" (Luke 8:26-39)

The “Goat Man”

When I was growing up, there was a kind of farm that we would pass on our way to the city of Tacoma. The farm was owned by a man who was only known as the “goat man.” The “farm” was hardly that. Actually it was a large piece of property, stacked high with Army surplus goods. I can remember balsa wood life rafts, perhaps hundreds of them, piled there on the farm. The goat man’s house was a mere shack, with the most meager accommodations. (All of this I surmise from my recollections of what I saw from the road, as we would drive by.)

He was called the “goat man” because the only thing he raised on that farm was goats. I can vividly remember the man sitting on the porch of that little shack with the door open and goats freely going in and out of the house. I can especially recall one particular goat, which always had a rooster sitting on his back. I am telling you the truth. Every time we went by the goat man’s house that one goat had that one rooster sitting on his back, even as it walked about. It was an amusing sight.

The interesting thing about the goat man is that he was apparently very wealthy. The rumor was that this man owned an entire city block of downtown Tacoma. What an incredible thing it was for a man to live as he did, sitting on the porch of that shack, surrounded by goats and chickens, with a yard full of surplus rafts, when he could have lived in luxury and dressed elegantly.

Every place has its own “goat man” of sorts. There is always some “crazy person,” who is the talk of the neighborhood, and who provides entertainment for all who see them. I believe that the two demoniacs who lived in the region of the Gerasenes were the “talk of the town” in their day. At one point in time, these men must have lived in the town and carried on relatively normal lives.155 Then, something happened which turned the two into virtual beasts, who were so strong and uncontrollable that the people would no longer use the road which passed by the place where they dwelt.

The problem for us is to really grasp the reality of what is described here. Most of us have (gratefully) not seen men or women who were so demonically controlled that they had superhuman strength, spoke in strange voices, and seemed to personify evil. For most of us who live in the United States, we must accept this biblical account by faith. But such things do occur, as Don Baker, a pastor who experienced a face-to-face confrontation with a demoniac, reports. He had undergone a period of intense depression, which necessitated hospitalization and a long period of therapy by a Christian psychiatrist. He recounts this incident with a demon-possessed man, which occurred just a little while before his breakdown:

… it had been just a few days after my first personal encounter with a Satanist that I slipped into my black hole. That was a frightening experience. It happened as I was walking to my room at a conference center where I had been invited to teach for a week. Standing in my path was a handsome young man, twenty-seven years of age, dressed in army fatigues.

“Is your name Baker, or Barker?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “my name is Baker.”

“I’ve been told to talk to you,” he said.

His manner was strange and threatening. His voice was flat and colorless. His eyes looked cold and empty. I felt fear as I looked at him. He came into my room with me, and I asked him to be seated. He said, “No, I’ll stand.” Then he said, “I must tell you something, but I cannot look at you; and you cannot look at my face.” With that he turned to the wall, pressed his head against the wallboard, and began reciting the most bizarre story I had ever heard. He had been a worshiper and priest of Satan for seventeen years. His devotion to the evil one had taken him all over the country and had involved him in every occult practice known to man. Every twenty-two days he was visited by a demon and driven to unspeakable acts of evil. He hated God. He hated Christ. He hated talking to me, but he was compelled …

After two hours he suddenly turned on me, his eyes filled with hate, and screamed, “Aren’t you afraid of me? Don’t you know I can kill you?” With supernatural calmness I looked into that enraged face and said, “No, you can’t, for greater is Christ Who is in me than Satan who is in you” (1 John 4:4). Instantly he screamed, a hideous high-pitched scream, threw up his arms, and fell to the floor. In uncontrolled rage he began pounding his head on the concrete floor, uttering noises horrible beyond description. I looked around vainly for help. I called, but no one came. I was alone—alone with a demoniac. Face to face with the enemy for the first time.

“O God, what do I do?” I cried. I knelt beside that writhing human form, placed one hand between his forehead and the concrete and the other on his back. As I stroked his head and shoulders I prayed, “Lord Jesus, deliver this man from Satan.” I continued to pray, all the time shielding his head from the floor. “In the name of Jesus, Lord of heaven—Lord of all—I command you, Satan, to come out of this man’s body.”

If there was a precise formula, I didn’t know what it was. I did know that Jesus’ name always rang the death knell to the demons in the Scriptures. After what seemed an eternity, his body began to relax. He stopped jabbering and foaming. I urged him to speak the name, Lord Jesus—Lord Jesus. Each time I said that name he looked at me with pleading eyes and then grabbed his throat and his tongue to indicate that he could not speak. As I knelt beside him, clutching his body to mine, I prayed again, “Lord Jesus, release this man’s tongue, that he may speak Your name.” Finally, it happened. His lips began form words.

“Say it,” I urged. “Say His name. Say Lord Jesus.”

“I can’t,” he cried.

I prayed again. Finally he lifted his head, summoned the little strength he had left, and cried, “Lord Jesus.” With these words he slumped to the floor, unconscious. I covered him with a blanket, rubbed his head, massaged his shoulders and back, and waited for him to revive. His first words after opening his eyes were, “Lord Jesus.” He then raised up, moved to the side of my bed, knelt there, and gave his life to Jesus Christ.156

Our text is important for us for several reasons. First, this text teaches us much about the demonic forces which oppose our Lord and His church. It reminds us of the supernatural forces at work contrary to the Christian. It reminds us as well that Jesus Christ has power over the demonic forces, indeed, even over an entire “legion” of demons. We owe a great debt to Legion, for he is an extreme illustration of the end result of Satan’s control. This description of Legion provides us with a kind of “untouched photo” of a man who is fully “spirit filled,” as it were, totally dominated by Satan, by means of his demonic assistants. Satan’s deception and destruction is unmasked, revealed in its purest and ugliest form. Let us look carefully as the finished product, for it is vastly different from what Satan claims he can produce.

Second, the deliverance of the demoniac draws our attention to a fear of God which is unholy and unhealthy. The fear of “Legion,” which is the fear of the demons who possess him, and the fear of the people of his home town, is an unholy fear, one which causes men to draw away from God, or, as in our text, to ask the Son of God to withdraw from their region. It is no great shock to learn that the unbelieving and the unholy would fear God. At the conclusion of this message, I will suggest that this same kind of unholy fear which is seen in Legion and the people of that region can be found in many Christians, and that it is this kind of fear which hinders, even opposes revival. Let us listen well to this text, for it has much to say to contemporary Christians, as well as to modern-day pagans.

The Approach of This Message

In this message, we will begin by reviewing the setting, and then we will look at the events surrounding the deliverance of the demoniac as it is described by Luke, accented by the accounts of Matthew and Mark. We will then consider the “tension of the text,” which is the key to the interpretation of this event and its meaning for us. Finally, we will consider the nature of the fear of Legion and his fellow-townspeople, and seek to learn how it can be found in all people, including Christians.

The Deliverance of the Demoniac

The day had begun with our Lord teaching the crowds from on board a boat (perhaps that one belonging to one of the fishermen of the disciples), anchored along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The use of the boat was not new (cf. Luke 5:3), but our Lord’s method of teaching by means of parables was (Luke 8:3ff.). Here, Luke records only the parable of the soils (8:3-18). At the end of His teaching that day, Jesus had His disciples set out for the other side of the lake (cf. Mark 4:33-36). On the journey across the lake, a great storm arose, which threatened the boat and its passengers. After Jesus had stilled the storm, the boat continued on to the other side of the lake. It is here that our story picks up. It is as Jesus steps out of the boat to the shore that the demoniac appears.

The disciples’ hearts were still pounding from the scare they had experienced due to the storm. Their pulse rate was perhaps at last returning to normal. Now, as their boat glided gently up onto the solid ground of the shore, the disciples must have breathed a sigh of relief. I can almost hear one of the disciples sigh, under his breath, “Safe, at last!” What could happen to them now, after their safe landing? The solitude of the lonely shore was probably a welcome scene, after the crowds which had gathered along the other shore. No one probably gave a thought as to why no people were around, or why the road, which led to the nearby town, was empty.

The boat landed in sight of a road, which would lead into the town nearby. There, on the hill, was a cemetery of sorts, although I have the feeling another one may have been in greater use. Neither the road nor the cemetery were being used, however, for one reason: two demoniacs dwelt nearby, and no one felt safe to pass by, anywhere where they might be accosted by them (Matthew 8:28). While these men had once lived normal lives in the nearby town (cf. Luke 8:27), they now lived more like animals. The men were demon-possessed, and so they were will and dangerous. The townspeople had tried by contain and to control the men, even using chains, but their superhuman strength proved too much for the chains (Luke 8:29; Mark 5:3). They no longer wore clothes, and they often cried out in loud, but inhuman voices, often lacerating themselves with stones (Mark 5:5). They were dangerous not only to any passer-by, but to themselves as well.

The two men and the townspeople seemed to have come to an understanding. They would live in seclusion, where they would not hurt anyone else, and the townspeople would leave them alone. It was the best solution, it seemed, under the circumstances. The men were left to themselves, so that whenever the demons chose, they could torment them, but without harm to anyone else. Everyone seemed to know that the place where Jesus had landed was, by common consent, a no-man’s land.

Matthew alone tells us that there were two demoniacs, and not just one, as a reading of either Mark or Luke would lead one to conclude. Mark and Luke, who tell only of the one demoniac, also include the report that this man, once restored to sanity, became a follower of our Lord. It take it that the other demoniac did not. Mark and Luke tell us only of the one demoniac, for they are interested in his faith, a faith which the other seems not to possess.

As we seek to relive the incident with the demoniac and the herd of swine, we need to recall that the whole scenario was being witnessed by the “pig pokes” or “hog herders,” who saw everything from their elevated vantage point. If we can replay the event in the form of a mental movie, we need to begin with a wide angle lens. The Lord and His disciples have just arrived, and they are standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Also, near the lake seems to be the road, which passed beside the graveyard (where the two demoniacs dwelt among the tombs) and which continued on to the nearby town. Slightly higher, somewhat on a hill (it would seem) was the graveyard, where the demoniacs lived. From their position, they could see the boat approaching the shore and the party on board landing. Even higher up were the “pig pokes,” who were tending the hogs, who would later plunge down the steep bank into the Sea of Galilee and drown.

Tending the hogs was probably not all that taxing, and thus the herdsmen must have been gazing out on the lake below, and have seen the boat approaching. (They may also have watched the storm, which had threatened this and other boats on the lake.) When they realized that the boat was going to land here, in this virtual “no man’s land,” they must have been expecting that their day would have a little excitement.

They knew, of course, that the demoniacs were nearby (no doubt they kept their distance, too) and that no one ever used this road (Matthew 8:28), nor did anyone land on the shore near the graveyard. I can see these “pig-pokes” nudging each other in the ribs, saying, “Hey, Joe, watch this. This is going to be good.”

They watched as the two demoniacs swooped down on the unsuspecting disciples, shrieking in a way that would chill anyone’s blood. They giggled as they saw the disciples’ apprehension. They waited for these two violent men to brutalize these men, sending them back in their boat, to wherever they had come from. How they must have marveled to see the two demoniacs fall before Jesus. How their faces must have shown bewilderment as they overheard the statements of these two, screamed loudly enough for them to hear, even from their distance (cf. Matthew 8:29; Luke 8:28; Mark 5:7), declaring Jesus to be the Son of the Most High God (Luke 8:28). And then, can you imagine the uneasiness of these herdsmen when they saw the demoniacs turn in their direction, and point toward the herd of hogs, obviously asking Jesus something about them? When the hogs left the two demoniacs and possessed the pigs, the “hog herders” were the first to know, and to run the other way. When the people of the town asked these herders what had happened, they were able to tell it all, for they had seen the entire incident, located as they were above the entire scene. (It was from this same height that the pigs plunged, over a cliff, or at least a steep bank, into the lake.)

As the demoniac157 rushed downhill from the tombs toward Jesus, eyes crazed, screaming at the top of his lungs, it must have been a frightening sight for the disciples. Perhaps they considered jumping on the man as a group, hoping to have the combined strength to contain him. The demoniac seemed only to see or to care about Jesus, and as he drew near, he fell to his knees. As this man speaks, it is not the person, but rather the demons which are in control. Thus, it is the demons addressing our Lord, as we shall soon see.

The demonized man immediately recognized Jesus, even from a distance, as the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah. In Luke’s account, Jesus is acknowledged as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (Luke 8:28). When Jesus commanded the demons to come out of this man, whose demonized name was Legion, the demons began to speak through the man.

It is very important to take note of the fact that although the demoniac fell at Jesus’ feet, it was not an act of worship, as it would later be, when the demons were cast from the man. The demons did recognize Jesus’ identity, and they also acknowledged His superiority, His authority over them. They recognized, for example, that He could do with them as He pleased. Their petitions were addressed as those of inferior beings to One who was infinitely superior to them.

If I were to characterize the response of the demonized man to Jesus, and thus the response of demons to the Son of God, there is one word which would best summarize their reaction to Him—FEAR. Notice the following characteristics of fear which are evident in Legion’s words:

(1) Legion was fearful of the presence of God. The fear of Legion is very different from that of the disciples, in the midst of the storm. The disciples were fearful because they did not realize that God was with them in the boat. The demons are fearful because they know that God is present among them. Their first words to Jesus are a testimony to the fact that they recognize Him as the “Son of the Most High God” (Luke 8:28). They are frightened because they know God is in their midst.

(2) The demons were fearful of torment, of the judgment of God. Why would the appearance of Jesus on the other shore of the Sea of Galilee be a cause of fear for the demons? Because they knew that the coming of God’s Messiah spelled destruction for them. Jesus Himself will say of the devil,

“Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of the world shall be cast out” (John 12:31).

In the beginning, God said that the “seed of the woman” would destroy Satan:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

It is interesting to note that while the demons dread their own torment, they have no qualms about tormenting those whom they possess.

(3) The demons were frightened by the timing of His coming. The thing which caught the demons off guard was the timing of His coming. They knew that their time would come, but they did not expect it to come so soon. To them, Jesus had come prematurely, at least according to their scheme of eschatology. Listen to their surprise as they say, “Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matthew 8:29).

The demons knew that Messiah’s coming spelled their doom. What they did not expect was His coming to be so soon.

We are inclined to give Satan and his evil hoard too much credit. We think that they are all-knowing when they are not. They, like the Jews of that day, and even like the disciples of our Lord, had a distorted grasp of Messiah’s coming. They looked for but one coming, not two. The demons were looking for the “second coming of Christ,” but they did not expect the first. When Jesus appeared, they were shaken, they were frightened. The fact that Legion ran to Jesus, rather than from Him, indicates (among other things) the demons’ fear and frantic confusion, caused by the unexpected appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ.

(4) The demons were fearful of the outcome of Christ’s coming for the man they had demonized. The demons dreaded the deliverance of the demoniac. The reasons for this will be seen next.

(5) The demons feared disembodiment. Jesus almost immediately began to command the demons to come out of the man. They, just as quickly, began to plead for “mercy.” They knew better than to ask Jesus to continue to possess this man, although that was their preference. If Jesus must cast them out of the man, at least let Him give them some body to possess: “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”

Demons would naturally prefer to possess people. Their destructive work would give them greater pleasure, and they could more fully manifest themselves this way (demons could speak through a man’s vocal cords, but we do not find demons speaking through animals). To be dispossessed of a body was, to the demon, torment. Disembodied spirits could not as fully display themselves and they could through a body.

(6) The demons feared the restriction of their freedom to continue their destructive work. There is a very interesting fact revealed by a comparison of two of the parallel accounts. Notice the difference between these two requests of the demons:

And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss (Luke 8:31).

And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area (Mark 5:10).

It would seem that in putting these two requests together we would have to conclude that to send the demons out of the country would be to send them into the Abyss. Torment, for demons, is to be kept from doing evil.

Combining what we learn from various biblical texts enables us to understand what the demons dread here. It would seem from Isaiah (chapter 14), Ezekiel (chapter 28), and Daniel (10:10ff.) that demons seem to have certain geographical boundaries. That is, they seem to have certain territories or spheres of activity, beyond which they cannot venture. We also know from 2 Peter chapter 2 that some demons have already been confined to the “pit” (2 Peter 2:4), just as Satan himself will be put in chains for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:1-3) in the future. Thus, it would seem that to be sent out of the country would mean being thrown into the Abyss, into a kind of captivity which would greatly confine and restrict their activity.

The demons therefore appear to fear any restriction to their present activity, even though they know that they await the judgment of God in the future. There is no repentance here, but only regret if they are restricted from doing what they have always done, which is to rebel against God, to work against His purposes, and to torment men.


The demons were evil. They delighted in doing evil. Torture, to them, was being hindered from torturing men. Since they loved to do evil and since Jesus was both good and God, they knew that His coming would have to result in hindering them from continuing to do that which is evil. To an evil creature, bent only on doing evil, good is a most dreaded thing. The evil demons dreaded Jesus’ coming, for they knew it meant good.

The demons pled not to be tormented, which, according to our text involved two things. First, they did not wish to be disembodied. Second, they did not wish to be sent from the country. The demons did not wish to be disembodied. It would seem that a demon cannot fully manifest its character and nature apart from possessing a body. To press the matter further, it would seem that apart from possessing a person, with a tongue, the demons could not speak. While it was vastly inferior to possess a pig than a person, at least it was a body. Thus, the demons begged Jesus to allow them to possess the nearby herd of hogs than to be disembodied.

Jesus granted the demons’ request to enter the herd of swine, and when they entered them, the entire herd plunged, headlong, into the sea. It is interesting to me to observe that while the disciples had feared drowning in that very sea just a short time earlier, it was a herd of pigs whose fate it was to drown, not the disciples.

When the pigs plunged into the sea, there was little doubt as to what had happened. The herdsmen went off to tell all that would listen about what had happened. The entire town came out to see the scene, and the swine, but most of all to see the Son of God, who had come to their shores.

It is very important for us to observe the response of the crowd, and the reasons for their response. Look carefully at Luke’s report (which squares with those of Matthew and Mark):

And the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear (Luke 8:35-37).

Several observations are critical to understanding why the people of the Gerasene region rejected Jesus and asked Him to leave their country.

(1) All of the people of the nearby town came out to meet Jesus.

Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus (Matthew 8:34).

This was not a small group, not even a delegation. Everybody gathered there to see Jesus. The people were not interested in the swine, but in the Savior.

(2) The people are overcome with fear. The fear of the people is prominent and emphatic:

When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid (Mark 5:15; cf. Luke 8:37 above).

(3) Out of fear, all the people ask Jesus to leave their country. It is a unanimous verdict from all but the one delivered demoniac (was the other demoniac siding with the crowd?)—Jesus must go. They want Jesus not only to stay away from their town, but to leave their country. They want Him nowhere around. It is amazing, but emphatically evident.

(4) The fears of the people are not in response to the drowning of the swine, but due to the miraculous change in “Legion,” the delivered demoniac. I do not know how many times I have heard the fear of the people and their request that Jesus leave them explained in economic terms. If this view were correct, we would expect that it would be the owner(s) of the pigs that would have been singled out as having come, that they came and looked upon the bodies of the pigs, washing up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But we are not told this at all.

We are told, instead, that all the people of the town came out, and that they looked at the delivered demoniac (not the pigs), and that they learned that Jesus delivered him. It is not because the pigs died that the people are frightened, but because Legion was delivered. Imagine this: from the actions and the words of the people of this region, they would rather have had Legion as he was, dangerous, destructive, and uncontrollable, than to be whole, healed, clothed, and a constructive member of society.

The reason why we so quickly accept the economic explanation for the actions of this crowd is because no other explanation seems plausible. We simply cannot fathom how these people could reject and resist Jesus for having done good to this man, and for their whole region. After all, they no longer have to worry about traveling on this road.

Here we find the “tension of the text,” the problem in the passage which provides us with the key to the interpretation of the passage, and to discovering its meaning for us. The tension of the text is this: HOW CAN THE PEOPLE OF THIS REGION BE MORE FRIGHTENED OF JESUS THAN OF THE DEMONIAC, SO THAT THEY WOULD RATHER HAVE HAD THINGS AS THEY WERE, AND THAT THEY WOULD RATHER HAVE JESUS LEAVE THEM THAN STAY WITH THEM? HOW CAN PEOPLE FEAR THE SON OF GOD FOR DOING GOOD MORE THAN THEY CAN FEAR SATAN AND HIS DEMONIC HOSTS FOR DOING EVIL?

(5) Nowhere in the New Testament are we told how anyone who was demon-possessed became that way. Before we can come to the solution of our problem, we must observe that we are never told how demon-possession begins. That is, those who are brought to Jesus who are demon-possessed have been brought to him in that condition. Jesus never asked, “How did it happen?” There is a clear biblical explanation, as we shall see.

(6) The fears of the people are like the fears of the demoniac, before he was delivered from his demon-possession. The Gerasene demoniac and the Gerasene-dwellers share one thing in common in our text—a fear of the Lord Jesus Christ. Both “fears” are of the same kind. Just as the demons dreaded the arrival of the Lord Jesus, so did the people of the nearby town. They were frightened by the good thing which had happened to the demoniac. They feared that Jesus might do other “good” as well. They would rather that Jesus go away from them than to remain among them. Although it is not clearly stated, it seems obvious that they would rather have the demoniac as he once was—even though it was detrimental to them and frightened them—than to have him as he now was—sane, clothed, and a contributing member of society.

  • They share a common fear of the Lord Jesus.
  • They share a common fear of the good which He can do.
  • Both are afraid of the changes which Jesus’ coming threatens.
  • They both have a “territorial” dimension to their fear. The demons fear being sent out of their country. The dwellers of this area fear Jesus and send Him out of their territory.

The coming of Jesus to the region of the Gerasenes was an occasion for fear, both on the part of the demoniac and on the part of the people who feared him. As the demoniac feared the good which Jesus was about to do—namely his deliverance—so the people of that region feared the power of the Lord Jesus to do good for them. Ultimately, the people feared that Jesus’ coming meant a change, not only for the demoniac, but for them, a change which they did not want, and did not feel that they needed. They wanted things just as they were, and Jesus threatened the status quo. The thought of the kind of changes which Jesus would bring was tormenting to the people of this place. Thus, they wanted Jesus to go because they wanted nothing to change.

If the essence of repentance is change, then we must conclude that repentance was a thought which was repulsive to the Gerasene populace.

Our first response to the realization that the entire town wanted Jesus to go because He was good is to view this as an oddity, as an exception to the rule. After all, didn’t other towns beg Jesus to stay with them (cf. Luke 4:42; John 4:40)? The next observation focuses on the reality of man’s rebellion against God.

(7) All unsaved people are, to a certain degree, demon-possessed, in the sense that they are Satan’s slaves, and that they manifest the same character and conduct as Satan and his evil host. We need to recognize that the response of the people to Jesus was not the exception, but rather the rule. We need to realize that it was not just Legion that was dominated by Satan and his horde of demons, but it is every unbeliever. All those who are unsaved are the slaves of Satan through their bondage to sin.

The difference between Legion and the populace of the Gerasenes was not one of kind, but rather one of degree. This is why the Bible does not tell us how demon-possessed got that way. The Bible has given us the answer: Man is born in sin, in hostility and opposition to God, and is thus of the same mind toward God as is Satan and his host of demons.

To open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me’ (Acts 26:18).

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).

He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19).

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Revelation 12:9).

Initially, many of those who first saw and heard the Lord Jesus Christ welcomed Him. For those who had been prepared by the ministry of John the Baptist and had repented of their sin, He was heralded as God’s Salvation. But for most, He was first welcomed because people thought that He would comply with their mistaken conceptions of His kingdom and His reign. Once He make it clear that His kingdom was not “of this world” many forsook Him. Eventually they decided to reject Him. In this sense the Jewish people, the people from the other side of the lake, were far worse than the inhospitable people of the Gerasene region—they sought to rid the world of Him. They put Him to death on a Roman cross. Their animosity and fear of Jesus is of the same kind as Legion and as his fellow-countrymen, but only greater in degree.

One of the first manifestation of man’s fall in the Garden of Eden was a fear of God, rooted in man’s sin and disobedience. While Adam had once looked forward to the Lord’s arrival and their walking together in the garden, this was no longer true after his sin:

“I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Genesis 3:10).

There is an unholy fear of God, the kind that fears God for what He is and will do, the kind that fears the good which He will do, which will hinder us from persisting in our evil deeds. It was this fear which caused Legion to run to Christ; it was this fear which caused the people of that place to as Christ to leave them alone; and it was that same kind of fear which caused our Lord’s own people to cry out, “Crucify! Crucify!”

But they shouted, “Taken him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” (John 19:15).

Pilate pressed this further, “Shall I crucify your king?” To this, the crowds responded, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).

The nation Israel was willing to renounce all their messianic hopes, all hopes of independence, just to be rid of Jesus.

John has summed up man’s response to God incarnate, in a way that precisely agrees with all we have seen:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it … He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:1-5, 10-11).

John also tells us very clearly why it is that men fear the holy God, and to not want Him to dwell among them. It is because sinful man wants to persist in his sin, and he thus views a righteous and holy God as a threat to his way of life. Men who wish to persist in their sin do not welcome God’s arrival. They wish only His departure, even if it requires that we put Him to death on a cross.

It is from this bondage to Satan, to sin, and to death, to which every unbeliever is subject, that Jesus came to save us:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— (Hebrews 2:14).

That is why He could say, with reference to His sacrificial death,

“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32).

Jesus died to break the power of sin and of Satan. He died to bear the penalty for your sins and for mine. And all who have trusted in Him will readily acknowledge, with the apostle Paul, that we have been saved from the power and the dominion of the Satan, whom we formerly served:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature object of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1-5).

We owe a debt of gratitude to the demoniac, for he shows us something which we very much need to know, something which we very much want to avoid. He shows us the miserable condition of the one who is totally “spirit-filled” in following and being controlled by Satan. Notice that this man is tormented, self-destructive, alienated from others and a menace to society. This man has no real identity, and surely no fulfillment or freedom.

This week I read, once again, these powerful words from the pen of R. C. Sproul, who speaks of unregenerate (unsaved) man’s utter hatred of God:

Jonathan Edwards preached another famous sermon that can be viewed as a sequel of sorts to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He titled the sermon, Men Naturally God’s Enemies. If I can presume to improve Edwards’ title, I would suggest instead God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.

If we are unconverted, one thing is absolutely certain: we hate God. The Bible is unambiguous about this point. We are God’s enemies. We are inwardly sworn to His ultimate destruction. It is as natural for us to hate God as it is for rain to moisten the earth when it falls.

Romans 5 teaches clearly: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.…” The central motif of the New Testament is the theme of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not necessary for those who love each other. God’s love for us is not in doubt. The shadow of doubt hangs over us. It is our love for God that is in question. The natural mind of man, what the Bible calls the “carnal mind,” is at enmity with God.

We reveal our natural hostility for God by the low esteem we have for Him. We consider him unworthy of our total devotion. We take no delight in contemplating Him. Even for the Christian, worship is often difficult and prayer a burdensome duty. Our natural tendency is to flee as far as possible from His presence. His Word rebounds from our minds like a basketball from a backboard.

By nature, our attitude toward God is not one of mere indifference. It is a posture of malice. We oppose His government and refuse His rule over us. Our natural hearts are devoid of affection for Him; they are cold, frozen to His holiness. By nature, the love of God is not in us.

We must be more precise. God is our mortal enemy. He represents the highest possible threat to our sinful desires. His repugnance to us is absolute, knowing no lesser degrees. No amount of persuasion by men or argumentation from philosophers or theologians can induce us to love God. We despise His very existence and would do anything in our power to rid the universe of His holy presence.

If God were to expose His life to our hands, He would not be safe for a second. We would not ignore Him; we would destroy Him. This charge may seem extravagant and irresponsible until we examine once more the record of what happened when God did appear in Christ. Christ was not simply killed. He was murdered by the hands of malicious men. The crowds howled for His blood. It was not enough merely to do away with Him, but it had to be done with the accompaniment of scorn and humiliation.

But we are Christians. We are lovers of God. We have experienced reconciliation. We have been born of the Spirit and have had the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. We are no longer enemies but friends. All of these things are true for the Christian. But we must take heed, remembering that with our conversion our natural human natures were not annihilated. There remains a vestige of our fallen nature with which we must struggle every day. There still resides a corner of the soul that takes no delight in God. We see its ragged edge in our continued sin and we can observe it in our lethargic worship. It manifests itself even in our theology.158

No matter what Satan may promise, the demoniac is a shocking demonstration of what he delivers. It is only when freed by the liberating power of Jesus Christ that a man can be what he wants to be, what he ought to be, fully human, fully forgiven, worshipping at the feet of Jesus. Let us never forget Legion in his misery, nor the new man in his sanity and devotion to the Savior. Let us remember as well that there was another demoniac, who was delivered from Satan’s total control, but who was not delivered from his sin, nor from Satan’s more subtle dominion, from which he did not wish to be saved. May each one of us look to Jesus as our Deliverer and as the object of our devotion.

Edward’s words remind us that the salvation of lost men requires a miracle of divine liberation, of divine calling, of divine regeneration and salvation. Salvation is something which only God can do. We can share the message of salvation, and we must. We can pray for men’s salvation, and this is our duty. But only God can save, only Christ can deliver men from death and from bondage to Satan, the adversary and our enemy.

Edward’s words also remind us that Satan is a very formidable enemy for the saint. While his control is limited, with respect to the Christian, he is still a dreaded enemy, one who can only be defeated by divine power. The Scriptures have much to say to the saint about Satan’s schemes and attacks.

I must say that I, as a Christian, sometimes have an unholy fear of God, of the same kind as the demoniac, and as the people of his home town, and the people of Jesus’ home land as well. Sometimes I dread God’s power to deliver me from sin, wanting to wallow in it, foolishly supposing that I am missing something if it is taken from me. In my own feeble efforts at worship I realize that I often resist drawing near to God, wanting to withdraw as Legion and his countrymen wanted to keep a distance between themselves and Jesus. Let us beware of the same kinds of fear that were (and are) evident in the lives of unbelievers, which are rooted in our rebellion and in our resistance to repentance and the righteousness of God, which are rooted in our sin.

It is my conviction that our church and our nation desperately needs revival, and that begins with repentance. Repentance, in a word, is change, and yet it is the very change which we desperately need for revival that we most fear. May God expose our unholy fears, and give us faith to repent and to seek those changes which God requires in our lives.

In Summary

What I have been trying to say in this message can be briefly summed up in this way. The fear of Legion was of the same type of the fear of his fellow-countrymen, an unholy fear of God and of His power, threatening to change us and to keep us from the evil we desire to continue to do. This kind of fear is not unusual, but is the same kind of fear of God which every unbeliever manifests. It is the evidence of satanic dominion in one’s life. Unfortunately, this same kind of fear can be found in Christians, too, the evidence of Satanic opposition, deception, and influence.

Satan can be expected to produce and offer a counterfeit counterpart for every good which God offers man. Satan’s counterpart to a “holy fear” of God, which causes us to draw back from sin and to draw ever more closely to Him, is an “unholy fear” of God which tempts us to draw away from God and to resist His working in our lives, and to cling to our sins as though they were good.

155 Luke tells us that the one demoniac was a man “from the town” (Luke 8:27). From this statement, combined with other details supplied in the text pertaining to the demoniac’s secluded life among the tombs, I would deduce that the men once lived normal lives, only to later become dominated by demons, and thus to live in isolation, outside the town.

156 Don Baker and Emery Nester, Depression: Finding Hope & Meaning In Life’s Darkest Shadow (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1983), pp. 98-100.

157 From here on, I will speak only of the one demoniac, since this is the focus of Luke’s account.

158 R. C. Sproul, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” The Holiness of God, (Tyndale House: Wheaton, 1985), pp. 228-231.

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28. The Interrupted Miracle or Two Touching Miracles (Luke 8:40-56)


Our first child, a boy, had died unexpectedly (crib death) in the middle of the night. You can imagine our uneasiness when our next child, Beth, became ill during the night. When her eyes began to roll back in her head we set out for the hospital. I had little interest in what the speed limit was that night, nor did I stop for traffic lights. In my mind, time was of the essence. The sooner we could get Beth to the hospital, the better. Any delay, at that moment, seemed to endanger her life.

The ruler of the synagogue, Jairus, must have felt very much the same as he left his home and his critically ill daughter to seek Jesus and to beseech Him to come and place His healing hands on her. Once Jairus found Jesus, it would seem to be an easy matter for Him to come and to heal the girl, but there were several hindrances to His speedy arrival. First, there was a large and seemingly unruly crowd, who pressed upon Jesus, making His travel very slow. Second, there was a woman who slipped in behind the Lord Jesus, secretly stealing a touch of His garment, which instantly healed her of a 12-year ailment. This healing was instant, but what followed was distressingly time-consuming. Jesus, knowing that power had left Him, stopped, not willing to go on until the person who touched Him was known. All of this took time, time which seemed to endanger the daughter of Jairus. We are not told of Jairus’ response, but Luke informs us that the disciples (Peter in particular) were perturbed by Jesus’ actions.

There are actually two miracles described in our text, which are carefully intertwined. In reality, the miracle of the healing of Jairus’ daughter is interrupted by the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage. For a short time, it appears that this healing of the woman has cost the life of Jairus’ daughter.

The “tension of this text” is this: why would Jesus take the time to attempt to identify the person who touched Him, when this appeared to be nearly impossible to do, and when it threatened to cost the life of the girl who was mortally ill? A study of this text will supply us with an answer to this question. We will discover that this divine delay was for the benefit of all involved, including Jairus and his daughter.

The Background of Our Story

Jesus had crossed the lake, the Sea of Galilee, with His disciples. In the midst of this crossing, there was the great storm, which our Lord stilled with a mere word. When they landed on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they were met by the raving demoniac, from whom Jesus cast out the host of demons. When Jesus and His disciples landed, once again, at Capernaum (Matthew 9:1), on the home side of the Sea of Galilee, they were met by a large crowd (Luke 8:40; Mark 5:21), which had gathered to wait for Jesus and to greet Him. It is very likely that some of the other little boats, which had been on the lake (Mark 4:36), and which had witnessed the stilling of the storm, had gone back to port, and had reported how Jesus had dealt with the storm. Some may even have had reports of the deliverance of the demoniac. The crowds were no doubt expectant and exuberant as Jesus returned. Apparently Jesus taught by the seashore (cf. Matthew 9:1-17), and it was during His teaching that Jairus arrived, begging Him to come to his house, so that his daughter could be healed.

Stealing a Healing

Mark and Luke depict Jairus as describing his daughter’s condition as critical—she was dying. Matthew’s much more terse account suggests that she had already died. As precious time lapsed, it is not difficult to imagine that Jairus may have suspected that the worst had already happened. Nevertheless, even if she had died, Jairus believed that Jesus’ touch could heal her (Matthew 9:18-19). Jesus consented, and they were on their way to his house as a woman made her way to Jesus, unseen, or at least unnoticed by the crowd. She stole a healing by touching His garment, which necessitated a time-consuming delay, preventing Jesus from arriving at the house of Jairus before the death of his daughter.

The woman, whose name is never given, had suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years. I think that it is safe to say that her ailment was “female” in nature. It is not difficult to understand why she approached Jesus, unseen, from behind, while Jairus faced our Lord, falling at His feet. Jairus beseeched the Lord to bring healing to his daughter; the woman did not even ask.

A casual reading of the account of Luke may result in a kind of ho-hum response on the part of the reader, but this fails to give this remarkable woman the credit she deserves for what she accomplished. It may seem like a very little thing for a person to reach out and touch Jesus, but this was an accomplishment worthy of our admiration. Let me point out some of the obstacles which were in this woman’s way.

(1) There is the obstacle of her ceremonial uncleanness, as defined by the Old Testament law. The book of Leviticus clearly identifies this woman’s condition as one which made her unclean, and which therefore should have restricted her to her own home.

When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening … When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Whoever touches them will be unclean, he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening (Leviticus 15:19, 25-27).

(2) There is the obstacle of a large crowd, which is pressing forcefully upon the Lord Jesus. Luke tells us that there was a large crowd and that they were pressing hard upon our Lord:

“As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him” (Luke 8:42).

We must say, then, that getting to Jesus would have been no easy task for anyone. I take it that the crowd parted, allowing Jairus, the synagogue ruler, access to the Savior. But they would not have done so for anyone of a lesser status. I was tempted to say that it would have been easier for the ailing woman to get to Danny White, past the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys, than to get to Jesus. I say, I was tempted, because it seems quite an easy thing to do this early in the season. Nevertheless, it was a most incredible thing to make it to Jesus through the crowd, especially for a woman. I was reminded of the fact that earlier in the book, Jesus’ mother and brothers were kept from Jesus by the crowds:

Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd (Luke 8:19).

(3) The woman had to work her way through an uncooperative crowd in a weakened condition. It might have been one thing for a woman to get through the crowd to Jesus who was in top physical condition, a woman who had been “working out” every day. But this woman suffered from a prolonged illness, one which had gotten progressively worse (Mark 5:26), and thus her condition was very poor. It may have been a major undertaking for her to get up out of bed, let alone fight her way through a crowd.

(4) Finally, the woman had to reach Jesus by forcing her way through an aggressive and crushing mob, and yet in a way that did not draw attention to herself. It is especially clear in Luke’s account that the woman desired anonymity:

Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet (Luke 8:47, emphasis mine).

It is not hard to see why the woman would have wanted it this way. She was a woman, she was a woman with a condition that made her unclean. She was a woman with a “female problem,” one which she would not care to proclaim before a large crowd. She had to reach Jesus forcefully, and yet unnoticed. And the amazing thing is that she did so. It was only Jesus who kept her from pulling off the perfect crime—stealing a healing, unnoticed in the midst of a large crowd.

A Divine Delay

Upon touching the Lord’s garment, the woman was instantly healed. No doubt she intended to remain as inconspicuous as possible, and just let Jesus and the crowd pass on, leaving her alone, unnoticed, and able to return to her home and a normal life. Jesus would not have it this way, however. Astounding the disciples and the rest, Jesus stopped and inquired as to who touched Him.

To the disciples, and especially to Peter, their spokesman (Luke 8:45; cp. Mark 5:41), this was incredible, perhaps even naive. Peter spoke for the others when he said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you” (Luke 8:45).

I can see Peter’s eyes roll at our Lord’s words. I wonder whose glance he caught, whose eyes met his, as his bewilderment is expressed here. We must remember that Jesus’ identity is not fully known here, as can be seen from the disciples’ question after the stilling of the storm (Luke 8:25). At this point, Peter and the disciples frequently listened to some of Jesus’ words with a kind of condescending tolerance, rather than with faith and understanding. For example, when Jesus (later) spoke of His death, Peter felt it was his responsibility to rebuke Jesus, to straighten Him out. That is the same basic attitude which I sense here. It is as though the disciples’ eyes have met as though as to say, “Somebody has got to take Jesus aside and have a little talk with Him. He expects to do the impossible. He wants to know who touched Him when hundreds have done so.”

It was incredible. Asking who touched Him was like standing in the shower and pondering the origin of but one single drop of water. Seeking the identity of one person who touched Him in a crowd of touchers and shovers was seemingly an impossible task. More than this, it seemed to be a fruitless task. What difference did it make anyway? And even more distressing, it caused what seemed to be an unnecessary delay, so that the daughter of Jairus, who was virtually at death’s door, was